Category Archives: Secular Holidays

Freedom of Soul and Body




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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Would My Mother Be Proud?



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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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Hallowing Pluralism

Carving a Pumpkin with GanAlbert Einstein AcademyChailites, October 18, 2013

What’s the Head of School at a Jewish day school doing, carving a pumpkin with Gan students?  Pumpkins are a big part of the Gan [Kindergarten] curriculum every year around this time.  The day after our carving, the Gan visited Ramsey’s farm to pick their own pumpkins.  For most students, though, carving pumpkins is a Halloween thing.  Here is what I told our school’s students and what I am telling you about Halloween at Albert Einstein Academy:

Halloween is different.  We can celebrate the harvest as we do on Sukkot and on Thanksgiving.  Pumpkins are a recognizable gourd, symbolic of the autumn harvest.  Both Sukkot and Thanksgiving have additional themes of redemption:  God sheltered us in the wilderness wandering from Egypt to Israel for forty years; the Native Americans shared food and food cultivation techniques with the Puritan pilgrims helping the pilgrims survive harsh winters.  Halloween is different.

Whatever its origins, we know that Halloween is not a Jewish holiday.  What does that look like for our students?  Halloween is, in no way, celebrated at school—no costumes, no candy, no decorations.  Outside of school, however, I know is a different story.  Halloween outside of school is a beautiful story about our school.

We are a pluralistic Jewish day school.  What does that mean?  In essence, it means that within a Jewish framework, we value multiple expressions of Jewish life.  Perhaps more than any other Jewish institution in Delaware, we exemplify all that our community has to offer; we are the big tent under which there is room for all ways of being Jewish.


The Pew Research Center recently published a study on the contemporary American Jewish community.  Much ink has been spilled or pixelated in response.  While many bemoan the rates of affiliation, religiosity, exogamy, etc., many others are buoyed by the vibrancy of choices people articulate.  As a Rabbis Without Borders fellow, I lean toward the latter.

Looking at our school, I know the strong basis for the optimistic reading.  Where else do non-Jews come to study not only general studies but also Hebrew and Jewish values? Where else do you find Chabad and traditional Jews enjoying a great curriculum of secular studies with Jewish holidays off?  Where else do Israelis send their children to learn their mother tongue and English?  Where else do children learn the many different ways Jews pray and why?  Where else can a child ask questions about any of the above and get an answer?  My answer: a community Jewish day school like Albert Einstein Academy!

So, don’t be surprised if some students take serious measures to avoid Halloween and others dress in costumes and go trick-or-treating, if some students stay home and consciously hand out treats to neighbors and others go door to door collecting money for UNICEF, if some students carve jack-o-lanterns and others retire their Sukkot ya’acov-lanterns, if some students decorate their home and others darken it, or if some students go to sleep as if October 31st was just like any other night.  That is who we are:  all these sources of practice brought together to learn how to be together.


Oh, if you want to learn more about one aspect of Halloween in the context of our curriculum theme for the year–“Einstein Goes South of the Border”–check out Mexican artist José Posada’s satirical skeleton lithographs, which were later incorporated into dia de los muertos.  If you missed the first DVLI conversation about the Pew study this Thursday morning, the Siegel JCC is hosting another Wednesday, October 30th at 7pm.


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St. Patrick’s Day without Saints or Heroes

I am not Catholic, not by a longshot.  Nevertheless, I have worn green every St. Patty’s Day since I was first pinched for not doing so back in the third grade.  I even wore green the March 17th day of my interview to work with Jewish college students at the University of Delaware.  I am glad I did.  That day I learned three important lessons, confirmed more widely in the years since:

  1. Most people know nothing, or nearly nothing, about St. Patrick.
  2. Day-drinking is the “hero” of today’s St. Patty’s Day celebrations.
  3. Jews in America today do not have heroes.  Role models, yes; “national” heroes, no.

This last lesson is apparently well established, as is able to profile the 15 Best College St. Patrick’s Day Party’s.  Delaware is ranked #14 and still manages to look like this:

St. Patty at UD via

St. Patty’s at Delaware via

Why has alcohol replaced the Saint as the central concern of the day?  I am sure there are many reasons having to do with the secularization of religious life, evidenced by the shift to all things Irish, as opposed to all things Patrick; with the increasing emptiness of college life, apart from marginal efforts to add meaning and depth; with the contemporary confusion of celebrity with role modeling; and more.

St. Patrick has an amazing story.  He is worthy of admiration for his faith in captivity, for his moral courage, and for his ability to express foreign ideas in the local language.  A British Roman, he was kidnapped and enslaved in Ireland.  After escaping and returning home, he studied to be a missionary to his former captors!  He went so far as to pay the owner he escaped the money his freedom would have cost.  In short, he fits the definition of a hero.  Leadership guru John Maxwell takes Patrick’s heroism to teach leadership lessons.

St. Patrick catches our notice then.  Today’s celebrations, though, demonstrate a different aspect of his heroic power: he was a translator.  He taught the concept of the Holy Trinity by looking at a shamrock clover (that’s why the Shamrockshamrock is a ubiquitous symbol of the day).  His Celtic cross bridged Druid ideas about the sun with Christian views of Jesus’s crucifixion.  In his honor, American college students of all faith backgrounds translate the anniversary of his day of death as an “excuse to drink during the day.”

I doubt they know that St. Patrick’s Day marks the anniversary of his death (a very Jewish time to remember someone).  I do know that they drink alcohol at night (and, if not for classes, would do so during the day) in large part to fill a gaping hole in their lives.  When all their efforts are meant to follow a supposedly straight line from class and extra-curricular activities to a career in a world that does nothing to guarantee that conclusion, some form of escape is needed.

In a different age, heroes would offer that escape.  Comic book superheroes would be righting wrongs, fighting Hitler and winning the day.  Before them, Horatio Alger’s boys would pick themselves up by the boot-straps and rise to economic prominence in the American Dream.  The Pilgrims made a Thanksgiving dinner to celebrate surviving in the New World with help from the Native Americans.  David slew Goliath. Abraham destroyed the idols in his father’s shop.  But most of these heroes seem tarnished today:  empty dreams, propaganda, half-truths, myths, or exaggerations.  In a instant-news world, the hero of a moment is overshadowed by another’s worthy deeds or by sordid details of other aspects in his/her life.  Today, celebrities are understood to be fallible.  We have no heroes.

Interestingly, Jewish students seem to have role models.  When, around St. Patrick’s Day, I ask them if they have heroes, they invariably mention parents or grandparents.  They do cycle through some famous names as potential nominees, but again, invariably go with family.  (Some young women have started to name famous women as heroes, but they seem outnumbered 1 to 4.) In a way, I think this position promising.  Green MirrorTo have no heroes is to need to look within.

I just wish that when students looked inward, they saw more than fear, emptiness, or the desire to break free.  If we taught something more personal, more soulful, then perhaps they wouldn’t need an excuse to day-drink; they’d have an excuse to drink “to life” (l’chaim).  Perhaps, too, St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated with such zeal for its green reminder of the coming spring.  I doubt it, but I’ll put my green on anyway, in celebration of Ireland’s hero, of the hero in each of us, and to the greener grass somewhere else or in some other time.  May we each find the luck we seek.

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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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The October 31st Dilemma

“When do we get to hand out candy?” my children ask.  Repeatedly.  For most of October, even earlier when the stores start setting up their Halloween sections in September.

Candy for Tonight

Notice that my kids don’t ask about getting costumes or going trick-or-treating.  This year is the first time they have contemplated anything beyond answering the door: they want to be a ghost-in-the-box or panthers . . . to give smiles to the neighbors who come to our door.

I admit that the decisions that led to this reality were hard.  I remember asking colleagues what they do with their kids and watching Facebook posts to see what else I might be able to learn from the American Jewish niche of which I am a part.  My random sampling yielded such varied results that it helped little in advancing my thinking.  In the end, I focused on three values:

  1. What I will call “Jewish otherness”
  2. Civic engagement
  3. Respect for religion

With these values in mind, I struck a balance between the point-counterpoint of my friend, Rabbi Jason Miller.  I have taught my children that Halloween is a religious holiday that deals with spirits like ghosts, goblins, witches, and the like.  I reaffirm that as Jews we do not believe in these characters; for us, they are pretend. [Later, I will have to teach them about spirits in the Jewish tradition, but I am fairly sure that they will not associate King Saul’s woman of Endor with the black-hatted, broom-riding witches of today.]  That covers value #1.

The reality, however, is that Halloween is about more than its original concerns.  The night has become equally, if not more so, about candy and trick-or-treating.  Here, I find it not only reasonable, but also compelling to acknowledge the holiday.  As good neighbors (another Jewish value), I believe we must turn on our light, welcome the strangers who ring the bell or knock, and give them a treat.  We get to see members of our community we know well or barely ever see.  We enjoy a bit of awe and wonder at the creativity of the human mind as we gaze upon artful costumes and artful explanations for lack of design.  Given my family’s good fortune despite the passing eye of Hurricane Sandy, I think it even more important this year to welcome neighbors with our lights on.  While, I do not know if we will be able to engage in this civic encounter tonight, I hope we do.  It is value #2.

Lastly, I reaffirm for my children that others, for whom Halloween is serious, are worried about being scared or tricked by the spirits of this night.  In that vein, we have focused on the treat in trick-or-treat.  We do not decorate our house with cobwebs, jack-o-lanterns, or graveyard images.  The lights are on.  The candy bowl is full.  We are hopeful for a season of light during the oncoming winter.  We live value #3.

When all is said and done, there is still candy in the bowl to put in lunchboxes for weeks.  My kids seem not to feel left out; they are apart, Jewishly, and a part, civically, of the night.  Besides, as they will tell you, costumes are for Purim and candy celebrates the sweetness of Torah at b’nai mitzvah and on Simchat Torah.  Happy Halloween!


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