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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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Aligning Hearts

Image

I have read leadership and management literature for more than a decade.  Along the way, I have applied many of the lessons I learned from books, articles, seminars, mentors, coaches, and colleagues.  This past week was a defining moment for me as a leader.

I am the new Head of School of Albert Einstein Academy Jewish Day School (AEA) in Wilmington, DE.  While I started the job many weeks ago, last week included our first meeting of the Board of Trustees and the crucial teacher in-service days meant to launch the school year.  By focusing on aligning hearts, I believe my leadership made a positive impact.

How did I do it in a way consistent with my roles as rabbi and educator?  I reminded each group of the wisdom of chazal (the ancient Sages of blessed memory).  The ancient wisdom I shared served as a frame for the issues of the day.

In my many years working in Jewish organizational life, I have sat in board meetings.  Some meetings are run better than others; some boards are better than others.  Without question, this past week’s meeting was the best I have seen.  The president ably oriented the board members to their responsibilities, with a matching charge from a rabbinic representative; and the board members introduced themselves with a spirit of investment in the past, present, and future of the school.  In the middle of all that, I gave a report in which I sought to indicate the many issues I faced and am facing as Head of School, issues I see as challenges, not problems.  In the spirit of the Sage Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, whose beard turned white when he was appointed patriarch of the rabbinical academy at a young age, I taught that facing challenges can be about flourishing, not just fixing.  Through choice words and tone, I aligned the board’s future responsibility with my own professionalism and their warm feelings of connection with my own openness.

via todaysengineer.org

via todaysengineer.org

Why am I focusing on alignment?  Because it works.  I saw it in action the day after that meeting when the faculty was hard at work.  Alignment is enabling.  Whether through the guidance of vision, through the trust of deep relationships, or the charge to follow one’s passions, being able to align oneself with an institution and/or its leaders enables one to act with purpose.  As Thomas J. Sergiovanni writes in Strengthening the Heartbeat: Leading and Learning Together in Schools, “The key to making things better is to enable teachers–to give them the discretion, the support, the preparation, and the guidance necessary to get the job done” (page 9).  By aligning hearts, we not only enable teachers (and other stakeholders) “to get the job done,” we enable them to reach new heights.

The key experiences of our first faculty in-service day were designed to develop ownership of our mission and to pass that sense of ownership on to our students.  [I thank my dean in the RAVSAK Head of School Professional Excellence Program, Dr. Elliot Spiegel, for his suggestion to speak with Dr. Renee Holtz (an alumna of AEA and now a key administrator at Solomon Schechter School of Westchester) about ways to look at our mission.  I also owe tremendous thanks to the faculty for engaging seriously with the material that day.]  What did we do?  We walked around the room where key words or ideas from our philosophy statement were written on easel paper.  Each of us had to write three ways to measure whether we do what we say we do.  From those benchmarks, we turned back to the Babylonian Talmud to see how important it is to live by one’s philosophy.  The following passage is from Tractate Avodah Zarah 19a:

אמר רבא: לעולם ילמוד אדם תורה במקום שלבו חפץ, שנאמר: כי אם בתורת ה’ חפצו. ואמר רבא: בתחילה נקראת על שמו של הקב”ה ולבסוף נקראת על שמו, שנאמר: בתורת ה’ חפצו ובתורתו יהגה יומם ולילה 

Raba said: “A person should always learn Instruction (Torah) from the part that his heart desires, as it is said, ‘but in the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH is his delight‘ (Psalm 1:2). Raba also said: “At the start [of the verse] it [the Instruction (Torah)] is read assigned to the Holy One Blessed be God and at the end [of the verse] it is read assigned to the person, as it is said, ‘in the Instruction (Torah) of YHWH is his delight and in the Instruction (Torah) of his [own] he should meditate day and night’ (Psalm 1:2).” 

The discussion we had surrounded this reading by Raba of Psalm 1:2 hammered home the point that we all learn best and work best when we are doing something we love.  Likewise, as the Talmud goes on to explain, sometimes we need to introduce material for it to become loved.  Either way, the more we encourage our students find their passions, to discover new ones, and to pursue them, the more we further our students education as a whole.  It is never about one piece of information; it is always about learning to learn.  We flourish as learners when we align our hearts with our responsibilities.  A few hours later, some teacher assignments in the school were reshuffled based emphatically on teachers’ passions.  I believe we enabled teachers to flourish in ways that will allow our students to flourish.  All by aligning hearts.

via 21centuryrelationships.blogspot.com/

via 21centuryrelationships.blogspot.com/

Many of the techniques I used over the past week are part of my training in leadership.  The strongest impact, though, came from learning with others, alongside others.  I intended to model being a learner.  In doing so, I found my heart’s desire.  This blog post is meant to keep in front of me that vision of aligning hearts, a vision of living education.

What vision aligns your learning or teaching with your heart, your passion?

As we start a new year, what will keep your heart aligned with your work?

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The Technology of Jewish Learning

aea new admission logoAlbert Einstein Academy (AEA), the premier Jewish Day School of the Brandywine Valley, was one of the first schools in the United States to be wired.  Since then, the development of internet and computing technology has moved well beyond creating the infrastructure to network a school.  As the new Head of School, it has been my challenge to determine a path forward to put AEA ahead of the curve again.Jewish Voice August 2013 cover

The August 2013 issue of our local Jewish community newspaper, The Jewish Voice, published a series of articles from JNS.org suggesting that 21st-Century Jewish Day Schools should be using tablets and any of a number of online learning tools.  These articles do a good job of creating excitement around the innovative use of technologies to support learning.  Less obvious is the undercurrent of concern about aligning the right hardware with new programs and programs yet to be developed.

In the spirit of the school’s namesake, we are going to experiment and to network.  Albert Einstein’s theories came as a result of thinking through options to find those ideas that conformed to science and physical reality.  He corresponded with fellow scientists around the world to test his ideas and to learn from others.  This year, faculty, staff, and some students and parents will test options for digital education tools.  The faculty and staff will be asked to use Google Apps for Education to see if its tools and privacy provide a vibrant space for teamwork, organization, and lesson plans that incorporate web-based resources.  After tapping my network at the University of Delaware and the JEDLAB Facebook group for advice, I registered to log into edmodocon on August 7th to check out EdModo.  During the year, willing teachers will be encouraged to try Kidblog and/or Schoology for individual classes or projects.  If we had older students, we would look at other systems like Haiku.  By year’s end, we ought to know better our reality–where to focus our attention for the school’s 45th year and whether we should be investing in Chromebooks, tablets, devices from home, or our current desktops.  I say year’s end because choosing the right hardware depends greatly on what programs one will use on it.

via blog.wowzers.com

via blog.wowzers.com

More to the point, these devices, learning management systems, and online tools matter much less than what we are trying to achieve—preparing our children to succeed in the world they will inhabit.  Given our quest to educate the whole child, today’s tech must be seen, not as the goal, but as a tool among others.

The real technology of a Jewish day school is lived Jewish learning.  Jewish learning is, at its roots, relational.  No student is a blank canvas onto which data is plotted.  Jewish learning asks students to partner with other students and to interact with generations of commentators.  The relationship is not merely temporal, it is active–active inquiry.  We ask questions: questions of our study partners, questions of our teachers, questions of the sages of the tradition, and questions of the texts themselves.  The network is assumed; Jewish learning activates it.  By learning how to activate the learning network, students learn who they are; they become grounded with roots that allow them to deal with all the information and all the experiences they will encounter as they grow into a world we can only imagine.

One of my favorite Jewish technologies is Shabbat, a time to cease from work and to re-soul.  When we stop working, we are able to look back and appreciate our progress.  We give value to our work by entering a space of appreciation for all we have.  This experience holds true for much of the year as the technology of the Jewish calendar forces us to note the seasons and our foundational histories.  Rituals for the Jewish lifecycle are the software that feeds our spirits as we celebrate milestones, mourn in community, and tap into our unique purposes.

If we are not focused on the Jewish technologies of how to learn and how to live, neither the latest gadget nor the best new app will educate our children.  We should seek the best tools for advancing our efforts to teach, but we must do so with our eyes on the prize, the prize of a self-motivated learner who has the moral empathy and inquisitive grit to gain wisdom.  If we do that, we will surely be ahead of the curve.

via wejews.com

via wejews.com

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How to Read Boston, Part II

The Facebook post shown below is making the rounds and articulates precisely the desire for the kind of reading of the news I counseled in my post “How to Read Boston.”

No him FB post

In an astounding combination of helper helping helper, I was also moved by the story of Jeff Bauman whom I first encountered as one of the people Carlos Arredando helped in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.  Here is the picture of the two of them (Bauman in the wheelchair; Arredando in the cowboy hat):

from gawker.com

And just to be clear, not all helping is in first moments of trauma.  Here’s another favorite of mine from Facebook:

Milk copWhile we wait for the investigation to make its findings, I am with Cam Siciliano; and I pray that we follow stories like these.

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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 BroBible.com 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 brobible.com

St. Patty’s at Delaware via BroBible.com

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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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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