Tuesday, June 20, 2023

The best use of my time ever
(for professional growth)

I should have posted this sooner. If you listen to me you only have two days to act. I hope you do. Like many of us in Jewish education, I have devoted a lot of time to my own professional development. I have always asked my teachers to attend conferences, online learning and other ways to build their professional tool box. Being a Dugma Ishit (personal example) has always been a core value to me, so I have done a lot of it. In addition to the learning, I love the networking and building relationships with colleagues.

Four members of SEC-4 with four 
Mstaff at the 18 x 18 Summit last week.

I won't list all of the conferences and programs I have attended, planned or even staffed. I will tell you about one though - and I have talked about it before.

In the late spring of 2019, I began a 10 month engagement with M2: the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education's Senior Educators Cohort. I was in Cohort 4 (SEC-4). Cohort 7 is now recruiting and the deadline is this Thursday, June 22. If you are a Jewish Educator do not pass go, do not collect $200 - go directly to the application form!

Sorry. I am a little excited about this program. You see, I have had a great time at a lot of the professional learning programs I have attended over the years. I have a lot of friendships that came out of them and I learned a lot.

SEC-4 was a on a completely different level. I was already doing a lot of learning about Experiential Learning and sharing it with my teachers, because I have believed for several years that it is the secret sauce to connecting the current and coming generations of learners. And IEJE has really created a new academic field for us to understand how to make it work in our different settings. And they have created a lexicon to help us understand it and to transmit it to our teachers an students.

When I finished the first five day seminar, I went up to Kiva Rabinsky, who is the Chief Program Officer and one of our teachers that week, and told him that I had never spent a week of professional learning where so many of my waking hours were spent actually learning. We all got to know one another and develop friendships - we still maintain and actively use our Whatsapp group, and the program ended in March of 2020! AND the learning was intense.

I had intended to complete the program and then begin sharing it with my faculty. After I returned from the first seminar, a few teachers asked me about it and I could stop sharing specifics with them. They insisted that I needed to teach it as quickly as I learned it - it made so much sense to them, I was so passionate about it and they did not want to wait. Thank God I did what they suggested. Because the final seminar ended just hours before the COVID-19 lockdown. It actually was ended two hours early so the Israeli staff and participants could board an earlier flight so they would not have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival.

Thank God I did what they suggested, spending the fall and early spring teaching my teachers what I learned at SEC-4 and helping them begin to use some of the ideas in their lessons. Because when we made the swing to Zoom on March 15, 2020, they were already thinking about how to make those Zoom classes less frontal and more experiential. I am certain they would have done an excellent job teaching online and later in hybrid mode without the M2 learning. I am convinced that it contributed a lot to how overwhelmingly successful they were in facing all that the pandemic threw at us as teachers. And they were awesome.

So stop reading my ranting. Sign up for SEC-7. You're welcome.

Monday, June 12, 2023

I ran this a year ago. It was originally the final bulletin article at a congregation I had served for 27 years. The past year has been, as Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead once said, a long strange trip. I am sharing it again, because it is truer than ever. Thank you again Patton Oswalt for your inspiration. And if you want to see a pretty good commencement address, Patton gave it at the College of William and Mary recently. You can see it here.

It was a very tense time in my life. The reason for the stress is not important now. We were waiting to hear some news, but there was nothing more to do to affect the outcome. So, I found a comedy special on Netflix, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s stand-up special “Annihilation.” I think it is still available.

He performed this show a little more than a year after the sudden death of his wife, Michelle. And he talks about both that and the process of talking to their then seven-year-old daughter about it. It is incredibly powerful, moving and strangely very funny.

Oswalt recounted that Michelle was an author of True-Crime books. He said she hated the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” She would say, “It’s all chaos, it’s all random, and it’s horrifying. And if you want to try and reduce the horror, and reduce the chaos, be kind. That’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”

It's all chaos. Be kind.

Her words and his story got us through that night. And I have shared it with many people.

You don’t need me to tell you about the chaos. Listen to the news. Look at your collection of masks and test kits. Ukraine. Terrorism. Cyber attacks. Politics and posturing from all sides.

What can we do?

When I meet with new teachers I share several principles that are sacred to me. The first is “Camp is for the campers.” In other words, always focus on the experience of our learners, rather than what is convenient for us. Another rule is “Dugma is Dogma.” Dugma Ishit is Hebrew for “personal example.” Always model the behavior you want the learners to emulate. In every moment of my life with you for the past 27 years, I have committed myself to live by the same rules I shared with our teachers. So, what can we do?

Be kind.

Over the years, we have developed our shared vision for education at B’nai Israel – for the children in Kehilah (formerly called Religious School) as well as for learners of all ages. Together we have explored what we want our congregation to learn about, and I have tried to teach how to apply Jewish values and “all of this Jewish stuff” in every aspect of our lives, not just at select moments. I have tried to live and model the sacred principles discussed with the teachers, and the Jewish values we espouse in our new curriculum, articulate as a congregation and hold dear as members of the Jewish people, every day of my life.

Take care of B’nai Israel as it has cared for us all since 1859. And take care of one another.

It’s all chaos out there. All we can do is be kind.



Thursday, June 8, 2023

Daily Life Lessons from Rabbi Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rabbi Mark Borovitz is a friend, teacher and mentor. His story is amazing. And he has a tremendous blog in which he riffs on a teaching from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom he reveres, each day. I try to read them as they post. Yesterday's is a standout and I would like to share it with you. Please go to Rabbi Mark's blog to read more: Living Rabbi Heschel's Wisdom - A Daily Path To Living Well.

Daily Life Lessons from Rabbi Heschel
June 7, 2023
Year 2 Day 218

Rabbi Mark Borovitz
“What is decisive is not the climax we reach in rare moments, but how the achievements of rare moments affect the climate of the entire life. The goal of Jewish law is to be the grammar of living, dealing with all relations and functions of living. Its main theme is the person rather than an institution.”(God in Search of Man pg. 384)

Rabbi Heschel’s wisdom above says it all, to me. We are a society that is constantly seeking a new ‘high’, fulfilling a new desire, recapturing an old ecstatic experience. We are constantly trying to reach a climax, we are constantly trying to ‘win’, we are constantly moving to the next shiny thing, the next rung up on the ladder, the next ‘big score’, the next, the next, etc. I hear Rabbi Heschel calling to us to let go of this folly, to stop our incessant search for our next climax, our next success.

My Rabbi and friend, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, teaches that the day after Yom Kippur is the most important day. Rabbi Heschel teaches that “prayer will not save us, it may make us worthy of being saved.” 

Both of these teachings reiterate the teaching above in the first sentence. How does “the climax we reach in rare moments… affect the climate of the entire life of a person”? How has the climax of the Revolutionary War impacted the way we treat freedom? How does the rare moment of our experience at Mount Sinai affect our way of living? How does winning World War II impact our ways of being more human and more humane? How do all of our ‘top of the mountain’ experiences change our ways of living?

In the Bible, after the giving of the 10 Commandments/10 Sayings, we learn about how to treat indentured servants, we learn how to deal with one another in difficult times, how to honor the humanity of one another no matter what ‘station’ in life we are at. 

After the greatest spiritual experience in the Bible (Old Testament to some), we are given paths to living well with one another, we are told of the nature of human beings and how to overcome our nature to treat another poorly, how to get over our self-deceptions and our narcissism! 

We are taught throughout the Bible how to use our daily experiences to better our internal life, to mature our spiritual life, how to live well with one another in peace, in compassion, in truth, in justice, in mercy and in love. Yet, we continue to seek the next ‘high’, not paying attention to the lessons of this experience, not allowing the climax of a good job, a new insight, to grow our inner life, to “affect the climate of the entire life”! 

We are too busy amassing more and more, eventually finding out the truth of life; there is never enough stuff, high, even accomplishments to hide from our selves, to ignore the ways we achieved wherever we have gotten to, our own inner doubts, missing the marks, callousness.

We are witnesses to the dangers and pitfalls of chasing the next big thing, the next climax and not allowing the experience of our climactic experience to change us, to impact our sense of how to live well. We can look throughout our history and see how we have treated ‘those people’, how we have tried to use ‘them’ as enemies and gotten myriads of people to agree, be it Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. 

We have and still do feel great when we ‘win’ and can dominate the minority, when we can win and get the minority to rule as we have seen in Germany with the Nazis, in Russia with Putin, in America with Trump, et al. It seems as if people are only learning how to make bigger and bigger ‘bets’ on how to satisfy their narcissistic desires, their inauthentic need for more authoritarian control. 

I am not talking about just the ‘leaders’, I am speaking of the people supporting them as well. Both the far right and the far left are spewing anti-Semitic tropes and ‘blaming the Jews’ for some troubles, both the far right and the far left are trying to push their agendas as ‘the only right way’ to live. When we are living in the extremes, we find ourselves unable to have a success, a “rare moment of climax” impact “the climate of the entire life” because we are so consumed with keeping our authority, staying in power, we are unable to learn from either success nor failure.

In recovery, we know we cannot afford to live in the extreme anymore, we know from the destruction we have caused and experienced the danger of ‘chasing the next high’. We take “One day at a time”, we go end our day with a look back so we can learn from our actions, the actions of another(s), we can repair our errors, make our amends, learn from our “rare moments of climax”. 

In recovery, we know that our recovery depends on the nature of our spiritual condition and we have to live our spiritual principles in all of our affairs, they are not etherial, they are our lifeline. God Bless and stay safe, Rabbi Mark

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Three thousand years of longing...

An amazing story about the
importance of our stories

I have been a lifelong devotee of story telling. At the old CAJE Conference I could sit for hours and listen to so many amazing story tellers - people like Peninnah Schram, Gerald Fierst and Cherie Karo Schwartz  - to name only a few of the many. When I watch a movie or TV show, I am drawn in by good writing - by the story. Even the best actor can fall short when the writing is not up to their level.

In graduate school, my teacher Isa Aron assigned us Kieren Egen's Teaching as Story Telling. Many of my classmates found it a difficult work - I was spellbound. And when my friend, mentor and then boss Joel Grishaver wanted us to create a Torah text for elementary students, we used Egen's work (and Jim Trelease's Read-Aloud Handbook) to guide us. The result was I Can Learn Torah. We were only able to publish the introduction and the first two volumes of what would have been a three volume set. It is still one of my proudest accomplishments in terms of creating curriculum materials. 

It is based on the idea that humans naturally learn through story telling. Sure our experience teaches us most of what we know about our world. Story telling is designed to help us learn to make meaning of our experiences, and those of others. While we often think of the Torah as the source of Jewish law, it is also the primary source of Jewish understanding. It is not for nothing that the first two books are almost entirely narrative!

I attended a session at a CAJE conference (nearly 30 years ago!) taught by the amazing Rafi Zarum. It was called "The Story of Stories." He handed every participant a different edition of the Passover Hagadah. Ron Wolfson once taught me that there were over 3,000 different Haggadot that have been documented.

Now Rafi taught at Mach .8 ~ just under the speed of sound! He told us he was going to walk us through the various parts of the Hagadah and we were to follow along in whatever edition we had, and call out when we found something interesting or different. He also asked us to keep a close watch for the actual text of the Exodus from Egypt as it appears in the Torah.

We learned two things I did not know until that day in Palo Alto.

  1. The actual text of the Exodus from Egypt as it appears in the Torah does not typically appear in a Hagadah.

  2. Each part of the seder is either a teaching tool to help the adults better connect themselves and the children present to the story (which the adults are expected to know well enough to tell) or is the story of another seder in history. 
Cave at Beit Guvrin,
from the same era as
the story at B'nai Brak
My favorite example is of the rabbis in B'nai Brak who are so immersed in the discussion of the Exodus that they miss the sunrise. Why tell us this? Because they lived during the Hadrianic persecutions and still held a seder, even though it could lead to their deaths! They missed the sunrise because they were in a secret cave under a courtyard which admitted no light. 

Our stories are how we know who we are and how we got here.

Last week a new film was posted on Amazon Prime - Three Thousand Years of Longing. Go watch it now. I will wait.

I was amazed. This is a story about storytelling. Tilda Swinton narrates and stars as Alithea Binnie. "Her business was story, She was a narratologist, who sought to find the truths common to all the stories of humankind."

She of course is herself apart from her own story. She encounters Idris Elba, a Djinn who loves stories - both telling them and hearing them. "My Djinn told me, when they come together in the realm of the Djinn - they tell each other stories. Stories are like breath to them. They make meaning.

So too with our stories. They teach us to make meaning.