Learning from Our Past, Building a Better Future

After returning this week from accompanying a group of our senior class to Washington, D.C., the political nexus of the United States, I remain in awe of DC as an educator’s playground. Within the vast National Mall one can weave in and out of educationally rich museums, historic monuments, moving memorials, and breathtaking sights. My most favorite places, especially as an educator, for many reasons has always been the Lincoln Memorial.

330px-Lincoln_Memorial
Wikipedia

Built in honour of the 16th President of the United States of America, Abraham Lincoln, the mammoth Greek temple style building houses a giant sculpture of a calm, kind and compassionate looking seated President. Lincoln is flanked by inscriptions of his well-known “Gettysburg Address” and his second Inaugural Address on the inner facades.

The steps of the memorial has been the site of many famous speeches, including probably the most recognized “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered by Martin Luther King Jr., a defining moment of the civil rights movement in America.  The gathering on August 28, 1963 drew an estimated 250,000 people in front of the iconic steps of the Lincoln Memorial and flanking the majestic Reflecting Pool.

What is less known is that moments before MLK delivered his historic speech, it was an american Rabbi —Rabbi Joachim Prinz who addressed the multitudes gathered.  In his stirring speech, he said:

March&JFK (2)“…it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Click here for an audio recording of part of Rabbi Joachim’s speech.

In one of her exceptionally brilliant discourses, Biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz, offers a compelling analysis of the role that exile plays in the history of the Jewish people.  

Professor Leibowitz refers to a number of Midrashim that regard the sufferings and the exiles of the Jewish people, not as punishment, but as a source of inspiration, one that serves a critical educational purpose.

Citing a host of pesukim (ex. Shemot 22:20 which declares that one must not wrong a stranger or oppress him), she attributes the reason for our many directives towards highly moral behavior to the fact that Jews must always remember that they were once strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt. All are lessons that the Jewish people were supposed to learn from their own bitter experiences in Egypt.  

In these weeks as we engage ourselves in the national introspective days of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron and national celebratory days of Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, may we be inspired to look inwards towards our national historic experiences AND act outwards with kindness and compassion towards a more moral and ethical society – לתקן עולם במלכות ש-די – towards a moral and ethical society in God’s Kingdom.

Chag Atzmaut Sameach!!

Advertisements

rEddie in Jerusalem

As I made my way towards the Old City of Jerusalem a stream of ambulances and police cars rushed by me, sirens blazing, down King David street. I knew something was up. I took in a deep breathe and exhaled: “Please, not again.”

Yesterday, the 10th of Tevet, marked the Hebrew date on which the Babylonians besieged the Jewish population in Jerusalem, a critical event on their way to destroying the 1st Temple over 2400 years ago.

In modern times it has been designated as “Yom Hakaddish Haklali,” the day on which Kaddish is recited for the holy martyrs of the Holocaust who left no survivors to say kaddish for them. This practice ensure that an unimaginable estimated 2,000,000 martyrs are not forgotten.

We also commemorates the death of Ezra the Scribe, who led the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from their Babylonian exile. Ezra also is known for enacting a number of visionary decrees, that are still in practice today, in order to save the Jewish people’s connection to Torah, which was in danger of being lost. The Talmud exalts Ezra’s leadership proclaiming:

“If the Torah had not been granted through Moses, it could have been granted to Israel through Ezra.” (Sanhedrin 21b)

I am visiting Israel this week on behalf of my school. My day yesterday in Jerusalem began and ended with prayers at the Kotel – our Holy Wall, a retaining wall of the Temple Mount that has survived over 2000 since the 2nd Temple. Always an awe-inspiring and humbling experience. A place where history and destiny meet. Where all walks of life are pulled in by its spiritually primed magnetic force.


It began and ended with visiting with some of our high school graduates studying in yeshivot and midrashot in Israel for the year from Montreal. I am continuously proud of their, and the thousands of others’, sincere motivation to learn Torah, their steadfast dedication to personal growth and unwavering commitment to deepening their Jewish heritage.

Sandwiched in between I made a pilgrimage to the grave of my beloved Rabbi Shmidman, zt”l, a gracious man OF Torah and OF Eretz Yisrael, a man OF truth and OF peace. He was a rarity in scholarship and of the sweetest of character. He is truly missed.

I was also caught in the collective horror after the local terrorist attack that has broken our hearts once again. Ad Matai – until when!

Photo courtesy of ynetnews.com

In the midst of this difficult day of mourning and tragedy, which was also filled with blossoming seeds of hope, I can’t help but connect the dots and reflect on the duality of how far we’ve come and yet how little has changed.

Our enemies come after us with all they have and are left with nothing. The Babylonians are gone, Nazi Germany is no more. The terroists have little to show for their own people and have contributed nothing to humanity in their efforts. Their existence, which became predicated on the destruction of others, has resulted in their own diminishmemt, if not disappearance. And we, albeit painfully, have come back stronger and stronger every time. Yes, the burden is all too often not shared equally, but we are ALL in this together.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the bereaved and we pray for a speedy recovery of the injured in today’s attack.

With God’s help, with a refined vision/mission-driven Jewish leadership, and with our undying hope in hand, we will continue to learn and spread the values of our Torah in our land and beyond. We will deepen our commitment to our heritage. And we will continue to grow and to prosper up to and including the days prophesized by our prophets:

So says the Almighty: The fasts of the fourth, fifth, seventh and tenth months will become joyful and glad occasions and happy festivals for Judah. Therefore, you shall love truth and peace. (Zachariah 8:19)

Amen.

Camp in the City, City at Camp – Mutual Benefits Through Effective Collaboration

camp-ilan-e1480437391461
Camp Ilan; screen capture YouTube.

This past summer, my family and I were Shabbat guests at Camp Moshava Ennismore. Just as the stars were coming out, we marched down to the synagogue, escorting out the Shabbat Queen together with the chanichim (campers) and tzevet (staff). All of a sudden, my soon-to-be six-year old son turned to me and uttered in the sweetest and most innocent of ways: “Abba, I wish it was Shabbos every day.”

With those unforgettable words ringing in my ears, I was left wondering, what is the essence of camp and how can we bring a little of that magic back to the city?

I grew up in camp. From city and sports day programs to 11 years as a sleepaway camper and staff member, camp offered the fondest of memories, experiences that helped shape my identity, and relationships that went deeper and beyond that “bridge to summer.” Back home, my friends and I obsessively reminisced about the previous summer during the first five months of the school year, and we devoted the next five months to enthusiastic anticipation of the next summer. Camp was exciting; camp was magical. In tribute to the iconic film Field of Dreams, in camp one can picture asking: “Is this Heaven?” “No, its [insert random country town here].”

After conducting hundreds of interviews of campers and former campers, psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson concludes in his book Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow that “many young people do not really know how strong they are, how competent they are or even who they are until they get away from their parents and test themselves in a new and challenging environment.” Thompson writes that many children told him the best thing about camp was, “I can really be myself here.”

As a city educator, I have often felt envious of camp educators. Its not enough for me that our students look forward and backward to that special camp feeling. I want them to have that feeling now and in the summer.

Summer camps are incubators for Jewish life. No matter what the activity, from baseball and boating to crafts and campfires, camp is a 24/7 immersion in Jewishness. This is the great limitation of city life. With all the distractions and pressures, how can we compete?

So, I set out to speak to the director of that same camp where I spent Shabbat, to see what we could learn from her and import into our school life. To my amazement, as I opened the conversation, she, who had been joining our high school minyan for several weeks reciting kaddish for her late father, commented that she was impressed with the decorum, rhythm, and engagement of our middle and high school students during tefillah, while at the same time she observed similar challenges in instilling inspiration during tefillah at camp. She was interested in putting our minds together on the issue of improving tefillah and perhaps other areas.

I was shocked. I was primed to import some of that camp magic into the city. Meanwhile, she wanted the same in the other direction. This was the first step toward partnership and mutual learning.

And why not? Why should I be shocked? We’ve worked hard to build strong tefillahhabits, moving toward more creative, educationally sound approaches for girls in an Orthodox setting. We are working toward more innovative, 21st century Judaic classrooms. We are helping to develop a growth mindset in our teachers, staff, and students. We work toward good habits of order, decorum, and limits. Why shouldn’t camp benefit from these things? Why shouldn’t we develop a common language?

We need to build educational bridges from camp to the city and from the city to camp and to create seamless transitions from one to the other, with each maintaining its uniqueness.

Bridge Building

Over the last few years we have seen examples of summer camp successfully invading the city. Examples such as Moshava Ba’ir Toronto and Camp Ilan (Montreal) bring into the city a taste of the summer camp atmosphere and are educationally aligned as well. My children attended both camps this summer, and it was amazing to see them sharing in the joy of unique camp cheers and dances with their cousins who attended Camp Moshava Ennismore. Our synagogue has taken this one step further by creating Camp Ilan @ TBDJ, where there is an overlap of counselors and youth leaders, as well as educational programming.

More “invasion” is needed. Schools, shuls, and community organizations could partner with camps to staff school Shabbatonim, programming, and trips with camp-trained and -branded educators. This bridge would contribute to activating a fluid expansion of camp energy and spirit into the city.

And it goes the other way as well. The best and most current educational practices can be transposed to camp. Setting clear learning goals, creatively assessing their effectiveness, and addressing differentiated learning methodologies could have tremendous benefit to camps. Inviting city educators more often to contribute to the camp in different ways would go a long way toward building that bridge.

Aligning Goals

Ultimately, the key to building that bridge is to ensure that our goals are aligned. Are we creating institutions where our students can fully be themselves? Are we creating supportive environments and opportunities where our students can discover who they are, Jewishly? Are we allowing them to explore their interests, to experience Jewish life, placing less emphasis on skills and more on kavanah?

Our schools could pay closer attention to the core strengths of camp, including, according to Dr. Thompson, the cultivation of imagination and creativity, elimination of judgment and unnecessary pressure, intentional character development, meaningful daily rituals, fostering of independence, self-esteem, and identity, building a social community, connecting with nature, mentoring, and leadership training.

And our camps can pay closer attention to the core strengths of our schools, including empowering the campers to develop their learning experience, building a social learning community that is committed to the betterment of the wider society, and participating in Jewish learning that is engaging and relevant – not only tomorrow but today.

We can certainly take these core focuses and intentionally transplant them from one to the other.

Good camps and good schools are authentic, spirited, meaningful, and fun. They are orderly, educationally innovative, and socially and emotionally supportive. Creating strong educational partnerships can allow each to be stronger.

As that Shabbat in camp ended, my son told me he didn’t want to ever leave. I so wanted to grant him his wish of Shabbos every day. I look forward to fruitful conversations with our camp director, and I believe together we can work toward making that happen.

Reposted from ejewishphilanthrapy

Drunk with Purim!

wineOne of the most puzzling and seemingly out of character demands imposed by our Rabbis is the one regarding drinking on Purim:

אמר רבא חייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי

Rava said: One is obligated to be drunk on Purim until he doesn’t know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai. (Megilla 7b)

Most often we find in the Torah, Prophets, Writings, Talmud, and later writings, that drunkenness is condemned, forbidden, and admonished against.  How could intoxication, which can lead to loss of self-control, alcohol addiction, transgression, weakened morality, and crime, be mandated by our sages?

The follow up story to this Talmudic statement, which some interpret less literally than others, leaves us further bewildered:

Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira made a Purim feast together. They drank, whereupon Rabbah arose and killed [lit. slaughtered] Rabbi Zeira. The next day, Rabbah pleaded for Divine mercy, and thereby brought Rabbi Zeira back to life. The next year, Rabbah said to Rabbi Zeira, “Come, let’s make a Purim feast together.” Rabbi Zeira said, “Miracles do not happen all the time.” (Megilla 7b)

What are we to make of drinking on Purim?  How drunk is drunk?  There are many approaches and many opinions.

Some rule that based on their understanding of the previous story and the possible consequences of inebriation that it is forbidden altogether to get drunk, including on Purim.  While others permit and obligate a person to get drunk to a degree.  The degree ranges from drinking the regular amount for a meal at which wine is served, to drinking to the point of intoxication, to the Rambam’s creative ruling that one drink until you sleep.

The final ruling as stated by the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema is the following (Orach Chaim 695):

Shulchan Aruch – A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’ Rema – There are those that say that one does not have to get drunk. Rather, he should drink more than usual (Kol Bo), and fall asleep. By sleeping he will not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’ (Maharil). Both the one who [drinks] a lot and the one who [drinks] a little [is praiseworthy] as long as his intention is for the sake of Heaven.

Now let’s look at this a little more deeply.

Perhaps one is to take this command literally, but not in the obvious way.  Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky,zt”l, in his Netivot Shalom (Purim 57-58), says that a person is obligated be drunk not “be’yayin” (wine), rather “be’puriah” with (PURIM)!  Meaning, a person must be so drunk with the ideas of Purim that he comes to the realization that somehow there is no difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.

Now, some people might need some help to get there, but one must never lose sight that the goal is not the wine.  Wine may be a tool, but it is certainly not the goal.

According to the Maharal of Prague, there are 3 relationships that a person must constantly work on to improve: 1. His relationship with God, 2. His relationship with his fellow man, and 3. His relationship with himself.  On Purim we are given the tools to work on these three areas in almost one fell swoop.

Sometimes a person feels a closer connection with God –the level of “blessed is Mordechai” – and sometimes a person feels more disconnected with God – the level of “cursed is Haman”.  Through the reading of the Megillah we are capable of reaching a level of ad de’lo yada that our connection with God, whether revealed or concealed, is ever-lasting and ever-present.  Whether in miraculous times or dark times, we are always connected with Hashem.  The Jewish people are constantly referred to as the children of God.  The son of the King remains so no matter how estranged he is from his father, so too the Jewish people, as difficult as life gets, are in constant connection with God.

We sometimes have friends who are on the level of “blessed is Mordechai”, and we, unfortunately, sometimes have friends who are on the level of “cursed is Haman”.  Through mishloah manot, we are able to rectify these different kinds of friends and bring the unity necessary of all Jews and humankind.  Under the most difficult of circumstances in the story of Purim, Esther commands Mordechai to go and gather ALL the Jewish people; “united we stand, divided we fall”.  Esther knew that the unity of the Jewish people was essential in order to prevail over Haman and his cohorts.  On Purim we can reach ad de’lo yada in this realm of life throughMishloach Manot.

Finally, Purim gives us the opportunity to work on our relationship with ourselves.  Purim is a time to focus on the “sur me’rah” (stay away from evil), through the mitzvah of erasing Amalek from our memories and from our midst and “aseh tov” (do good) through recommitting ourselves to Torah and service of God.  On Purim we can reach the level of ad de’lo yada where we can serve God while involved in purely spiritual matters and we can serve God while involved in the physical world.  There is no distinction.

On this Purim may we become, as Reb Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l, used to call, “Purim Jews”;  we reach the level of Ad de’lo yada, that we are so drunk with PURIM that we are at peace with ourselves, at peace with our friends and at peace with God.

L’chaim and Good Purim!

The Gift of One Year in Israel

IMG_2549

(First published on www.ha-mtl.org)

A primary role of the Jewish educator is to help his/her students to come home. Through engaging Jewish learning and meaningful Jewish experiences, students should be inspired to come home to who they are, connected to their past while looking forward to their future.  Each one discovering their uniqueness and how their will uniquely contribute to bettering this world.

One of the most fulfilling roles in my work as a Jewish educator is serving as the Israel Program Advisor at our school.  Part of my responsibilities is to open and guide the conversation with our seniors concerning spending their post-high school year studying in Israel. Together we discuss their hopes and their fears, their goals and their anxieties.  We discuss what a year in Israel could look like, what obstacles they would need to overcome, and what type of preparation they would need in order to succeed.

Their decision, made together with their family, is never an easy one. There are a number of important considerations including: academic, emotional, financial, cultural, and more.  For those who choose to go, their experience learning Torah in Eretz Yisrael, exploring the land, and interacting with its people proves to be a critical component to their day school education by solidifying, contexulalizing and completing it.

Every year I travel to visit with the students on their “turf” in their yeshiva, seminary or program.  There we discuss how they are doing, whether they were adequately prepared, whether they are overcoming their anticipated obstacles, and whether they are on route to achieving their goals.  We talk about their future plans and how they will reintegrate back in their home communities whether short term or long term.

I just came back from this year’s visit.  It was incredible to see the students flourishing each in their own way – learning, experiencing and bringing out the best in themselves.

In addition, it is no secret that this year’s security situation has brought a new dimension to their experience. I witnessed firsthand, an inspiring and professional group of program Rabbis, educators and staff.  Together with their students they have shown tremendous resilience and even more determination to make the most of their time in Israel, whether inside or outside the Beit Midrash.

I had the opportunity to visit Yeshivat Ashreinu, a wonderful and unique program, which sadly became more famous after the tragic murder of Ezra Schwartz, HY’D, earlier this year. The Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Gotch Yudin, is a model of principled leadership emanating from true Torah values. He has been guiding his students and staff valiantly through a most difficult of times.

Together with all the Montreal students, we went out to dinner for a mini reunion. There, in the heart of Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s Old City gates, we ate, schmoozed, laughed and reminisced. They were curious to know how the school was doing without them and how they can help with next year’s crop coming to Israel.  A few of the students shared meaningful divrei Torah and were all so grateful for this opportunity, for this gift.

Every year, my belief in the significance and importance of spending a year in Israel becomes strengthened, seeing our students at home with themselves in our nation’s home.