Autumn Joy

via mobiwallpapers.net

via mobiwallpapers.net

Can you command joy? If by command we mean tell someone to do something, it seems highly unlikely that one could command someone else to feel or show joy. On the other hand, if by command we mean draw full attention, well, perhaps we should investigate what would draw our full attention to feeling and to showing joy.

On the festival of Sukkot, we are told V’Samachta b’Chagekha (to be joyous on our holiday). In some sense that is easy. Who isn’t happy to have a holiday (especially if there is no penalty for not working)? Sukkot, though, adds an odd dimension. It’s a holiday when we go out of the comfort of our homes into outdoor huts, usually at the start of the rainy season. Autumn may be beautiful, but it can sure be cold, dark, and dreary. Where is the joy in that?

P1120167Monday’s Albert Einstein Academy Jewish Day School all-school field trip to HersheyPark for Chol HaMoed Sukkot Day offers an answer. Tablet Magazine’s article “A Holiday Pilgrimage to an Amusement Park” explains more about the day itself. Our trip, though, was all about getting out of our usual routine for a long day in the dreary mist, all in the name of joy.

It is fun to ride rollercoasters and smaller rides at an amusement park. It is super-sweet to tour the Hershey’s Chocolate World factory tour and get a sample of their candy; Hershey is “the sweetest place on earth.” It is also incredibly empowering to be somewhere secular and to have only kosher food available, with sukkot set up nearby to eat it in!

Monday, our whole school felt the joy of marking a Jewish holiday among a Jewish majority. Even if we were a different Jewish community than ones at HersheyPark who came from ultra-Orthodox enclaves, we were part of a larger community doing the same thing, each in our own way. That’s what Sukkot is supposed to help us achieve theologically, too.

The draw of our full attention to joy comes from shifting our focus away from the material and instead toward the divine. We notice nature, we feel the fall season, we make extra blessings, and we focus on hope. We hope for rain in its season, we hope for redemption, and we hope for joy. What commands our joy is drawing our full attention to the fact that we are a purposeful part of Creation. Autumn will turn to winter, AND spring will come.

To remind us the fullness of Creation, Sukkot ends with two holidays. Shemini Atzeret is understood as one-on-one time for God and Israel. It allows for us to enter Simchat Torah with a sense of completion and at-one-ness. So it is, that on Simchat Torah we finish reading the Torah and immediately start again at the beginning. Our words mirror nature. Our souls aligned to cycle through another year of living. Done right, there is much to celebrate!

via challahcrumbs.com

via challahcrumbs.com

On this coming Monday, the  will unroll a new paper Torah, donated by the graduating class of 2013. Our students will see the fullness of the text. We open it in a circle to emphasize the cyclical nature of the reading and of life. It is a joy to see the students’ wide eyes as they see it all at once. We also sweeten the experience with a sugary treat! May Torah always be sweet on our tongues, may this season give us hope, and may the fullness of our experiences command joy from each of us.

Chag Sameach!

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Who By Fire

Smokey P1110955Bear came to Albert Einstein Academy this week. He was a bit shy meeting all our Gan and 1st Grade students. Once they welcomed him warmly, he shook each of their hands as they promised not to play with matches. (Full disclosure: I was in the bear suit.)

The next day, health classes for every class focused on fire safety. Students made posters to remind each other how to be safe. Our 5th grade is writing essays on fire safety.

Ordinarily, the learning would be a matter of course for elementary school education. Fire safety is something we teach. We take for granted that our students learn something they may never use.

During the High Holy Days, however, fire is a more serious matter. It occupies the #2 position of ways that someone judged by God on these days will die (should that be the decree). The Unetaneh Tokef prayer famously states:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed – how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severity of the decree!”

Given the opening few lines and their focus on life and death, we often miss the last few lines preceding the call to act now to change the decree. Those lines reflect that life, while it does include death, is spent mostly in fluctuations of harmony or harriedness, of tranquility or suffering, in economic swings, and with rising personal and professional successes and failures. Most of life for most people is mostly in-between.

10646847_10152718666152812_2699930988453758697_nThis year, I found those last lines to be of tremendous significance. My family survived a house fire that dislocated us for nine months to a year. We spend the last weeks of the last school year in hotels and searching for a rental home. We have had to sort through countless items damaged, recovered, lost, or repurchased. We only recently have been able to cook for ourselves. With extraordinary gratitude, we lived, and we will rebuild.

In-between, where we live now, I am struck by the importance of “repentance, prayer, and charity.” We prayed and needed prayers to make it through the details (many of which still plague us). We relied upon the amazing charity of the community to feed us and to help us purchase transitional and restoration items. I apologize for using this impersonal context, but THANK YOU for sustaining us.

And then there is repentance. The Hebrew word is teshuva, literally “return.” We survived the fire by returning to the lessons our children brought home from AEA. We made a plan. In the middle of the night, when I woke to the fire, we knew what to do and did it. Smokey Bear gave us more than coloring books, and the Talleyville Fire Company gave us more than safety tips and a contest: they gave us the impetus to make a plan and, because of it, to live.

May we all return to our learning (especially if we took it for granted), return our better selves, and return to be sealed for a good year ahead.

G’mar chatimah tovah!

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Would My Mother Be Proud?

via avichai.org

via avichai.org

I finally did it. I got into Harvard! Seriously. I have been selected to attend Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education Principals’ Center program “Improving Schools: The Art of Leadership” as part of a cohort of Jewish day school leaders who will have additional reflection and mentoring at Harvard with a year-long project afterward, fully-funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation. My mother would be so proud!

Or would she? Yes, it is true that my teen summers in the Boston area led to the purchase of some Harvard gear, and that I fancied I might go to Harvard for college. I remember my mother encouraging my enthusiasm and exhibiting a quiet patience. I think she knew that I did not yet know myself well enough to choose the right college campus for me. In the end, I went to Swarthmore College. My mother’s charge to me as I left for Swarthmore was to take four years to learn how to think.

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via starlight-tower.com

Now, I think she would not be proud of me getting into Harvard. She might be happy for me, but she would also wonder what going there would do for my soul. The name Harvard and even the promise of great learning would provoke a stale, “good for you” or “how exciting.” To fire her up, I would need to give a deeper reason for the value of the program.

Thankfully, AVI CHAI is providing that deeper reason: I am going to Harvard “to enhance or advance the Judaic mission of” Albert Einstein Academy (AEA). The classes will give me tools for being a better principal; and the mentoring and reflection will push me to become a better person and thereby a better leader. I am going to Harvard not just to learn how to do but also to learn how to be. Of that, my mother would be proud.

This Sunday is Mother’s Day. I miss my mother dearly. In her absence, I have come to appreciate how mothers (not exclusively, yet still significantly) are the grounding presence in children’s lives. Children learn from mothers that our origins, our history, our family, our roots, and our values are key to understanding who we are. We need this foundation and to recognize it.

One of the gifts of a Jewish day school education in the elementary years, like that of AEA, is precisely the time spent teaching those origins, history, family, roots, and values. A school is not a parent; it cannot be. A school can, however, teach more than tools; it can teach the soul paths towards flourishing. I am going to Harvard to advance that Judaic mission: teaching our students’ souls to develop journeys that lead their whole being to thrive.

I thank my mother for getting me on that path. I thank all mothers for giving their children the groundwork for purpose. I hope your children make you proud, and I hope that AEA will help them do it.

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via contactnumbers.co.in

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Passover Faith

Bravery is not fearlessness; it is courage in the face of fear. When I joined 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, I thought the “brave” were the children fighting pediatric cancer and their families.  I did not realize that the shave would be for those who are brave. In other words, going into my shave Sunday evening, I was scared. How would my head feel? How would I look? Did I really do as good an act of righteousness or of chesed (loving kindness) as I thought? Rationally, I knew everything would be okay and worth it. Emotionally, I had a harder time. I was not dauntless; I tried to be brave.

via peacefulacres.wordpress.com

via peacefulacres.wordpress.com

Given the timing of my shave on the day before Erev Pesach, I was struck by the bravery of our ancestors every year as they prepared their homes for Passover. When we rid our homes of chametz (leavened foods), we know that, as soon as the holiday ends, we can go to a store and buy more. Not so for our ancestors. Getting rid of their chametz meant getting rid of their starter dough for making bread. They could not walk to the store to buy yeast after Passover; they had to wait for grain to grow, be harvested, and then to ferment. For them, cleaning for Passover was the kind of bravery we call a leap of faith. They would clean out their home, celebrate the holiday, and eat matzah until one day, weeks later, when they hoped they might make bread again. That kind of faith is a journey, a Passover faith.

When the ancient Israelites left Egypt, they did not know where they were going or how long it would take to find out. In our age of instant gratification, GPS, and strategic planning, their ancient faith is remarkable. I hope by tapping into it, it is inspirational.

courtesy of Mriaim Sandler Photography

courtesy of Mriaim Sandler Photography

My hair will grow back, slowly. I don’t need great faith to know that. I need the omer, the period of counting from the second seder to the holiday of Shavuot, to number the days that will lead me along my journey. Perhaps, I might find myself getting past bravery to Passover faith, a leap from rational calculation to the idea that life will be restored.

Just before having my head shaved, I read this prayer: “.ותעמד לנו זכות מצות גמילות חסד ואמת למלאות ימינו בטובה. וחסד ה׳ עלינו לעולם Help us attain the privilege of performing the mitzvah of gemilut hesed ve’emet—the granting of true kindness—that we may live out our days with goodness. And may God’s lovingkindness grace us forever.”

This Passover, I wish everyone the chance to perform a mitzvah of lovingkindness and to be graced with God’s lovingkindness in turn. May all of that lovingkindness redeem our world from the many forms of slavery, physical and spiritual, that plague our world today. In particular, may it remove hatred of the kind seen Sunday in Overland Park, KS and may it help us find better treatments, if not a cure, for cancer.

Chag Sameach.

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I Told My Students I am Shaving My Head

As a Head of School, I pay attention to the cultural climate in my school. Last week, the culture was full of silly fun: dress up, crazy hair, pajamas, and, of course, Purim (the Jewish holiday commemorating the story of the Book of Esther). This week, I found our students . . . well, out of sorts. I wrote in my weekly newsletter, Chailites:

With the onset of spring this week, our students are a little hot under the collar. Provocations are deemed injustices. Reactions look more like overreactions. Reconciliation comes grudgingly. That obsession with fairness, though, is what makes this time in their lives so powerful.

1471351_715159761829279_453605823_aThis week, I also reached my personal fundraising goal for St. Baldrick’s as a participant in 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. Together, this group of rabbis has already surpassed two goals, raising over $450,000 collectively for pediatric cancer research, a woefully underfunded area of medical science. I thank those who made a donation to support my participation. Their generosity means that I need to act on my promise to shave my head; that need meant that I had to let my students know the shave was coming and why.

I found a way to bring school culture, the curriculum, and my shave together in a way that I believe speaks to the values of our school. Those squabbles became the point of comparison to real challenges and losses.  The curriculum includes study of the weekly Torah portion; Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) outlines some laws of kashrut (Jewish dietary law) and poignantly recounts the strange death of two of the High Priest Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu.

I started my explanation to them by wearing my bright blue, curly-hair wig from crazy hair day last week. I mentioned that I noticed this week’s “spring fever.” Then, I donned my Albert Einstein wig to talk ask about their learning.

It is a striking lesson then that, in the face of true injustice, we find a key Jewish figure responding very differently. In this week’s Torah portion, Shemini, two of the High Priest Aaron’s sons—Nadav and Avihu—get killed instantly by a fire that breaks forth from the altar. While many commentaries seek to explain how the victims were at fault, Aaron’s reaction is unapologetic. Aaron does not fly off the handle; he does not lash out at others; he places no blame; he files no complaint; he is silent.

Aaron’s silence is not just the absence of making noise. The Hebrew word for Aaron’s silence Dohm is different from Sheket. Sheket is quiet, calm silence; dohm is still, inanimate silence. Aaron’s silence is the kind you can hear; it is the total absence of what should be there. In the face of the random death of own children, Aaron temporarily absents himself.

Each time we encounter something wrong in our world, we have a choice. We can complain, we can be silent, or we can try to do something.

Purim 314 028_2I took off the Einstein wig and

. . . then I told them the big news . . .

I told them that in three weeks, I will be shaving my head. . . . I have my own reasons for having felt absented, like Aaron, by cancer; I have also “yelled” publically at God. To teach our students a different way to respond to injustices, I will actively show how we can become change agents; I certainly will not be able to hide my bald head.

The educational moment was there, so I seized it. I encouraged them to think about all the times they might whine or complain and all the times they shut down. I told them I that I don’t want them to shave their heads; I hope they never have cause to do so. Instead, I asked them to try to be present in our imperfect world and to try to fix it.

. . . [36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave] . . . refers to the Jewish idea that, at all times, 36 righteous individuals sustain our world. We cannot know who those people are, yet we can try to live up to their image. I believe that, as rabbis, this effort is about more than funding the fight against cancer, though; this effort is about taking productive action in a broken world.

If our mission is, in part, to “foster . . . dynamic leaders,” we must model it.  As I contextualized it for them:

As we move from Purim’s story of Esther saving the Jews in Persia to Passover’s story of God’s redemption of the Israelites from slavery, we need to find our way to a better world.

I ended the conversation with the uplifting message of the Passover Exodus and the Passover seder’s concluding hope that we celebrate freedom “next year in Jerusalem” with a video showing today’s Jerusalem in the eyes of American high school students studying there. Indeed, our troubled world can be happy.Happy Jerusalem

I know I am not done explaining.  While most of the rabbis will shave on April 1st at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention, I will be waiting for a local event, “Pasta & Pediatrics” at the Siegel JCC on April 13th. When I shave, it will be very close to Passover. Closer to that time, I will teach about the mourning customs of the Omer, the period of counting from the second night of Passover to Shavuot. For now, though, I am finding my way away from complaining, out of silence, to action.

I hope my students and you, too, will do the same in your own ways.

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Learning to be Together

ChailitesEach week, I write for my school’s newsletter, Chailites. This week, my address to the Albert Einstein Academy community appeared to be about social media, togetherness, and learning.  Behind it all, though, was my awareness of the 9th of Adar and a project of the Pardes Center for Judaism and Conflict Resolution to commemorate this date on the Jewish calendar, when historically the two major houses of rabbinic thought clashed violently over 18 matters of law.  The houses of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disputed each other’s positions hundreds of times, including on issues of marriage and divorce; despite these differences, they got along well enough that they even married across house lines. They got along that is, except on one 9th of Adar about 2000 years ago.

My article started with this:

Late last week, I encouraged Ms. Creed, our 2nd and 3rd grade language arts teacher, to try #Grammar911 on Twitter to help her students learn grammar. She started a Twitter account, @MsCreedsClass, using #aeajds2 and #aeajds3 to distinguish her classes; and then, she had her students see (by writing on the whiteboard) a grammatically incorrect sentence sent by a school in Canada, fix it, and send back the proper version. Her students were excited and engaged in learning grammar, ready to make up sentences of their own for correction.

On its surface, this paragraph is simply about a new educational tool being used in classes. In the context of the 9th of Adar, though, this paragraph is an example of constructive conflict. One school’s class tweets a grammatically incorrect sentence for another class to correct. The second class offers its correction in the spirit of learning and sharing. In the language of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s better days, the classes disagree l’shem shamayim [for the sake of Heaven].

I went on to note how sharing the news of this venture caused conflict for parents:

Then, I shared a sample of this experience on Facebook. In our AEA Current Families Facebook group, an excellent conversation started right away. Social media are challenging, scary, and ubiquitous. Schools must be careful in their introduction of these media when used for learning. AEA is careful—our Parent Handbook has extensive language outlining social media offenses—and we also need to articulate meaningful guidelines for how to use social media properly (and in keeping with parents’ boundaries for their children). Significantly, there was a point in which the conversation was a turning point for our school: instead of addressing parent concerns directly as an authority, the school encouraged further discussion. That discussion is a key component of the value of social media for an institution; members of our community felt each other’s presence in meaningful conversation. More than status updates or photo-ops, social media is meant to be social.

Here, for me as Head of School, conflict needed to be constructive. Rather than assert authority, the school used the power of discussion. That discussion brought a special kind of peace–in Hebrew shalom–a kind of wholeness, incorporating many perspectives in one space, rather than merely the lack of discord. At its best, social media avoids broadcasting in favor of engagement between people.

I went on in my article to share my joy that we also have social gatherings so that we have a context in which our disagreements take place. When we are walled off from each other, it is all too easy to become siloed, territorial, and consequently selfish. When we have social bonds, we have the chance to see beyond ourselves, a lesson I noted that I felt acutely this time of year:

How wonderful then, that we had a parent/board social last Saturday night! While not everyone could attend, the fact that we gathered in my home was a reminder of the value of community and, I hope, a chance to tighten bonds and form new ones. We will have many community gatherings for school events over the next few months; I hope, too, that members will gather socially to strengthen ties to each other.

I am particularly focused on this idea of community around learning because this week marked the 18th yahrzeit of Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Ducker (z”l). Matthew and Sara were killed in a terrorist bombing of the #18 bus in Jerusalem the year before I started rabbinical school. When Matthew’s classmates returned to New York for their studies, they created a community that profoundly affected me. Our beit midrash (study hall) was dedicated in Matthew and Sara’s names; that class seemed to live there. Rather than insulating themselves, however, that class expanded their learning outward. To this day, I count many of them as my teachers and friends. For them, the Jewish way to be together was to learn together.

The terrorist bombing that killed Matthew and Sara and many others is part of a terrible political conflict. What strikes me about Matthew’s classmates is that they did not let that conflict define them. Somehow, they found the Jewish tradition’s texts of holy conflict as a source of peace. They taught me that arguments for the sake of Heaven are arguments that bind us together rather than tear us apart. In the spirit of that constructive experience of conflict, I concluded:

I believe the same is true for AEA: the way to be together is to learn together. Whether through our discussions online, through expanding our students’ horizons beyond a classroom, through social or school gatherings—when we learn, we strengthen our ties.  To that end, I am excited to announce that AEA will be looking for new adult learning opportunities to start next fall.  We were lucky to have much learning under the Kohelet Foundation programs. This week has reminded me that it is time we start again. In offering learning, we offer a deeper community, a community I hope will expand outward to affect lives throughout the Brandywine Valley.  I hope you will join me!

I pray that the 9th of Adar be a day of commemoration that inspires us to spend time socially, to share our differences, and to learn to be together in the wholeness of constructive conflict not just in the cessation of argument.9Adar_LoRezEng_180

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Why I Joined 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave

I am not . . . I am not . . . I am . . .

via timesofisrael.com

Samuel Sommer z”l via timesofisrael.com

I am not going to try to convince you to support funding for pediatric cancer research; if you need convincing, read here.

I am not going to pretend to have known well our honoree, Superman Sam Sommer zichrono livrakha [may his memory be for a blessing, z"l for short].

I am going to share why I think rabbis–specifically, rabbis–shaving their heads for pediatric cancer research matters, and why it matters enough for me to have joined them.

When I first heard about 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave, I thought:

I might; but, no, I am too removed from the Sommers. Phyllis Sommer was supposed to be a fellow in my Rabbis Without Borders cohort, and even that feels like a reach.

I might; but, no, I happen to be a Conservative rabbi, and the group is Reform rabbis.

I won’t; my community would see my actions as chutzpadik [impudent], a personal act with seemingly unconsidered public consequences. Perhaps, they’ll think I am acting out my own grief. Perhaps, they’ll think I am jumping on a distant bandwagon on the off-chance it plays locally. Perhaps, they’ll think I am filled with enough bravado not to care whether others understand. I won’t . . . be that rabbi who acts without bringing along his/her constituency.

That last thought, that thought brought me back to what it means to me to be a rabbi, and that is when I knew: I am going to shave my head.

The summer before I started rabbinical school, I came across this quotation by Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of a psycho-ethical approach to Judaism known as the Musar Movement: “A RABBI WHOSE CONGREGATION DOES NOT DISAGREE WITH HIM IS NOT A RABBI; AND A RABBI WHO IS AFRAID OF HIS CONGREGATION IS NOT A MAN.” Sam Sommer’s death was not a time for me as a rabbi to be afraid. The question was how to close the gap from alienating my congregation to giving space for disagreement.

I believe that what it means to be a rabbi is to teach the wisdom of the Jewish tradition deeply and to aid souls in access, nourishing, and sustaining a spiritual connection to the Divine.

1471351_715159761829279_453605823_aPutting Salanter together with my vision of the rabbinate, joining 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave must live out a lesson in Jewish wisdom that I can teach my community and/or that will connect my community spiritually. I admit that I was skeptical that I could meet these criteria. I hedged.

I met with another local rabbi who has a close, personal relationship to the Sommers. He was also thinking through what it means to join this effort as a rabbi. Together, we inspired each other. I am proud to call Rabbi Yair Robinson a partner in my efforts.

Emboldened by our partnership, I began to realize that my rabbinic role will not be as difficult to carry out. On the contrary, I began to realize that rabbinic audacity speaks to this moment.

As a rabbi, I will be affirming the sanctity of life, helping raise money for research to give children years that cancer would take away. As a rabbi, I will be giving expression to the fragility of life and the miracle of its regeneration. As a rabbi, I will be bringing to life ancient traditions where shaving one’s head indicated a transition to a new life. As a rabbi, I will be demonstrating the power of community, a community that transcends any one locale.  As a rabbi, I will share how social media, in Sam’s case, was used for good to build community and humanity, as noted by Ken Gordon. As a Conservative rabbi, I will join across denominational divide to show how all Jews are one. As a rabbi, I will teach the details in these wisdoms, the very real cycle of life, and the importance of responding to God’s search for human partners in this shattered creation we inhabit.

via bupipedream.com

via bupipedream.com

I am going to shave my head to raise money for pediatric cancer research because, as a rabbi, I will also be doing all those things listed in the paragraph above. I know the other rabbis who shave for the brave will be doing the same.

If you would like to support my efforts, click here.

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