Category Archives: Rabbinate

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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Filed under Chailites, Education, Jewish Community, Jewish Wisdom, Rabbinate

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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The Value of a Pleasant Demeanor

When asked to think quickly, I find that I speak with surprising access to the deeper meanings of what animates who I am and how I think about my work as an educator.  Asked to speak for two minutes or less about a Jewish ritual or practice of significance to me, I responded “greeting others with a pleasant demeanor.”  Check out the video below to see how I explain it.  Read below the video to see what I think it means for educators and for all of us.

Sever panim yafot, I believe, makes me a better educator.  By greeting someone this way, I leave room for whatever walks in the door.  How often do we want to move a lesson or project forward and find resistance from unknown sources?  A pleasant greeting opens the moment of entry into a moment of recognition and sharing.  Yes, I often have to delay my agenda for the moment; and yet, returning to the agenda after really seeing the other where s/he is allows for both of us to go through it together, better.

More than a device for getting on the same page, “greeting others with a pleasant demeanor” also has an ethical application that is worth modeling.  Greeting the maintenance staff, the stakeholder, the beggar, the celebrity (okay, I don’t meet celebrities, but if I did . . .), and the person behind the counter with a pleasant demeanor reminds me and that other person of our common humanity.  Even more, it reminds anyone watching of our common humanity.  Our commonness has become, for me, the place in which real learning happens.

  • What value or practice would you say animates how you relate to the world?
  • Given fifteen minutes to plan a two-minute or less video, what would you do?
  • How are you affected when you are greeted pleasantly by others?

Special thank to Rabbis Without Borders for challenging me to articulate this value and to my mentors along the way who have taught me to teach lived values.

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Ten Truths about Life Between Synagogues

A Bit of Background

This post is inspired by my friend Rabbi Adam Raskin’s article “Ten Truths about Synagogue Life.”  We are graduates of the same ordination class of rabbis from the same school.  We have both been Conservative rabbis for 10 years.

I began my rabbinic career with two years as an Assistant Rabbi and Youth Director (at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC).  I spent five years as a senior rabbi, much like my friend is now, (at Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, NY).  For the last three years and going forward, I am privileged to be a Senior Jewish Educator at the University of Delaware Kristol Hillel Center, through a grant from the Jim Joseph Foundation.

For a variety of reasons, I have spent significant time in each job exploring the needs and possibilities for Jews on the periphery of institutional Jewish life, especially synagogues.  I have found that synagogue affiliation stands a strong marker at the outset of many Jews’ lives; it is where they celebrate b’nai mitzvah and get some kind of Jewish education.  I have found that many Jews, even those currently uninvolved in synagogue life, envision themselves in a synagogue later in life.  I work in between.

Here is what I have learned (the numbering is meant to mirror Rabbi Raskin’s as closely as possible):

Ten Truths about Life Between Synagogues

1. It’s the network, not the institution.  The best title, the flashiest flyer, and the A-list speaker all mean nothing if no one in a group of friends care enough to invite his/her friends personally.  Additionally, staff-driven project will stall without meaningful inclusion of either lay leaders or target audience members involvement.  Buy-in comes from having a stake, not from being asked for an opinion.  Our institutions matter less and less in our global and virtual society.  The relationship of stakeholders (be they members, participants, users, leaders, funders, etc.) to each other and to the institution is the key to continuity.  In our hearts, we know it is better for 30 families to be sharing Shabbat dinners together in the name of a community than to have 100 people at a Friday night service; we need to show it.

2. Engagement is not outreach.  We need to go to where our constituents are.  I remember Hillel piloting this methodology in the early 2000’s, and I see it working now.  My greatest successes in my career have come from buying lunch at the local eatery for students in private schools nearby, from conducting classes in bookstores, from walking the drop-off line, and from sitting with students on Main St. between classes.  I do not try to bring them in.  I bring myself as an ear, listening for whatever teaching or institutional offering I might pass on to them.  Most effectively, I show them what they can do for their friends and help them achieve it.  We must build relationships of meaning to multiply our impact rather than sweating the length of a sign-in sheet.

3. Immersion Experiences are the most powerful Jewish learning moments. Jewish identity is strengthened most powerfully by experiences like Jewish summer camping or trips to Israel, like Taglit-Birthright.  These examples are just two of an array of immersive environments of different lengths of time that last a lifetime.  I submit that youth group involvement, particularly attending conventions; community service or alternative break trips; retreats; and the like all achieve what a family and/or a school alone cannot.  Immersion experiences build positive Jewish memories, a sense of community, Jewish self-confidence, and lasting knowledge (to borrow language from Hillel).  We need to see beyond any one option, so that we are sure to match our constituents with the experience that is most accessible and beneficial to them.

4. We need to teach more adult Torah. Conservative Judaism is, I believe, best suited to teach our texts in all their complexity.  Once they get past the shock of how little they thought they knew, teenagers to empty-nesters devour material that asks something of them.  There is no question that our very young children do not need to grapple with all of the family dysfunction in Genesis; but we dis-serve all, if we stop there.  Thankfully, the Jewish world is producing options for adult and post-b’nai mitzvah learning (e.g., Melton, Me’ah, ConText, “adult ed,” Jewish Studies, Prozdor, Gratz, podcasts); we need more.

5. Rabbis need the skills and knowledge to stay current and speak with relevance. Once upon a time, American rabbis knew they needed to be able to talk baseball; the rule has not changed, just the content and the form.  The world moves more quickly; our wisdom is ancient; and we need to match the two.  The content of this match is a marriage of Jewish and American: if we hold both equally, we can lean to the side most needed by our constituents, as we hear them.  The form of this match is, for now, all about social media fads and platforms; we need to be building community and conversation, not just posting sermons, articles, and aphorisms.

6. Mediocrity is miserable; quality counts. Regardless of whether it is true or false, our constituents feel like they are making a choice to spend time with us.  If something we do, have, or provide is only so-so, they weigh the lost opportunity of whatever they imagine or really did choose us over.  You might think I mean those snazzy flyers or Facebook graphics from #1 or maybe you think I mean the cookie platter or tuna salad.  Those count, though not as much as the person in front.  Lay leaders need to be prepared to run a good meeting; teachers need to be effective in the classroom; presenters need to capture the audience; and educators need to be nimble and knowledgeable.  Time and incentives (salary, honor, or support) must be spent to show our best every time.

7. Peer-to-peer encounters have more meaning; we need to prepare and promote para-professionals.
Rabbis cannot be all things to all people.  We can, however, enable those willing to spend quality time with us to represent us to their peers and to introduce us to a trusting network.  Peer-to-peer teaching takes intentional effort to establish, and the return on investment is exponential.  Independent minyanim recognized this reality early on and have found continuity in the training of others.  My job as Senior Jewish Educator is predicated on this model.  It works in Hillel and is working elsewhere.  It is not a new idea; it is an idea whose time has come.

8. Doing does more for depth than reading or listening. We are the people who responded at Sinai by saying “we will do and we will listen.”  From the Passover seder to lighting candles, we know that action embeds learning more deeply than reading.  Even our traditional form of studying from books is active: partners read aloud to each other and engage in debate.  Beyond the finite moments of immersive experiences, we must continue to foster experiential education.  Social action calls out to Jews in between synagogues because it is values being lived.  We can do and have begun to do the work of educating by experience.  We need more now.

9. Liberal Judaism cannot cede the space between synagogues to the ultra-Orthodox.  In between synagogues, there are too few models of religiously diverse Judaism.  The Conservative Movement, in particular, ought to be spreading its big tent over these spaces in between.  If we leave those who grow up in liberal Jewish synagogues with a choice between social programs and ultra-Orthodox observance, Judaism will become synonymous with the latter.  We need role models of Judaisms that range in observance and hold fast in commitment.  We need boots on the ground demonstrating our care for the souls, not just the identities and wallets, of our fellow Jews.  We must be there for our own; in doing so, we will have the added impact of keeping the extremes honest.

10. No one does it alone; we succeed as team-players.  Rabbis are not solo professionals.  Even when I was solo clergy, I had able administrative staff and active lay leaders.  My best moments happen when I am part of a team working in alignment to achieve our joint goals.  The same is true in the larger community: when we work together, we create a feeling of inclusion that shrinks the space in between.  On the rare occasion I serve as a rabbi-for-hire, I check with my colleagues to be sure I am part of a process, not of taking someone away, but of connecting someone to a future community.  My real role in this between space is to be a part of the community, teaching at the JCC, visiting the day school, belonging to a synagogue, and bridging the social networks throughout my larger community.  The more I play nice, the more good will all the leaders, institutions, and clergy garner.  The more good will in our community, the smaller the space is between synagogues.

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