The Perfect Storm

Ninety days ago (Oct 10, 2022), I wrote this blog entitled “Sacred Time and Silver Linings” about what led to me
putting Reduced photo me mom may 22JewishGPS’ work on hold, and my entire life on hold, and “temporarily” moving the last few years. In it, I mentioned that at some point I would write about the “Perfect Storm” that allows a person to pause their life in order to serve as primary caretaker for a terminally ill loved one. Now that I am 95 days out of burying my mother, I felt it was time to share about that “Perfect Storm.”

Financial Freedom

Whenever I would speak to my therapist throughout my time of caretaking my mom, she would ask me, “What are you Grateful for?” (This is actually apart of an exercise we do almost weekly called SO GLAD – check bottom of post for explanation). Each time I would say to her the exact same thing, “I am grateful that my parents worked hard, saved, and strategically invested so that I could afford to put my consulting business on hold, keep my house in ATL, and be here.” The reality is, I could have sold my house (let’s be honest, the market was oddly going through the roof throughout the time I was here), but I wasn’t forced to. My family’s financial wherewithal is a gift that few have and it was a gift to our entire family that my parents could have never foreseen in their years of working and saving. So, the first ingredient in the recipe for the “Perfect Storm” of caregiving, is the financial security to do it.

Physical Health

Okay, so what are the odds that four days after writing my last blog that I would shatter my left ankle and need my own caregiving Screenshot 2023-01-11 at 2.07.52 AM
for the last few months?!?! But it proves my second point even more than I could have articulated prior to this latest bump in the road. If for any reason, I had a physical challenge, a mobility challenge, a physical strength challenge, an invisible health challenge – I could not have taken care of my mom the way I did. As it was, I had a few medical challenges during my time in St. Louis including a an emergency appendix removal, a severe case of Covid (after three vaccines, double-masking and I caught it eating outdoors Dec 2021), and two major post-Covid health issues (cardiac and allergy). But, the vast majority of the 2.5 years here, I was healthy enough and had enough energy to take care of her and be aware of her needs 24-hours a day. I am thankful for respite care workers whom we engaged in May 2022 to give me some reprieve here and there, but the majority of the time, it was all on me. Some of you are aware of the personal health journey I embarked on Summer 2018 and that by the time I was taking care of my mom, I had lost over 100 lbs (with more to go). I cannot imagine that I would have been able to take care of her and this house if I had been 100 lbs heavier. And certainly, with the full immobility of a broken ankle, surgery and long recovery, I absolutely would have been zero help to her in my current state. So, the second ingredient in the recipe for the “Perfect Storm” of caregiving, is the physical ability do it.

Mental Health

If you have been following my blog for some time, you may remember my post in April 2014 called, “Zeh Lo Pashut – This is Not Simple” where I revealed a relatively new diagnosis of moderate clinical depression (and I don’t think I even mentioned then about a joint diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and ADD). There is no doubt in my mind that I am so lucky to have found the mental health team I did back then, and that I STILL work with them consistently. Covid gave me the silver lining (another piece of SO GLAD) of virtual mental health because I was able to continuously meet with my therapist and psychiatrist while awayScreenshot 2023-01-11 at 1.58.58 AM from Atlanta. I am also so lucky that the two of them are amazing and that while it took more than a couple of years to find the right medicine cocktail (and the right coping strategies), that I arrived in St. Louis fully functioning with my mental health stable. Had my mom’s illness occurred back in mid/late 2013 or any time 2014 and early 2015, there were be no way for me to have been able to help her. I couldn’t get off the couch to take care of myself, much less another person. And managing the continually difficult news from her illness would have sent me deeper and deeper into hiding. Mental health is just as critical to this “Perfect Storm” as physical health is. Caretaking a loved one is brutal and it cannot be taken lightly – the caretaker will be impacted – often and deeply – through the journey. It’s critical that caretakers remember self-care, and that includes emotional health, and that they are honest when it has gotten to be too much, or if they aren’t in a stable emotional place to even start as a caretaker. This doesn’t mean a caretaker cannot show emotion to their loved one, but it does mean they have to process their emotions with others, and be able overcome the anxiety in the critical moments. I remember one particular rough night when my anxiety was out of control, but I knew I couldn’t take anything to relax me to the point of not being able to make critical medical decisions on her behalf. That is a hard place to be in, but thanks to the tools my mental health team has given me over the years, I was able to manage it. So, the third ingredient in the recipe for the “Perfect Storm” of caregiving, is the emotional ability and mental health stability to do it.

The Intellectual Capacity

When you are the primary caretaker of someone with a terminal illness, and you have zero medical or science background in your repertoire [I am not THAT kind of doctor!], you at least need to have the mental acuity to take all the information in, remember most of it, and understand a significant portion of it. While Google is your friend, it can also be your enemy, so you have to have the critical thinking skills to be able to navigate source evaluation, comparative data, and bias. A caretaker needs to be able to help their loved one formulate hundreds of questions, process what they hear, develop follow-up questions, and be able to extrapolate the information. And that is all before being able to monitor and interpret test results, manage many new often-changing medicines, and keep straight which doctor to call for what symptom. And while on-line medical portals are helpful and digital calendars at our fingertips are lifesavers, a caretaker really does need to be able to keep all the different medical appointments straight in their head. I find it a pure miracle we never missed a doctor’s appointment and never showed up at the wrong doctor on any given day. I am now an “expert” in so many things I never wanted to be or imagined I would be, but I can sincerely offer to anyone the ability to help them navigate the hepatic cancer waters. So, the fourth ingredient in the recipe for the “Perfect Storm” of caregiving, is the intellectual ability to process all of the medical information rapidly coming at you and your loved one, and make sound critical – life and death decisions – every day.

The “Stomach” for it

Caretaking a terminally ill loved one isn’t for the faint of heart. There are bodily fluids and medical procedures that any caretaker will be likely be responsible for or witness to. I learned how to give injections of various sorts, flush and de-access chemo ports, Screenshot 2023-01-11 at 2.01.15 AMgive IV/port fluids, manage bleeding from otherwise minor cuts made significant by blood thinners. And, while protecting the dignity of my mother, it is important to mention the different sicknesses she experienced and often needed help managing. There is no judgement for people who can’t stomach these things – and quite honestly – I didn’t know if I had it in me (I’ve always been the camp leader who said they would deal with blood and broken bones but never loose teeth or puke!), but somehow, I managed my own reactions each and every time I encountered a new medical challenge I had to take care of. So, the fifth ingredient in the recipe for the “Perfect Storm” of caregiving, is the “stomach” for the sometimes nasty and often difficult side of caregiving.

Compassion and Patience

If you managed to get through this checklist so far and think everything is aligned, you have to be honest with yourself – very, very honest. Do you have the compassion and patience to take care of a loved one who is changing every day. Who is sometimes angry, sometimes scared, sometimes sad, sometimes frustrated, sometimes confused (physically as a side effect or emotionally or intellectually), and in the end taking it all out on you? In an episode of dehydration induced confusion, my mom was yelling at me, telling me I was trying to trick her, was convinced I was going to abandon her in an emergency room if I took her there to get help … and through it all, I had to hug her, and hold her hand, and tell her I loved her, and remind her that my number one job is to keep her safe (something we told my nephews often since they were very little). Watching a loved one suffer is brutal, and as hard as it is on you, a caretaker has to remember what the person experiencing it all first-hand is going through. Yes, sometimes the caretaker needs to walk away for a moment (or a few hours, or a weekend!), but in the end, if you are a person whose personality isn’t imbued with compassion and patience, then I don’t recommend serving as a caregiver for a loved one. It is better to admit upfront that this isn’t a part of your genetic makeup, then to create a major rift between you and loved one because it wasn’t something you were built for and tried to do it and couldn’t. This is one time where “fail forward” isn’t an option. So, the sixth ingredient in the recipe for the “Perfect Storm” of caregiving, is a personality with built-in compassion and extreme patience.


There is not a single person who should be judged if they have all of the above explained traits and still don’t want to take on the role as a primary caregiver for a loved one. You have to want to say “yes” and not be guilted into it or forced into it. It’s that simple. And if you agree to take on the role and at some point it becomes too much or another competing priority is taking precedent, then you have to change your “yes” to a “no” – giving the adjacent family and friends some reasonable time to transition to a new caretaker or a team of caretakers. Again, I would beg anyone to not judge another for either stepping out or for not agreeing to step in from the beginning. So, the final ingredient in the recipe for the “Perfect Storm” of caregiving, is the willingness to say “Yes.”


Having all of the ingredients is a gift. I am blessed to have been able to step into this role as primary caretaker and put the rest of my life on hold. I have now transitioned to the role of estate executor/trustee and am responsible for cleaning out my family home of 50 years while resolving all the legal and financial matters that come along with a person’s well-lived life. I am choosing to stay here in St. Louis until the last item is out of the house (with a few much-needed vacations sprinkled in here and there) but I am also very much ready to get back to my career. I love being a Jewish educator and I get so energized when speaking with people about the field in the meta and the practices in the micro. I desperately miss my colleagues across the world and I miss the learners of all ages. (Not to mention some major conference FOMO the last year as the in-person gatherings have begun to emerge.) And as I mentioned before, I am still recovering from that very unfortunate ankle break (violation of the bones, obliteration of the joint, demolishing of the structure), actively engaged in PT, and very, very much the patient now being forced to allow others to serve as caretakers (a huge tribe of them!).

S.O. G.LA.D.

Silver Lining SO GLAD

Delighted In


Sacred Time and Silver Linings

Some might have been wondering why JewishGPS and this blog went silent for many months. Out of respect for my mom’s privacy, her heroic battle against cancer (diagnosed June 2021) was never shared on social media and never talked about in public spaces. As a result, my role as primary live-in caregiver was also not public. Carol Faintich took her last breath a little before 2 a.m. on Thursday, October 6, 2022 with me holding her hand and whispering “pleasant dreams forever” into her ear.

I defended my doctoral dissertation March 4, 2020 and as you are all aware, this pesky thing called a global pandemic hit about a week later. JewishGPS’s work mostly came to a screeching halt and I had no opportunity to leverage my newly minted EdD. By mid-summer 2020, it became clear that my teen nephews were going to be virtual schooling for the foreseeable future, and with a full-time teacher mother, they would need extra support in their academics. So August 19, 2020, I loaded my car in ATL with basic items and my cats and we “temporarily” relocated to my mom’s home in St. Louis.

Fast forward to the end of May 2021, and our family had a successful closing-of-the-school-year celebration. Five out of six of our family bubble members already had a dose of the vaccine and the sixth was scheduled for mid-June. I started packing up for my return to ATL when we accidentally discovered my mom had a malignant gallbladder tumor.

My parents taught us, and more importantly role modeled for us, the value of family and unconditional love. There was no question that I was going to stay in St. Louis and stand with my mom through this journey. I promised her that I would do four things:

  • Keep her safe. Pikuach Nefesh and Shmirat haGuf. I promised to go to every medical appointment, help her process information, keep track of all of her medications, manage her care at every level, make her home physically safe for her, and advocate for her as hard as I could.
  • Protect her dignity. Kavod Habriyot. When a person goes through cancer treatment and a decline from the impacts of cancer, so much of their basic independence and dignity are infringed on. I wanted to be sure that even in the moments we (her paid caregivers, medical staff and I) had to physically expose her body in uncomfortable ways, that we were emotionally “keeping her covered.”
  • Stand with her. Lo Ta’amod, Bikkur Cholim and Rachamim. While there is no way to physically take the burden and pain from her, I wanted her to know that she would never experience discomfort and fear alone. I promised to hold her hand – physically and metaphorically – every moment that I possibly could.
  • Elevate every “good” moment. Hiddur Mitzvah, Hakarat HaTov, Shalshelet Hamesorah, and V’samachta B’chagecha. From the first day of her diagnosis, it was imperative for us (along with her grandchildren) to take advantage of her “good” days (eventually only moments) and maximize them to the fullest. Sometimes those were framed in Jewish celebrations (Shabbat and holy days) and sometimes they were in the mundane of watching our favorite sports team or visiting a park.

Perhaps more than anything else, my commitment to elevating her good moments gave us so many silver linings embedded in this very difficult experience.

Growing up, bringing in Shabbat as a family was very hit or miss and when it happened, it was always with a last-minute store-bought challah. Every Shabbat since September 11, 2020 we marked Shabbat together (most of the time just with us, sometimes with others) with a homemade challah, sweet wine or juice, and candle lighting (even if with electric candles and even if over FaceTime).

Our family has a strong commitment to the St. Louis Cardinals, and while my mom didn’t make it to any games in-person, we watched dozens (hundreds) of games together since my arrival in Fall 2020. Any time I would be at a game in the stadium, I would FaceTime her at least once so she could join in the spirit of the crowd.

Three of the best days she had this past summer were the birthdays of her two grandsons and her birthday. Jack’s birthday in June marked his 16th. We ordered dinner to the house and the boys brought over their cornhole set. While the boys had to hold onto MeMe’s pants so she didn’t fall over while tossing the bean bag, she joyfully engaged in the game. Her 78th birthday in July involved lots of immediate family time (a hysterically funny game of family edition Cards Against Humanity and dinner ordered from a favorite restaurant) and concluded with a surprise dessert party for her in her yard with her closest family and a few friends. Evan’s 18th birthday in August included dinner on the patio of a family favorite restaurant (a place we celebrated her 70th birthday and many other simchas over the years). She had eaten out of the house (always outdoors) only a handful of times since pre-Covid.

By the time Rosh haShanah 5783 rolled around, she could barely eat. But she came to the table and had a sip of juice, a bite of apple and honey, a bite of challah, a small bowl of soup and a 1/4th of a matzo ball and two bites of brisket. But she was determined to be present for this holy day meal.

(continue reading after photos)

Two Jewish obligations (mitzvot) framed this entire experience: Hiddur P’nei Zaken (honoring the elderly) and Kibbud Av V’Am (honoring parents). For me, taking the time away from my home in Atlanta and my career was a no-brainer but I want to acknowledge that Judaism actually required it of me. At some point I will write a more robust blog about the “perfect storm” that allows a person to stop their life to take care of a loved one, but at the end if all things align, we ARE OBLIGATED.

My mother’s funeral was Friday, October 8 and we honored her memory and her legacy through our truncated shiva (thanks to Sukkot) in ways that I couldn’t even have imagined. What I know is that beyond the traditional Jewish ways to remember someone, one of the best ways I can honor her is to pursue my life fiercely. It will take me some time to close out the affairs in St. Louis (her home of 50 years) and to then do some “Robyn Reset” traveling (during which she will be deeply remembered and honored as it’s something we did together), but my goal is to pursue my health journey, my social journey (where is my b’shert?) and my career journey with the gusto my mom would have wanted.

Donations in Carol’s memory can be made to Saul Spielberg Early Childhood Center at United Hebrew Congregation, KidSmart, ReadyReaders, or OASIS Tutoring.

System Shutdown for Emergency Maintenance

I wrote this first piece late on Sunday night (12/5/2021) and shared it to my Facebook page, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Little did I know the reaction it would receive and therefore feel that I need to elaborate even more.

I made a mistake and burned my candle at both ends and up the middle for weeks and weeks and weeks: physically and emotionally. And my body got so vulnerable that when I got a basic sinus infection, I just couldn’t function. I am headed into week three of being sick. Of sleeping more than being awake. My body can’t fight this infection - even with the help of meds - in a timely fashion. And my job and family have suffered. (Not to mention canceling any social plans I had since before Thanksgiving.)

I’ve been forced to “disappear” and to be honest, I feel guilty as hell. My anxiety is sometimes worse than the sinus stuff because of letting down clients and family. It’s a vicious cycle and I’m not out of it yet. I’m sharing this very publicly because I’ve taken a stand for many years to #endthestigma . I always want to do it all - and to it all with near perfection. And this time, I failed miserably - in every way. 

I write this as Sunday evening is coming to a close – as I’m overwhelmed about facing another work week feeling sick and knowing I won’t be able to meet expectations. My own or others.

If you are in the position of supervising others, please ask people before they get into trouble: what they need, how their physical health is doing, how their emotional health is doing (personal and professional), and what you need to do to support them so they don’t need “emergency maintenance.”

There is someone I know very well who has consistently felt intimidated by her supervisor and the HR director any time she asks for sick leave or for family time off. In the 20ish years she has been with this organization, she has accrued over 100 sick days, and yet, when she needs the time off, it’s frowned upon. She had been having increasing problematic health issues in a certain area, and yet wouldn’t take time off to see a doctor because of fear of retribution – sharing she was afraid to lose her job and lose her health insurance. She finally had some vacation time and saw the doctor during that and was told it needed surgical attention sooner rather than letter. She tried to push back on the doctor because of this ongoing fear with her job and taking time off, but the doctor finally convinced her she could wait no longer. Even when turning in a doctor’s order for surgery and extended recovery time, the HR director and the supervisor tried to negotiate with her to delay. Thankfully, she didn’t acquiesce this time, because by the time the surgery took place, it was even more complicated and serious than the doctors anticipated. So now recovery will likely be longer. This should have NEVER happened. Here you have an employee with an abundance of accrued sick time – she clearly does not abuse it. She has a legitimate medical note, and yet she was still asked to delay. This anecdote has not even yet acknowledged the anxiety her supervisor and HR director have escalated many many times because of their attitude to sick leave. In addition, she has another two medical issues she isn’t taking care of as a result of this environment – one of which makes her job harder. And, some high-stakes mental health needs she can’t fully address either (you try talking to your therapist, via phone, late a night while also taking care of kids and see how effective that is).

There is another situation I am privvy to where a grocery store staff member keeps putting themselves at jeopardy for long-term permanent damage because they aren’t dealing with a surgical issue. They pushed themselves all through the last 18+ months of COVID to be on the front lines, taking double-shifts, working middle of the nights, engaged in physical labor they shouldn’t be in order to “get the job done” for this grocery chain and the customers. He finally was told that he could wait no longer, and yet, similar to the last story, when he went into HR with a doctor’s note, was asked to delay until “after the holidays.” His doctor told him, if he does this, he could lose the limb altogether due to blood circulation issues being caused by the injury. Why does it even have to come to this?

Thankfully, I hear less of these stories in the Jewish non-profit space than I do in the corporate or non-Jewish non-profit spaces. But I think the story I repeatedly come across in the Jewish world, is a fear of disclosing mental health diagnoses and needed accommodations. I am an active participate in an on-line space for those who live Jewishly and also live with mental health challenges. The number of times a person has asked in this forum how/when to disclose to a future or current employer about their mental health is staggering and what is worse is the anecdotes in the responses which reveal retribution for so many when they disclosed. We MUST do better. And honestly, I am guilty of contributing to this via my own discomfort and fear – simultaneously saying I want to “end the stigma” but sitting deeply within it and living with fear and anxiety of how people (clients in my case) will respond if I say to them, “I’m a mess and need to step back, and I won’t meet that deadline we discussed.” The scenarios that play out in my head are horrible, and most of the time, not real at all – it’s on me, but it’s on me based on societal history.

In a recent initial interview with an international Jewish foundation, I was asked “What kind of work environment do you need in order to be successful in your job?” This was the opening I needed to share that I need some accommodations for a few things (because without an opening, I would have struggled about how/when to share this):

  • I have a diagnosed circadian rhythm disruption AND I have diagnosed ADD. I work best from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. when the rest of the world shuts down and I have no other input coming in. But this also means, I need to sleep late in order to get adequate rest. I can be at early morning meetings, but if it is daily, my employer won’t see the best productivity out of me.
  • I need to be able to brain dump at all hours of the night and have my colleagues and supervisees understand this is not an expectation on them to work crazy hours. So if they prefer a mechanism besides email for these brain dumps (i.e. Onenote, Slack, Basecamp), let’s work together to devise a system that works for everyone.
  • I need time weekly mid-day to meet with my therapist (she has very limited hours) but I will always make that time up (sometimes at 2 a.m.). And every few months, I need similar time to meet with my psychiatrist.
  • I live with a diagnosed anxiety disorder and depression. It is (finally) fairly well-managed by medication and therapy, however, it will never be cured. I need to work in an environment where I can call in “mental health sick” the same as I can call in for “I have been vomiting all night” and know ahead of time, it will be treated the same. I need to KNOW without a doubt that I won’t be penalized for this. Because the anxiety it can cause leading up to that phone call if it is frowned upon is detrimental and makes it all so much worse.
  • I need on-going professional development because growth and skill/knowledge acquisition contribute to my self-confidence and self-esteem. And while it is nice for an employer to subsidize the cost, I most importantly would like paid time-off to participate in these opportunities. Again, I can almost always guarantee that it will benefit my employee and they will get plenty of work input from me to make up for the time away.

There seem to be some obvious actionable steps to prevent an emergency shut down – physical and emotional.

  • Create an organizational culture that talks and walks congruently. Don’t say that your organization respects mental health but doesn’t openly ask employees what mental health accommodations would make them more successful. Don’t say your organization values physical health but you force people to take a half-day sick leave if they need to see a doctor.
  • Pro-actively tell people they need to take time to see doctors – that they should not put anything off. Tell them you don’t want them to wait for emergency maintenance! Do this regularly.
  • Look for obvious low-hanging mental health days you can pay staff to be off. In the Jewish world, for most organizations, Chol haMoed Pesach is a great example. The days leading up to Thanksgiving are also fairly easy (unless your organization has a major Thanksgiving-tied event) and the week bookended by December 25 and Jan 1st. For many folks, this alleviates any concerns about childcare if schools in your area are closed, allows for less expensive travel flexibility, and creates space for families to spend much-needed quality time together.
  • Unless you are a school with set instruction hours, be upfront about offering flex hours. You can always set obligatory times when staff must be available or come together for collaboration/meetings, etc. But by offering flexibility you acknowledge differentiation for your staff and also recognize the benefit to your stakeholders to having people available at different times of day and different days of the week.
  • Consider how these actionable items should change your interview process and your on-boarding.
  • When you know staff is working extra hard, giving 110%, striving to get through a tough situation or tough deadline – acknowledge it. Verbal sincere thanks, public acknowledgement (to your board, to other staff, to donors), post-event staff celebration, gifts of thanks – they all go a long way.
  • Take lessons learned from Covid and forced remote working to integrate hybrid work environment opportunities. But give your employees a choice – because some may choose to be on-site every day due to their work-style needs.
  • Create real systems of redundancy in as many areas as you can. When an employee knows that everything will fall apart if they take a sick day, they likely won’t take it. If they know someone else is trained to step in seamlessly (and yes, I am even talking about rabbis/cantors and executive directors), they can take time to take care of themselves without guilt or anxiety.
  • Honor the “disappearance.” Don’t text, call, email, nag an employee who is out sick. In the end, disrupting their recovery creates a longer-term absence. If they want to set a daily set check-in, then they can set that up (some people might need it for their own comfort), but employers shouldn’t ask for it.

I encourage everyone reading this – Jewish professional or not, management or not – to make a list of what they could do, should do, need to do … in order to prevent themselves or someone in their work environment from need emergency maintenance. Even if it means simply forwarding this link and saying, “We need to talk.”

Tu B’Av, T’shuvah and Tying it Together

Back in August 2009, I took a leap and nervously jumped into the blogging waters. This was before JewishGPS and so many of my colleagues were blogging already. They were getting some national attention and I knew that I needed to plunge into the pool in order to “keep up.”

I had no idea what I wanted to write about first or what catchy name I was going to use, so I sat down and started brainstorming things I had an opinion about. Ultimately, I landed on the title above “Tu B’Av, T’Shuvah and Tying it all Together: Jewish Musings about Daily Life.” Below is a copy of that first blog post (I intend to share many of them here on this blog in the coming weeks/months. I hadn’t thought about this blog in a long time, but today, I went and visited the grave of the little girl I mentioned in this blog, and checked to make sure the pink butterfly-shaped stone I had left there on her English Yahrzteit in Dec 2020 was still there (it was). And I as touched it, I remembered I had written this so many years ago.

Ultimately this blog is about creating your own ritual artifacts and giving yourself permission to customize Judaism for you. At some point, I will write about what I learned about the importance of this in identity development via my dissertation work. The “Tying it Together” of my blog title is a nod to the tzitzit on this talit but also on all talit – and how we can be commanded to wear tzitzit BUT how we wear them is up to us.

All About this Talit

I was adamantly opposed to wearing a talit. It just wasn’t what I was brought up with and I am not one to be forced into something I don’t want to do. As part of my job in Orange County, we had the teens make their own tallitot. But how could I ask each of them to do it if I wasn’t willing to do the same?
So I set out to make a talit that meant something to me.

  • The butterflies are in memory of a very special little girl Shoshana Tikvah Cohen z’l who passed away at 3 years old. She loved butterflies and she loved pink. The irony is that Shoshana was being raised in a modern Orthodox family and ultimately wouldn’t be a talit-wearer herself. But her Ima gets me … and gets this talit.
  • I tied three of the four tzitzit corners in Southern California. The fourth I tied in Jerusalem.
  • My original talit bag was actually a pillow cover (the zipable throw-pillow kind) that I bought in Daliyat el Carmel – a Druze Village with amazing textiles. I lost that case and hope to get myself another one on a future trip to Israel. (UPDATE: I did indeed get another one in the same Druze market – see to right.) The pattern in the case matched a wall-hanging that one of my best friends has hanging in his kitchen (we bought them at the same place at the same time while staffing a Birthright Israel trip).

Other facts about my talit:

  • The directions I use for tying tzitzit (and teaching others to do so) come from a Torah Aura Instant Lesson.
  • I used fabric glue to put it all together.
  • My cat Allie has chewed two of the strings, I guess I need to fix that at some point. (Update: Allie passed in 2015 and the strings are still short … I now can’t imagine replacing them as they are a sweet reminder of her.)
  • I almost got beat up in a Jerusalem hotel but a group of young haredim who didn’t approve of a woman with a talit. Thank goodness for hotel security and a good friend!
  • If I am ever without my talit, I won’t wear another one
The pink butterfly and some pink hearts I placed on December 25, 2020 (her English Yarhtzeit)
Shoshana’s grave that I decorated with colorful butterflies on her 20th Yahrtzeit. Forever 3.

Ally: UpStander. Partner. Advocate. Partner. We Must Train Them. Now.

In very early January 2019, I sat in the homes of three Jewish teenagers from Atlanta to engage them in a deep discussion with the goal of creating a portrait of them: their self-schema, their Jewish identity, and the intersection of those. It was during that time that I first learned not only how rampant JewHatred (aka antisemitism) was in their casual encounters – in school and on social media – but that it had made them quite apathetic to doing anything about it. Because the teens I was profiling were considered “underengaged” in Jewish life, I turned the line of questioning related to encountering antisemitism to the 15+ Jewish teens (9th, 10th and 11th graders) that was was teaching in a local weekly Reform supplemental education setting. Not only did this group confirm the prevalence of Hitler jokes online and swastika graffiti littering their schools, but they also corroborated the shrug of indifference and the ultimate apathy. I was so stunned. Was this apathy due to our failure as Jewish adults and educators to instill in them the need to speak up and speak out against any form of anti-Jewish sentiment? Was the apathy due to a lack of skills we had given them to use their voices? Was this apathy something that the next generation of Jews was prone to due a time distance from the Shoah (Holocaust) and a lack of personal connection to this critical event in Jewish history?

Repeatedly, when I asked “why not?” (expecting to hear they were scared to stand out among peers for responding), I heard the same appalling narrative:

  • No one will do anything about it.
  • The school leadership doesn’t want a stain on their school so they sweep it under the rug.
  • If they (school facility staff) clean it up one day, it appears the next somewhere else and no one gets punished so it just keeps happening, so it’s better they just leave it.
  • If it’s everywhere at school where there are adults and supposed consequences that don’t get enforced, what do people expect to happen on social media where there is no supervision?

Here are three excerpts from the portrait interviews I conducted (their comments were duplicated repeatedly by the teens in my class). The teens chose pseudonyms for themselves at the start of our work together:

While contemplating how Judaism plays out for her in her school environment, Luna shared:

There are a lot of people at my school who think it’s funny to make jokes about the Holocaust and there are like Nazi symbols in the boys’ bathroom mostly and like on the desks too, and like people don’t realize that that’s not funny.

When asked how she and her Jewish friends respond to seeing these symbols, Luna explained: “There’s nothing that we can do. If we told the school they, like, people have told the school before, it’s just, there’s nothing anyone can do about it because there’s always hate…We do talk about how terrible it is; we don’t like it.” When sharing about social media and Jewish identity, Luna conveyed, “People used to like put them [anti-Jewish content] on like social media, they’d like to put it on Snapchat or something. It’s sometimes not at school and was more of like people sending memes about the Holocaust and Hitler.” Luna reiterated, “I don’t know why anyone would think that’s funny.”

Michael also expressed that his school time is a major category in his life and that he encounters questionable expressions towards Jews at school. Michael said, “That would be jokes…I usually don’t get offended because I understand they are jokes and not intended to offend anyone who’s affected by the Holocaust, at least I hope so.” Despite these interactions with his peers, Michael had a completely different reaction to the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Michael reported: “In October when the terrorist attack on Pittsburgh happened [at the Tree of Life Synagogue], I felt very compelled to speak out. It definitely hit close to home for me…I wanted people to recognize that antisemitism was still a thing.”

As one of a few Jewish players on the football team, Jason and the others [who are Jewish] are nicknamed “Jew” by the others. The Jewish players not only respond to the nickname, but call each other the term as well. Jason explained, “My mom thinks this is a big deal, but I just don’t and she won’t let it go. She doesn’t understand. A teammate wrote ‘Jew’ on this board thing and it’s just a nickname…It’s just a joke.” In a second conversation about the situation, Jason said, “It comes up in the fact that my, my friends and teammates know [that I’m Jewish] and it’s more of a term of endearment. Because not everyone is [Jewish], so they bring it up as sort of like a nickname.” When asked how he feels about his mother and other adult reactions to this, Jason said, “I just feel like if they were in the locker room seeing how everyone interacts with everyone else, they wouldn’t think that it was such a big deal.”

So why am I writing about this now, September of 2021? Because there is a major incident going on in one of the Atlanta suburban school districts (just miles from my home) that needs more attention. Swastikas and the words “Heil Hitler” were found this month in bathrooms at Pope and Lassiter High Schools. The acts occurred during the Jewish Holy Days.

This excerpt is from a Sept 22, 2021 news report about recent JewHatred at Cobb County Schools and the district and community reaction:

COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Two Cobb County School District high schools were vandalized with slurs, during the Jewish high holiday, Yom Kippur. Now, there’s a petition calling for anti-hate curriculum to return to the classroom.

Local organizations accuse the district of not taking a stronger stance against antisemitism.

The Atlanta Initiative Against AntiSemitism (AIAAS), the Anti Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and Jewish Student Union plan to share a petition to board members during Thursday’s meeting. 

UPDATE: Dozens of protestors appeared outside the board meeting (recording here), local rabbis and leaders spoke, and the AIAAS delivered more than 4,000 signatures on the petition. One of the demands is the reinstitution of the ADL No Place For Hate curriculum. While the board heard the comments and they superintendent told the crowd that the district will not tolerate hate, and that those responsible are now facing disciplinary charges, most members of the community that I know don’t feel this is enough.

What is the solution? In the recommendation section of my dissertation, I put forth the following proposal which involves the education of and the elevation of non-Jewish allies through Jewish education opportunities:

Jew-hatred and “othering” education. In an electronic communication via Facebook on January 21, 2020, the Jewish Community Relations Council, Milwaukee chapter, reported that “Antisemitism (sic) has increased 329% from 2015 to 2019” (para. 1). The study participants relayed varying types of anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred, and “othering” that they experienced from their peers. From Holocaust memes and jokes flowing on social media to swastikas graffitied around their schools, the participants expressed feeling a lack of ability to curtail the problem and the lack of desire to confront the immaturity of their peers. One participant shared that he and his friends consider the nickname “Jew” to be a term of endearment.

While many religious schools may teach about the Holocaust to older students and integrate the need for Jewish youth to confront anti-Semitism, I am unaware of any pre-teenager initiatives whereby religious schools provide education to their Jewish students, students’ unaffiliated Jewish friends, and students’ non-Jewish friends. Providing multi-faith training to younger students will help prevent the growth and perpetuation of these inappropriate occurrences by young people. Including peers in this education will create a systemic approach to ally-ship and create a significant difference, similar to the role that allies and school-based Gay-Straight Alliances play in the life of their LGBTQ peers (GLSEN, 2007.).

In December 2019, after a series of violent crimes against Jews in New York and New Jersey and other non-violent attacks around the country, The Simon Wiesenthal Center tweeted an assertion that non-Jews have a significant role to play in defeating anti-Semitism (see Figure 72). The center’s stated role as indicated on their website ( is as follows:

[A] global human rights organization researching the Holocaust and hate in a historic and contemporary context. The Center confronts anti-Semitism, hate and terrorism, promotes human rights and dignity, stands with Israel, defends the safety of Jews worldwide, and teaches the lessons of the Holocaust for future generations. (para. 1)

A lesson plan authored by the Anti-Defamation League (2018) outlined three roles people—including non-Jews—can play in confronting anti-Semitism.

· Ally: Someone who speaks out on behalf of someone else or takes actions that are supportive of someone else.

· Advocate: Someone who publicly supports or recommends a particular cause or policy.

· Activist: Someone who gets involved in activities that are meant to achieve political or social change; this also includes being a member of an organization which is working on change (Anti-Defamation League, 2018).

The Teaching Tolerance website provides free education materials for children in grades K–12 and their page explains “anti-bias approach encourages children and young people to challenge prejudice and learn how to be agents of change in their own lives” (para. 3).

With the abundance of resources available to educators in Jewish supplemental schools, Jewish educators can be a catalyst for helping Jewish youth become more confident in standing against these behaviors while creating a peer-allied support system.

Next Steps.

While I am adamant, along with others in my local community, that Cobb County Schools MUST act in a significant way – through a restorative justice lens (that’s a blog for another day) – and through district-wide education, I am equally as committed to the notion that the Jewish community around the country needs to act – not by solely placing the responsibility on the schools, but by taking concrete steps to launching its own education initiatives to address the problem.

My Heart is in the East

If you haven’t read my post from November 2019 titled, “Unexpected Impact (of my own Israel Education)” then I suggest digesting that first before delving into this commentary.

News from Israel is hard to digest. Sometimes it is hard to gather “facts on the ground” through the blaring noise of media bias, sometimes it’s hard to hear your own internal voice through the shouting of friends and family who represent dozens of viewpoints. Sometimes, our struggle is self-facilitated – a dialogue between our anscestral allegiances, our ever-evolving values, and our increasing knowledge and awareness of information we weren’t introduced to through traditional education avenues.

First, I have learned to refer to this land – this very holy land, historical land, beautiful land for so many – as Israel/Palestine (particularly in first reference). Framing the conversation from just that place helps me acknowledge it’s history, it’s current reality and it’s potential future. (If you are confused by this, read my aforementioned previous blog.) I have learned to refer to the West Bank as West Bank/Judaea-Samaria and sometimes as “the disputed territory.” I have learned to compartmentalize Gaza. With this in mind, I try and digest for myself what is occurring in Israel/Palestine this week (recognizing others will use me as a touchstone for their own understanding).

48-hour Bomb Map from Red Alert

For me, there is one “easy” issue – Hamas is a terrorist organization running Gaza and it attacks it’s neighboring communities in Israel/Palestine almost daily. They are exploiting other tensions this week (outlined below) to literally blanket bomb civilian communities throughout the land. Thousands of rockets have been launched, many intercepted by Iron Dome, but some falling on homes, schools, neighborhoods, shopping areas, etc. Citizens of every faith and age are in danger, hiding in bunkers and hallways, fearful of the next siren. Hamas abuses Gaza citizens as human shields – hiding weapon arsenals in hospitals and schools and nursing homes. Hamas spends millions of dollars on weapons to terrorize Israeli Jews but doesn’t spend money on infrastructure in Gaza and on the well-being of its citizens. Hamas must be stopped. Israel has a right to protect its citizens. Full stop. No negotiation. And, it’s important for people to understand that the IDF could take out Hamas – fairly easily – but they don’t because doing so would take out most of the Gazan civilian population and Israel cares too much about human life to do that. So the military tries to be strategic, but it’s not easy based on Hamas’ human-shield tactics. The international community MUST stand against Hamas (and its terrorism funders) and help free Gazan citizens and neighboring Israeli citizens from their stronghold.

Everything else, is so very complicated and so very hard to digest.

Situation One, The Temple Mount: A VERY complicated history surrounds this area as the land has transferred ownership hands many times through war, treaty, and negotiation. The result is an on-going dispute about how a site holy to multiple faiths can be governed fairly. The primary Muslim sites on the Mount (al-Aqsa Mosque, the Dome of the Rock and the Dome of the Chain) are under the jurisdiction of a Jordanian Waqf (an Islamic religious trust) as a result of negotiation after the war in 1967 when Israel took back the land. However, security surrounding this area is maintained by Israeli police. There are rules limiting who can visit these places and when and under what circumstances. There are fears among the Muslim community that Israel aims to destroy the holy sites and there is fear among Jewish Israeli’s and Israeli security teams that Muslims will use the geographic location to launch weapons and other projectiles on Jews in other areas of the Old City (which has happened). In recent weeks, far-right Jews have been antagonizing Muslims visiting these sites during their holy month of Ramadan and these fights have escalated into horrific clashes involving Israeli police, Muslims from all over the world visiting for Ramadan, Israeli Muslims, Palestinians, and additional Jewish antagonists. Already dozens have been injured. The Temple Mount is so incredibly holy to so many faiths, and yet it keeps getting defiled by hate, ignorance, distrust, and generations of inherited trauma. There must be a path to peaceful and open access to this very sacred space.

photo from Middle East Eye AFP

Situation Two, Sheikh Jarrah: Located in East Jerusalem is a community called Sheikh Jarrah in Arabic and Shimon Hatzaddik in Hebrew. Prior to the war in 1948, this was a Jewish neighborhood but when Jordan acquired the land through war, the Jews there fled and were not permitted to return. Jordan then allowed a small number of Muslim Palestinian families to move into the area. In 1967, when Israel re-acquired the land through war (a war they did not initiate), the Muslim families were allowed to stay in this city but they paid rent to the Israelis who had claim to the land from 1948. For about the past 10 years, a group of Israeli Jews with ties to the neighborhood from pre-1948 have been petitioning the Israeli courts to let them reclaim residence of the property for which they have been “landlords” of for over 50 years – which would result in evicting the Palestinian tenants. The case is with the Israeli courts but it’s being tried in the hearts and minds of people everywhere. Many see the evictions as a violent oppression – bullying – of the Palestinians while others simply see this as a decades-old “real estate dispute.” For everyone, it really symbolizes the larger battle of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the disputed territory, and the entire land of Israel-Palestine. After 50+ years, why do the Israeli Jews care some much about re-claiming this land? There is a belief that the more Jews that live in eastern Jerusalem and throughout the disputed territory, the harder it will be for a Palestinian State to be established there and outright impossible for a capitol to be centered in East Jerusalem. Their motivation for residing there is antagonistic. Instead of recognizing that the rental agreement has worked for 50 years, and looking towards the future peace that could exist throughout the land, they are focused on control and manipulation of the future – which cannot be peaceful if these tactics prevail. Sometimes (often) ethics are more important than “legal” right. This is one of those cases.

So how does this end? When does it end? Who ends it?

I’ve come to learn that the ONLY path to peace is through the people, not the governments and leaderships. It’s through person-to-person dialogue, trust-building, learning to love each other as individuals. Please – Jewish friends and colleagues: engage yourself in deep meaningful dialogue with Muslims in your community, in the disputed West Bank, across our country, and across the world. So many great programs to get involved in including a few I described in my previous post (Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom and Friends of Roots.) Muslim friends, please understand that many Israelis and American Jews love Israel, have family and friends there, feel a strong tie to the land and our people through our collective history there, that does not mean we condone all decisions the government makes and all decisions Jewish residents make. Partner with us to silence the loud minority that keeps perpetuating this. This has to stop.

For the time being I am sad and scared. I am frustrated and agitated. I want everyone to look deep into the nuances, to examine with their own critical thinking, the Hows and Whys of this week’s events. I want people to approach dialogue and disagreement with compassion for the “other.” I want to be able to sleep at night without my Red Alert app going off every 10 seconds. I want to know Muslims everywhere are able to finish Ramadan without anger with peace in their hearts and minds. I want to be able to teach about this time years from now and explain to my learners that ordinary people, like them, dug deep and helped end the on-going conflict.

Understanding Narrow Places and the Golden Calf

A couple of years ago as a participant in the M2 Institute for Experiential Jewish Education Senior Educators’ Program, our group debated how learners concretely experience a wide variety of Jewish values. So for example, if we wanted to teach a group of teenagers about the value of “responsibility” we may arrange for a group of puppies from a local shelter to be given into their care for a few hours. Then we would debrief and unpack the emotions, the insights, the gleanings from the experience and apply their knew knowledge to their understanding of “responsibility.” We tossed out a wide range of Jewish values and brainstormed different concrete experiences we could offer learners in order to enrich their relationship to these values. For the most part, the ideas came easily … until we were presented with the value of “freedom.” Some asserted that it was impossible to create an experience of freedom because in order to do so, a person would have to experience bondage (a lack of freedom) first. And anything short of putting someone in jail for a night, you couldn’t create a scenario where someone would literally be temporarily stripped of their freedom. While there was some debate about this, our cohort mostly came the conclusion that indeed it wasn’t really possible in the contexts of our programming to have people truly experience freedom. It has stumped me and challenged my creativity for a long time. And now it doesn’t need to.

Thanks to Covid and sheltering-at-home protocols, physical distancing, businesses and schools being closed, we have all experienced the feeling of being held in a narrow place (Mitzrayim – aka Egypt). We have felt trapped, we have felt lonely, we have felt controlled. We have experienced loss, we have experienced grief, we have experienced confusion, we have experienced uncertainty. So juxtaposed to the freedom we will feel once we are vaccinated (and we have herd immunity), we can now speak about the value of freedom with a completely new perspective.

And just as we can talk about what we are looking forward to (meals in restaurants, sending kids back to school full-time, traveling, hugging friends and family we haven’t seen in a year or more) we can also now fully understand that there is FEAR in new-found freedom – a new understanding of the Golden Calf.

The Jews lived for generations in Egypt, some of it freely and some of it bondage. The Jews of the Exodus story only knew slavery and now that they were experiencing freedom for the first time, many had fears of the unknown: the desert terrain in front of them, how they would be fed, how they would get shelter, how they would govern the community. It was that fear that drove a subset of them to engage in idol worship in the hopes that they would not perish in this new unknown freedom.

So what is on the “Golden Calf” list we will have as we will emerge from Covid quarantine? What will we hold onto because of fear? Will we ever return to a buffet restaurant? Will we feel comfortable eating a piece of cake after someone has blown out the candles? Will we always wear masks in public? Will be investigate the vaccine status of everyone in our circle? Are we ditching handshakes in deference to the elbow bump?

As you take to your Seder tables this year, consider how you will engage your family in processing their new understanding of the juxtaposition of bondage and freedom. All of our family members (the simple, the wicked, the wise and the one who doesn’t even know what to ask) will have something to say – an emotion to share, a new piece of knowledge, a fresh understanding, a reflection, and just like the maggid (the story) in the Hagaddah, we should ask each to participate in the shared experience.

May your vaccines be expedient and your escape from the Mitzrayim of shelter-at-home soon come to end. And may next year, our Seder tables and our homes be overflowing with guests.

Chag Pesach Samaech!

FailureFests (aka, Failure Fiestas)

Last year I was delighted be hired as a curriculum consultant/writer as part of a project Screenshot 2020-07-21 23.04.52initiated and funded by Jewish Teen Funders’ Network (JTFN) and developed by M2: the Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. The year-long project was to design a new modular
teen philanthropy curriculum Screenshot 2020-07-21 23.04.36rooted in a Jewish framework.  JTFN engaged Mdue to their expertise in experiential Jewish education and Mcontracted me to be a part of an amazing team.

The first step in the process was to convene stakeholders from around North America for a two-day ThinkTank in NYC (January 2019).  As part of the process, and rooted in the core concept of M2’s educational philosophy, participants were asked to explore (thicken) certain values related to teen philanthropy and consider what education implications that value would have in a teen philanthropy program.

My partner, Micol Zimmerman Burkeman, and I chose to delve into the value of “Growth.”  Mhas developed a multi-step process they recommend people use when thickening a value (from a universal concept to a specific permutation of that concept).

The first step in the protocol is to articulate a definition (can be taken from a dictionary or other source) and to list associations of the value you are deepening.  Micol and I recorded the following:

  • The process of developing or maturing physically, mentally or spiritually.
  • Transformation, movement, challenge, nurturing, self, change, reflection, process, dynamic, flourishing, thriving, development

The next step is to share (and record) at least three ways we have seen this value in action in our own lives or in other known stories.  I talked about the impact that Alexander Muss High School in Israel had on my own transformation through challenge, reflection and personal development.  We identified the transition of Jacob into Yisrael in the bible story, and then Micol shared the story of her then-five-year-old daughter being taught about an “ish” mindset in order to combat her self-critical/perfectionist nature.

The next step in thickening a value is to pick one of the stories and flesh out the details of how the narrative played out.  Micol explained how two books: “ish” and “Beautiful Oops” were used as a trigger tool for her daughter to see mistakes as opportunities and to not quit or give up if she sees something as not “the best.”  Micol explained that her daughter’s teachers and her husband all provide encouragement, they help her daughter see the potential in certain mistakes, and they verbally reward her when she doesn’t give up.  As a result, her daughter may draw outside the lines or not see something as perfect and will acknowledge, “Look mommy, it’s ‘ish’!”

The Mprotocol then asks participants to extrapolate bigger learnings from the details of the story.  Micol and I developed the following:

Self-critical and Striving to be best:

  • self-understanding
  • desire to be better
  • knowing there is room for improvement
  • critique must/should honor where someone is/has been

The Potential of Mistakes:

  • Mistakes as opportunities to learn
  • Failing Forward/Reframing Failure
  • Reflection on new perspectives
  • Process is critical

Teaching moments:

  • outside help is often needed and needing help is okay
  • new perspectives give us different/fresh information
  • outside people give us mirrors to our blind spots
  • Teaching moments are “teaching with compassion”

The next step in this thickening process asks us to consider how might learners in teen philanthropy (or whatever program/initiative/curriculum it is) encounter or express this value (as seen through the lens of the extrapolations).  At this point, Micol and I developed the following list as it relates to Jewish teen philanthropy programs:

  • In the due diligence/evaluation process when choosing a potential beneficiary organization, teens explore how that organization has managed mistakes/failures/challenges in its own work.
  • In creation of their RFP’s or marketing, they are taught to look to outside people to get feedback before anything is final – they learn creating drafts and “red ink” is part of the process (i.e. 3 mistake rule)
  • The program manager develops a mentor program with outside philanthropists and a coaching program with educators so participants can also develop personal growth in addition to the group growth experience.
  • Time for self-evaluation is built into every session through journaling or image boarding to explore: what did I learn? what can I do better? what can I / did I bring to the group?  what did the group give to me?
  • Educators implementing the program receive training on reframing failure and addressing positive growth in focused ways.
  • The group holds regularly scheduled “FailureFests*” (failure celebrations with balloons and noise makers, etc.) so failures become something to celebrate – individually and as a group – and each one is accompanied by feedback (in the construct of critical friends’ feedback).

*(PARDON THE LANUGAGE) but Micol had heard about a concept called “Fuck-Up Nights.” Here are two articles (of many) explaining the concept:

The next step of the thickening protocol asks how the adoption of this value and these learning experiences impact the learners.  We said that participants will:

  • come to understand the value of transparency and humility
  • experience and discern between group growth and individual growth
  • internalize that not being perfect doesn’t mean you aren’t worthy – quite the contrary
  • accept that we (humans) never get things right the first time
  • recognize that tunnel vision is real when working on a project
  • appreciate that mistakes/failure are critical part of the process of creation and doing your best work
  • learn how to receive critical feedback
  • value other people and their different perspectives and that we need them to be successful (know that other people’s wisdom is valuable)
  • acknowledge #Idontknoweverything
  • have a sense that self-awareness and self-understanding make us and our impact better
  • set aside time from self-reflection because it is necessary
  • learn skills related to giving and receiving feedback
  • recognize that progress is not perfection and that perfect is not the goal and no one is perfect
  • welcome the idea that failure should be celebrated as long as we learn from it.

Fast-forward to my professional development experience today.  As an alumna of Northeastern University’s EdD program, I receive emails about on-going professional development opportunities and immediately registered for the “Experiential Learning in an Age of Disruption” program (aka SummerBash) co-sponsored by the University’s NeXT (Network for Experiential Teaching and Learning) Network and a national education network called CAPS (Center for Advanced Professional Studies).  (For highlights, search Twitter for #NExTCAPSBash.)

At one point during this day-long virtual learning experience, the conversation between the panelists (and eventually spilling into the chatbox) turned to how we encourage learners to take risks even if it means failing and subsequently how do we help them see “failure” in this context as something good.  I immediately jumped back to the work Micol and I did 18 months ago and shared about “Failure Fiestas” and the two articles about F-Up Nights.  The concept caught the eye of the panel moderator and he mentioned that he would want to know more and several participants articulated the same in the chat box.

And so here we are …

Screenshot 2020-07-21 22.47.17You may wonder how the work that Micol and I developed ended up influencing the curriculum. On Page 45 of the first edition, there is a section dedicated to “Failing Forward” (shout-out to Dr. Stephen Pietrolungo for my new ‘Fail Forward’ t-shirt which he’s sending from SoCal, see photo at bottom) and includes information on a “Failure Party” but also includes ideas for reflection journaling prompts and a group processing exercise using these quotes:

  • “Perseverance is failing 19 times, and succeeding the 20th.” -Julie Andrews
  • “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” -J.K. Rowling
  • “One’s only rival is one’s own potentialities. One’s only failure is failing to live up to one’s own possibilities.” -Abraham Maslow
  • “Do you know what ‘FAILING’ stands for? It stands for ‘Finding An Important Lesson, Inviting Needed Growth.’” -Gary Busey
  • “If the possibility of failure were erased, what would you attempt to achieve?” -John C. Maxwell


So, as an education leader, parent, clergy member, mentor or coach: 

How might you celebrate your own “failures?

What risks might you take in order to achieve 
something new and great?


Fail forward shirt



Ben Bag-Bag and #BlackLivesMatter

Ben Bag-Bag was a rabbinic sage and disciple of Rabbi Hillel. Aside from a single adage quoted at the end of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) Chapter 5, he is not mentioned. There he says:

 Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it.
Reflect on it and grow old and graywith it.
Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.”

בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה

Today, I was sitting and participating in an interfaith dialogue program with Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom (I am a local chapter member and participate nationally).  Today’s topic was comparing Revelation stories and observances between the two faith traditions. A few weeks ago in my local chapter, I learned and wrote about the deep similarities.  During today’s workshop, we broke into small (Zoom) groups and shared stories of our own experiences with Revelation, these holy days, our sacred texts, etc.

I decided to share about Ben Bag-Bag, and how that each time we encounter a piece of Torah or other Jewish texts, we are challenged to learn something new, to apply it in new ways, come to a new understanding, investigate it further for deeper meanings, find links from it to other traditional or modern texts.  I shared that even one short line of Torah can lead to new learning each time we encounter it because WE are different, our lenses and experiences change every day – even if we aren’t fully cognizant of it.  Each time we do this new REVEALS (revelations) occur.

So as I sit here tonight, not teaching on Shavuot for the first time in many years (quite thankful to not be teaching at 3 a.m.!), I decided that I actually can teach on Shavuot – this time via my blog.  Some may not get to this “learning” until after the Chag (two-day holiday) and for some it might be the only learning they engage in on Shavuot.  It’s all welcome!

So, what does my understanding and appreciation of Ben Bag-Bag
have to do with #BlackLivesMatter?  


I’ve always considered myself to be a friend (and later an ally) to PoC (People of Color).  I grew up in a neighborhood that some may call the “rainbow coalition.”  Hispanic family two doors down, Jewish neighbors (some related to us) sprinkled about, Asian families, Black families, White Christian families of every denomination, Indian families … and almost all of the kids went to the same local elementary school, most of us played together in the streets (remember when that was a thing) or up on the nearby sideway easement.  We understood our holidays may be different, and our skin colors different, our accents different, our favorite family meals different, but we were the same – a bunch of kids growing up in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri – playing ball, jump rope, tag, riding bikes, catching fireflies, playing in sprinklers.  We went to each other’s birthday parties and our parents exchanged advice and recipes. It didn’t even occur to me until I went away to college in Des Moines, IA that there were people my age who had NEVER met a person who wasn’t just like them (My own roommate was a devout Mormon from Utah who said she’d never met a Jew). Dorm mates admitted that they had never shared a meal with a PoC much less a living space, never met an immigrant, never had friends of different religions. I could not even wrap my head around the fact that this existed in the US.

If I had seen #BlackLivesMatter as a child – what would I have learned and understood?  Based on my upbringing I would might have thought:  “You invite Black people (all people) to eat with you, to play with you, to learn with you at school.”

If I had seen #BlackLivesMatter as a college student – what would I have learned and understood?  What would that new Revelation be?  Perhaps it would be a bit sarcastic:  “Wake up isolated small-town White Christian folks, there’s much more to the world than you have been exposed to, time to get on an airplane and get some culture and reality into your system!”

As a Jewish communal professional, I think #BlackLivesMatter has revealed itself to me many times as I have explained in my last blog post: “SEEING, ELEVATING, COUNTING, INCLUDING, REPRESENTING Jews of Color (aka “Be an Ally”).”  It’s about all the learning I have done, the eye-opening and heart-opening to Jews of Color in my community.

These last few weeks in the USA have been particularly horrific as it relates to #BlackLivesMatter. From White Nationalists basically indicating slavery is okay but masks muzzleswearing facemasks during Coronavirus is violating their rights – to the release of the video of Ahmaud Arbery being HUNTED AND MURDERED in my own state (and law enforcement ignoring it until the video was released) – to a White woman calling 911 on a Black man named Christian Cooper, who simply asked her to put her dog on a leash (which was the law) – to a crew of Minneapolis police officers killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by kneeling on his neck (or standing idly by while their colleague did it).  Sadly, this isn’t rare.  It’s not Screenshot 2020-05-28 20.50.35new.  It’s just that more and more people are filming these things and the public now has a first-hand view at the on-going violence against Black people.  So what to learn from this round of #BlackLivesMatter (and all that has been revealed since the movement was formed in July 2013)? Screenshot 2020-05-28 20.51.25That each and every one of us has an obligation to stand up, to teach, to speak out, to protest (peacefully), to challenge authority, to vote, to lobby, to be vocal, to condemn.  We can’t just turn on the news, see someone dying in front of our eyes, shake our head, and then turn it off and do nothing. It isn’t acceptable to stand idly by – it never was.

This past year, as part of my dissertation work, I asked the teen participants about their experience with antiSemitism (aka JewHatred) and I also engaged the teens I taught this year on Sundays at a local Reform congregation in the same discussion.  For my Confirmation teens, I showed them excerpts of the movie The Hate U Give and we talked The hate u giveabout issues threaded through the movie about racism and correlations to issues of antiSemitism.  Issues of standing up and speaking out for those that can’t speak for themselves. Issues of bias and bullying. Issues of people feeling threatened by “other.”  Issues of insiders and outsiders.  As a result of these conversations with my Jewish teens this year and research into the role of allies in Gay-Straight-Alliances and other minority partnerships,
I made a recommendation in my dissertation about engaging non-Jewish peer allies in Screenshot 2020-05-28 20.39.15trainings to fight antiSemitism. The basic idea being that Jewish teens invite several non-Jewish friends to join them in professionally run workshops about the impact, threat and danger of antiSemitism (from jokes to swastikas), and how to stand up and shut it down.  


But this week’s #BlackLivesMatter a-ha revelation, is that we need to do the same kind of peer ally training for Black children and teens. We cannot let another generation of White Privilege and White Pride emerge.  As communities, congregations, neighborhoods, and families, we need to organize and sponsor multi-racial experiences where PoC invite White peers to join them in ally training: where White children and teens learn alongside their peers of color to shut down jokes, stereotypes, biases, and bullying; where they learn how to speak up to their older siblings, their parents and grandparents, their neighbors, their faith leaders, their teachers, and yes, to their peers.  Black and other non-White children and teens need to know that their White friends will stand with them and will speak out with them.

For me, my Shavuot #BlackLivesMatter revelation is that I need to start take responsibility and action by reaching out to organizations like the ADL to see if they would partner with me to do this.  Maybe first hosting one in my neighborhood (which is also the “rainbow coalition”) where a lot of children and teens live, most of whom I have never met.  Perhaps I will need to wait until it’s safe for us all to be in a room together in order to launch this concept, but the groundwork could be set over the coming months. It’s on ME to start making a difference in Black Lives.  A real tangible, hands-on difference.

Prior to this week, to this new revelation, I would have continued to teach my ADL Pyramid of Hatepredominantly White Jewish teens to stand up to bias and bullying of all kinds.  I would have taught them about the ADL Pyramid of Hate and how jokes and stereotypes are the foundation of violence.  But it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I – a professional Jew – should offer programs for Black children and teens and their non-Black peers (Jewish or not!).



P.S.  This is why “Black” and “White” are capitalized throughout.












In the winter of 2010, I was hired by an organization called Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) (which later morphed and merged into what is now Bend the Arc) to be a service-learning trip leader.  At the training, we were paired with other staff as co-leaders for the trips that year.  I was paired a woman named Marissa Tiamfook.  My un-nuanced and un-knowing (aka incredibly ignorant) self made some immediate assumptions about Marissa: she “looked” like perhaps she wasn’t from a fully Caucasian family, she was probably adopted, or maybe from an interfaith family where one parent wasn’t American, or maybe her family converted to Judaism at some point.  Of course, I didn’t express any of this to Marissa or to anyone else.

When we all got back to our respective cities, we friended each other on Facebook and over a few months exchanged a few emails related to JFSJ. [Note: sadly due to scheduling issues, Marissa and I never got the chance to run a trip together.]  Through Facebook, I learned that Marissa was involved in an organization called JMN: The Jewish Multiracial Network. Screenshot 2020-05-20 12.41.23 Wow! How could I call myself a Jewish Communal National “Expert” and not even know this existed? So from the sidelines, I stalked this group’s posts, Googled, and tried to gain knowledge from reading articles, looking at photos, and following information about their events. Screenshot 2020-05-20 12.39.34
[And I now follow information disseminated by other organizations including Jews in all Hues, B’chol Lashon, the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative.]

Forward to May 2011, I attended a national conference hosted by the organization then known as Jewish Outreach Institute.  The program was entitled, “Judaism 2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future and the Steps Necessary to Get Us There.”

At lunch, I was sitting next to a lovely woman named Yavilah McCoy (who was soon introduced to sing a song and share some words of wisdom.)  Yavilah and I, as it turned out, had some things in common – most significantly St. Louis where I had grown up and where she and her family had lived for years.  We quickly jumped into a game of Jewish Geography.

What Yavilah and I didn’t have in common – skin color.  At that point in my sheltered Ashkenormative 37.5 years of Jewish life, I had of course seen Jews of Color occasionally at various Jewish communal programs, but I hadn’t fully engaged with someone who was a national Jewish communal field leader who was also a person of color.

Yavilah that day introduced do me to a new magnifying glass through which to understand Jews of Color.  She taught me that not all Jews of Color are converts (she herself is fourth generation and her children fifth generation).  She taught me to NOT ask Jews of Color how they “became” Jewish.  Yavilah taught me that not all Jews of Color are from liberal streams of Judaism – she was raised in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn. Yavilah taught me – don’t make assumptions.  Period.  (Enter my immediate silent, yet heartfelt apology to Marissa for the assumptions I made about her the previous Winter.)

Later in 2011, I started planning a national ThinkTank for the faculty of the organization then known as Shevet: the Jewish Family Education Exchange (previously known as The Whizin Institute).  The ThinkTank was to be held in March 2012 and one of the elements I wanted to bring to the faculty was an education on what we were then calling “diverse,” “niche,” or “marginalized” families.  I started reaching out to colleagues I knew who not only were experts in certain areas by training but also with life experience to join us for the ThinkTank as guests and as teachers.  In the end, we had amazing learnings about families with children and adults living with developmental disabilities, families who had one or more LTBQ+ family members, families who lived in remote small Jewish communities throughout the US, interfaith and multi-faith families, and, families who had one or more Jew of Color.  My first outreach to find someone to speak about JoC was to Marissa to see if she could come represent JMN and her own experience at our ThinkTank.  She wasn’t available but sent an email introducing me to a woman named April Baskin.

April was thrilled to come join us for the ThinkTank and taught our faculty (all-Caucasian) so much about families she represented through personal experience and through national communal leadership. She explained to us that there are families that are multi-racial, but families that are not; families that are adoptive and families that convert together; and, families that are living generations as Jews of Color who never converted and whose family origins aren’t Ashkenazi.  For me, I had started to learn much of this from stalking JMN and from Yavilah, but for some of our faculty, they had never considered it. April challenged us to think about how our programs welcome Jews of Color, how they honor their experiences as a Jewish family.  One of the most important takeaways for me was when April asked us:  Do your promotional materials, the bulletin boards in your buildings and your websites have representation of Jews of Color or is every person depicted white?  Boom.  [PS: our other guests also challenged us to consider image representation of their populations as well, but April went first].

I lay out all of this personal history, personal ignorance, and personal growth to acknowledge that we all learn, we all come from some place of bias or sheltered viewpoints.  The challenge to ourselves is to acknowledge it and be open to the learning.  And, I lay this all out so that as I embark on commenting on recent events in the Jewish communal world that unfolded the last few days, I do so with readers knowing my own history with this topic.

On May, 19, 2020 I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post by colleague Shawn Landres.  It starts, “I’m truly dismayed at the decision by two veteran sociologists of contemporary Jewry and EJewish Philanthropy [updated: and The Forward] to write and publish an ill-timed, tone-deaf, and ultimately damaging piece on the contested demography of Jews of color.”  Full stop …. what did I miss?  I finished reading Shawn’s statement and started skimming the comments for more information and found a reference to a response that sociologist Dr. Ari Y. Kelman wrote.  So off I went to find Ari’s article in eJP and the original piece which sparked Shawn’s and Ari’s responses.  What I found is an article written by Ira Sheskin and Arnie Dashefsky on May 17th article entitled “How Many Jews of Color Are There?”  [NOTE:  Dan Brown, who is the founder and editor of eJP, wrote this heartfelt piece in response to the challenge to his running the original article.]

The ikar (essence/gist) of the original piece is a discrepancy between sociologist camps on the percentage of American Jews who are Jews of Color and why it’s important to get it right. For me, the debate about how the data was captured in each instance and the survey questions asked to gather that data (which was Ari’s main response), wasn’t as immediately jolting or important as this quote:

Nevertheless, as intermarriage continues among American Jews at high levels, as Jews adopt children who may be “of Color,” and as non-Jewish persons of color decide to identify as Jewish, the share of Jews of Color in the American Jewish population is likely to increase. (5th paragraph).

WHOA!  These “expert” sociologists and researchers don’t even acknowledge that there are Jews of Color who have been Jewish for generations and that there are Jews of Color living in the United States who’s family origins aren’t “traditional Ashkenazic or Sephardic?”  What does it take for ALL Jews of Color to be SEEN?  to be COUNTED?  to be INCLUDED?

Many (many) response articles have been written and published in a variety of outlets and petitions circulated.  I encourage readers to find at least a few of them to read.

But more importantly, I encourage readers (lay leaders, communal members, and Jewish professional leaders) to really take an honest internal reflection of your own intentional and unintentional biases.  Do you make assumptions when you see a person of color at a Jewish program or in a Jewish organization building [not okay to assume it’s a paid worker!]?  Do you make assumptions that the person sitting next to you in worship whose skin color is different from yours is “new” to Judaism? or a guest of someone else?  Do you assume that the Jews of Color in your community don’t know as much about Judaism because it wasn’t passed down through generations of their family?  Are Jews of Color represented in the photos and the narratives that tell the story of your organization?  Are they included and sought out to lead (board members, committee chairpeople, policy-makers)? and to teach (in youth programs, in adult learning, at Shavuot, on Yom Kippur during break)  [and NOT to just teach about being a Jew of Color – just to teach!]?

Being an ally is hard work.  It’s about seeing our own short-comings and working to overcome them.  And it’s about helping others (individuals and organizations) see their’s.  I hope that my colleagues and friends who are Jews of Color see me as an ally.  I hope they continue to teach me how to be a better ally (especially if there is something in this piece they want to give me feedback on!).


[Oh, and by the way, I have challenged Ari and his colleagues in the questions they often don’t ask when studying Jewish populations and identity, so … we are all guilty of sometimes not seeing (and surveying) what needs to be seen! See that blog here.]

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