My Spiritual Journey!
By: Stacey (Simcha) Dorenfeld
If someone would have told me that I would be leaving the country at a time in history when our world is about to explode with anger, disunity, terrorist threats, and the possibility of disease spreading like a plague to our homeland, I would have laughed or maybe even smirked with a bit of disdain. However, there is never a “so-called good” time to explore this world as we are all simply grains of sand piled upon one another, each granted a designated date of birth and expiration. Therefore, my decision to go on a major trip to the land of Israel, the cornerstone of the world’s three major belief systems, was not just a notion, but a commitment to the pathway of self-searching for my place on this human beach called earth.
After hearing the news that I was accepted to travel with a group of women 7,500 miles to the birthplace of my religious faith, I pondered the reasons why it was so important for me to experience the learning of my role in the Jewish world in my own homeland. It was my need to figure out how my faith and gender could balance by waking up in the land of my ancestors. Perhaps, I knew deep down that my teachings in Jerusalem would be far more poignant if learned in the exact place on earth where they were established.
Luckily, I was one of 47 women chosen to be part of this journey. I so appreciated the fact that I was able to afford this trip, both in my time zone in life and the financial part thanks to a wonderful scholarship I was granted from the Jewish Women’s Initiative. I was going to spend time in a sea of sisterhood with others who wanted to experience the same sense of self-discovery and role fulfilling as I. Each one of us that would study for the nine-day period in Jerusalem had our own expectations, which could not be judged by others. After all, introspection of oneself should be heralded.
Before leaving, I outlined my own knowledge about my faith as I had put it into my life. I knew that Judaism was a home-based religion. In that sense, alone, I realized that its’ mere survival depended on the one who has been traditionally deemed the keeper of the home. Yes, the woman, the mother or daughters were to be responsible for keeping the faith “at the dining room table;” a strange thought yet an accurate observation with which I felt very familiar. After all, what did it mean to live as a Jewish woman? Even after the home is void of children, how could I sustain the enthusiasm about my purpose in life? Also, the more I thought about my role in the perpetuation of my faith; I realized that Judaism is intricately woven into the domestic sphere. Thus, the mother had to be the visceral and intimate director of the entire Jewish experience. At this point, I instinctively understood that my tradition of preparing Shabbat was what my own children learned from my performance of ritual. Thus, my passion to discover from where this intense obligation came guided me to a group of women who were looking for their own validations and unanswered questions of why the trip to Israel had to be part of their cultural journey.
Although I had succeeded to educate Jewish children and give them their traditional values, my own life was not in balance with my dependence on the discovery of faith to aid the rebirth of my soul. In fact, I would be departing on the day of my 24th wedding anniversary feeling saddened that my husband and I were each on different and unfamiliar pages in our family story book. Even with a heavy heart, I would give my belief system the permission to help me soul search. I was determined to devote myself to the experience of putting my body on the soil of my ancestors to see if hearing my duties and discerning my role would give me the personal answers I so desperately needed. Little did I know Israel would become a journey of “Desperately Seeking Stacey.”
Upon opening my eyes I instantly knew we were getting close to landing. I would soon learn that the happy, vibrant faces and voices filled with joy and exuberance all around me would be consistent throughout my journey. As we soared from the heavens to the Promised Land, for the first time in a long time, I felt totally and completely alive.
No sooner than my first step into the sunlight out of the airport, the smell of Israel overcame my senses. My head was spinning and my body was on autopilot. Forty-seven tribette sisters. We were all together now ready to seize this grand opportunity at enlightenment. At least that’s how I felt when I acknowledged the intensity within. As our bus took off, we were introduced to our leaders and to Israel. The two-hour ride into Tiberias, home to the tombs of our sages who were buried there gave way to great conversation and teachings of the land. We were briefly inducted by our guide to an introductory exposure as to where we would begin our spiritual journey. All I could feel was elation and love in the voices of my fellow travelers.
I don’t remember walking to dinner, but just the fact that I was in this ancient place was incomprehensible, as I had stepped within the bible, the Talmud, the land of my people. I was sitting with my new sisters, eating an amazing meal filled with exquisite spices and flavors brand new to me. We were at Decks’, a restaurant, which sits on a long, curving deck that almost seems to float over the black waves of the Sea of Galilee. Suddenly, the lights were lowered, and then from the quiet, ancient waters a huge boat appeared, coming to life with fireworks that lit up the darkened sky. The presence of hundreds of women, all part of the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Program, from all over the country, singing and dancing on the waters to Israeli music was an adrenaline rush to say the least. I could feel the power grow as our voices rose to the heavens. We rocked to the rhythm of G/d. My eyes were wide open and dripping with blissful tears as I tried to memorize every movement and sound around me as not to forget my jubilance, as tonight was the beginning of a spiritual immersion of which I could have only dreamed.
The next day, my soul was on fire as we sauntered through the streets of Tsfat, known as “the city of air,” a familiar art colony of Jewish creative souls, drinking frosty coffee drinks and sucking up the colorful energy. There was even magic in the artists’ work. Every merchant carried items more beautiful than the last. I was overwhelmed with assurance of the presence of G/d as I noticed all the mezuzahs on the store doorframes. It was so heartening to see that everyone around me was part of my tribe. I wondered how often in my life I felt part of a majority. But here, in this 2,000 or so year old town, I belonged, and I wanted to take a piece of it home.
Entering the ancient and famous “Blue Shuel,” I felt an odd air run through my bones. I stared in awe at the splendor all around me. I was overpowered with emotion as I dared to sit in an extraordinary 800-year old wooden chair made solely for the purpose of praying for our children, either the ones we have, the ones we wish we had or the ones we may have lost. The gravity of this prayer chair became clear as I wept with invocation for the wellbeing of my own three children. The stained glass and the Stars of David were made of varied hues of blue, from the deep, dark blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea to the pastel blue of the sky. The ancient books of wisdom with pages that would turn to dust if touched brought solace as I understood that the words written had stood the sands of time, just as Judaism had. I was drawn to an enormous arc, which guarded the aged Torah behind it. As I washed my hands over the royal blue, velvet fabric I could almost smell the souls of those who went before me. I imagined the rabbis and congregants who read from that Torah.
Magnificence in Israel would not be limited to the old streets and synagogues but went even deeper into the exquisite and inspiring Mikvah Center. I could feel the beauty of our tradition as we connected to our deeper selves where we explored the depth of a Jewish woman's lifecycles and timeless heritage. The spiritual journeys of this ancient woman’s tradition came alive. Redemption, recharging my battery, my awareness was completely exposed. The connection I felt to myself brought me to re-evaluate what I was really all about. “Let it go, Let it flow, G/d loves me so,” I heard and chanted with my sisters. We had to learn what it means to relinquish control and trust that everything in our lives is designed perfectly for us. I must surrender in order to release my baggage. How could I trust the ease of tossing my problems off to G/d? I was in for a revelation. I am not in charge. G/d is the director, and I am simply the player in this theatre of life.
It was late in the evening when I made my first of four appearances at the Western Wall, the Kotel, one of the holiest of places on this earth. I could not, even in my wildest fantasies, have imagined what I would feel with my heart, see with my eyes, and hear with my ears. There was limitless synergy with an essence that I had never experienced before. As we humbly walked towards this embattled Temple wall, I found myself quietly weeping to the rhythm of an unsteady body. Where was all this passion coming from? Was I crazy or was this feeling of connection to something much greater than myself real? Sparks ran through my fingertips as my hands dared to embrace the Kotel. Within the air of Israel, I could feel my soul breathe. I had messages, questions, and secrets to share with G/d, and I knew deep down he was listening. He listened not only to me, but to every man and woman before me and those yet to come. I was not the only one looking to fit the pieces of a puzzle.
The essence of Israel, JWRP, and hundreds of women, all learning values and lessons to make our time on earth matter was going to be the value of this trip for me. That’s what I was craving. I wanted to make sense of the whys in my life and the reasons for my being. It was nothing less than amazing when the geography of Israel was explained. How is it that this small but mighty State in the middle of everything, in between the great continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, and in the midst of the three major religions exist? I guess it’s what is referred to as “Jewish Chutzpah,” a clever expression made by one of our leaders. How appropriate I thought! …At 52, I finally understand Jewish geography!
It was early morning and class was starting. “Be the twine that puts the various flowers in my life together to form a beautiful bouquet.” It was an interesting analogy. My family members and friends, each a different color, a different fragrance, a different leaf, each a varying floret, and I was to be the ribbon of unity. I was finally appreciating the profound power that each woman has. It is our job to bring peace into this world. I learned that it was important for the women to do certain important mitzvahs in order to ensure the world’s continuation. What a huge responsibility to bear! “Don’t blame, don’t complain.” All of these simple words would bring me to a place of divine clarity. It’s all about how I look at things. I needed to go deep within myself, “Lech La Ha.” Each day can be the best day ever. To be completely honest, I appreciated that it is my choice to focus on the good and turn away from the bad. I can’t be brave unless I am afraid. It’s a paradigm shift; simply, I have been taught to view life from a different colored lens. Who am I in the face of what happens in my life? Am I pliant? “Love is a choice.” “Love cannot start until the love stops.” “Have compassion for that which has potential.” I couldn’t help think about my husband and the way things were when I left. Words to live by, but could I? Would I be able to carry this message to my own home?
By the time Friday arrived, I was ready to disconnect in order to re-connect. I had become a sponge, soaking in every lesson or message possible. Educated women who had trudged the path before us were our teachers. They each had discovered the solution to a good and happy life. Each woman had been the most important piece of her life’s puzzle. It made me think I somehow could be a part of the solution.
I understood that the world would continue to turn without my phone, my computer, or me. For the first time, I felt Shabbat was coming to me rather than me going to Shabbat. It was transcendent, as if I was touching creation itself. I couldn’t wait to discover the depth of celebrating an entire twenty-four hour period of the Sabbath.
As sundown began, many of us took the challenge and entrusted our phones, our credit cards, and our money to a safe in the hotel. This was a bold and scary move for moms with kids, moms who take care of parents, and moms who are on call 24/7. Yes, this was the day when I stayed in the present. I understood that there really is no past as it is only an illusion, and there really is no future, as that is only an illusion of something over which we have no control. We only have today. The only realty is NOW. In that instant, I had a spiritual epiphany.
I believed with all my heart that I was truly an intrinsic part of life. I was on a Jewish journey that would never end. All the thoughts about me not being good enough smart enough, or pretty enough fell by the wayside when I heard that G/d does not make garbage. When I learned that my physical beauty did not matter, and that humans were originally made translucent, there was an instant when I actually felt the splendor of my soul. I did not care about my clothes, my skin, my body, my hair, or my makeup; it was my soul that mattered. I will never forget that one precious moment when I felt the magnitude of understanding real beauty.
Shabbat granted us great lessons taught by the most remarkable women who almost intuitively understood the wisdom of life. We ate meals designed for kings and queens. The rabbi lifted our spirits to a new level. Our bodies danced in the air in complete freedom. Our voices sprang to the heavens. I was coming to understand my very own potential. In fact, I realized I needed my tribe in order to experience the levity the Jewish community has to offer. Feeling the magnificent vitality of my sisters, all searching for a better “me,” felt like lightening through my veins. I was not alone in my quest for self-discovery.
Currents of electricity flowed through the air as I walked the aging streets of Jerusalem. People were racing all around, many coming to and from the Kotel. As I moved through the metal gates unto the pebbles of the Kotel’s entrance, I found myself so close to this higher power I choose to call G/d, that words cannot properly elucidate the shocks that spurred through my body when I tore my white tee-shirt, as I would tear the black ribbon when a loved one had died. As I slowly walked backwards from the wall, so as not to ever turn my back on my creator I was drenched in fulfillment. Can anyone comprehend the tiniest of cracks I found in which to place my heartfelt prayers? The mystical wall I embraced became home to every hope, thought, and wish I had. This is where my questions would be answered. This is where I heard the whisper, “Stacey, you are going to be all right, let go, let G/d.” Instantly, the breath I was holding onto so tightly finally expelled, and I could breathe. I trusted everything in my life would work itself out.
Later, I was mesmerized witnessing a group of teenage female soldiers gathering into a circle, dancing and singing to the praises of our creator just prior to leaving for battle. How could they be this happy? They were leaving their homes, their families, and their lives to fight for the land of their people. I had to get in on the action, so I ran into the open arms of my sisters and joined hands as if dancing to the eyes of G/d. I even climbed on a chair and stared history in the eye. The male soldiers sang and danced as well. They embraced each other with a kinship of love and laughter. My tribe had learned the secret to life. It’s as if everyone understood the “whys” for their existence and ignored the “hows.”
The blue pen in my hand could not keep up with all the information my mind was attempting to digest. I wanted to remember everything I was being taught. I wanted to become all that I could. The possibilities were dynamic; I was captivated. Every sound uttered had meaning, every thought exposed granted me wisdom. My soul is where I get the most pleasure; my body is where I go when I am not mindful. I began to appreciate what I was all about. I understood that I was a Bracha soul with a Chaim body. That led me to go even deeper within. It was tacit, my need to connect with people and understand more about the union between myself, G/d, and the people in my life. It was through understanding that I would be able to love in a greater way. Everything about my life was making sense.
My heart continues to skip a beat as I remember the tribette of sisters standing at the top of an isolated rock plateau called Masada, home to King Herod’s 2,000 year old palace, built off the backs of our ancestors. It was here that many of us received our Hebrew names. Perhaps it was the blessing that was said, the lively dancing and singing, or the small piece of paper the scribe prepared with our Hebrew names, but there was a heightened feeling of passion amongst my sisters. My name is now Simcha, which by the way denotes joy or gladness, something I hadn’t considered myself to be.
As we wrapped our bodies in the flag of our people, how could I feel anything less than captivated as the story of the “Siege of Masada” was explained? I tried to comprehend the enormity of the mass suicide of 960 Jewish rebels and their families who had been hiding there. I was walking on history, commemorating fallen ancestors and their heroic struggle against oppression, their refusal to compromise their belief in our creator.
The ancient remains from the kingdom became a magnet to my desire as I bravely snuck a few stones in my backpack in order to bring home to the graves of my mom and other relatives who did not have the opportunity to experience Israel during their lives. Hence, I would bring Israel to them. Schlepping six pounds of rocks on my back may have been a bit eccentric, but it felt as though I was carrying a bit of G/d with me. I was part of the heavens, and the heavens were now a part of me.
Before I could turn my head, we had reached the Dead Sea. As I muddied up with my tribette, I could not help but think about the magic in the waters. Lying on top of this thick, salted mass of liquid, I was laughing at my buoyancy. It was as though I took a giant step back into myself, watching everyone else float by like from a window high above. Seeing my sisters ebbing and flowing one way, then changing direction like a slow tide, I felt the manifestation once more. It was within the powers of these ancient waters that my body and my essence would be healed. Funny, I have always been afraid of the water, but this time, I felt safe. I scraped the bottom of the sea for handfuls of hard, coarse salt. I managed to fill five containers of this brackish element and shoved them into my already over weighted backpack. This was just another piece of Israel I had to bring back with me. At this point, I was carrying five pounds of salt and six pounds of stones, but I felt as light as air!
The next day, we arrived at the army base of the IDF. I couldn’t help but notice the levity of each of our soldiers, both male and female. I was moved by the humility, the smiles, the love, and the hugs of these men and women, most the same ages of my own children. These soldiers saw hope within grief, prayer within doubt, and life within death. They were selfless, ready to protect and serve a country under siege and a G/d they could not see. We passed out letters, candy and toiletries as a way to say thank you for their generous service. But it really did not matter, as the soldiers explained, this was their duty, their birthright. This was Israel at its finest.
How can I adequately encapsulate so many memories of the days I shared, living among my people, and 46 other Jewish women who instantly became my tribette, my sisters? I’ve been trying to find the words to express the most inspirational experience of my life, and all I can come up with is, I think what I experienced may have been a spiritual orgasm of my soul. Whatever it was, I find myself still filled with an intensity blazing like fire. Israel became my end and my beginning. I left with questions, came home with answers, and a new understanding of myself, and my part, however small, as a grain of sand on the beach of life.