#BlogElul Speak

I had the distinct joy yesterday of being at a NFTY event.  The Pennsylvania Area Region held its Leadership Training Institute, and I had the chance to attend, along with our synagogue’s Director of Youth Programs and 3 of our teen leaders.  I’ve been deeply involved with NFTY for decades–first as a participant and later as an advisor and rabbi.  I even worked for the Youth Division of the Reform Movement at 2 different points in my career.  Yesterday was no different in that it inspired me, reminded me of my own experience as a Jewish teen, and helped to reframe my own thinking about Jewish leadership.

In one workshop I sat in on, about Public Speaking, the following video was shown:

It’s a brilliant video.  It makes a lot of points without overly describing those points–a lesson I think many of us can learn.  It uses humor.  And it pokes fun of what successful presentation looks like, while also pointing out what is effective public speaking.

It’s a great lesson in how we teach–and a reminder in making sure we have something to teach, beneath the presentation itself.  It’s important to know how we are presenting learning, but it’s even more important to know what we want that learning to be.

What do we want our learners to come away with?

What do we want them to remember?

What do we want them to do with that?

As the Director of Youth Programs and I took the kids home, we facilitated a conversation about the day.  And what the kids said was amazing–on several levels.  They got it and were able to articulate it.

At one point in the conversation, one of the teens said something about part of leadership being getting others to act.  I was reminded of one of my favorite leadership lessons.  That of the First Follower.  This idea teaches that as much as the leader is important, it is really the first person to follow that leader who has the greatest authority.  It’s counterintuitive, but true. Watch:

It’s important to know how to get others to follow.  But it’s also important to inspire others by being the first person to do the action. Both roles are important–either role is arguably more important.

As we enter this school year and this Jewish year, I wonder who our leaders will be.  And who will be the first to follow. There are so many lessons to teach, so many lessons to learn–how do we figure out how to balance it all?


#BlogElul: Pray Awaken Ask

Tomorrow, I will awaken. And I’ll take a moment and notice the colors of the early morning sky, as the sun begins to rise. And I’ll take a moment to realize that it’s that time of year again, during which I see that sky each week. And I’ll take a moment to realize that the year is upon us, and the holidays are soon behind, and that it’s really and truly here.  And I’ll take a moment and remind myself to breathe.  And I’ll take a moment to, indeed, breathe.

And within that breath, will be this prayerThat :

Thank you, God, for this day.

I pray for those living through the eye of the storm. May they have strength.  May they know comfort. May we all be able to offer help, just as we have.  Too many times.

I pray that my day will be ok. That the kids will be safe and feel loved and know the sweet taste of the joy of learning. That I’ll be able to answer the questions I’m asked and answer the demands that the day will present.

I pray that the young people of our congregation will use their passion and creativity and skill and ideas to lead their peers towards a year of excellence and engagement.

I pray that I’ll get it all done.

I pray that the sound of the shofar will actually awaken me to that which I need to listen to in the world. That the loud blasts allow me to hear the still, small voice within my own heart.

I pray that I’ll be able to lead–through my preaching and my teaching, to help other understand the still, small voices of their own universes.

For these things I ask, as my prayer.

And I ask, ask, as well, what I even mean by prayer. If these prayers are limited by the idea of an interventionalist God, or if these thoughts can transcend a theology I don’t believe in, and become a hope, or perhaps an aspiration, even an inspiration.

For all these things, come morning, I pray.

#BlogElul Catch Up: I missed a few numbers

So, as life happens, I’ve missed a few days of #BlogElul prompts: Remember, Learn, and Intend, to be specific.  Today is Pray.  I’ll get to prayer later.  But in the meantime, I want to share my thoughts.  What follows probably covers all of these topics, but more than that, it’s what is on my mind at the moment.  And definitely ties into considering my life and what I want it to look like as I step into the next year.  So, as a make-up post, here is my offering.

I attended the funeral yesterday for a 96 year old woman, an elder and matriarch of the synagogue.  Many, if not most, synagogues have at least one person like this: the person who is ever present…who comes to services even in their last months…who everyone knows, even the newcomers…who everyone has a story about.  Who have accomplished much in their lives, and have continued to accomplish in their final years.  The folks who are naturally role models for everyone–not only because they have lived so long, but because they have truly lived throughout those years.

Sitting in the funeral, I couldn’t help but wonder about my own eventual end.  Perhaps because I was just in that kind of mood, or because of the time of year, or because I recently wrote a paper that contained my future retirement speech, or just because it was one of those days.  That was where my mind wandered to.  And I wondered who would come to my funeral.

God willing, I’ll live to my 90’s.  But will there be a crowd there of people, not just who remember me for what I was and what I did, but for what I continued to do and who I was at that phase of my life? Even if I live so long, I find it hard to fathom that the things for which these elders are remembered will be even metaphorically true for me: I won’t be teaching either piano or yoga into my 90s.  I’m not sure I’ll be at services nearly every Friday night.  And I can’t be sure what my continued legacy will look like. I’m not even certain who will come to my funeral.  Or who will speak.  Or what words will be said.

And as I consider all that, I remind myself that I need to be more intentional about my relationships, especially my friendships.  I love my friends and I count on them and they give me immeasurable gifts.  I hope they know that.  But I don’t always show it.  As an introvert, it doesn’t always strike me that I haven’t talked to someone in months.  And when I do remember, it’s usually around 4 am.  I know I take many of my relationships for granted.  And I know that I can do better–and that I need to do better.  My friends deserve it.  I deserve it.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of having dinner with 2 different sets of friends whom I’ve known for decades (2 different dinners).  Neither couple had I seen in longer than it should have been.  And with both couples, we easily settled into the conversation of true friendship–sharing honesty, sharing our truths, sharing ourselves.  And, of course, laughing a lot.

Both of those dinners reminded me of how much joy friendship brings me.  And of how much I miss out when I don’t nurture the friendships I have.

As I swim through Elul, trying not to drown in the weeks of preparation, I realize that I need to continue to cultivate the friendships that I have.  I can’t count on the occasional text.  I can’t assume that our history will preserve the present.  I need to intentionally continue the building of these friendships–because even when the foundation is strong, the exterior always needs work.  I need to do that work.  I know that.

Doing that isn’t always easy for me.  At times, it’s decidedly difficult–not because of the friendships but because of me.  That’s something for me to work on.  And I can.  And I will.  And I will look forward to a year full of friendship, overflowing with the blessings that overflow when those friendships get the attention they deserve.

#BlogElul 11 & 12: Trust & Count

When we trust others, we count on them.

When we count what we have, or count time, we trust that we have enough.


Both of these can be challenging.  It’s hard to trust people, and truly count on them. It’s hard to trust that we truly have enough of what we need, and that we will continue to have it.

And it can be just as challenging to count on ourselves. To trust that we will be able to do all of the tasks that we count on our to do list.  A list that (at least for me) never seems to get shorter.

We look at the world, and it can be difficult to trust that everything will be ok–violence, hurricanes, illness…we see these things and we struggle with considering that we can trust in the universe.  Even when we see that people who help others–who do extraordinary acts to counter difficulty–it’s hard to imagine that we can count enough people out there to make up for the destruction.

For those of us who struggle with God–who have trouble believing, who have trouble with faith, who have trouble with ideas that are counter to rational thought–it is a struggle to trust that there is anything we can count on.

And yet, we persist.  We learn to trust ourselves.  We learn to count the patterns of nature and rely on the fact that they mean that the universe will continue.  We learn to have trust in the idea that good is stronger than evil, and that the good that is within any of us will be the stronger force for most of us.

And, at this season, we count our days and we count our own acts and we place them in trust.  So that when we need to count on ourselves, we will, ourselves, act.

#BlogElul 9 & 10: See and Forgive

Sometimes, I see things around me and don’t do enough to respond.

Sometimes, I see things that I don’t need to look at and they blind me to what I really need to notice.

Sometimes, I see too much and I don’t know what to look at first, much less what to do about it.

Sometimes, I see only the shadows and miss what is real.

Sometimes, I need to find a way to see forgiveness.  To forgive myself for missing out on the important sights.  To see a way towards allowing myself to see what is in front of me. To embrace the vision laid out before me, and walk towards it.  Into the future.

#BlogElul 8: Hear


The sound of the shofar is designed to wake us up.  Not just physically (although, for some, who don’t get much out of services, it serves that purpose, as well), but spiritually.  The shofar calls us to awaken to the world, to our selves, to the possibility that exists in the world to come.

But there are certainly other sounds this time of year that call us.  This year, I think of: the sounds of children returning to school, the sounds of souls moaning as their homes and community are flooded, the sounds of voices joining in shouts for justice, the sounds of women trying to pray at Judaism’s holiest spot and drown out by whistles, the sounds of love drowning out the hatred of those who march in the name of bigotry, the sounds of people just trying to do their best, the sounds of people engaged in conversation.

I invite you this month, to hear the sound of someone who sounds different from you.  Maybe they are from a different background.  Maybe they look different.  Maybe they speak a different language.  Maybe they believe differently.  But, maybe, you can hear each other–and you can learn from each other.  And, together, you can create a new sound–that ushers in a new age of a different kind of peace.

Perhaps that can be what the shofar calls to us this year.

#BlogElul 7: Understand

We spend a lot of time trying to make others understand us.  And, hopefully, trying to understand others.  It’s how we learn–both general knowledge, and the knowledge of other people.  But to what extent do we really understand ourselves?

Maybe that’s a piece of what Elul and the High Holy Days are really about–learning to understand not only the world, not only each other, but us.  If I examine my mind and my heart, then perhaps I’ll realize something new about myself.  Perhaps I’ll understand myself a little bit better.

Judaism teaches about 2 kinds of repair: tikkun olam, repairing the world, which we talk a lot about (the world is pretty broken, after all) and tikkun middot, repairing ourselves.  Through different values and different character traits, we are taught to constantly strive towards being our best selves.  And we are also taught to keep this all in balance–to practice those traits that are harder for us, and to recognize when one trait might be more useful than another.  And also to use these traits and these values to view our lives differently.  Tikkun Middot is about positioning our personal moral compass–in order to navigate our complicated lives within an ever increasingly complicated world.seesaw-self-vs-other

The balance, of course, also exists between when we focus on the world and when we focus on ourselves–and the recognition that both play into the same process.  It’s like a seesaw, which constantly goes back and forth, and works best when the center of gravity is found.  Just like we work best when we are centered and grounded–understanding those around us, as well as ourselves.  Even if just for a moment.

#BlogElul 6: Want

54 years ago today, these words were spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, immediately before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

4 years ago today, I used those words as I addressed the San Antonio City Council to advocate for a non-discrimination ordinance to offer limited protection to veterans and LGBTQIA+ individuals.

I quoted Rabbi Prinz’s words:

“…Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

A few days later, when I shared my words again, standing with clergy from across denominations in San Antonio, I ended up on Texas Public Radio, the local ABC affiliate, and on the front page of the San Antonio Express News. While not everyone in my community was so pleased, my advocacy for the NDO (which eventually passed) is one of the acts that I am the most proud of. As I said then, “It is by my religion, that I am called, I am compelled, I am obligated, I am commanded, to support the rights of all human beings and to support the fight of those who are oppressed.”

Today, I used that same conviction to join again with faith leaders from across denominations, this time from across North America, for the Thousand Ministers March for Racial Justice.  Together with thousands of religious leaders, I stood and marched for a more just world.  Together, our voices sang out and shouted loud: What do we want? justice.  When do we want it? Now.

It seems like a simple desire.  Yet history shows that it’s a long path towards completion–and that we’re still walking that path.  And so, my conviction continues to continue to walk–towards the world that I want, and that I know that we can achieve.

In one of the most powerful moments of the day, Rabbi David Stern blew a shofar for the gathered marchers, as a call for us to “Get Woke,” as invited by April Baskin, a Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“Tekiah! Wake Up.  Tekiah! Wake from your slumber… Tekiah! Our nation needs to wake up from the fact that the the Rev Dr Martin Luther King’s vision of ‘I Have A Dream,’ as he so beautifully articulated in his speech, years ago, that it still largely remains an unrealized dream.”

Indeed, we all must wake up, so that we can someday awaken to the world that we want. In the meantime, we must wake towards the call to action to build that world.

Today, I joined others to take a small step towards that world.  Tomorrow, I hope to continue that work.  I’m not sure I know exactly what those steps will look like, but I know that we can build that world.

As I said 4 years ago, on the steps of San Antonio City Hall, it is our sacred obligation

“To support the fight against discrimination.  To work for righteousness in our city, our country and in our world.  To pursue legislation that is based not on prejudice, but on justice.”

As we heard today, to sing is to pray twice.  And so, I leave you with this music, written by Rabbi Menachem Creditor for his daughter, born shortly after 9/11.  And may these words both be a prayer, a collective vision, and a shared mission.

#BlogElul 5: Accept

There’s a sort of mantra I have with some friends: Good enough is good enough.  Sometimes, we need to accept things for what they are.  They’ll never be perfect, and that’s ok.  At some point, we need to realize that they are good enough to fulfill their purpose.

But there are other instances when we need to look around and reject what we see around us and determine to fix it–to perform the sacred tasks of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tikkun middot (repairing ourselves).

The question is: How do we know which to do when? When do we accept things the way they are and when do we keep working to make them better?

When do we step forth to do the work, even though we know we can never complete it (as we are taught in Pirkei Avot)? And how do we know when we’ve done all we can?

It’s a rough world out there–and the work is certainly not done.  I can accept that I need to keep working on it.  And I can accept that I need to keep working on myself.

I hope I can accept, and learn to accept, when small pieces of my life, and even of the world around me, are good enough–at least good enough for now.

#BlogElul 3 and 4: Prepare and Choose

I took of Friday night for Shabbat, so I’m catching up with a double BlogElul post.  And I as I mentally prepare for our opening faculty meeting tomorrow, preparation and choice are definitely on my mind, and as I see the on adjacent days of Elul themes, it strikes me as how connected they are.

In order to prepare, we must make choices.  AND, when we make a choice, we must prepare for that choice to become a reality, or for the consequences of that choice.

As a rabbi/educator, that is apparent this time of year: to prepare, I must make choices about curriculum, about the makeup of the faculty, about what books to use (which, for me, is only Hebrew books–our Judaics classes have no books), about where to put each class, about where to put each student.  And, based on many choices, I must prepare: teaching the teachers how to facilitate the curricula, working with veteran teachers and getting new teachers ready, making sure that the teachers have plenty of tools on hand to create learning experiences, making sure all of the classrooms are ready (thanks to the professionals and volunteers making that happen!), and reshuffling students when I realize someone needs to be moved.  And, as a rabbi starting to think about the High Holy Days, all of that is equally true.

I hope that tomorrow, I’m able to help the faculty navigate this same process of preparation and choice, as they get themselves and their classrooms ready to welcome new students. I hope that together, we’re able to continually navigate that process as neither preparation nor choice are one time occurrences.

How do you get ready?

How do you make choices?

How do the 2 come together for you?