Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Generation of Entitlement

The Generation of Entitlement We are ready to begin our eighth week at Solomon Charter School though Hurricane Sandy has delayed this until tomorrow, Wednesday, October 31. So, due to the wonders of nature, I, along with everyone else in our area, am now sitting in my home staying busy and productive without the normal rhythm of life and work as distractions. Here I am in my protective bubble, catching up on phone calls to friends, making sure that others are safe and dry. I do not want to lose those contacts which are so much the essence of who I am as a person even though forces of nature and our Governor's declaration of State of Emergency have made it more challenging to stay connected. Yesterday (before we lost our Internet), I wrote what were for me difficult letters to more than a few of our students suggesting strongly that they consider letting go of the community component of our program and just focus on their academic subjects through cyber and distance learning. While this is a perfectly legitimate (and state preferred option, for whatever reasons) for our cyber school, this was difficult because one of my most powerful dreams for our school community was and still is to build an "intentional community of diversity and invested learning." Holding on to this dream, here I am telling students for whom I am responsible to continue working on math, science, history and other academic subjects but to stay away from the wonderful interactive community we create day by day. This action was necessitated by their inappropriate behaviors and lack of ability to think beyond what "I want" and "I need" to do for me from minute to minute. The notion of empathy for others which is so critical in our world eludes them. As Robert Bly eloquently and clearly states in his book, The Sibling Society, this problem is pervasive today as parents are often abdicating their role as teachers and mentors to our young, and all are left to fend for themselves. Left without clear boundaries and requirements, why not decide "I am out for myself and only myself?" I have seen this in the wealthiest communities as well as the least socio-economically endowed. Allow me to be perfectly clear. I am not cutting these students off, I will continue to work on this important aspect of their lives as members of the human family; I just cannot do it at the expense of so many others in our Learning Community. The trick is one has to think of WE more than ME in order to be part of such a community and sadly, about 1/5 of our students cannot do this at this time. One of the things that distressed me so profoundly in the supposedly (but I would argue not so much) privileged world of private Jewish education was the degree of entitlement I often witnessed amongst too many of our students as well as some of their parents. I found the unchecked attitude of "You will do what I want you to because I am entitled to have what I want" to be offensive, repulsive and for whatever it is worth, expressly against every Jewish value I hold near and dear. We teach "Do not separate yourself from the community" and we spout forth that "All of our community is responsible for each other" and yet once you move from these lofty ideals to the harsh reality, they seem pithy at best and irrelevant at worst. This hurt me beyond words given we were in Jewish educational institutions. So, now as I work with an amazing group of professionals for whom I have more respect than I can say, we collectively confront too often the very same dynamic of "ME comes before and at the expense of WE" in our Solomon Charter School community amongst a number of our students. Entitlement is a funny thing -- like so many horrible plagues it apparently knows no boundaries of race, faith, ethnicity, socio-economic level or any other set of identifying features by which we define the groups in our larger society. I have had many conversations with some of our wonderful parents and we share our own stories of growing up, how we learned to accept responsibility, take initiative and care, I mean truly care about others. We are collectively frustrated that too often our new generation has lost this most important and critical set of skills. How does this bode for our future? I remember years ago someone (and unfortunately I forget who) did a farcical précis on a future epoch where each person was in a cubicle by themselves with their computer and all their needs. No one talked to or worked with others and there was no cooperation or collaboration. Each person just withered away and as time went on each individual forgot what they learned about being part of society and eventually lost all skills of communication and cooperation. Jewish teachings and so many other systems of values and beliefs teach us how to balance confidence and respect for self with effectiveness and importance of the group. Yet, amongst too many of our youth, these elements do not seem to be present. This is OUR challenge -- how do we work to offset the inertia of this dangerous dynamic. Our Generation of Entitlement MUST be retaught basic skills and components of what it means to speak with others, think about others, work with others, and learn with others. Otherwise no Hurricane will ever result in the degree of destruction that our own complacence can produce.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Creating the School of My Dreams

On Friday, May 18, 2012, at 3:10 p.m. the call came through. WE HAVE BEEN APPROVED. I’LL TALK TO YOU LATER said Steve Crane, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Solomon Charter School, which was officially given its Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued birth certificate. With that, an extensive consulting involvement of almost two years has now officially turned into a completely new chapter in my professional life as the Founding and First Principal of this new school. I will now utilize my state issued certifications from long ago when I graduated from the Graduate School of Education of the University of Pennsylvania. This is something I never really intended to use but, as they say, never say NEVER! So, now I prepare to enter public education. What are my expectations? Will there be bureaucracy? You bet! Will there be frustrations and days when I am not sure which end is up? Why should this system be any different than any other? Am I hopeful and excited? Why wouldn’t I be? I have already acquired important skill sets in dealing with bureaucracy in an efficient manner even if it itself is not efficient, and this is clearly often the case. I have learned the art of working with and putting trust in good people so we can laugh off some of these experiences as the dues we pay for fulfilling our dreams. This whole idea of starting an entirely new educational entity, that is a brand new school, is to say the least, daunting! I have served as a consultant for many new educational entities in the private Jewish Day School sector through the years, but to begin a new public school entity and to birth it and grow it up, well, this will indeed be a new experience. We are already in the throes of it all – hiring teachers, enrolling students, dealing with the building, furniture, attending to a million administrative details, and, oh right, considering what it means to envision and bring to reality a new educational entity! We are truly and in the full sense of the word being Chalutzim, that is pioneers, in this venture…. So, I was not able to complete this post and it is now August 17, 2012. That gives you a sense of how busy and crazy my life has been. But now, to the real subject of this blog post. I love the fourfold approach that I have always used in education: 1. INSPIRE students to want to learn more and be more. 2. INFORM students to be able to do this by showing and modeling how one acquires important and valuable information. 3. ENABLE students to find such information by utilization of learned skill sets of acquisition. 4. EMPOWER students to use their inspiration, information, and skill sets to change our world This is what will make the newly birthed SOLOMON CHARTER SCHOOL run. Through use of technology, we can expose our students to so much content and so many ideas. Through creation of a caring and intentional community of diversity, we can create the laboratory in which our students and teachers and all community members ask themselves to be so much more. This is indeed in the spirit of Harold Rugg, one of the most pivotal thinkers in American Education who taught that “when society is not at its ideal, the role of the school is to be the laboratory in which its community members learn how to improve and get society to ask more of it’s self.” Through use of best educational practices, the assembling of an absolutely phenomenal team of educators, bringing the world of knowledge and capability to the computer screen that will be in the hand of every student, through becoming an embracing and supportive community, and asking each of us to be the best we can be both individually and collectively, I hope to fulfill the vision of Harold Rugg through the creation of this school of my dreams. More later about the wonderful people and components of this very special school.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Reading BaMidbar and Thinking about Boundaries

Reading BaMidbar and Thinking about Boundaries Jane Collingwood, a psychologist writes as follows: Setting clear personal boundaries is the key to ensuring relationships are mutually respectful, supportive and caring. Boundaries are a measure of self-esteem. They set the limits for acceptable behavior from those around you, determining whether they feel able to put you down, make fun, or take advantage of your good nature. We are in the cycle of Torah readings that brings us to the stories and narrative of BaMidbar. We are “in the desert” – wandering through space where boundaries may not be quite so clear or present. The boundaries are there but they are spiritual boundaries within the vast abyss of the physical desert. The boundaries are there but they are found in the laws and dictates that govern society in the absence of visual places of judgment and justice. We know there are boundaries regarding appropriate speech from the stories, and more important, the consequences of the actions, of Miriam and the scouts that go to check out the land of Canaan/Yisrael. We know there are boundaries regarding how one has to respect the common and collective good and the leadership entrusted with maintaining it from the story of Korach and his followers. We know there are boundaries regarding gratefulness and the need to remain disciplined from the debacle regarding the manna. Ironically, it takes someone OUTSIDE of the camp of the B’nai Yisrael to remind us of the boundaries of good will and communal cooperation in the persona of Balaam, who sees peace and well being when he looks at the camp of the Israelites, proclaiming the beautiful words of Mah Tovu that we recite when we enter our Batei Kenesset to begin our prayers in the morning. Sefer BaMidbar is as much, even more so to be sure, about fighting to break through boundaries as much as it is about finding and maintaining those boundaries. We understand this in our own lives, where we will fight the boundaries all around us in terms of the rules and regulations that govern our lives, the relationships that define our being part of our world and so much else, in our attempts to work towards a better world. In this, Sefer BaMidbar is so supremely instructive. True, there are many causes for which we must fight in our lives. I have certainly written about those causes in these blog posts on many occasions and hope to be able to continue to do so. That being said, there are boundaries in how we go about this attempt to find what is right and proper. Miriam’s concern about Moshe and his relationship with his wife, Tzipora, as we are taught, was not what was problematic; rather it was the way she went about criticizing Moshe that created the difficult and contentious set of circumstances that ensued, ultimately resulting in her being plagued by leprosy. We understand the people of the wandering multitudes becoming inpatient with the manna and losing sense of their purpose; from this we learn that difficult tasks are, as the word goes, difficult and that patience is the need of the hour when fighting for something just and needed, such as control over one’s destiny in the case of the B’nai Yisrael. The desert is perhaps without physical boundaries, but its vastness reminds us of a most important personal boundary, namely that of humility. We are but “specks of dust in the wind’ as the song goes. If we remember THIS boundary, namely the humble piece our lives play in the enormous universe, we may be able to rethink our relationships and our interactions with others and our world. In thinking about this, let us remember that by observing self-imposed appropriate personal boundaries, we will be able to be part of relationships that are mutually respectful, work towards a better world, and redefine the desert in which we all function to some degree.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Defeat of a Jewish Educator

Defeat of a Jewish Educator! So, I have been in the field of Jewish Education for thirty seven years (okay, that really sounds strange to say!) and I will soon be leaving the field that I have loved so much and in which I have found so much happiness and fulfillment. Why? Because the pain and disappointment that I have absorbed during the last few years has overshadowed the joys and fulfillment that I have found in this amazing journey during all of those years. Oh, and by the way, I am well aware that I am not the only one…. I am joining the ranks of more than a few wonderful colleagues whose leaving definitely left a void in this most important endeavor. I remember well when I decided to become a Jewish educator. I was five years old and I went to Sunday School. I loved Sunday School – perhaps due to the fact that everything one does at the age of five is still new and exciting, or maybe because I was little and became sort of a mascot in the Orthodox shul in which that Sunday School was located, which actually started one fall day when my parents accidentally turned our clocks FORWARD instead of backward, and I arrive for class, TWO FULL HOURS early. That was my first Shaharit minyan experience. I always loved learning about all things Jewish, and even when I was angry and vexed with G-d (and there have most certainly been those times) I was still learning. These teachings and values became my template for living early on. So, back to my pivotal life decision! I came back from school and my parents asked me how I liked it. I told them I LOVED Hebrew School (okay, now stop laughing everyone!) but that I thought things could be taught better and that’s what I wanted to do with my life. And so I did or at least tried to do so! And here I am after 37 years; thousands and thousands of students; so many teachers and principals that I have worked with as a colleague, director, and consultant; and countless lessons and stories that are in my heart and this is where they will stay as I move on to new adventures. In spite of all of this, I am leaving Jewish education and here are the reasons why in as concise and specific terms as possible. 1. Too often in Jewish Education, educators are not the ones who are making pivotal decisions. Through the years, I have served in various educational leadership positions in different institutions. I have been a Director, Principal, Department Head and held other various appointments. Whatever I have done, I have always claimed to be part of Educational Leadership and NOT ADMINISTRATION! There is an important difference. I have never held an Educational Leadership position without teaching and being an integral and actively participating member of the learning culture of the institution. Further, I am proud to say I never earned a salary that was excessive (after all this is supposed to be a non-profit business, right?). Now with some of our schools hiring CEO types in isolated offices and with excessively large salaries that are breaking the back of the schools they serve (that may exist in buildings that they can ill afford as well), and layers of bureaucracy before one even gets to the educators, decision making can often have little to do with educational concerns and reality. 2. A colleague of mine once said that her father, who was an accountant, did not understand schools and their governance. He stated that he would work with one client at a time whereas the teacher has to multi-task continually, serving the needs of many different students with different needs simultaneously. Imagine if you were with an entire committee that would go to protest at your physician’s doctor office; let me know how far you get. Yet, in trying to meet more and more needs of students in terms of learning differences, learning styles, family issues, psychological needs, and doing so with not enough support in too many cases…. Well you get the picture. 3. If the CEO/Isolated School Leader (and of course, I know many of our Educational Directors are NOT this, but I am overstating the case to make the point, because unfortunately, this IS reality for some, and that means too many of our schools) does not fully understand the school and its reality and needs, and is the chosen advocate for the school in the larger community to the Jewish Federation, potential donors, synagogues, other institutions, and such, well -- what impression are they getting? 4. In some of our communities, TUITION IS TOO HIGH! Should I say that again? Are we providing Jewish Day School education (a la parochial models such as Catholic schools) or are we fancy private schools for Jewish kids, sometimes with just a little bit of Jewish Studies on the side? Again, this is not always the case, but if it is in your town or community and the system is struggling, hmmmmmmm, high tuition, highly paid administration, big building – Consider this: these schools and these directors DID NOT look like this twenty five years ago! For that matter, most of the educational institutions that are providing good solid experiences today do not either! So, let’s fess up – are we fancy private schools or Jewish Day Schools? 5. As a consultant who worked in many schools and communities throughout North America and as someone who has seen Jewish Day Schools from all different angles, too often these schools do not have a clear mission. If we do not know what we want and need to be, how do we become those things? Interestingly enough, now there is no money for consultants, for qualitative curriculum work (If one more community calls me and says they really want me to come and help them, but cannot pay me, can I do it? --- well, you get the point!) So back to those missions and realizing what the school is and what it is not…. someone has to figure this one out. A friend and colleague from many years ago called recently and we were chatting. She’s actually with a foundation and asked me why it feels like Jewish Education is imploding. Simply, I told her, we grew up and did not do a very good job of it! Too many Jewish Educational institutions are closing, demographics are showing lower numbers due to assimilation, where people live, which communities can and cannot support their Jewish educational institutions, and while there is no money for curriculum development and working with these schools in a consultative and supportive manner, more demographic studies show an avalanche of problems. Here’s an idea, take some of the money that goes into these studies, bring some of those high salaries (again, I am NOT talking about you, my friends who are doing really wonderful things and good work and getting paid appropriate amounts) and go …. hire good consultants and/or learn to do proper strategic educational planning and development! Or sit down, and figure out what you are teaching instead of how to purchase a bigger building in which to teach. Okay, enough of my soapbox diatribe. I am leaving. I will still be a teacher (yes, that still is my favorite part, referencing my last blog post), and I will still try to make this a better world, BUT I will no longer be doing so as a Jewish educator! Oh and yes, I am sad about that!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I am a ….. TEACHER and I Love It!

In the movie Footnote by Joseph Cedar (this year’s Israeli entry for Best Foreign Film Oscar), we see a poignant and at often times painful story about a father and son who, though at odds about life, learning and so much else, are at the end of the day both …… teachers. By the way, I HIGHLY recommend the movie as an insight into some fundamental aspects of our lives collectively as learners and as Jews and as human beings. In a fairly early scene (don’t worry, I won’t give away the movie!) we see how the son wants his father to be someone important and while his father is a college professor, a researcher, a Biblical and philology scholar; he simply states that he is a TEACHER! Who would be proud of being a teacher, according to the musings of the son? As they relate to each other and to their respective worlds, you see frustration of lost dreams, wonder at the value of one’s work and so much else that one contemplates as most, if not all, of his career is behind him. A real Kohelet moment if you will, you know, “Everything under the sun is futile,” “what is the purpose of a man’s labor?” and so on. By the way, I also recommend reading this treatise attributed by many to King Solomon in our Tanach (also known as Ecclesiastes in English) if you have not done so already. There you go, one book and one movie for your summer entertainment (and learning) list! So I have been a TEACHER for the past 37 years (ouch!) and I hope to continue for many to come. Oh yes, I have lectured, published, run schools, run Bureaus of Jewish Education, consulted, and done so much else, but at the end of the day all of these different involvements that pepper my resume add up to TEACHER, this is what I am (and proudly so!) and this is what I will continue to be no matter what chapters play out in my future professional activities. I grew up with the word “Melamed” thrown around a lot. A Melamed is a revered teacher in Hebrew, but the word actually means “to bring about learning.” In other words, in Jewish/Hebrew culture, a teacher is seen within the perspective of facilitating the activity of learning. It is accountable and defined beyond itself, as opposed to English dictionaries who define teacher often as “one who teaches.” Years ago, I was a member of a wonderful organization called the Coalition on Alternatives in Jewish Education. Their motto was “Lilmod uLeLamed” -- “to learn and to teach.” I often joke that I am in Grade 52, that is, I have been in school that long and am still learning. I really believe that the most important thing I bring to my classes, which I refer to as “learning circles”, is my experience as a learner, trying to inspire other learning. This is a process that remains exciting, fresh and new. This is the greatest perk of teaching as far as I can see; the ability to get paid and be a professional whose purpose is to keep learning and facilitating that process for others. This is the TEACHER that I think the father in Footnote had in mind; and this is the type of professional our best teachers are. Oh yes, and by the way, before I forget, this is National Educator’s Week, so go hug a teacher, thank a teacher, or acknowledge a teacher…. And for those of us who are in fact TEACHERS, YAY US! Keep on learnin’!

Monday, April 16, 2012

How many different faces does G-d have?

How many different faces does G-d have?

As we enter the period of Sefirat HaOmer, the counting of the Omer, we are even more mindful of time and its passage. We are coming out of the zone of Z’man Heiruteinu, the time of our freedom with the leaving of Egypt and the life of slavery it held for us as celebrated and observed during Pesah and now beginning to think about the waiting period for our celebration of Z’man Matan Torateinu, the giving of our precious Torah as celebrated and observed during Shavuot seven weeks later. During this time, one of the “new takes” I have decided to intentionally observe this year in my learning, teaching, prayers, etc. is the many different ways that we interact with G-d and vice versa. During the singing of Dayenu at our Seder table, I was thinking of the different tasks and actions that G-d brings into G-d’s relationship with us. Some are reflective of G-d’s caretaking and gentle manner with us as Rachmana, Av HaRachamim and as Adoshem among other names; other actions represent G-d’s need to keep us on course and be our judge and disciplinarian as G-d does as Elokeinu and Elokei Avoteinu; there are actions in which we are to model and parallel what G-d does on high (El Elyon) in our own world; and so on.

I always loved the notion that the Hebrew word for face is Panim, a plural form, because actually we all have so many different faces. We have a happy face, a sad expression, a frustrated look, and joyful countenance and so forth. We should remember that we were made in the image of ELOKEINU (as in BeTzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d we were made). Of course, the very word, ELOKIM is also in the plural, for much of the same reason. We may not always like the face we have on and we may not always feel so pleased with the aspect that G-d shows us at various intervals, but just as our ONE FACE has the capacity to show so many different emotions and feelings, our ONE AND ONLY ONE G-D shows us many different aspects and elements of our lives and G-d’s impact in our lives. We should remember that all of these different aspects and elements of G-d’s place in our lives parallels the many different expressions and faces we all have with our singular composition we name “face.” If we think of G-d in this way, then the notion that G-d is so many different manifestations to so many different people can help us in relating to G-d in our own lives and to respect that other people with their own personalities and needs are doing the same. G-d is not one static constant in this thinking but rather a multi-faceted and ever moving being, as we, the creations of G-d, are.

We are taught by Chazal (our revered Rabbis) that the miracle of Z’man Matan Torateinu (the time of the receiving of the Torah) was that with all of our various perspectives and approaches and voices, for that moment in time we were of “one voice and one heart” and that the unity of purpose at this amazing moment was truly unfathomable. May we always preserve and value our differences and the many ways in which we relate to and consider G-d while observing the vision of Zechariah, the prophet who gives us the verse we all say daily in the Aleinu, “On that day, may G-d be One and G-d’s Name be One.” One, that is, with G-d’s many different faces and manifestations; and One in our minds, as varied and differentiated as we are as well!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Who are the Four Children at your Pesah Seder Table?

Who are the Four Children at your Pesah Seder Table?

I am presently teaching a unit of study to high school students entitled Halacha and Homosexuality. It is an exploration of critical texts of our Tanach, Mishnah, Gemara, Mishneh Torah and other sources that require us to look at the texts and the laws of our Jewish system in the expansive way it appears that Chazal and even Ribbonu shel Olam would have us do while addressing an admittedly challenging issue in terms of acceptance of those into our community when we may not honestly (or otherwise) be sure what we are supposed to do. I am also dealing right now with the varied reactions that so many people in my classes and world are having regarding the invisible children and their plight, given the recent publicity surrounding this issue. Given the season, I am in the midst of planning two separate events that promote understanding between people of different faith communities. Additionally, I am presently working on creating a new school and in so doing have spent a lot of time learning about learning differences and various types of disabilities, all of which must be accommodated when considering who has the right to a proper and full education according to the State of Pennsylvania. Finally, we are also in a season in which there are many opportunities and reasons to share and care with our resources and do deeds of Tzedakah in our community and beyond – easing difficult situations for many people in poverty or suffering from other socioeconomic or health challenges.

So here are a variety of instances in which the “other” becomes us – we are connected to and/or invested in the well being of all by virtue of our deeds and our working towards inclusion of groups that we may or may not consider to be part of “us.”

One of my favorite parts of the Seder (hmmmmm, there are really so many) is the reading of the Four Sons, one so wise and knowledgeable about the things of which he is knowledgeable, one so disconnected (by virtue of which he is called wicked, with which I am not so sure I agree), one who needs things explained in more simplistic, basic terms, and the fourth who does not know enough to ask a question. There have been many suggestions that there is actually a fifth son or child, the one who does not even come to the table. What a telling group this is for ourselves as members of the Jewish community and of the world community!

Now, let’s think about these four or five ways of dealing with “the one who is different than the masses.” How many different applications could we possibly come up with, whether we are talking about the GLBTQ members of our community who may be considered to be excluded by others and sometimes by their own experiences? What about those with learning differences in our educational community, who may ask questions WE don’t understand or that seem too simple? What about members of our community with different skill sets and abilities, different backgrounds, and so forth, who may possess wisdom and insight that elude us? How do we insure that all members of our community are indeed sitting at tables and are included in the discussion? How do we bring those back who have felt excluded either by our actions or their own experiences?

As we begin to think about Pesah and the four sons and the many lessons they bring us, let us consider what they teach us and the many different applications we can employ to show that we have learned these important lessons and that we use the Seder experience to share and pass these lessons on to our children and the future generations that will ensue. Maybe we can even include this in our Seder discussion as we consider the phrase “Let ALL who are hungry (or needing us in any way) come in (to our communities and to our lives).”

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Belated Hodesh Tov for Nisan!

In the beginning of the Maftir portion this past Shabbat, we read as follows:

HaShem said to Moshe and Aharon in the Land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year.” (Shemot 12: 1 – 2)

It was especially poignant this year to read this on Shabbat because it was in fact a Shabbat Rosh Hodesh, but not just any Shabbat Rosh Hodesh, but Shabbat Rosh Hodesh Nisan. So why should we care? After all, with all the Pesah preparations and planning, who has time for this additional Jewish observance? WHO HAS TIME, you ask? Why, WE DO, as free people!!!!!

This commandment to observe not just Rosh Hodesh, but specifically ROSH HODESH NISSAN, and this year as SHABBAT HAHODESH, is the first mitzvah given by G-d to the nation of Israel as a free people, a collective of free individuals tied together by nationhood, by the shared experience of leaving Egypt and slavery behind under the watchful eye and outstretched arm of G-d. AND IT IS QUITE IMPORTANT!

Consider this --- a few months ago, we celebrated and observed Chanukah. With that holiday, we cherish the spirit and fortitude we as Jews have had to fight for and value our freedom. Antiochus and the oppressive Greek/Syrian entity that dictated so much for the lives of its Jews so long ago forbade three practices specifically, Brit Milah for our baby boys, the observance and celebration of Shabbat and the marking of our months through Rosh Hodesh. Why these three? Without a Brit Milah, one’s very identity is questioned as he cannot bear the mark of being a Jew and living as G-d commanded. Without Shabbat, we cannot celebrate and refresh ourselves as community and as individuals – the very essence of our weeks and lives was removed. And Rosh Hodesh – by marking our new moons and keeping track of our days and cycles of time, we were living as people who had a sense of control. Take that away, have someone else mark and define your time, and you lose a basic right of existence and freedom.

We as Jews are always conscious of the marking of time. Our days begin with sundown and the transition continues until the coming out of stars. We pray according to daily markers of time. We mark our weekly Shabbatot and keep track of our holidays and celebrations through our luni (some say loony) solar calendar. THIS CANNOT BE DONE WITHOUT FREEDOM. Any survivor of the Holocaust or of the days before Soviet Jews were able to leave the land of their oppression will tell you this is so.

We know that one of the worst forms of torture and inhumane treatment of fellow human beings is to take away their sense of time. This is used in torture of prisoners, and is the source of so much depression and disorientation for those who live in regions where time may not be so easily marked by simple things we all take for granted – sun rise and sun down.

Marking our time for us is a gift – OUR GIFT as free people who left the slavery and the beatings and the determination of our schedules by our oppressors in Egypt so long ago. Let us appreciate this gift and use it well. May the new year of time, beginning with Rosh Hodesh Nissan be one in which we use our gift of time purposefully, appreciatively and without taking it for granted.


Monday, March 12, 2012

An Interesting Lesson from the Academy Awards

So, we are not such “religious” movie-goers, that is to say, we rarely go. Last year, when the Academy Awards were on, we realized that we had no right to watch the Awards as we had not been to a single movie all year and didn’t even know what they were and who was in them. So, instead, while the show was airing, we elected to go watch The King’s Speech, about which he had heard so much. We returned home in time to see it win the best actor award and the best picture award among others. We loved the movie and its message, so were happy to see we chose well. This year, we improved a bit. Prior to the start of the show in which Oscar is the star, we had seen three movies, the third of which we caught at a 4:30 p.m. showing Sunday, a few hours before the start of the big Hollywood bash in which the awards are distributed. So, we spent Sunday afternoon watching and thinking about The Artist. Once again, we picked not a, but THE winner.

Soon after the announcement of this as the Best Movie of the Year, it occurred to me that the Academy chose films for two years in a row about trying to find one’s voice! I really think there is an important lesson here for all of us as human beings, as well as for the Jewish individual and collective soul. By the way, another excellent film we saw, The Help, fits into this thematic rubric as well.

With the concentration of text study that is just part of my life and the ongoing conversations about those texts between my students and myself, my friends and colleagues and myself and my family members and myself, I am fully aware of how much words and speech are an ongoing part of my life. This is even before we get to the technology formats that further enable the spreading of words (like what you are reading right now!), the bombardment of so many words and sounds and so forth.

One of the scenes in The Artist that just struck me as so poignant (which is I believe the intention of all involved with the film) was when the sounds of everything surrounding this silent film star turned into this deafening and painful cacophony of sound. During this sequence, I was thinking about how I always love to be one of the first to be in the Netilat Yadayim line at our Shabbat and Yom Tov meals, simply because I love (really, believe it or not) the permission to just be quiet for a while with no one expecting any words to come out of my mouth. I am left with my thoughts and I just smile. For me, who REFUSES to stand in line for food at a buffet, this is a line I will get in first if possible!

I DO feel the overwhelming sounds of words and am often struck by the degree to which people think (or not) before those words are sent out into the airwaves that then resound with sound for all of us. We in the United States are certainly experiencing this now, for example, with all of the misspoken comments and other problems going on in certain political posturing of candidates for President in the upcoming elections.

We are all aware of how VERBAL bullying has taken a more prominent place in our lists of concerns as being as dangerous, or even more so, than physical bullying. There are campaigns to get all of us to THINK BEFORE WE SPEAK, as the age old adage goes. There are days of intentional silence in various circles, and so on.

And now Hollywood comes to teach us that finding our voice in a thoughtful, intentional and deliberate way might not be so easy for a variety of reasons in many different situations. Black “help” in the South found their voice through the writing project of one of the more fringe members of the community, The Artist found his voice in his tap dancing feet, and King George VI finally was able to find his voice when it was so needed at a critical time in his country’s (and world) history.

Maybe if we all had more challenges that would require us to work harder to find our voice, we would value it more and use it appropriately to build, not to destroy; to improve, not to make things worse; and to validate and include all, not insult and exclude them. Otherwise, our voices screaming and fighting too often sounds to me like a cacophony of sounds that can be painful and harmful.

Friday, February 24, 2012

On Being Excluded for Working for Inclusion

I often say and have written here before about the notion that I truly and humbly believe that as an observant Shomer Mitzvot Jew, I have a MORAL IMPERATIVE to work for the safety and inclusion of all members of our Jewish family and our human family. I personally think we all do but as I always, explain I can only make “I statements,” so this is the principle I will use. This is why I vex over such things as whom I should help with my admittedly limited Tzedakah dollars (see previous post) and how we need to work tirelessly to build bridges that join all sectors of our community. This is also why I am often “not fully acceptable” in my own religious community, which is an entirely different topic.

This is why I sit on our area’s Interfaith Dialogue Steering Committee, am a member of our JFCS Task Force of Inclusion of GLBTQ Members of our community, make a point to participate in group experiences whether or not I may agree with that group’s agenda, teach my children and students to accept and value all human beings as much as possible, write and publish curricular pieces on these topics, work with conflict resolution and inter-group dialogue, visit places and work with groups across both my comfort and courage zone and try to encourage others to do the same.

So several weeks ago, I was at at one of my inclusion focused group meetings and we were discussing the various groups that we are concerned about and represent as a collective. When my turn came to share, I spoke on behalf of the GLBTQ members of the Orthodox and more ritualistically observant part of the Jewish spectrum and tried to explain how often the issues for this part of our Jewish community are different and specific to the need to reconcile the dictates of Halacha and the texts that inform how we live with what we know about how people function and what our medical experts have taught us about sexual and gender identity.

I must admit that I was caught a bit by surprise when another individual at the table immediately responded by speaking rather forcibly and ultimately in a quite loud voice (to the point of being embarrassing) about how I am a hypocrite for being part of my community and how this community and I are racist and extremist and bigoted…. And on went the reaction. While this clearly had an impact on me (I often feel like I am going into a type of internal shock in these situations), I practiced my own advice which is to stay calm and reasonable in such situations. I responded in a soft voice, trying to reason. Immediately it was clear I could not offer any response so I simply said “I guess we will have to agree to disagree.” At this point, the individual shouted “No you are wrong! There is no agreement for anything here!” I shrugged, for what else could I do. The kind person sitting next to me (whom I really did not know) wrote me a quick note, asking if I was okay! Other looks of concern could be seen around the table, which were greatly appreciated.

One other member of the group picked up on the statement claiming agreement and the bashing of all things Orthodox (with no attempts to clarify or specify) was off and running. The facilitator of the discussion basically suggested moving on and so we did.

A few of my students were at this meeting (I brought them) and I could see they were shaken. I explained to them that I heard a wonderful statement recently that goes like this: We must have even more compassion for those who do not have compassion. How applicable this is to so many different sides of the table, so to speak.

As I was processing this experience and the stinging feeling that it produces, I remember about twelve years ago when I was attending one of the first showings of “Trembling Before G-d,” the seminal and groundbreaking film about Homosexuality in the Orthodox Jewish community and world. It was at Beit Ahavah, the area’s GLBTQ synagogue. In the course of the discussion, a woman stood up in the back of the room and began to really attack all people and all things Orthodox. She took the position that she did not understand how anyone could be part of such a horrible group, and that GLBTQ Jews should just be that and disassociate themselves from anything Orthodox. She went on for a few moments at which point the President of the Congregation looked at me helplessly and somewhat embarrassed (I had come with my daughter and a good friend as I had known Steve Greenberg who was associated with the film) and I indicated that I would respond. I basically stood up and explained that there are always those who will not accept others, however to make blanket statements that “All X (in this case, Orthodox people) are Y (horrible and unaccepting)” does not really serve any purpose. I explained that she was using the same type of blanket statements to malign us that others would use against her identified social group of acceptance, and for which they need to be called to task. “We are here with you in solidarity, acceptance and understanding. Are you really stating that you want us to leave the room?” I sat down and mostly all of those present applauded.

So, here I sit. I still encourage my students, my children, my friends, anyone I can to be part of as many different groupings as they can. We MUST be inclusive. We are taught in the details and big ideas of Halacha to be inclusive. Thirty six times in our Torah we are taught to accept all those amongst us and to NOT OPPRESS OR HARM anyone as a stranger in the way that we were treated in our years in Egypt. I will not stop going out on the limb and joining groups in which I may be one of the few, if not the only one representing this bridging together of Jewish observance and social/human acceptance and appreciation. I still believe it is my moral imperative to do so. It is in this conviction I take comfort when I am excluded because of my admittedly inclusive agenda.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Finding the Balance between Helping Others and Asking that All Take Responsibility for Ourselves

Consider the following information that appears in an article entitled “The New Poverty” that recently appeared in The Jerusalem Report (January 16, 2012 issue):

… 53 percent of Arab families live under the poverty line…. In the Arab sector … the men work but the women often do not.

These comments are offered in an article explaining poverty in Israel today and how there are specific challenges to all of Israel. These comments refer to one population within the Israeli structure and elsewhere in the article it is commented that this

…skews the figures because if we could only count the rest of the population, our poverty level would put us [in a more normative economic situation when looking at the rest of the world]

So, let’s pause for a moment. Think honestly about how you feel regarding this information. Do you feel comfortable having a discussion about how we can help these families and what we can do to change the circumstances of this population? Does that discussion relate to your politics, to the notion that we should extend a hand to those less fortunate, or a combination of these elements and other values you hold dear?

Please note that I will not propose any answers here, I am merely asking questions. Those questions are about who has both the responsibility and ability to support themselves and what those of us who are working and in a position to help others should be asked and required to do for those who choose not to accept such responsibility, should this be and when this is the case.

After you have thought about this a bit…. And ONLY THEN, continue….

In this same article the following information appears, also as part of what “skews the figures” of poverty in Israel:

Among the Haredi population, 55 percent of families live under the poverty line…In the Haredi sector, women tend to work while the men do not…

So, let’s pause once again. How do you honestly feel about this information? Do you want to help and change the circumstances of this population? What are the factors that contribute to your answer? Is your approach here the same as or different from that in the situation above? What accounts for these similarities or differences?

Consider that there is almost identical information about these two populations, which are described in the article as follows:

[The] single poverty figure of 20 percent [for Israel in general] does not reflect the true complexity of the issue of combating poverty in Israel… The population can be divided into [three separate economic entities of] the ultra-Orthodox Haredi sector, the Arab sector, and the ‘rest,’ mostly secular Jews.

Further, about the “’rest,’ mostly secular Jews,” it is written:

In general, in families in which two members of the family work, the poverty rate is only 3 percent…

So, in the end, how sympathetic are we to “Israel’s poverty problem?” How are we supposed to respond to each of the two groups indicated as well as to the problem in general?

In my own family, my husband and I have both always worked. We have raised our children to work and take responsibility for them selves in our world. Our 28 year old daughter and her husband both work, and are also raising the most adorable and beautiful 16 month old twin girls. We have provided for our children based upon our being a two professional family. Years ago, when we were living in another community that was heavily populated by a very strong Orthodox (and economically challenged) presence, we were TOLD, yes TOLD that we were responsible for educating the other community children whose parents could not provide for them (including many who followed the model indicated here amongst the Haredi population in Israel). I must say I had a hard time with that notion.

No one loves to learn and grow more than I do. That being said, it has been a joy to take responsibility for our children, their education and the quality of life for all members of our wonderful family. Why should I feel responsible for those who DO NOT TRY to do the same? I am certainly not suggesting that this is always the case and clearly there are cases where we should (and we do) care and share with our resources with which G-d has blessed us. That being said, at what point do people get to take a “pass” on meeting their economic responsibility for their own families? Further, what circumstances should inspire me to “care and share” graciously with others? When is it appropriate to help others and when is it more appropriate to facilitate a process by which others take responsibility for themselves? I often refer to the Talmudic dictum of “When you give someone a fish they have dinner for the evening; when you teach someone to fish, they have dinner for life.” Maimonides teaches that the highest form of Tzedakah is helping someone find work.

To be sure, there are cultures where not all members of the community work. That being said, we are all aware of alterations and decisions we have ourselves made to accommodate changing economics and various needs in our daily lives. If others are able to do so and choose not to do so, is this the direction in which I should direct my Tzedakah dollars? I am just not all that sure.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Okay, A Bit More about the Women Issues and what we are really about…

So, as a continuation of my last blog post, many of these protests that were going on (and still are) in Israel are related to women. Now, I will begin this part of the discussion with the disclaimer that I AM NOT SUGGESTING (nor should anyone) that we are dealing with a situation, which even at its worst, that is anything like the totalitarian religious republics in the region or other spaces and places in history where women were considered property or not rightful human beings with their own rights. Clearly, this is NOT the case in Israel.

For one thing, among many others, this discussion is taking place IN THE OPEN – in the press, on the streets (e.g. note the recent flash mob in Beit Shemesh), in shuls on Shabbat in Divrei Torah, and in so many open forums. To be sure, I have never thought that the addition of histrionics and overstatements that color the discussion add anything to the serious consideration of matters of concern. That being said, my standing question still obtains, namely, whose standards are we worried about maintaining, ours or those of other groups, other cultures, other systems of belief and behavior?

Many are asking and are justifiably concerned about the fact that the situation (that is OUR situation!) has devolved to the point where a self-identified Haredi (one who is trembling with piety) man SPITS at an 8 year old child (not that it matters, but who is herself a member of the religiously defined community), who is then rightfully traumatized by such an action. What will this child, who is herself ritualistically observant and identified as a member of the religious community by any number of identifying markers, now think as she is walking down the street and sees such individuals? Did our larger community do her and others in her generation a gross injustice by consistently and tacitly accepting a devolving situation where the screaming and the diatribes thrown at each other detract from the real issue, namely that:

בצלם אלקים נברא כל אדם

In other words, EVERY HUMAN BEING, MALE AND FEMALE, has been created in the IMAGE OF G-D. Further, we are taught in Bereshit Rabbah, amongst so many other texts, that when we act in such a way as to embarrass another human being, we diminish G-d’s presence in that person, but more importantly, in ourselves for acting in such a misinformed manner. Put simply, one who disrespects and shows disregard for another human being is showing the same disrespect and disregard for G-d, who is the CREATOR of all beings CREATED. Maimonides teaches this as well repeatedly in his Mishneh Torah. I could go on and on citing texts, but this is not really the point.

When this most basic teaching is among other things, familiar to those of us who have some modicum of common sense, one must ask what has gone so terribly wrong that the very women and children that are supposed to be protected and valued by our society are subjected to such abuse and misuse of our Torah laws and way of life.

When teaching the Book of Joshua, I love to ask my students “What went wrong with poor Achan?” Besides being a question with meter and sounding quite pithy, it is really one that concerns the deepest part of our identity – that as a group, invested in each other and supportive of those around us, we must be following the Torah dictum of “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” or

ואהבת לרעך כמוך

So, when we do discuss WHAT WENT WRONG WITH POOR ACHAN, we arrive at the point of community responsibility – the notion that we are supposed to look out for each other and be concerned about each other. How could Achan have hidden the proscribed goods WITHOUT knowledge of his neighbors and those around him? It is for this reason, we are taught in some of our commentaries, that the entirety of the people of Israel was punished by a crushing blow in their next battle.

And here we are today. Who is looking out for our eight year old girls walking to their school appropriately dressed? Who is looking out for the female soldier that is GUARDING AND PROTECTING US when she sits on a bus? Who is looking out for women who want to shop (but cannot because their skirts are not long enough) in the same grocery store they have always shopped in before new neighbors moved into the next community over? Who is looking out for girls that are respectfully observing community standards yet cannot walk through certain neighborhoods without getting attacked?

Further, what are the perpetrators learning if no one is stopping them? What favors are being done for them if there is validation of their actions with no consequences? WHAT WENT WRONG WITH POOR ACHAN? And finally, as an entirely different but not unconnected issue, let us consider where the Tzedakah dollars of those of us who are attacked by those who decide “we are not frum enough” are potentially NOT GOING TO GO ANY LONGER? Now who suffers? This is not helping the situation either.

In Shemot 22: 20 – 23, we read this chilling text that teaches we MUST treat the GER – the stranger properly, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt and we know how it felt. We then read, as this text continues, not to ignore the cry of the widow or the orphan or G-d will make OUR OWN women and children orphans. This text keeps running through my head as I consider these painful and profoundly disappointing events in our present day lives. And I do wonder …. Who IS protecting the children and women vulnerable to such actions within their own community?

No, we are not as bad as other people and groupingss that do not live up to their standards. That being said, we are in need of a major taking of account (a CHESHBON HANEFESH) in terms of our own standards, because we have too many ACHANS running around hurting those we are to protect and value and cherish amongst our own, even an eight year old child who just wants to ride the bus to school!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Let’s Protest ….. Everything: The Israeli Way

Our family just returned from Israel and during the 10 or so days we were there, we found more protests per square mile regarding clearly relevant and important issues and protests that protested the protests than one would be able to imagine. This is the land of protests. We have come through tentifada, the protests regarding needing to better meet the needs of the disabled, protests against the referred - to Occupation (please don’t protest, I am just referencing the name), protests supporting the efforts of TZAHAL, protests regarding the religious control and presence in various communities, protests regarding the lack of religious control and presence in various communities, protests about the economic situation, and oh yes, there is that other issue… you know, the treatment of women.

Should they be visible or invisible? Should they be visible part of the time or all of the time? How long should their sleeves be? While one man spits at a child whose sleeves are not long enough (shame on him and any others like him!) another very Haredi community has now required that their women wear their skirts to the middle of their calves, and NOT full length in…. (yes, you guessed it) PROTEST of the Modern Orthodox and National Religious women who wear long skirts (for me, its just that I like that flowy, hippy style!). Then there are those in Ramat Beit Shemesh who protest any length of skirt and wear their Burkas, in protest! Does anyone else find this as absurd as I do?

Protests abound in support of women being visible on billboards, singing at celebratory events in the army and not having to be relegated to the back of the bus. Then there are other protests for the rights of the Haredi men who are now serving in the army (after many years of efforts that went into making that happen) who should not have to hear the voices of women. Further, now there is a new “potential wall” to protest – the one being discussed that would divide Beit Shemesh, an entirely other discussion.

It really is a wonder anyone has any time to do much of anything else in the course of a normal week here (whatever that might look like). PROTESTING can be a full time involvement in this tiny and VERY VOCAL country! So, I think this can be a good thing. Thank G-d, in this country people can protest and counter-protest and then protest against the counter-protesters and generally everyone gets their word, their street corners, their newspaper and media coverage and of course, this just fuels all of the protests even more. Israel definitely gets credit and praise for this – you know, its called Freedom of Speech!

That being said, I wonder if the core issues are getting lost in the overly plentiful protests as wonderful and important thoughts get lost in too many words. While the raising of voices is to be valued and appreciated, I am concerned that while some are yelling louder and louder for whatever they are protesting, others are getting headaches and just losing their way. What if we all join in one large protest in which we would ask all factions and groupings in Israeli society to treat each other with the respect and regard that they would hope to be treated? Are you listening, Hillel and Akiba? What if we protested protests and promoted dialogue and sitting down to deeply listen to the other and make their cause our concern? So much in our Jewish tradition really encourages us to do just that. I personally think it is the way to go, but I know…. This would definitely lead to another protest!