I can measure the last six years in Ohalot (Ohalah being the name both of the association of clergy for Jewish renewal, and the annual conference which that organization puts on.)

2006: I was a new ALEPH rabbinic student, over the moon at being able to name myself so. 2007: I had recovered enough from my strokes to be cleared to fly, but I had no idea what health mysteries might have caused the trauma. (Still don't.) 2008: getting swept up in the whirl of davening Hallel with my teachers and friends. 2009: I miscarried on Shabbat, and my friends cared for me. 2010: the year I stayed home with our newborn son, imagining my beloved friends and teachers far away. 2011: the year I became a rabbi.

And here comes Ohalah 2012. Tomorrow morning, at a painfully early hour, I'll be off to Colorado for the Shabbaton and ensuing Ohalah conference yet again, for the first time as a rabbi. On Saturday night I'll be ordained a second time, as a mashpi'ah ruchanit, a Jewish spiritual director. On Sunday I'll have the joy of seeing several of my friends ordained.

I wonder how it will feel to return to the OMNI hotel outside of Denver, which was new to us last year when we converged there for my ordination. I dimly remember last year's arrival, with a dozing baby in the car seat and my spouse and parents in tow. I remember strolling Drew through the empty hotel lobby at 3am, trying to coax him back to sleep again. This year, Drew will stay home with his dad, enjoying all the comforts of home -- his dear daycare provider, his comfy crib, his house full of toys -- and I will spend five days with my hevre, reconnecting with colleagues and teachers and with God, adrift in the freedom of being temporarily childfree.

And of course there will be experiences I can't quite anticipate. Melodies and harmonies. Meals with beloved friends. Prayer both scheduled and spontaneous. Conference sessions which open me up in surprising ways. These things are always true.

To those among y'all who I'll be seeing in Colorado: travel safely and I can't wait to reconnect! And to those who won't be there, have a lovely few days.

Different from all other Ohalot

I keep having to remind myself that the Ohalah conference this year isn't going to be like the Ohalot I remember.

For one thing, it's in a new location. We used to gather for our student Shabbaton, and then for Ohalah, at the historic Boulderado hotel. I have all kinds of memories from that hotel: arriving on Friday afternoon just in time for mincha (afternoon prayer), traveling there a scant few days after my last stroke, staying up late one night for a final liturgy class with Reb Sami in the hotel bar, celebrating new moon during morning services, sitting on the carpet outside my hotel room practicing a Torah portion for services the next morning. And, of course, that hotel is the setting for the first several poems in Through, my collection of miscarriage poems, because it was there that I miscarried. But this year we'll be at the Omni hotel in Broomfield. A different physical location, though set against the same Rocky mountain backdrop which I've come to cherish.

For another thing, I'll be there with family. In years past I've attended the Shabbaton and Ohalah by myself -- a chance to immerse wholly in the experience of seeing, talking to, davening and singing with my rabbinic school community. This year I'll be flying out with Ethan and with Drew -- and meeting almost 20 family members there, among them my parents and my in-laws, three of my siblings, and several aunts, uncles, and even cousins. This past summer I had the experience of attending smicha students' week and Ruach ha-Aretz week with Drew (and with first Ethan, then my mom, as Drew's caregivers) and it took me a while to adjust to how different the experience was from what I'd remembered. Being on retreat with my child, no matter how awesome the child (and how awesome the retreat), just isn't restorative in the same way as going on retreat alone! I anticipate some of those same challenges during the coming Shabbaton, too: balancing my desire to reconnect with friends & teachers with my desire to spend time with my gathered family.

And, of course, the biggest reason why this Ohalah conference will be different from all other Ohalot: my ordination.

In 2006 I wrote here about the experience of being formally welcomed into the program in what I called the ceremony of liminality -- a ritual designed to welcome new students and say farewell to those who are about to become musmachim. As this Ohalah draws to a close, we'll do that ceremony again, but this time I'll experience it from the other side. The day will contain other new experiences, too: the signing of our smicha documents, a time for us to receive blessings from our beloved teachers, a "mikveh of sound" ritual which we're orchestrating for ourselves in the moments before the ceremony begins, and finally our smicha ceremony. We've spent the last several months planning the ceremony, so in theory I know how it's going to go, but I know that experientially it will be different from any of my imaginings.

I've been trying, in the mornings -- Drew wakes early these days, 5am or perhaps 5:30 if I'm lucky, so I have a lot of time with him before dawn -- to enfold myself even briefly in my tallit and sing a few prayers. When I do that, I try to take a minute or two to ask God to help me be ready for what's coming. To help me empty the parts of myself which need emptying in order that I might be ready to be filled: with blessing, with community, with the intangible transmission which will come through my teachers' loving hands. I know that expectations can get me into trouble; maybe the best preparation I can engage in, as Ohalah approaches, is to ready myself for whatever adventure is coming -- not whatever adventure I might have imagined, but the blessings of whatever actually is.

Ohalah 2010, seen from afar

This weekend, the ALEPH ordination programs community -- students in the rabbinic, rabbinic pastor, hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) and cantorial programs -- has gathered for a Shabbat retreat which culminates in our annual smicha (ordination) ceremony. Immediately after the smicha ceremony, the annual conference of Ohalah, the association of rabbis for Jewish renewal, will begin.

Last year I went to Boulder a few days before the Shabbaton, to begin a three-year training program in spiritual drection. I entered that experience with an exciting secret: I was pregnant for the first time. A few friends and teachers guessed the news just from seeing me; a few others learned the news because I was too excited not to share it. I remember Friday night services especially vividly -- dancing around the ballroom at the Boulderado, wearing my burgundy velvet dress and a white pillbox kippah which Ethan had brought me from Dubai, thinking about the fact that by Ohalah 2010 I would have a three-month-old in my arms.

By Shabbat morning, that pregnancy had ended. I spent the  rest of that Shabbat in a fog. The miscarriage and its aftermath feel incredibly distant now. In mid-March, I shared my miscarriage poems with the world, releasing Through for anyone who might need it. Then Ethan and I went on vacation. By the time we came home, although we didn't know it, we'd conceived our son.

Now it is January again. My community has gathered, and the ordination ceremony will take place today -- though no longer at the historic Boulderado; this year we're meeting in a more affordable venue in St. Louis. And this year, for the first time since I began the program in 2005, I will not be there to laugh and cry and cheer my beloved friends on as they celebrate this new stage in their religious journey.

It's amazing how much can change in a single year. When I left the Boulderado last year, I didn't realize that I wouldn't be returning. I didn't know that I would become pregnant again so soon. I couldn't have imagined, then, what it would feel like to be home with my six-week-old son (who is miserable with the first cold of his short life) while my community has gathered without me. Parenthood is an overwhelming journey so far, one which I'd love to write about if I could find the brain cells and the time. (It's been six weeks since I got a decent night's sleep; I count myself lucky if I can string together two hours at a stretch.) Everyone tells me these early weeks will have flown by, once they're gone, though right now individual minutes pass at the speed of cold molasses.

This time next year, I'll be with my community again. Drew will be a year old and these difficult early weeks of parenting will be as distant a memory as my miscarriage is now. And if all goes according to plan, next year's smicha ceremony will be a particularly special one for me. For now, though, I can only be where I am: sitting by the fire with a snuffly infant strapped to my chest, thinking of my friends and teachers in St. Louis with love from afar.

The rabbi as citizen in the midst of world crisis

This morning I attended a panel discussion called "Being in the World, Being With God: The Rabbi as Citizen in the Midst of World Crisis," featuring my beloved teachers Rabbi Burt Jacobson, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Rabbi Tirzah Firestone.

Reb Burt spoke about the Baal Shem Tov and how the BeShT saw his role as a communal spiritual leader, and moved from there to speaking about our obligation to confront tyranny in all its forms. "If it is permissible or even required for a religious leader to confront God's evil, then all the more so it is permissible and required for religious leaders to confront the tyranny of human authorities," he said. He spoke to us about the need to play a role in the restoring of American liberties, and reminded us that even though we have elected Barack Obama to be our next president (baruch Hashem!) our work is far from done.

Reb Arthur (who I profiled in Zeek a few months ago, and who recently started posting five-minute videos to YouTube -- see Gaza Shalom Salaam) spoke about the several world crises we're in, about a theology of these crises, and about what we as rabbis might be able to do. He named the crises: the ecological crisis, the financial crisis, and the danger (if not already reality) of war between Islam and what we call the West. He spoke about theology and power and empire and the desperate need for transformation. "There has to be a new Jewish paradigm to deal with the new paradigm of the planet and the human race!"

And Reb Tirzah spoke about Israel/Palestine. Her remarks were very personal, and they moved me deeply. I want to point you to "In the Shadow of Zion," an essay that she wrote on this subject which has been published in Tikkun and in the Arab Washingtonian. That essay begins:

This past year I have had to face the underbelly of my love of Zion. Like so many American Jews, I had been raised with the unquestioned narrative about Israel's righteousness, its humane practices, and the moral high ground upon which its policies are based. The painful deconstruction of these beliefs began with a journey through the Occupied Territories, where I encountered the shocking effects of my people's fear.

I saw a land sliced by concrete and barbed wire, a snaking wall 450 miles long. Yes, there has been good reason for fear—genuine security threats that have come through the gates and checkpoints. Nevertheless, I found myself questioning the holding back of women in labor, children in need of emergency blood transfusions. I heard stories, not only from Arabs, but from Israeli soldiers who struggled to "carry out orders" while innocent women and children died before their eyes.

In Judaism, saving and defending life trumps almost all else. But does this only apply to Jewish life?

Regardless of your stance on Israel and Palestine, I hope you'll read her essay. And you can read more of Reb Arthur's words at The Shalom Center, and here are more words from Reb Burt as well.

I honor all three of these teachers for their commitment to wakening and raising the holy sparks of transformation in the world. They are inspirations to me.

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Unexpected song

I followed my room-mate Aura to a table at the far end of the mezzanine where I had eaten dinner with a few of my Biblical History classmates and our professor a few hours before. She had gathered half a dozen people from DLTI III (the cohort before mine in the two-year liturgical leadership training program I loved so much) who graciously invited me to hang out and sing with them.

The first song we sang after I sat down was actually one of mine -- "The Talmid," a filk of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" which I wrote for the PANIM interdenominational rabbinic student retreat a few years ago! (Each rabbinic program delegation did a skit spoofing their seminary; this filk was ours.) How amazing, to hear these awesome people singing my song.

And we sang Leonard Cohen ("Hallelujah") and Nick Lowe ("What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding" -- which reminds me of the Colbert Christmas Special now.) And some riotous Beatles tunes which had us in hysterics. And a beautiful melancholy waltz melody for "Adon Olam." And something gorgeous by Danny Maseng, and half a dozen things I've already forgotten, though we sang them in extraordinary impromptu harmony.

I left reluctantly after about an hour, knowing I would be wincing when my alarm went off for shacharit. As I walked back to my room I passed a table of people intently studying texts, and a handful of different little conversations on couches and in corridors. It was a moment of unexpected harmony and grace, the kind of thing I know I'll remember long after I've left the Boulderado for another year.

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Two amazing things have already happened to me today. One was leading shacharit with my friend Deb. We began planning the service at the Rabbis for Human Rights conference last month, and worked together over email and phone and then in person yesterday afternoon. Our service felt very deep to me, and very sweet. Because of some physical stuff that's been going on, chanting the blessing for God Who makes our bodies with their many openings and closings was a powerful experience for me. So was offering, as our word of Torah learning, this week's Torah poem. There was a lot of weekday nusach (which I love!), many rounds (in which Deb and I both revel), and a lot of beaming. Afterwards people said incredibly kind things, which has left me a little bit reeling.

Then came the celebration of liminality -- the private ceremony for incoming students and outgoing students. Our circle has grown in the years I've been here; today we were at least seventy people, maybe more, and it was extraordinary to sing the new students in, watching each of them progress beneath the chuppah held by four of our colleagues and then join us in the circle. The ceremony is private -- for students only -- and it always involves the giving of blessings to the new students and to the musmachim (those who will be receiving smicha later today). Every year, each smicha student asks a current student to come and offer a personal blessing just for them.

My first year here, when I was new to the program, this ceremony blew me away. And I remember being a little bit awed by the personalized blessings which were offered by current students to the outgoing musmachim. I didn't really know the folks who were getting smicha in 2006, and I yearned for the kind of closeness I saw between the musmachim and the friends they had asked to offer blessings on their behalf. Today I had my first chance to serve in that role: I entered the circle and gave a blessing to my dear friend Miri (soon to be Reb Miri!) and both of us wept tears of joy. She was one of my room-mates at Elat Chayyim during the summer of 2005 when I attended smicha students' week as a prospective student. It is amazing to watch her step over this threshold -- to watch all of my dear chevre crossing over, becoming who they are becoming.

The smicha ceremony will be in half an hour. I can't wait to be there -- to watch the magic of transformative language do its work as each of my friends truly becomes something new -- to cry and sing and dance and rejoice as the Jewish community gains ten extraordinary new spiritual leaders. It hasn't been an entirely easy weekend, but being here with my community is a real blessing.

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readwritepoem: Rosh Chodesh Shvat

The current prompt at readwritepoem is "resolutions." This poem began there, though it went some places I didn't expect. It might help you to know that the new moon that dawned this week kicked off the lunar month of Shvat, during which falls Tu BiShvat, the "New Year of the Trees."


I'm one of two hundred
decked in rainbow stripes and
washed Parisian silk, tefillin
like head lamps lighting our way

as an impromptu waltz
breaks out in the aisle,
a love song to creation
the dancers stately and twirling.

How the psalms of praise
chanted this new moon morning
shake the room
and leave me quivering, hands uplifted!

Here's what I want to remember:
I don't have to be thirsty.
In slow capillary trickles
sweet sap is rising.

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Leyning at Ohalah

Sunday night found me sitting on the floor outside my hotel room with my laptop, practicing the beginning of parashat Bo. The rabbi who led this morning's "Renewal davenen" (the two other shacharit options were "traditional" and "movement") had asked me to leyn a short Torah reading -- just one aliyah, the first verses of this week's Torah portion, in which Moses is commanded to go before Pharaoh (whose heart has been hardened) to instruct him to let God's people go.

I'd meant to practice in my room last night, but by the time I got there after the evening's session my room-mates were asleep. So I sat in the hallway, using Hebcal.com as my tikkun, and practiced my verses silently until I could look at the unvowelled, unpointed Hebrew text and fluently chant both the Hebrew and the English translation. As friends walked past, en route to their rooms, I got a lot of greetings and laughter. I had the feeling at the time that this would be one of those rabbinic school moments I'd remember for a long time to come: learning Torah on the floor of the hotel Boulderado at the start of 2008...

The minyan this morning was awesome. We've been blessed with some fantastic services so far (I come away from each one feeling blessed and connected -- and having learned something new about service leadership, every single time) and this morning's was one of my favorites. So many sweet melodies, good drumming, impromptu harmony! And then it came time for the Torah reading. I looked up at the faces of all those who'd come up to offer the Torah blessings -- friends, colleagues, teachers, wrapped in a rainbow of tallitot -- and just marveled at how amazing it is that I've found this community.

And then I chanted, and my voice carried the words of the parsha through the room. And the English chanting went as smoothly as did the Hebrew. And at the end I offered a spontaneous free-form blessing for those who'd come up, that they too might find themselves -- like Moses and Aaron -- able to speak truth to power, and to speak the truths people need to hear in order to become freed from narrow places. And then Reb Richard offered a blessing for me in my studies, which I hadn't expected and which was incredibly sweet.

And then I had breakfast with new friends (a rabbi from Hebrew college, a rabbi from Maine) and old (some of my DLTI chevre), and as I write this it's almost time for the morning's opening session. Me, I'm still flying high: from this incredible Shabbat, from this morning's service, from the privilege of chanting Torah before this awesome assembly.


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You know how in musicals, characters break into song seemingly at random, usually with no awareness that there's anything strange about singing at any or every moment of the day? Being at Ohalah is a little bit like that, and as I reflect on what it feels like to be heading home, I think leaving the singing behind may be the hardest part.

We sang early in the morning, at shacharit (and when there were options between different services, I chose the ones likeliest to be musical.) We sang to begin every conference session, and to end every session too. Sometimes we even sang during sessions, as a kind of aural palate-cleanser between speakers. We sang at the end of every meal. Throughout the gathering, there were people clustered with guitars and hand-drums, learning songs or teaching them, all over our corner of the hotel.

On the SuperShuttle from Boulder to the airport, when we got a good view of the mountains we broke into one of my favorite tunes for "Esa Einai" (in English, "I cast my eyes up to the mountains / from whence comes my help...") Our driver must have been bemused, although -- as my seatmate noted -- at least it wasn't "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall!" As groups of us exited the shuttle, at the different stops along the airport walk, others still on the bus sang farewell songs.

And then suddenly I was in the line for security, and finding a place to ensconce myself near my gate, and realizing that if I want music in the rest of my day, I'll have to whip out out my iPod.

In truth, there's no shortage of music in my life. I feel very lucky in that regard. But it may take me a few days before it feels entirely normal to begin a task without singing first. For now, as I prepare to fly home, those last songs are still echoing in my ears.

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Words and notes

This morning, Reb Marcia held forth on the conference theme of ruach hakodesh. She used her time to delve deeply into some important words. "After all," she noted, "ha-kadosh baruch hu [the Holy Blessed One] creates with words, and we use so many of them and rarely mean any of them."

Obsession with words isn't new for Reb Marcia. Her book The Path of Blessing is a close exploration of the six words that begin every Hebrew blessing. (I reviewed that book here.)

Today she taught that one way to learn about a word is to come to understand its opposite. We looked at shalom, at the phrase hayom harat olam (usually rendered "today is the birthday of the world"), and at different ways of understanding the word simcha (usually translated as "joy.") And, of course, we explored the cluster of meanings and connotations in ruach and in kodesh.

At one point she told a beautiful story, of which I offer a tiny taste here:

I had for a long time on my mantel a silver flute, a chalil. I used to enjoy taking it down and just holding it in my hands...

One day I gave it away to a flautist. I could feel its longing to be played, and no matter how much I admired it, I kept it from its purpose.

This helped me understand the rabbis' statement that a human being is like a shofar. Were it not for the Holy One of Blessing blowing through us, we would make no sound at all. We long to be played.

I love the idea that we are instruments, empty until the Breath of Life breathes in and through us. That we yearn to contribute to the melody of the world.

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Two tiny Ohalah moments

Saturday morning we read the very end of the book of Bereshit during services. As is customary in Jewish Renewal, we did three group aliyot during the Torah service. I went up for the third aliyah, when we read the verses wherein Joseph's brothers fling themselves on his mercy again, fearing his anger. But he reassures them, saying, "although you intended me harm, God intended it for good." I figured I could use a blessing intended to help me look at what might appear to be harm, and to find some kind of good in it.

Our theme for this year's conference is Manifesting Ruach HaKodesh. "Holy Spirit" is a decent translation, though ruach is also breath; it's the spirit of YHVH moving over the deep. Ruach is inspiration, aspiration, wind, interbreathing (what you might call con-spiracy!), presence, the storm, the calm within the storm. Ruach  carries, creates, hovers, motivates, sweeps one clean, inspires, animates, fills, quickens, transforms. As we brainstormed this list of qualities and ideas relating to ruach, before our morning text study session, the word came in that interstate 36, nearby, has been closed today because of unusually strong winds...

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En route to Ohalah

Three small brown birds perch on an interior windowsill, high on the wall of windows overlooking gate C14. As I watch, one flies down to the carpet and sits beneath an airline wheelchair; two more skitter about, chattering. I wish I hadn't thrown away the crust from my disappointing airport pizza; I would have fed it to them.

I'm en route to Ohalah, the annual gathering of the Renewal rabbinic association, for the second time. I've imagined it often in the intervening year, picturing how my experience might shift as I grow deeper roots in this community. I've had a mental image of meeting with my director of studies, poring together through my big blue binders, which track every course I've taken and every paper I've written since I began the program. I was halfway to Cleveland before I realized I'd left the binders on the shelf.

No big deal; my director of studies has records of everything I've done, and thanks to this laptop so do I. And meeting with my spiritual director requires only presence, not documentation. Still, I feel some chagrin at having forgotten them at home. Of course, until I saw my internist two days ago I wasn't certain I'd be cleared for travel. Maybe it's no wonder I'm not as prepared for this trip as I would like.

My brief hospitalization has the strange quality of dream now. As though, now that I've returned to my life, those days will melt like a mirage. They won't, of course; next week will hold more tests, more looking for answers. Meanwhile I'm going to Ohalah, with my tallit and tefillin and blood pressure monitor in my rollerbag. The trip is unfolding against a backdrop I never imagined.

Then again, isn't that always the way? Soon I'll settle in to another smallish plane, read more of Tom Montag's beautiful memoir Curlew: Home, and let the universe carry me closer to where I'm going, one breath at a time.

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Witnessing my first smicha

Several of you have asked me to post about the Aleph smicha (ordination) ceremony I was fortunate enough to attend a week ago. It moved me deeply, which makes me want to chronicle it both for myself and for you. I feel some trepidation in so doing, though; I'm new to the program and I know I can't do the ceremony justice. I offer here some impressions and memories, and hope this post will be received in the respectful spirit in which it was written.

A congregation made up of colleagues, teachers, family, fellow students, and friends rose and sang as the processional came in: first Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, then the four directors of the Aleph ordination programs (Reb Marcia Prager, the dean; Reb Daniel Siegel, director of spiritual resources; Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan, director of the rabbinic pastor program; and Hazzan Jack Kessler, director of the cantorial program), followed by the six musmachim (students/apprentices) who would receive smicha that day. The six of them sat on a raised platform at the front of the room.

First we prayed mincha, the short afternoon prayer service. Reb Zalman was the prayer-leader, draped in his beautiful rainbow tallit, and he did something wonderful with the amidah: we chanted the first three blessings together in Hebrew, and then for each of the latter blessings he spoke extemporaneously on the blessing's theme. We sang the final blessing for peace to the familiar tune of "Dona Nobis Pacem," in Hebrew, Arabic, Latin, and English.

Continue reading "Witnessing my first smicha" »


When the ballroom doors opened, the sound of singing poured out into the foyer. The student body of the four Aleph ordination programs -- rabbinic pastor, rabbinic, cantorial, and (the newest addition) spiritual directorship/hashpa'ah -- was gathered inside, singing "bruchim ha-ba'im b'shem Adonai" (and the feminine version, "bruchot ba-ba'ot..."), "welcome are you who come in God's name." They sat in a great circle, around a smaller circle of outward-facing chairs.

One by one, the new students (I think there were fourteen of us) walked through the double doors into the ballroom. We each stood a moment beneath a rainbow tallit, held up by four posts festooned with ribbons, breathing the experience in. And then we took our seats in the inner circle of chairs, facing out toward the outer circle where the students sat and sang.

We introduced ourselves -- who we are, where we're from, what program we're each beginning. Then the current students circled us slowly, singing to us, pausing to clasp our hands and hug us and welcome us quietly in their own words. Friends and strangers murmured blessings in my ear, and if I was a little bit weepy by the end of that part of the ceremony, at least I wasn't alone.

Then we joined the larger circle, and the six students who would receive smicha later in the day moved into the center. One by one, six current students rose to give them each a blessing. The blessings were personal, deep, revelatory, powerful. After each, we sang a little bit, as if to seal the words and their intent. At the close, those six on the cusp of ordination stood beneath the chuppah together, arms around one another, and we showered them with blessings and with song and with applause.

There's a sweet symmetry to having one ceremony for these two purposes: welcoming new students, and celebrating those who are about to relinquish student status. All we who are crossing the threshold, whether coming or going. How tremendously fortunate I am to have such good role models walking ahead of me; how blessed I feel to be on this path.

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