Friday, December 24, 2010

Shemot and Thoughts on Being Called

This week, a new documentary titled,The Calling, executive produced and directed by Camp Ramah in Wisconsin alumnus, Danny Alpert, aired on PBS over two nights.  This powerful and inspiring film follows: young, vibrant, thoughtful and vastly different Americans as they embark on the most extraordinary journey of their lives. Representing Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant faiths,  each is ignited by the "call" to serve humanity and has decided to join the clergy. The Calling ...follows them from their first days of training, through years of challenges, doubts, triumphs and surprises, and into their early practice as ordained professionals. (The Calling provides an) ...intimate look behind cloistered seminary walls and into the hearts of future religious leaders provides a rich, nuanced portrayal of faith never before seen on national television.
From The Calling Website

As the website points out, the word “Calling” is derived from the Latin term, vocare, “to call.”  But the translation leaves open one very clear question: from where does the call originate?  Does it come from the outside, from some external source, voice, being? Or does it come from within, either placed there by someone, something, or The One from the outside, or is it sitting inside quietly waiting for the moment to make itself known?  Is this a religious experience?  Can it be a secular experience?  And what do people do when they experience being called?

The filmmakers created a companion website for The Calling that is extraordinary in many ways.  At , you can view segments of the documentary and follow-up pieces by theme, by which are most popular, or by the speaker it features.  After viewing clips, you are invited to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts either on the response of the person in the clip or in answer to the question or challenge raised in the clip.  The creators of The Calling want to include you in the discussion and in the pursuit of hearing your own calling.

One of the companion pieces on the website consists of students from Auburn Theological Seminary answering the question: “What do you think of when you hear the term “Calling”?  The answers range from “Something you just can’t get away from” to “...knowing what I am supposed to do”  to “...something that is really inside even though it sounds like it should be from the outside - a really small voice” to “...some larger, external force” to “predetermination.”  In other words, and as noted above, a calling can be an internal knowing, whose origins are unclear, to a grand voice calling out and telling you what you have to do.  It can be a strong sense of purpose to change the world in a specific way or it can be the knowledge that God expects something specific of you in this world.  There is no consensus among the students at Auburn; rather, they reflect the full gamut of understandings of the term “Calling.”

The move from the Creation Stories and the early origins of the world in general to the specific creation story of the Jewish people comes in the form of a Divine Call to Abraham - לך לך - Go forth.  The Book of Exodus also opens with a “Calling”, the call from God to Moshe at the bush on Mt. Sinai.  In film and in literature, both Jewish and not, the Calling is portrayed both as a commanding outside voice or a demanding interior one.  It is described as the Grand Divine Instructor, the Cecille B. DeMille voice speaking to Charlton Heston, clearly telling Moses from outside himself what he is to do and how he is to do it.  Similarly, it is painted as the quiet voice so similar to his own, emanating from within while appearing to originate from the bush, as in this case the that of Val Kilmer who plays both The Divine Voice and the voice of Moses in The Prince of Egypt.  

We know from tradition and experience that “Callings” can be frightening.  Moses demurs by raising doubts as to whether or not the Israelites will listen to him, let alone Pharaoh.  Jonah flees, running to a boat to take him far away.  Yet neither is able to escape the mission which they know they must complete.  It is not uncommon for people to know deep within their souls that there is something that they are supposed to do, something that will change the world and themselves, and to know let it go un-acted upon for years.  Some will know it forever and fear failure or success and thus refuse to act on it.  Others, however, follow the calling to places they cannot imagine and touch lives, change lives, and transform worlds in the most Divine ways.

This week, the Torah reminds us of the call to Moses, the call to bring freedom to the oppressed; to bring law to the lawless; and to bring redemption to the captive.  This week, Danny Alpert and The Calling push us to confront our own souls, to listen to the still small voice that comes from within or that emerges from an encounter with another, and to go and change the world.  If you have not yet watched it, take time to view The Calling which is now available from PBS and at The iTunes Store, visit the website, , explore there, listen to the voices of others, join the conversation.  And then focus on your calling and go, get started.

Yasher Koah to Danny Alpert and the entire team of “The Calling.”  

Shabbat Shalom.

This post also appears on the blog of Camp Ramah in Wisconsin.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Judah, Joseph, Self-Revelation and Autism

The following were words of Torah that I was honored to share at the Bar Mitzvah of Jack Rosen, the magnificent son of my friends Wendy and Michael Rosen, as well as their son, Charlie.

Jack became a Bar Mitzvah this past Shabbat, Parashat VaYigash, at Bnai Joshua Beth Elohim in Northbrook, Illinois. Mazal Tov Jack, Wendy, Michael, Charlie and Jan.

These words are dedicated in honor of Jack and other Jewish children with Autism and to their incredible families who deserve the greatest support the Jewish community can provide.

The air is heavy with anticipation.  Emotions, already running high all morning, reach a crescendo of tension.  The speaker completes his impassioned plea for mercy, an edited retelling of a family story: a bitter tale of favoritism and selfishness, of jealousy and hatred, of love for a father and his inconsolable pain of loss.  Threatened with the possibility that he will be the cause of his father Jacob’s ultimate demise, Judah pleads with the listener for mercy and for the release of his youngest brother, the most beloved, Benjamin.  This morning, we read one of the most dramatic moments in the entire Torah, the moment when Joseph, now second only to Pharaoh in power and authority, reveals his true identity to his brothers.

Joseph the listener, identified until now to the brothers by his Egyptian name Tzafnat Paneach, is completely overwhelmed by Judah’s words:

א וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק, לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו, וַיִּקְרָא, הוֹצִיאוּ כָל-אִישׁ מֵעָלָי; וְלֹא-עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ, בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו.  ב וַיִּתֵּן אֶת-קֹלוֹ, בִּבְכִי; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּשְׁמַע בֵּית פַּרְעֹה.  ג וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל-אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי; וְלֹא-יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ, כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו.

Joseph could no longer control himself before all of his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I AM JOSEPH!  Is my father still alive?”  And his brothers could not answer him because they were terrified before him.”
During their previous encounters, Joseph conceals his identity.  Only now, hearing Judah acknowledge their brotherhood and realizing that continuing the ruse puts Jacob’s pain and most likely death on his own shoulders, does Joseph reveal himself.  Until this moment, everyone, the brothers, Pharoah, those in the room, have one picture of who he is and what he can do.  Now, Joseph screams out, “This is who I really am!  I am Joseph!  I am not Tzafnat Paneah!  I am not who you think I am!  I am different.  I am human!”  Joseph, the whole person, is revealed.

The Torah tells us that Joseph “can no longer control himself before all of his attendants” or
לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו .  In other words, Joseph can’t hold back anymore in front of all of these other people.  That translation raises the possibility that perhaps if he was alone in the room for the entire speech, Joseph may have been able to hold back and not show himself but with everyone watching, Joseph simply crumbled.  One commentary understands this phrase to mean that along with all of his brothers and servants, the room was full of people coming to ask things of Joseph.  The combined pressure of his brothers, members of Pharaoh’s house, and all of these people with expectations of who he was simply overwhelmed Joseph.  Revealing himself, in this understanding of the verse, is actually a sign of weakness.  There are numerous commentators who give varying explanations for why this moment is so overwhelming for Joseph, why he chooses to show his true self at this exact minute.

For me and on this morning in particular, these three verses paint a very different picture.  Imagine that most people have one picture of you, of who you are, of what you are about, of what you can do.  Imagine that they have expectations based almost exclusively on what they see on the outside, what their first impressions are.  They have decided who you are.  Not you.  Them.  And then, in one exquisite moment, all you have to do is say your name and their picture of who you are completely unravels.    It transforms completely and forever.  It is no surprise then that the revelation can be terrifying for them.  For years, they were able to pretend that you did not exist, not as an individual and not as a category.  But now you have told them who you are and they can no longer deny your existence.  Imagine the power of that moment.

Sadly, in most places in the Jewish world, people and institutions do not see children and adults with autism.  Some choose not to see them, to not acknowledge in deep and real ways that there is autism in the Jewish community while others are simply unaware. Far too often, our synagogues, our Federations, our day schools and religious schools, our summer camps make it virtually impossible to know that there are children with autism in the Jewish community because we close our doors to their families:  the child is too different, too demanding, too expensive.  We deny their existence or we decide what they can or cannot do, who they are, what they are about.  And then, a moment comes and the child reveals himself and shouts out to the world, sometimes in phrases, sometimes in chirps and tweeting sounds, sometimes in silence, “I AM JOSEPH!”   “I AM A REAL PERSON!”  “SEE ME FOR WHO I AM ON MY TERMS, NOT ON YOURS!”  At that moment, of course the outsider is terrified - they are forced to confront their own limitations and their own nearsightedness.  And, at the same time, imagine how freeing it must be for the child to shed everyone else’s expectations and be who they know that they are.

On this morning, in this specific synagogue, with this specific family and friends, we are part of an exceptional revelatory moment.  Today, Jack shouts out to the world that he is a beautiful soul, a precious young Jew, the vessel that holds a warm and powerful Divine spark.  He announces that he is who he is, on his terms.  Other b’nai mitzvah talk about how they become a “man” on this day.  Today, Jack demands in his own sweet way that the Jewish community sees him, comes to know him, values him.  

What makes our Jack different from Joseph is that there is already a whole world that sees him as he is, that loves him for being exactly who he is, that shuns its own limited view of who he can be in order to embrace who he fully is.  From this bimah, I watch my friends Wendy and Michael, Charlie and Aunt Jan, beam with love for Jack, a love so powerful and deep that there are no words to describe it.  Everyone here today loves and values you Jack for who you are.  They don’t measure you against any other.  They love you for who you are.  Cantor Frost and all those who worked with you to prepare for this day love you, know that you are capable of so much, of changing worlds, and are so very proud of you.

This is a synagogue that welcomed Jack and his family when so many others could not or, honestly, chose not to.  Rabbi Kedar, who is so sad not being here today, was a visionary among rabbis who did not recoil at Jack’s autism but, rather, perceived the strong Godly spark that lives in Jack and in his family.  BJBE opened its arms and its doors and welcomed in an entire family where others were only willing to open the door to three, not four people.  In an era where we fret about our shrinking numbers, where philanthropists and organizations devote tens of millions of dollars to convincing those least interested in being connected Jewishly to do something, anything Jewish, too many institutions close their doors to families like the Rosen’s who want Judaism and the Jewish community in their lives, who want to give to and be supported by the Jewish community, slam doors in the faces of Jack Rosen’s all over the country.  Yet, BJBE, Keshet, the Ramah Day Camp, Camp Beber and Camp Yofi and others open those very same doors and are changed for the better because of it.  They are examples of how the Jewish world should be and I pray that others learn quickly from their example.

Jack, everyone here this morning that knows you loves you and knows how truly exceptional you are.  They have been blessed to see through a window that you opened into your soul so that they can see the sweet, smart, beautiful Jack that you are.  When I think about when that window opened for me, it was at Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism.  I was sitting at the pool with your Mom and we were catching up, sharing stories of growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the golden era of John Hughes’ movies.  And you and your dad and your brother and your Chaver, Asaf, were in the pool.  You would splash and sing and then you would dive under the water and stay there for long periods of time.  There, splashing in the water, there enveloped by the pressure of the warm, clear water, you allowed yourself to emerge, to shine, to blossom.  This was a new moment for me, not you, a moment where I saw a spark that could only be seen through the prism of the water.  It was the moment where I got to see you clearly, to see the fun spark of God in your soul.  It is a moment that I cherish and that I will never forget.  I know that Susan Tecktiel, Sue Kabot, Christine Reeves and the staff of Camp Yofi learned you at those kind of moments as well, that they too love you for who you are, and that they send congratulations and love to you and your family on this magnificent day.

And those who are here this morning that did not know you before are also changed for the better because they got to meet you.  Today you become a ben Torah, a son of Torah.  You said the Shema, you said the blessings over the Torah, and like Abraham our Father, you are a blessing.  And when you said the blessings, your glorious smile let us know that you understand what being Torah is all about, being a living examplar of good and of Godliness.

On the global Jewish level, let today be one where those standing in the virtual room, with all of their expectations, be shocked into seeing that they are obligated to recognize Jews with autism as full members of the community and that they are thus obligated to provide a space for them equal to all other Jews.  Let this be a day of reckoning for those organizations who, pressed in difficult financial situations, may look to reduce or eliminate funding for special needs programs.  Let this be an uncomfortable day of reflection, of being forced to acknowledge and open the doors fully to all of those who are like you Jack.

And for those of us in the actual sanctuary, sharing this moment with the קדוש ברוך הוא - The Holy Blessed One - let us enjoy this moment of celebration together for a truly beautiful and exception soul who shouted out so quietly and tenderly, “I am Jack.  I love the tradition of my parents.”  And after Shabbat, let’s make sure that the rest of the Jewish world learns how to celebrate you as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

A New Sefer Torah Comes to CJDS - Mira's Words of Torah

On Thursday, Chicago Jewish Day School, under the magnificent leadership of Judy Taff, celebrated the donation and dedication of a Sefer Torah to the school from the Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation.  Once a flourishing synagogue with a fantastic USY chapter, Northwest Suburban Jewish Congregation recently sold its building and a piece of suburban history came to a close.  However, the congregation lives on in the vibrant Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago through the gift of the Torah.  

Our daughter, Mira, was asked to deliver the D’var Torah at the celebration.  The following are her words of Torah for the occasion:

Who here has a Mezuza at home?
Who here knows what Tefillin are?
Who has ever held a Torah?
Who knows what these three things have in common?

The Shema appears in these three important items, the Torah of course is the most important one, which is the reason for today’s special occasion.

In the Shema it says,
וכתבתם על מזוזות בתיך ובשעריך

Inscribe it on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The Shema tells us that we need to have Mezuzot on our doors as a constant reminder of these rules, and of yetziat metzra’im - the Exodus from Egypt.  It is also supposed to remind us of the Torah when we walk into our homes and out of them.

The Shema also teaches us to wear Tefilin:
וקשרתם לאות על ידיך והיו לטוטפות בין עיניך

Bind it as a sign on your hand, and let it serve as a symbol on your forehead.

Tefilin is a sign of love between Bnai Israel, and HaShem, and we see that when the mitzvah of Tefilin appears in the paragraph after the Shema where the first word is  ואהבת -  love.

The Tefflilin on our arm is close to our heart.   The Tefillin on our head is close to our mind. I think that this shows that we can’t have an idea with only our mind, and we can’t have an idea with only our heart, so we have to use them both.

This summer I had an amazing opportunity, I was allowed to make my own Tefilin with the Israeli artist Noah Greenberg. He not only showed us how to make Tefilin, but taught us about it, and I learned how the Shema is one of the prayers tucked into the boxes at the top of the Tefilin.  At camp, I get to learn from experience.  We are lucky to do this at school too.  

What I like about how I learn Torah at school is that no one sits us down to tell us what’s there.  We get up and do it together.  I like how when we don’t understand something, we can have a discussion about what we get, don’t get, and what we think. When I have a question about Torah, I get to ask it, and say what I think with the full support of my class.  

Here at CJDS, the teacher doesn’t just talk to us, but we have big discussions, and we can debate about what we think. It’s more interesting and it’s more fun to learn.  I love it how not only the students are in the conversations and debates but the teachers are too.  They’ll take sides, and it takes everything to a whole new level of learning.  
I get to share what’s in my head and my heart, and I know my teachers do too.  

I think that we say Shema so often because it reminds us of HaShem and HaShem’s rules.  I think that because in what Orly is going to read this morning HaShem says a lot about love and loyalty. I think that G-d says that so that we stay on track in our lives, and we always remember that G-d loves us.

Thank you so much for giving me the chance to share some Torah with you this morning, I would like the chance to thank the members of The Northwest Suburban Jewish congregation for giving us this amazing new Torah. I know that we all appreciate your generous donation to CJDS.

Boker tov.

Mira’s words of Torah are a synergy of all that she has learned over the years at The Epstein School, Camp Ramah Darom, our home and, most recently The Chicago Jewish Day School.  We are so proud of her and feel fortunate that she and Amalya are learning in such a special place.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Looking to the Future

This week, I had the good fortune to attend a series of conversations about the Jewish future. Specifically, the group was dreaming about what a bright future for Conservative Judaism might look like.  The positive feeelings and optimism was energizing and not pollyanish.  The experience was exhilarating and uplifting.   The conversations were focused at 50,000 feet, on broad visions and new ideas, not at 3,000 feet on tactics and quick fixes.  We often spend so much time focusing on the immediate, on the problems of the day, on short-term trends and on the quick fixes that we fail to look above and beyond, to dream of the future.  Sometimes, looking to the future is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

The second morning of our sessions started with a d’var Torah, placing Torah squarely at the forefront of what we are about and where are our vision should be focused.  Commenting on the changing of names from Ya’akov to Yisrael, the speaker examined the explanation the Heavenly angel gave for this change:

כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל

...for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.
Deuteronomy 32:29

That is, Yisrael is the new name because it acknowledges the struggles Jacob experiences and his triumphs in those struggles.  Hidden in the name Yisrael is another very similar Hebrew word: Yashar or straight.  Thus, the name Yisrael can be seen to denote both struggle and straightness or directness.

Jacob has to struggle with his own identity, with other people and with the Divine.  Moreover, Jacob has to be direct in his self-examination.  He has to be honest with himself.  In exploring his identity, he cannot pretend, he cannot ignore, and he cannot whitewash.  He has to undergo the difficult process of being straight with himself.  It is only when  he undergoes the process of self-examination and struggle with his own soul in the most honest, clear and direct way that he is able to emerge as a new soul with a new vision and thus deserving of a new name.

Sitting in the discussion about visions of the future of Conservative Judaism, I found the two meanings of Yisrael to be profoundly relevant to our work.  In order to envision the future, we need to struggle among ourselves to flesh out, in clear terms, what is most important to us, what our core values are.  That struggle has to take place concerning  our humanity and our understanding of God’s mission for us, our vision of what a repaired and healed world looks like and how we are going to get there.  

Moreover, we have to be straight with ourselves and with others.  We are obligated, as the leader of the meetings instructed us, to put it all out on the table, to be honest, to disclose our hopes and dreams as well as our concerns and fears.  We are not to hold back.  We need to devote some time to assessing where we are today and how we got here but the bulk of our energy needs to be an honest and deeply struggle with visioning the brightest universe of possible futures for Conservative Judaism at the highest altitudes.

The outcome of such a process will inspire.  By stuggling and dreaming in an honest and straight way, we can set a course for a vibrant, progressive, committed, spiritual Conservative Jewish future and then we can work vigilantly and hopefully to triumph in achieving that vision.  

What is your vision of a bright future for Conservative Judaism?  What do you think our Core Values are?  Please share them with us either on our facebook page or at  I look forward to sharing the answers with you and with others.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Impact of Working with Special Children on Staff members.

Lilli Flink, a staff member in the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, recently shared this essay with me.  It is part of her application to graduate studies.  It captures the impact that working in a special needs program such as Tikvah has on a staff member as well as the importance of such a program.  The Jewish community needs to hear the words of Lilli and understand that it must DO MORE for members of the special needs community and their parents and loved ones.  It also demonstrates that working in these programs leads people to make them lifelong commitments.  Thanks Lilli for sharing this.  If you wish to share it, please forward in its entirety and please credit Lilli Flink for the work.

     I have had the best summer job in the world. No, it’s not because of the money, the benefits, or the title—those are far from prestigious. It’s for the community, the challenges, the support, the final feeling of immense reward, and much more. For the past three summers, I have been a camp counselor in the Tikvah program at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. Tikvah is a specifically designed program for adolescents with Asperger’s Disorder, ADHD, and high-functioning Autism. Working as a counselor in the Tikvah program has been extremely rewarding and challenging for many reasons. For two months straight, I eat, sleep, and breathe special needs kids. My job tests my patience, but also makes me laugh harder than anything else. My campers struggle with behavioral and social disorders that inhibit them on a day-to-day basis, on both the individual and interpersonal levels. At camp, the Tikvah staff works to create a supportive, warm environment for our campers to succeed, cultivate positive relationships, and work towards individualized goals. These kids are infinitely more than what they look like on paper or at first glance. They are extremely talented; some are geniuses, some trivia fiends, and others amazing artists and singers. As a part of the Tikvah program, my campers are not defined by what they cannot do, but by what camp empowers them to accomplish and brings out in them.

           Along with the numerous responsibilities I have for my campers are the everyday joys associated with their personalities. The comic relief in the campers’ unconventional ambitions often remedies the everyday stresses of my job. One of my most recent campers can be summed up in two words: ‘teddy bear’. Avi is tall, with curly light brown hair, and is shy at first. Once he trusts you and feels comfortable he assumes his happy demeanor and
talks incessantly. Every day I was greeted by Avi’s refreshing delight in life, a soft handshake,  and his cheerful catchphrase, “boy, aren’t I looking sharp today?” Memorable moments like this made my summers worthwhile.

           Over these summers, I have learned a tremendous amount from my supervisors, colleagues, and campers. Being a Tikvah counselor is intensely gratifying, as it refocuses my intentions and priorities and puts life into perspective. Many campers struggle to form and maintain social connections at home. That is why we, the staff, essentially create a family and a community for our campers—so that they can have positive mentors and learn basic life skills such as healthy eating habits, living actively, job techniques, and how to lose gracefully. Through living at camp, they learn appropriate social skills and develop meaningful friendships—abilities they may not otherwise ever acquire.

           As a Tikvah counselor, I have gained a deeper understanding of the social boundaries and challenges confronting my campers as they relate to their peers. Through this process, I have also become more acutely aware of my own social boundaries and interactions. Because I consistently reminded my campers of basic social skills and cues, I was forced to be a constant role model for them through my own behavior and actions. I also gained insight every summer into new approaches towards our campers and programs due to the innovative, hard-working staff. Because the nature of our program demands creative and dynamic activities, our staff learned to operate as a cohesive group—one that communicated well, organized and prepared, and, most importantly, learned to be flexible. Not only have I grown as an individual by being around my campers and teaching by example, but I have also learned a great deal from the talented staff with whom I have worked and planned. Above all, by developing skills as a Tikvah counselor, my passion for special needs has deepened.

           This job has simultaneously tested my patience and forced me to re-imagine the hidden and oft-overlooked potential of adolescents with special needs. By leaving my comfort zone to create a magically positive and influential atmosphere like the one at camp, I have seen Tikvah campers create friendships with typical adolescents that outlast the eight weeks of camp. It is truly a highlight to watch these bonds develop and enable our campers to take advantage of the opportunities that Ramah offers.

           My campers have taught me more than I will ever teach them. They have enabled to me to overcome some of my inhibitions, take risks, and find laughter in the hardest moments. These three summers have also helped me develop a passion for programs like Tikvah—ones that enable teens with special needs to achieve what other teens do naturally. While I am uncertain of what area of medicine I will ultimately pursue, I can see myself devoting my professional career to helping kids like Avi and my former campers, and it’s all thanks to my first summer job.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Jacob and Esau - The Birthright, The Blessing and The Jewish Future

This is the recruitment and retention season which means I see a good number of airports, lots of returning campers and their families, as well as families thinking about camp for the first time.  During my visits to communities, I have the opportunity to meet with rabbis, cantors, educators and other communal professional and lay leaders.  Attempting to gain greater understanding into what is going on in a given place, what is important, and what is concerning the community, I spend more time listening than I do talking. Along the way,  I learn more and patterns of commonality begin to emerge: hopes for growth versus fears of decline; desires for perpetuation of tradition versus concerns of rejection; yearnings for a bright future versus anxiety about looming, darkening skies.

None of these contrasting feelings about the Jewish future are new.  In fact, they are as old as the Torah itself.  All of ספר בראשית - The Book of Genesis - is focused on the promise of descendants and a homeland; on a blessing and its perpetuation; and on a bright future for the descendants of one couple paired with ongoing existential fears about whether the promise and the blessing will be sustained or if it will whither and die.  Abraham and Sarah are guaranteed children yet have none of their own until much later in life.  They are promised a land yet, early on, they have to leave that land in search of sustenance.  Fulfillment of the promise seems fleeting when Abraham has to take his son, Isaac, to the top of Mount Moriah for what appears to be his demise via human sacrifice.  This week, in פרשת תולדות, as we turn our attention to the next generation, we are once again given insight into family concerns about the future as the birthright and the blessing are passed onto the next generation.

A soon to be released study examines the reasons why parents choose to send their children to Jewish camps.  Chief among the motivations for the choice is a parental desire for their children to have more Jewishly than they themselves did.  Over and over again, parents express an understanding that not only is more, in fact, more but that Jewish camp plays a central role in providing the best of a higher quantity of Jewish experience, Jewish socializing and socialization, and Jewish learning.  In visiting communities over the past few weeks, in talking about concerns about the Jewish future, parents expressed to me the same hopes in their own words.  Parents who send their children to Camp Ramah in Wisconsin do so overwhelmingly because they recognize the unique power of the Ramah experience in instilling a commitment to Judaism, both in learning and in living.  They understand that Camp Ramah in Wisconsin is the launchpad to a bright Jewish future.

This week, the Jewish community will gather in New Orleans for the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA) - The Superbowl of Jewish communal gatherings.  For the first time in the history of the GA, the Board of Jewish Education of New York is sponsoring a conference on the Jewish future.  People will ponder and pontificate, discuss and debate.  A variety of options will emerge.  Our attention needs to turn to the most robust visions of the Jewish future, those that are rich in substance, high in frequency, and powerfully transformational in their impact.  In the end, it is those visions of the future that will lead to the brightest, most enduring futures.

As people prepare to head to New Orleans and as final preparations are put on the General Assembly and on the gathering about the Jewish future, I hope that you will spend time over Shabbat and during the week to come thinking about what you hope will be part of the Jewish future.  Engage your children and your friends in that conversation.  Challenge yourself to consider a world ripe with possibilities, without limits,  a world where the Jewish sky shines brightly.  And please share with us your thoughts, visions and hopes - those for yourselves, your children, your communities and our entire people.  

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Seeing the Good - Parashat Vayera

It is a scorching day.  The desert sun beats down on the tent making it unbearable to be inside.  Outside is no better as the temperature of the day continues to rise.  Avraham sits near the Alonim trees, which give off just a bit of relief both from the shade they produce and the bit of moisture they add, gazing out into the vastness, into the void.  Where others see desolation, Abraham sees possibility.  Where others see emptiness, Abraham perceives the Divine.  These days have been a series of trials, one after the other, and it is not clear at this moment, sitting outside in the arid heat, that the trials are over.  In fact, they are not.

For Abraham the list of challenging tests seems endless: leaving the ancestral home; making a place for a nephew along the away; brit milah at an advanced age; promises unfulfilled; constant wandering; domestic struggles; childlessness followed by sibling rivalries; and, ultimately, child sacrifice only narrowly avoided.  Each one of the trials is difficult on its own.  Combined, the picture Avraham could paint is one of pain, darkness, negativity and hopelessness.  This could be a setting where only evil and pain were perceived.

In almost every instance, however, Avraham has the uncanny ability to see things differently.  Wandering will lead to a homeland promised by God.  Childlessness will lead to generations of descendants so great that they cannot be counted just as the stars cannot be counted.  The promise of the destruction of cities leads to the chance for a deep encounter with God, an encounter that is not one-sided, where there is a possibility for a different outcome.  Why does Avraham choose to see things differently?  How can he see the positive and the possibility where most others would see only darkness?  How, in the midst of the heat of the desert day and the pain from recovering from his own brit milah does Avraham have the energy to get and run to the travelers he sees, to the Divine he perceives, and to the possibility of good that he knows travels with the wanderers?

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, in his commentary on the Torah known as Kedushat Levi, provides us with one possible answer:

“And he saw them and ran toward them” - And the issue is that the Tzaddik - the righteous person - when he sees a person, is able to distinguish whether that person is good or not.  That is to say, when the Tzaddik sees a person and brightness (or clarity) and a great light comes to him, then this is a good person and if not, then not.  

Avraham, the tzaddik, sees good where others might not be able to perceive it.  He basks in the goodness of others and creates opportunity for more good.  Moreover, he acts, even when in pain, to increase good in the world.  Far from a pollyanna, Avraham is a realist with a  default position to perceive good, to seize the moment, and to bring more good.

As the days get shorter and the city is shrouded in growing darkness even at midday, it is challenging to see good, to see possibility for good.  In place of the desert heat, we have the Midwestern cold with temperatures dropping each night.  With each passing day, it will grow harder to get up, to run to welcome others, to help them.  It will be easier to stay inside, to watch passers by, or to walk briskly past people who need help because it is oppressively cold.  As the winter draws near, the challenge for each of us it to be like Avraham - to see light in the midst of darkness; to make our spiritual homes even more welcoming to the wandering traveler; to see the goodness clearly and brightly.  And then, it is our job to increase that brightness, to be tzaddik-like in our conduct toward ourselves, toward others, and toward God.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Noah and Ham, Tyler and Dharun

Imagine this scenario:  “Joe,” either accidentally or intentionally, observes “Frank” in a very compromising position.  Rather than apologizing, Joe brings others to observe the same embarrassing moment.  As a result, “Frank” is shamed not only in the eyes of one but of many people.  In the end, Joe is marginalized or punished by society while Frank is embarrassed and feels diminished for what must feel like an eternity.  Can you imagine such a situation?  Does it sounds vaguely familiar? It should.

This week, after surviving the destruction of the world by Divine Flood, disembarking from the Ark he built and receiving his charge from God to rebuild and repopulate the world, Noah plants a vineyard.  He harvests the grapes and drinks far too much of the wine.  What happens next is stunning: Noah’s son, Ham father of Canaan, “sees” him drunk in his tent.  What Noah is doing in the tent, whether or not he is clothed, etc, is not clear but the tone indicates that he is doing something a parent would not want their child to see.  

The midrash is rife with speculation as to what Ham does next.  What he does not do is clear: He does not avert his eyes or move to prevent further embarrassment to his father.  Instead, Ham tells his two brothers, Shem and Yafet, what happened.  In trying to explain Ham’s actions, the Pesikta Zutra, an 11th century collection of midrashim, asks:

And what could Ham have done?  He “saw” intentionally and of his own will when he could have hid his eyes and chosen to avert his gaze.  “And he told them...” in mockery and with revelry.  Therefore, he was punished...  

Long before digital video cameras and cell phones with cameras and the internet, one person discovered another person in a compromising position and rather than choosing to prevent shame chose to increase the shame and humiliation by inviting others to join in the mockery.  In the eyes of the Torah, and in a world with only a few people, such shaming was punished with eternal servitude which I think all would agree is a strong consequence designed to  teach something about the severity of humiliating another.

Noah’s world was small, just a handful of people.  According to the Census Bureau, our world is just shy of 6.9 BILLION people.  If Ham lived today, he would have discovered his father in a compromising position, taken out his Flip camera, shot the footage and then sent it to his brothers via e-mail.  Not stopping there, Ham would have posted the video on his blog via YouTube, sent out tweets with a link to the site, and put up a note about it on his facebook page.  In the blink of an eye, before his brothers even had a chance to open the e-mail let alone call Ham and tell him to take the video down immediately, before they chastised him, millions of people might have seen the video because it was “forwarded” to them by a friend, moving the shameful incident from a private family matter to a world-wide humiliating phenomenon.

This past week, Tyler Clementi, a talented musician and student at Rutgers University, leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his private sexual encounter with another male student in his dorm room was transmitted across the school by his roommate (Dharun and another person) who, from another room, activated a webcam and then sent the video message to others.  Shamed and despondent, Clementi chose to tragically end his young life rather than endure the public humiliation started by his roommate and irretrievable once put on the internet.  This was another recent suicide caused by people using the internet to damage and harm others in a public sphere that, if it “goes viral,” can literally be viewed over and over again by hundreds of millions of people.  

In an article in the Huffington post, Daniel Solove cites studies indicating that

...more than 40% of young people claim to have been victimized by cyberbullying at some point in their lives. Countless victims suffer emotional distress, leading to mental breakdowns and a number of suicides.

He argues, and I agree, that the reasons for the increase in cyberbullying and its consequences are many:

One of the reasons this is occurring is because we aren't doing a sufficient job combating cyberbullying. Another reason is that we are failing to educate young people about privacy and the consequences of self-disclosure and revelation of information about others. The members of the generation growing up today -- what I call "Generation Google" -- must live with extensive information about themselves online, available anywhere in the world by doing a simple Google search. Their lives are being affected in profound ways, and they are not being given adequate guidance and education about privacy.

Not only are we not doing a good job as a society of training our young people, we send very mixed messages about privacy and self-disclosure, as Daniel Solove reminds us, for children and teens today

Various websites urge people to share more. In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, sites are encouraging people to disclose more intimate information. Despite occasional weak warnings such as "Think before you post," the predominant message is "Please share everything about yourself"...Information about young people can readily be used by kidnappers, molesters, and others bent on doing them harm. It can also be exploited by identity thieves...

As parents, adults, friends, we have an obligation to teach our children about the power of words, about the power of technology, and about the power of humiliation, self-humiliation and the humiliating of others.  No website or school training program can ever be as successful as we can at instilling good judgement in children.  And when they make a mistake in this arena, we need to apply clear, strong consequences so that the lesson will be learned.

This Shabbat, when sitting down to dinner, I hope that you will join me in talking about Noah and Ham and what happened that night at the tent.  I hope you will  talk about the wrong response - shaming - and the proper response, that of Shem and Yafet of defending the person being bullied, standing up and stopping the cyberbullying.  I hope you will talk frankly about bullying, both in-person bullying and cyberbullying, and reinforce the clear messages and expectations for online conduct I am certain you regularly send to your children.  And I hope you will remember Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, Alexis Pilkington and the thousands of others who have been victimized by cyberbullying.  Who knows?  If these  conversations take place at family dinner tables all over the country, perhaps we can help can bring an end to this scourge or at least make our own children think twice or three times before putting something up on the web that will embarrass themselves or others, or maybe by opening the door through such conversations, we can prevent a suffering child, one we don’t know is being cyberbullied, from cutting their own life short, as the Sages remind us:

One who saves one life is as if she or he has saved an entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

To read Daniel Solove’s article, The Clementi Suicide, Privacy, and How We Are Failing Generation Google

go to:

An excellent resource on the web concerning bullying, teasing, and parenting in a digital world can be found at

Here is another helpful resource for preventing cyberbullying: