Sunday, March 28, 2010

Visiting the "Old Country"

As we approach Pesach and celebrate with the Exodus story, it is worth noting that there appears to be an outright prohibition against returning to Egypt - see Devarim 17:16. We find a similar tradition following the expulsion of Jewish from Spain in 1492. How about modern history? What about Poland? Should we return to visit and to learn about the destroyed Jewish community there?

One of my avocations is guiding "heritage" tours in Eastern Europe. In recent years, I have been traveling to Poland every year with students from Yeshivat Har Etzion (occasionally we have added Hungary, the Czech Republic or the Ukraine to the itinerary) just before Pesach.

When I first began doing this about 15 years ago, my main interest was the Jewish history and the opportunity to share the "power of place" as I read from the Rema's 16th century writings while standing in his study hall in Krakow, from YL Peretz' stories next to his tombstone in Warsaw or from Primo Levy's insightful memoirs in Auschwitz.

While I still find those experiences to be powerful, my focus of these trips today is more on the students themselves and how they grapple with the myriad of messages that such a trip offers them. Listening to them I am fascinated by -

· What they learn from the Jewish communities that flourished for centuries amidst expulsions and pogroms.
· The messages they get from walking streets that until recently were teeming with Jewish life and today are empty of living Jews.
· How they reconcile the stories that they hear about those who helped the Jews in the midst of the Holocaust and those who helped perpetrate their murder.

Occasionally I hear criticisms of such trips, and I agree that students need a high level of maturity for them to be truly valuable. From my experience, however, educational experiences like these can have lasting impact well beyond what can be accomplished in traditional classrooms.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


My English speaking students always laugh when they learn that being told “DIE!” is not a harsh curse; rather, it is the Hebrew word for ‘enough.” Dayenu, which we will all sing during the Magid section of our upcoming sedarim, literally means “Enough for Us.” It is a song which asks the important question of whether each miracle of the Pesach story, on its own, would have truly been enough

Dayenu teaches the importance of being content with what we have. Most of us are fortunate to have “enough” in our lives. Recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile remind us that shelter, food, water and our loved ones are the things which are truly important. Our laptops, our Blackberries, and our wallets are dear to us and hard to replace. Family photos and our children’s precious art work and tests posted on our refrigerators are sentimental. But they are just objects.

This Pesach, may we remember that we were once slaves, but now we are free. Free to appreciate and treasure all that is truly important in our lives.

Thinking About What We Eat At Passover

Yes, Pesach is the time to celebrate freedom and redemption. But it is also a time of eating, eating and more eating. We will surely be spending a lot of time around our holiday table, sharing meals with family and friends. We have sure evolved from the days when Pesach meant simply matza, potatoes and gefilte fish. We can now enjoy such “delicacies” as quiche, pizza and tea rooms in fancy kosher hotels.

We should be proud of how far we’ve come but we shouldn’t be so content with or focused on the gourmet Kosher for Passover food that we forget the true connections between what we put in our mouths and the meaning of the Passover. We all know that matza reminds us of our hasty departure from Egypt, maror reminds us of the bitterness of slavery, and charoset the mortar used in brick making, etc. But the connections shouldn’t end there.

I was thinking of the importance of thinking what we put in our mouths after reading a recent JCarrot posting by Rabbi Eiav Bock, director of the new Ramah Outdoor Adventure Camp in the Rockies.

Here is an excerpt:
Our goal at Ramah Outdoor Adventure is to completely change the way that we approach food at a summer camp. We have budgeted much more money for food than typical camps. Although I have yet to hire our head chef, the question I have asked each applicant is to tell me how they can help make the food they are serving fit within the broader mission of the camp. Anyone who does not see a direct link between the program in the kitchen and the program on the ropes-course cannot be considered for the job. Admittedly, this has made hiring our head chef all the more challenging, because I am not only seeking someone who understands Kosher food, but also someone who understands the intersection between sustainable foods and wholesome cooking.
So what are some of the commitments we have made for 2010? Here are four:
1. Throughout the week, we will be engaging in programming about food during our meals. We will be adapting elements of the Hazon Min Ha’Aretz Curriculum for use at camp.
2. We will make an effort to buy no white carbohydrates. This means, whenever possible, we will purchase whole-wheat pasta, brown rice and whole-wheat bread. We realize that there will be exceptions and of course we are limited to what we are able to purchase with a Kosher symbol. Luckily Colorado is blessed with wonderful kosher organic whole-wheat bread and organic whole-wheat pasta that is certified by the OU.
3. We will serve mainly whole grain cereal and oatmeal for breakfast—only on occasion serving typical “camp breakfast foods” like waffles and pancakes.
4. Campers will take an active role in preparing food at camp. This will enable everyone from the youngest camper to the oldest staff member to take ownership of the food that we will be eating. When the food is great, we will know who to thank. When the food is bad, we will know who is responsible.
Like Rabbi Bock at his new Ramah camp, we Jewish educators, parents and seder hosts have the opportunity to make the important connection between the true meaning of the Passover holiday and the foods we prepare and consume.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


OK, when I was first asked to be a contributor to this blog several weeks ago, I of course began to think of all sorts of intellectual divrei Torah I could contribute. But sometimes, life just gets in the way of the best laid plans.

This past August, I had a three level spinal fusion surgery for incredible back and leg pain I could no longer live with. And while I felt much better for the first few months, things headed south starting in December. While I was in Israel, my fellow Jim Joseph fellows watched (and of course assisted me greatly) as things deteriorated even more, and by January, when I was disembarking from a cruise, I needed to be wheeled off in a wheel chair.

Turns out that two of my screws had come loose (no obvious jokes, please). In addition, a piece of bone had chipped off and was lodged on my left sciatic nerve. No wonder I was in such incredible pain. And then things happened really rapidly: I was dagnosed on a late Friday afternoon, had a confirming myelogram (CAT scan and X-rays with dye in my spine) on Monday morning, and was in the operating room once again on Wednesday.

Despite being one of the JJFF fellows, destined to create my own on-line community of practice, I have always been a little skeptical about how real an on-line community can truly be. Who is going to really care about me or my opinions if they've never met me? How real can the friendships be that develop solely through social networking? Will anyone even miss me if I stop posting stuff on-line? I understood the idea of trying to collaborate on-line, but the idea of creating a true "community" always seemed a little far fetched.

Boy, was I ever wrong. How was I going to let all the people that might care know about my surgery in such a short amount of time? Worse yet, when I was in the recovery room, how would I let them know that I was OK? I started making lists of names and phone numbers: family, friends, work colleagues, and more. I was already up to two pages and finally had to go to bed to be ready for surgery the next day. And as I was drifting off, it hit me. Why not do it all on-line? Facebook would hit a good number of my friends, several of my google groups would hit my wtaff and some of my colleagues, and the JJFF ning (another social networking platform) would inform all my fellow Fellows. So in basically three short e-mails, almost everyone knew. And as soon as I could following my surgery, I sent out another three short e-mails to let everyone know I was doing fine.

And the responses? All I can say is spectacular. My new droid phone was buzzing with e-mail notifications almost non-stop for two days. So many truly cared and sent me wishes on facebook - and all my Fellows sent me responses through google groups or ning. I even got loads of cards and "gifts" through e-mail. Not only that, but I instructed one of my friends on how to create a wiki so that people who wanted to could sign up to bring me food without calling and bothering her. And someone else started a wiki for people to sign up to say a MiShebeirach for me at Shule.

I learned a lot through this experience. First, don't allow yourself to live with pain - force yourself on your doctor! Second, make sure you choose one of the finest neurosurgeons in the world. But most of all I learned that my previous impressions of on-line communities were just not true. Sure, it's always great to have face to face interactions, but you really can create community and love and friendships on-line. And I hope as I prepare for my first on-line community of practice that the community I create becomes this type of real and true community - where love, caring and friendships bloom and develop.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Community sustains our memories
and builds our future

Today’s post is going to be very Zionist because today, I had a uniquely Zionist experience – I took my son to the בקו"ם (the army induction center) and ‘handed’ him over to the Israeli army. Yes, today my son was drafted in to ZAHAL.

Last night, when my son and I were discussing this rite of passage, I told him that though it was difficult for me, as it is for probably all mothers, I felt a sense of pride and that he and his friends - those 18 and 19 year old sons and daughters – were our community’s representatives and that they were serving for all of us. It would be easy to see this as simply one more step in an individual’s life, but I choose to see each season's גיוס (army recruitment) as a community process, as a community decision, for better and for worse, for the future of Israel.

Judaism and subsequently Israel survives because of community. Our daily customs, our holidays, Shabbat, Synagogue are all community experiences. Our ideal learning is together with others – in hevruta. The day school, Jewish camp and the Israel experience – it’s all about community. The strength of our individuals, our intelligence, our courage, our endurance lies in our interdependence. Community sustains our memories and builds our future.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Failure... a step toward success!

Today is our school’s 2nd Annual Invention Convention & Science Fair.  Apparently, we only get to call it “annual” in its second year…so today we have reached this great milestone!

Seriously though, I have been astounded over the years (and this is not being overly melodramatic) at the incredibly inflated expectations of today’s parents toward their children’s potential.  Obviously, being the head of a Jewish day school, I only have geniuses who were reading in their cribs, doing calculus in preschool, and who are today solving the world’s greatest mysteries and challenges as pre-pubescent Einsteins.

The fact is that even with tongue-in-cheek humor I have witnessed great attempts by education policymakers to suck the creativity and innovation right out of our children while creating expectations for achieving a mythical “perfection” through high-stakes assessments.  I’m not exactly sure when “striving for perfection” became “being perfect” but I am very confident that this expectation is a strong reason innovation (read: risk-taking) has slowly disappeared from our children’s behaviors for fear of potential failure
Woody Allen said it best “If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative.”  (And he knows something or two about failing).  As a head of school I am always trying to help put things into perspective, whether it’s for our students, staff and faculty, or parents and broader community, nothing does the job better than talking about a child learning to walk:

The build-up to those first few steps, the encouragement, support and even outright cheering when a toddler stands up is at times overwhelming.  Then a stride across the room comes and the audience erupts!  From there a few setbacks (thank G-d for well-padded diapers) but the encouragement continues; the support network stands firm (pun intended).  And eventually, after who knows how many attempts, failure turns into success!!!

So when does it change?  I dare say that in the world of Jewish education we must ensure that it never does.  In our school, the commitment to the Invention Convention over the last two years has been fraught with parental push-back.  “It’s too hard for my child to come up with something original” is the most common criticism.  “My child can’t come up with any ‘problems’ or ‘challenges’ to be solved” is another frequently used critique.  Nonetheless, when I have the opportunity to walk around our museum of innovative products and creations, as I did this morning, there is no doubt that we are well on our way to readdressing this critical commodity.

When I was a child, my mother (a former religious school teacher) used to say that the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament was that the Torah had characters who were imperfect and “real” human beings.  They might have had Divine relationships that we only wish we could have today, but our ancestors were real, they made mistakes, and they certainly failed in a varied multitude of ways. 

Today, I ask you all out there, what are we doing to emulate this critical characteristic of our ancestors?  Where has all the imperfection gone?  And where is our support and recognition that failing is not a badge of dishonor, rather it is a symbol of one’s pursuit for success?

100 Days of Butterflies

My camp, Camp Ramah in New England, has asked campers and staff to participate in the blog series, “Impact of Ramah-The 100 Day Countdown.” Members of the camp community are asked to share what they are “most excited about, most looking forward to, or most miss about camp that you can't wait to experience again?”

Though I have been working at camp for sixteen years and directing their Tikvah (special needs camping) Program for ten, I admit to feeling a bit nervous as camp approaches. I take comfort in the words of the late Professor Nechama Leibowitz, as shared by her student, Dr. Joe Freedman, Director of Ramah Programs in Israel. Joe always tells his staff of the time he approached Professor Leibowitz at the start of one of her famous Parshat Hashavua classes. She politely asked him, “Can you please come to me after class, kee yesh lee parparim b’beten—I have butterflies in my stomach.”

If such a gadol hador (giant of the generation) has butterflies in her stomach, it is okay for all of us to have butterflies in our stomachs! I share this story with my staff each summer and take comfort in the fact that I am not alone.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Teachers Are Our Gold Medalists

For almost thirty years, I spent my days in a classroom with adolescents. That time was full of magic and mystery. I planned and planned for each day of teaching but I actually never knew quite what to expect. Some of the surprises yielded incredible teaching moments and some surprises I’d like to forget. What I will never forget, however, is the incredible opportunity I had to learn Torah with young people every day and to be enriched and invigorated by their precious young voices.

Teaching is considered by most to be an isolating field. There were days during those thirty years in the classroom, when I barely exchanged a word with someone over fourteen for the entire day. I may have been isolated from other adults in my corner classroom but I was by no means lonely. Today, educators have many opportunities (like this blog) to talk to and hear from virtual contacts when time and schedules do not allow them to interact with their colleagues during the school day. We look forward to welcoming the voices of more Jewish educators to this conversation.

In my current work, I spend much of my time talking to teachers. I am always struck by their devotion and dedication, their energy and enthusiasm, and their desire to perfect their craft. Yesterday’s cover story in the New York Times Magazine talks about the complexity of the craft of teaching and two interesting approaches to defining and refining that craft. I applaud the educators who developed these approaches and hope we can learn from them in Jewish education. Our hopes and dreams for the Jewish people and our future rests with our magnificent teachers and the Jewish journeys which begin for many young people in their classrooms. .