Tag Archives: soul

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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Messengers of Learning

via virtualflowers.com

via virtualflowers.com

A first-grader, smilingly giddily as she received get-well notes from classmates and balloons from her teachers. A young teacher, exhausted with grief, mutters thanks during hugs from her fellow teachers paying a shivah call. A parent driving forty minutes each way to take a beloved teacher to the right emergency room, says no thanks are necessary. A picture is text messaged among the faculty of a baby boy born to one teacher. Another welcomes her new son into the covenant of the Jewish people at a brit milah and is grateful to have members of the school community present. That was this week at Albert Einstein Academy.

We did not need snow days to remind us to seize the educational moments at hand, the living moments in which all our learning is meant to become action. We may be a school that “fosters inquisitive learners, critical thinkers, and dynamic leaders” as a matter of mission; as a matter of principle, though, we are a school that teaches the soul.

How do you teach the soul? Well, it may sound simple, though it most definitely is not: from the soul. The most important text in our school is not a book; it is the teacher in the classroom. Her experiences, her actions, her mindset are expressions of her soul that inform our students more deeply than any reading, project, conversation, or worksheet. That is why the faculty focuses on demonstrating our own learning, our own struggles, and our abiding values. Our lives are messages writ large; if we own them as educators, we are messengers of learning.

via 301s2013.wordpress.com/

via 301s2013.wordpress.com/

As a new rabbinical student, I was asked to lead morning prayers early my first summer working at Camp Ramah Darom. I was unprepared, knowingly the words haltingly and the proper melody poorly. The Director guided me out of the metaphorical corner I was backed into by telling me that I would teach the campers far more than the service if I saw facing my fear as a teaching moment. That summer would prove to be the one in which my campers dared most.

via permaculture-and-sanity.com

via permaculture-and-sanity.com

So it was that, in the middle of the life-filled week, I taught our students about the Jewish lifecycle. I reviewed key moments, mentioning much of what our community was experiencing, and then I drew a line. Jewishly, I taught, life is not a straight shot; it is not linear. Jewishly, life is a circle. Our lives come and go and come around again (with or without reincarnation). As we age, we mourn losses and welcome new lives, and we take care of each other each step of the way.

This lesson is not in our “curriculum;” it is in our souls. While I believe that we teach to our students’ souls every day; this week, it was clear that, as a school, we were messengers of learning about life and how to be in it fully. Sometimes, being the messenger is the strongest message, just ask the first-grader’s mother who wrote:  “Reason # 1,000,000 we love AEA? Head of school Jeremy Winaker just hand delivered hand made cards from all [her] friends and balloons from her teachers:) .” I was just the messenger.  What message of learning will you deliver?



Filed under Chailites, Education, Incidental Teaching, Jewish Wisdom

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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Heavenly Ground Rules

On Wednesday night, September 5th, for the first time in my life, I was awed by a list of . . . ground rules.  I am convinced that my reaction is based on factors that go beyond the individuals who gathered that night.  I believe that these factors are significant for those of us who work with learning communities of all kinds.

     Here is a picture of the list of ground rules:

Heavenly Ground Rules

     About the list:

The list begins by reflecting the ordinary unfolding of ideas.  Starting on the left side and working down: “be respectful,” “no judgement (sic),” and “[be] open-minded” get the ball rolling.  Then a transition takes place: “be willing,” and “be supportive” open not just minds but souls to say “be yourself” and “believe in yourself/others.”  WOW!

The rest of the list is a bit of a let down.  In fact, it is a pullback.  After the height of the bottom of the left column, the room fell silent.  In the lull, I suggested “cellphones off.”  From that mundane place, the rest of list is no surprise.  In case you were wondering, “WHHHS” stands for “what happens here, stays here.”  The final two are a bit defensive.  The moment had passed.

So how did a group of college students in their first formal session get to that heavenly place filled with so much soul?

     The factors:

  • Legacy
  • Expectations
  • Depth
  • Heritage
  • Enterprise (a willingness to accomplish bold goals)

These factors all contribute to one fundamental element: culture.

Legacy A pilot is an experiment.  A sequel is an extension.  A series is the accumulation of adaptations (hopefully improvements).  The sum total, though, is a refined vision and mission.  Newcomers, like the students who generated the above list of ground rules, enter a space that is defined by the legacy of those who came before and the work that was done before; they enter a culture.

Expectations If the legacy of predecessors yields a refined vision and mission, the culture translates that definition into expectations.  Newcomers sense more quickly what is expected of them.  Goals are more clearly articulated and bounded.  The experience of previous participants focuses entrants on meeting or exceeding expectations in order to perpetuate and grow the established culture.

Depth Established cultures do not automatically create a space for the soul to appear.  Depth of personal interaction and meaning, however, infuses an expectation of trust and daring within the culture.  The soul is compelled to speak when depth is a priority in the culture.

Heritage In an established culture of depth, participants are bearers of wisdom.  Their successors bring that wisdom (or some of it) to the table, if the successors have been recruited.  This recruitment may look like a pipeline or a bequest.  The key is for the outgoing group to hand-off the culture to the incoming group.  This induction into a tradition is the heritage of the culture.

Enterprise If the heritage is merely reenacted, the culture will become stale.  A spirit of enterprise keeps the culture active:  breathes life into the legacy; attempts to exceed expectations; delves deeper; and imbues the heritage with daring.  Most important, enterprise charges newcomers to have ownership of the culture.

The culture that night:

The group that generated these heavenly ground rules is part of a culture.  The college students in it were inducted earlier that night as the fifth cohort of Campus Entrepreneur Initiative (CEI) and MASA interns at the University of Delaware Kristol Hillel Center.  These interns are charged with “building relationships” and “connecting to Jewish life.”  They do so through meaningful conversations, individual experimentation, and community creation.  The net result of four years of the program is precisely the culture of legacy, expectations, depth, heritage, and enterprise.

Ground rules are meant to be ground-level, the mundane of the mundane.  They are meant to set a minimal bar upon which to build.  A learning community, like CEI/MASA, can and will set the bar higher once the culture is established to move to higher ground.  I never imagined it might reach the a place where the soul resides.  Now that the sky is no longer the limit, I aspire for all learning communities to build the community that allows us to reach the heavens.

Next steps:

Let me know if you have found success creating a culture for a learning community to begin with soul.  Do you have similar or different factors feeding that culture?

Let us pay attention to where we go with piloted experiments once they become established.  Can we plan for culture?

Share.  Perhaps we can create that culture here, one step at a time.


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