Thursday, December 10, 2009

Favoritism - Parashat VaYeshev - Shabbat Hannukah 1 2009

Standing in the lakeside Chadar Ochel (dining hall) I look over the room and see eager faces, eyes fixed, waiting to hear the message.  Seated in a large circle are those who are about to serve on staff for the first time, the overwhelming majority of whom are former campers.  I move through my opening pep talk, telling stories about why and how camp makes a difference, etc.  At some point, I arrive at the topic of the impact of staff members on campers, and among the questions I ask, two elicit the same responses annually:

"When you were campers, here or at another camp, how many of you knew that you were your counselor's favorite camper?"

There are sheepish, uncomfortable looks around the room as people decide whether or not they will raise their hands and identify themselves as the most loved or most liked.  The room is  silent.  As a few hands go up, the eyes of the owners of those hands usually drop to the floor, avoiding the penetrating gaze of their friends.  And then I ask the second question:

"How many of you knew that you were NOT your counselor's favorite?"

In the flash of an eye, lots of hands go up as the eyes of the self-identified "favorites" drop even farther toward the ground.  Whether or not they were actually "not the favorites," I point out that which I learned from Rabbi Bill Lebeau, at the time the dean of the Rabbinical School at JTS, namely "that the perception of a problem is a problem itself."  I invite both groups to look at one another and ask if people now fully understand the potential impact of the staff member on the camper.

Feeling a deeper connection with one person than another is unavoidable.  To claim otherwise is simply impossible.  We all have intimates, friends and acquaintances, people with whom we have different levels of connection.  And we have people that we don't like for a multitude of reasons, some legitimate and some not.  There are those avoided because they caused pain or embarrassment while others are avoided out of a fear that associating with a person may leave her out of the "popular" group.  We get to choose our friends, our levels of connection with them, and we even get to choose how we treat others, with all of the responsibility and consequences that come with those choices.

But choosing friends is different than choosing favorites.  And acting publicly on those different levels of connection is another thing entirely, as are the consequences for such actions.  The Torah repeats this lesson over and over again but never more powerfully than in the opening passages of this week's parashah:
וְיִשְׂרָאֵל, אָהַב אֶת-יוֹסֵף מִכָּל-בָּנָיו--כִּי-בֶן-זְקֻנִים הוּא, לוֹ; וְעָשָׂה לוֹ, כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים

וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו, כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו--וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ, אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ, דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם
בראשית ל"ז: ג - ד

And Israel loved Joseph more than all of his other sons - for he was the son of his old age...and he made him a multi-colored coat.  And his brothers saw this - namely that his father loved him more than all the other brothers - and they hated him could not speak a kind (or peacful) word to him.  Genesis 37: 3 - 4

In commenting on this verse, RashBam, Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir cuts right to the chase: "All of this caused the jealousy" between the brothers and Joseph.  Even if in his heart of hearts Jacob does love Joseph more - for whatever reason - he moves beyond just feeling something and acts on it.  He gives a special gift to one son, singling him out, leaving the others knowing the truth:  Dad loves him more...Rashbam's statement is based on a principle taught in the Babylonian Talmud, 10b, by Rabbah bar Mehasia who taught in the name of Rav Hama bar Gurya who taught in the name of Rav:

 לעולם אל ישנה אדם בנו בין הבנים שבשביל משקל שני סלעים מילת שנתן יעקב ליוסף יותר משאר בניו נתקנאו בו אחיו ונתגלגל הדבר וירדו אבותינו למצרים

"A person should never single out one child from among the others for it was precisely because of the two selah of silk more that Jacob gave to Joseph that his brothers were jealous, which grew into other things, and which resulted in our ancestors going down to Egypt."

Has your child ever come to you and told you that you love the other children, or child, more than you love him?  Or that they are certain that the other parent favors another child?  How do you respond? As parents, we need to constantly think about how our actions measure up to our heartfelt equal love of our children and how we make sure that each child gets the same measure of love even while that measure is delivered in a way that is tailor-made to the needs, interests and personalities of each child.

Because we know in our souls that we love each of our children deeply and equally, it can be easy to dismiss the questioning child.  After all, WE know that we love them equally.  But after our initial reaction, the question bears returning to, for our child is trying to tell us something about where they are at and what they need.  Granted, there are times when one child takes three cookies and the other child gets two cookies and child two mistakenly translates the math problem into a judgment about being loved less, or more.  In other cases, however, the child is sending us an important message and we should take the opportunity to reassess where we are on the meter of equal treatment - a quick check in so that we avoid the mistakes of the Jacob-Joseph-and his brothers relationship.

As we enter the colder, darker season of the year, this is a good time to reassess how we handle all of our interactions - places where we may show favoritism and not even know it.  I hope that we can all question ourselves and answer honestly.  And once we do, perhaps we can all be more careful in avoiding the pitfalls of favoritism, learning from the mistakes of our ancestors rather than replicating them.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameach/Happy Channukah. 

Channukah - G-DCast Style

This is another fascinating animated short from the folks at G-DCast.  This time they take on the topic of Channukah.  The entry is fascinating and challenging.  Share your thoughts here.  Yasher Koah to Sarah Lefton and her gang in creating this fascinating modern midrash!

A Gift from Senator Orrin Hatch on Erev Hanukkah

Honestly, I am not sure what to do with this, nor do I think it will replace Adam Sandler's Hannukah song but it is fascinating to me that a Mormon Senator from Utah wrote a modern Hannukah song.  Enjoy, and let me know what you think:

Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Michael Steinhardt on Jewish Innovations and the Organized Jewish World

While I have mixed feelings about what Michael Steinhardt has to say on one level, on another, I completely agree with his argument. The source of my concern comes from the praise of birthrightIsrael as THE success he claims it to be. Nonetheless, his argument is compelling for the need to find a new way to do business in our world. The absence of any suggestion as to how is obvious but it does not negate the accuracy of his claim. It is for us, those who work in the field, to find new, smart ways to touch the souls of Jews around the world in meaningful ways. I invite your comments and meaningful suggestions after you watch Michael Steinhardt!

Friday, November 20, 2009

Struggle - Toledot 2009

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

Groucho Marks

This is one of my favorite quotations of all time. With these few words, Groucho summarizes some of the truths of the human condition: we are inconsistent, we develop, we change; we live in tension between competing values, expectations, demands; and sometimes, we are pained by the contradictory opinions and beliefs that we hold at the same time, struggling to decide which ones we should follow, strengthen, or abandon at any given moment. At times, it hurts to live in two very different ideas - we don't know what to do, we look for answers. We cry out for help and for the ease of consistency, probably knowing that it will never come. And sometimes we just give up.

The struggling of two boys in the womb, Jacob and Esau, is so painful to Rivka that she goes to either "inquire of God," "demand of God," or "supplicate to God" to try and understand why this is happening to her. These two beings compete inside their mother, literally trying to crush one another. The classic midrash on this verse explains that the movement and struggle would get particularly intense whenever Rivka would pass either a Beit Midrash - a House of Study - or a place of Idol Worship. In the first case, Jacob would try to get out of the womb to go and study Torah while in the second case, Esau would try to rush out to get access to the place of idol worship. How could two so very different children exist inside one womb? In this midrash, which influences many of the commentaries that follow, there is a clear "good choice" and a clear "good son" and a clear "bad choice" and a clear "bad son."

Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezhovski, the Slonimer Rebbe, in the spirit of the midrash I just mentioned, understands the word "sons" in this verse to represent thoughts, specifically good and evil thoughts, pure thoughts and abominable thoughts. The pain that Rivka feels, in the eyes of the Slonimer Rebbe, grows out of the existence of both inclinations, thoughts, inside her. She is a righteous woman - how can she tolerate impure thoughts within her and how can they coexist with goodness? In such a narrative understanding, there must be a clear winner, the good must prevail, and not just for the short term but for the transmission of the blessing and the future fulfillment of Divine promises.

In the world in which we live, however, things are almost never black and white. At best, they are varying shades of gray and we constantly struggle with competing values: environmentalism and convenience; egalitarianism and critical mass; eco-kashrut and expense; universalism and particularism. And when the principles come into conflict, it is just painful, almost paralyzing because we want to do the right thing or we want to do what is best for us even if the consequences of that choice will negatively impact another. What I find more and more often, however, is that the internal struggles are not about good and bad but about competing principles and values where there is no clear good or right but nuances and trade-offs. That is not to say that there are not things that are clearly "bad." There are. But the next time you find yourself being critical of a choice that you know someone made, try to understand the internal competition and pain the other person went through in coming to that decision. You might just learn that it is not as simple or as clear as you thought.

And when the tensions and challenges of living with different principles becomes to great, we scream out "Why me?" While there may be little comfort in the answer that it is not just you, God's answer to Rivka implies that this is normal, that we do live with internal contradictions, that we struggle with ourselves - and that as long as we stay the course and engage honestly in our thinking, then we will make the right decision, the good will triumph, and we will grow as a result.

Shabbat Shalom.

Parashat Toldot 2009

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Parashat Toldot - Senior Sermon Notes from Rafi Lehmann z"l

The following words of Torah were to be shared this week by our friend and teacher Rafi Lehmann, zikhrono livrakha, who tragically died so recently. Even in his absence he continues to teach us Torah. May we all learn from his example. Thank you to Rafi's father, Rabbi Allen Lehmann for sharing Rafi's words with us.

Growing up in Florida, even the biggest hill in my hometown of Gainesville seemed quite insignificant in hindsight. It was a late summer morning in Northern Jerusalem, and I had just arrived the day before on a group flight with forty plus university students from all over the North American continent. We were up early with the sun after being awoken by the crow of a nearby rooster. I was living in the French Hill neighborhood in student dormitories at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Feeling a little bit jetlagged a few of the other newcomers and I began our trek to campus to get ourselves registered for Summer Ulpan and became better acquainted with what I would soon regard as the big scary monster of Israeli bureaucracy.

Gradually, as a group, we climbed up the Churchill Boulevard, a World War I cemetery on our left and a pristine, glistening view of Jerusalem on the right—it was really quite distracting. Once arriving on the campus we walked to the Rothberg International School building and began the registration experience. By the time we finished it was lunchtime and asked the folks in the Rothberg building if they had any recommendations for lunch. Without missing a beat, we were directed to the Frank Sinatra Cafeteria—a cafeteria-style eatery with all kinds of a la carte Israeli specialties. A group of a dozen American students that arrived on the group flight the day before sat together in the corner of the dining hall. The food was good and rather filling, we happened to see the representative from the New York office that escorted us on the group flight having a cup of coffee with a friend, we bid her a pleasant afternoon and we were on our way to set up our campus emails.

It was there when it happened. An earth shattering noise that sent car alarms blaring. After a bit of confusion, it soon became clear that the noise was an explosion and about an hour later I was informed that the bombing occurred in the very cafeteria in which I stood only ten minutes earlier.


I don’t share this story with you out of a heartfelt desire to gain sympathy for a difficult experience that I went through, rather upon first reading this week’s parashah, Parashat Toledot, a particular piece of its narrative stuck out for me and it’s a thought that I remember exclaiming to myself that afternoon at Hebrew University. Very early on in the parashah, we encounter Rivka Emeinu in the midst of what could only be characterized as a difficult pregnancy. Genesis 25:22 reads, “V’yitrotzatzu habanim b’kirba”—“And the children struggled together inside of her.”—she was having twins. Now, this is interesting and certainly chomer l’drush-as Rashi would even say in so many words- in and of itself. But I’m more interested in the second half of the verse. The text goes on, “va’tomer, im kayn, LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?!”—“If it is so, why me?” Why is this happening to me? The 12th century biblical exegete, Avraham ibn Ezra, understood this to be a question asked by Rebecca and being addressed to other women—if they had experienced similar travails while pregnant themselves, and their answer is a resounding no. Ibn Ezra taught that Rebecca’s response should be read as follows: “If pregnancy is generally experienced differently than the way that It is occurring to me, why is my pregnancy different?” (hey’rayon m’shuneh)

Ibn Ezra, without question exposes us to a very contextual, p’shat, text-based reading of the verse. But I want to approach this question that Rebecca is asking from a different perspective altogether. I’m not convinced that Rebecca’s question is purely a scientific one—far from it. Rather, Rebecca’s question strikes at the very core of her being, her very existence. In the Zohar, from the section entitled “Midrash Ha’Ne’elam” we learn that Rebecca’s question should be understood to mean, “lamah nivrayti?” or “Why was I created?”

“Why is this happening to me?” is one of life’s questions that many of us ask ourselves during trying times. It almost never has associated with it an easy answer. However, when asking such profound, deeply existential questions, it is rarely the “answers” that prove to be the most revelatory—at times, merely getting to the source, the heart of the question proves to be truly transformative and perhaps even “life-changing.” It could boil down to the question of what is my purpose, my motivation, my very role in this seemingly complex web of a universe in which I find myself.

I find Rebecca’s next move in the saga to be meaningful and quite instructive and it has helped me on my own life journey. The Torah teaches us that immediately following the matriarch’s deep question of “Why me?!”, the text goes on with “Vataylekh l’drosh et Adonai”—“And she went to go seek guidance from God.” At this difficult, and self-definitional time, after having asked the all-important question, Rebecca seeks out God, the Source of Life, in order to better understand her purpose, perhaps even to seek out support from the one called “El Rachum v’Hanun.” Again, it is important to emphasize that she is not necessarily in search of answers, justifications, or a rationale for her excruciating situation.

It is exactly those trying moments when we yearn for proximity to the Force in the universe that we understand to be larger than ourselves. There is a desire to transform the chaotic, unintelligible present with an ordered discernable future.

That extremely difficult summer afternoon, and the days, weeks, and months that followed it led me to be a “doresh haShem”—a seeker, in an unquestionably deeper manner than I had experienced before that moment. In a sense, that “drishah” took place much more within than “without.” I have to admit, initially on an emotional level, I wanted answers—who was responsible? How could this happen? What could motivate a human being to be capable of such blatant hatred of the “other” to the extent that a heinous act like this was even possible!? Once the initial emotional, and even a bit exasperated response calmed a bit, it became an opportunity for heshbon nefesh and a genuine chance to reflect quite personally and confront life’s big questions: “what’s my purpose,” “what’s the very nature of my existence”… “LAMAH ZEH ANOKHI?”—The likes of which we so instructively observe Rivka pursuing in our parashah.

Master of the Universe, help us to embrace opportunities to reflect upon and better understand what it is that gives our lives purpose, direction, and a seep sense of meaning. While we will almost certainly encounter “birth pangs” in the process, grant us the strength and courage to prevent them from becoming stumbling blocks on our respective journeys.


Friday, November 6, 2009

Welcoming and Comforting - Parashat Vayera

My intention this week was to write exclusively about the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim - welcoming guests - as the key to the future of successful Jewish institutions. The last twenty-four hours, however, have shifted my attention from hachnassat orchim to halvayat hamet - the mitzvah of burying the dead. In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a, we are taught that among all the mitzvot:

These are the actions whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principle remains intact for her or him in The World to Come, and they are: Honoring your parents; acts of lovingkindness; early attendance at the house of study for shaharit and ma’ariv; showing hospitality to guests; visiting the sick; providing for the bride; escorting the dead; absorption in prayer; bringing peace between two people; and the study of Torah is equivalent to all of them...

The Talmud focuses on a variety of mitzvot and uses investment language to describe the benefits that fall to the person who performs them. When the Talmud talks about enjoying “the fruits in this world” and the “principle remaining intact in the World to Come,” the imagery is as if we are building an investment fund made up of our actions, our doing mitzvot, the interest from which we benefit today while retaining the principle, letting it grow, so that we can benefit from it in The World to Come. Think of it like an Olam Ha’Bah (World to Come) Roth IRA.

While there is an implication that some may perform these mitzvot precisely to build up there Other Worldly credits, either inflating their own personal stock or offsetting other less than worthy deeds, I don’t think the Talmud is actually talking to them. Rather, the Talmud is describing the character of a person who is constantly and intentionally working to make this World a better place. They do so not in order to gain reward at all, as described in Pirke Avot, but because they are called to do it, to repair this World in both joyous and difficult moments: Welcoming guests, showing hospitality, making another feel comfortable, at home, in what could be an otherwise uncomfortable situation - being a stranger in a community; Escorting the dead, part of Hesed shel Emet - the ultimate in true compassion for it cannot be repaid - includes the act of burial and the act of comforting mourners at the most difficult of times. Those engaged in these acts on a regular basis never seek out recognition, nor are they motivated by it. They do it because it should be done.

The world of Jewish institutions and organizations must focus anew, in a near zealous way, on the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim - showing hospitality and welcoming guests. As people seek to connect, there is a chance to welcome them, to make them feel a part, to show them the warmth and love of communities devoted to Torah. We need to take an honest inventory of how we are doing in our performance of this crucial mitzvah. Those who do it well will not only survive these challenging times but will thrive into the future. Those who do not will limp along with what they have but will slowly disappear as they fail to attract newcomers. Without doing welcoming well, we cannot inspire people with our incredible visions or ideas. They don’t stick around long enough to hear what we have to say because our first message is, unintentionally, “We are not interested.” Thinking about the summer, we need to challenge ourselves to do the same honest inventory I am talking about, to examine how we are doing at welcoming new campers, new staff members, and the myriad of visitors, from potential camper parents to families of campers and staff members, to Jewish professionals from throughout the region. We have to be open to learning, to adapting, and to improving on what we do. And not just because we want to be around and thriving in the future but because it is the right thing to do.

Listening to NPR this morning while dropping the girls off at school, the reports of the mass murder at Fort Hood in Texas were chilling. One reporter noted that it is often the case that we learn much about the murderer immediately but that we may wait at length to learn about the victims, if we ever learn more than their names at all. How do we participate in halvayat hamet - in escorting the dead - when we live so far away? What can we do to be nihum aveilim - to comfort those who mourn? There will be names and addresses soon and we can contact people and extend our words of comfort to those that do not know us. And there are many other ways to comfort those who are struggling with understanding how something like this happens in this world while they grieve the loss of loved ones.

One other way we can acknowledge the loss of these brave soldiers, those who were preparing to head off to Iraq and Afghanistan, is to acknowledge those soldiers we see who were not attacked at Fort Hood but who walk through our airports and communities everyday. If the Psalmist is correct - “Lo HaMeitim Y’Hallelu Yah” that it is not “the dead who sing Halleluyah,” then we can extend comfort to those who continue to serve in this World. Rather than focusing on outrage at the perpetrator, deserving though he is, supporting the victims and the soldiers serving in the US military is not only the ultimate in protest but it is a form of eternal and truthful Hessed. I will be in the airport again on Wednesday, heading to Kansas City for recruitment meetings, and am certain that I will see many soldiers making their ways either home or back to base and deployment. What will I do to support them and show some comfort to them?

Many communities have proclaimed this Shabbat one in which to focus on Hachnassat Orchim in the spirit of Abraham, who in this week’s parashah demonstrates why he and Sarah are the consummate performers of hachnassat orchim. There are excellent resources available from The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Washington DC about this crucial mitzvah and they can be accessed at . While we rejoice this Shabbat and try to match the level of excellence in welcoming guests that Sarah and Abraham display, we must also be reflective about the implications of yesterday’s tragedy in Fort Hood and find ways to participate in the comforting of distant mourners. In focusing on both of these mitzvot, we all help move this world a bit closer to becoming The World to Come, where nobody will feel like a stranger and where mass, senseless murders will be replaced with ever increasing and abounding Love.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Parashat Noah 2009

“Blast from the Past” was a movie about a family that entered a home-made bomb shelter in the 1950’s or 1960’s and never came out. As far as they knew, the world was destroyed and leaving the shelter would lead to radiation exposure and death. For this family, the “command” to leave the bomb-shelter would only come at the moment dictated by the amount of time it would take for the radiation to dissipate. Fast forward several decades: the time for a safe and healthy exit from the bomb shelter arrives and the parents send their son, now an adult, out to see what he can find.

Of course, there never was a nuclear attack or meltdown, there was no radioactivity, and while the world of the 1950’s was long gone, it was replaced by progress and not “the bomb.” The son emerges into a new and exciting world with great trepidation. Honestly, I do not remember whether the movie was very good or particularly funny, but I do remember that the re-entry into the wold was filled with potentially hysterical and treacherous possibilities. I also remember that when I watched the film, I realized that I was watching modern cinematic midrash on parashat Noah.

Noah enters the biblical-era equivalent of the 1950’s bomb shelter. Radiation caused by humanity is not the vehicle by which destruction arrives; rather, flood waters sent by God but caused by humanity’s violence and corruption rain destruction on the earth. While the characters in the movie do not stock up on pairs of animals, they do have to put aside large quantities of supplies in order to live through the radioactive years and then to work to re-populate the earth. Similar to the arrival of the date in the movie when radiation no longer posed a threat to life and allowed for the family to leave the bomb shelter, the day arrived for Noah when the floodwaters receded, when it was safe to come out onto dry land.

Interestingly enough, once Noah knew that the waters receded, that the land was dry and that it was safe to emerge, he did not leave. He stayed in the ark. He waited. It is easy to imagine how frightened Noah must have been. The world as he knew it was destroyed. It no longer existed. Not only that but once he did go out of the safety of his floating home, nothing short of the obligation to rebuild, re-populate, and re-imagine the entire world rested on Noah’s shoulders. So, Noah remained in the confines of his Ark, with his family, and the animals. He stayed in cramped quarters that I have to imagine were not so pleasant, but were safe and familiar and... easy. While in the Ark, Noah could maintain his regular routine, make very small changes to ease life, and avoid facing up to the new reality he would encounter outside the Ark.

In fact, Noah only left the ark when he was commanded by God:

“צא מין התבה”

“GET OUT OF THE ARK.” God’s voice demands Noah to wake up, to get out, to see the New World not with fear and trepidation but with possibility, excitement and creativity.

“GET OUT! ALL OF YOU, GO OUT OF YOUR SAFE PLACE!” God’s demand is not just of Noah but of everyone and everything with him in the Ark.

“GO AND FILL UP THIS NEW WORLD!” God gives permission to Noah, commands of him, to create a new reality, a New World

Like the family in the movie, our world was not destroyed nor was everything washed away by a flood of Biblical proportions. But, we do face a new reality in the Jewish world. Whether we like it or not, our world is different today than it was before the onset of the financial meltdown. And those organizations, ideas, programs, etc that survived the initial meltdown may not be those that ultimately survive. I believe that the Jewish World faces one of the most exciting and daunting opportunities in decades. But to succeed, we must be willing to leave the Ark of comfort in the past. We must ask difficult, critical questions about ourselves and our institutions, about our ideologies and our programmatic approaches, about our values and our agendas, about our prior objectives and those of our future. Moreover, we have to be willing to accept different answers than those of the past.

In this new reality, exceptionally strong, historically successful organizations will survive and thrive. They will remain fiercely devoted to a set of core values and vision and at they same time they continually stress innovation, creativity, and adaptation - the same approaches , I might note, that insured that Judaism and the Jewish People would survive thousands of years of ongoing displacement and persecution. They will not rest with the status quo. They will exit the ark, see the changed landscape and plant new vineyards of ideas and programs that will flourish in the newly fertilized soil.

What would have happened to Noah and his family and all those on the ark if they never left? What if they never heard the call from God? What if they simply ignored it? Starvation and dehydration, misery, disease, death, and the end of the experiment that God started with Creation would have been their fate. For those in the Jewish world unwilling to leave the ark, the consequences will be similarly dire: they will lead to individual and organizational extinction. Those parts of the Jewish world that tinker around the edges, that refuse to openly and fully re-imagine and re-invent themselves, those that become stultified, or those that abandon their core values for the fadish or trendy, will limp along until they disappear.

As for me, I am an optimist. The new landscape we see is exciting and refreshing, invigorating and redemptive. I am fortunate to be part of an institution that sees this bright future and is investing in it. Ours is an incubator for the future of the Jewish People, for our ongoing relationship and dialogue with Torah and with God, and for new approaches to learning and living based on values that have been central to Ramah since its outset.

This Shabbat, we all have a chance to exit the ark. Will we? And when we do, what will we allow ourselves to see and imagine? Will we be moved to create the next new world of Jewish opportunity? Noah did and we live as beneficiaries of his efforts. We owe it to the next generation to do the same.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 2, 2009

In Memory of Rafi Lehmann z"l

I still remember the crux of the conversation with my friend Heidi after the death of one of our classmates from high school. I was sitting in my dorm room on the phone with her, and with the high level of wisdom that only a sophomore or junior in college could muster, I tried to comfort Heidi with a wide range of theological and philosophical explanations for why this tragedy had come to pass. I don’t remember what illness struck down our friend; I do remember trying to find intellectual words of comfort to respond to a soulful crisis. As I got older, and added at least a little humility and thoughtfulness to my quiver of skills, I came to realize just how vain and foolish my theological-intellectual response was. The arrow I shot probably hit the bulls-eye. The problem was that I was shooting the wrong arrow at the wrong target in the first place.

I have been thinking about that conversation with Heidi a lot the last few days. Despite the fact that the phone call, and the death, took place over twenty years ago, the questions that spurred that call never stopped coming. And since Tuesday midday, they have come back with a special ferocity:

“How could such a terrible thing happen to such a great person?”

“Why did God take him?”

“How could God do this to such a wonderful family?”

The question of “Tzaddik v’Rah Lo” or “The Righteous Soul who suffers,” Theodicy, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, is as old as eternity itself. And I have been seeking words to give as an answer since Tuesday, and since I was in college, and since I was a camper. On Tuesday, a person with the soul of a Tzaddik, a true anav - a humble servant of God, a friend and staff member at Ramah Darom, Rafi Lehmann died. He was a few months shy of 28 years old. A month ago, Rafi fell and broke several bones. A chain of events started leading to a spiraling decline, the ICU, unconsciousness, and death. All of us who knew Rafi were and continue to be devastated.

We search for words to express our own sadness; and more words to try and explain this tragedy, to make sense of living in a world where something like this happens; and we search for words to comfort Rafi's incredible family - his parents, Rabbi Allan and Joanne, his brother, Elie, and others - and for his future, Sara Beth - and for his closest friends. And none come, at least none that are adequate. Our tradition gives us words, a script of sorts, to use for circumstances, circumstances where words do not come easily: "Barukh Dayan HaEmet" or "Blessed is the True Judge" and "HaMakom Yenachem Etchem B'Toch Sha'ar Avelei Tziyyon v'Yerushalayim" or "May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." They are ways to open or close conversations when words are difficult to come by. They are mantras, repeated over and over during the transmission of awful news and during the process of mourning. They do not bring about magical healing. They do, however, provide openers and closers. And whatever emotions they elicit from the recipient - anger, sadness, wailing, sobbing, talking, and or silence - are the right ones, no questions asked. Like all other words in these circumstances, they are insufficient, but they are a starting point.

Sitting at Rafi's home in Boston yesterday, I was thinking a lot about possible ways to answer the e-mails and the facebook chat inquiries asking about Tzaddik v'Rah Lo, the tragedies of the righteous. There will be a time for theological discussions with those who are asking but it is not now. Now is the time to remember Rafi. The gap in the world, in the hearts of all those who love Rafi, will not be filled again by those words nor will those discussions bring Rafi back to us. The best I can do for myself is to try and make sure that the gap left by Rafi's departure from this world is filled by remembering him, what he tried to do, the lives that he touched and the legacy of Torah and Ma'asim Tovim - Good Deeds - that he left (as we were reminded by the teachings of Rabbi Danny Lehmann between Mincha and Ma'ariv last night).

Of the countless memories of Rafi at Camp Ramah Darom, where he spent ten summers, three stand out in my mind:

Our entering ninth grade theme for Yahadut learning at Ramah Darom focused on "friends, relationships and sexual relations in the Jewish tradition." Campers were offered a menu of different courses from which to choose. Rafi wanted to teach a traditional text class on Shir HaShirim - The Song of Songs. Lots of people told me not to bother offering the course as nobody would sign up for it. They were wrong. I still see a group of four or five campers, all kinds of kids (lest you think it was just the "serious kids") sitting in the Bet Midrash at Ramah Darom at a round table "shteigging" through the text with Rafi. Absent were the giggles that one might expect from adolescent males studying a text that is filled with romantic and erotic imagery. In place of those giggles was a serious discussion about relationships that grew out of a Biblical text made relevant by a compelling soul, by Rafi.

Rafi was a wonderful ba'al tefillah - literally though poorly translated as "owner of prayer" - and often led Kabbalat Shabbat and other services at Camp. He enveloped himself in his tallit, resting it over his head, and truly owned the words he sang as he served as our shaliah tzibbur. In his humble way, his voice channeling his sweet soul, Rafi represented us all beautifully to the Kadosh Barukh Hu - The Holy Blessed One.

Finally, there were several summers that Rafi and Benjie Ackerman, his dear friend, would come back to camp from days off with sticker photos of the two of them that would end up on my walkie-talkie and on the walkie-talkies of other members of the senior staff of camp. Rafi and Benjie were characters at camp, characters in the best sense of the term. Their simhat hayyim, their joy of life, was contagious and they connected to the broadest array of people. You couldn't see them and not smile or laugh. Rafi was one of the people that had Torah and the ability to make it real to so many different kinds of people because he could connect to them where they were at AND infuse the conversation with Torah places that they COULD visit. While both Rafi and Benjie had independent personalities at camp, the indelible image is of the two of them bringing fun and Torah and God to people in camp.

Rafi's legacy is and will be seen in the future by the generations of people that he touched in school, in life, and in camp, as the compelling teacher who attracts students from the broadest spectrum of interests, as the sweet, humble voice of the community, and as the neshamah who connected deeply with the people he encountered. You can see his legacy in the constant stream of testimonials to Rafi that appear in people's status updates on facebook and you can hear it in the voices of those he touched.

If I had any words, I wish I had those that would bring Rafi back to us. But I don't. The world truly is a lesser place because of Rafi's death. And our community is lesser because of his loss.

I wish I was in touch with Heidi these days. She taught me one of the most important lessons a young, not yet in rabbinical school, future rabbi could learn. It is a lesson that I wish, in the deepest corner of my soul, I never had to use.

Entering this Shabbat and Holiday, I know that I will be thinking about Rafi a lot and will be sending thoughts and prayers of love and nechama to his mother, Joanne Schindler, his father, Rabbi Allan Lehmann, his brother, Elie, his fiance, Sara Beth Berman.

T'hey Nishmato shel Rafael Peretz Ben Chana V'HaRav Aleksandr Shabbtai tzrurah b'tzror hachayyim...

Please God, may the Memory of Rafi Lehmann be bound up in the bonds of Life.

Y'hey Zikhro Barukh...

His Memory is and will always be a Blessing to All of us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

דבר אחר - Another Thought on the Parashah.

For those of you who do not read Amichai Lau-Lavi's blog, it is one that you should add to your list of weekly Torah thoughts. Amichai is thoughtful, provocative, knowledgeable and creative. This week, he writes about the same wedding I was at. You can read his thoughts on witnessing at:


I am doing a lot of standing these day: at bus stops, on buses, in the office, at home. I am not sure if I am really more aware of things and more focused when I am standing up as opposed to sitting down but I certainly feel that I am. Here is just a short list of places I found myself standing this week:

I stood at a bimah to lead Shabbat Mincha in Deerfield where we spent Shabbat celebrating the bar mitzvah of a current Ramah in Wisconsin camper, the son of a former camper of mine, now a personal friend, and her husband, also an incredible guy, with whom I used to play basketball in the Stone Gym at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

The next day, I stood on a bimah in Brooklyn New York to co-officiate at the wedding of Naomi Less and her husband, Glenn Grossman. I found myself standing in modern day New York experiencing a back to the future moment, dropping back into the '70s for at least a few hours.

Standing on the bus, I enjoyed a beautiful view of Lake Michigan in the afternoon as we rode Lake Shore Drive back to our new home in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. I was engrossed in a book when another passenger exclaimed, "Wow! Look at how blue the lake is today." Until that moment, I was totally oblivious and would have missed the lake entirely were it not for this other stranger.

Walking on Michigan Avenue on Tuesday afternoon, I found myself in a throng of people willing to stand for hours and hours in order to join in the celebration of the opening of Oprah's 24th season (When I was in High School, our marching band drove all the way down to perform at what I believe was her first show - then again, my memory could be as accurate as all those who were "there" when Willie Mays made that amazing catch in center field.)

On Wednesday evening, I was standing in the hallway at the Chicagoland Jewish High School for Parent's Night trying to figure out how it could be possible that Elan is a freshmen in high school when he was just a little baby curling up like a bug on my shoulder.

Today, I remember standing in a hotel lobby with other Ramah Directors, employees of New York Life and countless others, in Westchester County, New York, watching the Twin Towers burning and collapsing, taking with them thousands of innocent lives, at the hands of terrorist-piloted planes.

Where will I be standing tomorrow?

Standing is an essential theme of this week's combined parshiot, Nitzavim-Vayelekh, literally "Standing" and "He Went" or more figuratively "Standing and Going." The Torah tells us that WE are "...standing today, all of you before the Lord YOUR God..." Actually, the Torah says "You" are doing the standing, but it is clearly talking to each of us individually and to the collective You that is the Jewish People. This understanding is reinforced by the statement later in the parashah that the statements are directed at the entirety of our people, those who were standing at that place at the moment in time and those who were not there, the future. Standing requires a greater attentiveness, an alertness. It can force us to be in the moment in a way that I find sitting doesn't always do.

Have you been attentive to where you are standing with? With whom you have been standing? Are you noticing what is going on around you? Are you aware and in the moment? Maybe. Maybe not.

We are standing on the brink of the New Year. Rosh HaShanah is around the corner. Tomorrow night, many of us will go to synagogue to join in the tradition of reciting Selihot - penitential prayers - for the period immediately preceeding Rosh HaShanah. And much of that time will be spent standing up. What will you be thinking about? Will you try to be more aware of yourself? More aware of and sensitive to others?

I know that as I continue to adjust to new surroundings, new people, new places, new roles and some new goals, I will spend much of my time during the Yamim Noraim trying to figure out where I stand with myself, with my family, with others and with God. I pray to be more aware of it all and more intentional in my standing with all of them. I wish the same for all of you.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

This is an incredible video of Sam Cordell's Bar Mitzvah at Camp Yofi. The Cordell's are a wonderful and special family. As of now, children who reach the age of 13 age out of Camp Yofi. It is my next dream, mission, to create the post-Yofi graduate program. Anyone interested in helping make this dream come true - financially, with work, or with time - should please let me know. Even as a child with autism reaches 13, the need for community, for respite, for support, for Jewish connection, does not disappear either for the family or for the child. Help us do more! Thanks.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Camp Yofi Shabbat

In so many ways, this was a celebration like any other synagogue celebration. There was the passing of the Torah, aliyot, blessings, the presenting of certificates and gift prayer books. Parents and friends smiled as they watched their children take the Torah and make it their own. There were “Mazal Tovs” and “Yasher Koah’s” and abundant joy. And yet, nothing could be less ordinary or more special than this group of bar and bat mitzvah boys and girls and their families. This is Thursday morning at Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism and for many of these families, this ceremony marks something that some thought was impossible: public celebration of the life of a child with autism in the Jewish community.

Several years ago, at the first Camp Yofi, one family told us about being asked by their rabbi not to return to the synagogue anymore. Why? Their child liked to be too close to the Torah! Can you imagine that?! Isn’t it the dream of every Jewish educator and leader that a child will want to be close to the Torah, physically and spiritually? And yet, this child’s desire was too much for the rabbi. The family left the synagogue. I don’t know if they ever found another regular shul but for at least that one summer, they had Camp Yofi, where their child could be close to the Torah and nobody would push him away. All that they congregants would do was was smile and cry.

On Thursday, multiple b’nai mitzvah were celebrated and each child took the Torah, held it for a minute and then passed it onto the next child. They didn’t hold a stuffed Torah or a toy Torah and nobody gasped at the idea that a child with a special need would be given a Torah. Some of the children not only held the Torah...they hugged the Torah – tight, loving, protective hugs – and they knew what they were doing and they cared. Two of the Yofi camper’s had the most incredible smiles on their faces – angelic – as though God’s Divine Presence was hugging and loving them back.

As it was Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new month of Elul, there were four aliyot for the Torah reading. Four Yofi campers had aliyot. They held the tzitzit, they held the atzei Hayyim, they said the berachot and they listened intently while one of the parents read the Torah. One of the campers led the first two lines of Shma in Hebrew and another campers sang the translation of Shma in English with the traditional melody. Finally, one camper came up to the front, standing tall, and opened the ark to reveal Torah to the community. At the end of the service, one of the Yofi campers with the biggest smiles holding the Torah came up as the ark was closing and asked if he could kiss the Torah one last time! As he leaned into the ark to adorn our Torah with love, tears welled up again in the eyes of everyone.

Over the years, numerous Camp Yofi families have told stories of congregational meetings where they were told that if their child with autism could not do everything that a typical child could do, if they could not “perform” at that level, then they could not have a bar or bat mitzvah at that synagogue. The typical explanation given was that if an exception was made for this child, then families whose children had soccer practice and ballet practice and “God-only-knows-what-else practice” which made it impossible for them to devote the time necessary to learning about their heritage would request a special exception citing the child with autism as the basis for their request. It seems to me that if a family ever did make such a comparison and request, the problem facing the rabbi and the congregation was not about the exception but was about the soccer family or something far deeper. Either way, citing someone else’s soccer practice as a reason to deny a child with autism the opportunity to have a modified ceremony, as though the two are in any way equal, is as abhorrent as it is absurd.

When families with children with autism are denied the opportunity to have a bar or bat mitzvah modified to meet the needs and abilities of that child, when they are given an all or nothing option that is not realistic for a ceremony that marks a halakhic transition that happens whether or not there is a ceremony, sends a clear message – whether or not that message is intended and explicit or completely unintended: Your child’s life is some how less valuable than the lives of other children in the community. Moreover, your family does not deserve to publicly celebrate or be recognized by the congregational community because your child is of lesser ability and lesser value. When we are commanded to imitate God, is this what God meant? Clearly not and yet this message is sent over and over again to Jewish families with children with autism.

Children are being born onto the autism spectrum faster than ever and in higher percentages than any other disorder or disease. The number of Jewish children with autism will only grow, and rapidly, in the years to come. If we, the Jewish community, cannot figure out how to make a place for these incredible, angelic, Divine souls in our classrooms – religious school and day school, in our youth groups, in our camps, and in our synagogues, we will not only exclude the child but we will lose the entire family as part of the Jewish people. At a time when we all fret about the dropping Jewish numbers, when organizations and philanthropists alike are casting about trying to figure out how to interest those who are completely uninterested in Jewish involvement and investing millions of dollars in the effort, we are also actively causing the departure of families who are desperate for community and would give fare more than they would receive if we would just open the doors and modify our own expectations of children instead of slamming the doors in their faces.

At the close of our Camp Yofi Bnai Mitzvah celebration, all of the bnai mitzvah stood under a hastily made huppah. Protected by the Shekhina, we sang together a song by Josh Nelson, “ L’Dor Va’Dor.

We are gifts and we are blessings
We are history in songs
We are hope and we are healing
We are learning to be strong
We are words we are stories we are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom, not the first and not the last

L’Dor vador Nagid Gadlecha,
L’Dor vador we protect this chain
From generation to generation
L’Dor vador
These lips will praise Your name

Looking back on the journey that we carry in our heart
From the shadow of the mountain to the waters that would part
We are blessed we are holy, we are children of Your way
And the words that bring us meaning we will have the strength to say

L’Dor vador Nagid Gadlecha,
L’Dor vador we protect this chain
From generation to generation
L’Dor vador
These lips will praise Your name

All of our children are gifts and blessings. They all deserve and need to be included in and by the Jewish community. This month of Elul is the time for us to wake up and to take a communal reckoning of what kind of People and community that we want to be:

Will we choose to recognize the blessings that each of our children, typical and with autism or other special needs, are in our lives and in the lives of our People?

Will we choose to open our doors and our hearts to these incredible families, to welcome their wisdom and to provide the support they deserve and they need?

Will we recognize that one size does not fit all or will we insist on some level of “performance” standard that excludes children with incredible but different gifts?

Will the Houses that we build in God’s name truly be for the entire Jewish People or will they be only for those who meet our definition of typical?

If the answer to the above questions is no, God Help us.

And if the answer is yes, then let this year be one where we reach out to Jewish families with children with autism, welcome them, and include them, moving us all one step closer to the onset of the Messianic Era!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shabbat Hazon 2009

Before I could appreciate the back porch of the library at Ramah in Wisconsin, I had to spend time on another mirpeset – another porch. In the middle of the busiest area of camp, the triangle formed by the Chadar Ochel, the Mercaz or programming center, and the Bet Am, sat an old house with a porch that faced the bet am. I don’t know if the house was part of the fishing village and “resort” that predated the camp, but that is what we were told and it certainly looked old enough to have been from the early 1920’s. Before the house was moved to make room for the Amanut – the arts & crafts building to the staff housing area, before it became known as Bet Garr, where my teachers, mentors and friends, Ronnie and Minda, Yossi, Tova, Michal and Yaela Garr lived, the house was known as Bet Porten. It was the summer home of Dr. and Rabbi Bezalel “Buzzy,” his wife Debby, and their children: Shuey, Avi, Gabi and Nomi.

I was constantly homesick my first summer at Ramah in 1977. My first madrich, Scott Miller and my Rosh Aidah, Cheryl Magen helped me make it through that first summer in more ways than I could list here. So did Hazzan Leon Lissek (I was the kid who took Nusach as a chug) and Miriam Alon who ran the beit tefirah, the sewing room, where I made my first tallit. And then there was the Porten family. More specifically, Debby, who was the senior, and I think only yoetzet (advisor) at the time, would sit with me on her mirpeset and while I cried, a lot those first three weeks. I got to know her son, Gabi, and daughter, Nomi, who were still too young to be campers. Debby often reminded me of how we would sit and play shesh besh (backgammon) on that porch with the kids for hours. From that summer forward, until the mid-1980’s, Debby played a formative role in my life. She helped me get through that summer and many other challenges that I faced as a camper. And she always did it with a smile and an invitation to the mirpeset for another game of shesh besh.

Like many people that play a major role in our lives, time and distance diminish the frequency of contact but not the impact. So much of how I worked as a madrich I learned from Debby when I was a camper. In later years, I would have the opportunity to study a little Talmud with Gabi, to work with him, and to be a madrich in Nomi’s aidah for two summers. In one of my last visits with Debby in Israel, Debby was giving advice to a mutual friend that was prescient for me. She told our friend, who was contemplating leaving a position that every time in her own life that she left one job another exciting opportunity came along. I wish that I would have touched base more frequently with Debby. I heard about how she was doing through the Kolodner Klein family and through the Garr family. The last time I saw Debby, she was coming to see The Man of LaMancha in Jerusalem, where Becca had a starring role.

Debby Porten died this week after a serious battle with cancer. Ramah alumni shared stories of the impact that Debby had on them as campers or staff members. It was incredible to read some of the reactions that people had. So many people learned how to be Mentsches because of Debby, or learned what Jewish family life could be like just by hanging out and playing backgammon on the mirpeset. Debby’s legacy is in her own incredible children and in the staff members, the campers, and all of their children.

This week, we will commemorate the Fast of Tisha B’A, the Ninth Day of Av, which calls us to mourn the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. For twenty-five hours, we refrain from eating, drinking, wearing leather-soled shoes, anointing (wearing makeup or perfume), and sexual relations. While many explanations are given for the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the most famous is that the Temple was destroyed as a result of sinat hinam – baseless hatred (see Talmud Bavli Gittin 55-56 for the complete story). Much time will be spent in programs in Jewish summer camps and in shuls talking about how we can treat the Other in a kinder way, how we can avoid the kind of baseless hatred that brought down the Holy of Holies.

On Tisha b’Av this year, however, I will spend a lot of time thinking about a woman who taught me how to make it through a summer, how to depersonalize things, what hachnassat orchim was about, and how to play shesh besh with her kids on the mirpeset. I will think of all the Porten children, now adults with many children of their own. I will think of Buzzy, my first recollection of him being his wailing voice crying out the Kinah (mournful prayer) “_ Oy me’Haya Lanu” at the end of the reading of Lamentations. We mourn on Tisha B’Av, and I will mourn too. But I will also remember an incredible teacher and person who helped me through the early days of my thirty-plus year relationship with Ramah. Who will you be thinking of? To whom do you owe an apology for hateful behavior or the speaking of lashon harah? And what teacher might you want to call, someone who really touched your life in profound ways, that you have not spoken with in far too long?

Free advice (it is worth exactly what you pay for it): Make the call this week for you never know when the opportunity might be lost.

May the Memory of Debby Porten be for a Blessing.

Shabbat Shalom and a Meaningful Tisha B’Av Observance to all.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic interviews Ambassador Michael Oren

The following short video of Jeffrey Goldberg interviewing Israel's Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, is absolutely incredible. Goldberg asks excellent, deep and challenging questions and Ambassador Oren does not shy away from giving answers of equal, if not greater depth. This is a six minutes well spent for anyone who loves Israel and considers themselves a Zionist, however they define the term.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Matot – Ma’sei 2009 - Travels

I was on the road so much the past few weeks that I even found myself enjoying the hour long NPR documentary about Willie Nelson, he of “On The Road Again” fame (despite my personal and intense dislike of both kinds of music – Country and Western). I could list my journey like a trip-tik from AAA:

And then I went from Indian Ridge, Marietta to Grovehurst, Marietta;
And from Marietta to Chattanooga; and I rested in Chattanooga for one hour;
And from Chattanooga to Nashville;
And from Nashville I travelled to Louisville, and it rained strongly;
And from Louisville to Indianapolis;
And from Indianapolis to the Skyway, which was slow;
And from the Skyway I traveled to Highland Park, where I rested one night;

And from Highland Park I traveled to Lakeview, Chicago and purchased a home there;
And from Lakeview I traveled to Conover, the home of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and I was in Conover for six days; and on the day after the Sabbath…

I returned to Lakeview and met Rebecca and Amalya, and we met the movers and unpacked;

And then it was Shabbat and we rested…

If the above sounds both familiar and a bit thin on details, it is because it is very similar to the opening verses of the second of our two parshiot this week: Matot and Ma’sei, which are also long on place names and short on details as to what occurred in those places. The details are so limited that when mentioning the Sinai Desert, there is not even a mention of Mt. Sinai let alone the retelling or even noting of God’s revelation to B’nai Yisrael at Mt. Sinai. The filling in of the details is often left to the midrash.

If I stopped at the list I made above, you might have thought that nothing of interest happened on my drive. You would not have known that it rained for three solid hours between Nashville and Louisville so hard that you could not see more than ten feet in front of you; or that I stopped in Chattanooga to see my sister, Vicki, my brother-in-law, Jason, or my very cute nephew, Jordan; nor would you have known that it took me 17 hours to get from Marietta to Highland Park, Il instead of the 11 hours Mapquest told me it would take.

Often, I find that it is that which appears to be most mundane along these trips that turns out to be the most powerful and the most moving. It can be a sunset over the highway, or heron gliding past your car to land on a roadside lake. Or it can be a chance encounter with a person. I had many such encounters during the past month but want to share only one with you this Shabbat.

I went to the Amanut Building – the Arts Building – at Ramah in Wisconsin to see what was going on there. It was a beautiful day and from the porch that connects the art building to the woodshop, you could see the gorgeous lake, the island seemingly a finger’s length away. A young woman was teaching campers how to make their own tote bags, to personalize them, and to use them to tell a story. I was intrigued. After the activity ended, I asked Yali about her project. She showed me her portfolio and there was a photo of a Kate Spade Bag, black with embossed paisleys and other shapes. I asked Yali about the bag. What followed was far beyond my imagination.

Yali is young, energetic, vibrant, and so happy. Her smile is infectious and people tell me that you will never see Yali look any differently. The art staff and the aidah staff cherish her equally. The campers who work with Yali clearly love her. She is, I am told, a person with an exceptional work ethic and an incredible heart. And you would never know it but Yali is also a cancer survivor. She is 18 now and about to start college, an achievement that many take for granted, but my guess is that Yali never doubted that she would reach.

While Yali was fighting her battle with cancer, she had the opportunity to have a wish fulfilled through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. She wanted to design a bag with Kate Spade, and she did it! She wanted 50% of the purchase price of each bag, costing $325, to go to the Foundation, which it did. Yali explained the meaning of the various symbols on the bag and it was clear that this was an exceptional young artist with a brilliantly creative mind who saw that she was given a gift and wanted to make the world a better place. Details about the bag were presented on the Kate Spade Website:

"Yali’s “Carry On” purse and design make the statement that cancer survivors “carry on” courageously and elegantly with life in the face of their medical baggage. The design details illustrate Yali’s salute to cancer survivors. She chose to have the interior of the bag replicate a bandana, which many cancer patients use to disguise their hair loss during chemotherapy. The bag was, without a doubt, created with hope, strength and joy."

The Yali Carry On Kate Spade Bag is sold out, the last few of them being given to charity to raise funds for their work via auction events. But wait, that’s not all! Yali has now created a second Yali Carry On TM. It costs $25 and all of the proceeds go to the department of Family Services at Children’s Memorial Hospital. According to Yali, the design of this beach tote is:

“Creative… and … functional, but has deeper meaning as well. As Yali states “The brilliant colors represent the vibrancy of life; the bird symbolizes the freedom and beauty of expression. The wings of the bird, created by hand prints, remind us of our unique abilities to overcome challenges.”

If you are interested in purchasing a bag, please let me know and I will be in touch with Yali to find out how you can acquire one.

Yali may be 18 years old chronologicall y but her wisdom, courage and Simhat Hayyim, joy and appreciation of life, are far beyond her years and should be an inspiration to us all. She is the emobidment of the principle taught by Rebbe Nahman of Breslov, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous all the time!” And she is a true Mitzvah Hero, to use a term I learned from my teacher, Danny Seigel.

To learn more about Yali’s story, follow this link:

“And from Lakeview I traveled to Conover, the home of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and I was in Conover for six days;”

And in Conover, I met Yali and once again a seemingly ordinary encounter turned out to be extraordinary.

Who are the extraordinary people you met this week? Think about that around your Shabbat table.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, July 10, 2009

Parashat Pinhas 2009

It is Friday afternoon and I am sitting “al hamirpeset sheli” – one of, my favorite porches in the world. I didn’t expect to be sitting here again and the path to this spot was long, winding, and challenging, but here I am, once again sitting on the back porch of the library, the sifriah, that overlooks beautiful Lake Buckatabon, the home of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. There is a slight breeze, the temperature is just right, and the clouds blend with the aqua sky in a picture perfect fashion. It is good to be home.

The past three weeks alone have been crazy, absent any sense of inner Peace, of Shalom or of Shleimut – completeness. On June 24, we packed up the house. On the 25th, the movers took all of our worldly possessions, and on the 26th, we went and closed on the sale of our house in Atlanta. Thanks to our friends, Randy and Nancy, Natan and Ilana Gorod, we were not homeless nor were we wandering Jews. On June 29 – 30, my brief journey with the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School came to an end. And then, last Sunday, I wrote the last paragraph of the chapter of life in Atlanta that started in the fall of 1996 and came to an end on July 5th. On July 6th, I closed on the purchase of our new home on Pine Grove between Waveland and Grace in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago, and then immediately left for Conover for a week of visiting and reconnecting at Ramah in Wisconsin.

I was unsettled, lacking balance and inner Peace, until I pulled into the parking lot of camp at 11:45 pm that night. And as soon as I turned off the car, got out, and took a deep breath of the Northwoods air, I felt the start of the return of shleimut, of balance, of quiet, and of sense of purpose. There will not be complete shleimut until all of us are together in Chicago – Elan and Mira back from there fantastic summer at Ramah Darom, and Becca and Amalya from the drive from Atlanta. But the return of balance and quiet, of purpose and professional fulfillment is on its way.

This would be a week to listen and to learn, to rediscover the camp that was my summer home for 20 years and that would once again become my summer home as of September 1. This would be a week to observe the similarities and the differences, from my childhood and from my previous professional time here. This also became a week for unexpected reunions with former campers who became staff members years ago and then became peers and friends, people like Diane Kushnir Halivni, Amy Israel, and Dorit Shiloah Boxer. I started to connect with the younger staff, who were not campers when I was here last, as well as a chance to see old friends who are still coming to camp. To list all the incredible things I saw, and learned, would take too much space and time, for now, as the sun is getting closer to setting and Shabbat will soon be upon us.

In my professional and personal journey this year, I spent much time missing a sense of Peace, hoping for its return, wondering where the places were that I might find it. The Slonimer Rebbe, in his work Netivot Shalom, writes at length about Peace in his comments on this weeks Torah portion, for the Biblical character, Pinhas, is giving the Covenant of Peace, a Brit Shalom, at the very opening of our Parashah. The reasons for the giving of that Brit are complicated and not the subject of my thoughts at this time, although they are compelling and worthy of consideration; rather, the Slonimer Rebbe uses the opportunity to identify three kinds of Shleimut – of wholeness – that are part of the Brit Shalom: Peace with Yourself, Peace with your fellow human beings, and Peace with God. According to the Slonimer, Shabbat is the ritual manifestation of all three levels of Shleimut and thus a taste of the world to come.

I am truly blessed to be at a physical place, Lake Buckatabon and Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, and at a time – the arrival of Shabbat – to feel the return of those levels of shleimut:

Inner calm -the knowledge that I am at the right place personally and professionally;

Wholeness with people – back at a place where I know I can make a difference and where I can be impacted upon by others; and

Wholeness with God – here, along with only a few other places in the world, first and foremost the Land of Israel, as well as the Waterfall at Ramah Darom – the sense of the Divine Presence is palpable, there is a feeling of closeness with the Shekhina that I have not felt in a long time.

I hope that in your travels, you are fortunate to find a mirpeset – a porch – that you can dream from, build from, and create from and I hope that each of you has or will find a place and time where you achieve the Covenant of Peace at its fullest – Wholeness with Self, with Others, and with the Creator of Wholeness and Peace.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Shabbat Bamidbar

I sat at the table, looked around, and was humbled by the moment. I knew 90% of the people in the room – some were my counselors or were married to my counselors, some were my campers. There were board members knew me from childhood and others who I was meeting for the first time. Down three seats from me was my former camper at Ramah Darom now on the year-round staff in Chicago and to my left sat my mentor, colleague and friend, Rabbi Soloff. When Dr. Kopin spoke, I could not look up. And then he spoke words that I never imagined I would hear, “And now we will hear a few words of Torah from Rabbi Loren Sykes, the new director of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.”

I spoke briefly and I hope coherently. I had written, either literally or in my head, about 30 different divrei Torah leading up to the board meeting. In the end, however, looking around the room, I talked about a verse from Psalms, “Serve God with Joy and Rejoice with Trembling…” I was overwhelmed with feelings of joy to be returning to camping, to Ramah, and to Ramah in Wisconsin. Similarly, I was overjoyed to be working with Rabbi Soloff again, as well as with members of the board I knew for years. At the same time, there was trembling – about the return to life and death responsibility and about the task of continuing to insure the legacy of the premier Jewish summer camp that is Ramah in Wisconsin.

The meeting was inspiring and not just because of the pictures of the new Chadar Ochel being completed in advance of the summer. In the midst of a tanking economy, I sat and listened to a board that is forward thinking, that is investing in the future and is convinced, and rightly so, that it will continue to play a significant role in the field and in the Jewish future. While no institution is immune from the economic turndown, this is a group with passion, vision, and commitment, so much so that they are embarking on the next long-range plan and are willing to invest in growing the professional leadership of the organization when so many others are contracting. And it is a family with deep commitments so that family members are making gifts to make it possible for campers to come to camp this summer even as it also makes gifts to insure the ongoing health of the institution.

The evening ended with plans for more meetings, lots of hugs and congratulations, a special conversation with Bob Less, and even some cleaning up.

To say that these are challenging times financially is an understatement. The financial challenges are pushing many organizations to close, to abandon their missions, to opine about the future, or to cast off core values just for the sake of survival with no plan or vision for what future success can look like. And there are plenty of entrepreneurial new Jewish undertaking that are struggling but are fighting to stay with their mission. It is important to hear stories like that of Ramah in Wisconsin – stories that remind us that sticking to core values while continuing to innovate is a great insurer of success and viability; stories that demonstrate that long-term continuity of leadership, where that leadership is strong, vibrant, and striving for constant excellence and change, serves institutions well and far better than either constant change in leadership or leaving people in place for decades when they haven’t done anything different in decades ever will; stories that tell of institutions committed to visions of a bright Jewish future that believe they can make a reality, not because they live in a fantasy land, but because they are developed in mindful and realistic ways by people who are willing to put their money and time and efforts where their mouths are, who talk the talk AND walk the walk – to inspire us to think in like minded ways.


Yet one more Israel related holiday celebrated in the Diaspora. Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – commemorating 42 years since the reunification of Jerusalem as the united capital of the Jewish people was Thursday. I felt empty, a reminder that at the deepest part of my soul, I want to be in Israel, in Jerusalem, permanently. Celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, and Jerusalem Day always feel empty to me when I am sitting in Atlanta, or anywhere that is not Israel. I can have some lousy falafel or watch a Throwdown with Bobby Flay about the best falafel in New York. I can look at pictures. I can see all of the changes in my friends Facebook status for those living in Israel, but it feels empty.

I will be heading to Israel on Sunday with Mira for weddings (Mazal Tov Mishpachat Keren) for B’nai Mitzvah (Mazal Tov Mishpachat Schorsch Moses) for Shavuot, for work, and for some soulful restoration – reconnection, physically and spiritually. And while I am so very excited to be going, to be joining so many for such wonderful occasions, to be giving Mira a chance to reconnect with her friends and with the Land, I also know that ultimately I will have to leave again. It is so very hard to think about, and it raises the question for me of what it really means to place Jerusalem above our greatest Joy.


As we prepare to enter Shabbat, to start reading a new Book, Bamidbar, we are entering a new phase in life. This will be our last Shabbat as a family in Atlanta. Mira and I will be gone and then Elan and Mira will be off to camp. On Wednesday, Elan graduated from the 8th Grade at the Epstein School and Mira completed elementary school with her 5th Grade Gesher Ceremony. Lots of endings and new beginnings – a new city, a new job, new schools. I find myself wondering – How did it happen that I am the parent of a high school student, a middle schooler, and a second grader? Kids, we are very proud of you.

Finally, this coming week, Becca and I will celebrate our anniversary. Once again, we will not be together. In the past, I was at camp and she was working a program for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, or I was at one wedding and she was at another. This time, I will be in Israel with Mira. Mazal Tov an all my love on 16 wonderful years and to many, many more.

Shabbat Shalom.