Friday, July 28, 2017

Why Bother? A Religious School Manifesto

*This goes out to all parents thinking of sending their kids to a (Jewish) religious school… to parents who were raised Jewish, those who chose Judaism, and those who aren’t Jewish but married a Jew.*

In the last month, I’ve had several conversations that got me thinking.  One friend asked a group of us who went to Jewish summer camp together (we are now grown up with kids of our own), “Are you going to send your kids to religious school?”  In another social situation, a friend innocently asked “Why do kids go to religious school twice a week starting in third grade?”  In both cases, these friends of mine are connected to the Jewish community and are already committed to raising Jewish kids.  But they (along with many others) wonder about the value of religious school, and about the time commitment required to take part in it.  Is it worth it?

In our era of extreme busyness, and in a time when there are many Jewish families in which one parent is Jewish and the other parent is not, it’s a reasonable question to ask – Why bother with religious school?  And why should our kids attend religious school twice a week from third grade to seventh grade, as is the case in most synagogues around the country?[1]

To answer these questions, we have to take a step back and ask, “Why be Jewish?”  What’s so special or important about being Jewish?  If it’s possible to be a good person without religion, then what’s the point?   Each of us may have different answers to these questions, but my guess is there are some common threads.  Jewish values mean something to us.  Yes, there are “American values,” but Jewish values ground us and guide us.   Jewish values encompass many generic human values such as kindness and compassion, but there are values unique to Judaism, too, such as the value of rest (see: Shabbat) and a commitment to community (see: minyan).  Being Jewish means you are part of a chain of tradition thousands of years old, and when you take it seriously, it helps you know who you are and what you stand for.  Being Jewish means being part of something larger than yourself / your family.  At its best, Judaism can give meaning and purpose to your life.  It has a calendar that can give shape and meaning to time, it has rituals that can bring holiness into your life and the world.  When you are in crisis or feel like you’re free-floating, Judaism can give you roots, a foundation, a structure, texts, stories, prayers, and teachings to give you direction and hope. 

If Judaism is so valuable[2], we would naturally want to pass it down to our children, to raise our children as Jews.  But how? 

Children have to learn.  They are not born knowing who they are and where they fit into the world.  It is our obligation as parents to provide them roots, to give them a foundation for their life and help them understand the world around them.   Therefore, if we want our children to be Jewish, to truly live with Jewish values and to find Judaism meaningful, then they need to learn.  Parents can teach their children, but most parents cannot do it alone. 

Parents alone can’t teach their kids what it means to be Jewish because part of being Jewish is a connection to community.  “Jewish” is not an individual identity.  It is a group identity.  It is being part of a people.  It is possible to teach your kids about Jewish community by getting together with other Jewish families, but it is much easier when you’re part of a synagogue.  Kids learn that there are lots of other Jews out there, and that being part of a Jewish community is an essential component of Judaism.  We support each other through tough times, and we celebrate together in good times.  We teach each other and we learn from each other.  We do not do Judaism alone. 

Plus, there is so much to learn!  Children have to learn what Judaism is – not just the most popular holidays (see: Chanukah), but also about God, Torah, Israel, Jewish values, Hebrew, prayer, Jewish history, and much more.  There are not many parents who really want to do that all themselves, so we look to institutions to help us.

Yes, some religious schools are bad.  They are boring.  They haven’t changed in 30 years.  But luckily, in the landscape of Jewish education, things are changing.  There are AMAZING religious schools out there (see Mayim in Boston and JQuest B’yachad in Philadelphia for two innovative examples).  There are conferences and articles about innovation in religious schools, and synagogues are making changes for the better.  If the religious school near you is same-old same-old and you don’t like it, then agitate for change or find a new synagogue.  Get involved in leadership at your synagogue to have an impact on education.  Join the education committee.  Volunteer to be on the board.  But don’t just give up and decide that religious school isn’t worth it.

Yes, there are many competing priorities in our lives as parents today.  There’s school, sports, arts, way too much homework, trying to make time for family and friends… but each of us must ask ourselves at the end of the day, “Where does this ancient, beautiful, meaningful tradition of Judaism fit into our lives?”  Religious school has to be a priority if you want your children to grow up knowing what it means to be Jewish and finding meaning in Judaism.

If Judaism is not meaningful to you, and it’s not important to you to pass the tradition to the next generation, then of course that is your choice.   But eventually, then, Judaism will cease to be part of your family’s lineage.   But if Judaism IS important to you, and if you want Judaism to continue (and not only for Orthodox Jews), then your children are our future.   This manifesto is not meant to be another parental guilt trip, it’s intended to serve as a reminder for why passing on our values, our tradition, our history, our culture is worth it.  And that when done well, religious school gives kids the opportunity to learn, do, and be in Jewish community… to develop their identity as Jews, to be the next link in the chain of tradition.  Don’t you want that for your kids?  

[1] Note: I don’t like the term “religious school”, but it’s widely understood to refer to educational programs at synagogues that are a few hours a week.  Some people refer to these programs as “Hebrew school,” “part-time Jewish education,” or “supplemental education.”  At my synagogue we call our program JQuest. You can read more about why I can’t stand the term “religious school,” but I’m going to use it for the rest of this manifesto for consistency.
[2] If you don’t find Judaism valuable, then I’d recommend starting there – figuring out whether you want Judaism to be valuable to you, and if so, how it might be in the future.  I suggest contacting your local rabbi or cantor or Jewish educator to talk more about it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Rabbis' Post-Election Reflections and Prayers

Rabbis from around the country have written a number of meaningful reflections and prayers as we try to wrap our minds around the outcome of this election.  Here are a few that have touched me...


From Rabbi Rachel Timoner:

My friends, we do not know for sure how this election will end, but if Donald Trump is president, here's what I want you to know: you will not be alone. We are in this together. We will be in this together. In the last several months and years, we have articulated together a vision for this country centered on the dignity and humanity of people of every gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, and ability. We will likely need to get very clear, brave, and outspoken about these values in the coming days and years. We will need to find a deeper courage and resolve than we've ever had to show before. We'll need to organize, protest, take risks, and stand up against real evil.

Whenever we grow as human beings there is backlash. This is backlash. We are getting a snapshot right now of where our country is emotionally and politically. It's reality, but it's not forever. It's one stage in our process of development. We should not deny it. We should endeavor to understand it. So we can get ourselves through it preventing as much harm as we can.

There are tears in my house tonight and there is real fear. But this is why we are alive -- for moments just like this -- to stand for goodness in the face of evil and to stand with other human beings when they are in peril. To show the best that humanity is made of, not only when it is easy but also when it is dangerous and difficult.
I need you. We need each other. Let's cry and mourn, and then let's organize.


From Rabbi Paul Kipnes:

There was that moment at the Red Sea when our people despaired like never before. Looking behind, the people saw an enemy coming for them. Looking ahead, the waters seemed ready to swallow them up.

To stand still was not an option.

We pray,

Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu v'imoteinu,
Our God and God of our fathers and mothers,

When our nation is divided
When our people are afraid
When our children are confused
When we ourselves are unsure about how to move forward.

Grant us,

Like Nachshon, the courage to face our fears and walk forward into the unknown.

Like Miriam, the insight to find the hidden waters in the wilderness to quench our thirst.

Like King Solomon, the wisdom to decide wisely as we face difficult questions in the days  and months ahead.

Like the prophet Nathan, the faith to speak truth to power, demanding as he did from King David, truth and justice, compassion and kindness.

And may we lie down in peace and rise up each tomorrow refreshed and renewed, prepared to  work toward blessing for all.



From Rabbi Jonathan Blake:

Good morning.

The election is over and the American people have voted. The results have stunned the world and revealed once and for all the deep and alarming schisms in American society.

American Jews have long expressed their patriotism through civic engagement, advocacy for social justice, and steadfast acts of Tikkun Olam.  The coming weeks, months, and years will be no different.  Indeed, our principled and passionate engagement in a hurting and divided America is needed now more than ever.

In 1790, George Washington wrote a now-celebrated letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, home of the country's oldest Jewish house of worship (Touro Synagogue, 1763).  In it he pledged that the "Government of the United States... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance."

Westchester Reform Temple will work vigilantly to hold our American government to Washington's founding promise as we prepare to inaugurate Donald J. Trump as President.  His rhetoric on the campaign trail and his record of public opinion have exposed a willingness to  indulge in hateful speech and incitement toward minorities, women, and people with disabilities.  His campaign attracted the vociferous support of some of America's most hate-filled voters:  citizens who openly espouse White supremacy, the embrace of violence against the vulnerable, and Anti-Semitic lies made familiar throughout centuries of discrimination against Jewish people.

Today is November 9th, which Jewish history commemorates as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.  On the night of November 9th-10th, 1938, the Nazis carried out an organized pogrom against Germany's Jews, claiming the lives of at least 91 Jews, destroying 267 synagogues and 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, and arresting 30,000 Jewish citizens.  Our People does not forget the lessons that history teaches about what happens when hate is wedded to power.

On this Friday night, November 11th, which happens to be Veterans Day, we will gather for Shabbat services in our sanctuary at 7:45.  Prayers and sentiments of unity, peace, and our commitment to confront hate and discrimination will be offered.  I have invited our interfaith area clergy colleagues and their congregants and parishioners to join us.  I hope you and your loved ones and friends will join us, too.  Our "house will be a house of prayer for all people" (Isaiah 56:7).

I will also hold open office hours at WRT today, Wednesday November 9th, from 5:15 - 6:15 PM.  Please feel invited to come to the temple and speak to me and other concerned congregants.  Know that WRT will always be committed to the physical, emotional, and spiritual safety of all who enter, a source of strength and comfort in a reeling world.

May God bless our country and may God bless all who work for a better tomorrow.


From Rabbi Zoe Klein:

When God offered King Solomon anything he wished in I Kings 3:9, King Solomon asked for one thing only: "Give me a listening heart so that I can govern your people well and know the difference between right and wrong. For who by himself is able to govern this great people of yours?"

He didn't ask for might. He didn't ask for wealth. He didn't even ask for wisdom. He asked for a listening heart.

May the new Leader of the Free World be blessed with a listening heart. A heart that listens to the pain of a divided people. A heart that listens for commonalities. A heart that listens to those whose voices are tiny and soft. A heart that listens for the weeping at the margins. A heart that listens to the dreams of the poor, the hopes of the young, and the faint prayer of the dying. A heart that listens to the call of the earth and the haunting song of the sea. A heart that listens past language, dialects and differences to the very pulse of humanity. A heart that listens to the resounding message of history. A heart that listens to the spirits of our ancestors and the hum of the future. A heart that listens to you and listens to me and hears the mysterious harmonies that are hidden to us.

May we all be blessed with listening hearts, and step into tomorrow together with a commitment to hear one another. To receive each other's presence with hearts that are open and compassionate. With hearts that listen to one another's fears. With hearts that listen to one another's devotion. With hearts that listen to one another's achievements. With hearts that listen to one another's disappointments. With hearts that listen to one another's beauty. With hearts that listen to one another's goodness. With hearts that listen to one another's pride. Let us step into tomorrow with our hearts channeling Solomon's gift. With our hearts attuned to one another's precious and unique music, and learn to sing in harmony.

This land is your land. This land is my land. From California to the New York Island. From the Red Wood forest to the Gulf Stream waters. This land was made for you and me.

God let us wake with listening hearts, and let the circle of compassion widen enough to include the vast and diverse American family, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Bless us that we may bless each other.



From Rabbi Stacy Friedman:

We will
Wake up tomorrow
And come together
We will work with all our hearts
And might
For the rights of all people
For decency
And respect for all people.
We will work tirelessly
So that people do not feel fear
We need to protect and surround
One another
With love
And honor the hope deep within our hearts.


And our prayer from the clergy of Temple Isaiah:

Our God and God of our ancestors,

In the midst of great changes, let us hold fast to the eternal ideals of our faith: to pursue justice, to welcome the stranger, to respect, include and value all peoples of our nation in its great diversity - women and men, immigrants, refugees, the disabled, Muslims, Jews, Christians and people of all faiths, the LGBT community, the under served and the unnoticed, the hungry and the homeless. Let us understand that our fates are intertwined as we shoulder our responsibility to galvanize the forces of good that are within us and within our country.
Today the Jewish community marks Kristallnacht, a night of destruction and terror rooted in hatred. Despite horrific losses, our people survived and we continue to focus on our traditions of morality, kindness and tikkun olam~repairing the world. We are called to this work today and every day.
In the Mishneh we read: "The task is not ours alone to complete. But neither are we free to walk away." With strength, not fear, we must live with integrity and hope, decrying injustice and reaching across divides to work for healing. May our Temple Isaiah community be, always, a sanctuary for all who seek knowledge and truth and an ever-thriving source of people who bring compassion and help to all those in need.
O God of Blessing, strengthen our hands and our hearts to do Your work.

Rabbi Judy Shanks, Cantor Leigh Korn, Rabbi Alissa Miller, 
Rabbi Jay LeVine, and Rabbi Nicki Greninger

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why "JQuest" instead of "Religious School"?

There are many reasons we decided to change the name of our program, but perhaps the most important reason is that the term “Religious School” just doesn’t fit, as neither “religious” nor “school” is a good description of our program of Jewish education for kids at Temple Isaiah:

  • Jewish education works best when it doesn't look like, sound like, or feel like "school."  Yes, we have a curriculum and teachers, and yes, our goals include student learning and discovery.  However, that's where the similarities between "Jewish education" and "school" should end.  We do not teach subject matter for the sake of mastery of facts or progression from one grade to the next.  Rather, we are trying to develop identity, seeking to instill in our children a sense of commitment to and excitement about Jewish life and Jewish peoplehood.  Many studies have shown that the best forms of Jewish education (i.e. the ones that 'work' the best) are informal - Jewish camps, youth groups, trips to Israel, etc.  So the less our educational programs look like 'school,' the more successful they will be in trying to achieve our goals of building Jewish identity, connection, knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment.

  • Jewish education is not necessarily (and certainly not always) "religious."  Judaism is a religion, but it is also a culture, a people, a way of life, a tradition, a community, a nation, a civilization, a sense of identity and a way of seeing and understanding the world.  Jewish education ought to help kids discover various entry points to Jewish life - to see themselves as part of the chain of tradition of the Jewish people, in whatever way that might be.  So when we call our program "religious," it can be misleading.  For some people, the religious aspect of Jewish life is essential, compelling, and meaningful.  For others, the term 'religious' is a turn-off and something to avoid.  We do talk about and learn about 'religious' things in Jewish education - we explore different connections to God, we study 'religious' texts, we experience prayer - but it is a misnomer to say that what we are doing is 'Religious School' in its entirety.

We changed many aspects of our education program in the last seven years, but we had not yet changed the name… so it is time!  Our parent committee (formerly known as the “Religious School Advisory Group”) spent many months working on the change.  We discussed the attributes of our program and the feelings we want the new name to evoke.  We researched the names of other synagogue-based Jewish education programs for kids, we brainstormed entirely new names, and we consulted with Temple Isaiah’s clergy.  In the end, we chose the name “JQuest” in order to capture the spirit of Jewish learning, discovery, community, and fun that our students and families experience in Temple Isaiah’s education program.  We hope all our families will embrace the new name and will find it preferable to talk about sending your kids to “JQuest” as opposed to “Religious School.”   Your child’s Jewish quest awaits! 

Friday, December 12, 2014

New Chanukah Videos!

There are several new Chanukah songs / videos this year - Enjoy!

"Light" by Lisa Loeb -

"All About that Neis" by The Maccabeats -

"Hanukah - Dreidel Music Video" by Shir Soul -

Plus, here is an interesting article about Chanukah music -  "Why Jews Skipped Hanukkah and Wrote the most Beloved Christmas Songs"

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Navigating the War in Israel / Gaza

The last few weeks have been incredibly painful as we witness the escalation of violence in Gaza and Israel.  My heart is filled with a deep sadness about what is happening, and worry for the safety of friends, family and others I know in Israel.  My email in-box and Facebook feeds have been filled with links to articles about the conflict - some articles have been outstanding, others are not particularly helpful to me.  Instead of posting individual articles on my Facebook page or elsewhere, I thought it would be useful to share a series of articles that have helped me better understand the complexity, nuance, and pain of the matzav (situation).  There is no single article that could possibly explain 'everything' - rather, I think we have to put many different perspectives together and then sit with many truths at once.  The Rabbis taught us the value of holding multiple truths, even when they're conflicting or opposing truths - "Elu v'elu divrei Torah" - "these words AND these words are both words of Torah."  The same can be said for all the commentary on this war - it's important to be able hold multiple perspectives and multiple truths at once.  I share these articles along with my most heart-felt prayers for peace.   (The articles are in no particular order, except that I recommend starting with my friend Rabbi Josh Strom's article "Caring is not a Zero-Sum Game")

Added Wednesday Sept 3

Did We Win the War? "Everything OK?" -

I Have Two Nightmares about a Palestinian State -

Added Wednesday Aug 6

Israel in Trying Times: Unity not Uniformity -

Dear Guests: Revelations in the Gaza War - 

Added Friday Aug 1

Interview with Amos Oz -

Added Wednesday July 30

Gaza Myths and Facts -

Arab Leaders Silent, Viewing Hamas as Worse than Israel -

Added Tuesday July 29

No War is an Island: When Middle East Conflicts Become One -

Added Monday July 28

Tunnel Vision -

An Israel without Illusions: Stop the Grindstone of Israeli-Palestinian Violence -

The War in Gaza: What I Know and What I Do Not Know -

Added Thursday July 24

The Bizarre Moral Criticism against Israel -

A Letter to Friends who Want to Understand what is Happening in Gaza -

Fighting a Just War Against Hamas Justly (from 2009, but equally relevant now) -

The Israeli Army Knew Gaza was a "Ticking Bomb" Before War Broke Out -