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.