By: Rachel Ellison
On the day of Mishkan’s Revelation and Revolution pre-Shavu’ote learn-athon, I was in one-month-countdown-to-wedding-day-mode. The to-do list scrolling through my brain was full as it would be any day but more so. On that evening my nerves were humming as I was about to lead my very first workshop on art and ritual, titled: “Your name is a book, write it”. One year before I had started my own business making and selling bespoke ritual objects including ketubot and artworks inspired by Kabbalah and numerology. Even as I was granted the opportunity to teach a class on names and the Kabbalistic study of Gematria, I knew that I was not (and am still not) a great scholar of Kabbalah. I am a curious and exploratory learner and maker but not a master of the Zohar. I aimed for the workshop to allow participants to learn about the meaning and power of their names in relation to Jewish Kabbalistic tradition. I was hoping to consider contemporary relationships to naming as well, perhaps touching on refugee and queer identities. I also planned for participants to leave the workshop with an artwork of their making reflecting a Kabbalistic interpretation of their own names.
In the weeks leading up to the workshop, my mind was a mess of details: Go downtown to buy a marriage license. How does a name function in today’s society? Get the music to the DJ for the Horah. In regard to given names vs. chosen names: does someone who chooses a new name completely leave behind the old name? Make our ketubah. Do I want to change my last name?
At the event that evening in late May, I was listening to the opening teachings while greeting friends and still carving stamps for the printmaking tutorial segment of my workshop. I was feeling excited and anxious. The activity of carving seemed to keep my restless nerves in check. I had to remind myself that this first workshop ever would be a starting point for others yet to come. It was to be learning experience to enhance my teaching skills for future events. I would learn the parts to keep and those to leave out for next time. I would learn about pacing and about listening to the needs of others in the group. I knew the only way to learn was to try. There would always be a million excuses to put off my first teaching experience. So, even though I had never taught before, I was given trust and a generous invitation. There was no better time to start.
In the end I did learn a lot. I learned logistical things like plan for each segment of the workshop to take 1.5 times the amount I originally thought it would take. I learned that just because I am thinking about particular topics most of my waking hours, this does not mean that others are or that they hold the same beliefs as me. Leave more room for healthy debate, especially at Mishkan events. I learned to ask questions that hold potential for open answers and possibilities for exploration. I felt a safety in knowing that I was surrounded by a supportive community should I stumble or make mistakes. I felt respect for the other talented and brave souls who shared their talents and world views that evening, and honored to be included among them.
Then and now I understood Mishkan as a lifeline for me and for my husband. I grew up in a Jewish family that holds tradition and continuity of the Jewish people at the core of family values. While the concerns of my original family unit overlap with my own, I recognize that I am thirsty to find a way to connect with my ancestral past that also rings true to a contemporary worldview and my personal sense of truth. I wasn’t always able to find this in the Judaism that I grew up with. I first began to find this at Mishkan with friends. When I started dating my now husband, who is not Jewish, Mishkan became his entry into understanding why I care so deeply about Judaism. Through engaging in study, meditation, and volunteering with Mishkan, I was able to explain (maybe for the first time ever) why it was so important that I hold on to this part of me. My husband also came to feel connected to Jewish ritual and culture. The community didn’t ask or judge us for where we came from— we were engaged and interested so we were and always are welcome. We are happy to be able to welcome others in the same way we were welcomed. We are finding our own footing in Jewish practice and in the community with the help of Mishkan’s staff and kehilah. It feels like this is an ongoing inquiry and process, which is also exciting to be a part of. As an artist I am used to seeing and molding the evolution of a material. I feel like my spiritual self goes through a similar process. Our little family’s roots at Mishkan give us the ground to feel empowered by our differences as well as emboldened and inspired by our shared discoveries, so thank you to all who make that possible!