Sharing the Cookies: Joy of a Nation

I feel tremendous gratitude to part of the Schusterman Fellowship. I am honored to be a part of such a remarkable cohort. In preparation for the first session of the program each of us was asked to describe our Jewish story in 3-5 vignettes from our lives. In preparing to share my Jewish narrative with my peers I recalled what must be one of my earliest memories.

I must have been in Kindergarten. I remember going in the required blue pants and white shirt. I also have a vague memory of some construction paper thing on my head. My local Jewish Day school went to a nearby Jewish old age home on Yom HaAtzmaut to sing for them.  After we finished singing two older women with thick German accents  singled me out of the crowd and pulled me aside. They told me how they were friends with my Oma, herself a German immigrant. And just like that they handed me two big bags of home-made cookies. While so many details have washed away over the years I can recall it as just yesterday the joy of sharing those cookies with my classmates on the bus.

These two women were strangers in a strange land, but they made me feel special and at home by connecting with me. Since that day I feel a responsibility to share the experience of belonging with my fellow Jews. As part of the Schusterman Fellowship I also have the good fortune of having regular meetings with a personal coach. In conversation with him I got to realized that in retrospect that experience really defines the work that I have been striving to do in the Jewish communities in Belarus, Washington University in St. Louis, and camps across North America for over 25 years.

Recently I went to suburban Philadelphia to visit my mother for Mother’s day.  When I came, having no idea I had been thinking about this story, my mother shared that she recently found picture that I might life.

I was blown away. There I am on the right with my blue pants, white shirt,  and construction paper thing on my head celebrating Israel at 30. All of these years later I recognize the significance of having a State of Israel. With a rebirth of our national homeland we would never really be alone again. Instead of a life of paranoia fearing what might be coming for us living as strangers in a strange lands, Israel would always be there to have our backs. In many ways my life’s work is helping people experience pronoia, the sense that people are conspiring to help them, by joyfully sharing the cookies.

Unplugging to Connect

– This week my colleague Kate O’Brien wrote a great in eJewishPhilanthropy sharing our work . Enjoy.

 

As the world races by at the speed of technology, it becomes harder to live into moments of joy and beauty, or even of sadness and longing. With nothing to ground us, we miss out on opportunities to form meaningful memories that will sustain us over time. Jewish wisdom has a response to the urgency of human existence – slow daily counting. Since the second night of Passover, Jews have been counting the Omer (sefirat ha-omer). Each evening, we number the days from Passover and the exodus through the sea to Shavuot and the arrival at the foot of the mountain. Jewish mystical tradition aligns each week and each day of the Omer with aspects of the Divine, which speak to our relationships with God and our neighbors. This week’s Divine attribute is Yesod: creating a bond. Today’s count of the Omer, Day 36, challenges us to reflect on the Chesed Yesod – the loving-kindness of bonding. This day teaches us to extricate ourselves from the external bondage of slavery and to reach for the internal bonds of friendship and the promise of covenant. Bonds of friendship let us know that who we are – what we think and feel – is important. As we count the Omer, we reflect that it is our friends who make us feel that we count.

Among the many issues with which we struggle today is the ability to develop authentic friendships. We cannot blame Facebook alone for transforming “friend” into a verb that means “to form a generally superfluous connection mediated though a screen.” Children and young adults exert far more effort interfacing in real time, but seldom in real relationships. The consequence is that we are raising a generation plagued by emotional illiteracy. The crisis of impersonal communications has arrested our ability to create strong connections. Perhaps this day of the Omer is begging us to slow down just a bit to remember how special that sacred bond of friendship can be to children and adults alike.

Based on research – and nearly two decades of experience – the Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) has found that camp is where Jewish youth establish enduring friendships, connect with role models, and create lasting memories. At camp, we unplug in order to connect. If the experience of Jewish summer camp is about anything, it is about putting screens aside to bond in friendship through shared experiences. That could mean bunkmates cheering you on as you put your head underwater for the first time, or the spirit of the Maccabiah team who keeps fighting from behind, or a Shabbat with hundreds of campers, dressed in white, chanting ancient melodies with a special camp twist. It might also be the bonding between a counselor and her campers or between a unit head and his staff. And how do camps facilitate this environment? By eliminating the screens, bringing campers together face-to-face, and explicitly valuing the bonds of friendship. We know that camp friendships are often lifelong because of the intensity and the intentionality of the in-person interactions.

Feeling big feelings and growing emotionally are essential parts of Jewish summer camp. So is making core memories. While camp may be an ideal educational framework in which to cultivate emotional intelligence, it is all of our jobs to help nurture our youth through experiences that will help them grow physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. These experiences are the building blocks of character. Building on the success of the Making Mensches: A Periodic Table and inspired by the animated film, Inside Out (Disney, 2015), FJC has created the Inside Out package of resources for camps, children, and camp families. Made possible by Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the purpose of this project is to help our youth learn to identify, understand, and express their feelings in order to make room for lasting friendships and core memories. FJC’s toolbox includes imaginative, printable posters that explore the links among feelings and between Jewish wisdom and basic emotions. All educators and parents can use experiential lesson plans to help youth to recognize their feelings, to articulate what they are experiencing, and to make good behavior decisions. These tools can be used in the moment, as a regular check-in, or even as a pre-Shabbat activity to help people move into a sacred time with full awareness.

When we speak the language of feelings, we expand our capacity for friendship. If we can build these experiences in intentional ways, we may well have lasting lessons, as well as lasting memories to build lives that matter. Just as there are many ways to manifest the counting of the Omer to deepen our lives, there are many ways we can use our power to help raise a generation that is responsive to and responsible for the world around us.

FJC is excited to share these and other materials with the field. We invite your feedback and stories about the ways in which you use them. Your insights will help us as we continue to develop and refine the array of resources we offer.

Making Mensches 2.0

As someone who personally takes parenting seriously and professionally has the pleasure of working with Jewish camps, I can proudly say that I am in the business of making mensches.

Camp offers an ideal environment for character development.  To harness the potential of this, we created a periodic table back in 2014 to develop a common language for this holy work. This was met with a great deal of excitement and creative initiatives by many educators in camps, synagogue schools, and Jewish Day schools, and parents alike.

Inspired by their response and an amazing website on the Periodic Table on TedEd, we’re thrilled to announce an expanded, interactive website version of Making Mensches, a project of FJC’s Hiddur Initiative, made possible by The AVI CHAI Foundation, Jim Joseph Foundation, and the The Maimonides Fund.

Image result for ted ed periodic table

We developed this project to help people explore how to communicate each of these values through text, programs, and different media.  Like the process of actually making mensches, this tool will continually be in progress as a living resource bank.  We encourage you to help us grow this resource by sharing your programs, as well as text and media inspiration for these values.

 VIEW THE MAKING MENSCHES SITE! 

Like the original poster version of the table, there’s no wrong way to use this. We can’t wait to hear about the moments of intentional character development you create for your campers, staff, students, parents, board members, peers, and children!

If you have any questions or are open to sharing additional resources, please contact Teri McGuire at teri@jewishcamp.org. For other inquiries email me at hiorlow@gmail.com  . Happy Mensch-Making!

A Week of Perseverance: The Omer and the Resistance

This week was a big week for us filled with some of our nation’s the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows. Off the heals of Yom HaShoah last week, this week was packed with Yom haZikaron followed by Yom Haztamaut. While we have spent most of history in diaspora we never lost our hope to return to Israel. Our national strength and fortitude was forged in our march from slavery in Egypt to receive the Torah at Sinai. During this time we are also counting the Omer as we count the time from Passover to Shavuot. In a short period of 49 days our ancestors were transformed from a disembodied slaves to a nation standing before the Creator ready to receive the Torah.

The Kabbalists projected on to this journey of 7 weeks a whole program of traveling through a 7 by 7 grid of the different valences of experiencing the sephirot, emanations of the Divine. It seems fitting that today the 25th day of the Omer at the culmination of this week commemorating the recent survival and flourishing of the Jewish people we take notice of the moment of being Netzach ShebeNetzach, perseverance in the valence of perseverance. Today is the day in which we celebrate our steadfastness in doing something despite the difficulty or delay in achieving success.

Angela Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, writes a lot of grit. You should check out her Ted Talk:

Professor Duckworth wrote:

…grit grows as we figure out our life philosophy, learn to dust ourselves off after rejection and disappointment, and learn to tell the difference between low-level goals that should be abandoned quickly and higher-level goals that demand more tenacity. The maturation story is that we develop the capacity for long-term passion and perseverance as we get older.( Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success)

This reminds me of how we see ourselves in the Hatikvah :

Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost: To be a free people in our land

We are truly a gritty and ancient people with a youthful soul. It is clear we have the capacity to endure much more than we can imagine, and to prevail under the most trying of circumstances. Today more than ever the world needs our grit to help in persistence in the resistance. We need to persevere, this will take some time.

-More on Netzach

My Defining Moment

We read in Tazria Metzoria, this week’s Torah portion, that when a person is afflicted with tzaraat they must dwell alone outside of the camp until they are healed. Tzaraat is commonly translated at leprosy but was actually a scaly affection of the skin with some discoloration. It was not contagious, but rather is seems to have been a symptom of an inner spiritual disorder.  Why is dwelling outside of the camp so transformative?

I was thinking about this recently when reading a paper that my Yishama had to write. His assignment was to explore a defining moment in his life to date. This is what he wrote and the drawing that accompanied it:

Before I went to sleep-away camp I wasn’t independent or responsible. I was not responsible because I didn’t ask for any responsibility. I wasn’t as productive at school because I didn’t have a sense of how important school was. I relied on my parents and au pair a lot because I didn’t have to be independent or responsible.

The summer I went to sleep-away camp changed my life. At sleep-away camp I was introduced to many kinds of people. The environment at camp was different because there were all kinds of people and different ways of living, which helped open me up to new foods and lifestyles. When I came home from camp my parents were surprised by how much I had changed and matured.

After I came home from sleep-away camp, I was more independent, responsible, and didn’t rely on other people as much. When I came home from camp my parents trusted me enough to let me do a lot of things I had not been allowed to do before I went to camp, such as staying home alone and making my own plans. When I came back from camp I was more productive in class because I knew the value of education.  Meeting some of my new friends at camp showed me how much they valued education and they inspired me to keep learning more – just like they do. Going to sleep-away camp opened my eyes to the world around me and the person I aspire to be.

For Yishama leaving home and going to camp helped his grow in his confidence and sense of responsibility. Coming into contact with all kinds of people and different ways of living helped Yishama open up. When he returned from a summer at Camp Stone he was transformed spiritually. I can only assume leaving camp was as transformative to the ancient Israelites. And in both cases I assume when they came back they needed a really good shower.

One Dance Remix

 

Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, starts on the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration of the Tabernacle. Connected to this theme we see in the Haftarah the image of King David dancing and whirling around with all his might as they brought the Ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the City of David to inaugurate its new location. While he was rejoicing his wife Michal was disgusted by what she perceived to be David’s completely demeaning to the office of the King.

There we read:

David went home to greet his household. And Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “Didn’t the king of Israel do himself honor today — exposing himself today in the sight of the slave girls of his subjects, as one of the riffraff might expose himself!” David answered Michal, “It was before the Lord who chose me instead of your father and all his family and appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel! I will dance before the Lord and dishonor myself even more, and be low in my own esteem; but among the slave girls that you speak of I will be honored.” ( II Samuel  6:20-22)
Michal was discussed with David and claims that be embarrassed himself. In return David lashed out at her rubbing her father’s down fall in her face. At the core of their disagreement is a discussion as to what is the proper conduct.

For Michal people need to dress and act appropriately to that might actually manifest greatness. For David he saw himself as but a small creature with the opportunity to celebrate God. How was this beneath him?

I was thinking about this recently when listening to Noey from Maccabeats King David Remix of Drake‘s One Dance.  As you will see below at the start of this video they quote our Haftarah.  Check it out:

Noey takes Drakes trivial but sensual song about a guy picking up a girl up in bar and transforms it into a meaningful song about David’s pleading to have one dance before God. I love the move from banal sexuality to divine intimacy. Clearly Michal was listening to Drake’s original and not Noey’s remix.

Calendar and Convenience

For some of us today has been spent gearing up for the final days of the Passover Holiday starting tonight. Having had Seder Monday and Tuesday night last week and then Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach it has been a very busy week . For someone like myself who enjoys a lack of structure and is trying to lose some weight, it has been hard week filled with ritual eating.  Juxtaposed my traditional observance of the the rhythm of the Jewish calendar there has been an increasing number of people moving their observance of the Passover Seder to a time of mutual convenience. Recently I saw this phenomenon of moving the Jewish calendar to make sense in the lives of North American Jews being pointed out in Judaism Unbound, one of my favor Podcasts, in an episode by Vanessa Ochs, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. Professor Ochs points out that it does not work for her, but it is clearly working for the practitioners. What is ritual if not to make meaning for the practitioners?

I was thinking about this shift in practice when looking at the Torah’s description of this time of the year. There we read:

And you shall count to you from the morrow after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the waving; seven weeks shall there be complete; ( Leviticus 23:15)

During this time of the year we are told to count seven complete weeks of the Omer. Traditionally this means from the second day of Passover until Shavuot. But if you look in the text it actually says that we should count “from the morrow after the day of rest.” The Rabbis determined that “Shabbat” here means a day of rest and refers to the first day of Passover. According to this calculation, Shavuot will fall on the day of the week after that of the first day of Passover (e.g., if Passover starts on a Thursday, Shavuot will begin on a Friday).

Karaites differ in their understanding of “morrow after the Sabbath”. Karaites interpret the Sabbath to be the first weekly Sabbath that falls during Passover. As a result, the Karaite Shavuot is always on a Sunday, although the actual Hebrew date varies. Could one reread the Rabbinic interpretation that “Shabbat” here refers to the first day of Passover in reverse? What if Passover Seder was the Shabbat closest to Passover? That would make everything a lot easier.

I doubt that the current trend to move Passover to be at a time of convenience is remotely connected to any of these readings, I assume they are just doing what is convenient.  Just as I look at the Karaites with some skepticism, it is curious to imagine how future generations if not today’s generation might read the Rabbinic stringency around the Jewish calendar. I can admit a sadness that the Jewish people might separate as we have from the Karaites in the past. If we are out of sync with ourselves in not keeping a single Jewish calendar will we still be one people? But what is Jewish ritual if it has lost his meaning to a vast majority of Jews. When thinking about recreating relevant Jewish ritual Rabbi Levi Lauer‘s adage comes to mind. He wisely said, ” Comfort is not a Jewish Value.” Is convenience a Jewish Value?


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