Friday, December 21, 2012

Responding to Children's and Adults' Spiritual Questions & Emotional Needs

  An important article from "10 Minutes of Torah" by the URJ...
Responding to Children's and Adults' Spiritual Questions and Emotional Needs Following Frightening Tragedies
By Rabbi Edythe Mencher

People of all ages have questions about how a good God could let terrible tragedies happen. Following a terrible event or loss they may even cry out this question, tempting those around them to offer their own religious understanding or to engage in philosophical discussion. These are valid questions to be engaged at other times. In times of deep crisis and pain those questions when posed by adults really might be heard as, "How could this have happened?  Does anyone care about and protect me and those whom I love? What did I do to deserve this? How can this terrible and unfair thing have happened?  Is there any order and security or is the world just chaos and mayhem?" When posed by children, depending upon their ages, they may be heard as, "Why didn't my parents/teachers/caretakers protect me? Is it safe to be away from my parents? Is it safe to go to sleep? This isn't fair! Are there bad guys everywhere? Is the world a scarier place than I thought? Is anyone in charge?"

The kindest response we can offer is one of listening, conveying acceptance that the questions are being asked and doing and saying the things that help to restore a sense that there is indeed love, justice, protection and order in our world even thought what has happened is shocking, unfair, hateful or a result of temporary chaos. We don't necessarily convey that in words; it can be in hugs offered, compassionate care provided, accompaniment through often agonizing tasks like funeral preparations, gentle and timely restoration of routine. We try to provide the living proof for one another that we live in a world in which there is great goodness even though it is also a world in which terrible tragedies do sometimes occur. The great goodness is expressed in such activities as caretaking, rescuing and rebuilding and can be understood by some as a sign of God in the world.  For most of us, in the immediate moment of tragedy, the question is only partly theological and the care we desperately need is that which human beings, often Divinely inspired, can offer to one another.

This is not to suggest that pastoral counseling and religious questions aren't important and should not be addressed in the days to come. Some may change their own beliefs because of what has happened. Yet, however tenuous or tentative a person's belief in God may be, the moment of serious loss and fear is not a good time to toss aside all possibility of belief in a loving compassionate Presence. We needn't try to convince them or to challenge their doubts and disappointments, it just isn't helpful either to add our own negative conviction to theirs.  If we hear their statement to be that life and the world seems devoid of love and order and meaning then we can see that agreeing or disagreeing isn't the issue. It is how it feels to them now and anything we can do on the side of life, calm and meaning will be most valuable.

Children sometimes raise religious questions in the midst of tragedy too, although less often than their parents. It is important to ask them what they think and to try to support what they wish to and are able to believe if it is strengthening and reassuring. We needn't profess beliefs we don't have but we can be respectful of their hopes even if our own beliefs and faith may be shaken. Children can be reminded how religion and God can inspire ("teach us" in child language) us to take care of one another and to do the good and wonderful things that are also part of our world. Religious rituals like lighting candles, expressing hopes through prayer and participating in celebrations that support optimism can be very helpful. Children need their sense of security restored and anything that helps with that which is consistent with their family's practice and belief is what counts--including explaining that those who have died are with God. They may not be able to conceive that someone who was here is not somewhere-this is difficult enough for adults. Older children can conceive of people living on within our hearts or of souls returning to God. For younger children it may be much more concrete. Listening to children's questions as we compose answers is essential because very young children may not be clear about the permanence of death and the difference between being alive and no longer alive. They still may be most concerned about being separated from parents themselves and are reassured that the child or adult who has died is not "somewhere" suffering and crying out in loneliness.

At moments of traumatic crisis, children's faith and trust in the people they have counted on to protect them may be more significantly shaken than their religious faith; everything people can do to restore their sense that all around them they are working to restore safety will matter most. They need to be allowed to remain close to caring adults and to have a sense of calm and eventually joy returned to their lives. Perhaps in this way children and adults are more alike than different; all of us need to feel we are not alone and that there are trustworthy sources of hope, security and joy within our world.

Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W., serves as URJ Faculty for Sacred Community. She is a practicing psychotherapist and serves on the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Rabbi Mencher is the major author of Resilience of the Soul - Developing Spiritual and Emotional Resilience in Adolescents and their Families, a program guide focusing upon how Jewish communities and tradition can help adolescents and their families develop positive ways of managing stress and difficult emotions.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Modern Female Rabbi Maccabee

Letter from Rabbi Elyse Frishman to her congregation 

Friday, December 14
Late afternoon in Jerusalem

Dear Friends,

I’m going to miss you tonight; this Friday evening in Chanukah is a favorite time with you. I love bringing our menorahs into the sanctuary and then kindling them with joy. We sing, we bless, we remember: the Maccabees fought for our religious freedom! And for every memory of our past, we reaffirm our present and future.
Religious freedom. This morning, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I felt like a Maccabee.
Today is not only the seventh day of Chanukah, it is also Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month of Tevet. At 7am this morning in Jerusalem, 50 men and 88 women came together to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall. As always, Jews lined up to enter through security to the plaza. All of us carried or wore our tallesim and prayerbooks. There were rumors: no women permitted to bring prayerbooks in today! No women allowed with tallit today! 
Among the 138 of us were Israelis and tourists, including a group of young Jews from Netzer, the Reform movement’s international youth movement; these 18 year olds were on a year’s study program. As we stood on line, the singing of this Psalm began, “Let all our voices be raised in song to praise God!”
We began to move through security. Contrary to rumor, prayerbooks were permitted -- but for the first time, not a tallit. A decree had been issued – illegally, randomly – that no woman could bring her tallit today. Security began to confiscate them. Some of the men walked in with their friends’ tallesim. But most women had theirs removed. Some of us wore them beneath our jackets, obscured by collars. Some were seen and taken. Mine was not.
There is no law in Judaism against a woman wearing a tallit. If anything, the law from Torah (Numbers 15:38) is: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations…” 
Ironically, I was so jet-lagged this morning at 6am that I couldn’t locate my African tallit. I borrowed one from Anat Hoffman– a Woman of the Wall tallit celebrating our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Thus I carried their wisdom on my shoulders as I moved towards the Wall.
We gathered quietly at the rear of the Kotel to pray, and then to sing Hallel, joyous psalms. One woman came over to me and asked quietly, “May I stand with you and pray? I wanted to wear my tallit, but I’m afraid.” 
Remember: I came this morning prepared to be spiritually provocative. I believe deeply that prayer and song are God’s gifts for every man and woman, and that on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday designated for women, women’s voices especially matter. This is why Women of the Wall celebrate on Rosh Chodesh. So in theory, if God indeed cares about these things as the ultra-orthodox believe, then the presence and voices of women should matter most. My spiritual provocation was to test this.
Two policemen who were watching walked over. One said in Hebrew, “You are not allowed to wear the tallit.” Pretending, I said politely in English, “Excuse me, I do not understand.” (I did this because I am not Israeli, and wanted to be clear throughout my actions that I am a Jew. The Western Wall is the universal site of prayer for all Jews. If anything was to happen, I wanted the police to have something to think about, to take home and mull over at night – all of us are Jews; all of us in that holy site are equally religious before God in our prayers). 
The policeman ushered over another who spoke English. “You are not allowed to wear this.” “Why?” I asked. “It’s against the law.” “It is not against the law.” You cannot wear it.” The policeman took my elbow and steered me away. “You’ll have to come with me.” I moved with her. “I don’t understand,” I said. “What am I doing wrong?” “You are wearing a tallit.” “Why is that illegal? It is not wrong in Jewish law,” “Because you might disturb the public peace.” “I don’t understand. Am I not part of the public?” The police officer did not respond. I realized three other women were being taken, too. The police ushered us out of the plaza. An attorney materialized, hired by Women of the Wall to protect women accused unjustly. “Do not worry,” he assured us. 
We were taken to a police station courtyard. We were told not to talk with one another. I had taken off my tallit as soon as we left the Kotel, since I was no longer praying. I put it on again and opened my prayerbook, thinking, “This is a good time to communicate with Torah and prayer!” I began to sing prayers quietly. The other three women joined in. We reached the Shema, and I taught them to sing it in harmony. Our voices echoed and the police watched. We sang a melody of Mi Chamocha that we all knew – one of us from New Jersey, one from Scotland, one from Britain, one from Jerusalem. The police listened. Then I shared a teaching from the Talmud, from Berachot. As I began, the policeman said, “There is no talking.” I said, “I am not talking; I am teaching.” And I taught, “When a Jew prays from the north, she faces south towards HaMakom, the Holy Place. When in the south, she faces north. When in the east, she faces west; and when in east, west. Always, from each direction, the Jew prays facing HaMakom. What is HaMakom? God. So when we face HaMakom, who are we facing? God-- and who else? Yes -- one another. We pray and we see one another.” We smiled. The police were quiet.
They brought us inside the police station. We sat quietly, until one by one, we were brought in “for investigation.” I understood from the attorney earlier that I was to sign nothing, and to agree to nothing. The “interrogator” asked if I knew why I was there. I said, “No.” She said, “You are not being arrested; you are being detained. You have broken a law; do you know that?” I asked, “What law have I broken?” “Wearing a tallit.” I said, “That is not against the law, Jewish or Israeli.” She said, “Sign this paper that says you know why you are detained.” I said I could not sign. She took my fingerprint and asked me to sign another document. I declined. She told me that if I did not sign, I could be arrested. I knew this was not true, so I said nothing. She asked if I wanted an attorney. I said yes. She told me that I had the right, but the court could say they were not going to provide one. I said nothing. She made a phone call. We waited. After some time, the attorney from the Women of the Wall came. I think the police officer was relieved. The attorney assured me that I was doing exactly right: I had broken no law, I should sign nothing, and I should be fairly certain that I would be released. “Fairly certain?” I asked. He shrugged. 
I returned to the “investigation.” The officer asked me, “Do you know why you are here?” “No,” I said. “You are being detained on suspicion of going to cause a public disturbance. Do you understand?” I replied, “I understand your words, but I do not understand the charge.” “Will you sign that you understand?” “No.” 
The officer continued. “Do you come to the Kotel often?” “Whenever I am here.” “How often is that?” “When I visit every year, every couple of years.” “Do you wear a tallit at the Kotel?” “Yes, when I pray here.” “Do you wear a tallit only at the Kotel?” “No, I wear a tallit whenever I pray.” “Not only at the Kotel?” “No, whenever I pray.” Again she asked me this, and again, I said, “I wear a tallit whenever I pray.”
The questions continued a bit. She concluded and asked me to sign. I declined. She told me that I was not allowed to come to the Kotel for 15 days. I knew this is also against the law since I had done nothing wrong. She asked if I understood. I said yes. She asked if I agreed. I said, “I decline to answer.” She frowned. She warned me that if I came to the Kotel and was recognized, I could be arrested and fined several hundred dollars. Did I understand? I said, “I decline to answer.” She frowned again. She said, “You are free to go.”
I walked out of the police station, and was immediately embraced by about 20 men and women who had heard of our detention and came to support us. Anat was there and embraced me with a blessing, “Baruch Atah Adonai, HaMatir asurim! Blessed are You, God, who frees captives!” Cell phones were ringing; the media had been alerted: Was she released? What happened?
And so, it seems, this was an important morning. A Maccabee morning. The fight of the Women of the Wall is a fight by men and women to gain full religious equality for all Jews. 
There are those who say, “But if the orthodox men are not able to pray with women present, and are distracted, and believe that men have the greater obligation to pray than women, it is incumbent on the women to give way.” 
For them, we can reply: “But on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday for women? Men do not have to be present at the same time that the women always come. They can choose to let women celebrate with joy on their special holiday. Instead, it is the provocation of men that creates this public disturbance on the holiday of women.”

The Maccabees fought against religious persecution. So do we. Consider these wonderful lyrics from Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” which you’ll sing tonight at Temple:
“Light one candle, for the Maccabee children,
give thanks that their lights didn’t die.
Light one candle for the pain they endured
when their right to exist was denied;
Light one candle for the terrible sacrifice
justice and freedom demand;
And light one candle for the wisdom to know
that the peacemaker's time is at hand!”

Indeed: Chanukah restores our memory of what happened long ago so that we might act justly and righteously today: 

“What is the memory that's valued so highly
that we keep it alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died?
We cry out, ‘They have not died in vain!’
We have come this far, always believing
that justice will somehow prevail;
this is the burden, this is the promise,
and this is why we will not fail!”

Today is dedicated to the young woman who came to my side and asked quietly, “I am afraid to wear my tallit here. May I stand and pray next to you?” 
I miss you all, and send you my hug for this important Chanukah in Shabbat. 
Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Elyse Frishman

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Common Misconceptions about the Bible

I generally use Twitter to pass along interesting articles, blogs, etc, but I recently found something that is too good NOT to pass along via blog, too - an article from the Huffington Post called "5 Common Misconceptions about the Bible" by Christine Hayes, a scholar and author from Yale University.  It's a must-read for anyone involved in Jewish learning - whether as a teacher, a learner, or both!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Edot - Jewish Gold Rush Field Trip

One of our Religious School Tracks - Edot - is going on a field trip this Sunday to explore the Jewish "Gold Rush" in California.  A video was created to describe the experience, called "Visiting Pioneer Jewish Cemeteries - Learning from our Past."  Check it out - it's an amazing video for a truly extraordinary educational program!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Kippot & Women Rabbis Blog

I can't remember if I have mentioned this in a previous blog post or not, but I absolutely love a blog called Kol Isha: Reform Women Rabbis Speak Out, published by the Women's Rabbinic Network.  The posts are funny, thought-provoking, and absolutely spot-on when I consider my experience as a young female rabbi in the 21st century.  A friend and colleague of mine recently posted about kippot - why and when she wears one, and her struggles and thoughts about the practice of wearing a kippah.  The link to the blog is and I'm also copying her post here.  Enjoy!

By Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel

Kippot as kodesh?
Ever since my first year of rabbinical school, I’ve worn a kippah when I’ve prayed.  That first moment of placing a kippah on my head of thick, curly hair felt contrived; it felt like something my brother or father wore, or something that a friend who considered herself a serious feminist would wear to make a statement.  I wanted to make it mine, the same way that a tallit and even tefillin have become mine, but the kippah has been the hardest for me.  I hoped that it would bring me more kavanah or more yirah (awe/fear) of God, and occasionally it does, but mostly has simply been part of distinguishing holy time from chol time.   As it turns out, that distinguishing – the why of wearing one or not has become far from simple for me.  Did I wear a kippah when I was sitting in class during my days at HUC?  Learning in a classroom and taking notes on my laptop just didn’t feel like avodat kodesh. I tried wearing a kippah in that context but it felt artificial to me.  Teaching, though, was different.  One synagogue asked boys in its religious school to wear kippot during class and explained to girls that kippot were optional.  None of these 7 year olds wanted to wear kippot, but if I had any chance of getting them to do so, I knew that I had to model it.  Egalitarianism is a core principle for me.  I couldn’t wholeheartedly tell half the class that they had to do something that the other half didn’t need to do and I didn’t need to do either.  So I committed to wearing a kippah while I was teaching.  I watched several of my male friends begin to wear kippot regularly through the day and a piece of me longed to do the same.  Did I want to wear a kippah regularly as an outward symbol of my Judaism?  Or could I feel just as confident about taking it off when I ended a holy time as when I put it on?

Rote or ritual?
Still, the nuances continued to blur.  A year after ordination, I was teaching at a Jewish day school and it seemed like the majority of what I would be doing during the day fell into my ‘praying or teaching’ bracket.  So I started wearing a kippah throughout the school day – in meetings, at recess, in class, in tefilah, anywhere and everywhere while I was on campus.  I aimed for it to all be holy work, although, of course, in the midst of middle school drama and constantly changing plans, I often forgot that I was even wearing a kippah.  I had hoped for those transitory moments of connection when I put it on before I prayed at HUC to remain throughout the years and infuse my days of teaching.  Sometimes feeling it on my head did help me refocus my priorities.  But on the days when it didn’t have that role, was I wearing it because I hoped for that kavanah in the future?  Because I felt like it gave me a different sense of symbolic presence with my students?  Because it was now simply what I did?  During that time, my reasons to wear a kippah kept evolving.  I wore a kippah because it symbolized my love of Judaism a certain context.  Unintentionally, it also started to symbolize my being a rabbi.  When I realized that I spent more and more time at Jewish communal events that weren’t exactly learning or praying, but were very explicitly about exploring Jewish identity, it felt appropriate to continue wearing a kippah in those contexts too.  Since wearing a kippah is not a mitzvah like wearing tzitzit, a tallit, or tefillin, each person is even more free to find his or her reasons for wearing (or not wearing) one.

A few months ago, I was at a lovely gala for a Jewish organization.  I was talking with someone who I was just meeting and a rabbinic colleague – the three of us were talking about our mutual connections – and my new acquaintance remarks that she sees four or five women in the room wearing kippot, including us.  Can she assume that they are all rabbis?  Stumped.  I was almost certain that all of the women who were wearing kippot that night were actually rabbis but I did not want to make her think that the only women who wore kippot were rabbis.  Would she have asked that question about the men in the room?  Doubtful.  When did wearing a kippah symbolize my being a rabbi?  I’m not entirely sure when or where that started but there it was, staring me in the face.   There are moments when it’s useful that someone is able to identify me as the rabbi more quickly because of a kippah, like when a patient’s family saw me in the hospital and before I could even introduce myself, grabbed me and said, “You’re a rabbi?  We need you now!”  Yet I hope that does not become the sole reason that I wear it (or any other religious item, for that matter).  At the end of the day, I hope and pray that I am always rooted in the person who I am primarily, followed by the role that I fill as a rabbi.  Otherwise, how could I be authentic in my work, as I sit with patients and families in their pain and pray for God’s comfort?  I would offer the same words whether or not I was wearing a kippah.  I would pray the same Amidah tomorrow morning.  And yet, it might feel different. The family might feel less connected to me if I am wearing one.  If they were looking for a peer to hold their hands and the see my kippah as signifying my being a rabbi, has my role changed?  How much does it matter what you wear?  Do symbols speak louder than your own voice or your own actions?  Is the kippah about my role in someone else’s life or about God’s role in my life?

In this week’s parasha, God tells Avram, “lech lecha” - the Mei HaShiloach explains this as “Go forth to find your authentic self, to learn who you are meant to be.”  When I put on a kippah and fasten it with those two little clips, I ask that it digs me into a deeper awareness of God’s presence.  And on the other hand, I ask that as I listen to God whispering lech lecha that I know my authentic self and only wear a kippah when it feels true to my sense of who I am.  Jill.  Rabbi.  Woman…and when it feels true to my sense of what I am doing.  Learning.  Praying.  Teaching.  Comforting.  Building community and creating connections to Israel or social justice.  All avodat kodesh.

Rabbi Jill Cozen-Harel is a chaplain at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.

Friday, September 28, 2012

What to do about textbooks?

For the last decade or so, I have been strongly against the use of 'textbooks' in Religious School classes.  All the evidence points to the fact that children gain almost nothing - intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, or otherwise - from reading through textbooks and doing textbook-based work during Religious School.  Kids often forget whatever content they may have once learned, they frequently find textbook work dull, and they simply don't engage in the learning in the same way that they do in more active / experiential programs.

At Temple Isaiah, we have a history of innovative approaches to Jewish education, including creating our own curricula.  Several of our teachers have written their own curricula in such a way that does not require the use of textbooks almost at all.  When we do use textbooks, we typically have a 'class set' that lives at Temple Isaiah and the students use while they are on our campus.  For example, our 3rd and 4th graders study Torah as part of their programs (whether through art, storytelling, or nature), and they sometimes use kid-friendly Torah textbooks to read the stories (instead of reading the text from a JPS Torah translation or other version geared toward adults).  However, since we don't use the other activities in the textbooks (just the stories), we have not typically purchased a textbook for each child to own and eventually take home.

In the last few months, something has changed in my thinking about textbooks and Religious School.  A parent mentioned to me that she had wanted to practice Hebrew with her daughter over the summer, so she took out a Hebrew workbook her daughter received from Religious School several years ago and it really came in handy.  Another parent mentioned to me that he wished he had had a book at home to work on with his child (again, it was related to Hebrew learning).  As these parents spoke, I was reminded that in my own Religious School experience, we were given at least one or two textbooks per school year (on Torah, prayer, history, etc).  We used the books at Religious School through the year, and then took them home at the end of the year.  I really didn't like Religious School and wouldn't advocate going back to that type of learning; that being said, those books did sit on my bookshelf at home and from time to time throughout my childhood and adolescence I would go back to them (or my parents would).  If I had a question about something related to Judaism - Torah, prayers, history, or otherwise - I could often find answers in those books (written in kid-friendly language).

So that got me thinking... even if we never return to textbook-based learning in the classroom, I wonder if we should be giving 1-2 textbooks to kids to bring home at the end of the year, to help build their Jewish bookshelves / home libraries?  The PJ Library is an amazing program that seeks to build the Jewish libraries for families with kids ages 6 months to 7 years, but what happens after that?  How can we help families have good Jewish resources at home for the children ages 7 and up?  Even if our programs don't follow a textbook exactly, there are certainly textbooks out there that speak to the content we're teaching.  So maybe we should nevertheless order books to send home at the end of the year? 

Thoughts about this?  Would it be a complete waste of paper and money, given the ubiquity of the internet?  Something tells me it's different to have a book on your (actual) bookshelf vs. looking things up online when the need arises. I feel like I'm doing a 180 on this topic, from a Jewish educator point of view...

Monday, September 10, 2012

Reflections for the HHDs

One of the challenges of the High Holy Days is making time to do the reflection and introspection asked of us.  Believe it or not, it's even difficult for me - as a rabbi no less! - to carve out the time to do the inner work that's crucial for us as humans and Jews this time of year.  I recently learned of an organization called "10Q" that can help with this problem.  This organization (which as far as I can tell is a start-up website of sorts) sends you an email each day of the "10 days" (i.e. the Days of Awe, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) asking big life questions.  You then write in your responses - however serious, introspective, funny, thoughtful you want to be.  10Q will store them in a 'vault' for a whole year, and will send them back to you just before the HHDs next year as a way to review where you were and what you were thinking in the past year.  I'm really excited to give it a try, and I encourage all of you to do the same! 

It might be an interesting exercise with kids, too, in a modified way... For example, parents could decide on 10 questions for their children to answer.  Each day of the "10 days", the parents could help their children answer the questions either verbally or in writing. (If the kids answer verbally, parents can write down what their children said).  Then store the answers in a safe place in your house, and pull them out next year for your children to see and hear what they said last year!  Here's the website:

As they say on the website... 10 Days.  10 Questions.  Reflect.  React.  Renew.

Are you ready?

Friday, September 7, 2012

New School Year!

It's time for a new school year!  The last few weeks have been crazy-busy getting everything ready, but I think we're good to go!  I'll be updating on a regular basis now that school is back in session, so thanks for hanging with me in the summer months when I've been away from my blog. 

We have some very exciting things in store for this year... I promise to keep you posted!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


Usually I write my own blog posts, but I recently read a d'var Torah (teaching on the Torah portion) about 'Commanded-ness' and wanted to share it on my blog as well.  I couldn't have said it better myself!  Without further ado-

D'varim, Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22


Rabbi Yael Splansky

"And I commanded you, at that time, about the various the things you should do" (Deuteronomy 1:18).
The phrase "as God commanded" is repeated over and over again in the Book of Deuteronomy (D'varim Rabbah 1:1). It is a constant reminder that there is a God behind the mitzvot. As Reform Jews, we are constantly considering and reconsidering what motivates us to pursue a life of mitzvot-both ritual and ethical. What is it, really, to be commanded?

The Commanding Voice

For some, the commanding voice comes from the past . We may ask: "Who am I to turn away from 4,000 years of devoted ancestors and tradition? I'm not going to be the weak link in the chain." The commanding voice of history can be quite powerful-enough to claim us. I know an impressive woman, an accomplished physician with real ambition. After her two daughters were old enough for their family to settle into a steady pattern and life was balanced and good, she was eager to get back to her research. And yet, despite herself, she felt obligated to have another child for the sake of the Jewish people: one to replace herself, one to replace her husband, and one for the Six Million. She said it just that simply. Despite her personal preferences, she could not ignore the commanding voice of history. And now her family has a son.

For some, the commanding voice comes from the present-tense community. We may ask: What will friends and neighbors think of me if I do not live by a certain ethic? Today's emphasis on individuality teaches us that doing something for the sake of what the neighbors will say is false, hollow, backward somehow. But in the eyes of our tradition, caring about the community and one's place in it is a core value. There's a difference between doing something for the neighbor's sake and doing something for the sake of being a good neighbor. Community standards can keep us honest and upright.

For others, the commanding voice comes from the future. Our children and grandchildren make us want to do better and be better. On the opening night of our "adult bat mitzvah" class, I asked each student to share why she'd enrolled in the two-year course. Many explained that their study was motivated by their children in one way or another. They were proud to tell their sons and daughters that one night each week they couldn't help with the homework because they had to go study some Torah for themselves. They wanted to make an impression on their children by "walking the talk" and creating a path of mitzvot for them to follow.

And for some, the commanding voice is none other than the Voice of the Living God.
There is a well-known teaching about mitzvot and freedom. It is written: "Gadol hametzuveh ve'oseh mi'she'eino metzuveh ve'oseh,""Greater is the one who is commanded and does it, than one who is not commanded and still does it" (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 31a). That is, "It is better to do something under command than by choice." This seems counterintuitive. We might think it is better to do something voluntarily, out of the goodness of our hearts, because we want to do the right thing rather than because Someone commanded us. But no, our Sages speak of ol hamitzvot, " the yoke of the mitzvot." Like a beast of burden, we are to feel the weight of the commandments on our shoulders, and carry them because our Master drives us to do so, because God has expectations of us.
Jews of all stripes like to talk about the "how-tos" of mitzvot. It's interesting: Are lentils kosher during Pesach? What if you're a vegetarian? What if you have one Sephardic grandparent? The how-tos of mitzvot are enough to keep us busy for a lifetime. Since Reform Judaism took root in this continent, its hallmark approach of informed choice and personal autonomy has led to another collection of interesting questions. But the foundational question, the more challenging question, and in my opinion, the most interesting question of all is: What is it that claims us so strongly that we have no choice but to say yes? What is the Origin of that commanding voice? Let's take the example of nichum aveilim, the mitzvah to comfort mourners. Making a shivah call is an awkward, inconvenient, emotionally difficult thing to do, and yet, without much thought or planning, we find ourselves walking up those front steps. We are duty-bound. More often than not there is no choice in it. There is only a call and a response. There is only the mitzvah to be fulfilled or ignored. What gets us to "yes"?

To Ethicize the Ritual and to Ritualize the Ethical

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, z"l, a leading light for our Movement, challenges us to consider the great contribution Reform Judaism can make to the Jewish world by "ethicizing the ritual mitzvot and ritualizing the ethical mitzvot." What could this mean?

When Reform Jews refrain from eating t'reif, they fulfill the ritual mitzvah of kashrut. When in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, many Reform Jews boycotted California table grapes and called them t'reif, because the migrant field workers were being treated as slaves, they "ethicized the ritual" of keeping kosher. Or more recently, when there was a movement to boycott Israeli products and my synagogue's Israel Committee responded by arranging for only Israeli wines to be served at Temple functions, they "ethicized the ritual" of making Kiddush.

When Reform Jews turn our synagogues into homeless shelters, they fulfill the ethical mitzvot of "feeding the hungry" and "welcoming the stranger." When the volunteers recite a prayer to start their preparations, when they wear kippot as they serve the warm meal to the hungry guests, they "ritualize the ethical." When a circle of friends support a woman through her battle with cancer, they fulfill the ethical mitzvah of bikur cholim, "visiting the sick." But when she completes the regimen of chemotherapy and radiation, and her friends shower her with heartfelt prayers of hope for a healthy future and accompany her to the mikveh , which "cleanses" the poison from her body, they "ritualize the ethical."

These are examples of Reform Judaism at its best: serious Judaism-ready to take on the mitzvot and carry them with integrity, sincerity, and a good measure of imagination. No mitzvah is off-limits to us. The relevance of each mitzvah is only waiting to be discovered, as is the God who offers it.

For more on this topic see, Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf's "Back to the Future" in Duties of the Soul: The Role of the Commandments in Liberal Judaism, by Niles Elliot Goldstein and Peter Knobel, (New York: UAHC Press,1999).

Rabbi Yael Splansky is an associate rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto, Canada. She is the editor of Siddur Pirchei Kodesh, the chair of the Reform Rabbis of Greater Toronto, and a fourth-generation Reform rabbi.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Keeping all the balls in the air

This morning I realized that amidst all the (metaphorical) balls in the air, I accidentally dropped a few.  My husband and I accidentally left the baby's stroller in the car he took to work today, which meant that our au pair has no stroller to use for the day.  I also meant to help my three year-old write thank you cards for his preschool teachers to give to them at today's year-end celebration, and I completely forgot about it over the weekend.  Such is life with two kids - there are way too many details to keep track of everything and not drop a few balls some of the time.

Since becoming a parent more than 3 years ago, I have developed a new-found respect for and understanding of parents in our synagogue community.  I used to be frustrated when parents forgot about Religious School family programs, or forgot about a change in the Religious School schedule... but now I 'get it'... not just intellectually, but viscerally, emotionally.  Being a parent is hard in many ways, and one of the challenges is to keep all the various 'balls' in the air.  I've come to learn that all of us 'drop the ball' sometimes!

The question for me as a Jewish educator is, "How do we help parents keep the 'Jewish education' ball in the air?"  If we send extra emails, parents get annoyed that we email too much.  If we don't send an extra reminder email, then it's easy to forget when special events are happening, or what's going on in the synagogue and in the Religious School.  As an educator, I find it difficult to balance "too much information" vs. "not enough information."  As a parent, I understand well both sides of the coin... I want the reminders, but I'm also overwhelmed with emails, calendar changes, and yes, details.  Such is life in the 21st century, I suppose!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Hoffman Blog Recommendations

Wow, it's been awhile since I've written on this blog!  I was out on maternity leave for a couple of months, and now I'm finally getting back into the swing of things.  As we head into the summer months, I thought I'd suggest a few terrific blogs to read / follow... by a father/son duo...

The first blog I recommend reading is called "God Didn't Say That."  It's by Dr. Joel Hoffman, who is an expert in Hebrew / biblical translations.  Many of his posts are fascinating, including one I read recently that's called "Sometimes the right word is the wrong word to use when translating the Bible."  His post reminds me of something I learned in rabbinical school, which is that translating literally from one language to another doesn't necessarily tell you what the original text meant.  For example... let's say you were living two thousand years from now (i.e. in the year 4012), speaking a completely different language, and you 'discovered' a copy of the New York Times (in English) from our current era.  The headline of the paper said "Wall Street Crashed Yesterday", and you were trying to translate it from English into your current language.  Using a dictionary, you looked up the words "wall", "street", "crash", and "yesterday," and you would probably assume that the article was referring to a street that had a wall on it or near it, and the wall fell down yesterday.  Obviously you and I know that that has nothing to do with the real meaning of the headline... but that's because we know what the phrase "Wall Street" means, and what it means when Wall Street "crashes" - it's not at all about a street with a wall.  As this little example highlights, translation can be a very tricky business, especially when we are translating texts from hundreds or even thousands of years ago!

The second blog I want to recommend is by my former professor and mentor, Rabbi/Dr Larry Hoffman (father of Joel Hoffman).  Rabbi Hoffman is an expert in liturgy, worship, and ritual (among other things), and his blog is called Life and a Little Liturgy.  His posts are fascinating, including his latest, "The Bible is Fiction" as well as one from a couple weeks ago called "Why we need synagogues, or what synagogues need to be."

Hope you find these blogs thought-provoking... let me know if you have any responses and/or questions for me to address here!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Why Jewish Environmental Education Matters

At this point in the year - our first year with a variety of 'tracks' for 3rd-6th grade students - I don't think I have to convince many parents at Temple Isaiah of the need for innovative and track-based Religious School programs.  I've been delighted by the changes we've made, and although there are always small things to work out (finding the best teachers, working with individual students' needs, etc), I think the general path we've taken is a great one.

That being said, I thought I'd pass along a really interesting article called "Why Jewish Environmental Education Matters."  In our community, the "Jewish environmental education" is part of our Teva program for 3rd and 4th graders, although I could imagine a time in the future (if our enrollment is high enough) when we might be able to offer a similar program for older kids, teens, and/or adults.  In the meantime, I'm very happy that we have a program like Teva at Temple Isaiah!

Friday, February 3, 2012

Giving kids and teens more responsibility

I recently read a terrific article in the Wall Street Journal called "What's Wrong with the Teenage Mind?"  In the article, the author describes the challenges faced by teens today, and in truth, by the changing nature of adolescence in general.  Aside from encouraging you to read the article, I also wanted to point out one of the key themes of the article: "If you think of the teenage brain as a car, today's adolescents acquire an accelerator a long time before they can steer and brake."  In other words, teens' minds and urges and passions are revving up, but we as a society are not providing nearly enough opportunities at young enough ages to develop the 'steering' and 'brakes' needed to control the car... which would be way more opportunities to take responsibility and be in charge of things (with supervision and guidance). 

The author points out that on average, puberty hits earlier and adulthood hits later than was the case in previous generations.  However, the types of responsibilities that children and teens used to have are going by the wayside - even jobs like babysitting and the 'paper route' have largely disappeared or given to people who are older (for example, I don't know of almost any parents in our area who typically hire tweens and young teens, ages 10-13, to babysit their children). 

In the article, we are reminded that all humans need to develop a 'control system', and that it is dependent upon learning...  but we can only learn when we have opportunities to learn... i.e. "You come to make better decisions by making not-so-good decisions and then correcting them.  You get to be a good planner by making plans, implementing them and seeing the results again and again."  The bottom line is that kids and teenagers need lots of practice - with jobs, internships, activities that require real commitment and most importantly, responsibility.  We try to provide that in the Jewish community, and certainly here at Isaiah we give teens responsibility as Camp Kefli counselors, Religious School TA's, leaders of LAFTY, and more.  However, we can always do more, and this article has made me think about how we can give children more chances to learn and grow in ways that provide the 'steering' and 'brakes' desperately needed by the time the 'acceleration' really hits in adolescence!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Future of Jewish Education

I recently saw a YouTube video of "Charlie and Russel's Speech at the Jewish Futures Conference."  This video was shown (or referenced?) by Jonathan Woocher at this year's URJ Biennial, and I finally got around to watching it.  The two speakers - Charlie and Russel - assert that there are four components to the future of Jewish education:

1) Open, discoverable, accessible resources
2) Re-mixing Judaism
3) Community building
4) Making Jewish life / education meaningful & relevant

It's a great 6-minute video, and I recommend watching it if you can!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Long time no blog

Wow, I just realized that it's been nearly a month since I last posted anything on this blog.  That's due, in part, to Winter Break and to my recent trip to Disneyland for my son's 3rd birthday (which was great fun!).  During these times when I'm away from the computer for awhile, I realize how nice it is to be 'off the grid' every once in awhile.  I'm sure many of you experience what I do - the urge (and the need, even) to always be 'on'... to constantly check e-mail, check Facebook, read online news or blogs, etc.  Even when I'm hanging out at home with my husband and son, I still feel the need to check my phone for new emails, calls, etc.  So whenever we get the chance (or are forced) to go 'off the grid,' it feels significant and often quite liberating.

For the last 8 or 9 years, my Shabbat practice has been to go 'off the grid' as much as I possible from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.  I avoid my cell phone, don't use the computer, and try to have a day when I am fully present for those I'm with and for myself as well.  It's difficult, but it's a practice I've tried to maintain most of the time.  As Jews, we are blessed with the gift of Shabbat... a Divine COMMAND to take one day 'off', to take one day for ourselves and our families.  I encourage you to think about the ways that you could transform Shabbat into a day 'off,' for both yourself and your kids.  It's best if it's for a full day, but even for just Friday night...  What would time 'off' (or 'off the grid') look like for you and your family?  Give it a try; let me know how it goes! :)

To get you in the spirit, here's an old You Tube video, "I've Got a Feeling" (The Shabbat Song) -