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.

Friday, August 12, 2022

Chai, Chai, Pizza Pie!

It was the end of a wonderful and weird adventure in Italy this past July. (Lost luggage, stolen passport, dishonest cabbies mixed with beautiful sights, delicious flavors and lovely people.) We had a long drive in from Florence to the Rome airport where we would return our rental car and stay one night in Fiumicino before flying home. My wife Audrey found an old Conde Nast Traveler article which described six places you MUST stop on the way from Florence to Rome. The town of Orte was just the right distance for a lunch break, if a bit late in the day. The article recommended Trattoria Saviglia so after some delicate negotiating of mountaintop streets designed for pack animals, we parked and found the restaurant.  

It was a hot day, like the the entire summer had been, and there was one diner on the patio, just getting ready to leave. And it was late in the afternoon. But the teenager waiting tables shouted inside and was told to seat us. By the time we were served, other tables had filled. A family of five sat near us. We could hear them well enough to tell they were from our part of the world, but close enough to hear their conversation. The mother and daughter left the table, and after a few minutes the two boys - both seemed to be pre-teens - began singing loudly "Da-vid melekh Yis-ra-el.." To which Audrey and I reflexively joined in with "chai, chai, pizza pie!"

The patio at Trattoria Saviglia
The father slapped his hand on the table and shouted "I knew it! My Jew-dar is never wrong!"

I don't know what cause the dad's "Jewdar" to ping. I imagine the way we look had a lot do with it. Perhaps we said something to one another about the synagogue we had visited in Florence, speculated that if we had lived near Orte 500 years ago, we would have been serfs, as we often were in Europe. Ping it did.

The boys were day school students in their hometown of Vancouver. The family was on a six week driving vacation through Italy. Orte is roughly the size of a large neighborhood on a hilltop overlooking the highway and the Tiber River. (We learned it is pronounced tee-bear in Italian - who knew?) How two carloads of North American Jews, one from the west coast and one from the east, managed to find themselves on the patio of a restaurant in Orte on a hot Friday afternoon is... what we should have expected.

My Eisner camp bunkmate, Larry Milder, famously wrote the song "Wherever you go, there's always someone Jewish." So many campers, youth groupers and adults have enjoyed this cute tune. I think we like it because it is cute and engaging. The real magic of this song is that it speaks a truth.

The view from Orte
We will never hear from this family again - unless they reach out in response to someone telling them about this post. We did not exchange numbers or email addresses. I don't recall if we even shared our last names. What we share was a moment and a little conversation. We shared a sense of connection and peoplehood. We talked briefly about day school and summer camp and about each our trips so far. Ours was ending and theirs still had weeks to go. We were heading south and they were heading north.

In that moment of shared recognition and song, we shared something special. After 10 days of churches, medieval and renaissance art, museums and synagogues that told the Jewish story of Italy, we found our people. We had met Jews. These were North American Jews, who shared so many characteristics with us - language, local references, Jewish summer camp - that we felt a deeper connection.

There is something deeper here. I am not sure I can put a finger on it. It felt good though, and left us with bigger smiles on our faces than we had before lunch. And yes, it was a delicious lunch. If you find yourself near Orte, do stop in.

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Why "Welcome to the Next Level?"

This post may seem a bit self-indulgent. Please forgive me. As I prepare to transition to a new congregation and community after 27 years, I am finding it helpful to look a bit inward.

Full disclosure. I began this blog when I was applying for a Jim Joseph Fellowship at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar-Ilan University. They were looking for educators who wer tech and social media savvy to engage in a two-year journey into creating online Communities of Practice. It was clear from the application that they expected applicants to be bloggers. So I became a blogger. And it has been - off and on - a process I have found meaningful. It has led to some great conversations and helped me focus my thoughts and communicate them to others.

The title started out kind of cute. One of the gaming system companies (Sega?) had an ad campaign in the 90s that used it as the tag line for their commercials. It stuck with me. When I decided to create this blog, I decided that the focus had to be on where we go next in Jewish Education. 

In 1971, Joel Grishaver's original Shema is For Real and Debbie Friedman's Sing Unto God were the cutting edge. SiFR was a one color print book bound with staples. And Debbie's album was an long playing vinyl record. We have come a long way baby.

I began this blog three days after Barack Obama was first inaugurated as president. Jewish educators had been adapting devices, web sites, apps and social media platforms to find ways to keep the learning process relevant in 2009.

I was and am not a huge gamer (I do the Wordle and play a few puzzle games). We did have a Space Invaders arcade game in my fraternity though. And just like the Sega ad, every time you completed a level, another one comes and brings new challenges.

So welcome to the next level of Jewish Education. Please join me in conversation (send me something you have written and I will post it) as we all work to create the new cutting edge. Our students deserve it!

Sunday, May 1, 2022

It’s all chaos. Be kind.

In June I will be leaving Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT and beginning a new adventure with Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. This is my final bulletin article for B'nai Israel.

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.  

By my count, this is my 296th and final article for the B’nai Israel Temple Bulletin. And while I am moving to a new congregation in New York City, we are not completely leaving the community. I look forward to seeing many of you in days and years to come.

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.




Wednesday, April 20, 2022

“Someone should…”

Catching up on some blogging with things I have already written. This applies everywhere!

Turn on the cable news channel of your choice. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, InfoWars, it doesn’t matter. Within a few minutes – at most an hour – a commentator will likely say that “Someone should…”

Hang out at a sporting event. Could be kids playing little league, a minor league game or a showdown between the Yankees and the Red Sox, it doesn’t matter. Someone in range of your hearing – talking about almost any topic – will eventually say “Someone should…”

We hear it all the time. Many of us say it ourselves once in a while. When we see something that could be done better, or maybe something we think should be done that isn’t, we think and sometimes say “Someone should…”

You have been hearing or reading me talk about Jewish values a lot over the past twenty-six and three quarters years. We built our new curriculum around the idea that Jewish values are what make being Jewish valuable. They give meaning and structure to our Jewish identity and give us roots and wings.

Today’s Jewish value isAchrayut – responsibility. The Hebrew comes from the root letters Alef, Chet, Resh. Put them together and you get Acher – which means “other.” So one way to think about responsibility is that it can be the duty to think about and act toward people and events that are beyond your own immediate needs. Kehilah – community – happens because we all see that we have a shared achrayut or responsibility to take care of one another.

Kehilah – and now I am talking about youth education at our congregation – only works when adults actually do something, rather than saying that “someone should…” In the coming months, you will be invited to participate in ways you may not have done before. We already need more substitute teachers. (Call me!) We will likely need a few new teachers in the fall.

The Kehilah Vision Team, which works with the Director of Education to imagine the future, make policies and respond to new needs will need members. The Community Building Team, which organizes special events and the room parents (who work to build relationships between the parents in each class) will need people to fill those roles and do those tasks,

“Someone should” is easy to say. We spend a lot of time in Kehilah building up our kids and helping to feel like they are really someone. For Kehilah to be successful, we need all of our adults to demonstrate achrayut for our kids. We need you to say “I will” instead of “Someone should.”




Sunday, April 17, 2022

Don’t Cancel Alice Walker. Hold Her Accountable.

I have been a reader and follower of Yair Rosenberg for several years. He has been an amazing writer fighting the good fight against antisemitism in the media. And he has an amazing sense of humor. He has punk'd some of the most outrageous online trolls and spoken truth to power.

His regular newsletter, Deep Shtetl has become a subscriber based newsletter from the Atlantic Magazine. You can access past issues here as well as subscribe to the newest posts as well.

Because it is a subscription-based newsletter, I cannot share the entire text. You should go read it and subscribe. Really. 

Like most Jewish educators I have been teaching about redemption and the journey to freedom a lot in the last week or so. I have also been having conversations about cancel culture over the past few months. So when I read his article about Alice Walker, I was spurred to share it. The short summary is the title of this post (and Yair's newsletter post). He suggests that "for years, the public has responded to the celebrated author's antisemitism by either sidelining her or ignoring her prejudice. We can do better.

He suggest that rather than cancelling her, which is a pretty dehumanizing and humiliating act, she be challenged and asked to engage in conversation about her posts and public statements. Read Yair's article about that here. In his current post, he suggests that we treat her (and I presume others whom we might wish cancel) as a human, one who like the rest of us has flaws and brokenness. And we should instead engage with her on these issues and give her a chance to see how her words affect others. And perhaps to begin her path to redemption and escape from the narrow places.

Chag Pesach Sameach!