Being a spiritual leader doesn’t absolve Rabbi Rachael Bregman from life’s difficulties. Like countless other parents, she finds herself trying to manage the ins-and-outs of unforeseen homeschooling while continuing to work and plan for the approaching High Holy Days.
But even in the midst of the chaos, Bregman does her best to remain both hopeful and optimistic, two viewpoints that seem in increasingly short supply these days.
“If you think of our lives as the curriculum for our spiritual growth and development, then we’ve been getting a lot of training lately ... and that’s a blessing,” she said. “These moments of trials and challenges help us grow and give us strength.”
There are plenty of tests to go around. There’s the staggering surge of coronavirus locally, which recently forced school closures. There’s the bitter divide over vaccination status and masking. And there’s also the ongoing push for racial equity coupled with devastating natural disasters and fierce geopolitical strife.
It all adds up to a heavy load for anyone to bear. But, as the leader of Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick, Bregman feels it’s her calling to try to help others navigate these choppy waters with grace and compassion.
“I’ve been thinking about how to flourish when things are hard and how to make space for the happy, the joyous and the exciting in places that are hard,” she said.
That’s particularly poignant as the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, looms. Set to begin at sundown Monday, it is traditionally an upbeat and cheerful occasion, marked by the blowing of the shofar, enjoying the sweetness of honey and apples, as well as the exchanges of l’shana tova (Hebrew for “Happy New Year”).
But this year’s celebrations will also feel the lingering pall of anger and frustration cast by a tsunami of difficult circumstances.
As with the secular new year, Rosh Hashanah offers an opportunity to start anew. Bregman notes that one doesn’t have to be Jewish to do that, anyone can use this time as a catalyst to reframe their mindset and step forward in a more positive way.
“The new year is about hope, renewal and rebirth. I think that we can all find that by engaging in unshakable acts of hope. The first step is to decide that we are going to be intentional in finding places for joy in our lives and around the places that we’re struggling,” she said.
“We can commit to generating hope. That may be bringing food to someone who is sick, putting in volunteer hours, doing a beach cleanup or offering extra warm ‘thank yous’ to our frontline workers.”
It can also take the form of shelving one’s judgment and replacing it with compassion. Regardless of one’s views on vaccination, masking, politics or any other hot button issues, Bregman hopes that there can be a collective effort to turn down the temperature.
“There is a cultural acceptance of judging one another when we see people doing things differently than we do. I think we need to overcome that urge and try to be our best selves ... which happens when we extend love and compassion to one another not hatred, fear or judgement,” she said. “There are so many struggles happening simultaneously and its worrisome to see the divisions growing more and more. I think it’s important to do things that strengthen our ability to meet in the middle.”
That doesn’t mean one has to give up his or her convictions. Bregman says it’s about finding a way to share thoughts and opinions thorugh a respectful dialogue instead of firing insults from behind a keyboard.
“Our humanity is getting unstable. We have to find a way of being with one another and be purposeful in hanging onto each other. Every day, every moment we should be asking ourselves ‘am I acting from a place of judgement or fear or a place of love, compassion and trust?’ There is so much hurting and so much suffering whether it’s from the pandemic, social disparity, climate change or geopolitical situations. But we have to intentionally and consciously put good into the world,” she said.
“This is not the time to try to gain points over email, Facebook or social media. Those places keep us from seeing the humanity in one another. So if we want to engage and share our opinions, we should do so with a sense of love and a desire to understand and solve the problem, either in-person socially distanced or over a video chat.”
This Rosh Hashanah offers a chance to choose to view others through the lens of compassion.
After all, regardless of one’s background, belief system or political affiliation, everyone shares the same sincere desire to be happy and free.
“We can’t see others as failed versions of ourselves. In a nation that encourages individual freedoms, we need to find a way to live respectfully and share those American values,” she said. “We’re supposed to be ‘one nation under God’ and to truly be that, we have to live with a real sense of compassion, softness and care as opposed to the need to win all the time, because in trying to win, we’re all going to lose.”