Category Archives: Jewish Community

Strength to Strength

The way we teach our children makes a big impression, a lasting one. I don’t remember much about fire drills from elementary school; I remember being in the school plays. By contrast, I remember vividly a different drill in sixth grade: we were told that an air raid siren would go off and that we were to get under our desks with our hands over our heads. Why? I grew up in Houston, TX in the 1980’s. We were told that the Russians had nuclear warheads aimed at NASA which was, in Texas terms, just down the road (about a 45 minute drive). We were taught to be afraid.IMG_20170323_190902

This week, an arrest was made in the investigation into the recent bomb threats against Jewish institutions, AND my school, Albert Einstein Academy began performances of our spring play, “Disney Winnie the Pooh Kids!” Which do we want our students to remember? The answer should obviously be the play.

The arrest provides a bookend in one more volume of the encyclopedia of anti-Semitic attacks. In using the term “anti-Semitism,” it matters not who made the threats, only that the threats were made against Jewish institutions, using hateful language. In using the term “attacks,” it matters not that the threats were all hoaxes (thank God!), only that the threats produced mass evacuations. For now, it matters not why these attacks were made, only that the arrest means they may stop.

Let me be clear: what matters is about us. It was always about us. Were we prepared for a bomb threat from anyone? Yes. Were we secure enough in our relationship with law enforcement to trust them to provide protection, to help clear our building when threatened, and to investigate threats against us? Yes, and, frankly, in our specific instance local and regional law enforcement were actively here for us working, advising, and strategizing with us, and empowering national and international authorities in a way that lead to the arrest. Were we surrounded by neighbors and community leaders who showed love and support for us? Most emphatically, yes!

Emotional-Roller-Coaster-Ride

via asklatisha.com

 

Did we also go through an emotional rollercoaster ride? Yes. Hold onto that for a moment. This period was difficult for us. It pulled us away from routine and from our goals, like the spring play. The number and sophistication of the threats raised the specter of Jews being unwelcome in countries they have come to call home. After the first threat, I wrote elsewhere that I was not afraid and believe Judaism teaches us not to be afraid. Resilience, defiance, anger, in addition to fear are no easier to handle. We went through a very tough time; we should not forget that.

Our long-term memory, though, needs to be different than our short-term memory. We quickly forget the many smaller, isolated acts of anti-Semitism every year. Our long-term memory reminds us to be vigilant; that is where our plans in case of a threat originated. Our long-term memory also needs to be positive.

We never taught our students about hatred. We never taught our students about insecurity. We taught them about uncertainty and about community. We taught them about living and love.

Winnie

We also rehearsed, reworked, and refined an amazing play. The play is about friendship, it is about the unique value of everyone, and it is about promises of security (like Noah’s rainbow). In the long-term, I am confident that our students will far more remember what they learned by doing the play; lessons about courage, poise, confidence, and the thrill of success. We taught strengths, strengths that will endure.

This week, Jews finish reading the Book of Exodus, Shemot. Each time we finish a book of the Torah, we sing the words “chazak chazak v’nitchazek” (be strong, be strong, and you will be strengthened). As we emerge from a challenging winter, let us go from strength to strength. By focusing on enduring strengths, we will be strengthened.  IMG_20170322_102612

 

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Articulating a School’s Core Beliefs

Core Beliefs WordleAs a Head of School, it is my job to find the words. It is my job to remind everyone what should already be evident and to teach it to those first encountering us. I have other significant roles; this one, though, is one I cherish. I cherish the chance to articulate the school’s values because Albert Einstein Academy is not just school; it is an investment. As a school, we are being asked to articulate our core beliefs as part of our re-accreditation process. Our core beliefs encompass much more, though, than our school; our core beliefs establish what we do for the community. Core beliefs are more than mission; they pave the way to mission fulfillment.

We have a stated mission to set our sights in a particular direction; it is like our Torah. To know how we achieve our mission and why we choose certain paths, we need a “Mishnah,” of core beliefs. Below, please find a draft of AEA’s Core Beliefs. This draft reflects feedback from the faculty, staff, and the board of directors. It is still a draft. I welcome your feedback, too, positive or negative, grammatical or philosophical.

The list incorporates many Jewish ideas and teachings. Each belief has a consequence for what we do. Taken together, the list also demonstrates how AEA goes beyond a K-5 schooling.

We are what we believe, particularly when belief is put into action. Our statement of core beliefs indicates the value-proposition we are making. Our community and our world benefit from students who see value in themselves and others, who seek to understand the world and its differences, who take responsibility with love and without fear, and who bring honor and dignity to what they do. AEA is an incubator for a vibrant, meaningful future for our students, our community, and the world. As an institution, AEA is an investment in that future, may we merit it soon.aea new admission logo


Our Core Beliefs

 Albert Einstein said, “I never teach my pupils, I only provide conditions in which they can learn.” We draw on the following core beliefs to provide these conditions at AEA:

בצלם א-להים ברא אותם

(b’tzelem e-lohim bara otam: In God’s image, God created them.)

We believe that each person, having been created in God’s image, has divine value. As such, we educate the whole student, using multiple modalities and differentiating instruction for each according to his/her way.

 ראשית חכמה יראת ה׳

(raysheet chokhmah yirat haShem: The beginning of wisdom is awe of God.)

We believe that curiosity manifested in asking questions is the path to wisdom. As such, we encourage our students to see the world with awe and wonder, to be inquisitive, and to think critically.

 אלו ואלו דברים א-להים חיים

(elu v’elu d’varim e-lohim chayim: These and those are the words of the living God.)

We believe that “these and those,” as sides of a debate, represent equally meaningful manifestations of one living world. As such, our pluralism respects different commitments that reach for one truth, and our academic curriculum is integrated across subjects to reflect that oneness.

 ערבות הדדית

(arvut hadadit: mutual responsibility)

We believe that we are each responsible for the other. As such, we teach personal and communal responsibility. We regularly explore social justice and freedom as part of responsibility to the wider community.

 אהבת ישראל

(ahavat yisrael: love of Israel)

We believe that love of the Jewish tradition drives our efforts. As such, we live Jewish values and practices daily. We teach Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people. We actively forge a positive relationship to Torah and the State of Israel.

 כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאוד,והעיקר לא לפחד כלל

(kol ha’olam kooloh gesher tzar me’ohd, v’ha’eeqar lo lefahched klal: All the world is a narrow bridge and what is essential is not to be afraid at all.)

We believe that living and learning are a lifelong journey. As such, we teach that it is essential to try new things and encourage experimentation. We teach that mistakes are opportunities for learning; failing forward builds confidence and deepens knowledge.

 הדר כבוד הודך

(hadar kavod hohdekha: the honorable dignity of Your glory)

We believe our purpose is sacred. As such, we conduct ourselves with honor and dignity by cultivating good character and by striving for excellence. We take and teach personal ownership for our self-presentation, for our learning, for our school, for our community, and for the future.

 

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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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Lining Up Community

Albert Einstein Academy, Chailites, October 11, 2013

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Thursday night  at the World Café Live in Wilmington, DE, many of the disparate parts of our Jewish community came together for an evening of music, schmoozing, and togetherness.  Ostensibly, the reason was to hear the Moshav Band play.  In the café atmosphere, though, there was just as much, if not more, talking than listening.  The music was good; the community was great.

A Jewish day school has many roles:  education of children, engagement of parents, rallying of supporters, producer of leaders, nexus of thinking about our communal future, partner and beneficiary agency within the Federation umbrella, and a locale of a growing network of like-minded schools.  To play these roles well, we must align ourselves internally and externally.

I am grateful to the faculty and staff for teaching me how lines of communication work, where I can find where we have published guidelines, and working to bring the two into parallel. I also appreciate the parents who have asked, pushed, read, or responded to school communication as we work toward clarity and community.  I am impressed with the efforts of our Board of Trustees and its committees as they worked hard to advance the school towards a vibrant, sustainable future.  With an alphabet soup of local and national Jewish agencies—from RAVSAK to JFD, the ECC to JFS, and JEDLAB & PEJE to HSA & AEA—we are becoming a real partner, player, and participant in the future of Jewish day school here and across the nation

In today’s world, we are lucky to have community in the virtual world, accessible when we choose to access them.  PLEASE, join our social media community by liking our school Facebook page fb.me/aeajds; ask to join our various Facebook groups by requesting membership in: AEA Current Families (Delaware), Friends of Albert Einstein Academy, or Albert Einstein Academy Alumni; follow us on Twitter @aeajds; or share your thoughts, pictures, successes! Community on-line is not a one-way street where the school broadcasts messages.  Most of our posts are questions.  Answer them, write your own, and join in conversations.

Getting everyone to feel a part of a community is a tall task.  Walking in the door is only the start.  We will succeed if we each greet each other, ask after one another’s well-being, and take time to foster relationships.  Even then, it helps to have a few tricks.

964471_199789640203123_55768219_oThis week, I radically rearranged our Mikdash Me’at (Prayer Room).  I have found that—sitting in five rows of eleven chairs with faculty on the side and a white board up front—our students get to know the people next to them well, but that is about it.  Playing on our theme of going south of the border, I used a Sephardic set-up that would be familiar to the first Jews in the Americas.  With a table in the middle, rows on each of three sides, facing each other, we found what one student called a “sukkah,” a new gathering place, open and homey.  I found students paid more attention, sensed each other more deeply, and were better able to direct their intentions.  By rearranging the chairs, we aligned our students for community.

How will you align yourself within community? What partners do you need? What rearrangements might you try? What should the AEA Café Live feel like?

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