Category Archives: Jewish Holidays

Autumn Joy

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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!

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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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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.

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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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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 our Whole School Gets on Stage

Star of Judah WarsDuring the performance, we—the audience—are amazed by what our students accomplish.  What we only vaguely realize is how much our students have learned along the way.  In the educational setting of a school (even an elementary school), the stage serves as a microcosm where so many of the skills needed in our contemporary society are used, and therefore taught.  It is because of these skills that we, at Albert Einstein Academy, have the whole school on stage.

What are the skills taught in drama?  There are the obvious ones we see in action on stage, the more subtle ones developed in preparation, and then there are the skills that come from repeated experiences with dramatic production.

The obvious skills are the ones we kvell over, feeling pride and joy.  Lead actors speak publically to the audience with or without a microphone, projecting their voice, enunciating their words, and demonstrating a level of self-confidence we often do not see elsewhere (drama is not just for the extrovert).  Additionally, we witness their zest as they take on characters and smile at their successes.  In the best tradition of school plays, we usually get a taste of flexibility and resilience as one or more glitches are taken in stride.

Children_Succeed_hiMore subtly, the weeks of work from the auditions to the dress rehearsal build what we might deem the academic lessons.  Practicing lines means improving fluency in reading and memorization.  Familiarity with the show and significant time with it help students understand the messages of the story more deeply and, often, personally.  In 21st Century educational terms, equally important are the skills learned by failing:  grit and perseverance as errors occur, changes are made, rehearsals run long, or many wait while a few iron out a scene; teamwork as groups share the stage, cast members learn their places and movement, supporting roles wait quietly, and everyone helps each other; and the skills built on both, contributing to successful problem solving and failing forward (seeing failure as important to higher achievement).

Why include students who can barely stay awake for a night performance, though? We include the Gan and First Grades because of the trajectory that early involvement establishes as a foundation.  Our stars in this week’s show did not start out school ready to sing solos or take on lengthy passages; the grew into their abilities.  Thus, we include the whole school to teach optimism, a growth mindset (to borrow from Carol Dweck).  Other emotional learning includes: social intelligence to know how to deal with specific peers on stage and empathize with their struggles, how to take theater cues and personal cues, how to concentrate on one’s part and relax into the flow of muscle-memory, and gratitude as modeled by others at the end of every performance.  Great job, everyone!

When I say the whole school, I mean it.  There is a reason we include teachers in the production as well.  Throughout the rehearsal process, teachers model many of the skills associated with teamwork and failing forward.  The teachers work together to improve blocking, staging, and costumes.  They do this work publically so students see how we solve problems together.

I cannot forget the parents.  As one parent noted, parents volunteer behind the scenes and on stage “to teach our kids that making time for community involvement doesn’t have to only mean sports or tzedakah.  [It shows] them that skills and talents exists outside of careers and throughout their lives.”

“The Star (of Judah) Wars” was not just a successful production for our school, nor was it “just” a Chanukah show; this production was an affirmation of our educational aims and of the best our school offers its students.  No wonder our graduates are ready for the world they enter!

via Ben Weitz

via Ben Weitz

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#12-26acts

Am I a “bad” Jew?  I love eating Chinese food for dinner on December 24th.  4ef0c4a7e0a9cI try to see a movie on December 25th.  I grew up in a very Christian area so I know the words, not just the tunes, for most of the songs playing in stores.  I like to drive around to see the light displays in neighbors’ yards.  These traditions are an integral part of my American Jewish identity.  I generally feel “more” Jewish when I engage in any or all of these activities.  Besides, what else is a Jew without non-Jewish family supposed to do for Christmas?

In contrast to the usual narrative of Jewish assimilation and loss, it turns out someone like me ought to be doing much more.  As a Rabbi Without Borders fellow, I am not supposed to “worry . . . about dilution, or work from a narrative of erosion.”  At our gathering last week, I was struck by how easy it is to work from that narrative; most of the language around my work at Hillel, and in the pulpit, has been about bolstering Jewish identity through positive memories, a sense of community, acquisition and retention of Jewish knowledge, and Jewish self-confidence.  By and large, I believe my success has come not from fighting against erosion but rather from rejecting the idea of “good” or “bad” Jew altogether.  I have favored the advice my students have articulated:  “Be the Jew you are, not the Jew you think you should be.”  Starting from a place of positive identity allows for paths of growth to open wide.

In other words, I am a “bad” Jew if I buy into that negative frame of reference.  I am the Jew I am AND . . .

And it turns out that Jews have, in recent years, made a mainstream move of accretion (the opposite of erosion).  December 25th has become a day for movies AND mitzvot (commandments, often translated as good deeds).  I know programs around this idea, not to mention individuals volunteering on their own, are something that has been happening for years.  With my Rabbis Without Borders lens, however, I am reading the story differently.  Just as there are many more public Chanukah menorah lightings across the country, so too are there many more programs like this one at my local JCC:

Siegel JCC program offering

Siegel JCC program offering

From canned food donations to feeding the homeless, Jews are going beyond a day off for alternative habits toward a day on for doing good in this broken world.  Dare I say, Jews are, in increasing numbers, bringing Christmas cheer.

In the spirit of accretion, then, I propose that we go one step further.  Let us fight against the consumerist narrative of the winter holiday season, which is creeping right up to Halloween.  Let us, Jew and non-Jew alike, extend the good feelings and good works of the 25th at least one more day.  Please, on December 26th, go to stores and restaurants that are open and thank the workers, each and every one you can. You don’t have to buy anything, just say thank you so that our common humanity is the dominant theme.  If you are working, appreciate that in our current economy sales really make a difference for those who cannot afford full price and for those small businesses that must clear inventory.  The redeeming theme: “We are all in this together.”

Which brings me back to the date: Dec. 26th.  The symbolism this year is not lost on me.  26 has new meaning in our country often the senseless tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary.  Please, extend your #26acts of kindness to Dec. 26th.  I plan on building up the narrative of caring by doing Jewish mitzvot of loving-kindness on Dec. 25th (before a movie), and doing more on Dec. 26th.  In doing so, I am choosing a narrative of accretion, perhaps even ascension.  I invite you to join me.  Leave a comment with your #12-26acts or tweet it.

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Yom Kippur at College

Is such the fast that I desire: a day for people to starve their bodies? . . . Do you call that a fast, a day when Adonai is favorable?” (Isaiah 58:5)

Despite the call of these very words from the haftarah (the selected reading from the books of the prophets) for Yom Kippur morning, many Jewish students on college campuses this year seem to have taken the day as just such: a day to starve their bodies.

This year it seems that such was the fast:

  • to walk across campus with pangs of hunger in your stomach?
  • to sit in class with caffeine-withdrawal headaches so distracting you learn nothing?
  • to sleep as much as possible to reduce the waking hours ’til the day ends?
  • to stop by prayer services when you get a chance?

          While some students’ observances were nothing close to the above, the anecdotal reporting of multiple rabbis on college campuses this year was one of grave concern that prayer services are indeed last on the list.  Another year, we might have chalked up the low turnout to the nearness of the day to a weekend, allowing students to travel home.  This year, we have no such excuse.  Students are observing Yom Kippur, if at all, not in the communal setting of prayer.

Without belaboring the drama of recent studies like the Pew Forum’s “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Americans increasingly experience religious life in personal, not institutional ways. Rather than lament this situation, I wonder what we might learn and do for next year and the years to come.  Because for now, apparently, YES, such is the fast.

Conversation on Delaware’s Green, Yom Kippur 2009

One of the great lessons of working in Hillel is the insistence on using “yes, and . . . ,” rather than “but.”  If indeed fewer and fewer students (and, likely, American Jews generally) are observing their fast in communal prayer settings, what is the meaning of their fast?  Yes, Jews are still fasting, and . . . what?

I propose three ways forward:

  1. We must think more about the meal before and the break fast after.  Ritual dining related to Yom Kippur is more crucial for meaning-making than we have explored.
  2. We must understand fasting on campus or at work as a form of soul-affliction.  Even divorced from the prayers of penitence, going without food or drink amidst one’s non-Jewish companions is an uncomfortable admission of difference.
  3. We must do more to make the meaning of the prayers accessible to everyone.  Explanations of particular liturgical passages or Scriptural readings can have great impact, if we get them beyond the confines of deviations from their prayed settings.

I would start with correcting the translation in many mahzorim (high holy day prayer books) and in the NJPS editions of the Bible:  “a day for people to starve their bodies” is better translated as “a day for human soul-affliction.”  Doing so contextualizes the meaning of standing apart.  By addressing the ways forward I suggested, we might get deeper into the meaning of the day to see how, for example, seeing oneself as if dead changes how we see ourselves in the world. In that light, we can do more than stand out; we can act out for justice, for what we can fix in ourselves and in the world, and for what God really wants: “from your flesh you will not hide, . . . and your righteousness will walk before you” (Isaiah 58:7-8).

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