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Building blessing muscle

It feels like a superpower: to know how to stop time, command presence with another being, and articulate the gift that says, “I see and love you. Keep going.”

It’s Shabbat and my family has just lit the candles. The five of us keep our hands over our eyes drawing in our deepest prayers. When we have all opened our eyes, we share Shabbes hugs and sweet wishes.  Then, two of the three of us siblings scamper off while one stays, standing in front of the candles and our parents to receive a Shabbat blessing.

My parents created a profound tradition when we were very young: addressing one child at a time, they would recite the traditional Hebrew blessing and then each of them would gift an impromptu personal blessing from the heartsoul.  Their hands would rest on my shoulders or head. Each would look into my eyes, gifting words that articulated my life: noticing my generosity when I helped my sister clean her room or the boldness I showed when I stood up for a friend, celebrating my spunk or curiosity  or commending my strength and wisdom when I struggled through on an ongoing conflict. These blessings were powerful and to the point.  In a frantic culture, the beginning of Shabbat was a slow place in time when I had the attention of both my parents, when I felt precious.

My Abba passed after Sukkot last year. During our last Shabbes together, he illuminated the spaces in my life where I had infused joy—concretely and subversively—and he blessed me with the courage to continue to lead my life the way I already knew how.  Since his death, lighting candles has been arduous.

At the time of his passing, I was a youth organizer for the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, working with a larger cross-race and class youth coalition.  While I was heavily grieving my father’s passing, the youth leaders were gearing up for their largest action yet: a 300-person event with the Massachusetts governor calling for new progressive revenue at the State House.  

A handful of young people were taking huge risks and I wanted to find a way to stop and put all of my energy and attention toward meaningfully acknowledging how each of them was growing and developing as a magnificent leader. The day before the action, I was up until the wee hours of the night searching for a specific document when I stumbled upon a collection of Lake Michigan sea glass that I had collected with my father. The waves had smashed those broken shards millions of times until they slowly transformed into these beautiful pieces of color.  The action that would take place in 15 hours felt similarly like one strong, mighty wave against the broken shards of our regressive state budget and the broken systems that set young people up to flail. I poured the small pieces of sea glass onto the floor and picked out nine.

In the hour before the action, I stole away nine youth leaders, one at a time. We hunched in a corner and I slowly opened my hand to show this glorious glass treasure that my father and I had found.  I explained the work of the waves. I then passed the pieces into their hands, thanking them for their bravery and for the specific ways they were growing as leaders. And I talked about how they are a powerful part of persistently and consistently creating a more beautiful world. 

The action was electric.  They took risks and they soared. One youth leader ran up to me after the action, clutching the sea glass, and exclaimed that she was going to take that glass with her everywhere and keep smashing everything til it was beautiful.

I learned the powerful tool of recognizing young peoples’ growth and struggle from my parents—as well as how to breathe life into a weekly ritual. And this ritual created a training ground for me to grow a blessing muscle.  It feels like a superpower: to know how to stop time, command presence with another being, and articulate the gift that says, “I see and love you. Keep going.”

Ilana Lerman is an alumna of the JOIN for Justice organizing fellowship and organized with the Jewish Community Relations Council for four years. Currently, Ilana loves serving as an adult white ally with an after school Racial Reconciliation and Healing program with the Southern Jamaica  Plain Health Center and delights in her advanced training at the CommonWealth Center for Herbal Medicine

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