Prayer is intensely personal.
Some people close their eyes and pray quietly. Others speak their prayers with joy, despair, or religious fervor. Still others find a spiritual connection through movement, whether whirling, dancing, or shuckling.
Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg, who leads the Glen Rock Jewish Center, has found another way. Fire-baton twirling.
Rabbi Schlosberg, who will demonstrate her skill at her synagogue’s December 8 “Light Up the Night” Chanukah festivities — has turned her talent into “an emotional and spiritual practice.”
“It’s a very special spiritual outlet and way of expressing my Judaism,” she said. She started twirling a baton when she was 6, she said “though I didn’t add the fire until later.” And, she said, she has burned herself only once.
“This past year I tried a trick I hadn’t done before,” she said. It was at a congregational gathering. “There was a lot of energy in the group. It was very exciting.” Unfortunately, however, she caught the baton by its fire end. “The trick is to catch it in the middle,” she said. But most of the people there didn’t realize what had happened.
At any rate, “The scar is gone,” she said.
Did her mother worry when she added fire to her twirling? “No,” she said, “I don’t think so.” But just to be sure, she put her mom, Marjorie Schlosberg, on the phone. (The interview took place by phone during the Thanksgiving holidays, and Rabbi Schlosberg was staying at her mother’s house.)
Her mother, not surprisingly, had a different take. “Yes of course I worried,” she said.
Rabbi Schlosberg began her twirling career in Green Lane, a small town in Pennsylvania, where hers was “the only practicing Jewish family,” she said. Urged by a friend “who was responsible for a local baton school,” she began to twirl. “I added fire because I was part of the high school marching band front,” performing at football games. She also twirled competitively at local, regional, and state competitions. “It brought a lot of fun and pleasure,” she said.
“I twirl more than just fire batons,” she added. “I twirl one baton, two batons, three batons, flag batons, streamers, hula hoop batons, and fire batons. I even just added a new baton that came out — a Lumina baton, which has multi-colored LED lights on the end that leaves a fun, illuminated trail in the sky as you twirl it.”
Now she’s a full-time rabbi, and she no longer twirls on a regular basis. But she does twirl “as a special treat for congregants, once a year, at what has become our annual Light Up the Night event, when we come together the Saturday evening of Chanukah and light the outdoor menorah.” She plans to debut the Lumina baton that evening.
She also has created Havdalah routines and performed for nursery school children during summer camp.
Like anything else, she said, people who are well trained in the art are not likely to find it dangerous. But it’s not a sport for novices.
“My own children” — she has two daughters, 2 and 5 — “love watching mommy do it. The older one picks up the baton, but nothing serious.” No, she said, 5 is not too young to start learning how to twirl. “Some children do it even younger.”
Rabbi Schlosberg started to look at twirling as a spiritual exercise after reading an essay by Jane Martin, called “Twirler,” “that talks about how the twirler throws up her baton,” she said. “I identified this with ‘throwing up’ all our stuff to God and not knowing where it’s going.” Sometimes you catch it on its way down, and sometimes it drops. “You’re juggling all the time.
“The poem made me think about twirling on a spiritual level,” she continued. “Twirling, to me, is a form of prayer. It is an outlet for self-expression. I throw my baton up into the heavens. Sometimes I catch what God throws back down to me. At other times, I don’t. But the pursuit to continue trying is always there.”
Seeing your rabbi engage in an activity like twirling a baton — bringing home the fact that the rabbi has different skills — may also be valuable in helping congregants relate to their religious leader in a more personal way. Still, Rabbi Schlosberg is hesitant simply to class twirling as a “different skill,” because “I see this as a way of expressing Judaism, not as a separate thing, a separate hobby. It’s an emotional and spiritual practice. Another way of connecting with Judaism.”
This Chanukah’s festivities will of course include some reference to the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh. The rabbi said there is no real concern about holding the outdoor event, expected to draw some 150 people from both the synagogue and the community, but since the shooting, “we have doubled down on security measures. We want people to come and feel safe. We were very good on security even prior to Pittsburgh. We’re very proactive, not reactive.”
The events in Pittsburgh “won’t hinder us from expressing our Jewish identity,” especially when the Chanukah message she wants to convey is the ideal of “strongly identifying, being proud to be Jewish, and using our identity to serve as a motivation to bring more light into the world.”
Who: The Glen Rock Jewish Center
What: Will host its annual “Light Up the Night” celebration. The outdoor menorah lighting is followed by fire-baton twirling by Rabbi Jennifer Schlosberg, arts and crafts, and make-your-own pizza for children; latkes and vodka bar for adults. Includes hot cocoa, donuts, dreidels, chocolate gelt.
When: On December 8 at 5:45 p.m.
Where: 682 Harristown Road, Glen Rock
For more information: Call (201) 652-6624
or email email@example.com.