Monday, April 22, 2019

Words Matter. Actions Matter More.

This is Jacob, one of our Hadrakhahnikim
helping students and parents!
Language is a funny thing. Since we also teach (and pray in) Hebrew in our school, it can be twice as challenging for us. For twenty three years, we have put two teenagers in most of our Sunday classrooms that serve younger students. Originally just Gan – Kitah Gimel (K – 3), since 2010 we have also done so through Kitah Vav (6th grade). Our goal for them was threefold: 1) they served as role models to younger students, both in terms of classroom behaviors and as something to which they might aspire; 2) the teens provided a teacher with additional eyes, ears, hands and legs. As the teenager develops skills, the possibilities for creative learning expands exponentially for the class; and 3) the teens develop into pretty well trained teachers themselves. I have helped them find jobs near their colleges and two of them have returned to teach for us here!

For all of that time, we called them madrikhim. It literally means “those who show the way,” deriving from the route derekh, which means road or path. Madrikhim describes a group of them, with at least one member of the group being male. A single male would be a madrikh, a single female a madrikhah, and an all-female group would be madrikhot. A nice word, very descriptive. But language is a funny thing. Hebrew is a gendered language. And we have two veterans of that group who each prefer to be called they/them instead of he/him or she/her. Hebrew gives us no help.

Our Jewish values can give us a clue. Genesis says that the first human was created in God’s image (B’tzelem Elohim). It does not tell us that the image in question is about physical attributes, even though many through history have thought so. The Gevurot prayer, which we chant at every service praises God for all of the things God is described as doing in the Torah – redeeming the captives, freeing the slaves, visiting the sick (to name three). It suggests that this B’tzelem Elohim business is about how we have been created with the ability to do the stuff God does.

If Torah has taught me anything, it (and my parents) has taught me to make my home – and our synagogue – a place where ALL will feel welcome. That includes people whose understanding of themselves is different from what others might choose to think. So the Religious School Vision Team and the faculty have agreed that we should no longer use the various forms of the word madrikh to describe our teen educational leaders. Instead we will refer to the program in which they participate as Team Hadrakhah. Same root, but the translation is “Leadership” which is perfectly descriptive. While the word may be in the feminine form, we are not using it to label the gender of those in it. We will refer to them as Hadrakhahniks (like Kibbutznik!) if we need a descriptor like that.

The hadrakhahniks, parents and teachers now understand all of this. The younger kids likely won’t notice. They tend to be more interested in knowing the teen in their classroom by name and relating to them, rather than what name we adults use. And hopefully, if one of our pre-teens is struggling with issues of personal gender identity, they will hear the message and know this is always a safe space for them. And that here we have people with whom they can talk. Language is powerful.

Monday, April 8, 2019

On Being Chosen

When you share print things other people say, it can go one of two ways. If you claim their words as your own, it is plagiarism. And that is not a good thing. On the other hand, Pirkei Avot 6.6 says that “one who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.” Our world is definite need of redemption, so let’s hear from those who have taught us best – our students!

In Kitah Hey (5th grade) at my school, Susan Walden asked her students to pair up and pretend to be Moses. As Moses they had to answer the question “Why did God choose me (of all people) to lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” Their answers are brilliant in so many ways…these are excerpts from much longer answers.
  • “God said I was honest, selfless and brave and I respect Him/Her. Maybe I should take the chance!” – Rachel and Lila
  • “I think God chose me to lead the Israelites because I followed God’s command.” – Kate and Ethan
  • “God chose me because He noticed me having compassion and putting others before myself.” – Adam and Jack
  • “As a leader I give the people what they want and inspire them to do what they do.” – Brooke and Isaac
  • “I realized that the Israelites are important and they were suffering.” – Ruby and Sophia

As I read their answers, I hear three things. First I hear the plain meaning – what the rabbis call the p’shat. They are learning the stories. They are getting the information.

Second, I hear them putting themselves into the Torah. All of their answers are in the first person – “I realized,” “I was honest.” “I followed.” By writing themselves into the story, by trying to see through Moses’ eyes, they are interpreting the text. The rabbis called this drash.

Finally, I hear a clue of where these stories are taking them. “I was honest, selfless and brave.” “I had compassion and put others before myself.” The rabbis referred to these clues in the text as remez. The remez here is also about what we are seeing these young people becoming. If they could not see themselves as possibly having these qualities, I am not sure they would have answered the same way.

It is exciting to see learning happen. You can almost visualize the gears turning or the flow of electrons if you prefer the digital version. It is exciting to see teachers like Susan make this happen by challenging the students to dig deep into themselves.

And I visualize these same students in five years as members of our Confirmation class. Just as this year’s class did a few weeks ago, they will travel to Washington D.C. with our rabbi. They will use the skills of discerning the plain meaning, interpretation and seeking clues as they encounter issues before Congress. They will stake out a position rooted in Jewish values. Then they will go up to Capitol Hill and tell our representatives how thy expect them to vote.

It is a powerful lesson. And it started in Kitah Hey. And in Gan (K). And in all the grades in between.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Yes, I am conflicted.
Yes, I love Israel.
Yes I am going (as often as I can).

I love Israel. I hope you do to.

There is not a “but” or an “except” that follows that statement. That is the thing about love. When you love someone, you love them. You love them even though you know they are not perfect. You love them even though they make you sometimes want to be in a different physical space when they are doing or saying something. You love them even when they do things that fly in the face of everything they have always said they believe in. You even love them when they choose to believe something else.

I will not recap the news for you. The government of Israel has done a number of things that some of us wish they hadn’t. By the way, some of us wish they had done it sooner and with greater impact – that is the nature of family, we don’t always agree. On college campuses and in the leadership of several movements that some of us have felt drawn to, there have been profound attacks on Israel and those who believe in her.

Our Israeli "son" Lidor,
who lived with us for four months
Even some Jews have decided that the actions of the government make it impossible to support Israel at all. And there are certainly moments when I wish that many of those actions were different. And I still love Israel. I love Israelis. Not all of them, but I have a lot of friends and some family there. All of our shinshinim are there and I try to visit many of them whenever I visit.

I love the fact that I can walk the streets of Jerusalem and feel like I am not a tourist, but in my second home. I love that I am finally starting to explore Tel Aviv. I love the stories of the building of the nation and have had the privilege to meet some of the non-famous people who helped to build it. And I love that I feel it is mine. It is family.

And that means even when I am disappointed, I still love Israel.

In our curriculum, and with the help of our teachers and the shinshinim, we are trying to help our students find that kind of connection. That is why our Kitah Hey (5th grade) students have an ongoing relationship with their peers at the Nitzavim School in Rishon L’Tzion south of Tel Aviv. And that is why we encourage our teenagers and adults to travel to Israel.

For the past five summers I have chaperoned the NFTY L’dor Vador trips on their first leg through Eastern Europe on their way to Israel. We explore a thousand years of Jewish life in Europe and the yearning hose Jews had to return to Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. We also explore the tragic end of most of those communities. Then I escort them to Israel as they begin a four week adventure, and hopefully turn their connection with Israel into a love affair.

We need your help. Read the news. If, like many American Jews you have avoided engaging in Israel because it is complicated and sometimes troubling, stop. Engage. Form an opinion that allows you to engage. I urge you not give up on Israel, but rise to the challenge of imagining a peaceful, complete Israel. And talk about it with your kids. We cannot make them love it if you don’t.

I hope you will note that I have not told you what opinions to have about Israel. That is not up to me. I just want you to engage and teach your children to engage. Because this is about family. I can remember signs that once said “America. Love it or leave it.” I hope that you will join me in loving Israel. Leaving it is unthinkable to me – even from this side of the Atlantic.

And plan on sending your child or your family to Israel. If not this summer then soon.