Saturday, June 26, 2010

A Jewish Take on World Issues

This blog was supposed to be published on Wednesday but I was still thinking about what to write. Over the past ten days I have been directing a ten-day scholar in residence program at the Jewish Community Center of Houston (where I work) entitled A Jewish Take on World Issues. The scholar, Dr. Alick Isaacs is a professor at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University and a faculty member at the Hartman Institute. The series included lectures both at the JCC and in private homes. Each night Dr. Isaacs explored a Jewish take on issues such as Universal Humanity, Community, Peace, Progress, Feminism, and the role of the State of Israel in the Modern World. The program was well received and every night participants went home with a little bit of a brain ache from working hard to understand the challenging ideas presented by our presenter. Since I attended all ten lectures I had a lot to think about and so this post is late.

In the lecture entitled A Jewish Take on Progress, Dr. Isaacs shared with us the Western understanding of progress as a linear development that will inevitably results in an improvement of conditions. He then proceeded to explore a Jewish understanding of progress, in which traditionalist and anti-traditionalist movements support one another in the mutual development and conservation of Judaism’s most important ideas and ideals.

In the lecture A Jewish Take on Feminism, Dr. Isaacs explored how the modern Feminist tradition is at odds with Judaism while a reading of Jewish texts supports a Feminist ideology based not on rights, but responsibilities both for men and women. Dr. Isaacs is an ardent feminist, and one of the founders of Congregation Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem, where women lead portions of the service and read Torah in an Orthodox environment.

The big idea I took away from this series is that I am guilty of trying to make an accommodation for Judaism to fit neatly into the Western tradition. I need to work harder to explore Judaism on its own terms and not as a tradition that can so neatly fit into the surrounding culture I wish to belong. I walked away recognizing that Judaism at odds with a Western tradition can serve as form of protest against a tradition that needs a genuine critique in order to maintain its own authentic voice. In this way, both Judaism and the Western tradition are forced to evolve.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

To Tell or Not to Tell

When I was a teenager and a college student (and still occasionally) my Dad would often cut out articles from the newspaper for me to read. I recall this warmly now…though I am quite certain that in my youth, like any self-respecting adolescent, I found it quite annoying. I think my Dad wanted to share important ideas with me … perhaps he thought that I would take them more seriously if they came from an expert who published them in a newspaper. Yesterday I read a blog posting that was too important to not share with you. I apologize, though only half-heartedly, for the length of this posting.

What follows is an inspiring story of thoughtful parenting around real challenges. It is a noteworthy model for talking with kids about hard issues of all sorts. This piece was originally posted on Deborah’s blog Puzzled. and reposted with the author’s permission on Tzeh Ulumad-HUC’s Continue Alumni Education Blog. My hope is that I am doing my part to share this very important story as widely as possible in our Jewish education community. While we understand that the perfect Jewish family is a myth, there is often silence when it comes to speaking about the challenges we face.

What do we tell the children? Autism in a Jewish Family

Deborah Greene

“We, the one’s who are challenged, need to be heard. To be seen not as a disability, but as a person who has, and will continue to bloom. To be seen not only as a handicap, but as a well intact human being.” (Robert M. Hensel)

The summer we told Yael about her autism. Her sister Leora by her side. As parents, we are faced with many difficult conversations. Amongst them, there is the “don’t do drugs” talk, the “don’t drink & drive” talk and of course there is the good old-fashioned, highly anticipated “birds & bees” conversation. Most of us spend a good amount of time thinking about how to get these conversations just right. We look for the best books, ask friends how they handled these conversations with their own children & seek out guidance from trusted sources. If you are the parent of a child with autism, you also need to tackle the “telling my child that they have a lifelong developmental disability” conversation. I can promise you that this particular conversation is one of the most intimidating, nerve-wracking & anxiety inducing conversations of all.

You see, this particular conversation will help to shape how your child will see himself or herself for years to come. You want to impart the knowledge of who they are and why they are different without making them feel that their disability defines them. You want to help them understand their struggles, without making them feel limited in their capabilities. You want them to see themselves as “differently-abled” and not “disabled.” In addition, you want to help to ensure that they themselves won’t use their autism as an excuse, a “get out of jail free card” so to speak.

Then there are the other components of this conversation. When do I tell my child? How will I know when the time is right for them to handle this information? How much or how little do I share? Do I share this information with their friends & classmates? The list goes on & on.

Fred I began to think about having this conversation with Yael towards the end of her 2nd grade year. We knew that upon entering third grade, the social gap would widen significantly. We were already seeing her friends surpass her both socially & emotionally. What were seen as “little quirks” by her peers before, were now being seen as “strange” or “weird.” We also felt that it was becoming important to try & help her understand why she always had a teacher aid, went to social skills groups & needed occupational & other therapies. I guess you can say that we felt as if we wanted to help create a picture out of the many different puzzle pieces that made up her daily life.

So, I talked with her therapists, began looking for good books and hit the web in search of a “how to guide” to having this conversation with Yael. We waited until the 2nd grade school year was over. Then, we waited for the perfect opportunity, believing we would know it when we saw it. Alas, the picture perfect moment never seemed to present itself. There always seemed to be something about it that we felt wasn’t “quite right.” Truth be told I think we knew that we were going to change our daughter’s perception of herself, and her sister’s perceptions as well, for the rest of her life. No matter how the conversation went, she would now know herself not simply as a person, but a person with autism and that scared the heck out of us.

Finally, one night as we all sat around the dinner table, Yael began to share something that she had done in occupational therapy that day. I decided that it was time to close my eyes and just “jump” into the autism conversation. I asked her if she knew why she needed OT or why she went to her social skills group or other therapies. She knew some of the reasons she went: “I need help making my muscles stronger & working on balance.” “I need extra help learning about how to make friends.” I told her that the reason she needed help with these & many other things is because she has something called autism. There~the word was out there. I took a deep breath, braced myself for the rest of the conversation and, together with Fred, we went forward at the dinner table. We provided a safe space, where no question was discouraged & where Yael and her sisters could talk openly & honestly. We did our best to ensure that at no point in the conversation would we treat autism as a scary or bad thing, something that was “wrong” or “broken” with Yael, nor was it something to be embarrassed about.

It’s hard to share the entire conversation, as it went on for quite some time and was full of lots & lots of Q & A. We read a wonderful book called, “My Best Friend Will” by Jamie Lowell & Tara Tuchel. In this true story Jamie, then a 5th grader, writes about her best friend Will, who has autism. The beauty of the book, besides its inspirational story of acceptance & friendship, is that Jamie helped her readers to see and understand those parts of Will that came from his autism & those parts that made him just like every other kid. She helped break down ideas about autism & perseveration, sensory issues, communication & emotions into kid-friendly, non-threatening topics that helped us in our conversation. Yael could relate to Will’s trouble with loud noises (“Oh, so that’s why I have to cover my ears when I flush the toilet!”), his perseveration (“That’s why sometimes an idea gets stuck in your head & you have so much trouble letting it go.”) his trouble reading social cues & more. Jamie also shared all of the things about Will that make him just like everybody else. Will loves to swim & play, he has a family that loves him, he has pets, he goes to school etc….

With the book read, the questions asked & answered (honestly & to the best of our ability) we ended our conversation, sent the kids to get ready for bed and with a still lingering sense of anxiety, asked one another, “How do you think that went?” “Do you think she understood it?” “Did we answer her questions & her sisters questions well enough?” In other words, the angst of going into this conversation was now replaced with the angst of coming out of the conversation.

Fast forward to the next morning. Yael came into the kitchen, walked over to me and said, “Mom, I think we had a really good conversation about autism last night & you know what? I like having autism because autism is a part of me & I like myself just the way I am. I like being different, it makes me special.” With tears in my eyes & a lump in my throat, I allowed myself to exhale for the first time in weeks.

I know this perception of herself & her autism may not last, or at the very least it may be challenged by the hardships that continually lie ahead for her. There will surely be times when she will wish to fit in with the crowd & won’t so readily celebrate being different. And though I pray she won’t, she may even come to view her autism as a curse, and not the gift she saw that morning. Our job as parents will be to continue to help her see her autism as simply a piece of what makes her Yael. We may not be able to protect her from how others will see it, but we believe that the more informed she is, the better she will be able to counter & stand up against labels and insults. Still, all that being said…that morning, in that moment, I felt that Yael’s dad & I had done good. We had gotten that first conversation right, and for that I was profoundly grateful.

Monday, June 21, 2010


I am one of those people who has always thinks "Help" is a dirty four-letter word. For some reason it feels like failure, it feels like a loss of independence, and it certainly feels vulnerable. Of course, I am always willing to help others - enjoy doing it, but almost never admit I need help or ask for it myself. Well, until recently. In my personal life, I have just come through three serious situations over the past 8 months that required me to ask for help.

The first was in October 2009 when my father had a cardiac event, was in and out of a coma for a week, and then died. I asked for help a lot those two weeks and each time, people were jumping at the chance to be there to support me in some way. I asked for meals, I asked for someone to send me clothes (my family is in St. Louis and I live in ATL), I asked for someone to just check and answer my voicemails. I asked for someone to take care of my cats. I asked for people to pray for my father. I asked a friend from out-of-town to drop everything and come officiate the funeral. Despite the fact it was tremendously hard for me to ask for all of these things, it was easy for people to respond "yes."

For those of you who are pet people, you will understand my second instance .... In April, one of my cats suddenly took deathly ill. The vets didn't think she was going to make it, and the over the course of a week she went from "fine" to battling about a half-dozen ailments. It was all I could do to go back and forth from the vet, to the animal hospital (where she was overnight on i.v.'s), to my house, and back again. I didn't eat or sleep for almost 8 days ... and I found that I had to ask for help that week. I was so distraught, I wasn't functioning, and yet it still took me 5 days into the chaos to ask for help. Just asking a friend to come be with me when I couldn't be alone - a friend who came over and held me while I just cried and cried and cried. A friend who forced me to eat (and cooked for me), a friend who brought over ice cream without my needing to ask. And yet asking for that help was so painful ... but receiving it was so comforting.

Three weeks ago, I had 20" of my colon removed ... and found myself in the third situation where I had to ask for help. Help from family, help from nurses (great nurses rock and are under-appreciated!), help from neighbors and friends. Each time, my independence threatened to get in the way of asking for the help ... but each time my community came through for me on so many levels. Even people from across the globe recognized that one way they could help - even though geographically disadvantaged - was by cheering on my spirits - sending notes, text messages, emails, flowers, books, magazines, gift certificates, etc. (This Jim Joseph Fellows community put a smile on my face more than once the last few weeks!)

So why is it that it takes serious - life threatening (whether for me or for a loved-one of mine) for me to be able to ask for help? Why is when people are so generous and willing to give, I hesitate to ask? Why is it that despite the fact that people have proven to have truly giving spirits over the past 8 months, that I still will wait for crisis to ask for help? And if this is how I respond in my personal life, professionally it is even harder to ask for help ... Why can't I give myself over to asking without hesitation?

Reflecting on it, I am reminded that one of the first acts in Torah is G-d telling Adam that he needs a help-mate.

Genesis 2:18:
And God said: 'It is not good that the man should be alone;
I will make him a help mate for him.'

This is a reminder to all of us ...we are made in G-d's image, and it is innate in us to recognize when someone needs help. It is important for us to recognize that both the act of helping and the act of being helped are holy. It truly is that simple.

And just as simple is the response when someone helps you.... say "Thank You."

So I offer up this blog as a Todah Rabah for all the people who have helped me - particularly over the last 8 months. You have not only helped me in the moment I needed it, but you have also helped me better be able to ask for help.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Graduation Proclamation

OK, I admit it. I’m Scrooge.

For years, every June, I would listen to the “Graduation Kiddush” sponsors list announced in my synagogue. Family X, in honor of their son graduating pre-nursery. Family Y, in honor of their daughter graduating nursery. And so on, up through high school, college, and the occasional person who just passed the bar.

And I would just be irritated.

But not by the rattling off of the names, per se, or the lengthier announcements. Pay your $36 and you get to hear your name. That’s cool with me. And when they would get to the 8th grade graduations, I would even nod my head and give the congratulatory shul mumble. High school graduations, I would even say Mazel Tov. College graduation, hearty Mazel Tov. Grad school? Even heartier.

It was the nursery school “graduations” I had a problem with.

Yep, I’m Scrooge. Or old school, at least.

To be clear, I think early childhood education is critically important. The practical skills children learn, the social-emotional development, the understanding of how to be part of a group, and not least of all the self-esteem and joy they feel each day, are all wonderful. And in a Jewish context, they also get a love for Jewish life built on a foundation of both knowledge and emotional connection. I love that my daughter is off and running when I drop her off each day, ready to jump in to a world of play, friendships, and learning.

But I think words and terms have value, and I don’t like cheapening them. To me—and I think, to most people—graduation carries a special connotation, the idea of completing an education over a number of years, and building toward a higher goal that can only be achieved cumulatively. And it’s precisely because you have to work hard for it, stick it out, and keep the end goal in sight, even when it seems so far away you can barely see it, that it’s all the more worthwhile. Underlying that premise is that you’re old enough to understand all of that.

Which is why I was glad to see that my four-year-old daughter’s pre-nursery closing program last week was called just that—a closing program. Not graduation.

But her 3-year-old program the year before? She wore a graduation cap with a mortarboard. Made out of construction paper, but you get the idea.

And I was a proud papa at both programs, of course. (Especially when she took a bow and went down the slide at last year's; that's the moment of truth.)

But one day, when she’s older, I’ll sit her down and teach her that words have meaning, sometimes on multiple levels. Those meanings should be appreciated, even celebrated. And sometimes, they should be reserved for special, even exclusive, occasions.

Perhaps we’ll have that talk at her 8th grade graduation party.

And then afterward we’ll talk about why it’s called commencement.

Monday, June 7, 2010

From Camp To Kazakhstan to Central Park: The Strong Bond of Jewish Camping

As you can imagine, the days leading up to 9 weeks of camp (staff week plus eight weeks) are exciting and action packed. I am entering my 10th year as the director of the 40 year old Tikvah Program, which offers overnight camping opportunities for nearly 50 children and young adults with a wide range of special needs. Our winter office is based in Boston and the camp itself is in Palmer, Massachusetts; and I have the distinction of being the only year round staff member who doesn't work out of the camp office. For me, there is no period of “packing up the office and moving to Palmer.” So, when the office is in transition, my computer is still on and with me. And I receive many calls from Tikvah (and even non-Tikvah) families—seeking information from an actual person about bus departures, luggage tags, etc. But, for the most part, I am sitting at home, working hard to put the finishing touches on the Tikvah Program and the Inclusion Programs for Kayitz, 2010. It is crunch time!

This week alone, I met with our rosh edah, sent out Tikvah bunking, interviewed an out of state Tikvah family (at an NYC kosher bagel and pizza store!), spoke with counselors, a newspaper reporter and a funder, did tons of paper work, and wrote and answered hundreds of emails. You know it is countdown time when emails sent to my camp colleagues—the director, assistant director, programming director, bsiness manager and development director are routinely answered—even when sent at 11 pm!

Yet, sometimes the best way to prepare for camp is to take a break from camp!

Today, it is a hot, sunny day in Manhattan. After a few hours of doing camp work and staring out at the beautiful weather, I decided to get away from camp by getting on my bike and heading over to Central Park. The park is closed to car traffic starting at 10 am. So, at 11:30 or so, I put on my biking clothes, grabbed my helmet, pumped up my tires and hit the park. The “loop” is six miles, and the runner and biker lanes were packed with others who had the same idea. The park was packed with school kids having picnics, color wars and attending the marionette show. And there were readers, tennis players and sunbathers galore.

I was at peace, almost in a dream state, as I neared Tavern on the Green on the West Side, in the 60s. All of a sudden, I thought I saw a t-shirt, identical to one I have and actually wear quite often—a gray staff t-shirt with RAMAH in big orange letters on the front, and “Tzevet (Staff) 2008” on the back. But I was relaxed and pedaling 22 miles an hour. Couldn’t be. Why would a pedicab (bike cab) driver in Central Park in New York City be wearing a shirt from my camp?! My curiosity got the better of me. I slowed and stopped in front of the “cab” and asked the driver where he got the shirt. Well, “Ilya, the pedicab driver, was “Ilya the kitchen worker” two years ago at Camp Ramah in New England! “Where are you from?” I asked. “Kazakhstan,” he replied. He still eyed me a bit suspiciously. I asked, “Oh, you worked with Meital and Randy?” He smiled. I invited him to come visit. I reached in to my pouch and forked over the one piece of identification I had on me—my Camp Ramah in New England-Tikvah Director business card. “Call me if I can be of help,” I said. His smile got bigger. I got back on my bike and went back to dreaming—this time of bike rides, in just a few weeks, with my many camp friends—including my kitchen staff friends--to Quabbin Reservoir.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

How to share news?

The "Sandwich Method" for sharing critical/potentially negative news is a simple concept of starting with the first layer of "bread".  Here one provides an initial positive remark, compliment, or other warm and fuzzy so as to set the stage and begin building the sandwich by showing that "feeding someone" is as much about the care being taken in the information's delivery as it is about the information itself.

The "meat" of the sandwich can then be shared.  This is often the negative feedback, constructive criticism, and/or critical information that often leaves the recipient a little taken aback by the impact of the information.  And then, finally, one closes the sandwich with a positive comment about the future, how the information may help someone grow, or general optimistic statement.

So why do I share this methodology on a Jewish education blog?  Well, besides the fact that we are most certainly a gastronomic faith, I actually believe that this sandwich method is a very Jewish and ancient method for sharing difficult news and can be observed in the events of this week's Torah portion.

It is this week, in Parashat Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41), where Moses sends out a group of representatives of all the Tribes to scout the land of Canaan.  What we know is that this group returns from their travels and they share terrifying information about the "giants" who live there.  These stories in turn cause panic and hysteria amongst the Children of Israel and ultimately brings about a punishment for this generation of never being able to enter the land.

Similarly, the consequences for the scouts is death... for all that is but Joshua and Caleb.  Why not these two?  Common understanding tells us that these two scouts did not share the negatives and fear-inducing stories of what they saw.  Rather, these two were optimists and wanted to only focus on the good.

My conjecture, however, is that these two were saved for the way they shared the information. Not because of what they actually said (or did not say).

In Numbers 13:27 we read that the scouts (the collective group) describe the land as "flowing with milk and honey" (laying the first piece of "bread") they then share the "meat" of what they saw which is a land with numerous enemies, "huge and fortified" cities, and even descendants of the giants (13:28).  Nobody suggests that they are embellishing their story, or worse outright lying!

No, what happens here is that for the majority of the scouts their report of what they saw ends on this note of fear and anxiety.  In fact, this scary focal point becomes the focus of what they go on to share with the other Hebrews in the encampment.  Not Caleb and Joshua however.  Their report continues and ends with the closing slice of bread.  For Caleb and Joshua there is still optimism and potential fulfillment of their destiny as we read in 13:30 where Caleb says, "We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it."  So even with the fearful news of what they saw; even with this incredibly scary report, the fact is that what Caleb and Joshua know about what they could do still outweighed what they saw on their trail. They didn't want/try to leave anyone paralyzed by the news.

When it comes to sharing information, and as educators we share, recommend, advise, counsel, and talk to people all day long; it is wise for us to always keep the sandwich method in mind.  Remember, how one says something is just as important as what one says!