Catching Up on Mussar

So in between everything that’s been going on, I have had the distinct privilege of beginning my Mussar journey. Simply put, Mussar is a 1,000 year old, Jewish, Post-Modern Social Work Practice (though I’m sure the sages and Rabbis that developed it didn’t necessarily put it into those words)…though as I have dived into the texts and the readings, I have sat in shock as I have read paragraph after paragraph that have been almost word for word what I have read in my Solutions Focused Brief Therapy and Motivational Interviewing training.

Mussar is also a miracle, because it (and its writings) managed to survive the Holocaust…and so for this we give thanks.

Part of Mussar is daily journaling (which I have been behind on) and part of my goal for this site has also been daily journaling; and since I find it much easier to sit down with my computer or cell phone, than I do with pen or paper these days, I am going to catch up on some of the prompts that our Va’ad leaders have sent us, and then endeavor to continue forward with daily Mussar reflections (at a minimum, my hope is to – of course – include my Social Work observations, Instagram posts, etc.).

That said, my responses to our daily prompts:


How did you step outside of your comfort zone today and occupy a different amount of space?

I made a few decisions that I had been waffling on, where I had been questioning (without yet having the mussar vocabulary) my space.

I had been holding back sharing some important information and achievements, fearing that it would make me appear arrogant, or that it would be inappropriate to share…fearing that it would exceed the boundaries of my space.

When I made the decision to share them, however, I was glad to find that I didn’t cross any boundaries, rather I was able to spread out my arms and legs, and stretch a bit, and occupy space that was in fact rightfully mine to occupy, and the news was received warmly and with pride by those with whom I shared it.

In this case, in this specific situation, I was a bit too far left on the scale, and in fact, I needed to move a bit farther right, and take up what was my rightful space to occupy.

How will you aim to maximize your humility practice this week?

I have been repeating the mantra “no more than my space, no less than my place” througout the day to remind me to be more aware whenever I am in a social situation. It is very similar – for me – to Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit: “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” which is something I had been working on as an area of personal growth in Field Placement this year, to better develop my clinical practice.

Have you noticed a difference in yourself through your humility practice?

I have definitely been more cognizant of when I take a step back, or when I take a step forward. I have asked myself before sharing anything in a group situation “is this necessary to contribute? Am I contributing it for my ego? Am I contributing it because it’s vital or relevant? Why do I want to share this information? What are my motivations? Do my motivations for speaking or for taking up space align with my thoughts/feelings/beliefs? Do they align with my Jewish values?” This, of course, makes me much more of an active listener, and – I believe – far more present in whatever setting I’m in.

My goal moving forward is to of course bring this practice to one-on-one conversations as well.

What are your thoughts on this quote?
“Humility is the proper estimate of oneself” – Charles Spurgeon

I’m not sure.

How does your concept of Shabbat impact your practice of humility?

Shabbat, for me, is about stepping back entirely into my own internal space: there is no amount of space that is inappropriate to occupy, since I occupy that space within my whole self and my whole being in home, and within my mind (meditation, study), and within my body (yoga, relaxation).

While this may create a vacuum of space in the community because I separate myself from them, and create an absence of presence with the choice of a solitary Shabbat, this self-care is very necessary, and is in fact vital for my continued ability to work and function.

Do you think the amount of space you occupy is the same in your professional life as it is in your personal life?

No. However, I think that the amount of space I occupy changes and fluxes constantly, depending where I am and what my role is at any given time, regardless of whether it is in a professional or personal space…and in fact, it can even change minute-by-minte, or hour-by-hour even within these spaces.

Am I consulting? Am I consulting, but receiving client feedback? Am I presenting? Am I teaching? Am I part of a team? Am I officiating at a wedding? Am I working a case as a case manager? Am I working in a clinical role as part of the Field Placement process? Am I a student? Am I at a family picnic? A funeral? Am I officiating at the funeral (which has also been known to happen)? Are we having a game night? Are we all just enjoying each other’s company while reading or playing video games silently? Are we eating pizza (in which case I’d argue I am far less humble, and far more likely to grab that extra slice…maybe a soul trait to work on…)?

I think that every single situation has to be evaluated on its own merits, in its own time, then and there, because our roles are never so clear cut that we can think this far ahead without being mindful and in the situation as it exists.

הכרת הטוב
Recognizing the Good / Gratitude

Pay attention to the reaction when you thank someone.

Done & Done.

When is it difficult for you to feel gratitude? How can you dig deeper to find something to be grateful for at that time?

This week I had a real Mussar moment. I had the UB Student Remembrance Ceremony on Friday, May 12, 2017 in the morning. Sadly, the day before, a student in the School of Social Work was killed in a horrible accident, so the School of Social Work was coming together to offer support for one another later that same day.

I walked into our gathering tired, and emotionally drained from the UB Student Remembrance Ceremony earlier that day. However, I challenged myself, while sitting in a circle with my professors and with my peers: HaKarat HaTov…recognize the good…what good could possibly come from this situation? Where can we find good in the horrific death of one of our most talented student colleagues?

Well, I was able to recognize how hard our program director was working to send the students body home to the family, and how our school was coming together not as strangers, but as a family. I was able to recognize how much we truly cared for one another, and how validating it was that I chose a program where this kind of behavior reflected our core values. I was able to recognize how much this student inspired others, and how moved others were to change their lives because of her. I was also able to recognize how honest and human the faculty were in their expression of emotions, and of grief, and how much this meant to all of us because there is no one way to express grief…and I was amazed that in this tragedy, how much good I was able to recognize.

Is it easier for you to give or receive gratitude? How do you feel when someone thanks you?

I am actually generally dismissive when I receive gratitude…I try to get it over with as quickly as possible, because it makes me uncomfortable…it doesn’t mean that I don’t want people to show that they’re thankful (very similar to the story of the young man who came back to the Yeshiva during last weeks readings; the Rabbi wanted him to show that he was thankful, but not to say it)…I just don’t really need them to tell me that they’re grateful in so many words.

I find that I can very easily and genuinely express gratitude…so for me it is much easier to give gratitude to others than it is to receive it.

…and with all of that said, it is now 3am, and my cat is meowing at me to come to bed, and I have one more email to send before I can do that, so I’m going to get that done, and then spend the remainder of Jacob’s time with my cat, Akiva.

Quick Update Before Passover

Wow! What a whirlwind of an academic year it’s been! My last post was in October 2016, and here we are in April 2017 getting ready to wrap up our Field Education experience!

I’m in the process of creating an end of Field portfolio to share with everyone, in the hopes that you can get a real sense of what the field experience has been like. Right now it’s very much a work in progress, but it’s my hope to have it done by the end of the week.

Additionally, I really am trying to get back into regular blogging! It’s been a busy and meaningful semester (which is incredible), it just means that it’s been a bit difficult to find time to sit down and write.

Fortunately, my home office is finally setup after November’s move, so I think that will help a great deal!

Anyway, wishing everyone a meaningful Passover! Time to finish a reflection piece, grab some lunch, and prepare for class!

Changing Leaves

Leaves at the Burrow

So we are well into the start of the Fall semester (and year two of three of the MSW Part-Time Traditional Program). Classes are going wonderful!

This past summer I took Motivational Interviewing, Psychopathology, Theories of Organizational Behavior & Leadership, Diversity & Oppression, and Professional Writing and Documentation for Social Workers.

This semester I am taking Interventions I, and History & Policy of Social Work. I am also three courses away from being able to apply for my CASAC credential, which is an incredible feeling!

I have also started my foundation year field placement in the Cheektowaga-Sloan School District. On Wednesdays I function as an MSW Intern doing School Social Work at the Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School. We do group interventions (using the Theraplay Model) for youth. I am running groups for students who need support in developing their social skills, for students with ADHD, and for students who are having problems modulating their emotions and dealing with appropriate ways to express anger. We also do observations, and provide other interventions/support to the school as necessary.

Thursdays I function as an MSW Intern in a clinical role at the Family Solutions Center at the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School. Using Solutions-Focused Brief Therapy we provide team based clinical interventions and counseling for individuals, couples, families, parents and their children, and anyone else who is a resident of the school district that feels they can benefit from our services, free of charge.

It has been an absolutely incredible experience so far! If you have some time, check out some of the work that we’ve been doing to integrate Covey’s 7 Habits of Happy Children into our work!

And at the urging of my task supervisor…I will be working far more diligently to keep this website (and my portfolio) updated!

In Medias Res


Grateful to have my site back up and running again (with special thanks to my friend, Christie Syphrit, who is generously providing hosting (and the technical know-how to make this website a thing).

So much to write about (and it will come in the next few days, weeks, months, and years: right now I am in the second to last week of the summer session for four of my five summer classes (so I am just a little bit busy at the moment).

However, it is an incredibly kind of busy, working on projects that I find interesting and meaningful…and so I am going to get back to work, so I can finish a paper, and then head to bed!

We’ve made it through midterms! 5 more weeks of classes to go!

Wow! What an incredible whirlwind the past few weeks have been! I am so blessed to have such an incredible cohort to experience all of this with!  I am so excited for what the future holds for all of us!

Midterm grades are finally making their way back to us! I received a 95.6% on my Research Methods midterm (which I am extra excited about, because I wrote it while I had the flu). I am still waiting for my Theories of Human Behavior midterm to come back. However, our professor has assured us that we’ve done just fine, and that we all need to relax (you know, that whole self-care thing that we’re all supposed to be so incredible at by now).

Hard to believe that in five more weeks the semester will be over (and one of those weeks we’ll have off for Thanksgiving!). I am just, continually, thankful and grateful that I’ve been afforded this incredible opportunity to study something that I love and care about so much.

December will be here before we know it! I am very much looking forward to spending New Years Eve in Vienna, Austria, visiting the Sigmund Freud Museum, and – of course – listening to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play on New Years Day (we all practice self-care in our own ways, and mine is by occasionally giving into my wanderlust)!

Kol Nidrei

So once again Erev Yom Kippur is upon us, and my favorite service of the year: Kol Nidrei will happen tonight.  Kol Nidrei, in my tradition and the tradition of my family – as a family of refugees – is where we pray for those who cannot pray for themselves. We pray for those who, if they were honest about who and what they are, would put their lives in jeopardy.

Kol Nidrei releases us from those oaths that we are forced to swear in order to live and see another day. Kol Nidrei is as much a promise as it is an absolution: a promise that we understand, a promise that we will look out for the souls of the people who need us to, while they look out for their lives and find their way to safety.

Tonight I – and many others – will be saying Kol Nidrei not just for the Jewish people, but for every refugee fleeing violence who has to lie about who they are, their names, their backgrounds, in order to find safe harbor. We will be saying Kol Nidrei for our gay brothers and sisters who have to choose between honesty and love, or being thrown off the roof of a building. We will be saying Kol Nidrei for every human being forced to be a number, and we will be saying Kol Nidrei for all those who are forced to deny the very essence of what makes them who they are. We will be saying Kol Nidrei for all those who are living where evil is so strong that they are forced to go underground or into hiding. We will be saying Kol Nidrei for all those who are told that they must convert or die by the sword. Tonight as we pray the words that leave our mouths are not our own, rather they are the voices belonging to the countless souls seeking freedom and liberation who are crying out to be heard, we are their vessels.

This evening, as we begin our fast for Yom Kippur we are connected to all of our people: past, present, and future, and we prepare to stand before the Divine Judge. I have spent, as many do, the past month of Elul looking back at my year, and my life; so too I have spent these Days of Awe in reflection.

We are taught that even the Hosts of Heaven, in their awesome divinity, in their power, in their might as soldiers of God stand in Judgment alongside us; then what hope for us? We humans, we who have fallen so far from where we‘re supposed to be? From where we’re supposed to go? From what we can become? So far from being the servants that we are meant to be? We stand before God naked yet fully clothed. The deepest corners of our minds and our hearts and our souls are open and laid before the Divine Judge to see, to recall, to recount, to probe, as we are forced to bear witness to our own actions.

I have sinned. I have transgressed. I have fallen short. I have not been all that I can be. I have not made all the right decisions. Sometimes I even knew I was making the wrong decision and I did it anyway…I have been obstinate, refusing to learn each lesson and to turn from each and every temptation. Even though a righteous path has been laid before me, I at times have refused to walk it, and at other times I have stumbled, I have faltered, I have fallen off of it. Though a Nefesh (soul), pure and complete has been given to me by God, I – through my own actions and my own actions alone – have allowed it to become marked.

Then what becomes of us? Repentance, prayer, and charity – these temper God’s severe decree…and so as we enter this awesome day, full of dread and wonder, I ask forgiveness from all those whom I have transgressed, willingly or unwillingly, knowingly or unknowingly; and I forgive without reservation or hesitation: I forgive all who have transgressed me. Let no one be punished or held to account on my behalf, for I can recall no transgressions against me, they are gone with the setting of the sun.

I do not wish those fasting with me an easy fast: rather I wish you a meaningful one.

From my family to yours, may you all be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year of trying to get it right, may the next year bring us one more step closer to a world that will bring the Moshiach, and may God in his infinite power blast down every closet door, and shelter all those who seek his refuge.

Underneath Jacob’s Shadow

Chabad has a wonderful article on Jacob that’s worth the read. I have always felt drawn to Jacob…and as I write this in my study carrel in the UB Library and look out at the night sky, I can’t help but think of him and smile.

My goal with this blog is, of course, to write at least once weekly (if not more than that) as a way to document my studies, and as part of my self care through creative writing and reflection, and (eventually) in a professional capacity (after graduation and licensure). That being said, the second week of grad school was much busier than I had expected, and I am now happy to play catch up.

Theories of Human Behavior and Development Weeks 2 & 3
The course – so far – is incredible. Our teacher spent most of her career in New York City as a social worker, and ‘retired’ to academia to share her knowledge with us (and we are lucky to have her). The course is three hours in length, with the last 45 minutes of class dedicated to a weekly discussion presented by the different reading groups that we’ve been assigned to.

My classmates and I formed the first reading group, and we lead the first class discussion during Week 2. We had a wonderful back-and-forth on Towle’s (1944) landmark piece Common human needs in public assistance programs. While the class was dedicated to dialectical thinking and ethics in Social Work, we were also introduced to Freire’s (1968) Pedagogy of the oppressed, and Mill’s (1959) The sociological imagination as part of our weekly readings, and this helped to informed a large part of the class discussion.

For those who have not had the opportunity to read Freire’s work, do so. I love when I put down a book or an article and go “wow…my entire understanding of the universe, my framework for everything just went through a fundamental shift…” I am looking forward to reading more of his writings.

We also turned in our mini-papers analyzing just a small piece of Freire’s work, which we hope to get back (graded) in Week 4.

Week 3 was, like Week 2, fast paced, fascinating, fun, and in-depth. Week 3 continued our discussion on ethics in Social Work, and also brought in the concepts of the Bio-Psycho-Social Framework and the Life Course Perspective. We had readings by Berzoff, Hutchison, McCutcheon, and Rothman that informed the class and a spirited discussion lead by Reading Group 2 on Berzoff’s (2011) Why we need a biopsychosocial perspective with vulnerable, oppressed, and at-risk clients.

Scientific Methods in Social Work Weeks 2 & 3
This is – so far – another incredible course (also three hours in length)! Though, I’ve done research before and, in general, I enjoy it…so I may be slightly biased. The professor also teaches the Forensic Social Work course, which I’m interested in taking.

I will mention now that this course is a year long course (rather than the semester long courses most of us are familiar with). My colleagues and I will have the same professor for both this (the Fall) semester, and for the Spring semester, and we will remain together as one cohort throughout.

The second week of the course saw us discussing research in social work, and evidenced based practice. We covered methods, biases, fallacies, validity, and all of the other components that come together to create informed research.

Week 2 also saw many of us work against the clock to complete our CITI Program Human Research certificates for Social & Behavioral Research Investigators (which we need to conduct our research in the second part of the course, and are required to complete now). Fortunately, the certificate is good through September of 2018 (which is when I’m slated to graduate!) and it appears that all of us managed to get it done in time!

The third week of the course was difficult – not work wise, but content wise. We covered Ethics in Social Work research, and we took a very deep look at the Stanford Prison Experiment, after we examined the Milgram Experiment .

While I was familiar with both of these experiments, this was the first time I had ever seen video of the Stanford Prison Experiment (warning: while it’s a documentary, it’s graphic, but for those who are interested in watching the documentary, you can do so by clicking here).

To be perfectly honest, it was so shocking that I had a hard time watching it, and I was very glad when we had our class break because I needed to leave the room and take a breather.

We wrapped up with a discussion comparing Milgram and Zimbardo’s experiments within the framework of modern day NASW ethics and the Belmont Report. I think what I found most disturbing was Zimbardo’s apparent lack of actual remorse, and what I perceive as his lack of empathy…that, and the fact that he’s still making bank off of it.

In any event, it is in an absolute pleasure to be in classes that are taught by caring, passionate professors, with colleagues who are as engaged as I am, and with readings that are genuinely interesting (which makes the few hundred pages a week easily tolerable).

And with that, I wrap up, to great Jacob and head home for the evening.

“Who am I becoming?”

So today marks the first day of my first year as a Master of Social Work student at the UB School of Social Work.

At orientation they challenged us to journal or blog, and to think about “who am I becoming” as we go through this journey.

Social Work requires intensive study – but also intensive experiences – from field placements to self care. A large part of our competencies can only be developed from experiences, which is why the journey is so important.

It is my hope to share those experiences here, on this blog, along with my thoughts, struggles, triumphs, successes, and failures, so I will have something to look back upon as I go along this path.

This will allow me to see how I’ve grown, and also reflect upon where I’ve come from, where I’m going, and where I have yet to go. Hopefully this will also provide others with insight into the education process that makes an MSW, and a little bit of a glance “behind the scenes” as I advance through this program.

My hope is to also include resources on self care, policy, and other news articles that you or others may also find of interest.

In any event, welcome to my journey – I’m glad you’re here to join me!