Friday, October 18, 2019

It's All About The Journey

This was a D'var Torah I wrote for WATE (the Westchester/Fairfield Association of Temple Edcators - the F is silent) for a meeting this morning.

The view from Mt. Nebo today.
Parshat Chol Hamoed raises some interesting questions for us as educators. The obvious one is the focus on the calendar. We live and die by them it seems. Of course as educators, we are working on Chanukah or even Tu Bishvat (for the Type A personalities, not me) while still in the midst of the Fall festivals. As educators, I think we are sometimes living anachronisms – not outdated, but living out of sync with real time as we work to create programs, lessons and experiences that will be implemented months down the road.

But let’s step beyond the calendar. We have three holidays in the rear view mirror and one to go before the Blessed month of Cheshvan (nutty rabbis of the Talmud called it "bitter" Cheshvan because there were no festivals in it – maybe they didn’t want to have to actually come up with other topics to talk about?) and a full return to our regularly scheduled curriculum.

I was learning over Zoom with Rabbi Mark Borovitz two days ago and he asked me an interesting question—especially with Simchat Torah looming. 

“What happens at the end of the Torah?”

[I paused here and invited my colleagues to suggest answers.]

All of those are there. I had said "Moses dies."

Then he asked: “What happens to the Israelites at the end of the Torah?”

I answered that they are at the foot of Mt. Nebo waiting to enter the land.

Now he was almost yelling: “Why does the Torah leave them there? Why don’t they get to enter the land while still in the Torah?”

Then it hit me. It is not about getting there. It is about the journey. It is about getting through each day, moving closer to the goal. 

Rabbi Borovitz works with addicts at Beit T'shuvah in Los Angeles. Addicts do not talk about being cured or being finished with their recovery. Recovery is something that happens every day for the rest of their lives – if they are successful. It ends when they die or when they return to their addiction. 

They don’t get to the Promised Land. Or if they do, they do not get to lie under their vine and fig tree. Their – and our – struggle continues every day.

The Torah doesn’t end with the death of Moses and the people waiting for the Book of Joshua to begin - as if it was just a book in a series like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. The Torah ends by us going back to the beginning and chanting Bereishit: "When God began to create the heavens and the earth."

This is a metaphor made for educators. We get relatively few kudos compared to clergy who are with our members during their happiest and saddest moments. We count our moments of victory over a longer period of time. We don't get or provide a lot of immediate gratification, like people experience with a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, a Wedding or even a funeral. 

WE have to wait half a generation to learn if our learners take up the cause of the Jewish people and raise Jewish children themselves. We keep going back to the beginning, like the weekly Torah reading. 

May we all find joy and radical amazement as we finish and restart the Torah this Sunday night. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The year of exhaling (a bit) - תש''פ

The new Hebrew year, 5780, will be written תש''פ

That can be translated to mean: to exhale, to blow out, to hiss, to sting or even to blow fiercely. (Isn’t language wonderful?)

Let’s look at the first translation. Rabbi Isaac Luria, often called the ARI, was a mystic who lived in Tz’fat in the 16th century. He told the story of how God had to contract Godself (the Divine Essence) in order to make room to create the universe. He called that act of contraction Tzimtzum – God removed a bit of Godself to make room.

My friend and teacher Joel Grishaver (who may be a descendant of Rabbi Luria) described Tzimtzum as if you had just exhaled after quickly inhaling, making your chest and stomach contract.

Sometimes, when we withdraw a bit of ourselves, we make room for others to step up and take ownership of what is happening around us. That can be particularly useful in experiential learning.

We as teachers have to step back sometimes – just a little – in order to invite the learners to take ownership of their own learning. My wish for the new year – the year of exhaling (a bit) – for us, the teachers, is that we all develop our capacity and the skills needed to draw our learners in deeper and make space for them to step up. Let’s all put a little Tzimtzum into our lesson plans!

(Incidentally, the story goes on that God put the Divine Essence that was removed into vessels made from earthen clay. They cannot hold the Godstuff and shatter. He said our job was to remove the worthless shards of the vessels - sin, bad behavior, evil, etc – from the world and seek out the sparks of Divine Essense – good loving, kind deeds,Mitzvot, etc. This process is called Tikkun Olam – World Repair).

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Letters from Camp:
How Monday Night Limmud
Changed my Jewish Outlook

I have had many reasons to be proud. Today is a new one. One of our former students came to me last winter. She was interested in a career as a Jewish educator. I told her that she must spend at least one summer as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp. While I promoted Crane Lake, Eisner and Olin Sang Ruby - all part of my past or present and development as a Jewish educator, for a variety of reasons, I ended up steering her toward Ramah Nyack. Imagine my delight when I came across the following post in today!

Clearly there is a difference between a day school and religious school education. Time on task can change things exponentially. Nonetheless, Gabby thrived and grew and I am grateful to her and all of the teachers she had in our program. I look forward to the day I call her colleague.

Letters from Camp: 
How Monday Night Limmud Changed my Jewish Outlook

By Gabby Tropp

This summer I experienced what it feels like to walk into a Jewish community different from my own when I spent my first summer at Jewish camp. Camp Ramah in Nyack, NY, is a unique Jewish camp model. It’s a day camp for our chanichim (young campers) and a sleepaway camp for our tzevet (staff). This means that as much as we have fun with our kids while we teach and learn with them, celebrating their successes and assuaging their fears, after the camp day we have fun with each other, teaching and learning, celebrating and growing.

As a traditional egalitarian community closely linked with the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement, Ramah Nyack strives for, and in my opinion achieves, excellence in Jewish education for kids and staff alike. Twice a week, the members of the Ramah Nyack staff community have the opportunity to hear from and engage with some of the best and brightest thinkers in modern Judaism, among their ranks senior camp staff, counselors, JTS professors, local rabbis, and community leaders.

For me, these limmud (learning) sessions were an outlook-altering opportunity. I was an outsider to the community in some ways, coming from a Reform background and a public school. Through limmud, I was introduced to new perspectives, was challenged in my own opinions, and learned constantly. Perhaps the most eye-opening session for me came on a Monday evening near the end of our kayitz in the form of a program entitled “Standards for Jewish Education.”

For some background on me, this summer marked the first time in my life that my religious observance regularly went beyond attending Kabbalat Shabbat services. I followed the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher), attended Shacharit (morning prayers) three days a week, led my chanichim in t’filah (prayer) every morning, commemorated and fasted for Tisha B’Av, and bensched (said blessings) after meals. Or at least those are all things I was doing by the end of Kayitz 2019. During Week 1, not only were these things foreign to me, but they were rituals and traditions that proved very hard for me to learn. As the days of the summer flew by, my comfort in the Ramah religious community increased.

Then came a huge moment of self doubt during limmud. The Standards for Jewish Education, which outlined “Jewish fluency” benchmarks for day school-educated eighth graders, expected more from those 13-year-old students than I could do. I was still in the process of learning Birkat HaMazon (grace after meals) when I attended this limmud session.

After this initial gut reaction of embarrassment, I asked whether or not it was reasonable to adjust these standards in Jewish fluency taking into account my education, which had significantly less time to prepare me for Jewish adulthood. And the answer was, of course, yes. At the end of the day, my Reform Jewish education had instilled in me a sense of Jewish pride and a passion for Jewish life and learning, which, along with my Ramah experience this summer, has put me on a path to continue developing my fluency in Judaism for the rest of my life.

I may not be as Jewishly literate as the typical day school eighth grader, but it still felt good as a 20-year-old to say Sh’hecheyanu (a milestone-marking prayer) after leading Birkat HaMazon for the first time. Ramah Nyack gave me the confidence, the courage, and the environment to learn and grow. I didn’t expect one summer at camp to change the way I think about Jewish learning or belonging in Jewish spaces, yet the most important lesson I learned this summer is that, while inclusion doesn’t happen overnight, any Jewish community is accessible if you’re willing to ask questions and put effort into finding answers and understanding traditions.

Gabby Tropp is a senior at Lafayette College, studying History, Spanish, and Jewish Studies. An aspiring Jewish Educator, she tries to bring Jewish learning into daily life. She was a student, madrikhah and substitute teacher at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Flag Raising as a Jewish Act

“At Camp Interlaken (the Milwaukee JCC camp) we had flag raising and lowering every morning and every evening. The whole camp would assemble on the flag rectangle, with the youngest kids closest to the flag. Each unit would do some schtick for the whole camp, twice a day.”

It isn’t relevant why my wife and I were talking about this on the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the terminal at Newark Airport. She reminded me of a time when I was a counselor at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) long ago.

The Limud (educational) theme was Kedushah/holiness and my staff team was planning a session on rituals and their meaning. I forget which one of us keyed on morning flag raising (which we also had, but only in the morning), but I do recall that I and I think Deb Schreibman stopped the morning schtick, claiming that the whole thing was an empty meaningless ritual. We Pretty much accused our fellow counselors and the campers of using the flag that represented freedom and sacrifice for a useless and banal (we certainly did not use that word) activity. Then we lowered the flag, folded it properly into a triangle while everyone looked on, mouths open like trout, and said “let’s go to breakfast” as we stomped to the chadar ochel (dining hall).

The campers went bananas. Breakfast was followed by Nikayon (clean up in the bunks) and then I think Limud. Before it began, counselors came up to us and reported that their campers were irate and very upset with Deb and I for essentially profaning the morning ritual. We unpacked it with the campers and they learned that it was just a way to introduce the topic. We realized going in that talking about the relative importance of a ritual is not very interesting unless the learner has some skin in the game.

In our camps, the ritual of flag raising became essential to our camper’s day. It was Modeh Ani and the evening Shema. It was a profound moment of realizing and declaring that we are part of a community. And because the context of these camps were (and remain) completely Jewish, flag raising is a Jewish act.

In our congregation we are moving rapidly to change the way education happens for our students. We are examining pedagogy and focusing much more on the experiences they have while they are with us (and paying attention to the ones they have when they are not with us). We are adjusting the curriculum content to meet the needs of the families in our program now (a regular act, every 12-15 years or so). And we are changing our branding and the story we tell about who we are, what we do and how we do it. We hope this will renew interest by those who have chosen “none of the above” for their children.

Thinking about flag raising, I see it is clear that we also have to create, adapt or adopt new rituals in our program. We are testing the name Kehillah (Community) instead of “Religious School.” The tag line is “Find. Connect. Belong.” I think that will lead us to some interesting (and I hope humorous) rituals. I am open to ideas, so please share your ideas in the comments or send me an email (

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What Parents CANNOT Do

From the Resiliency Files
Today's post was originally posted by URJ Eisner Camp - one of my two camp homes. I am sharing because of the quote from Michael Thompson. The eight things parents cannot do should be embroidered on blankets sent home with babies from the hospital. More on this in the coming weeks.

Overnight Camp Is Jewish Education

When you think of providing a Jewish education for your child, you may think of teaching them about their heritage, building a relationship with Israel, and giving them a familiarity with Hebrew. You may think about conveying our core values and celebrating Shabbat. Or perhaps you think of cultivating their spiritual side and providing them with a robust Jewish community. Jewish summer camp can help you give your child a Jewish education in all of these ways. But Jewish overnight camp can also help you give your child a Jewish education by giving them the tools to grow into the best version of themselves and to live independently. 

Dr. Michael Thompson in his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow names eight things we cannot do for our children: 
  1. Make them happy
  2. Give them high self-esteem
  3. Make friends for them or micromanage their friendships
  4. Successfully double as our child’s agent, manager, and coach
  5. Create the “second family” for which our children yearn in order to facilitate their own growth
  6. Compete with or limit children’s immersion in the digital and social media realms
  7. Keep them perfectly safe (although we can make them crazy trying!)
  8. Make them independent
Overnight camp, according to Dr. Thompson’s research, can give our children the freedom and environment to do many of these things for themselves. 

Maybe learning to become an independent adult does not seem to fall into the realm of goals of Jewish education, but in fact, it does. The word Torah and the word for teacher (moreh/ah) and parent (horeh/ah) all come from the same Hebrew root for the word “instruct”. As parents, the Torah, or instruction, which we must give our children goes well beyond the world of Jewish ritual or even values. The Talmud teaches in Kiddushin 29a: 

Our Rabbis taught: A parent is obligated to do the following for their child*: enter the child into the covenant of the Jewish people, redeem the firstborn [from service in the Temple], teach them Torah, find them a spouse, and teach them a trade. And there are some who also say that a parent must also teach their child to swim. 

Some of these tasks seem obvious–we are obligated to help our children fulfill mitzvot as infants which they could not do for themselves. We want to help them step into adulthood by giving them a marketable skill and the ability to start their own families. But why should we teach them to swim? Perhaps because this is a skill that could save their lives. 

I like to consider this reference to swimming more metaphorically. The ocean is a vast unknown. Its depths are mysterious, ever-changing, and unexplored. If we prepare our children to swim, we acknowledge that the world into which we will send them is unfamiliar to us; we cannot give them the exact tools they will need, nor can we protect them from every uncertainty, but we can prepare them by making them resilient and up to the task of facing the challenges the surely will encounter. This is our charge as Jewish parents, and this is what Jewish summer camp can help us do. 

*This is an updated, gender-inclusive translation.

For more on this topic, listen to this podcast with psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel, “Teaching to Swim Without a Pool.”

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Hello? Is it me you’ Looking for?

Hello? Is it me you're looking for?
'Cause I wonder where you are
And I wonder what you do
Are you somewhere feeling lonely,

or is someone loving you?
Tell me how to win your heart
For I haven't got a clue

But let me start by saying
I love you
By Lionel Richie and Eddy Marnay
© Warner Chappell Music, Inc

I am not a huge Lionel Richie fan. Don’t dislike him, but I would need need to Shazam the lyrics if I wanted to sing along. Spending as much time and energy thinking about and working to change our religious school, I find myself thinking about this song a lot.

In our synagogue context “you” are the folks that are in the demographic of Jews who in the past have joined synagogues and enrolled their children in Jewish learning programs. “I” am the synagogue, school, educators and clergy as we face the needs of this newest generation.

The research tells us that Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Generation Z (born 1997-present) are indeed spiritual seekers. It also tells us that many of them - maybe even most of them - are pretty sure they won’t find that spirituality they are looking for in legacy institutions like synagogues or churches.

You can Google and find stories from 20 and 40 and I would bet 60 years ago where leaders of those same legacy institutions bemoan the likelihood that the “new” generation is going to turn its back on faith and tradition. They insist that we need to make everything anew to meet their needs. And you can find articles from those same times that say “Just wait. They will have children and will want those children to go to religious school and become B’nai Mitzvah. And that is what happened more often than not.

So perhaps we should just wait out the current existential crisis. I don’t think that is a good idea. You see, my great grandfather Abraham Seidenfeld came to the US from Łódź, Poland in 1913. My son Ethan is a Millennial and Harper is Generation Z.  They are FIFTH generation Americans. I imagine your children are also 5th or even 6th generation Americans. (Perhaps not, especially if you or your parents came from the former Soviet Union, but that is not a huge percentage of American Jews.)

There is a fair amount of research that documents how with each additional generation following immigration, commitment to certain ethnic or religious traditions wanes more and more. We may keep a sense of identification, but we often lose the habits that go with it. This applies to every immigrant group, not just Ashkenazi Jews. There are studies that focus on Japanese, Italian and even Irish immigrants, to name a few.

So while my parents were pretty sure about me and my fellow baby boomers,I am not sure about our kids. When I was young I knew and loved my immigrant ancestors. I made pilgrimage to Łódź last summer and had coffee on a balcony that was in the location where my Grandma Honey lived before coming here as a little girl. She died two years before I became a father.

We cannot rely on the same expectations we once did. Millennial parents often don’t feel the same pull of tradition as Baby Boomers or even Generation Xers. We are still trying to figure out what “you” are looking for. We are not relying on hope and prayers to sustain our synagogues or larger Jewish communities. We are trying to enter into a conversation.

And we start by saying “I love you.”

And we continue by listening. More next week.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

I just returned from a week serving on the faculty of Crane Lake Camp in West Stockbridge,  MA. It is the third URJ camp I have been proud to serve, in addition to Eisner Camp and Olin Ruby Union Institute. I was asked to write a post for the camp blog, which is largely directed at parents of campers as well as the lay and professional leaders in the Northeast. 

Every day at Crane Lake Camp is filled with fun and engaging activity. Sports, arts, drama and just hanging out with friends – like most summer camps – are a part of every camper’s experience. At CLC, there is a Jewish context that takes those same experiences a little further.

Our all-camp middah (Jewish Value) of the week is Ga’avah – Pride. For much of the week, we have focused on learning to be proud of our Jewish identities, of our community and our actions in support of one another.

During Limud[i] the other day, a group of Bonim campers were at the low ropes course to explore the middah of courage or ometz lev. When they were not exploring it by attempting elements of the course they were talking about different aspects of courage with staff and faculty.

During one discussion, the topic was “Fear of Failure.” It was apparent that many of these young campers had wrestled with that one. They shared what it meant to them, steps they might take to overcome it and even some examples of when they had faced that fear.

One thing that stood out was that there have definitely been times in their very young lives that they have felt unworthy of even trying to succeed.They shared their self-doubt. And then they moved to dispel those fears in their friends. I have to say that they were all very supportive and encouraged one another to move beyond that fear.

The next morning, I shared a story during the “Words of Wisdom” portion of morning t’filah. Many of us know the midrash[ii] that suggests we should each keep two pieces of paper in our pockets. One should say “The world was created for my sake” and other “I am but dust and ashes.”
We often share this midrash in order to talk about humility, since we are supposed to read the second message when we feel arrogant or overly prideful.

Inspired by those Bonim campers’ words to one another I suggested that we all need to focus a little more on the other message, that the world was created for our sake. If you believe – as I do – that each of us was ultimately created by God – then we are created in God’s image. And God doesn’t make junk.

When we doubt ourselves, questioning our worthiness, we have to remember that each of us matters. Camp would be diminished and far less amazing if even one of us were not here.
Listening to our campers reach out and support one another, they taught each other – and me – that being proud also means that “YOU MATTER.”

[i] Limud means learning. At CLC, we spend some time specifically focused on learning about Jewish values – middot – through a variety of experiential means. It is still fun, but the idea that we are learning something in the process is clearly stated.

[ii] Originally credited to Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pryszska.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Sounds of our People

I grew up with a mother who loved WFMF radio in Chicago. Today we would call it “easy listening” but to mom it was the music she always loved. Henry Mancini. Mel Torme. Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme. Tony Bennet. You know, old people music – at least it was to a teenager in the 70’s.[1] Of course my music was very different. Meatloaf. Simon and Garfunkel. The Grateful Dead. Supertramp.

We both loved Debbie Friedman and Kol B’seder – two of the many amazing sources of Jewish music that started to appear in the early 70’s. If you come to services this (or any) Shabbat you are certain to hear some of their music. Each generation finds its own sound, its own beat. Our musical choices say something about us. While the sound reveals a great deal, the lyrics – the poetry – says even more.

Whenever we greet new Shinshinim – Young Israeli Emissaries – I ask them what Israeli artists they have on their playlists. I often buy the music they suggest and I listen to it for my own enjoyment and I also play it on the loudspeakers in the school as students arrive and depart for Religious School.

The poetry of Israeli music is fascinating to me. On the one hand it often reflects the current mood and reality of life in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or even in the desert. On the other hand, because bible is taught in the public schools as a source of our history, many Israeli songwriters use words and imagery that comes directly from the Torah, or the Prophets or even the Psalms. To the average Israeli, this is part of the everyday vernacular. To an American Jew who is listening to and reading the words, it is a revelation.

Sometimes we will share the lyrics in translation with our students as a way of unpacking the meaning of song. We will look at its biblical sources (if there are any) and look at how the story the song tells reflects current reality on the streets and in the homes of Israel. We use it to open a window into the lives of our cousins across the ocean.

Yuval and Rotem, our current Shinshinim, have created a bulletin board near the stairs in our school wing. You can see that it looks like a Spotify page. They introduce us to some Israeli songs and artists. It also has a special Spotify bar code. If you have Spotify on your phone you can use its scanning feature to scan the bar code. This will give you access to Yuval and Rotem’s 93 song Israeli Music playlist. I urge you to scan it and start listening. They include songs from many genres and generations of Israeli music. Get to know Shlomo Artzi, who is as big as Elton John or Paul McCartney over there – and from their generation. Or listen to Idan Reichel who brings in musicians from all over the world. Let your ears bring the sounds of Israel to you.

Scan this image from within the Spotify App to access the Playlist
The purpose of the Young Emissary program is to create a living bridge between our community and the land and people of Israel. It is a program cosponsored by all of the area synagogues and the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy. And it relies on each of us to help. Yuval and Rotem will return to Israel and begin their military service after the summer.

We will welcome new Shinshinim in September. If your community has a program like this, please think about inviting one of them to live in your home for 3 months or so. We did and we talk or text with Lidor every week. It changed us for the better. Please email, call or visit the coordinator in your community to talk about whether hosting an emissary is right for you!

[1] Full disclosure, I now love Mel Torme and most of Mom’s favorites, but I listen to it when I am alone in the car.