Unplugging - Jewish style

As you read this I’ll just be returning from a brief vacation to somewhere sunny. I tend to work really hard, tire myself out, and then need a few days of lounging around in the sun to recover. It occurs to me this time that perhaps this isn’t the best way of living life.

Are you like this? Do you tire yourself out with family responsibilities, work, social obligations, until you simply can’t continue and that’s when you take a break or a holiday?

I was thinking about something similar at the last Rabbis Without Borders retreat I attended. The very term “retreat” makes it seem like our normal lives are something from which we must flee. Surely the point of the gathering was to strengthen and enhance what we do in our regular working lives. Just like the point of a vacation should be to enhance one’s life, not escape from it. The truth is, it’s all just... life. We get one life to live — work, home, vacation, rest, play, struggle, sleep. It’s all real life and it’s all happening right now. 

So this time I’m going to bring a little bit of my beach vacation back with me. I hope to bring the sun, for this has been a brutal winter, but that’s not what I’m talking about. One of the things I love about travel is the sense of being unreachable. I love the moment I get on a plane, turn off my phone, and know that no one can find me for the next several hours. While I can’t bring back the pina coladas or ocean sounds, I can bring back the experience of letting myself unplug, literally and figuratively.

We have a Jewish mechanism for this. It’s called Shabbat. The wisdom of Shabbat is taking time to rest each week. It’s a way of preventing burnout; there is a regular time to rejuvenate built right into the schedule. Many secular Jews mark Shabbat in some way, but most of us don’t completely unplug.

The Hebrew Bible reminds us to rest... that after the earth’s creation a day of rest was called for, there is a sabbatical year (shmita) to allow for rest, and there are rules about letting workers rest. Our tradition generally understands that productivity can only happen if rest can also happen. We know this, but we live in such a fast-paced culture, so very driven and obsessed by/with busy-ness, that it can be easy to forget. We need to rest; we need to unplug. Our smartphones and computers have made our working lives vastly more productive, but they have also blurred the boundaries between our working lives and our personal lives. Our times to rest are interrupted and sometimes eclipsed by email notifications and urgent calls/messages. 

I’d be lying if I said I was going to completely unplug from all media and technology every Shabbat for a whole Shabbat. I know that I wouldn’t like that — I enjoy speaking with friends, I use my phone to make plans, I love a good movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I do intend to unplug a little more frequently and for a little longer than is my usual practice. I also have put my phone on silent mode as the default, shut off all notifications, and schedule in times to check email. But wait! There’s more!

I am hoping you will join me for a challenge. This comes to me from my fitness trainer (Oonagh Duncan, google her!), but I’m stealing it for us and repurposing it Jewish-style: try to avoid using your phone for one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year. Think of it as your own Shabbat/Shmita (sabbatical). 

The hour a day could be the hour before bed (shown to improve sleep) or first thing in the morning (one of the indicators of cellphone addiction is whether you reach for it upon waking). The day a week could be  Shabbat or the “shabbat” of your choosing (a Wednesday weekly hiatus, perhaps). The week a year could very well be when you go on vacation. I think an amazing week to try would be around the Jewish high holidays, as we focus on introspection and goal-setting. 

Could you do it? To me it’s still aspirational. But I am committing to an hour a day, a day a week, and a week a year with no work emails, social media, or news.

If you are committing to the challenge, drop me a line. I’ll send you a funky and fun gift in the mail! It’s a “cellphone sleeping bag” from the Jewish organization Reboot. They host a national day of unplugging every year and sent me these cute little bits of swag when we ran the challenge last year. The sleeping bag is a great reminder to put away that phone and makes it less tempting to reach for it. It’s also a great reminder of why we do it: we should live our lives in such a way that we don’t need a retreat or a vacation to escape our reality. Our reality should have the elements of rest and retreat built right in.

This is the beach I was at. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug.  

This is the beach I was at. I shall channel beach-me. I shall unplug.  

Uniting mind-body-spirit in birth

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Birth workers know the power of the mind-body connection. When I was in labour, I used the skills I’ve learned in years of meditation to be able to zone in, work with my breath, and let my body do its thing. But the mind-body connection is incomplete without the spiritual dimension.


Some people use prayer in labour. Some tap into a belief in something they might call “source-energy.” Some do not pray but rather mediate, listen to music that grounds them, engage in cultural practices they learned from their own families and communities. Indigenous women may use a smudge. Some African cultures have an animal slaughtered on the day of the birth to symbolize abundance for the child and help nourish the mother. Whatever your spirituality, it’s worth considering how you might use it in labour or if you are supporting someone in labour.


There are a couple of practices that I find really beautiful that come from Judaism, but could be adapted for anyone, to help connect the mind-body-spirit. One is using the tradition of a prayer for healing. In Hebrew this is called the misheberach blessing. You name a person who is in need of healing (if they are sick or suffering) and you also name their mother. So it goes: ________ son/daughter of ____________. Traditional Jews say a special prayer for them but you could pray for them in your own way, or wish them healing and wellness, or you simply hold them in your thoughts. Some Jewish people will recite the misheberach while labouring. I love this idea because at the moment of your own struggle, the intensity of the experience of birth, rather than dwell on your own pain or pressure you focus outwards. This is a reminder that we are all part of a broader family of humanity and we all share in pain and pleasure, illness and wellness. It allows the person who is in labour to feel both connection and empathy for their broader community. This is so useful because often in labour people find it useful to remember that many others have been through this experience too. I’ve said and I know others have said to a woman in labour: “Women have done this throughout the ages. You can do this too.” I had a Jewish midwife who said she was in a birthing room with five generations of Jewish women. She said to the woman in labour: “all of these women are a reminder that your family and your Jewish community would not exist without the strength of Jewish women in childbirth.” Feeling ourselves to be part of a community is so useful because we can feel the support of that community in our time of need.


Another Jewish spiritual practice that I find immensely powerful for preparing for birth is similar to a blessingway found in other cultures. “Blessingways” is a term created by Navajo (Diné) women for their own pre-birth ritual. I use it in reference to, and incorporate some practices from, the book “Blessingways: A Guide to Mother-centered Baby Showers - Celebrating Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherood” by Shari Maser. Maser notes: “To me, Blessingway most aptly expresses the essence of these ceremonies. “Blessing” connotes spirituality and community connections and “Way” reminds us that every change is a process, an ongoing journey along the path of life.... When using the term Blessingway to describe this evolving ceremonial concept, let us remember to respectfully acknowledge and appreciate its sacred Diné heritage as our source of inspiration” (2). I find this practice of creating a ceremony for the prenatal mother to be a terrific way to incorporate spirituality in the pregnancy process, as a step towards incorporating spirituality in the labour and birth as well. Of course, my spin on it is Jewish. I respectfully and with gratitude adopt the cultural and spiritual practice of Navajo women for a Jewish context. 

 

What is a Blessingway? Women get together and provide physical acts of care for the pregnant person, surround her with love and well wishing. Perhaps they create affirmations, or some kind of birth anchor. The women in my life each added a bead with a special intention (in Hebrew we might call it a kavanah - a powerful spiritual word). These beads were strung onto a bracelet I used as a focal point in birth.


For my clients, I have created a version of the blessingway that can happen at a mikvah, which is a ritual bath. The mikvah is to be used for cleansing, sometimes after menstruation. I find this to be a practice that has sexist origins, but powerful possibilities. After suffering a pregnancy loss, I attended a mikvah, and created a ceremony to help me release my sadness and grief and allow me to move on. The idea of the waters being cleansing, like a baptism or other religious/cultural cleansing rituals, really helped me forge the mind-body-spirit connection. I had a water birth with my second child, and the connection to the waters was made spiritual for me because of that experience. I also have a mikvah ceremony to prepare for birth and/or for after birth to mark the transition and make it spiritually significant and recognized.

 

These are a few examples of how I bring spirituality into pregnancy and birth. I’d love to know other examples of spiritual practices that you find useful or meaningful. Feel free to leave me a comment to share yours. Whatever your experience as a person in labour or as a birth worker, I encourage you to find ways to bring the spiritual dimension of life into this very significant journey. We are whole beings and holistic birth needs to account for the mind, the body, and the spirit.

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This is what a mikvah can look like. You can also use any natural freshwater source that is running, like a stream. If you are not observant and are flexible on the rules, you can use a bathtub or swimming pool.  

Culture and Spirituality in birth - meeting people where they’re at

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This past week I attended an important and really excellent event focusing on postpartum depression and the Jewish community. Why the Jewish connection? Surely all communities experience postpartum depression. But this panel got into the specifics of cultural approaches to these issues and, more specifically, how in the Jewish community there are rituals and ways of dealing with postpartum depression. For example, we have rabbis as resources. We have ceremonies that help mark transitions such as the transition to parenting or after birth; these often take place in a ritual bath called a mikvah. We have certain prayers or blessings that some families find useful. And we have cultural traditions like not disclosing pregnancy until after the first trimester, which make some families feel lonely in the event of pregnancy loss etc. We also have cultural norms around stigma for such loss, and for postpartum depression, and these need to be dealt with from within. 

Many cultures share this dynamic, but it is nice to have a specific lens, to see oneself represented in these discussions, and to feel that your own community is learning, engaging with these issues, and will have your back. To truly heal from postpartum depression, infertility, pregnancy loss, difficult birth experiences, sometimes a spiritual practice can be of help. As doulas we often say we focus on the physical and emotional needs of our clients, but to ignore the spiritual is to ignore an important dimension.

The other piece I wanted to speak about here is how doulas and clients can connect around certain ritual practices, especially when these practices are unfamiliar to the doula. Recently several doulas in my (awesome, vibrant, wonderful) doula community were speaking about how they advise clients against circumcision, one of them noting that a Jewish couple they were working with was turned off by this. I understand the complexities around circumcision. I have counseled many couples in my role as a rabbi who are struggling to decide. I am an advocate neither for nor against circumcision; I think it’s complex and my role as rabbi or doula is to help families find what is right for them. The doulas who point to evidence from the scientific community that there is no health benefit to circumcision are correct. But paediatric societies and others do not recommend against circumcision either. If a client asked me whether they should circumcise for health reasons, I’d tell them that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that it is needed, but also that there is no evidence to suggest that it is harmful. But most Jewish or Muslim clients are approaching this question differently; they are wrestling with some combination of religious observance and belief, cultural norms, deep-seated affiliations and identity markers (being circumcised is a physical sign that you are of this community), family pressure, and more. For many families, this is an agonizing decision.

My second child was assigned male at birth and I struggled with this decision. I’m not going to tell you what I decided because that would be a breach of his privacy. But I will share that I had some people who are close to me tell me that if I circumcised my son then that would be tantamount to child abuse. And I had others tell me (on the day of the birth no less) that if I did not circumcise then he wouldn’t be a real Jew and would face discrimination from his own community for his whole life. Becoming a parent is hard enough without this kind of pressure from family members who often mean well but whose opinions are not helpful.

Doulas are not there to make decisions for our clients, but rather to empower clients to make decisions that work for them. My hope is that doulas would hear the concerns of their clients, try to understand their cultural or religious attachments to practices like circumcision, and approach them with non-judgemental language and empathy. Cutting someone off from something they find spiritually significant is not good for birth or for babies. 

I have worked with clients who are not of my religion. My very first birth was with a Muslim family (which I loved as the Jewish Doula!) and I regularly work with couples who are intermarried, who are secular and non-religious, who are Jewish but practice their Judaism really differently than I do. My goal is always to meet my clients where they are at, and to help them find the spiritual side to birth that will work for them. In my final blog entry in this series on culture and spirituality for birth, I will share some specific blessings and practices that I use with clients. 

 

 

Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event

Me and my Jewish Doula info table at the event