Retraining programs get unemployment bump


Courtney Myrick, 27, trained to be a massage therapist several years ago but found that customer service jobs paid the bills. After 10 years in the industry, however, jobs became scarce and less stable. 

After a layoff in June, Myrick enrolled in BankWorks, a free program administered by Jewish Vocational Service of Los Angeles (JVS), where she learned about banking regulations, balancing cash flow and assessing customer needs.

“I love it; I love the company benefits,” said Myrick, who now works as a bank teller for Wells Fargo.

Myrick finished the six-week program on Nov. 16 and was hired a week later through a job fair coordinated by JVS. 

“[You] have to give a lot of commitment,” Myrick said about BankWorks. “It’s like a job, just you’re not getting paid for it.”

Hundreds like her have been flooding certificate programs at JVS, Santa Monica College (SMC) and other local institutions. Enrolling in two- to six-month courses that teach a variety of specific skills, these adults — who range in age from their late 20s to their early 60s — all share the same motivation: desperation. 

“We’ve been seeing the return of adults to education for three years now,” said Vicki Rothman, a faculty member at SMC who also heads its career services department. “A good 80 percent of them were already employed, had B.A.’s and had lost jobs. At first, people tried to get back into their own market, but the job market went so down in Los Angeles they figured if they came to community college and did a short program and retraining, it would get them back to the market.”

SMC has a number of short-term programs to get people back in the workforce, including recycling and resource management, photovoltaic solar paneling and digital media, Rothman said. Ironically, people thought the medical industry was hiring and trained to become nurses, but California now has a glut, “and many nurses are not being hired and are leaving the state,” she said.

Rothman said she also advises both women and men to look into opening a family day-care center, which can provide a nice income. She has guided many recently unemployed to SMC’s early childhood education program, which prepares them to be preschool teachers as well as open their own day-care centers.

Representatives for the certificate programs say job prospects for recent graduates have been good so far. Solar paneling and digital media grads are getting hired, and Rothman noted a slight upswing in employment in Los Angeles County.

“Originally, when the employment market was good, we’d get adults who just wanted to finish their bachelor’s to get ahead, at night. But the minute people started losing jobs, people were coming in droves. It made a huge impact on managers, office workers, lawyers; people are willing to make such changes now,” she said.

At JVS, the focus has shifted from helping people with career happiness and advancement to people looking for a job, said Melissa Jarvis-Prieto, a JVS spokeswoman. She said they have especially seen an influx of people in their 30s to 50s.

At JVS, the strategy is to train people for similar industries. They have directed people who had worked in the mortgage industry to their BankWorks program, and people who were laid off from construction jobs into a green construction program, Jarvis-Prieto said. 

In response to the increasing need, JVS partnered with local community colleges to offer programs in cyber-security and green construction, and changed their BankWorks program from an eight-week course to six weeks. They have also focused attention on their MatureAbility program, which provides counseling and skills-building to job seekers 50 years old and older, Jarvis-Prieto said. 

Lisa Meadows, BankWorks’ program manager, said that the older age of the students makes the classes more successful. “That maturity is being shared in the classroom,” she said.

Many students avoid retraining until all options run out — unemployment, job contacts and savings, Meadows said. Recently, a student with a master’s degree from USC and a successful career in the entertainment industry enrolled in the program after being unemployed for a year and half. Now he works as a personal banker at Chase. 

By and large, laid-off adults have not been choosing to go back to graduate schools, especially not Jewish ones, according to educators interviewed for this article. Graduate school faculty and administrators at American Jewish University (AJU) and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) noted applicants’ concerns about covering tuition costs and taking on more debt, leading many to defer graduate school for another time.

Nina Lieberman, dean of AJU’s nonprofit management program, an MBA program for working executives, said that many applicants are cautious about getting a degree because of their concerns about job insecurity. “They don’t want to take on more debt” in this economy, she said. 

At HUC-JIR, the aggregate age of enrolling graduate students has actually been younger in recent years — as opposed to the older students in certificate programs — due to fears from undergraduates that rabbinic and cantorial jobs wouldn’t be available, according to Deborah Abelson, director of admissions and recruitment. Abelson said those jobs do exist, but students were so wary that they often opted to stay in graduate school to avoid job searching in a dismal environment. 

Abelson said that interest in rabbinic and cantorial study is less affected by the recession, because it has always been more of a personal calling than an economic decision. 

“With rabbinical school, when they’re drawn to it, they’re drawn to it,” she said.

Don’t let the stress of ailing economy kill you


Downtown Hospital is just a block from Wall Street. Walking through its beefed-up emergency room recently, I came upon Terry Jung, the hospital’s very thoughtful head triage nurse. She told me that despite the financial crisis and roller-coaster stock market, the number of patients with chest pain or heart attacks was not yet increasing.

“Nothing’s different,” she said. “Except the feeling that something’s about to happen.”

In all likelihood, that “something” is happening to millions of people who are worried about their jobs, retirement plans, the prices of their homes and the ability to keep food on their table should a worst-case scenario play out.

Americans are receiving a daily barrage of gloomy news that could inevitably begin to take its toll. The focus on the front pages of newspapers and on the screens of the nightly network news is of a financial calamity engulfing the planet.

But it starts at home. A neighbor’s house is being foreclosed. Food is more expensive. A friend loses his job. The daily stock market tickers on cable news shows remind people, in real time, how their investments are faring.

A survey by the American Psychological Association indicated that financial concerns “topped the list of stressors for at least 80 percent of those surveyed,” according to a recent front-page story in USA Today. More than half reported the most common symptoms of stress being anger, fatigue and an inability to sleep. Close to half responded by overeating or eating poorly, a trend that will definitely lead to killer diseases that include heart attacks and strokes.

And if the economic woes continue? Well, our collective national health could just follow our economy into the depths.

The Last Crash

In the 1980s, concerns about the failing economy after the 1987 crash led to so much stress that urgent-care centers sprang up around Wall Street. With the economic rebound of the 1990s, many of these centers closed.

Tales of traders suddenly throwing themselves out of windows on Wall Street in the wake of the 1929 crash that was the precursor to the Great Depression were largely myths, as John Kenneth Galbraith noted in his 1955 account. But millions did turn to drinking and smoking in greater numbers, which led to heart attacks, strokes, bleeding ulcers and clinical depression.

Stress is cumulative; it wears down the body and leads to disease down the line.

Research based on 17 years of Pennsylvania unemployment records concluded that workers affected by mass layoffs at a plant were 15 percent more likely to die of any cause over the next two decades.

Though stress in society at large is impossible to measure, we’re already seeing anecdotal evidence suggesting that angst is spreading. In New York, calls to the Hopeline network for people with depression or suicidal thoughts increased 75 percent in the 11 months ending in July. According to UnitedHealth Group, the largest U.S. health insurer, hospital admissions for psychiatric services are up 10 percent this year over last year. Medical illness is sure to follow.

Harvey Brenner, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, projects that an increase of 1 percentage point in a nation’s unemployment rate could cause as many as 47,000 more deaths — including 1,200 more suicides and 26,000 additional heart attacks — over the ensuing two years.

The Biology of Stress

Stress is creeping; it damages the body’s organs just as alcohol and cigarettes do. Cumulative stress is a well-documented cause of depression, suicide, heart disease, stroke, predisposition to infection and certain kinds of cancer. The body builds up the vessel-constricting, heart thumping hormones noradrenaline, adrenaline and the steroid cortisol. The problems cascade from there throughout the body.

What To Do?

The best advice is often the simplest: Eat healthy food, sleep right and avoid obsessing on the doom and gloom. Do yoga, meditate or exercise regularly to combat the growing stress.

A new study from Utah researchers shows that touch, in the form of massage, hugging and kissing, decreases stress hormones, increases the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, and lowers blood pressure.

I am all for more touching and hugging, but people who feel a disaster is looming generally are resistant to altering their increasing unstable lives. A sleepless Wall Street trader or even a Nebraska farmer is too concerned about his or her bank account to consider health.

But for each one of us, awareness is a vital weapon, and we must consider that there is still time for us to take the same kind of common sense approach to health — eat right, exercise, sleep, manage stress — that might have saved our economy from this crisis in the first place.

As the father of stress research, Hans Selye, once wrote, “It’s not stress that kills us; it is our reaction to it.”

This article originally appeared in USA Today.

Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine, is the author of ”False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear.”

Economic crisis boosts need to focus on domestic violence


Domestic violence is the American epidemic we don’t want to talk about, hear about or know about. But in my 30 years as an advocate for women and children, I’ve never been more concerned about the victims of domestic violence than I am right now. Families already buckling under the weight of domestic violence in the best of times can collapse in times of economic downturn and war.

As Jews, we don’t get to take a vacation from tikkun olam and tzedakah because we find an issue disturbing or because something is affecting our bottom line. We are commanded to repair the world, to help those less fortunate, because it’s the right thing to do. And when our pocketbooks fail us, we still have our conscience and our voice.

If we don’t focus our attention on vulnerable families now — if we don’t encourage our leaders and future president to do the same — we very likely will see increases in the already too costly human price of this national scourge.

The statistics are staggering for this equal-opportunity destroyer. One in four U.S. women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime; one in six will be the victim of an attempted or actual rape; one in 12 will be stalked. Nearly 5.3 million acts of intimate-partner violence occur each year among U.S. women age 18 and older, resulting in 2 million injuries and nearly 1,300 deaths.

A poor economic prognosis matters in a uniquely grave way to women and children in families where abuse happens.

According to a 2004 study by the National Institute of Justice, women whose male partners experienced two or more periods of unemployment over the five-year course of the study were three times more likely to be abused. A spike in cases will be devastating for a system where supply is already not keeping up with demand.

Let’s wake up to what is really going on in families of all races, religions and economic levels behind the closed doors of our apartments and starter homes, mansions and military bases. The recent tragic stabbing death of 29-year-old Sgt. Christina E. Smith was the third off-post domestic violence murder of a Fort Bragg servicewoman in four months. Sgt. Richard Smith, 26, was charged, along with a friend, with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder of his wife. A local police spokesperson responded: “No, gosh, not another one.”

The war matters enormously to our leaders, to our citizens and to the parents and spouses of soldiers who pay the ultimate sacrifice. But it also matters to families of military women like Christina E. Smith. Families already under strain become another, rarely talked about, casualty.

So we’ve got to keep doing what we know makes a difference, such as running domestic violence prevention programs that model and teach healthy relationships for teens, and we need to maintain partnerships aimed at ensuring full funding of the Violence Against Women Act and Family Violence Prevention and Services Act and appropriate funding of the Victims of Crime Act, or VOCA.

Only two years ago, the Lifetime Women’s Pulse Poll, conducted by Roper Poll, revealed the degree to which domestic violence informed the voting decisions of women and men over 18. Ninety-seven percent felt that the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault against women and girls was important and would impact whom they voted for in the election.

Jewish Americans are compassionate, and the more we know about an issue, the more we care about an issue. Let’s come together as one voice and let our leaders know that in the best and worst of times we are not going to let domestic violence continue. That we hold them, and ourselves, accountable for making it stop.

Loribeth Weinstein is the executive director of Jewish Women International

Give Her a Rest


Fact: 54 percent of Americans worry about their daily stress levels.

Stress instigates anxiety disorders. Medically categorized as “neuroses,” these nonpsychotic mental illnesses trigger feelings of uncomfortable inner emotional apprehension that dominate perception and impair thinking, judgment and functioning, even though there is no identifiable threat. The stress response to ambiguous danger activates what physiologist Walter Cannon termed “fight or flight.” Hard-wired into the brain, this mechanism releases chemicals from nerve cell sequences for anticipated combat or escape.

Although there is no identifiable threat, more than half our population experiences daily life as if there were. To quote Leviticus 26:18, stress disorders cause us to “flee when no one pursues.”

Deluded to believe our survival is being threatened, we exist in fight-or-flight mode: pulses quicken, blood diverts from the digestive and reproductive systems into hands and legs, and short-term thinking over-rides rationality. “Terror … consume[s] the eyes” (Leviticus 26:16) as pupils dilate in narrowed perception of a reality where anyone may perpetrate. The autonomic nervous system creates “consumption and fever” as flushing, sweating and reduced immunity, and “sorrow to the heart” (Leviticus 26:16) as chest pains or angina.

God’s warnings of consequence for disrespecting His orders in Behar-Bechukotai read like a psychiatric diagnosis manual’s symptom list for neurotic stress disorders. The Israelites are beseeched to provide a “Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath for the Lord” (Leviticus 25:4) every seventh year by not working Her. She is the Mother Earth: the Divine consort of Source. If disrespected; if misogynistic, ego-based desires for ownership or affluence give precedence to any “thing” over everything; “the sound of a shaken leaf will chase them and they will flee, as fleeing from a sword” (Leviticus 26:37).

We are paying the penalty for despising the Divine’s statutes. God warned that our “strength will be spent in vain”: while the human body is capable of withstanding considerable levels and durations of stress, eventually, sustained depleted energy reserves cause chronic fatigue, stamina and muscle loss, and brain cell toxicity.

He presaged we would: “sow [our] seed in vain” (Leviticus 26:16) — average sperm count decreased 42 percent since 1940; and that our “skies [would be] like iron and our earth like copper” (Leviticus 26:18-20). In 1990, scientists discovered copper contamination in 7,000-year-old layers of ice in Greenland glacial caps and widespread copper smelting in the Bronze Age released enough copper into the atmosphere to contaminate ice thousands of miles away, causing iron-colored pollution and a poisoned ecosystem.

We have abhorred our Father and, more pertinently, exploited our Mother.

Persistence will ultimately render our heartbroken earth “forsaken by [us]” as She finally takes her Sabbaths “while she lies desolate without [us]” (Leviticus 26:43), mourning the children that deserted her in selfish greed.

Either way, Mother Earth must rest. She cannot bear the weight of our collectively disowned femininity much longer; Her burnout from such repression is inevitable, Her sabbatical inexorable. She implores us to attend to her … before we disintegrate.

Physical systems must rest, in testament that no “thing” really matters. No thing restores wholeness. No amount of force compensates for an equal measure of submission.

Quick-fix prescriptions that inhibit symptoms and disregard underlying causes only exaggerate the very dependencies, weaknesses and insecurities we resist acknowledging.

We must sanctify Shechinah: Source’s indestructible other half. She is the intuitive, the deep, the changeable; She is the sensual, the vulnerable, the dependent, the receivable. She is the passionate, nurturing, indistinguishable dream of darkness from which the light is borne. She is earth beyond reclaim. She must rest.

Cardiologist Herbert Benson discovered an antidote for neurotic stress disorders: the “relaxation response” hard-wired in the brain, releases neurochemicals almost precisely counteractive of “fight or flight.” Induced by practices of consciousness, presence or surrender, it stabilizes brain waves and lowers blood pressure and pulse rates.

Nothing is what God commanded we do with earth every seventh year. Nothing is the reverence of Everything; it is Shabbat: the Jewish relaxation response that celebrates the completion, satisfaction and wholeness defined by the word shevah (seven in Hebrew). Sheva is the perfection of the manifest universe reflected upon.

Revering Goddess is something we literally cannot stress about. We need only let Her be — within and without. And through our retreat, Her beloved, protective mate will shower His grateful providence into our relinquishment that we too may return to the peace we have co-created.

Now that’s a fact.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Teens can learn from Shoah survivors


Kids these days all have tsuris; everyone has stress. A computer breaking down, not having cell phone service, getting grounded, and not getting a new car for a 16th birthday are all things that upset teenagers and stress them out. Yet, these are probably the worst of their problems.

When a teenager gets a bad grade on a test or a parking ticket, he or she may think it’s the end of the world. For some of us, a “problem” is getting seven presents for Chanukah, not eight. However, 70 years ago, these so-called “problems” would have been luxuries for the millions of Jews and other minorities living, and dying, during the Holocaust.

I met one of those Jews, Dana Schwartz, through the Holocaust Memorial Project, a program sponsored by the California State Assembly. The goal of the project is to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive by having local high school students interview Holocaust survivors living in California.

At first, the project seemed like a good idea for community service. It was not until I sat down on a chair next to Schwartz in her Beverly Hills home and listened to her speak that I realized how much more I was getting out of this experience than just a few hours of community service.

In 1939, at the age of 4, Schwartz and her family were taken from their Polish home and sent to a ghetto. By the time the war ended, less than 1 percent of the Jews of the Lvov ghetto had survived. Each day there, when she wasn’t hiding from the Nazis, she watched Jew after Jew get tortured and killed. Soon, the Nazis started rounding up the Jews and took them to the railway.

Their destination was unknown to Schwartz at the time, and she did not want to find out. We now know these trains were, of course, taking the doomed Jews to concentration camps where almost all would die.

Schwartz and her parents hid in all kinds of places to stay away from the Nazis, most of the time under an apartment building. The days and weeks passed, but soon Schwartz and her mother were lucky enough to get false IDs, which allowed them to pass as Catholics. The two escaped and hid in another town, watching its Jewish population go from roughly 50 percent to zero. They ate mainly bread and water in that town until the war was over.

A few years later, they went back to their hometown and heard horrific stories about what happened to their friends and family, including Schwartz’s father, who was killed while she was in hiding. Schwartz couldn’t even go to school until years after that, due to her fears of Germans and her mental state from the horrors she had witnessed.

Soon thereafter, Schwartz and her mother were again fortunate enough to receive affidavits to come to Los Angeles, and she’s been living here ever since.
After interviewing Schwartz, I realized how fortunate I am to have freedom.

We’re fortunate to not go to bed each night unsure whether we will ever wake up. We’re lucky we don’t get scared each time a man walks in our direction, and we’re lucky we don’t live in fear that someone will find out we are Jewish and kill us.

What amazes me the most about Schwartz is how optimistic she is after going through the atrocities of the Holocaust. She still has pride in her Jewish heritage and won’t let anyone take that away.

“I want to survive in spite of Hitler and others who wanted to destroy us,” Schwartz said. She often speaks at schools. “I speak for those who can’t speak.”

The lessons that Schwartz, and the war itself, have taught me are to treasure each day and never take anything for granted. I feel as if I have much more of a Jewish identity now. Although we can never undo the Holocaust, we can still keep its story alive and keep the stories of the survivors alive too. It is especially important for my generation to know this history, for to most of us it is just history, not real people like Dana Schwartz.

Jonathan Kuperberg is a sophomore at Agoura High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; Deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Semper Fiber


I am a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, especially of the weight-loss variety. I’ve even been known to renew my vows on a weekly basis. Yet, I have learned
that any drastic promises, such as, “I will never eat another bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream ever again,” never work.

Other sure-fail methods include eating “calorie-controlled” blueberry gelatin and promising that you will only eat three ounces of cold turkey (skinless, of course) for lunch every day. A coworker of mine ate this way until one day she opened her mouth to speak but started to gobble instead.
Last year, I also decided that I would only weigh myself on the summer and winter solstices.

Too-frequent weigh-ins can sabotage any diet efforts, because a woman’s weight is a mysterious, jumpy, undependable thing that does not follow any known laws of nature. Over-weighing would lead to stress. Stress would slow down my metabolism, which was already prone to sleeping in late.

When my scale realized it was being ignored, it had a digital breakdown. Now my husband and sons are perplexed why the scale registers a difference of 15 pounds from a Monday to a Wednesday. Finally, payback time.

This year, I looked for fresh ideas on reducing poundage. Fortunately, I found an article that uncovered facts never before revealed to the American public. For example, did you know that Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are full of saturated fats and sugar? Who knew?

Now that I am aware of this and other startling nutritional data, I don’t dare approach within 100 feet of a Krispy Kreme shop. (Frankly, they deserve a boycott for the spelling alone.) But I am going one better: I am also making a commitment to fiber. This inspiration came from my friend Helen, who went from a pleasingly feminine figure to a lean, mean marathon machine.

Each time I saw her, she had dropped another dress size, her skin glowed more radiantly than ever and the threat of middle-aged wattle under the chin had vanished. When she moved her arms, her biceps flexed insouciantly. Helen looked fantastic. If she didn’t knock it off, I would have no choice but to hate her.

“How have you done this?” I asked, faking wonderment instead of envy.

She took my arm and leaned in close. “It’s all about the fiber,” she said. “You’ve got to try it.”
“No thanks,” I said, holding my hands up in a “stop” gesture. “It may be ecologically friendly, but pure fibers are much too high maintenance for me. I bought a linen dress once, and the dry cleaning alone nearly killed me.”

“Not that fiber,” she said. “I’m talking bran cereal, garbanzo beans and broccoli.”

She whipped a small nutrition bar out of her pocket, where she apparently kept a stash. It was made of flaxseed, apricots and at least 25 percent recycled greeting cards.

“Try this. Fourteen grams of fiber in this little bar,” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she laughed.

It was a strange laugh, perhaps the kind of laugh you get after ingesting too much fiber.

“Great,” I said, dropping the bar into the vast black hole of my purse. “If it works, I’ll ask my doctor for a prescription.”

“Oh, no need,” she said. “These are over-the-counter, even the blueberry. But if you’re really serious about prescription fiber bars, I know where you can order them cheap from Canada.”

And so, desperately trying to become sinewy and taut like Helen, I put my trust in fiber. Scads of fiber. My main food groups became split peas, collard greens and psyllium husks. I tossed soy nuts and lentils on everything, even cereal. One night, I dreamed that I had fallen into an open barrel of barley at the local Whole Foods store. I developed indigestion.

After two weeks of uncompromising fidelity to fiber, I had not lost any weight, but my pantry was four pounds lighter, because I had used up most of the lentils and several cans of kidney and white beans.

Then I saw Helen again, who looked more buff than ever. My indigestion flared up immediately. Probably too many raw red peppers at lunch. Not a good idea.

“What gives?” I demanded. “You claimed that you looked so great because of fiber. I’ve eaten so much fiber I could be the poster child for the National Colon Health Foundation. You must be doing something else. Come on, spill it ”

“I’m working with a personal trainer three times a week,” Helen said. “I’m sure I told you.”

I knew there had to be a catch. Helen’s confession vindicated me. A diet of chickpeas and cantaloupe might get you poster child status for colon health but would not get you on the cover of Brawny Babe magazine. The green stuff of Helen’s success wasn’t only kale, it was cold, hard cash for the trainer.

Since then, I’ve gotten used to my more fibrous diet, but sometimes I pine for hours for an empty calorie. Overall, it’s not really that bad, if you don’t mind indigestion. I can’t afford Helen’s personal trainer, but at least I know the secret of her success. Commitment, self-discipline and money.

Who knew?

Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column at judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Keeping the SAT Drama to a Minimum


As if getting myself into college hadn’t been difficult enough, now I’m embarking on the adventure of navigating my son through the process. I call it an “adventure,” because it truly is nothing less — a roller-coaster ride fraught with sudden turns, unexpected pitfalls, one-mistake-and-you’re-doomed scenarios. I’m sure there’s a spine-tingling reality show possibility here, something between “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “Extreme Makeover: How to Survive Getting Your Kid Into College Without Getting Fired and Still Looking Fabulous.” You start with 20 Jewish mothers and see who’s not in therapy by the time acceptance letters arrive.

Luckily, I know plenty of moms who have treaded these waters before — many of my friends have kids who are already in college or at least thoroughly enmeshed in college entrance preparation.

“Are you signing Mickey up for the PSAT next month?” my friend Ginny asked. (Mickey is a high school sophomore).

“He just took a PSAT a few weeks ago,” I said.

“That was the practice PSAT,” Ginny explained.

“There’s a practice, practice PSAT?”

“No, a practice, practice SAT.”

“OK,” I got a pen and paper to draft a quick flowchart. “So, first they take a preliminary test to practice for the Practice-SAT.”

“That’s right! And then they’ll do better on the PSAT, which is important because that one counts.”

“But it’s just practice. What does it count for?”

“I don’t know, but it does. Or maybe it doesn’t. Well, it doesn’t now, but it will later.”

“Does he have to take it now?”

“No.”

“Then when would he take it?”

“In his junior year, right before the SAT. In fact, he probably should wait because he’ll do better on it next year after a year of practice.”

“Practicing what? He already took the practice PSAT. If he doesn’t take the PSAT, what’s he going to practice?” I ripped my flowchart into pieces.

“He’ll take a practice course at school.”

“He will?”

“Or you’ll get him a private SAT tutor.”

“I will?”

“If you want him to get into a good college….”

“Hold on,” I said. I stuffed three Oreos into my mouth and washed them down with cold coffee. My tentative grip on teenager management was about to come loose, sending me plunging into a deep chasm where all my accomplishments as a mother would wither, and my son’s life would unravel, because I couldn’t understand the structure of college entrance exam signups.

Ginny could hear the panic in my voice.

“Julie,” she said, “you’re eating cookies again, aren’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” I mumbled, trying to keep the chocolate crumbs in my mouth.

“Listen,” she said reassuringly, “it’s not that complicated. The kids can pick up the information in the college center at school. And I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you know what I’m doing as I do it, and you can just copy me….”

That was exactly what I needed — a virtual guidance counselor who could tell me what to do and when to do it. Then I would just cooperate and follow along.

Applying to college was not this complicated 25(ish) years ago. I think I took a PSAT. I know I took the SAT. I took it one time. I did relatively well. I got into UCLA. But times have changed. If I packaged up my high school transcripts and SAT score today, UCLA probably would laugh my application right out of the admissions building.

While everyone agrees that getting into college is more difficult and complex than it was a generation ago, most acknowledge that parents and kids need to step back, set realistic goals and try to relieve some of that SAT trauma and drama.

No one sees more distress over scores than Wendy Gilbertson, a partner with Coast 2 Coast College Admissions, a certified college consulting company.

“Scores are important,” Gilbertson said, “but students have much more to offer than just a test score. Most colleges seek well-rounded kids, and they look at many other factors when considering applicants.”

If a student is concerned about improving his or her score, then a prep course is very helpful.

“But it’s usually best if parents are not overly involved in that process,” Gilbertson said. “Kids will be more motivated if they are accountable to a third party and not to mom or dad.”

Students should be open-minded when considering where they want to submit their applications. Marc Mayerson, an assistant dean at UCLA, explained that a narrow band of elite colleges, including the Ivy Leagues and several UC campuses, are overwhelmed by the number of applications they receive.

“When a college receives 35,000 to 50,000 applications for only 5,000 freshman spots or even much fewer, the admissions staff must weed out applications with gross measures, and those measures often include SAT scores,” he said.

The good news is that there are hundreds of excellent colleges and universities throughout the United States and abroad that do not weigh entrance exam scores as heavily as the larger, more well-known schools that many California kids have their hearts set on.

“One of the biggest mistakes high school seniors make is that they convince themselves that only an Ivy League or a particular university is the right school for them,” Mayerson said. “By considering a few more schools, they can alleviate much of the stress and anxiety for themselves and for their parents.”

Feel better? I know I do. But I suggest you keep a few packs of your favorite cookies in the cupboard, just in case.

For information on test schedules and other things to keep you up at night, go to

Home Pampering Easy as 1, 2, Ahhhhh


No one deserves a spa experience more than you do. Just picture it — warm tubs scented with essential oils, invigorating body scrubs, refreshing botanical blend face masks smoothed on in soothing circular massaging motions and misty showers with luscious gels.

Sound divine? You bet. Millions of people are embracing the spa experience — taking what was formerly an exclusive pleasure of the rich and famous and turning it into a health and wellness phenomenon.

Millions of spa-goers must be on to something. But why limit all that good stuff to the precious times you can book at a spa? Why not have a spa experience whenever you choose?

It’s easier than you think to have sensual and sensational spa experiences in your own home, on your own time.

Create an Inviting Environment for the Senses

“The first step is to create an environment for your spa experience,” said Susan Kirsch, owner of Kirsch Cosmetic Clinic and Spa in Toronto, Canada. “Remember to incorporate all of your senses.”

Since water is an important part of most treatments, the bathroom is a good place to create your home spa, Kirsch said. All it takes is a little imagination.

A really simple way to transform any regular bathroom, she said, is to soften the lights.

“Have a dimmer installed on the light switch,” Kirsch said. “Just dim the lights and light some candles to turn an everyday bathroom into something that looks a bit more special.”

If a warm, bubbling bath is your idea of heaven, consider having a hot tub installed in your backyard, on your deck or inside your house. Currently, more than 5 million households now own a hot tub and by the end of this year, roughly 400,000 Americans are expected to purchase a hot tub for their homes, according to a recent study by the National Spa and Pool Institute in Alexandria, Va.

“Some people think a hot tub is a luxury item. I think it’s a necessity,” Andrea Martone said. “And my husband and daughters feel the same way. It’s much better to relax and de-stress in a hot tub after dinner than to sit in front of the television set. Sometimes we use it together. We light candles and chat. And sometimes I use it by myself — to meditate or just go to another place in my mind.”

Prices on hot tubs, according to the National Spa and Pool Institute, range from between $2,500 to more than $10,000 (plus installation costs). The average price is about $5,500.

Just as certain sounds can unsettle us, other sounds can help us achieve a sense of calm. Kirsch likes to use music that’s soothing and relaxing at her spa and during her at-home spa treatments — “something that’s appropriate for a healing environment,” she said.

She says she often plays the music of singer Enya.

“Choose whatever works for you,” she said.

For Martone, it’s the splashing sounds of water.

“I’ve got little waterfall fountains all over my house,” Martone said. “They bring a sense of calm to whatever room they’re in. My daughter even has one in her room for doing homework.”

Martone is a New York City publicist and co-founder of Spa-Daze, a company that provides professional spa treatments and services for groups of four or more in the setting of your choice — including your home.

Martone also suggests burning essential oils to set a relaxing tone for an at-home spa experience. She recommends using a 50/50 mix of your favorite essential oils and water for a scent that’s noticeable but not overpowering.

“Different scents can help create different moods,” she said. “For example, lavender is very calming to the senses and nice to burn at night before going to sleep. And oils like eucalyptus and peppermint are soothing — especially if you’re ill — and can help you breathe easier.”

Choose Your Products

If you are a spa devotee, you may already be one step closer to recreating your spa experience at home. Many spas sell the products they use in their treatments — facial masks, exfoliates, bath and shower gels, lotions and more. At Kirsch Cosmetic Clinic and Spa, staff members will custom mix body scrubs and other beauty potions for guests. So if you’ve had a particularly divine professional treatment, buy the product to use at home. You can conjure up your fond memory of that experience as relaxation therapy.

When shopping for new products for your home spa, buy in small quantities — especially if you have sensitive skin, said Carrie Pierce of Ecco Bella Botanicals of Wayne, N.J. Ecco Bella, which means “behold beauty” in Italian, is a line of natural, gentle-to-the-skin cosmetics and skin care products that use medicinal-grade essential oils.

“It’s important to have the luxury of trying a new product or scent without making a huge and perhaps costly commitment,” she said.

For that reason, Ecco Bella offers smaller, lower-priced “try me” sizes of their scented bath and shower gels, lotions, parfums and fizz therapy bath marbles.

It’s important to find scents formulated to enhance the experience you’re trying to create in your home spa, Pierce said.

Then revel in them. For example, lemon verbena has a reputation as a mood-lifting, feel-good scent. And vanilla reputedly has an aphrodisiac-like effect on men — “second only to the scent of pumpkin pie,” Pierce said.

“Layering your selected scent by using a gel, lotion — maybe spraying a little parfum on your pillow — is a luxurious way to take care of yourself and to take your spa experience with you,” she said.

Formulate a Plan

Don’t try to do too much all at once, Kirsch advised.

“Remember, your primary goal is to feel relaxed and pampered,” she said.

For a simple and luxurious home spa experience Kirsch recommends the following head-to-toe regime.

You can begin one of two ways — either by covering your head with a towel and lightly steaming your face over a basin filled with boiling water or by gently swabbing your face with a warm, damp towel.

“Your choice,” Kirsch said. “If you want to go the simple route, the warm, damp towel works just fine.”

The next step is to exfoliate — or slough off — dead skin cells.

“The skin has a natural turnover of cells. When you exfoliate, you just help that natural process along,” Kirsch said.

When choosing a product, remember exfoliates generally come in two forms — gel and grain.

“The gel form is less invasive and may be good to start out with,” Kirsch said.

Apply in circular massaging motions with your fingertips. Leave the exfoliate on until it feels tacky and almost dry. Then slough it off with the flat part of your fingers. Rinse with water.

Next, apply a mask in the same circular massaging motions.

“It’s important to choose one that’s formulated for your skin type,” Kirsch said. For example, if your skin is dry, you’ll want to use a hydrating mask.

While the mask does it’s magic, draw a warm bath.

“Put a drop or two of essential oils in the water,” Kirsch said. “Soak for a while in the bath, then exfoliate with a body scrub. Try using a loofah mitt and massage in circular motions.”

Then rinse and be careful getting out of the tub since it will be slippery. Apply a moisturizing body lotion.

It’s important to wait 48 hours after shaving or waxing before using a body scrub and don’t use it on any areas that have cuts or nicks.

Remove your mask by rinsing with lukewarm water. Apply a moisturizer using circular massaging motions — and don’t forget your neck.

Use pumice to smooth away hard or rough spots and calluses on your toes, heels and the bottoms of your feet. Apply a moisturizer.

“Give your regular moisturizer an enriching boost by breaking open a Vitamin E capsule and mixing it into the lotion,” Kirsch said.

The final step in your at home spa experience, Kirsch said, is to climb into your bed, nestle under the comfy covers and listen to music for a while.

“You should feel totally rejuvenated and stress free,” she said.

And if for some reason you don’t, you can try again — and again — until you get the hang of it. In this case, there’s absolutely no harm in trying.

“These lovely things you can do at home for yourself can really elevate the quality of your life,” Pierce said. “They can make a woman feel sexy, cherished, valued, calm and better able to cope. They allow you to embrace yourself.”

Beth Gilbert is a New York-based writer.

Midlife Reinvention Not So Uncommon


John F. Kennedy once said, “When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.”

Life is full of change — in fact, one of the only things we can predict and count on in life is that things won’t stay the same. For many of us, this is exemplified in our work. Indeed, statistics suggest that most adults will experience five to 12 careers or job changes in a lifetime.

An actor may suddenly be seen as “too old.” A mother faces an empty nest and decides to start a new career. A downsize, an illness, an unexpected inheritance, a change of heart about one’s goals — the causes and types of transition are varied. Some are positive, anticipated and exciting; others are sudden, unwanted and the cause of a major crisis.

Jerry Rogoway was a 50-year-old president of a very successful national chain of retail stores. He loved his work and had done great things for the company. But a leveraged buy-out during the recession of the early 1980s led to Rogoway suddenly finding himself out of work.

“I was scared and depressed,” Rogoway recalled. “I didn’t know what to do. Where do you go for work, as an ex- president of a company? I answered ads but everyone said, ‘You’re too qualified.’ They were probably right. But that’s not what you want to hear when you’re desperately looking for work.”

Rogoway would certainly have agreed at the time that he was in a crisis. But, ultimately, after much personal work, career counseling and moral support, he came to see losing his job as a true opportunity, and a chance to reinvent himself.

Most people in transition have experienced some sense of loss. And the loss of a job can impact a person’s financial stability, routines and contacts, self-esteem or self-identity.

“We define ourselves by our work,” said Claudia Finkel, chief operating officer of Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). “If you no longer have that identity and bond, how do you define yourself? You no longer have a sense of self.”

Sylvia Marks-Barnett, now 67, left a successful career as an attorney to become an arbitrator in her late 50s. There were several motivating factors.

“I stopped enjoying the stress of the work; it just got intolerable,” she said. “Also, my son died of cancer, and maybe I was just starting to acquire some wisdom.”

Marks-Barnett says what surprised her when she stopped practicing law was an experience of grief.

“I was grieving the loss of who I was — a lawyer. Part of my self-image was tied up in that,” she said. “I found myself pining for the courthouse and missing all the activities of a law practice, and the rush of being able to accomplish something.”

Finkel suggests that most people, when faced with a crisis, don’t take the time to mourn what is gone.

“We’re in too big a hurry to move on,” she said. “But there’s more to moving through a career transition — reinventing oneself — than just landing a new job.”

The grief, the loss of identity and the chaos of a career transition often can be eased by professional help.

Rogoway’s desperation brought him to JVS, and last May the now-72-year-old Rogoway was honored as the agency’s Employee of the Year, an award that recognizes the accomplishments of local workers who were placed in employment through JVS.

“In career counseling with Bobbie Yanke, she stressed my worth and knowledge and skills,” Rogoway said. “She was more creative than I was, because I was focused on self pity instead of thinking, ‘Now what do I do?’ She encouraged me to make contacts and network with people I knew and who knew what I was about. That led to my next job.”

The loss of what’s familiar and solid in one’s life can leave a gaping hole. It can feel scary and dark. But the emptiness can actually be the opportunity to fill that hole with something new — something unexpected, or a hope never before realized.

Life coaching is another increasingly popular resource for moving through transitions.

In his 50s, Neil Levy made his own transition to doing life-coaching work in Reseda.

“I see my role as helping with the predictable roller-coaster ride through the transition, and then helping the person turn what appears to be a negative into a positive, and turn an ‘ending’ into a beginning,” he said. “I assist my clients in exploring the possibilities that this seemingly bad situation has created, and then take the steps to create something extraordinary that would never have been possible had life gone on as usual.”

Indeed, sometimes a crisis is exactly what it takes to inspire outside-the-box thinking and finding one’s niche.

Vincent Yanniello had worked for 10 years as a stagehand for theater and television when some scenery fell on him, causing a major back injury. Yanniello went to see his family physician.

“I asked him to give me a shot to manage the pain, so I could get back to work. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re not going back to that job — ever.’ Then he said, ‘They’re having law school admission tests next week. You should go to law school. You were born to argue; you argue with me all the time about your health care. You’d make a great lawyer.'”

Three months later, Yanniello started law studies at Loyola. He has spent the last 14 years working as a trial attorney, and still loves it.

“I would never have thought of becoming an attorney. It took someone objectively looking at my skills and talents to direct me into the career that I was truly born to be in,” Yanniello said.

For information on Jewish Vocational Service, call (323) 761-8888.

Ellie Kahn is an oral historian, founder of Living Legacies, at www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com, and president of the nonprofit Living Legacies Historical Foundation. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net.

 

Post-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder


Our youngest son has just celebrated his bar mitzvah, and I am recovering from a case of Post-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder. This is a seriously underreported malady, yet shockingly, the government has yet to allocate a single dollar to research. If this doesn’t change soon, I’m going to launch an awareness campaign, complete with blue-and-white ribbons, pins and car decals.

Post-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder (PBMSD) usually follows a case of Pre-Bar Mitzvah Stress Disorder. This is characterized by speed-dialing your caterer several times daily until you actually hear him chewing antacids while you speak; zipping around so frantically from errand to errand that you have no time to eat anything other than large brownies in the car (perversely, this still causes weight gain), and bursting into tears with no warning because your little boy is no longer a little boy but a newly minted teen who has the audacity to catapult into puberty before your very eyes.

You don’t need to be Jewish to understand PBMSD. After all, symptoms are identical to those that flare up after other life-cycle events, the kind that often demand throwing large parties for people, some of whom are not on speaking terms but who will be forced into close proximity with one another for several hours, while having to smile much of that time.

My symptoms became acute as the weeks counted down to The Big Day. The following diary entries explain why:

Five weeks before the bar mitzvah: The invitations arrive, but the envelopes won’t seal shut. Wrestling the envelope flaps down with a hot glue gun for six hours eventually does the trick. I struggle to pare down guest list and fail. Like a powerful Hollywood party hostess, I withhold a batch of B-list invitees, pending the acceptance rates of other guests.

Four weeks and counting: Son is still growing too fast to buy the suit. He practices his Torah chanting each night, perfecting the reading. I worry about his speech, since the boy talks 90 m.p.h. Is it too late to hire a speaking coach?

Three weeks to go: Response cards coming in each day, many including checks. Son discovers that happiness is a positive cash flow. An alarming 90 percent of invitees have accepted. Cannot decide about B-list. Send to all anyway.

Two weeks left: Son has grown another inch and still afraid to buy suit. In meeting with caterer, son insists on a dinner menu of corn dogs and pasta. Fortunately, few 13-year-old boys are on the South Beach Diet. Musician calls me repeatedly, urging me to hire his entire orchestra. I repeatedly refuse, citing budget concerns. This is not a presidential inauguration, I tell him. It’s just a bar mitzvah. Musician sounds dirgical. I remain firm.

One week and a half away: I help son polish his speech, restraining myself from overediting. We simply add a few transitions and a laugh line or two when appropriate. Son’s delivery speed still faster than a major league pitch. Consider speech printouts on each seat?

Seven days: Musician, magician and caterer all need deposits. Consider asking son for loan.

Six days: Should I get a new dress? Daughter and many female friends are asking what I plan to wear. I had planned to lose 10 pounds for the occasion, but failed to take necessary actions. Too late now. Decide to wear ivory-colored spring suit, which still fits. Musician calls again, countering with an offer of just one additional musician. I agree, just to get rid of him. The fraud detection department of my credit card company calls to warn me of an unusual amount of activity on my account.

Five days: Must get son’s suit now. Even if he grows another two inches this week, it will still fit. Son insists all formal shirts in the store are too scratchy. I snag a hand-me-down shirt from the closet, worn at an older brother’s bar mitzvah. Finally, I save money.

Four days: Try to prearrange seating for family dinner. No configuration seems likely to prevent Uncle Harold from starting up with Cousin Norman about … what was that fight about, anyway? Pray that Aunt Shirley takes her meds before arrival. Stock up on my supply of migraine pills just in case.

Three days: Call everyone who hasn’t sent in response card. Some remind me testily that they did send them in, and I must have lost them. Of course they are coming. Several of son’s friends call to ask me if I can arrange their rides to and from the party. I lose my house keys.

Two days: Caterer calls and says he can’t get the special petit fours I had ordered, and a trucking strike on the East Coast may mean we can’t get the sorbet, either. Default to bakery cookies. Photographer calls. An emergency has arisen, and she’ll send her trainee instead. Will that be OK?

Day before: I supervise floral delivery to synagogue. Florist with heavy Italian accent assures me they will be “stupendous” but doesn’t warn me they’re nearly as big as Mount Sinai and will hardly fit through the door. At home, the phone won’t stop ringing. Everyone apologizes for calling, since I must be so busy, but what time is the party called for? Can they bring a niece who unexpectedly flew into town? Two invitations sent to close friends are returned as “address unknown.” My keys have not shown up yet, and I lose my spare set as well. Next move: climbing through the window to get into the house.

The Big Day: Get up early enough to put in contact lenses and dress with care. On goes the ivory suit. While drinking a quick cup of coffee in the kitchen, a crisis erupts. The dog rushes in from the yard, ecstatic at seeing me after an absence of seven minutes. He leaps up to greet me, festooning my ivory suit with muddy paw prints. I’ve got to leave for synagogue in three minutes or I’ll miss son’s big moment, but have no Plan B for another outfit. I race to my room and throw on a dark blue suit whose jacket won’t button all the way. No one seems to notice, so like a dope, I call attention to the unnecessary fact to my friends.

Son chants his portion from the Torah beautifully. He looks both adorable and handsome in his suit, straddling that brief, shining moment between boyhood and manhood. Miraculously, he gives his speech slow enough for most people to hear, and waits as I had instructed him for audience to laugh at appropriate moments. Sometimes, nagging pays off. In his speech, he thanks his father for taking him to Dodger games; me for correcting his grammar. He is in his glory, and I am in mine, even if my dress is too tight.

Four days later: The party goes smoothly. Some computer glitches make the music intermittent, and the silences are hard to explain. Several people wander into the hall, fill plates with food and leave. I have never seen these people before in my life. The desserts are a big hit, especially the brownies. I could have told them that. Keys still MIA.

Five days later: My son’s 15 minutes of fame are over, and he is returning to life as a mere mortal. He announces his first major purchase with his bar mitzvah money will be a chameleon and a six-month supply of meal worms. He also announces plans to grow his hair very long. And each day, he continues his deployment into manhood, standing a little taller, his face and body becoming ever thinner. The next time I see his chubby cheeks, they’ll be on my grandchildren. I am wildly happy that he is not embarrassed to say, “I love you, Mom.”

His dad and I are immensely proud of him, and love him more than any words can say. I am also nearly wildly happy that my keys finally turned up — in the backyard. My symptoms of PBMSD are dissipating at last. Mazal tov!

 

Culling Your ‘Stuff’ Can Be Painful Task


My Aunt Naomi is overwhelmed.

Now 78, she was widowed three years ago. She lost her husband, but inherited his piles of files, cancelled checks and warranties for current and formerly owned equipment.

Aunt Naomi also has her own collections — beloved tchotchkes that are scattered throughout her expansive home.

Along with feeling overwhelmed, my aunt is very lonely. She wants to move to a retirement community to be around people, participate in activities and have someone else do the cooking (and dust her tchotchkes). However, this idea has Aunt Naomi distressed.

“How can I possibly move to someplace half the size of this house?” she asked. “I have too much stuff; I’ll never be able to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of.”

She’s not alone. A word search for “clutter” on Amazon.com returned 319 titles dealing with the problem of “too much stuff.”

My sister and I were fortunate when we moved our mother from her home to a smaller place. I don’t think I ever saw a stack of papers in mom’s house, and she would no more own a huge collection of tchotchkes than an assault rifle. She was a minimalist when it came to stuff.

But professional organizers exist for a reason, and these experts point to several challenges when downsizing to a smaller home:

  • The quantity of stuff and the daunting task of dealing with it all;
  • The feeling of urgency to get this task accomplished quickly;
  • A painful sense of loss.

This last issue seems especially important for older people.

“Getting old means facing a lot of losses,” my 87-year-old father said. “I’ve lost my independence, my physical strength and functioning and people I care about. It’s not easy.”

Moving from a familiar home and letting go of things owned for years can feel like an additional loss. It’s not just the loss of the objects that has an impact; it’s the connection with the past that these objects symbolize.

I recently came home to find that my cleaning lady had broken a precious, hand-painted bottle that my grandmother had given me when I was 11. Whenever I held this bottle, I felt the special bond I had with my grandmother. It was painful to look at this shattered reminder of her.

It did eventually occur to me that the bottle was, after all, just an object. And I didn’t really require it in order to remember my grandmother and our love.

But the fear of losing such objects and their associated memories is why many people hang on to things, said Peter Walsh, the professional organizer on The Learning Channel’s show, “Clean Sweep,” which helps ordinary people deal with their clutter.

I recently spoke with Walsh about the emotional and practical aspects of downsizing.

“People usually keep things because of fear, security and control,” Walsh said. “But it’s important that you understand that holding onto these objects doesn’t make you who you are, and doesn’t help you control the life you have; that’s really an illusion.

“The goal is to just keep the things that really give your life meaning — the items that bring you the most joy, which you have the best associations with. The objects you hang on to should be a reflection of you, rather than things you feel obligated to keep.”

Walsh said that one needs to acknowledge that trimming back is indeed an overwhelming task, and a very tough thing to do: “As my grandmother always said, ‘The only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.’ Go through your stuff gradually, maybe over many months’ time.”

To help with the process, he suggested having an organizing buddy. For some people, a friend or professional is a better option than a family member, he said, because of the emotions that get aroused.

On the other hand, if children can take the time, handle the predictable stress, be patient and understanding and help their parent stay calm, going through mementos and photos together can be a very meaningful experience. While my sister and I helped mom go through her photos, artwork and books, we reminisced, laughed a lot, cried a little and learned more about her family history.

It might have been even easier if we’d known some of Walsh’s tips for downsizing:

  • The 1-to-5 Ratio. Go through a collection of anything, and for every five you keep, get rid of one. Once you’ve done it once, go back and do it again — keep five items, get rid of one. You’ll cull down the collection gradually.
  • Reverse Coat Hanger Trick: We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time. Turn all coat hangers in your closet back to front. In the next six months, when you wear something, put it back in your closet the correct way. At the end of six months, you’ll see what you’ve worn and what you haven’t. Give away what you haven’t worn.
  • Two Garbage Bags Rule: Get two large trash bags — one for giving away, one for trash. Spend 20 minutes every day, once a week, putting three items in the giveaway bag, and one in the trash bag. Immediately have someone take the giveaway bag to your favorite thrift store. Put the other out in the trash.

As my grandmother knew, giving treasured things to family members feels good. Walsh points out that doing so (or giving objects to a local museum or historical society) can help ease the loss of letting go.

A lifestyle with regular sifting through stuff is ideal, Walsh said: “Clutter sucks the life out of your space. As you get older, you need to surround yourself with the essentials, rather than the excess. It’s safer, better for you health wise and easier to maintain. By having less stuff, you live a richer life.”

For more information, visit the National Association of Professional Organizers at www.napo.net.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

Don’t Stress About Your Stock Portfolio


Back in the go-go years of the stock market, when it seemed that everyone was getting rich, a certain recently retired rabbi started buying shares in a handful of high-flying Internet stocks. The shares skyrocketed. The man bought more. Within no time, he became a millionaire many times over. Well, we don’t have to tell you what happened next. The bear market came, and stock selling for hundreds of dollars a share began selling for pennies.

“I had lost it all,” the rabbi said. “I went into depression. I even wondered if my life was worth living.”

Today, Rabbi Benjamin Blech, author of “Taking Stock: A Spiritual Guide to Rising Above Life’s Financial Ups and Downs” (AMACOM, 2003), wonders mostly how he ever got so frenzied about money — both its gain, and its loss. Of course, he is not alone. Perhaps you didn’t sink your nest egg into dot-com stocks, but chances are very good that money — or lack of it — sometimes throws you off kilter.

“Money is, without question, one of the biggest causes of anxiety and stress in our society,” said Dr. Robert Jaffe, a psychotherapist in Encino. “Fortunately, there are tools we can use to conquer that anxiety.”

Start with: What does money mean to you?

“Stress, of whatever kind, comes from fear. Stress over money is no exception. To deal effectively with that stress, you must know what it is you are truly afraid of,” Jaffe said. “For some of us, money represents security, so losing it would mean a loss of security. But for others, money may symbolize happiness, freedom or power.”

Question your core beliefs.

After you’ve made the connection between say, money and security, or money and happiness, ask yourself where that notion comes from.

“Many of our beliefs about money come from our parents,” Jaffe said. “Others come from the constant bombardment of advertising which says that our lives are somehow deficient, and that only by buying ‘stuff’ will we be fulfilled. But ‘stuff’ won’t ever fulfill you.”

In fact, a number of studies show that the rich — even those who own mansions, private jets and polo ponies — are, at best, only slightly happier than the rest of us.

“And many people with a lot of money are very unhappy,” Jaffe said.

Imagine the worst-case scenario.

Money can often tap into our fear of survival. But for most of us, even a sudden loss of most of our wealth — ouch! — would not jeopardize our survival.

“Try to picture a worst-case financial scenario, and be honest with yourself,” Jaffe said. “Say, for example, you were to lose your house. Could you still rent an apartment? OK, visualize yourself in that apartment. It’s not the end of the world. You’ll have less space, but you’ll also have less cleaning and straightening, and no lawn to mow, and no trash cans to blow away.”

Pinpoint the anxiety.

Brent Kessel, president of Abacus Wealth Partners, a fee-only financial planning firm in Pacific Palisades, is also an avid yoga practitioner. To combat money stress, Kessel suggests an exercise often used by yogis: “Sit quietly and ask yourself where in the body you are feeling the stress. Is it in your shoulders? Your gut? Is it a weighty kind of pain or a stabbing pain? Is it static or moving? There’s no answer in the observation,” Kessel said. “The answer is in the observation itself.” That may sound odd, he admits, but pinpointing the anxiety can often help control it.

Set the alarm clock.

“The very worst time to make a financial decision is when you are under financial stress,” Kessel said. “You may make a bad decision, which will then inevitably lead to more stress.”

He suggests that if you are feeling anxiety-ridden about money, put off all big decision making until tomorrow. If the decision can’t wait until then, at least wait five minutes. Set an alarm clock. Use the time to roll through the exercises above.

Value yourself for what you are.

“One day, back when my portfolio was a crazy obsession, my wife asked me why I was calling my broker so often. I told her that I wanted to know what I was worth. Right there, I had a revelation,” said Blech, the former dot-com millionaire. “I repeated those words to myself: ‘to know what I was worth.’ Ridiculous! I’m a rabbi, a parent, a teacher, a mate and lots of other things. I’m worth much more than my portfolio, regardless of its size…. And that’s true for every one of us.”

Russell Wild is both a financial journalist and a fee-only investment adviser based in Allentown, Pa.

 

A Student’s Plea


 

Often I find myself staring at walls or lying on my bed staring at the ceiling, blank-minded. But I am not one who has the luxury to

be blank-minded. There is too much to do — not by will, but by force. There is work to be done — two lessons of math homework, 26 pages of AP English reading, eight terms a day to study for the AP test, probably some science homework that I don’t remember and the indefinitely intimidating SATs, looming in everyone’s mind. I/we, all students, are collapsing under the weight of our responsibilities, high school beasts of academic burden.

So I will explain to those who ask, such as parents, teachers or siblings, “Why are you not working?” Why I am not working? It seems nothing we students can do is enough. One day there is a chemistry test, the next an essay due, the next an English test, the next a much-needed break, which is not really a break because we still have everyday homework and SAT studying, followed by another test, another essay — and eventually the lines begin to blur. Eventually, all worries and all concerns about school, grades and college just don’t seem worth it.

“Of course they’re worth it,” say parents and educators, and we know they’re worth it. We know we need to study, we know we need to do well in school, well on the SATs, well on the APs, we know it’s all important. So maybe we could find some system of working, making a schedule that encompasses both work and rest that would suit our needs and keep us sane. Not so, friends, not so.

There comes a point where we students are no longer inspired to learn. (Were we ever?) Yes, we enjoy learning what we find interesting, whether it be history, chemistry, philosophy, etc. for each individual. But as the requirements build up, and the pressure rises, our only motivation to work is to avoid being scolded for not working. We no longer care about our grades; it isn’t worth it. We don’t connect the drudgery of studying for tests or the SATs with their necessity. What I mean is that when separating ourselves from work, we understand that we need to do it in order to get into college, to have a stable life and just to learn things we didn’t know before. But when we have to get our hands dirty, get right into it with those pencils, books and calculators, and put C-clamps on our brains, the amount of work we realize we’re facing dismisses all of those long-term accomplishments for the immediacy of stress. So we shut down our brains like blocks of concrete, and stare at the walls.

In my experience, education is no longer about learning; it’s about how a student looks on paper. Letters and numbers that represent our intellect, and how many extracurriculars represent our involvement. They mean little to me. But they mean plenty to parents, schools and colleges, though, so we have to put up with them. But when they become so important that our lives need to revolve around them, it is much easier to ignore them to the extent that we can, so that parental or academic authorities won’t bother us. Not to say this is right, but it’s honest. And not to say we don’t enjoy intellect; I spend much of my free time reading, writing, talking religion or politics, enjoying or creating art, etc. These things are valuable, but, sadly, they don’t appear on our transcripts — the mindless drone of SAT, AP and GPA percentiles do. Sad how five letters and their numbers are likely to define our lives, even if we’re artists and writers and scientists and philosophers and politicians without the papers to prove it.

I do not expect to change any of these things with my words. If I did, I would also ask for a unicorn pony and to be a teenage ninja. I only hope to help parents and educators understand why we students at times are so disheartened and disconnected from our education.

I don’t speak for all students. Of course there are students who don’t feel this way, but they’re sparse. And in a way, I feel real compassion for those who don’t have the ability to disconnect themselves from their responsibilities, their worries of the SATs, the right college, the right jobs, the right mate, the whole right life, and run wild and untethered on the beaches of their own minds. But plenty of us students with our stress-roasted minds understand and relate. Someday when we inherit the world, we’ll change the system so that our children’s children will enjoy their preadulthood wholeheartedly. Someday, my brothers, someday.

Seth Lutske is a senior at YULA Boys School and editor of the school newspaper.

 

SAT, Grades Not Enough Anymore


 

Click here to learn how to get into college

Perry Factor looks like an ideal college applicant. The Harvard-Westlake senior scored 1530 on his SAT and maintains a 4.036 (weighted) GPA. He’s volunteered for years at his former elementary school, is a production editor on the high school paper, sings in the school choir and is on the jujitsu team. Nevertheless, Factor said he’s “not entirely confident” about getting into his top college choice, Rice University in Texas.

“There are always horror stories about looking like the perfect candidate and not getting admitted,” he said.

Like Factor, teens around the nation — and their parents — are finding an increasingly competitive atmosphere for college applicants.

“There are more students applying than ever before … yet there are not necessarily more spaces,” said Tami Gelb, college counselor at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA).

Take UCLA for example. Twenty years ago, 65 percent of applicants gained admission. Ten years ago, that number shrank to 46 percent. And for this year’s freshman class, only 23 percent were admitted, boasting on average a GPA of 3.79, 19 honors courses and an SAT score of 1352 — 100 points higher than the average a decade ago.

Nor can students rely upon stellar grades alone. Now schools are looking for the “angular” students to have depth of experience in a particular area, in addition to a variety of extracurricular activities. Such specialties “can help students distinguish themselves from thousands of other applicants as unique and distinctive,” Gelb said.

In addition to worrying about acceptance to their college of choice, seniors must complete a raft of tests, essays and paperwork related to the college application process. For example, many schools require students to take not only the SAT, but also SAT IIs, which test specific subject areas. As Gelb described it, “It’s like taking another class for one semester.”

For some, the pressure to get into college can be overwhelming. Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and educator, said that college deans refer to some incoming students as “crispies.”

“They are so exhausted from grade grubbing and worrying about what’s going to be on the test that they’re burned out,” Mogel said. “They find no pleasure in learning.”

One parent described families obsessed with pursuing opportunities solely to increase their child’s chances of admission to a top college as “raising an application.”

Yet as daunting as admissions odds may appear, the situation is often overblown. In a U.S. News & World Report article, Martin Wilder, vice president for admissions counseling and enrollment practices at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, said that while it has never been more competitive to get into the most selective colleges, it has also never been easier to attend college. Harvard or Yale acceptance rates hover close to 10 percent, but the nationwide college acceptance rate is 70 percent.

And for all the families “raising applications,” there are others who maintain a healthier perspective.

“There isn’t just one college with your kid’s name on it,” said parent Fran Grossman, who is experiencing this process for the first time with her son, David, a senior at Shalhevet High School.

She and others emphasize the value of visiting prospective schools prior to making a decision. David, who plans to major in political science, wanted a school in the Washington, D.C., area with a strong Jewish presence. After visiting several D.C. campuses, he decided to apply early admission to American University. (Early admissions, which have higher acceptance rates, must be submitted earlier than standard applications. If admitted, the student must attend that school and rescind other applications.)

“He hadn’t even thought about American before starting the process,” Grossman said. “His choice really crystallized after his visit to campus.”

“Know yourself first and go from there,” Factor advised. He created nine necessary criteria, including access to Jewish life and having Division I sports teams, for his college of choice.

Benji Davis, a senior at Milken Community High School, has managed to keep the application-related stress at bay.

“Wherever I end up, I’ll be happy,” he said.

Davis applied for early admission at George Washington University after touring a dozen East Coast universities through Road Trip: East Coast College Tour, a program of Sinai Temple’s USY and ATID groups. The program gives students a chance to take campus tours, meet with admissions representatives, stay in college dorms and explore the town.

“If I don’t get in, I know there are other places,” he said.

YULA’s Gelb noted that two factors impact whether a student gets accepted, but only one of them is under the student’s control. While individuals can influence their transcripts and test scores, they cannot determine the make-up of that year’s class.

“Maybe [the school needs] an oboe player for the orchestra or a punter for the football team. That’s not controllable,” Gelb said.

She urges students and their families not to overly anguish about the college admissions process. With more than 3,000 schools nationwide “there’s a college for everybody,” she said. “All our students do get into college, and get into places where they’re happy and doing well…. Where you go isn’t nearly as important as how you do when you get there.”

 

Life With A Terror Twist


I was drinking a martini on the terrace of the King David Hotel when I started counting sirens. An ultra-Orthodox social worker had told me earlier in the week that that is what people often do here, count sirens. One siren is probably a heart attack. Two might be a fire. If you hear three, you had best turn on the news.

On Tuesday afternoon, a young man who ran a cafe on a crowded downtown street told me that he was just "waiting for the bang." When the day’s first human bomb finally exploded close to 6 p.m. at a bus stop near Tel Aviv, one could feel a sense of relief intertwined with the sadness. It is difficult not to feel grateful when the bombs blow elsewhere. And the uncertainty of where and what time the strike will come is sometimes as unbearable as the news of the event itself. Many Israelis are embarrassed to find themselves just waiting for the inevitable explosion just so they can resume their normal daily routine.

After a major earthquake, Angelenos have been known to funnel their anxiety into sex. In the wake of Sept. 11, alcohol consumption shot up all over America. Here, the stress of imminent terrorism has become ritualized. Three years into the current intifada, Israelis have become accustomed to checking two forecasts every morning: one for weather, the other for terror. There had been more than 40 terror alerts last Tuesday when two suicide bombers killed 15 people. By the afternoon, there was a rumor circulating that four separate terrorists were on their way.

Tension. Release. Tension. Release. Israelis cannot commemorate one single day a year like Sept. 11., Aug. 19, May 27, Sept. 9, etc., etc. The dates, places, bus lines, the total dead — they all begin to blur.

It is easy to understand why people are so tired here. Eager to unload their burden, Israelis talk incessantly about chance and near misses. "I was in that cafe just the other day," they’ll say. Fewer and fewer city dwellers are willing to play the odds and frequent their favorite restaurants. Bus riders are either brave souls or too poor to buy a car. With tourism nearly extinct, video stores are among the few businesses that are thriving. Cell phones have become more indispensable than ever. On Tuesday night, as I walked down the hill in the direction of the day’s second attack, I noticed that nearly everyone on the street was clinging to one; checking up on loved ones or listening to the latest news.

Fixated on the present, most Israelis I spoke to choose not to look too far into the future. They refuse to consider what it would be like to live like this for many more years. Too busy responding to everyday crises, two trauma psychologists I interviewed would not even speculate about the long-term psychological and emotional effects of living with this form of terror. No one would answer my inquiry as to whether rates of drinking, domestic violence or street crime have gone up or down. Instead, many Israelis — from writers and artists to social scientists and cab drivers — recall the Jewish past when they explain how they cope with the present. "Anxiety is the engine of this country," writer Igal Sarna told me. "Millions of Jews came to Israel having survived all kinds of catastrophes."

But with anger at the Palestinians mounting, others worry that Israeli society is betraying its roots and becoming too hard and desensitized for its own good.

Novelist Orly Castel-Bloom was the only person I met who imagined a future of never-ending suicide bombings. "How do you keep on smiling?" she said. Still, she misses her country deeply whenever she travels abroad. "I think I am addicted," she confessed.

To the surprise of many, a recent opinion survey found that a sizable majority of Israelis say they are satisfied with life in this country.

It turns out that Tuesday night’s bombing occurred less than 400 yards from my room at the Inbal Hotel. Like everyone else nearby, I felt anxious, confused and had troubled sleeping. The next morning I visited the bombing site, which resembled a movie set more than a killing field. Workers had already scrubbed the floor, hauled away debris and were busy putting up wooden panels to cover shattered windows. Just two doors away, in an outdoor cafe, I saw three middle-aged women sitting in the sun, sharing breakfast and laughing. Except for a handful of spectators, people were going about their day as if nothing had happened.

My last meeting on Wednesday had been scheduled at a popular restaurant in central Tel Aviv. Like so many others here, I told myself that I was more likely to get hit by a car — particularly by an Israeli driver — than I was to be a victim of the next bomb attack. The food was tasteless, greasy and more than a little overpriced. But that didn’t bother me. I was just relieved that I had been seated at a table near the back at a seat facing the front door.


Gregory Rodriguez is a Los Angeles-based senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Time to Clean House


"Don’t use my real name," insisted Devorah &’9;&’9;of Pico-Robertson. "I don’t want anyone to think that I am not Pesach cleaning enough."

In fact, for all the women interviewed in this article, having others judge their Pesach cleaning standards would be just another anxiety to add to their very full plate of pre-Pesach concerns — so they all asked to be quoted anonymously about their experiences cleaning for Pesach.

For many, Pesach cleaning is a holy — but stressful — chore, one that has a deeply religious significance with a side benefit of added domicile hygiene. The goal of Pesach cleaning is to rid the house of chametz — any leavened product, because in Exodus 12:19, the Torah commands: "For seven days, leaven may not be found in your home." The law is so strict that the punishment for eating chametz on Pesach is karet — being cut off from the Jewish people. Bearing this in mind, Pesach cleaning becomes more than just your average wipe down.

Many people think about Pesach cleaning at least a month in advance. "Purim is the turning point" said Rochel, 33, who lives in Santa Monica. "On Purim, you get all this chametz with shalach manot [Purim packages], and you immediately have to start getting rid of it." Rochel estimates that she puts in five to six hours a week from Purim to Pesach cleaning her one-bedroom apartment. "If I had kids, I would probably need to put in more time," she said. "But there are certain things I stopped doing to make it easier to clean. I don’t eat in my bedroom, and during the year I stopped throwing pasta against the wall to see if it was ready. That way I don’t have to wash my walls come Pesach time."

Devorah says that it takes her about 24 hours in total to get her house ready for Pesach, and she employs a cleaning woman for about eight hours to help her with the task. "She does the books." Devorah says. "She takes every book off the shelf and opens it and shakes it, to make sure that none of my grandchildren have hidden any chametz in them."

Tasks like shaking out all of one’s books in an effort to find half-eaten sandwiches or examining the underside of every LEGO to find long lost Cheerios might seem like unnecessary and arduous time-wasters. Some feel that you can never be too careful.

"When you have small kids, you have to go over the whole house, because you don’t know what you’ll find," said Rabbi Shimon Raichik, 49, the rabbi of Congregation Levi Yitzchok, Chabad of Hancock Park. "One time, the night of Bedikat Chametz [the ceremony of checking for chametz the night before Pesach], I was going through my kid’s toys, and I found a toy truck. I opened up the truck and found a half a bagel. And the truck was something that we had already cleaned!"

However, others complain that Pesach cleaning can be excessive. "I have this linen closet where I store old sheets on the top shelf," said Sarah. "The only time anybody in the house ever touches those shelves is at Pesach time — and the only person who ever touches them is me — when year after year I Pesach clean them. I know there is no chametz there. But I Pesach clean them nevertheless. And please don’t use my real name."

A prominent Orthodox rabbi from the Fairfax area said, "If your freezer never has any open chametz, and everything is always in a bag, then technically you don’t have to clean it. But nobody would ever do such a thing, and when I suggest this to ladies, they look at me like I am crazy, like I am talking about another religion."

Rabbis insist that Pesach cleaning is not spring-cleaning. "Dirt is not chametz," declared Raichik. "This is not a dust cleaning, not a spring-cleaning, but a search for chametz. Therefore, it is not necessary to wash all your windows or clean up to the ceiling, unless you have kids who throw food up there."

Raichik advises his congregants to make a list of everything that has to be cleaned and then to go down the list systematically, checking every drawer, closet and surface in the house. Yet, just looking inside the house is probably not enough. "People don’t realize that the car also needs a detailed cleaning," Raichik said. "Do you know how much food you can find in a car? Everything in a car needs to be searched — under the seats, the glove compartment, all over. To go and check a closet that nobody has been in during the year but to forget about cleaning the car is missing the point."

The point is that when the holiday finally arrives, that house is chametz free. That it is also sparkling clean from all the attention lavished on it during the Pesach cleaning season, makes it all seem worth it. "The truth is, I do it happily," Devorah said. "I don’t dread it. It is a happy time of year, and it is a nice thing to prepare for."

Unwind With Yoga


Americans are in the process of healing from the events of Sept. 11. Most of us are under additional stress that shows up in our bodies by lack of sleep, headaches, overeating and irritation. To combat the symptoms of stress and fatigue I recommend a good dose of yoga.

Yoga has been around for about 5,000 years. It is a meditative, stretching-based workout that originated in India. Literally translated, it means, to solder a union between mind and body. The regular practice of yoga can increase energy levels, flexibility, strength, relaxation, and decrease stress. (Sounds like a wonder drug!) Other benefits of a regular program include improved circulation, improved blood pressure, improved lung capacity and pain relief — need I say more?

There are eight major schools of yoga, but Hatha yoga is the most commonly practiced in the Western world. This style of yoga emphasizes different body positions (asanas) combined with breathing techniques. Have you ever done the “Downward Dog?”

One of the most commonly used progressions in Hatha yoga is the Sun Salutation. It is often used as a warm-up, and can be repeated over and over again to build strength, flexibility and balance.

The following exercises make up the Sun Salutation. If you try these at home, make sure you have a clear space and a soft surface, such as a mat or carpet, to lie on. Remember to consult with your physician before starting any exercise program.

Mountain Pose

Stand with feet together. Body is upright and hands are clasped together in prayer position close to the heart.

Arching Back Pose

Stretch arms overhead and slightly arch your back, keeping your eyes to the ceiling. Inhale deeply.

Standing Forward Bend

Reach arms forward and down to the floor. Place hands beside your feet, your head to your knees. Exhale deeply.

Lunge Position

Keep your right leg stationary; reach your left leg behind you in lunge position. Your right leg should be bent and your left leg should be straight. Inhale deeply.

Plank Position

Bring your right leg back to meet your left leg so that both legs and arms are now straight. (You should look like you are ready to do a push-up). Exhale deeply.

Cobra Pose

Lower your hips and legs to the ground, lift your chest to the ceiling. Arms should be straight, and hands are pressing firmly into the floor. Inhale deeply.

Downward Dog Pose

Tuck toes under and straighten your legs, pushing your hips back and up to the ceiling. You should look like an inverted V. Press arms and heels into the floor. Exhale deeply.

Deep Lunge Position

Bring your left foot forward between your hands, keeping your front knee bent and back leg straight behind you as in the first Lunge position. Inhale deeply.

Forward Bend

Bring your right foot forward to meet your left foot. Both legs are straight as in the Standing Forward Bend. Relax head and neck area, dropping your head to your knees. Exhale deeply.

Arching Back Pose

Reach arms forward and bring your body to an upright position. Extend arms overhead while you slightly arch your back. Inhale deeply.

Mountain Pose

Back to the beginning. Pose with feet together. Body is tall, and hands are clasped together in prayer position. Exhale deeply.

It is important that during times of stress we listen to our bodies. Sleeping longer hours, drinking more water, eating the right foods and exercising at least three days a week are important to maintain balance. The Sun Salutation is a great way to start your day with energy and vitality.

If you have any questions or comments, contact Ani at Ani_Dumas@jcc-gla.org  

From the Heart


Sometimes life seems overwhelming.

For some, it’s the stress of coping with raising their children in an apparently amoral world. For others, it is learning how to live each day in spite of enormous challenges to our bodies and our health. For others still, it is the experience of being squeezed in the "sandwich generation" between taking care of their kids and coping with the decaying physical or mental health of aging parents.

For too many, any natural inclination they might have to search for meaning and purpose in life seems to consistently take a back seat to the strain of all it takes just to make a living. Yet, Judaism expects more from us. Judaism teaches that we are created in the image of God, and in the words of Pierre Teillhard de Chardin, "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience." The irony is that it is by having this human/physical experience that we come most directly in touch with the holy and sacred in life.

For life to be filled with holiness, the first and most important ingredient is gratitude. Each morning when we wake up, we are commanded by Jewish tradition to utter words of thanks for the miracle of daily rebirth. "Thank you, Sovereign of the Universe, for graciously returning my soul back to my body — your faithfulness is magnificent." These are the traditional words of prayer that Jews have recited daily for over a thousand years.

Giving thanks with a simple prayer each morning teaches us that Jewish religious practice is fundamentally an intimate affair — all that is necessary is a caring soul with an open and loving heart.

Too often we think there is some great knowledge, or technique, or prerequisite wisdom or learning that must take place before we qualify for undertaking serious spiritual work. This week in the Torah, we learn the exact opposite is true.

The Torah tells us that every one of us is perfectly suited and qualified, as we are, to engage in growing our own souls and following our own spiritual paths. "Surely, this Torah which I give you this day, is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deuteronomy 30:11-14.)

We read this passage and are reminded once again that normative Judaism expects us to be engaged in a lifelong search for spiritual meaning and purpose. We are expected to pursue spiritual growth and knowledge for its own sake. We are encouraged to discover that the most important things in life aren’t things at all — they are encountering other human souls, nurturing relationships and giving love. We learn this week that the things that matter most are as close to us as our own mouths and hearts. Perhaps this is our ancestors’ way of teaching us that not only do the words that we speak really matter, but the intentions of our words count, as well. Yes, it is so easy to get overwhelmed by life. From school, to friends, to family, to jobs, to the state of the planet, to the messages we get from movies, television, magazines and the Internet today. So, remember, as you join with fellow Jews to celebrate Rosh Hashana during the week ahead, the wise words of this week’s Torah portion: that the lessons of life we truly seek can be found within ourselves. The Torah speaks of our mouths and our hearts, and it’s hard to get much more intimate than that.