Israel Education Manifesto

I’m in the middle of an Executive Masters program from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion to get a Masters in Religious Education.  It’s a great program, I’m learning a ton, have made terrific connections with my cohort, and am feeling good about taking part in learning in a construct.  As part of our program, this past January, we had a 2 week seminar in Israel–traveling the country with our cohort and the cohort ahead of us, looking at things through the lens of exploring multiple narratives of Israel.  It was an unforgettable trip, and one that was different from any of my prior trips to Israel.

As our final project for that class, we had to write our “Israel Manifesto.”  A statement of our concept of Israel education.  It was a powerful assignment and a process that I think was important.  I don’t think mine is perfect–I know it needs work and tweaking.  But I like it as a start.  And I thought it would be good to share.

 

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When I was 15, like many a “product of the movement,” I traveled to Israel for the first time with NFTY, with the Camp Harlam trip.  In our group journal that summer, my entry on the experience included the comment that before the trip, my view of Israel was textbookized, and that it had been transformed by traveling in the actual place, with my camp community.  Reflecting back, I can identify that it is not the textbook version of Israel, a place of history and described Jewish identity, that I want to offer as the lens for Israel education.  And I can also identify that my view of Israel from that trip was as much an idealized view, based on seeing it with camp friends, through a tourist’s lens—ignoring the subtleties, and (if I’m honest) paying as much attention (if not more) to the group dynamics on the bus as we paid to the dynamic history and living dynamics of the sites we were seeing.  While that was surely a positive experience, and while I left that trip from Israel with the knowledge that would be the first and not the only trip I would make, I’m not sure it was the ideal lens, either—I’m not even sure how I’d define that particular narrative.

My NFTY in Israel trip, by the way, took place in the summer of 1988, the summer of the First Intifada; many of my peers who might have, did not join me that summer.  But it wasn’t a question for my family.  And from that, I learned that the Israel in the newspaper was also not the narrative that was the one that I was to believe as the true, full story of Israel.  I also knew that I was traveling to Israel at a complicated time—it was many years later that I realized that any time is a complicated time in Israel.

Fast forward a few decades to the 2002 CCAR Convention in Jerusalem—what would have been my first CCAR Convention; my senior rabbi was going, so I couldn’t go.  My parents were attending the conference, as well as many friends.  And at the height of the start of the second intifada, I saw the news of the Cafe Moment bombing, and experienced for the first (and only) time the fear of having people I loved being in Israel during a time of terrorism.  That is not to say that it was the only time that I have had people I care about be in Israel during times of terror—but that it was the only time I was fearful as a result.  That momentary narrative was not one that lasted, but is one that I remember vividly.  And that was a moment at which I understood the Israel that was the reality that persisted for many in the diaspora—the narrative that Israel is a place of war and terror, a place that is always unsafe.  While the Israel I know is not that Israel, that was my glimpse at understanding that narrative.

It is, quite honestly, much easier for me to paint the narrative of Israel that I do not believe in teaching, than the narrative of Israel that I wish to present.  I know it is not a war torn Israel that I want to teach, and that such is not a solitary image that is either true or helpful.  I know that Israel is not monolithic, and that pretending that it is will not present an understanding that will add to the narrative of the Jewish people in a dynamic way.  I know that it is not a magical fairy land Israel, or a Disney Land Israel, that I want to convey—the image of Israel that many adults seem to have of Israel as a wonderful place that can do no wrong, in which all Jews can thrive and be safe.  While I’m not sure that such is the exact image that was portrayed for me as a child, I’m fairly certain that many of my teachers would not have objected to me coming away with that view—and even more certain that many of those teachers themselves had that view.  And I’m just as uncomfortable with the more nuanced version of that attitude that while Israel is not perfect, we shouldn’t talk about the non-perfect parts of Israel.  I firmly believe that we can’t form real relationship with idealized notions—and that relationship should be one of our primary goals.  In order to have relationship, there must be nuance—there must be a recognition of flaws.  And, on the other side of that balance, Israel can also not be portrayed as being bad.  As nuanced my expectations about the positive portrayal of Israel, my hope is that the negative, and even problematic, aspects of Israel will also not be the solitary, or even primary focus of education.

I seek an Israel education that presents diversity.  True diversity.  Not just diversity in name, by offering Sephardic and Ashkenazic narratives of Israel, but also one that offers a fuller picture that offers Mizrachi narratives, so that more knowledgeable Jews know that there are Arabic speaking Jews.  And so that Muslims and Christians are part of the story of Israel that Jews learn when they learn about Israel.  It is important for us to educate about a comprehensive and nuanced Israel—in all of its aspects.  Anything more than a surface engagement cannot exist without this.  As Evan Traylor, Presidential Fellow for Millennial Engagement for the URJ, commented, “This idea of a comprehensive and nuanced Israel education is important.  I don’t know of anyone in high school or college space that is really doing that.”  Within the context of direct Israel experience, it is a missed opportunity to create these dynamic moments.  As Traylor points out, “Thinking comprehensively: if we offer a comprehensive, nuanced picture of Israel, then we also need to delve into the parts that are often left out.”

In Israel trips, it is vital to include diverse pictures of Israel in the schedule.  A trip must include visits to places like the Yad B’Yad School in Wadi Ara, to hear about the successes and challenges of parallel education of Arab and Jewish children in the only such school in an Arab town in Israel.  A trip must include meeting people who work, teach, and learn there or in similar settings.  A trip must include a visit to places like the Kiryat Ono Haredi Campus to hear from Orthodox Jews who are sharing a narrative that is not typical of the ultra Orthodox narrative with which many Reform Jews are familiar.  A trip must include opportunities like the graffiti tour of Tel Aviv, to see the evolving messages of modern Israel and how that tale continues to be told—and how race and economics continue to have an impact on the story of that city.  None of those experiences themselves must be a part of the experience—but experiences like them, which allow for different stories to be told and heard, must be considered in the creation of any Israel trip.

I would even consider the idea that an organized, Jewish trip to Israel should include a trip to the West Bank.  I feel it is vital for diaspora Jews to understand the impact of the settlements, and to see the dichotomy between the Jewish settlements and the Palestinian towns that are beside them.  I also feel it is vital for Jews in the diaspora to meet individuals in the Palestinian territories and hear their stories and further understand that narrative and its complicated history.  When American (and other diaspora) Jews visit Hebron, East Jerusalem, and other non-Jewish areas, in programs that allow them to interact with Christians and Muslims in dialogue and conversation, the overall education about Israel is enhanced.  And the experiences should not be one sided.  It is equally important to engage in dialogue with someone who lives in the settlements, in order to hear from that point of view, and to hear that aspect of the narrative, as well.  I realize that these opportunities are not realistic for every American—but I believe that we should strive for these opportunities for every American Jew who visits Israel.

The greater question, because travel to Israel is not a possibility for all of those we teach (however much we want it to be) is what Israel education looks like at home, for those that have not visited Israel, and may not visit Israel.  Dana Berman, the shlichah for Delawre, commented, “The relationship part is big.  It shouldn’t be taught in a history class like something that happened in a  faraway country.  It should happen with people, like Israelis in the community…With each age group the answer will be different.  It should be relevant to the person in front of you.  Also to what interests the person learning.  There should be content that speaks to both the person with the connection at home and the one without.”  Ideally, the education we do in the diaspora is relevant to those who already have the relationship and those who do not. In order to do so, we must teach on multiple levels, and through multiple narratives.

Traylor touched on this, as well, in speaking of utilizing peoples’ interests as a doorway towards Israel engagement, “If they are passionate about immigration rights.  Starting with what’s the connection between Israel and immigration rights, creating a door to broader, comprehensive engagement in Israel.”  Which also leads to presenting an Israel, particularly to teens and adults, that is about complexities, but not just about the conflict.  As he said, “What I’d love to see expanded…and have those informal conversations and cultural understandings—and expand that to have intentional spaces for conversation about the more challenging issues, societal and political: not jut Israel/Palestine/2 state solution, but also pluralism, immigration, etc.  Also, more than just Women of the Wall, but other areas that the rabbinate has control over.  In some ways, there’s not enough programming on political issues.  But then people get tired of political issues, so it reverts back to shwarma and falafel.  It needs to be about creating a balance of programs that are both comprehensive and nuanced.”  He further points out that Israel must be part of our concern for tikkun olam, and that we support Israel in a way that is genuine, while not alienating other areas of repair work.

Berman pointed to a similar idea, in talking about the success she has seen in programming around ideas that are difficult, “The Yom HaZikaron service we had here (was an excellent example of Israel education).  Phenomenal opportunity (in bringing Israeli teens to Delaware, and holding a memorial service) because it’s easier to explain happy things and harder to convince teens to take part in mourning something sad, especially not theirs.  But the opportunity to bring Israeli teens here was important, and they were able to connect outside of the official hours, and spent time together, and they’re still in touch.  And talking about experience.  We brought video clip of a mom from Arad, which allowed the group to feel the pain—it’s harder to describe that if it isn’t yours.”  It is so easy to shy away from challenge and difficulty, and yet we cannot.  Berman further explains this challenge and the necessity to meet it, “[For many North American Jews in regard to Israel, there is a] lack of interest–some people are just oblivious or just don’t care.  I have my world and classes and after school programs and don’t get why it matters.  In later years the younger crowd hasn’t heard a well rounded story of Israel and don’t feel comfortable, and may become anti.  It’s a painful spot for many Jews, including myself.”  Indeed, if we do not tell a well rounded story of Israel, then our students have not heard it and have not learned it.  They have not developed the nuanced relationship that can allow for them to ask healthy questions and challenge difficulties.  They are more likely to turn away.

As Barry Chazan points out, “Israel today lends itself to diverse vantage points, perspectives, and tellings of the story.  Indeed, the diverse pictures of Israel are in some ways the essence of life in Israel.  The richness of Israel is that everyone is a narrator and everyone is a photographer.”  The Israel education that we provide must allow our students to engage as narrators and as photographers as they discover their own perspective, through our guidance.  As Robbie Gingras taught us, it is through Convictions, Connections, Content, and Conversation that this learning can take place.  We must be careful to include each of these at different levels of learning.

The challenge remains of how to help our teachers to reframe their own narrative, or to at least recognize that other frames exist.  But the fact remains that in order to form a real relationship, and a deep level of engagement, a comprehensive Israel education, with diverse narratives presented, must exist.  There must be opportunities to meet Israelis and hear their stories.  There must be the chance to eat the food and hear the music—but also to engage in difficult conversations.  The challenges should not be ignored.  But they should also not be the only focus.  We do not want our teens to go to college and hear from an anti-Israel advocate some of Israel’s imperfections—and wonder about how much else we’ve lied to them about.  We also want for them to be able to speak intelligently about the conflict when presented with that conversation.  And, in this age in which antisemitism and antizionism seem to go hand in hand, and in which antisemitism seems to be increasing at an alarming speed, we must help our young people be ready to answer the challenge.

This isn’t easy.  None of this is easy.  But it’s Israel—it’s not supposed to be easy.  It’s a country that’s named after struggle, after all.  How can educating about that struggle—and embracing that struggle—be any easier?

Bibliography

Berman, Dana, Delaware Shlichah, Interview: January 17, 2017.

Chazan, Barry, “Diverse Narratives,” 2015.

Traylor, Evan, Presidential Fellow for Millennial Engagement, Union for Reform Judaism, Interview: January 26, 2017.

#BlogExodus #Celebrate #Reveal #HamForSeder

Behind on Blogging…and so many other things.  But I got my newest addition done to Ham for Seder!!!

Also, a HUGE shout out to the Hamilton Haggadah!! Taking the little I’ve done here, they took the idea up a notch and then some–coming up with a whole seder full of of songs last year, and this year an entire haggadah.  Visit the site, download the haggadah–it’s free, but you can also (and I encourage you to) make a donation to HIAS, because they are doing such important work to help refugees–a cause at the heart of the message of Pesach.

So, here’s my newest: The Sandwich We’re Eating (sort of silly, but also fun).

S: Ah, Mister Hillel

H: Mister Shammai, sir

S: Did’ya hear the news about good old Moshe Rabbeinu

H: No

S: You know Pharaoh Street

H: Yeah

S: They renamed it after him, the Moses legacy is secure

H: Sure

S: And all he had to do was die

H: That’s a lot less work

S: We oughta give it a try

H: Ha

S: Now how’re you gonna get your menorah lighting through

H: I guess I’m gonna fin’ly have to listen to you

S: Really

H: Talk less, smile more

S: Ha

H: Do whatever it takes to get my plan in the Talmud’s core

S: Maimonides and others will be merciless

H: Well, hate the comment, love the commentator

S: Hillel

H: I’m sorry Sham, I’ve gotta go

S: But

H: Discussions are happening over seder

Two Rabbinic sages argued pages and then came into a room

Diametric’ly opposed, foes

They debate without compromise, on all sorts of topics

yet their friendship never closed

Bros

One rabbi emerged with unprecedented arguments recorded

Though the systems were shaped how the other wants

The other also got a bite on record

And that’s the pièce de résistance

Hillel, he made

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

Hillel, he made

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

No one really knows if the Chrain’s homemade

How the matzah is laid

If the charoset is flayed

We just assume that we’re feeding

what Hillel made, it’s

The sandwich we’re eating.

Hillel claims

Numbers says we should eat it on matzah and maror

Talking ‘bout the lamb for the rich and for the poor

Hillel claims

so I bound it all

Into one sandwich

And basic’ly nommed it just like in days of yore

Hillel claims

I figured out the recipe and thought

I should write all this down, let me sit down at my escritoire.

Hillel claims

Well, I arranged the matzah

I arranged the matzah, the maror, the paschal

But

that wasn’t quite like

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

Hillel, he made

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

No one really knows how lamb

is charoses

The pesach that was sacrificed

Before we learned to bless

We just know it was fleeting

But Hillel he made

The sandwich we’re eating

Meanwhile

Jews are all grappling with the fact that not ev’ry tradition can be the same with out the Temple

Meanwhile

Rabbis are fighting over how to set the prayers

It isn’t pretty

Then Hillel approaches with a seder and invite

The sanhedrin responds with rabbinic insight

Maybe we can replace one tradition with another and make some mortar with some sweeteners, and teach others

Oh ho

A quid pro quo

I suppose

Wouldn’t you like to have a symbol closer to those

Actually, I would

Well, I propose the Charoset

And you’ll provide the maror?

Well, we’ll add the matzah!

Huzzah!

Yah!

Hillel, he made

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

Hillel, he made

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

My God

To God we pray

But we never really know what words to say

Click-boom when we’re meeting

And then Hillel he made the sandwich we’re eating

Rabbi Hillel Sanhedrin:

What did you say to them to get them to make us this sandwich forever

Rabbi Hillel Sanhedrin:

Did Shammai even know about the endeavor

Was there rabbinic pressure whatsoever?

Rabbi Hillel Sanhedrin:

Or did you know, even then, it doesn’t matter

What you put with the maror

‘Cause it’ll have the same crunch.

The symbol’s what’s more important.

You got more than you gave

And we wanted what we got

When you get to taste in the tale, you remember the tale

But you don’t get a win unless you retell the tale

Oh, you get love for it, you get hate for it

You get nothing if you

Wait for it, wait for it, wait

God help and forgive us

We need to tell

a tale that’s gonna

Outlive us

What do you want, Jews

What do you want, Jews

If your sandwich is crumbling

then how do traditions hold up?

I

Wanna eat up

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

I

Wanna eat up

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

I

Wanna eat up

The sandwich we’re eating

I

I wanna eat up

Oh

Oh

I wanna eat up

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The sandwich we’re eating

The art of the compromise

Hold your nose and close your eyes

We want our leaders to change today

But we also need a say in what we see go away

We dream of a brand new start

But we dream in the dark for the most part

To dark brings a light that we’re seeding

I’ve got to eat up

The sand (which we’re eating)

I’ve got to eat up (the sandwich we’re eating)

I’ve got to eat up (the sandwich we’re eating)

Oh, I’ve got to eat up

The sandwich we’re eating

I’ve got to eat, I’ve gotta eat, I’ve gotta eat

In the sand

Boom Crunch

#BlogExodus 2: Exalt

We’ve all likely had the experience of being let down by someone we looked up to.  Certainly, we have all known relationships that have ultimately failed because whatever covenantal relationship was at its foundation foundation was broken–whether that was a romantic partnership, a business relationship, a friendship, or even a familial tie.  Those breaks are painful–the breakdown of the relationship itself hurts us, and when the relationship itself must end, the severing that is necessary for our own wholeness and healing can also cause us much pain.

But we’ve also likely known another kind of breakdown: whether of someone we knew personally, professionally, or someone in the public sphere…people we have looked up to, admired, and even exalted, who have acted in ways that destroy the very fabric of the lens we once saw them through.

Yes, we know people, even leaders, are fallible–look at our biblical heroes, after all.  But when we see those leaders actively act in ways that fall far short of our expectations–that go against the very lessons that we have learned from them, the sense of loss is profound.

We can begin to question.  Everything.

Who were we that we saw them as our mentors, our role models? Was there still truth to the lessons that we learned? Can we still take wisdom from their words, even when we no longer seek their council?

When the actions of one whom we have seen as a teacher fall short, it hurts in a unique way.  We doubt our own ability to choose teachers and we can be unsure of where to turn, not sure what lessons we can trust.

When we are the ones who are leaders, this is a humbling reminder–of the responsibility we have to be careful with our words and with our actions.  We must be aware of the pedestal on which some may try to place us, and perhaps offer reminders of our humanity along the way.  And to teach our fallibility as one aspect of our truth.

It is ever important to know before whom we stand: in all directions.

#BlogExodus 1: Launch

Is it that time, already? The time when we’ve reached the month of Nisan, and my annual 2 weeks of blogging in preparation for the start of Pesach begins has arrived.  And so, I launch myself into the process.  Not just the process of going through the haggadah and reflecting, but the process of getting ready for the holiday.  Thblogexodus2b5777anks to Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, Blogging Exodus has become part of my annual ritual.  Partly because it is so easy to get caught up in the logistics of planning, that it’s nice to have some time to mentally prepare, as well.

And it’s a good reminder, that even if I’m already up to my eyeballs in seder prep, there is more to this holiday than Matzah Ball Soup. Although the soup is also important.

But what makes the soup important is the memory attached to its flavor, which ties into the rest of the holiday, as well.  Pesach is a holiday about experience–and creating new experiences to remind us of the old ones.  Of creating and recreating a seder each year which is relevant to us today, as well as evocative of the past.

And so, here I am, launching myself into the season.  Getting ready the recipes and the readings.  And getting myself ready along the way.  Ready to launch myself into the past–and into the future, as well.

Satisfaction because of, not in spite of

Unsurprisingly, clergy talk to each other about all sorts of aspect of our shared experience in different locations.  One discussion we  Jewish clergy return to, every year, is our experience of the High Holy Days (and additional Tishrei Holidays).  We talk both about our personal experience of the Days of Awe, and our community experience.  This is actually true for those in pulpit and non-pulpit roles.  For those not leading services or holiday experiences, we still talk about how we personally encountered the season this particular year, and our own interpretation of whatever service we went to–at least based on my own experience of my non-pulpit rabbi years, at the times I didn’t take a High Holy Day Pulpit.  And one of the great gifts of technology, is that we are able to have these conversations despite geography.  Recognizing that all of us, as Jewish professionals (and not just clergy) have a somewhat unique experience of Jewish life, we can connect to each other to share and reflect on the myriad ways that we experience Jewish life from our vantage point.

In one of those conversations this year, a colleague commented that while they felt good about the services and experiences, they didn’t feel personally fulfilled by the holidays themselves.  I snarkily retorted that I didn’t feel any less engaged than I generally did.  I have long felt challenged by the High Holy Days–the liturgy and worship experience in particular.   I even preached on this a few years ago–I know I’m not the only one that finds the High Holy Days to be a sometimes disconnecting experience.  It has taken me a long time to wrestle with that and figure out how to find meaning in the season–and it is not always through the traditional modes. But I have, for the most part, figured out for myself how to find moments of connection, and to find meaning in the season as a whole–to get the enduring understanding through an alternate lesson plan, to wax educational for a moment.

As the conversation with my colleague went on, they reflected that the details of the holiday experience was disconnecting for them, that it kept them from fully experiencing the experience of the services.  I commented that, for me, while there were challenges and bumps in the logistics in my own place (minor ones, but the small glitches that are unavoidable when you’re creating any sort of experience for hundreds of people–the ones the participants rarely notice yet that can become a distraction for those leading), the congregants–the community–felt satisfied and spiritually fulfilled from their experience.

To this, my colleague responded that they knew that while some colleagues felt that even if they didn’t feel spiritually connected to an experience, and have given up trying, they would feel satisfied if at least their community felt good about it.  It wasn’t until a few hours later–long after this conversation ended–that I realized that what they had articulated wasn’t really what I meant.  It was a few hours after that, that I was able to figure out how to articulate my thoughts.  Rather than reenter that discussion, I figured that there were others that might find this interesting, and so I’m posting it here.

It wasn’t so much that I feel successful in spite of my own disconnect, because at least my congregants connected–rather that it is exactly because my community connected, that I was able to find satisfaction.  Yes, I had moments of worship at which I felt the connection and experienced true prayer (I believe this is true for my colleague as well, based on our conversation).  But I am one who draws satisfaction from being able to create satisfaction for others.  This is why I love being an educator–I’m able to facilitate “wow moments,” the instants at which another understands a new idea in a new way.  And that’s where I find the greatest satisfaction.  It’s when I see my community engaged in an experience that I have had a part in creating, that I am able to best feel connection to the Divine, that I find my own satisfaction.

So, yes.  While there were distractions, while there were things I was worried about, while life went on and created new distractions, and while the logistics and details were constantly on my mind…none of that diminished my overall satisfaction.  Because I had my own moments of prayer, here and there.  Because at some point (probably in large part through many summers at camp), I learned to not let the glitches distract me from the experience.  Because I know that the experience–the learning, the worship, the overall gestalt–worked for our community as a whole.  And that’s really the biggest part of it.  Because others got something out of it, their satisfaction satisfies me.

I don’t find the experience satisfying despite my own experience, because others liked it.  I find the experience satisfying BECAUSE my own experience is defined by others like of it.  That is my greatest satisfaction.  Making experiences, creating learning, creating connections–and allowing the experiences of others to inspire my own inspiration and satisfaction.

Yom Kippur Morning: Changing the Course of Discourse

In case you missed it (or if you want to read it after hearing it, here’s my sermon from Yom Kippur.  If you prefer to listen, visit here: 

To paraphrase William Shakespeare: I come to bury this election, not to praise it.

More precisely, I wish not to not actually discuss the upcoming election itself, but instead I want to talk about how we talk about this election.  It goes without saying, I hope, that it is our mandate to take part in democracy and to vote; it is a mitzvah, a sacred obligation, to do so.  We should educate ourselves in order to make make informed choices in our voting—for President and for all other state and local decisions for which we have the opportunity to vote.  I could speak this High Holidays about that idea, about how it’s a very Jewish idea, but that is not what I wish to address this morning, nor what I feel I need to address.

Last week, Rabbi Robinson spoke about our need to listen—to radically listen.  And I affirm that need.  Today I want to add the sequel to that sermon, and talk about how we respond.  Yes, surely, we need to listen, but I also believe that we sometimes have a need to engage in discussion—to have dialogue—to share our own story, even as we hear the story of another.  When Rabbi Robinson and I sat down months ago to discuss our sermons, we realized that we each had themes that were both distinct and connected.  And that both were vital to this Holy Day season.  And so, we decided to each give our sermon both to stand alone, and also to be offered as a larger message in 2 parts.  On Rosh Hashanah—how do we hear.  And on Yom Kippur—how do we engage in conversation.

And I fear that we’ve forgotten how.

A few months ago, someone who is on my friend list on Facebook but I do not know personally, posted something in support of a candidate, espousing views which are counter to Jewish values as I understand them.  Knowing that this person takes his Judaism seriously, I questioned him about it—wanting to understand his approach—how the same set of text and tradition could lead us to vastly different conclusions.  Knowing that the other side of any issue generally comes from a place as honest and real as our own, I sought to understand.  By the end of the conversation, after being called a bully, overly nosey, self-righteous, and told I was only asking the question to feel superior, I came to the conclusion that it is so rare for us to talk to people with opposing viewpoints, about those opposing viewpoints, that it had somehow become natural to assume that my purpose was one of negativity.  When did we forget how to have a conversation about ideas that are different from our own? Or forget that doing so could be a positive act?

I am not claiming that we should agree with everyone.  I am not saying that we should not make known our opinions and stand up for them and for what we believe is right.  I am not saying that a leader’s words or behaviors should not be brought to light.  But what I am saying is that we can do all that with a sense of civility.

I have lost count of how many comments I’ve heard in person or read on social media, disparaging supporters of the other candidate—comments that come from supporters of multiple candidates.  I have, at this point, taken for granted that many of my Clinton and Trump and Johnson and Stein and Sanders supporting friends will almost undoubtedly unfriend and possibly block people who believe another way.  Almost daily, I see messages posted about how another person was blocked because of their viewpoints.  I hear stories about how family members aren’t speaking to each other until after November and of relationships destroyed.  And I’ve seen and heard in countless conversations, a shutting down of disparate opinions and a digression towards playground taunts.

I understand the need to create spaces for ourselves in which we can feel safe—and I appreciate the need to remove ourselves from individuals who cause us hurt—or to avoid people whose responses may lead us towards behaviors or words that we want to ourselves avoid.  But, that said, it saddens me that so much of the disagreement that causes that reaction is so full of hatred and anger in the first place that it brings people to the point of wanting to avoid any conversation at all.  It saddens me that too many conversations about important ideas devolve into personal attacks being thrown at each other—and towards the leaders and potential leaders of this country.  All too often, even between those leaders.

I find it hard to believe that this is the discourse of democracy that our founding fathers sought.  And, assuming that the early cabinet meetings weren’t actually rap battles, I believe that when they discussed ideas that were diametrically opposed, that they did so with a sense of respect for each other’s ideas.  They did so with a sense of respect for each other. They debated, but with due honor.  In recent months, I do not see that this is how this election is being discussed—in recent weeks, I do not see this in the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates.

I do not believe that this is an issue that is unique to this country or to the topic of politics.  But this election has made it more than evident that as a society, we’ve lost the art of discourse—the ability, or at least the willingness, to engage in respectful disagreement.  No, not always, and no, not all of us.  But like we read the Vidui, the confessional prayer with the collective “We,” we are all part of the society that has forgotten how to disagree.  And we have all taken part in some part of this—even if only as a bystander.

Perhaps we need a communal vidui for this season, an Ashamnu for this Age, An acrostic of our society’s behavior during this election cycle:

We all have committed offenses; together we confess these human sins: The sins of Abrasiveness, Body Shaming, Callousness, Disregard, a lack of Empathy, Failing to see injustice, and Gaslighting.  The sins of senseless Hatred, Insensitivity to the suffering of others, being Judgmental, Kicking out those who are different, Letting fear eclipse reason, Mocking people because of differences, Numbness to tragedies, Othering, and abuse of Privilege.  Of Questioning the intelligence of people because we disagree with them, Racism, and Sexism.  Of Tolerance of injustice, Using shame as a weapon, and Violence in words and in deeds.  Of Willingness to believe whatever we read, Xenophobia, Yelling, and Zoning out when we should be paying attention.

And indeed, I pray, that God will forgive us, pardon us, and grant us atonement.  But we know that we are only granted that Divine forgiveness when we have done t’shuvah.  When we have turned ourselves around from the wrongs we have done, made right what we may have made wrong, and determine to be different in the future.

And I do believe we can change—each of us and all of us, and those beyond these walls.  We can change the course of discourse in our time.  And, indeed, that is what the ideals of Judaism teach us we must do.

We see this in Rabbinic Literature in the relationship between Hillel and Shammai.  If these names are new to you, they are both rabbis who lived around the year 0.  The most important thing to know about them is that they disagreed.  A lot.  The Talmud includes more than 350 examples of disagreements between them or, later, between their followers: The House of Hillel (Beit Hillel) and the House of Shammai (Beit Shammai).  They were known for their disagreement in their own time and through history.  In fact, Hillel Street and Shammai Street in Jerusalem are parallel to each other—like the ideologies of their namesakes, the 2 never meet.  But, despite their differences, these men and their followers showed loved and friendship towards each other—the followers of one school would even marry the followers of the other.  Their disagreements are viewed as being for the sake of Heaven—having lasting value.  They were both attempting to find truth—to interpret the tradition in the way that each felt was best to meet the needs of their generation.  And they both listened to each other and honored each others’ opinions.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) tells a story about a disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai that lasted 3 years.  Each side insisting that their way was the right way.  For 3 years: “The law is in agreement with our views.”  NO! “The law is in agreement with our views.”  Until finally, there came a Bat Kol —a Divine Echo, a Heavenly voice.  Essentially, the rabbinic version of Deus Ex Machina.  And what did this Bat Kol say? “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim.  These and these are the words of the Living God.”

What a concept.  The notion that our ideas and interpretations are, themselves, Divine Speech is itself profound, as is the idea that Divine Revelation is ever-present and continuing.  But that 2 different interpretations—2 opposing opinions—are equally Divine is astounding.  Both sides are equally true.  Perhaps because both sides exist, there is an even greater truth.

But then the Voice goes on: But the law is in agreement with Beit Hillel.

From this, we learn that sometimes, the discussion has to come to an end—there has to be a conclusion. We can’t argue forever.  And the question we may be asking ourselves as we hear this, is asked and answered in the very next line of Talmud: If both these and these are the words of the Living God, then why does the Law become fixed according to the views of Beit Hillel? It is because they were kind and gracious.  And they taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from Beit Shammai.  And not only that, but they went so far as to teach Shammai’s opinions first.

It is hard to imagine a world that is built on this value: of kindness and graciousness being the deciding factors in the choice of authority.  And in which those who are chosen teach the ideas of those who are not, even before they teach their own.  And in which it is understood and appreciated that the Truth of one can be as True as the Truth of another.

There is a concept in Rabbinic Literature that there are several practices that are accepted mipnei darchei shalom: For the sake of the paths of peace.  These practice are all things that set up to prevent disagreements between people; avoid unfairness or unintended hurt, especially for those who are vulnerable; and to avoid disputes between members within and outside of the community.  What is interesting about this phrase is that it speaks of darchei shalom, the paths of peace, and not derech shalom, the path of peace.  The very language teaches us that there are multiple paths towards peace, and that it is because of those different paths that wholeness can exist.  To disagree is not bad—it is necessary and even good. But our disagreement must include paths towards wholeness, and not roadblocks which keep this world divided—instead of fragmented pieces, we must work towards peace.

Perhaps the Bat Kol ended the years long debate between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, mine darchei shalom.  Perhaps, for this same reason, we can begin to change the way we disagree in our own age.

Perhaps we can have arguments that are for the Sake of Heaven.  Have the recognition that these words and these words are both the words of the Living God.  That while we take many different paths, those paths all can move towards peace.  And that we realize that the person on the other side of a debate on an issue that we hold dear, is equally passionate about wanting a better world.  None of this is easy.  But we are Yisra-el—the people who wrestle with God.  Disagreement is in our name and is an element of our very essence.  And so, let us do t’shuvah together—and turn ourselves away from the destructive discussions, full of disrespect.  And turn towards building a society in which our conversations can include both disagreement and respectful discourse.

I dream of a time when it isn’t newsworthy to see a joyful embrace between the First Lady and a past president, even though they are from 2 different political parties.  I dream of a time when there are more friendships like that between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  I dream of a time when parents do not need to question if their children are old enough to watch a presidential debate.  I dream of a time when we can discuss challenging topics with those with whom we fundamentally disagree—and do so with respect.  I dream of a time when we do not disparage others, neither because of their beliefs nor because of their difference.  I dream of a time when in disagreements and debates, we talk to each other and not at each other.  I dream of a time when we recognize not only that the words of 2 sides of disagreement can both be the Words of the Living God, but that the people on both sides of the disagreement are both made in the Image of God.  I dream of a time in which together, we travel the paths of peace.

I believe that this dream is possible.  But it is up to us to build it.  We can begin by taking the smallest of steps, and consider how we can change our own conversations and our own responses to different ideas.  And at the end of the evening on November 8, may we hear through the buzz of reports of who won each election, a Bat Kolending this argument, and reminding us that the paths of peace are right in front of us, for us to step towards healing and wholeness.

I’m doing the right thing #BlogElul 11: Trust

I don’t put that much stock in fortune cookies, in part because they are so rarely actual fortunes these days.  But last week, after enjoying a delicious vegetarian Chinese meal in Philadelphia, I decided to open my fortune.  Lo and behold, it was actually a fortune.

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And an apt one, at that.  In many ways, this year is about taking chances.  The new Sunday schedule and new Judaics curricula and other enhancements to the Sunday learning and community are huge and took much planning and development (which will only continue), but at the same time, Sunday feels relatively easy.

Wednesday has much more risk.  With a new Hebrew curriculum of individualized, self-paced learning and a new format for all Hebrew learning, the new program will be most evident on Wednesdays.  Especially with some of the kids not present during the week.

When those who come weekday will learn in an entirely different environment: With a one room schoolhouse, filled with different kinds of learning, adults to help and guide, a variety of Hebrew engagement opportunities, and student focused learning.  And with an all student prayer related lesson at the end, led by a rotation of our faculty.

The Wednesday model is a risk.  A big one.  The non-synagogue-based model for families that cannot come on Wednesdays is equally a risk, and is an idea that I am constantly evolving until we figure out a way that works best.  It’s all risky.  It’s all taking a chance.  but I think it’s worth it, as I believe it gives us a good pathway towards our kids gaining the skills that they need in order to be active Jewish adults.

I trust the system.  And I trust myself and the committee and the teachers and everyone who had input.  I trust that it will work.  I understand that the exact model we start with will likely be tweaked in order to make the most sense as we try it and experiment.  But I trust that we will navigate from the start towards that model.

I know that this will work–and I trust myself.  And that’s what brings me through my fear.  That’s what helps me to take the chance.

Without risk, we don’t have success.  Risk is scary, but risk is good, when it is entered in a considered, balanced, and healthy way.

May we all have a year filled with calculated risk.

Seeing through a haze #BlogElul 9: Observe

Some days, at least for me, we observe our own lives as if we are outside of ourselves.  Watching us go through the motions.  Doing our best to connect with ourselves, to be present and in the moment.  Getting through what we need to get through as best as we can, but not entirely capable of really being there.

Because our minds are in other places, our hearts are loudly interrupting our thoughts, because our pain–mental, or spiritual, or physical–clouds everything else.

We do our best to be.  But sometimes we are only able to observe.  And hope that we can be more actively present in our own selves tomorrow.

What did you hear today? #BlogElul 8: Hear

At 8:45 this morning,  I heard the sounds of families starting to come to religious school.  The new Gan (Pre-K) students approaching with both excitement and trepidation.  The older students either new or returning, coming to the day and the year, each in their own way.  I heard the music specialist and music madrich (teen assistant) going over the music with the cantor.  I heard the teachers chatting, waiting for me to go to meet with them for our weekly check in, as I was a couple of minutes late, having been checking in with the set up for our opening assembly.

At 9:03, I heard the opening lines of Mikey Pauker’s Hinei Mah Tova song about how good it is when people come together, as our religious school students, families, and teachers joined together with full voices.

Before silent prayer, at about 9:20, I spoke to the group about how dates are interesting and their significance changes, and that on this date in this year, we are coming together to start our year of learning together, and celebrating the start of a year of learning and improving ourselves and considering how we can challenge ourselves to be the best selves we can be–and how in our personal prayers, we can think about how we can all work towards a world that embraces diversity, seeks righteousness, and works towards peace.  I didn’t name the date, but those for whom this date is etched in fire in our memories, we all knew what I was saying.  If it wasn’t already obvious, the multiple catches in my voice as I held back tears made it clear.

It was around that same time 15 years ago that I heard the news.

At 10:05, I was talking with students and their families about the new Hebrew program and answering questions about how the program will enable the students to use their own skills and their own pace to build their learning experience.

At 10:28, I was sticking my head into our new Gan (Pre-K) classroom as the students were starting to be picked up, and saw the joy of new learning and adventure in the eyes of 3 and 4 year olds–and the smiles of satisfaction on the faces of their teachers.  A lovely moment in my day, seeing the start of a new phase of Jewish learning–the sweetness in starting something new.

How vastly different each of these exact moments were 15 years ago.  I’ve written before of my experience on September 11, 2001 and reflections after.  I’ve shared the story many times aloud, in memorial services, in conversations, in teaching, and in my own memory.

It was both easy and difficult to decide what to do on this date in Religious School.  It was easy to realize that it’s the first day of school for the year, and the first day of religious school ever for some of our students–it is a day that must focus on the joy of learning.  Especially with students for whom the events of that day are history (even the oldest teen madrichim were themselves in Pre-K 15 years ago).  But it was also difficult, to decide to not mark this day in a formal way.  For those of us who remember, for the families, the teachers…how can we not memorialize it.  And so I settled on that couple of sentences, not coloring the date for those for whom it’s just a day, but acknowledging the day for those of us who will never forget.

Hearing the shofar sound today at the end of our opening assembly was both evocative of the alarms that went off 15 years ago (literally and figuratively)–and so vastly different at the same time.  My own prayer is that hearing that sound will wake all of us up, to a world that we ourselves constantly renew.

 

 

 

 

 

I think I can, I think I can #BlogElul 6: Believe

Belief is a funny thing.  For some it comes easily–for others (myself included) it is a lot more challenging.  It’s hard to take a leap of faith and just believe in something.  To have a sense of knowing something that cannot be proven.

In some ways, this is most challenging when it comes to believing in myself.  Especially at times like this, sitting at the cusp of the future, and hoping for success.

Sometimes I need to remind myself that I do believe.  Sometimes, I look to others to remind me.  Other times, if i say it out loud, it helps me manifest the idea:

I believe that the first day of school will be a success (along with the rest of the year).

I believe that everything will be in place when it needs to be.

I believe in all the changes that we are making and that, while there will be bumps, that we are making the right changes.

I believe that the High Holy Days will be successful, personally and professionally.

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I think prayer is a lot like that, also.  If we say these ideas out loud, they can remind us of the world we believe in.  I believe there can be a world of peace and justice.  I believe that the hungry can be fed. I believe in a world that is repaired.

And then, just like in life, we do all that we can to create that reality.