Category Archives: Jewish Wisdom

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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Freedom of Soul and Body

 

 

via spfaust.wordpress.com

A Stone of Hope

Just in time for this weekend, The Maccabeats, a Yeshiva University-based a capella group, left behind its usual Jewish setting of lyrics, subjects, and New York or Israel backgrounds for something seemingly very different. They joined forces with Naturally 7, an African-American a capella group, to cover James Taylor’s song “Shine A Little Light” on the site of the Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials. You can watch the video here. I say seemingly different because there is much about the effort that is consistent with Judaism.

These weeks, Jews are reading the Book of Exodus in our liturgical cycle. Right now, we are moving from the ten plagues to the Exodus itself. Is it a coincidence that this story will be the focus of study and sermons right as we Americans commemorate MLK’s birthday? Jewishly, there are no coincidences; God’s “personal supervision” hashgachah prateet, challenges us to find the meaning of this fateful concurrence. In the soaring rhetoric of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, there is much to match the Song of the Sea sung by Miriam, Moses, and the Israelites after their safe crossing. The Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom serves as such a strong basis for hope that a Negro spiritual “Go Down, Moses” has even worked its way back to Jewish Passover celebrations. From Moses’s prophetic voice to MLK’s prophetic call, the human aspiration to be free resounds.

It is little surprise then that The Maccabeats and Naturally 7 would eventually work together on a project like “Shine A Little Light.” This weekend is a time to “recognize that there are ties between us / . . . Ties of hope and love” to quote the song. With MLK’s dream not yet fulfilled and the American dream in question for so many, the call to freedom still speaks. And yet, that divine pronouncement of the worth of each individual is, today, only a whisper.

51nX2wGTFXL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_In the last year, I have been drawn to the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. A number of my colleagues describe him as a contemporary prophet, especially in his book Between the World and Me. In an early sequence of the book, he contends with the emphasis on freedom of the spirit in America’s Biblical and civil rights narratives. He asks, “how do I live free in this black body? It is a profound question because America understands itself as God’s handiwork, but the black body is the clearest evidence that America is the work of me.” In his articles for The Atlantic, Coates has extended this bodily emphasis to survivors of rape. His argument is that for all our hopes and for all our progress towards equality, we have many counter-narratives that embed “animus” that “plunders the body” of the oppressed.

Today, I fear, we need more than songs and speeches. We need a movement to freedom that focuses also on the body. Whether it be race, sex, or gender, we need to acknowledge that our attempts to judge each other “by the content of [our] character” fall flat if we forget the pain that the bodies of others have endured. As a white Jew, I get a pass on much of that pain, and yet I recognize, too, that the Nazis developed extensive theories about the Jewish body that made it easier to destroy those bodies. I don’t know how to free the bodies of the oppressed in our society. I do wonder, though, if empathy is a key.

The prophet Elijah, who is also said to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah, tried to relive Moses’s experience at Mount Sinai. He failed to find God’s voice in the wind, in an earthquake, and in fire; he heard God’s voice in the sound of silence. Silence has a sound when two people sit together, awkwardly or lovingly. Perhaps, this weekend and going forward we can hear God’s still, small voice when we stop judging character and instead listen to the many ways someone else is afraid for their body, for their life, and begin from there to free ourselves, soul and body, into a better world. May You “Shed a little light, oh Lord / So that we can see.”face_vase

 

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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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Learning from the Tech Journey

Flickr_-_Nicholas_T_-_Open_RoadHave you ever just gone for a drive with no specific destination in mind? Have you ever wandered around a mall or a small town just to see what’s there? Or, have you ever been traveling to some place and been sidetracked?

Most of our lives are directed to a destination–work, school, home, a vacation spot, the store, etc.. When the distance is short or routine, we take our arrival for granted. When we wander, though, the journey changes our arrival and it changes us.

PrintThis Sunday is the Global Day of Jewish Learning. Elementary schools are encouraged to learn about Abraham (known as Abram in the material) and his journey from his homeland to a land that God would show him. Rashi, the great French medieval commentator, notes about Genesis 12:2 that “God did not reveal to him (Abraham) the land immediately in order to make it dear in his (Abraham’s) eyes.” That is a lesson in itself, arriving at a previously undisclosed location can make that arrival more sweet.

As Albert Einstein Academy (AEA) journey’s into the future of education, I want to add another lesson from Abraham’s experience to our learning: Abraham’s journey brought many others along with him and with his wife Sarah because their values led the way. It is true that Abraham and Sarah answered God’s call to go forth to a place that God would show them. We also read that they took with them “the soul of those they made in Haran” (Gen. 12:5). It was in Haran that Abraham supposedly broke the idols in his father’s shop (the story is not actually in the Torah; it is midrash, or rabbinic myth). As he and Sarah established themselves and shared their values, others joined their cause.

aea new admission logoWe are on a journey based on values. At AEA, we value each individual as an image of God and a unique gift. We aim to foster inquisitive learners, critical thinkers, and dynamic leaders, which requires us to seek the educational development of students’ academic, emotional, and moral capacities. I am so grateful to our families for joining us on the journey because of our values.

Technology is just a tool to accomplish our goals. While new computers may seem like the destination, the real arrival place is success in life. We have opened doors to new possible ways of fulfilling our mission by incorporating technology into our teaching. More is to come. With new tools, we are already developing inquiry, critical thinking, and leadership skills through collaborative work, especially in Google Docs. With new tools (like Ariot CAL for Hebrew already in our school and Everyday Math 4, hopefully coming soon), we can work on individualizing student gains in fun, engaging ways that will give us specific data by which to measure progress. The tools are not the goal; they help us achieve our goals.

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via edutechdebate.org

 

As our technology journey advances, we may not know the end point (especially since technology changes so much). We do know why we are using this path. We do know that our students need to understand how to make the journey work for them (that’s why we also teach coding). Most of all, we know that for our current families and for anyone else to join us on the journey, the real destination is the fulfillment of our values. Thanks  again to those wandering with us.

 

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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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