Unexpected Impact (of my own Israel Education)

When I was 16 and went off to Alexander Muss High School in Israel, I didn’t know that the 8+ weeks studying Israeli history, walking the land and experiencing Israel as a temporary resident would cause me to completely shift my thinking more about my Judaism through an “historic” lens – ancestral and heritage –  rather than through a “religious” lens – faith and God.  The first time on that trip that I stood at the Kotel I kept expecting some life-altering spiritual moment.  It never came.  But weeks later when I encountered the Kotel as an historical place where my alta-Bubbe once stood, I had a significant emotional reaction.  When I visited the Kotel with my parents and brother on the third night of Chanukkah and we watch the ginormous gas Chanukkiah being ignited and thousands of Jews sang the blessings, I had a “Klal Israel” moment while simultaneously having a historical remembrance connection.  These were all unexpected.

When I led a Birthright trip in 2004 (provided by IsraelExperts), I didn’t know that I would walk away with a completely different perspective of residency, citizenship,Screenshot 2019-11-17 19.35.10
Palestinian rights, and Israeli identity. [Heck, I assumed that as staff I wasn’t going to learn much at all.]  Our group had the pleasure of visiting the two intertwined communities of Kibbutz Metzer and their neighbors in the Arab Muslim Meisar village. We were welcomed into the home of a man named Saed where his wife made us lovely tea and treats to snack on.  As the 40 of us sat on the floor we learned from Saed that his family lived in the land – called Palestine – pre-1948 and therefore he sees himself as a Palestinian by heritage.  He is a Muslim Arab.  He is an Israeli citizen who pays taxes and served in the army.  And he is neglected and isolated by “simple things” like the Israeli National Anthem (HaTikvah) which talks about the “heart of the Jew.”  He asked us, “How am I, as an Israeli Muslim solider supposed to sing this song?”   Wow!  This construct smacked me right in the middle of my forehead and has tormented me.

As a a die-hard religion/government separatist in the U.S., how can I feel that another country’s citizens don’t deserve the same rights?  How can I reconcile this with my full-fledged belief that Jews need a safety-net and a country that will forever be “theirs?”   I now struggle with this all the time.

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At some point I came across this image and it really pushed me to reflect on Saed’s words about his family being on this land – Palestine – for generations. Seeing the coin with the name in English, Arabic and Hebrew (and the year 1927) just gives us a clear visual artifact as to the multi-ethnic claim to this land.  It provides for me tangible evidence of “Palestine’s” existence (which many say it hasn’t).  Has it existed as an independent self-governed country? No.  But that does not negate the existence (in whatever form) it has lived.

When I first learned about the U.S.-based summer program called “Seeds of Peace,” I was living and working in Southern California and one of our Israeli Mifgash teens – Amitai – seeds of peace logowas an alumnus of this international peaceful dialogue and conflict resolution initiative.   Learning through him, I came to understand the role that inherited bias and hatred play in perpetuating an on-going conflict in Israel between Muslims and Jews.  I didn’t expect to be driven to consider the imperative for face-to-face (person-to-person) dialogue and that it needs to happen if we are ever to hope for peace in Israel.   As a result, I was then motivated to seek out opportunities for my own engagement in this work.  (... she writes after an afternoon spent with her Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom group).

In 2014, I facilitated a year-long teen learning experience for a Reform congregation in which they chose a justice issue they wanted to explore and we looked for ways to engage in that issue through our own education, through volunteering, advocacy,Amr - seed of peace
philanthropy and community engagement.  The teens chose “Pursuing Peace” and narrowed that down to “Conflict Resolution.”  I decided to network and see if I could secure a Muslim Seeds of Peace alumn to speak to us and ended up securing a 19-year old Egyptian (Amr Hisham) to Skype with us.  The unexpected impact on me was a full-blown eye-opening on the role that media bias (world-wide) plays in perpetuating stereotypes, distrust and hatred.  I have become hyper-aware of headline wording, images used and journalistic integrity.

Last night (November 16, 2019), I had another experience which will forever shape the way I experience the discussion regarding the future of this land and its people. I photo-nov-16-9-00-47-pm.jpg
attended a program where we heard from Ango-Jewish Orthodox “settler” Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Palestinian Arab Muslim Shadi Abu Awwad who work together in an organization called Roots-Shorashim-Judur (a project of Bet haTeotron).  The two live near each other between Bethlehem and Hebron in the territory some call “The West Bank” and others call “Judaea and Samaria.”  Their work focuses on person-to-person dialogue in which they strive to create trust and partnership amongst neighbors. I took so many notes, documenting powerful snippets and heart-piercing quotes and anecdotes (which I need to clean up and find a way to share with everyone), but the unexpected impact for me comes in the form of a new perspective on how “the conflict” may be resolved in a new political vision.

The two of them explained that any division of the land “from the Jordan to the Sea” means that the other must give up ancestral land.  They asserted that “historical land identity is stolen from both sides” (78% or 22% based on current maps) in any current proposal.  Rabbi Hanan said that we must find a “political vision with one land” where “both peoples have full rights and dignity.”   What I came to understand is that in order for both peoples to have full rights and dignity, the Palestinians must be able to live in this land (all of it) called “Palestine” and cannot be governed under Jewish law. But how can that happen and for Israel to also exist?  How can that happen and Jews have full access to the land that is the “true center of our history” (as Rabbi Hanan referred to it)?

During the Q&A, they were asked about political solutions and Rabbi Hanan and Shadi explained that a good number of Roots participants align with a political vision called “A Land for All.”

Screenshot 2019-11-17 18.30.54

Admittedly it will take me a while to research their vision, to understand the nuances, to become fluent in their beliefs – and then to determine if I agree.  But in the meantime, it has me thinking VERY differently.

Here is where my head is now rambling after last night:

1/ Israeli government doesn’t even show respect and dignity for all Jews, much less to people of other faith traditions. There MUST be a shift in leadership and law-making if we ever have a chance at democracy and justice for all which leads to …

2/ A move towards a separation of religion and government is truly needed.

3/ The rise of anti-Semitism world-wide is super scary and there must be a provision of a safeguard for diaspora Jews with the opportunity for citizenship in this land. I am not sure what this looks like when enacted, but I think it’s imperative.

3/  Trinidad AND Tobago.  Turks AND Caicos. Antigua AND Barbuda. Bosnia AND Herzegovina.  I am not mentioning these as a way of advocating for a particular government ideology (all of these have very different government systems – some better than others and some are territories of other countries). But somehow they evolved into geographic entities with AND in their names. Why not Israel AND Palestine?

4/ The international community needs to do whatever it takes to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad out of Gaza and bring those living there into this vision.

At 46 years old, with lots of formal and informal Israel education encounters, I still have so much to learn. I must be open to challenging long-held beliefs and assumptions.  I must continue to pursue new learning opportunities in the many forms they come in.

I encourage each of us to never stop striving to learn new perspectives, to seek new information and to engage in honest, respectful, dignity-lifting dialogue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tis The Season… To Be Triggered

I am not even sure where to start … maybe about what this is actually not about:

If you are an interfaith family, honoring multiple holiday traditions in your home, “separate but equal,” this is not what this commentary is about.  

What this IS about is a growing and very troubling (to me) assertion that certain holiday symbols and ritual items are “secular.” It IS about when we try and co-opt each others traditions, each other’s symbols, and ritual items in order to close in the gap of “separate.”  It’s about people’s lack of gumption to hold sacred their own holidays and not be be “jealous” of someone else’s.

A Christmas Tree, a Wreath and Santa.

At the beginning of November, news began circulating that a community (very close to me geographically) was going to ban “all religious symbols” including a menorah from public display in their city center.  At first glance, I am thrilled about this.  As a die-hard religion/government separatist, I fully believe in this (and yes, our currency needs a re-haul).  But at second glance, we learned:

Screenshot 2019-11-15 14.54.52

This of course, launched a community-wide debate on the secular nature (or lack there-of) of these items. The next day, I saw this Twitter exchange between popular Kansas political leader Jason Kander and the former Governor of Wisconsin.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 14.57.53

and I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Kander.  I wrote:

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and in a subsequent tweet to him, I shared what was going on in Dunwoody and explained why this is dangerous. [No response from him.]  Of course, many exchanges ensued with people from all walks of life.  And another Jewish educator responded with the case that no Jewish institution will ever display a tree, wreath or Santa – because it’s NOT secular American by any Jewish understanding.  This is just our reality as American Jews.

 

Co-opting not Co-existing.

Which leads me to the next part:  it is our reality as American Jews that the Jewish month of Kislev (and therefore Chanukkah) inconveniently often coincides with Christmas (and sometimes Diwali and sometimes Kwaanza and other religious days).  As a result, many people and many businesses have decided that we somehow have to merge these holidays.  That they indeed cannot stand “separate” from each other.  These are just a few items that can be purchased:

 

 

 

Not to mention the influx of “Ugly Chanukkah Sweaters” – many of which, if you look closely are co-opted adapted Christmas greetings  – which ONLY exist because of the calendar colliding of Christmas and Chanukkah.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.19.38Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.19.48Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.19.56

And this article and accompanying display from earlier this week just makes my point for me of just how inappropriate this entire situation has devolved to.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.23.15

TRIGGERED.

I don’t know about you, but I am entirely fed up and disgusted with us – with American Jews and Jewish business leaders who have perpetuated this, bought into it (YES LOOKING AT YOU MANISCHEWITZ GINGERBREAD HOUSE! and Mensch on the Bench).  And I am disappointed in a large number of Jewish leaders – rabbis and educators – who will not stand before their congregants and learners of all ages and say just how wrong this is.

Years ago I developed a comprehensive curriculum for teens to explore “American Holidays as a Jew.”   In addition to talking about Thanksgiving (originally a religious prayer day), Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day, we tackle this annual “holiday season” and the co-opting of religious symbols.  We learn about the origins (many of which are Pagan or Nordic mythology) behind Christmas items (wreathes, candy canes, yule logs, etc).  Their favorite is that Mistletoe means “poop on a stick.”  Inevitably, the majority of teens are “okay” with the Chanukah Bush and Blue/White stockings, but the moment they see a Jewish Star tree-topper, a Santa kippah or Christmas dreidel, they lose it.  Pushing them to explore why one construct bothers them more than the other is my role as an educator leading them in critical thinking and self-exploration. So I challenge Jewish communal leaders to find ways to explore this with their learners – children, teens, college students, and adults alike.  And I ask Jewish parents to take a hard look at what is motivating them if they are choosing to join in on this co-opting and blending (again: different than multi-faith families observing multiple holidays.)

A Joy-Filled Chanukkah (Hanukah. Hanukah.)

If Chanukkah – a really minor holiday in the Jewish calendar – fell any other time of year, we would simply celebrate a joyous “Festival of Lights” with a plate of latkes and sufganiyot, and a nice game of dreidel.  We would appreciate the beauty of the lights, celebrate the Maccabee miracle of defeat (or the oil story), and sing some songs of heroes and sages.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.31.12

 

Happy Holidays

And in the meantime, we must also acknowledge (like this company managed to), that there are MANY more holidays that occur during this time of year than just Christmas and Chanukah.  In fact, there are about 30 holidays (some major, some minor) representing at least seven religions that fall from November 1 to January 15.

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A proposal to end “adult b’nai mitzvah” as we know them and create anew!

It seems that I am destined to continually revisit the role that bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies play in the life cycle of Jews.  Many blogs have already been written by me about how we should re-think the “adultness” of 12/13 year olds and instead amp up a lifecycle ceremony for our emerging adults as they graduate high school and head off to the world on their own for the first time as an actual adult (gap years, military, college, trade schools, work force, etc).  I still strongly believe in this concept. [I also want to acknowledge that I have yet to come across a congregation that is willing to fully embrace this concept.]

I also may have mentioned in passing how troubling it is to me that we perpetuate the idea that this ceremony is what MAKES someone a bar or bat mitzvah.  When this is 100% false.  In our current rabbinic understanding of the age of majority, a child BECOMES bar/bat mitzvah when s/he wakes up on his/her 12th/13th Hebrew birthday.  No ceremony needed.  And it happens immediately at the mikvah/beit din when someone older than that converts to Judaism.   No additional ceremony needed.    [And worse yet, it is based on a ceremony that itself has evolved and made up through the years (mostly what we experience now has only existed since the 17th & 18th centuries).]

So why did we create this concept of “Adult B’nai Mitzvah?”  What message does this actually send to people?  That somehow they aren’t whole adult Jews because they didn’t have a specific ceremony as a teen?  That until this point they have not functioned as an adult in the Jewish community? Of course not, so why do we perpetuate it with the language we use around it?

If we threw out everything we have been doing and released ourselves to be completely open, what ceremony would we create for adults who wish to stand before their community and make a declaration of Jewish commitment?  (Because at it’s heart, isn’t that what it is?) And what would we call this ceremony?  [Certainly not something with the word “child” in it, right?]

This is an invitation to be completely creative, to dream, to make meaning, to explore with me – and perhaps to influence the future of Jewish lifecycle events. 

 

 

 

 

 

Signature Pedagogies

As part of my participation in the M2: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education Senior Educators’ Cohort, I was challenged to write my “Signature Pedagogies.”

It was really a fascinating introspection to think about what education strategies I default to and why.   Here is what I developed:

As a commitment to pluralism of ideas, I utilize the concept of Eilu v’Eilu as one of my signature pedagogies. Whether it’s bringing in diametrically opposed texts to demonstrated Judaism’s vast opinions on a topic, or embolden holy debate within a learning space, I encourage discourse which allows for many differing voices and opinions.  One way I deploy this pedagogy is to bring in sources from different movement’s scholars, as well as both ancient and modern texts.  This leads to another signature pedagogy of how I then go about facilitating this exploration.

I believe in serving as a “guide on the side” and not a “sage on the stage.”  I want to empower my learners to struggle with the texts and concepts and – with my facilitation and guidance – come to their own conclusions about how to integrate their learnings into their identity and belief systems.  I believe in empowering my learners – through much self-exploration – to own their process and opinions with the hopes of inspiring their continued curiosity.  One excerpted text which reminds me of this pedagogy is from Maimonides Talmud Torah Chapter 4, Section 2: “The teacher should not sit on a chair, [while] his students [sit] on the ground. Rather, either everyone should sit on the ground or everyone should sit on chairs.”  This is also reflected where God told Moses in Deuteronomy 5:28: “stand together with me – עֲמֹ֣ד עִמָּדִי֒” which implies a sense of equality since God neither sits or stands. These texts set a standard that there is no distinction made between the teachers and the students. Another text which points to a guide taking someone where they want to go is from Genesis 37:15 when the ish asks Joseph, “What are you seeking? – מַה-תְּבַקֵּשׁ”.

As an educator, I am committed to the pedagogy of utilizing mediated and concrete experience-based education techniques–leveraging the text Na’aseh v’Nishma – to do and to pay attention (similar to sim lev translated as “put your heart and mind toward it.”).  One method I use for executing this pedagogy is the use of manipulative materials in all learning. 

 As I believe that people’s need to belong and feel connected outweighs their learning itself, one of my signature pedagogies is kehillah –  to intentionally create community among my learners.  I utilize different techniques to infuse community building with the content. In their 2006 book, Experiential Learning: a Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers Beard and Wilson refer to “ice-breakers and energizers” as “primer activities.”  They explain these activities are designed “to reduce inhibitions or to create trust, empathy, and teamwork…” I look at these primer activities as a critical part of the education experience, and consider how they feed the content learning and how their success or failure impacts the positioning of the rest of the learning.

As I reflect on this writing months later, I am amazed at how well it encapsulates my approach to good education.  When I overlay this document with the hundreds of curriculum pages I have written, you can see these “trademark” pedagogies in each and every lesson.

If you have never engaged in this type of reflecting on your educational practices (and/or management styles), it is worth taking the time too put pen to paper to fully articulate them.

I hope that years from now, the work I continue to be a part of reflects these signature pedagogies.

A #JDAIM Read of Mishpatim

Originally posted on Kolot Ha’Dor

In the parsha Mishpatim, God gives Moses very detailed rules about how the people of Israel should live their lives. The parsha outlines three festive holidays for the people to observe and celebrate: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, and it lays out the terms of the covenant – a new land in exchange for following these laws. It is when Moses teaches these new laws to the people that we find one particular line that has garnered much fame – Exodus 24:7:

וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃

When we explore various translations of this text we find what seem to be minor discrepancies with major implications, particularly around the words “Na’aseh v’nishma.” Here are a few comparative translations:

Chabad.org
And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear.”

Mechon-Mamre
And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey.’

Sefaria
Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!”

Bible.ort.org
He took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. They replied, ‘We will do and obey all that God has declared.’

Orthodox Union
Then Moshe took the sefer ha-brit and read it aloud to the people, and they answered: Everything which God has spoken to us – we shall keep and obey.

In our modern and global society, a society with more knowledge and consideration for inclusion of those with different needs, I offer an interpretation based on Sign Language. The sign for “Sh’ma” isn’t the sign for “hearing” – as those with hearing impairments don’t hear – the sign is for “paying attention.” What might this text mean to us with an interpretation of:

Then Moshe took the sefer ha-brit and read it in the ears of the Children of Israel, and they answered: Everything which God has spoken to us – we shall keep and pay attention to.

How does this text change with this different interpretation and intention?

“In the Ears”
The community at Sinai represented our communities today thus God would want us to acknowledge and care for those in our communities who are vulnerable for any number of reasons. So how can those who are hearing impaired hear the commandments? Perhaps this interpretation “in the ears” is different than “read aloud” so that we understand that each person heard it in the way they could. That it was an individual “hearing” directly into the ear of each person.

“Pay Attention”
What if Torah’s intention was for us to really pay attention to the commandments and to our community, to our covenant and to our commitments. The interpretation, as indicated by “pay attention to” encourages us to have a heightened sense of focus on everything from our actions to our words, that we must make a specific effort towards something or someone, that we notice the details, and give the task at hand the dedicated importance it deserves. Rabbi Gordon Fuller shares that one modern Hebrew term for “pay attention” is sim lev which means “put your heart (and mind) toward it.”

This modern interpretation of this one line of this parsha Mishpatim, demands we not only pay attention to the mitzvot, but to those in our community who need special adaptations to participate fully in or rituals and experiences.

UPDATE: Menschlikheit is important!

Screenshot 2018-03-09 19.30.54

Back in January 2018, I wrote this blog post about how Jews need to branch out beyond “spiritual” and “religious” when describing their Jewish identity.   In that post, I posited five aspects of Jewish identity:  Observance, Expression, Knowledge/Literacy, Connection and Spirituality.  Then I asked readers to weigh in on if a sixth category, of Menschlikheit, was needed.  And the resounding answer was YES!  So here is the updated framework and my updated Spidergram (read the other blog to get what this is more fully.).

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Screenshot 2018-03-09 10.57.28It is interesting to consider how much my Spidergram shape changed as a result of this added category.

As I thought about that further, it stood out to me just how much being a Mensch matters to being Jewishly conscious.  One could even ask, do the other categories matter at all if your Mensch Meter is at Zero?

Consider the news stories of incredibly knowledgeable and very observant rabbis who lead connected Jewish communities and their entire personal expression is Jewish, but they commit a horrible crime – like peeping in on the mikveh or embezzling money from the congregation, or worse?  Then does any of the rest of the Jewish identity matter if they aren’t living with core Jewish values?  Is someone who is not knowledgeable and not connected to God, but fully committed to Jewish values actually living a more Jewishly appropriate life?  That at the least, they represent Judaism and the Jewish community in a holier way than the person who prays three times a day but doesn’t behave with Jewish goodness.  Once again, calling attention to people who call themselves “bad Jews” aren’t, [hate that term!] and those who often sit in judgement of those less traditional are actually the “bad Jew”  – because they lack Menschlikheit.

As I expanded from five aspects to six aspects in order to include Menschlikheit, it didn’t go unnoticed that now my framework had six points, just like the six points of the Shield of David (Magen David).  My framework needed the sixth aspect to make it complete, to make it be a full symbol of Jewish life. Thanks to all who provided input on this last category.

I hope that this concept – this framework of aspects of Jewish identity – is just the launching point for deeper thinking on this topic.   As I continue working on my dissertation, I will have much more to say on this topic of identity, identification and Jewish expression of such.

 

 

 

It’s Not Jewish to be “Religious and/or Spiritual”

During my doctor classwork, I read Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion.  

In one section, Wuthnow calls a trend of young adults growing a separation between spirituality and religion as “troubling,” (p. 131).  He says it’s an “explicit rejection of organized religion by people who are still interested somehow in spirituality,” (p. 132).   As he explores this, he talks about how it’s a distinguishing between church doctrine and individual authority and experience.  He says, “… two-thirds of young adults in their twenties opt for personal experience, while only a quarter opt for church doctrines,” (p. 133).

As I was reading this book and in particular this section, I felt the need to make a distinction between what happens in a Jewish context vs a Christian one.  All of the time, I hear people use these words to mean different things, and then add into Judaism the term “observant” and how that impacts this conversation. And then there are aspects of Judaism, like “community” which aren’t encompassed in these.

It was as a result of wrestling with this, that I began to construct a different framework for Jewish identity beyond “Spiritual” and “Religious.”   For the past few years, I have been using this graphic organizer to illustrate my concept:

5 aspects Jewish identity v5 022217

When using this graphic in workshops, I have participants chart their “Jewish Identity” using a SpiderGram graph.   You scale yourself on a range of 1-6 for each aspect, then plot the points on each correlating axis.  The summary point I make when leading this session is that no one is “more Jewish” or “less Jewish” – just that our Judaisms LOOK different (and the SpiderGram is a visual representation of that). What would yours look like?  What story does it tell about you?  Here is my result:

SpiderGram Faintich

 

 

Interestingly, in recent discussions (positioned in light of the political environment), it came to my attention that perhaps a sixth column of MENSCHLIKHEIT needs to be added.  And a person self-measures based on their commitment to expressing the Mitzvot related to care of others, treating strangers with kindness, supporting charities, actively engaged in civics, random acts of kindness, volunteerism, etc.

Would you add MENSCHLIKHEIT to this chart?  Would you edit any of the other columns?  What other columns would you add?

I am hoping to be releasing a new version of this based on the feedback.  The final version will be used in my dissertation research!

A politically Conservative, Jewishly liberal person … these and these are both divine.

Last year (2016-2017), I was teaching a group of high school juniors and seniors in a Reform congregation.  The teens really wanted to talk about the election (pre and post) and all of the platform issues shaping the discourse in the country.  One teen, who was very active in the NFTY youth chapter at the congregation, came to me distraught. He had just come back from a weekend NFTY convention and felt so discouraged.  He confided that he was a political Conservative and felt there was no place for him in NFTY. He shared that he was ostracized, that there was no room for his voice in discussions over the convention weekend, and that he just didn’t belong.  We sat for a while and spoke about how I wanted his voice to be heard in our class discussions and I would create safe space for him (and I did). [The class discussions were rich and his peers appreciated hearing different view points.] I also shared that I think he needed to consider how the URJ platforms and his own personal views may or may not be in sync and what that meant for him in terms of movement affiliation. (And by no means, am I saying the URJ should alter its platforms! or apologize for them in any way.] Regardless of my own personal political and religious leanings, I couldn’t wrap my head around this situation – he was right – he didn’t belong.  An involved, engaged teen who just didn’t belong? That just isn’t okay with me.

Fast forward to this year (2016-2017) and I am facilitating adult learning at a different Reform congregation.  As a post-denomination Jew (someone who doesn’t believe we need denomination boxes anymore) and as someone who believes in Jewish pluralism Screenshot 2018-01-17 12.16.09(we all need to be a little uncomfortable), I teach through these lenses.  I believe in Eilu v’Eilu (and teach the learners that debate and difference and dialogue are inherently Jewish).   My educational philosophy is such that no matter the issue/content we are confronting in our learning, I present each text, each commentator, scholar and philosopher as having equal weight – and allow the learners to discern the value.  I hold back my personal opinion until each other participant has had a chance to interpret and wrestle. And I wait for summation of the class to ask what each person’s biggest takeaways are and then share mine.

This year, I have been teaching “Judaism and Political Activism.”  Each time I walk into a space with new learners, I have no idea their political leanings, their personal history and what they will bring to the discussion.  I just walk in open and encouraging a safe space for diverse opinion.  But this past year has felt different.  This year it has felt as though the learners themselves expect everyone to be politically left for the mere fact we are in a Reform congregation. More than once it has been brought up by the adults that they can’t understand how a person can be a Reform Jew AND a political Conservative.  More than once I have heard someone say they don’t think “those people” belong in their congregation.   And I agree …. soft of.

I only agree that there isn’t a solid place in a URJ congregation for a politically Conservative adult. The URJ has a very clear politically left platform and therefore politically Conservative beliefs are dissenting. If an adult – who has free choice for affiliation and belonging – doesn’t have a belief system in sync with the URJ platforms, then s/he has the obligation to find a Jewish community where their values are aligned.

But where do they go? We currently don’t have a non-URJ Reform “movement” – one which is both Jewishly liberal and politically Conservative.  So whose obligation is it to create that space?  As a communal steward of Jewish life, I feel some sense of obligation to be sure everyone has a place (particularly that aforementioned teen).  And yet, since I personally don’t fit that description, I am not sure how I would even begin to help them create that space.  These experiences have left me with one absolute:  there needs to be a Jewish space for these folks; and left me with a lot of uncomfortable questions about how and who helps create that space if it’s not within my comfort zone.

So for now, I can only continue in the lane I have created based on my educational philosophy – these ideas and these ideas are all divine – even if these are the ones I personally follow.

Re-Visioning the Jewish “Coming of Age” with post-B/M teens

I can’t remember how long ago I came to the conclusion that the Jewish community was doing itself a disservice by continuing to celebrate Jewish adulthood at the age of 12/13, however it is something I am quite passionate about.  I have blogged about this previously (At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism? and The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate) and have presented on the topic at several Jewish professional conferences and adult learning experiences.  I was asked to put my resources into a text study sheet for a 2013 Jewish Futures Conference (download  How have Text and Tradition Shaped the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Experience?)

Recently, a group of 8th grade students asked me to help them understand the history, meaning and purpose of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony (they had no idea my ideological leanings).  After leading them through the text study guide, I asked them to pretend they were in charge of determining the future of the milestone in which young adult Jews commit to Jewish adulthood.  They determined the following framework (facilitated by me, but not ‘forced’ by me):

They unanimously agreed that the Age of Adulthood in 2017 is NOT at 12/13.  They debated for a while and determined:

  • A ceremony should happen when they are finishing their senior year of high school (certainly no younger than 16) [although one teen was adamant is should be in mid-20s]
  • Each emerging adult should be asked to make a commitment to their future of Judaism (the act of opting-in)

They collectively agreed that moving the ceremony to the end of high school would reduce the number of kids and families that drop out of synagogue life when the child is in 7th grade.  They also agreed that it was much more realistic for young people to make a concientius commitment to their future when they are older.

The teens debated what Learning Experiences are Required Prior to a Ceremony. They agreed that there wasn’t a “test” on these content areas but a check-list of having learned them:

  • Jewish History
  • Jewish Holidays
  • Jewish Values
  • Home Rituals
  • Reading (decoding) Hebrew  [some made a case for conversational Hebrew]
  • Israel History
  • Exposure to a variety of Jewish scholarly works
  • Parshat Shavua with a deep knowledge of at least one portion
  • Broad knowledge of mitzvoth with ability to recite 10 Commandments

 

The articulation of what The Ceremony would look like ended up including:

  • Embedded in a service tied to Shabbat [equal preferences articulated for Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat morning and Havdallah]
  • A L’Dor v’Dor Torah Passing Ceremony where each adult passes words of Jewish wisdom as they pass the Torah
  • A L’Dor v’Dor Family Ritual Item Passing Ceremony  (i.e. kiddish cup, tallit, candlesticks, mezuzah) where each adult shares their connection with that item as it is passed
  • Each teen delivers a speech about his/her commitment to Judaism and how they intend to live Jewishly

 

The teens determined that Jews were making the following Adult Commitments after the ceremony:

  • A pledge to engage in on-going volunteer work AND tzedakah as a regular part of their adult lives
  • A commitment to participate in a minyan when needed/asked
  • An attempt to engage in as many holiday worship services and/or home rituals as possible (to make it a priority)
  • Fasting on all “major” Jewish fasts (their knowledge of most fast days was limited)
  • A promise to hang a mezuzah on their doors

 

Discussion points that stood out to me as the most fascinating:  they didn’t want to include a trip to Israel as either a pre-cursor to the ceremony nor as a post-ceremony commitment; they were able to articulate the connection to the Hebrew language but didn’t demonstrate that same commitment to prayer as part of the knowledge nor as part of the ceremony; and they held onto the idea of fasting (particularly for Yom Kippur) as a way to demonstrate adult commitment to Judaism.

But perhaps what was the most interesting is they felt that there was no way that modern Jewish leaders would ever change the current ceremony.  They said that despite the fact that it had been altered and evolved several times over many centuries, that it was somehow now set in stone.  I would love to prove them wrong and show their voices and input could be helping shape the future of Judaism.

 

 

Is “Passover Break” for Day School Families a “Break from Judaism”?

I dread Passover every year. In 2010, I wrote a blog about it in which I said:

I hate Pesach. I think it is a true experiential learning opportunity (and not just the Seder) … but I face the cleaning, the changing of dishes, the cooking, the family tension around the Seder table, the week feeling cabin feverish (because I don’t eat out at all and can’t get that out-of-the-house social interaction with many friends), and lastly the shopping, as my own personal slavery. Let’s be honest, observing Pesach in the most strict of ways is a total pain in the ass.
(check out the full blog entry)

Every year I feel the same way and this year I looked for a way to compromise with myself.  I knew I couldn’t afford a true Kosher for Passover resort or camp experience (single occupancy exceeding over $2500 plus transportation) and I knew I didn’t have the energy to kasher my house, so I  began to explore what it would to take to create my own KFP Resort.  I considered that beach condos are cleaned before you get there – the refrigerator is completely empty and wiped out, the oven and microwave have been cleaned, the pantry is empty (or 99% empty). So I decided that if I could find a relatively inexpensive beach condo within a 7-hour drive of Atlanta, that I could load up my KFP supplies (disposable cooking pans, plastic storage containers, food, etc) and take it all with me (along with a supply of sunscreen, beach towels and trash entertainment magazines).

I hit the jackpot with a cheap condo right on the beach in Hilton Head, SC and made plans to leave first thing the morning after first seder (so I could spend that with family friends).  By  4 p.m. that first day, all my supplies had been unloaded, the frig now full of my KFP food, and I was on the beach with a cooler packed with my first of many Pesach picnics.  It was a great week.  Sure I had to cook for myself, but once the sun went down and I didn’t couldn’t be on the beach any more, I used the nights to make dinners and prep picnic lunches for the next day.  There were a few times during Chol haMoed when I hit a shopping area that the smells wafting from the local restaurants taunted me – but for the most part, it was one of the easiest Pesach observances I have had.

As I sat on the beach posting my own pictures to FB (I’ve shared a few here), I also started noticing the flood of photos many of my other FB connections were posting – from cruise ships, from Mexican resorts, from JazzFest in New Orleans, and from a variety of restaurants in beach cities around the country.

And then I started to realize that many of these were coming from friends whose kids are at Jewish day schools and some from the professional colleagues who work at them.  As my friends’ kids have reached day school age and as my own business has extended into day school communities, I have become much more aware of the lives of day school families (primarily in Reform, Conservative and Community affiliated schools).

So I started to wonder:  since day schools typically don’t have a Spring Break and only have Passover Break – are families feeling forced to choose between some semblance of Pesach observance or a family vacation?  Do they feel that it’s a zero-sum game and that unless you are at an incredibly expensive KFP Resort that there’s no way to have your “pesadecha cake and eat it too?”

I brought this thought up to a friend and this debate/discussion evolved to me taking to my FB page to ask – “If you are a day school family and you don’t keep Kosher for Passover (or avoid chametz) … is it because it’s your “spring break” or is it because it isn’t an observance your family connects to? Meaning – if you were in school/work/town for Passover would you be more likely to observe it as a family for the week?”

I received a few responses confirming my suspicion that some families are choosing to forego any kind of Pesach observance in order to have a true family “Spring Break” vacation and that those same families would indeed keep a level of Passover dietary restrictions if they were home during the break.  A few people responded that their families were on vacation but rented apartments with kitchens (instead of hotels) in order to cook their own meals and take picnics around the city they were visiting.  One friend messaged me that if they were to go somewhere like NYC or LA they could see doing that, but if they were going to a resort town in Mexico there is no way they would consider that as viable.  Another messaged me that any week they have to cook and do dishes isn’t a vacation and they would never consider that an option.  None said that Passover dietary observances just aren’t the choice of their family regardless of where they are.  (Note: as someone who has held many various kinds of observances for all Jewish holidays, I have no judgement on the choices people make for themselves and their families – these are only observations.)

So here we have families that are making a major financial commitment (averaging $15k per child per year) to immerse their children in Jewish education and community, and yet they are opting out of one the three most “important” holiday observances in Jewish life because it means missing out on (what they consider) a real vacation.  In turn, we are raising a generation of ‘committed Jews’ who won’t know how to “make Passover” for themselves as adults or a future family.

So this leads me to ask – what would it take for Jewish day schools to be in session during Chol haMoed Pesach? What opportunities does that actually offer in terms of education and community building.  Here are a few ideas:

  • an opportunity to partner with a local kosher caterer (so they don’t have to kasher the school cafeteria)
  • 2nd night community seder where the kids lead (and opportunity to embed into the curriculum and showcase more than the Four Questions)
  • a chol hamoed BBQ picnic and sports night
  • an opportunity to have a fundraiser where families can purchase KFP dinners that are sent home with kids at the end of the day only need to be reheated at home  (encouraging KFP observance in the homes but easing the burden on the parents)
  • field trips during the days where the kids take boxed KFP lunches with them (to ease the cafeteria situation)
  • opportunities for older grades to go to the kitchens of the kosher caterers and learn how to prepare certain KFP meals that are then served to their fellow school mates the next day for lunch?  (experiential education at its best)
  • a family retreat/camp out for the last two days of chag

The great thing about being a consultant is I often get to point out a problem/challenge and make some recommendations for solutions, but I am often not responsible for implementation.  So I just leave this all here for you to consider:  if you are a day school parent would you prefer to have a different Spring Break from Passover?  Who in your school community could you go to to start a conversation about the separation?  If you are a day school professional, do you feel as though your students and their families would benefit more from being in session during Passover? What steps could you take to create a proposal for the leadership?  If you aren’t a day school family nor staff member … well I just say to you – maybe there’s an open condo next to me on Hilton Head for 2017!

(If next year can’t be in Jerusalem, then it might as well be in the sand somewhere!)

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