Saturday, May 28, 2011

“The Wheels of the CoP Go Round and Round…”

Five days on a bike, riding with 40 riders through the Golan Heights and the Galilee to raise more than $200,000 for Camp Ramah special needs camping programs, gave me new perspective on my Ramah Special Needs Program Directors CoP (read “Nurturing an Online Community of Practice:

In the past few weeks, I have been wondering if our small, “closed,” directors CoP has reached an impasse and is in need of some “new life.” Perhaps the recent fall off in participation is seasonal. As the camp season approaches, camp directors are very busy--maybe even too busy to actively participate in monthly CoP video conferences and google group discussions. . When participation wanes, I sometimes wonder if we have reached an impasse and need to breathe new life.

Now I think we simply need to measure success differently. While in Israel, there were two wonderful developments very much connected to (and more likely an outgrowth of) the CoP. In fact, both developments occurred precisely because the Ramah special needs directors are in regular contact.

The CoP has demonstrated to the National Ramah director and the National Ramah Commission that there is great benefit in having all Ramah special needs programs working more closely together. The seven programs—spread out across the United States and Canada—are part of a larger whole, and we special needs program directors have a lot to share with each other.

The first successful outgrowth of our CoP was the Ramah Galil Bike ride itself! Riders connected to all seven Ramah camps came out in support of the various Ramah special needs programs. Two special Shabbat panel discussion with Tikvah Program founders, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, and me, taught the riders about the 41 year history of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England--Ramah’s first program for campers with special needs. They also learned about challenges, successes and the many Ramah overnight and family camp programs for campers and their families. The riders became more aware and therefore more connected to the cause.

Second, while the riders were enjoying Israel, raising money, and learning about the Ramah special needs programs, a special group of experienced Ramah counselors—from the various special needs programs across the US and Canada—were meeting together (at Camp Ramah in New England) for the first ever joint training program—and it was underwritten from the proceeds of the ride. The riders enjoyed the phone call on our last evening with the dozen or so star counselors—they took a break from their learning and sharing to thank us.

I was smiling for an additional reason. They didn’t know it yet, but their desire to stay in contact, share programs, offer support and start a google group, was leading them to…the formation of a Ramah special needs counselors CoP!! The wheels on the CoP truly go round and round!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Goodbye, Oprah; Hello, James Frey

I know I’m risking my man card when I say this, but here goes:

I’m really going to miss Oprah.

(And football, too, if the lockout cancels the season. Just feel the need to mention that for balance.)

I’m not obsessed. I don’t shriek with glee when Tom Cruise walks out on stage. But I can’t deny that I have enjoyed her show. It’s the most polished show on TV, in my opinion. But it’s more than that.

My wife is a huge Oprah fan, and has been forever. She Tivo’s it and watches it at night, so for years I have often seen parts or even full episodes with her. Everyone who knows us knows she’s a big Oprah fan. I have advised certain friends of mine—and they know who they are—not to badmouth Oprah if they come to our house for a Shabbat meal. (In one instance, it came close to me walking my friend to the door before dessert.)

It’s more than that, too.

Oprah has managed to stay real by allowing her viewers to see her struggles: Her abused childhood. Her weight. Her early struggle to gain the confidence to succeed in TV. Her messages are generally universal in nature and empowering—find your inner spirit, forgiveness is empowering, believe in the power of redemption, and so forth.

But it’s more than that, too.

As I was watching the celebrity-filled United Center send-off—yes, the celebrity shows are fluffy, but you have to admit it’s cool to see the range of celebrities who came out for her farewell—it occurred to me: there is no other show which has her capacity for social impact.

As they showed people—mostly women and children, but definitely men as well—from around the globe who have been touched by this show, it became clear to me what her departure from the stage will mean.

What other show has the capacity to put someone on screen, and almost instantly raise awareness of an issue to that degree? What other host has the leverage to get major corporations to donate hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to her specific causes? Who else can effect change so quickly and dramatically?

I know there are those who can’t stand Oprah, who see her as an egomaniac. Yes, it seems silly to me that she needs to be on the cover of her magazine each month. But here’s why that doesn’t really bother me: she puts her money—and her show—where her mouth is.

When Hurricane Katrina happened, she gave $10 million of her own money toward the relief efforts. No other celebrity gave anything close to that, to my knowledge; Rosie O’Donnell even bemoaned on TV how depressing it was to be turned town by ultra-wealthy celebrities when she made calls asking for $1 million donations for Katrina relief. Oprah's Angel Network has raised tens of millions more, and galvanized millions of people to participate in the process.

And that, I think, is the legacy of her show—the profound social impact. More than the celebrities, or the screaming women receiving free gifts, is the commitment to use her platform to improve the world. To speak out against abuse. To fight hunger, spread literacy, and provide a voice to others who felt they had none. To recognize so clearly that there were viewers at home who would identify with those on stage, who struggled with the same issue, and who might just use that particular episode as a lifeline to keep them afloat.

I don’t see any other show on TV with that kind of social impact. And I’m going to miss that.

And I have no idea what my wife is going to watch now.

~ ~ ~ ~

As Oprah’s show has wound down, one specific episode really struck me.

When I heard that James Frey, the now infamous author of A Million Little Pieces, was going to be on her show again in the final weeks, I couldn’t believe it. How could she give that guy who lied in his book, and then presumably profited even more from the controversy, more publicity? I hate when people profit from bad behavior—see the financial collapse of 2008—and was upset that Oprah would give him this platform again.

(If you were absent from Earth and missed the James Frey controversy a few years ago, click here for a summary, or click here for the transcript of the January 2006 interview in which Oprah scorched Frey.)

But I watched the latest James Frey interview.

And it was riveting.

For starters, Oprah was much more low-key than she was when Frey came back to her show during the heat of the controversy in 2006. Back then, she tore into him for embarrassing her and deceiving her readers; now, sitting in a quiet hotel meeting space, with no studio guests, both Oprah and Frey were reflective on what happened. They both reflected about that famous day on her show, how the whole situation came to be, about all of it.

Interestingly enough, neither watched the show after it was first broadcast; Frey still hasn’t. (I wouldn’t, either; if there’s only pain and negativity in the rear-view mirror, take the lessons you need to get out of it and just look forward.)

He acknowledged, when asked, that he was not aware of the lion’s den he was about to walk into that day, that the producers had not told him the details in advance. Oprah then asked him essentially the same question in different ways at multiple points throughout the interview: Did he feel ambushed by the questions she asked him that day? Did he feel it was unfair? Was he upset afterward?

Every time she asked, his response always came back to this:

“Whatever happened that day, I brought on myself.”

He said it not in a diplomatic-but-quietly-I’m-upset kind of way, but in a way that suggested he really meant it. He did not communicate any feelings of anger over what happened, never once expressed displeasure with her producers for not preparing him.

So why did he come back that day, even when his attorneys advised him not to, telling him that he would expose himself to lawsuits and more?

“I came because I think I owed it to you to come,” he told Oprah. “When this was all happening, I kept saying to myself, ‘How did you arrive at this? How did you do this?’… I knew that what happened was my fault. I created that mess, I created that situation. And that if I had to come bear the responsibility of what I had done, that I should do it.”

Wow. I was stunned as I watched that. (Click here to see a clip of the interview.)

We live in an age where we teach our children, and teens in particular, to make good decisions, to take responsibility for their actions. Yet all around us we see the opposite. We see athletes who get caught cheating yet continue to lie. Politicians who get caught yet continue to deny. People who simply refuse to say, “I made a mistake,” or more importantly, “I’m sorry.”

Frey did none of that. Over and over, he simply said it was entirely his fault. He explained that shifting the book’s genre to memoir would make the story more inspiring and thus increase sales. Once the book took off and was chosen for Oprah’s book club, things had spun out of control and there was no turning back. But all of that, he said, was on him.

Oprah, for her part, also expressed regret. She acknowledged the criticism she received after that show, that people said she judged him too harshly. Now, looking back, she said what people saw that day was a lack of compassion, for which she apologized to Frey. Also impressive.

I love stories of redemption. But more than that, I love stories where people take responsibility for their behavior and try to make things right, especially if it leads to the repair of a relationship. It’s so simple, so obvious, yet so rare.

So when the show was over, I really liked James Frey. Who knows, I might even pick up a copy of A Million Little Pieces.

Ah, who am I kidding? I’d rather watch football.

Cross-Posted at

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mojo, Maslow and Jewish Education

I am reading “Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow” by Chip Conley with my friends, colleagues and teachers in my CoP—the Rhea Hirsch School of Education Alumni Virtual Book Group.

In this engaging book, hotelier Chip Conley, shares how he uses Abraham Maslow’s iconic concepts of the “hierarchy of needs” and theories of human motivations to create a dynamic and thriving culture for his employees in his boutique hotel business. We in turn, talk together about apply these concepts and Conley’s insights to our world of Jewish education.

In addition to theory and pearls of wisdom, Conley provides examples by sharing some of the “backstory” about culture, attitudes and practices from companies such as Google, Southwest Airlines, Zappos and other from the “100 Best Companies to Work For" list. While this might sound contrary to our image of the ‘profit-driven amoral business world’, we in Jewish education have much to learn about culture that supports community, personal growth, integrity from innovative businesses who pay careful attention to the needs of employees and customers.

Conley’s principles can be easily translated to how we work with our students, their families, our faculty staff and colleagues. In his book he talks about how to create lasting impressions, loyalty, peak experiences, trust, challenge and empathy. While the setting and roles of the examples Conley shares come from the world of business, it is easy to substitute synagogue, board member, teacher, learner or parents into the principle.

Given the time that we (the Fellows) spent at Google in Tel Aviv last December, I especially enjoyed reading Conley’s description of Google’s commitment to supporting their employees need to feel that they are making a difference in the world by encouraging employees to spend 20 percent of their time on projects they feel can make a difference in the world.

Conley’s book is a good reminder that people’s once basic needs are met, in a supportive culture, people (learners, teachers, colleagues, parents, staff, board members etc) are motivated by the human drive to find meaning and to make a difference.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Jewish Holidays Explained

As the summer approaches and, with the exception of Shabbat, only a few holidays remain before we start again in the Fall (whew!), let’s take a moment to consider the cycle of Jewish holidays as a whole.

The calendar of Jewish holidays is diverse. We have holidays that last as few as one and as many as eight days. We have holidays that ask us to change our daily routine, such as Shabbat and Yom Kippur; holidays where daily celebration is basically the same as usual, such as Hanukkah; and holidays that overturn our entire lives, such as Passover and Sukkot. One reason why Jewish holidays have a distinctive lack of uniformity is that each is based on different sources that commemorate or celebrate different historical events in the history of our people. Despite this diversity, our holidays can be divided into three primary categories.

The first category of Jewish holidays is those that are discussed in the Torah. These are the holidays that G-d gave the Jewish people through Moses. Traditionally, these holidays, including Shabbat, have restrictions on the type of activities one can perform and can be identified by how we mark their beginning, with the lighting of two candles and the reciting of Kiddush, a prayer of sanctification, over a glass of wine. Although all the specific ritual acts of these holidays are not provided in the Torah, our rabbinic tradition establishes practices for these holidays based on an explanatory reading of the Torah.

The second category of Jewish holidays is those which were established by the Sages of the rabbinic period and codified in the Talmud. Most of these holidays have their origin in the Bible but were not given by G-d to the Jewish people and do not have the same level of sanctity as those discussed in the Torah. Purim is the most common example of this class of holidays, although others include Tisha B’Av and the minor fasts to commemorate the other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in the First and Second Temple periods and beyond. Hanukkah, also a holiday in this category, is distinctive from the rest in that it is established by the Rabbis but not Biblical in origin. Actually, it was the Rabbis themselves (for reasons that would require another article) who decided not to include the books of First and Second Maccabees, that tell the Hanukkah story, in what was to become the Jewish Bible. Nevertheless, the Rabbis instituted the holiday to commemorate this moment of Jewish triumph. The practices of these holidays are less restrictive because they are not instituted directly by G-d but by the recognized guardians of the Jewish tradition.

The final category of Jewish holidays is those created in the modern period. These holidays commemorate or celebrate events of that are connected to the modern Jewish experience, the Holocaust or the establishment of the State of Israel. Since these holidays were created in modernity, they are not marked by most of the ritual and prayer that is central to the celebration of Torah-based or Rabbinic holidays. In addition, these holidays have the fewest number of restrictions.

Interestingly, most of us have holidays that we appreciate over others because their message or practices are personally compelling. In addition, you might find that one category of Jewish holidays seems to have greater magnetism than another because the rituals or restrictions of the day fundamentally shape the nature of its observance.

We should also help those we teach to give more serious thought to the Jewish holidays. Explore with them how they could expand their connection to sacred Jewish time. What is telling about the fact that they prefer Yom Ha'Atzmaut to Rosh HaShanah or Purim to Shavuot? Have they been adequately exposed to the ideas, rituals, or prayers that could make the observance of the holidays more meaningful? Teaching about the holidays should not be something that ends at Bar Mitzvah age, but something explored at all times in a learner's Jewish journey. That way, we are constantly renewed in our Jewish living each year.

Monday, May 2, 2011

What is the proper blessing on hearing of the violent death of an Amalekite?

Anyone in the U.S. watching network television last night around 10:45 EDT (we might have had a minyan watching network TV) learned about the killing of Osama bin Laden. (People on Twitter learned a little earlier!) It has been an interesting weekend for news. A royal wedding on Friday, a beatification and an assault on public enemy on Sunday. Thank God for Shabbat. We were so busy celebrating a B'nai Mitzvah that we didn't pay attention to the outside world. BTW, both Divrei Torah were fabulous!

This morning I was struck by the sounds and images of the rejoicing in Washington D.C. and at Ground Zero over the death of bin Laden (may his name be blotted from memory). While I am as happy as anyone that he is no longer at large, and relieved he is not going to be around to stand trial, I am struck by the rejoicing over someone’s death and the singing of God Bless America.

Tonight we have class for our Kitah Zayin and Chet students (7th & 8th grade) and tomorrow we have Daled - Vav (4th - 6th). What should we say - if anything?

I am leaning toward telling the Midrash from Masechet Megillot of the angels rejoicing at the sea juxtaposed with the rejoicing of the Israelites (as retold by Pinchas Peli):
"It was indeed part of the miracle which occurred at the crossing of the sea, that the Israelites looked at what they saw and were moved to faith. It was this spontaneous faith which erupted in the exalted immortal Song of the Sea. Song and praise has remained ever since the most genuine language of faith. Most of Jewish prayer does not consist of petition and supplication, but of hymns and praises. The Song of the Sea sung by Moses and the Israelites is to this day part of the daily Jewish liturgy.

Singing to God is not without limitations, just as not singing may have fateful repercussions.... Rabbi Yohanan comments that when the ministering angels wanted to sing hymns during the crossing of the sea, God silenced them saying: 'The work of my hand is being drowned in the sea, and you chant songs?' (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 10a).
This comment of Rabbi Yohanan was often quoted to show the humaneness of the Jewish attitude even towards the worst enemies. Even as the Egyptians were chasing the Israelites to push them into the sea and God wrought the miracle making the wheels of their chariots swerve, sweeping them into the water which soon covered chariots and horsemen, even then no wrathful vendetta, but consideration for the casualties of the enemy was the order of the day."                                                            - Pinchas Peli, Torah Today, p.67-68

It shows that rejoicing is a very human response, but when we think deeper we have to remember that a human life has been ended. Juxtaposed with spilling the ten drops of wine for the ten plagues, it leads to a more thoughtful response. In an e-mail forwarded to me by Rabbi Jim Prosnit, Arthur Waskow points out that the angels are rebuked, but the humans are not. The celebration is a natural response, but when we hold ourselves to a higher standard (which we teach our students to do), we have to remember that four people were killed.

I agree with the president that justice was served. I am not unhappy that bin Laden is gone - even with the likelihood that his followers will retaliate. But I am uncomfortable serving that dish with lots of relish. I am generally opposed to death penalty. Like the State of Israel, I am willing to make an exception for proven or avowed mass murderers like Eichmann or bin Laden. But I am not certain the lesson I want to teach is that we dance when they are killed. The images were eerily reminiscent of the dancing in Gaza and Ramallah and Tehran on September 11, 2001. America and Judaism both teach us to be better than that.

An apocryphal story: Before the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948, it is said that Golda Meir met secretly with King Abdullah of Jordan (the current king's grandfather) to urge him to sit out the conflict. It is said that he refused because the political fallout of not joining the war was unacceptable, and possibly fatal to him. The story goes that he apologized to Golda in advance of the attacks. She is said to have replied: "I can forgive you for killing our sons. I cannot forgive you for forcing my children to become killers of yours."

Maybe it is just too soon, but I know that we need to help contextualize this for our students and ourselves. I would truly like to hear your ideas. What is the lesson we need to teach here? What is the blessing? Do we bless the true judge, or do we praise God for wondrous deeds?

Cross-posted to Welcome to the Next Level