Tag Archives: Jewish

Freedom of Soul and Body



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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?

via avichai.org

via avichai.org

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.

via starlight-tower.com

via starlight-tower.com

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.

via contactnumbers.co.in

via contactnumbers.co.in

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Filed under Chailites, Education, Leadership, Secular Holidays

Teaching Empathy

Pic empathy in 8 min

via startempathy.org

You have 8 minutes: You must talk the entire time, even if you are repeating the word “um” to fill time.  You have 8 topics: you must address at least 1 and can talk about all 8.  You have a partner: your partner can only listen, with as little reaction, verbal or physical, as possible.  After your 8 minutes, you will switch.  Thus begins The Great 8.

The topics are heavy and may include: God, Romantic Relationships, Finances, Parents, Addiction, Career, Body Image, Roommates, Fear, Crutch, etc..  Talking about them without a response from a real listener is like having a sounding board that only gives back exactly what you say.  Not reacting forces the listener to hear everything being said without having to think of responses.  The debrief of the experience brings out these lessons and so much more.  The end result of this exercise taught by Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt to a UD Hillel intern who taught it to me?  A significant life skill that is otherwise hard to teach–empathy.

This week, two triggers reminded me of the importance of teaching empathy and my favorite exercise for doing so, the Great 8: one, listening to the Anti-Defamation League’s president Abe Foxman at the Kristol Hillel Center’s 20th Anniversary Celebration at the University of Delaware; and two, listening to the abridged version of The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated and Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross W. Greene.  In each case, empathy was identified as the key to communication and change.

Abe Foxman

Abe Foxman

Mr. Foxman spoke of the need for empathy as the driver for outrage and for communal responses to hate.  Without taking sides politically, our empathy should drive us to outrage over the lives lost in Syria and elsewhere.  In response to the vandalism at the Islamic Society of Delaware, our empathy drove an interfaith gathering at the very same time Foxman was speaking.  Empathy helps us value life and to work together.

51wFA1R2gvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Dr. Greene’s book posits that we will be able to teach flexibility to resistant children by offering an “empathy step” in response to problems.  If authority backfires and the problem can’t be let go, we must engage the child in problem solving.  To do so, he advises opening a conversation in which you accept that you may not know the real problem and you do not have the only answer.  Open inquiry and neutral drilling for information demonstrate empathy so that the child can and will work with you to address your concerns and his/her own.  I have already used this method at AEA with positive results.

If you knew that someone really wanted to hear your deepest concerns, you might open up more.  If you had practice speaking about serious issues with someone really listening, you might discover more about yourself.  The listener certainly will understand you better.  In today’s world, feeling that kind of connection, whether we offer it or receive it, is all too rare.  Try empathy on for size, by doing so, you will learn and teach it.  It may be hard, and often it is.  The results, though, may change your world.  It can take just 8 Great minutes. 


Filed under Chailites, Education

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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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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Blogging My Work on Behalf of the Jewish People

SociallyGold-Banner-3I wrote a guest blog for SociallyGold, entitled Why I Blog.  Here is a summary of what you will find there:

“My work is connected; I started blogging to share my connection to the work. . . . I educate on behalf of the Jewish people.  My blog helps me articulate this underlying drive. . . . For years, I hesitated to start a blog. . . . And then, one day, I started. . . . After a number of posts and drafts of posts, I can say that my blog is an essential component of my work.  It is both the follow through and the invitation to learning with me. . . .

I am grateful to Adam Goldberg, who runs Socially Gold, for the chance to write this blog post for a few reasons:

  1. I get to reflect on the larger project of my blog.
  2. I learned how to share blog posts to extend my reach.
  3. I hope to model a way for Hillel, and others, to share successes and challenges in a deeper way.

After all, I believe in my work.  My blog is one more tool to advance it, a tool I find to have increasing returns.”  Here’s the link again; go read the full text.  Feel free to come back here to comment!

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Incidental Teaching

When I teach, I have a habit of throwing in a bit of extra information related to the topic, not quite a digression, and definitely tangential.  My favorite example is from my Biblical & Classical Literature class at the University of Delaware.  When we read Genesis 6, I pause just long enough before jumping into the Noah story to mention that some scholars think the “daughters of men” might have been early homo sapiens who were taken as wives by more Neanderthal-like “children of God,” producing “heroes of old, the men of renown.”  The Time KeeperWhile such a suggestion fits well into Mitch Albom’s newest book, The Time Keeper, it does little to demonstrate the literary aspect of the generational transition from Adam and Eve to Noah.  The possibility of pseudo-Darwinian evolution in Genesis 6 is incidental to the introduction of Noah; yet, I find myself compelled to teach it.

So why do I do it?  In short, I think I toss in extra information as a way of offering a door to students’ further connection with the material.  I don’t hold them accountable for the addition; I hold myself accountable for their further education or, at least, engagement with the material.

That being said, I was struck on Sunday by the effect of an incidental teaching in my radio broadcast for WDEL 1150AM‘s “The Rabbi Speaks.”  As part of a rotation of area rabbis, I recorded a nine-minute segment to be aired around 8:45am.  Later that day, I encountered a parent from my children’s school who, by chance, heard me speaking on the radio around 9:15am.  He shared with me that he was particularly struck by . . . an incidental piece of information.

My wife Ali's amazing chocolate challah next to a six-braided sesame challah.

My wife Ali’s amazing chocolate challah next to a six-braided sesame challah.

I was speaking about challah, what today is the Jewish ceremonial bread for Shabbat meals. After explaining the origins of the term from the olive size portion of dough given to the priests (or burned for God), I threw in a comment about how these loaves used to be called berches, a few hundred years ago.  Berches is reminiscent of the Hebrew word b’rachah, meaning blessing, as in the intentional blessing of bread at a Sabbath meal.  It was meant to be an interesting tidbit that I found in an article on www.myjewishlearning.com, nothing more.

There were two things about this encounter that jarred me into thinking more about incidental teaching:

  1. You never know what is going to stick with people.  My larger point was about the variety of types of bread used by Jews throughout the world and throughout history.  A braided egg bread is an appropriation from South Germany in the Middle Ages that spread worldwide until today when grocery store bakeries label the loaves as challah, regardless of whether the challah portion was taken from the batch of dough.
  2. There are nuggets in even our worst teaching.  I didn’t think highly of my recording.  I felt that I had done better in the past.  I remembered as soon as I finished that there were other points I really wanted to make; for example, that today students across the country, and at the University of Delaware Hillel, bake challah to improve the world through the organization Challah for Hunger.  Rather than re-record to provide an improved version, I let the original stand.  What was good but not great for me turned out to be really meaningful for someone else.
from thekosherchannel.com

from thekosherchannel.com

All of which makes me wonder:  Maybe the challah portion is symbolically about much more than a portion of dough belonging to God or God’s priests.

Maybe challah is a reminder that the throw-away material is precious.  In every batch of teaching material there is one ball that, if tossed gently, will be caught by the learner who needs it most.

What examples from your teaching were the extra portion that stuck?

What does thinking about that extra material as challah portions do for you and/or your teaching?

How can we be intentional with our incidental teaching to better engage our students?

I will be revisiting this idea of incidental teaching when my class starts up in February.  Stay tuned for more examples.  In the meantime, share your answers to the questions above.

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