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Tisha B’Av and Social Distancing

I have many memories of painfully sitting on the floor at camp during Eicha reading, but alas those are sweet memories in that they remind me of being in community. This year during Covid-19 I read Eicha and think about Tisha B’Av differently. What is the meaning of Tisha B’Av without community? There at the start of Eicha we read:

How does the city sit alone, that was full of people! How has she become as a widow! She who was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!  She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Yehudah is gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her within the straits. (Lamentations 1:1-3)

For five months we have been sheltering in place and like Jerusalem. It is interesting to reflect on how this theme of sitting alone runs throughout this fast day. Is it possible that the whole experience of Tisha B’Av is itself touches on this idea of social isolation?

We should start to answer this question by looking at the Seudah HaMafseket– the “separating meal” eaten before the fast. The ritual is orchestrated in a very careful way. In Shulchan Aruch we learn:

There are those who are careful to not sit in groups of three to eat the pre-fast meal, so that they are not obligated in a Zimun (for grace after the meal), rather everyone sits alone and makes grace to themselves. (Sh”A O’H 552:8)

We enter into the holiday eating by ourselves in isolation. We maintain this solitude throughout the day. As we see in the Shulchan Aruch:

You do not ask for peace (greet) of your fellow on the 9th of Av, and if commoners who do not know give peace (say hello), you respond to them in a hushed tone and heavy disposition. (Sh”A O’H 554:20)

There is clearly an experience of Tisha B’Av that is founded on our solitude. But why?

The image of the city sitting alone that we saw at the start of Eicha is revisited later in the book. There we read:

Let him sit alone and keep silence, because God has laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. (Lamentation 3:28-29)

Here amidst all of the darkness and sadness of Eicha we see a rare glimmer of hope. It seems having to sit in silence and isolation is a means to salvation. This idea is hauntingly similar the CDC’s Advise to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19. Being responsible and practicing social distancing we will stem the spreading of this plague and be our salvation. Until we find a vaccine that is our only hope. 

Social Distancing Is Hard, But The Alternative Is Much Worse ...

-See text sheet on the topic Tisha B’Av in a Time of Isolation

 

Juneteenth: Between Revelation and Relevance

One of my favorite mishnayot in Perkei Avot starts:

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth from Mount Horev (Sinai)… ( Avot 6:2)

Surely Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi believed that there was an event of transmission of the Torah at Sinai. If it was a singular event, what did he mean? Is it the a same message going out from the Mount Horev radio tower on the daily or does that message change? If it does changes did he think that that revelation at Sinai was incomplete?  What are the implications of a daily progressive notion of revelation?

Radio Tower PNG Images, Free Transparent Radio Tower Download ...

This idea seems to be connected to the teaching of Ben Bag Bag who taught:

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it. (Avot 5:22)

There was an event of revelation and there is an additional mandate to help that message go forth and be turned into something that is relevant.  This work is not reserved for one period in our lives.  This is a daily practice that is year-round and life-long. While the Torah might have gone out at Sinai centuries ago, it is our work to make sure it is heard every day.

I was thinking about this today on Juneteenth. On June 19th we commemorate the emancipation of enslaved people in the US. The holiday was first celebrated in Texas, where on that date in 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War, slaves were declared free under the terms of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation. While that day was a revelation of a truth that we are all free and equal, it is clear that our society is still not living up to this promise of treating people equally. It has been 155 years and there is still much work for us to do every day to ensure that we are all living up to this truth. What do we need to turn and turn again in our society to uproot systemic racism? There is still so much work to be done to reform our police force that targets people of color. We still have so much work for do to deal with bias at every level of our society.

I am not sure what we need to do, but I know that we need to do more. I do want to offer one insight from Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi. In the same mishna he taught:

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut [‘graven’] but herut [ ‘freedom’].( Avot 6:2)

Even when it is written in the law – harut that we are all free, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure we are actually all free- herut . We cannot hide behind the law, we need to do the daily work of making sure that we are living up to our aspiration and that all of us are safe and free. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

The revelation of freedom is incomplete until we all treat each other with respect and dignity.

All That Breathes: Language of the Unheard

These last few month with COVID-19 things have been bad, but recently we reached a new low. The tragic murder of George Floyd has brought into focus the systemic racism in our society. And his last words have been resonating for many of us:

George Floyd: Liam Payne shares 'I can't breathe' quote after his ...

COVID-19 and the protests have come together in the expression of not being able to breathe. Seen here are two of thousands of people with masks to protect them from COVID-19 expressing outrage for a government and police force that is not there to protect them:

George Floyd protests reveal racism in coronavirus and police ...

I found myself thinking about this breathe and I found myself reading Psalms found in the liturgy. There we see:

Hallelujah. Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in the sky, God’s stronghold. Praise God for God’s mighty acts; praise God for God’s exceeding greatness. Praise God with blasts of the horn; praise God with harp and lyre.Praise God with timbrel and dance; praise God with lute and pipe. Praise God with resounding cymbals; praise God with loud-clashing cymbals. Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah. (Psalms 150)

At first glance I noticed that the symphony being described as all families of instruments represented. On this Psalm Saint Augustine (354 –430 CE) commented:

The breath is employed in blowing the trumpet; the fingers are used in striking the strings of the psaltery and the harp; the whole hand is exerted in beating the timbrel; the feet move in the dance

This Psalm gives voice to every dimension of the human experience. This comes to a head in the end when it describes human beings as that that breathe. We are beyond animals because we use that breathe to praise God. This Psalm reciprocates the creation of Adam in Eden. There we read:

The Lord God formed human from the dust of the earth. God blew into their nostrils the breath of life, and human became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Breathing is the essence of what it means to be human. The tragic snuffing out of George Floyd’s breathe reminds us that there are many in our society who have been stripped of their rights and do not have a voice in society.

We are all reminded of the holy words of Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) who said that, “Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual responsibility.” We are spiritually driven to secure the safety, voice, and opportunity of “all that breathes.”

We cannot dismiss the voices of those that are responding in rage to this senseless killing. We are reminded of the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr who said:

Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

We must all do what we can to amplify the voices of the unheard to make sure that we have “social justice and progress”. It is only at that time when we will live out the words of Psalms and enjoy the rich symphony of humanity in praise of God.

Yosef and Yom HaAtzamut: On Chesed and Interdepence

This is a very busy time of year. A two months ago we celebrated Purim, a month later Pesach, last week we had Yom HaShoah, today we commemorated Yom HaZikaron, tonight we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, and then in few weeks we will celebrate Shavuot. Between the slavery and genocide of our ancestors Yom HaShoah, Purim, and Pesach represent the nadir of our history. And the reception of the Torah centuries ago and founding of the modern state of Israel are the zenith of our existence. I wanted to pause for a moment in preparation for Yom HaAtzmaut to reflect on this modern experience during our current crisis.

Before I get to that I need to confess some sadness that I have been carrying for that last few weeks while in COVID-19 social isolation. Over the last 20 years when I can I volunteer in the local chevra kadisha. Preparing a body for burial is a Chesed Shel Emet –  “Charity of True Loving Kindness”. This is an activity in which the recipient of the Chesed by design cannot repay the debt. The dead person is completely dependent on the Chesed of others. We have had to suspend our activity during this plague due to the risk to the volunteers.

When I think about the obligation to take care of a  corpse I think about Yosef at the end of his life. There we read:

So Yosef made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up atzmotai- my bones from here.” (Genesis 50:25)

Yosef was not asking for a random act of chesed. Despite having been sold by his brothers into slavery, when they showed up in Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan, Yosef helped them without stipulation or retribution. Yosef is the model of Chesed to his brothers. And in the end he was not asking for anything in return, but to return his bones back to his ancestral home.

In this context Yosef’s bones unlock a profound understanding of Yom HaAtzmaut. Atzmaut – independence shares the same root with atzem-bone. On Yom HaZikaron we commemorate the sacrifices, like those of Yosef, made for our nation. This day we celebrate our brother’s long awaited return home. This day we celebrate repaying one Chesed with another. Yosef’s long aspiration to have his atzmot bones returned home are echoed in the Hatikvah. There we read:

Our hope is not yet lost,
The two-thousand-year-old hope,
To be a free nation in our land.

As much as Yom HaAtzaut is the acme of being Jewish in our expression of independence from nations who have put us in slavery or wanted to kill us, it is also an expression of our interdependence between brethren over thousands of years of hope.

As for now I stand in awe of our doctors and nurses who are doing real Chesed by working on the front line of COVID-19. Here is a picture from the Boston Globe of my brother who is doctor at BMC who is also a proud member of his chevrah Kadisha in Boston.

Boston Medical Center patient Candace Samayoa waved goodbye to nurses as she was being released from the hospital. Samayoa had been admitted to BMC two weeks earlier after testing positive for COVID-19.

I am sad that in social isolation I cannot do a Chesed shel Emet. I feel independent and cut off. More then in years past I yearn to be interdependent and connected with my family, local community, and nation. Have a great great Yom HaAtzmaut. Stay safe and connected.

-Inspired by Yishama’s Bar Mitzvah speech

Peppercorn, Perchik, and the Pandemic

Before COVID-19 I was focusing on the failing Trump administration, now with COVID-19 I am fearful of a failed state. Will America survive this?

This question reminds me of Tevye. Yes, recently I was doing hazara on Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman and I came across an extraordinary quote. There Tevye is telling Shalom Aleichem, who is a character in his own story, about his daughter Hodl.  Peppercorn, or Perchik as we know him from Fiddler on the Roof, is a student revolutionary who comes to Anatevka and falls in love with Hodl. He leaves for Kiev to help in the efforts to overthrow the corrupt government, is arrested, and exiled to Siberia. Tevye is embarrassed to share the news that Hodl is also leaving Anatevka to be with Peppercorn in Siberia.

 Fiddler On The Roof. Amazing Movies, Good Movies, Hot Men, Hot Guys, Paul Michael Glaser, Fiddler On The Roof, Broadway Plays, Character Development, Moving Pictures

There we read:

That did it! I couldn’t keep it in a second longer. You see, just then I thought of my Hodl when I held her as a baby in my arms… she was just a tiny thing then… and I held her in these arms… please forgive me, Pani, if…if I… just like a woman… but I want you to know what a Hodl I have! You should see the letters that she writes me… she’s God’s own Hodl, Hodl is… and she’s with me right here all the time…deep deep down.. there’s just no way to put it into words… You know what, Pani Shalom Aleichem? Let’s talk about something more cheerful. Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?

We see Shalom Aleichem’s comedy of trying to lighten the mood my changing the conversion from his daughter being swept up in the politics of the day to a plague. Today this quote seems prescient. Before COVID-19 Trump was just horrible and an embarrassment. With COVID-19 the Trump administration’s maleficence and gross incompetence is causing suffering and death. I would love to go back to the comedy, but that is just not possible. When will we be able to take a break from the pandemic to fixing the state by changing the government? I am worried I sound like Pani Perchik.

-Another piece on Fiddler of the Roof: Fence on The Roof- 50 Years Since Fiddler

Between the Forest and the Tree: Undertaking the Major Task of Culture Change

At the end of 2018, Foundation for Jewish Camp concluded the first cohort of the Hiddur Initiative. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Maimonides Fund, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, the Hiddur Initiative was a pilot experiment to help eight Jewish overnight summer camps become more effective at delivering Jewish educational experiences to their campers and staff, in ways that align with each camp’s unique Jewish mission. In reflecting on this demonstration project, I realize that Peter Senge, the change management guru, was right when he said, “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Two stories from camps about the challenges and opportunities change provides offer insights into the experience of the Hiddur Initiative. Interestingly, both stories are about trees, which model the delicate balance of permanence and growth.

The first story goes that there was a new camp director at his first summer at camp. When he got there he was disturbed to discover a “gum tree” – a tree where all of the campers and staff would put their gum before Shabbat prayer. Feeling that this was gross and unsightly, he had the groundskeeper cut down the tree before the second Shabbat of the summer. Often, when people tell this story, they claim that the director was fired before the tree hit the ground. The tree was a part of their camp culture, and the camp director had broken their trust by cutting it down without consulting anyone from the community who could have helped him understand its significance. While there is a time and place for quick, responsive adjustments or shifts in policies and procedures, we do it at our own peril if we are not conscious and conscientious of the cultural context. In order to bring about change we need to have reverence for tradition.

The second story comes from Helene Drobenare, the longtime director of Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake. Once, when asked about the secret to her success in leadership, she told a story about a trip up to URJ Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute (OSRUI) in the winter early in her career. As she tells it, she and Jerry Kaye, the legendary director, were driving around camp and he stopped and made them get out of the car. It was freezing cold and all she could see was a thick forest of trees. Not understanding the significance of this moment, Helene asked Jerry what they were doing. He pulled out an old large map. Jerry said, “Look at this. It is the map of OSRUI from when I took over as the director.” Pointing out where they were standing, he continued, “See right here, this was an open field, but I wanted it to be a forest.” When Jerry retired last year he had been the director at OSRUI for close to half a century, and he’d left a thick forest as part of his legacy.

Between the two stories of two trees we can understand a profound lesson of change management. Camp maintains a depth of culture founded on a utopian sense of tradition. While short term wins are important, there are no shortcuts to changing culture. We can do almost anything we can imagine in a community or an organization as long as we have respect for the tradition we have inherited, have a clear vision for the future, and have the grit, gumption, and patience to see that field become a lush forest.

Laying the Groundwork for Meaningful Change
Each of the eight camps was asked to set goals for change with their Hiddur coaches, who were expert Jewish camp educators, so that, critically, the process was internally motivated. To help create this motivation, Hiddur coaches introduced camp leaders to a deeper use of data so they could see and understand the impact and outcomes their actions were having. As Brian Schreiber, President & CEO of JCC of Greater Pittsburgh, which owns Emma Kaufmann Camp (EKC) said:

You can’t build a great Jewish camp without building a great camp and we had to take data seriously to do that. The CSI (Camper Satisfaction Insights) and SSI (Staff Satisfaction Insights) data led to a lot of soul-searching, change and a detailed intense three-year strategic plan for EKC. Hiddur helped us uncover some areas we needed to focus on and pilot programs often are at the edge of the R & D that this field needs. If Hiddur was designed as a catalyst to do more, the pilot achieved its goal at EKC 100%.

By approaching this process with a coach in a strategic, data-informed way, camp leaders felt empowered to make decisions about what should—and should not—be changed.  Creating change, as the evaluation on Hiddur affirms, often is a sensitive and difficult endeavor. But if people see that change is necessary to fulfill the mission, people are more likely to support it. Hiddur gave space for camp leaders to map out where they wanted to keep the fields as they were, what needed to be chopped down, and where they wanted to seed forests.

Camp leaders, for example, whose camps had a stated set of Jewish educational tenets or objectives began Hiddur by reviewing that list to see what was and was not aligned in practice.  How could those stated principles be refreshed and better expressed in action? Returning to those initial intentions created that essential internal motivation among the camp’s stakeholders and cemented the commitment to the process. No one was cutting down any “gum trees”; they were restoring their camp to their core values.  B’nai B’rith (BB) Camp, for example, worked with its Hiddur coach to articulate goals based on their B’nai B’rith brand and culture. Much of the “culture” in this case was already defined; they had a sense of what they wanted to preserve. But they also wanted to increase camp-wide participation in Jewish life. To this end, they created a pre-camp Shabbaton for staff and teen leaders aimed at getting a core group of camp influencers on board and inspired by the Jewish life enhancements. Now, BB Camp Shabbat is led for the first time by a team of home grown song leaders and community educators who have developed tunes, dances and rituals that are unique to their camp.

Independent camps not affiliated with a denomination or movement face a particular challenge—a lack of a built-in framework—when trying to define their “camp culture” of Jewish education. Asking any organization to start with reflection instead of “doing” can be a challenge, but this is what Hiddur asked of its cohort. Only then could coaches and camp leaders together create a path for the camp to identify their brand as a Jewish camp. One independent camp in the initiative reflected:

In 2016 we did not have a framing for Judaism at camp. Hiddur helped us lay out who we are as a Jewish camp, what does it mean to be a Jewish camp, how do we identify to Jewish community as a Jewish camp. Creating our core Jewish values was helpful in how we framed Jewish life at camp. Before, we were making it up as we went along.

Outside Help Moves the Change Process Forward—Slowly
Creating change is an easier process with outside facilitation and help. Since the pull to “do what we have always done” competes with vision and aspirations for improvement, having a coach to provide gentle reminders and a guide back to camps’ own stated goals is a difference-maker. The Hiddur coaches facilitated reflection on and evaluation of the process intermittently, talking through the change, addressing some of the camp leaders’ discomfort, and providing camps a way to “consult the map” along the way. The coaches were able to help these communities define and refine for themselves their own Jewish brand, programming, and messaging.

At the same time, a paramount learning here is that real change takes time. An initiative meant to facilitate change must provide a framework that accounts for this. Rather than ask camps to commit to an unrealistic measurable change over one camp season, Hiddur was a three year program (and even that amount of time proved to be too short to execute and see all of the changes that these camps envisioned). By setting a longer time-horizon, camps could dream big and work slowly at change. While we are confident that we could make the process shorter than three years, there are no shortcuts to culture change. Now, after a year since Hiddur concluded, FJC is eager to bring a tighter version of this model of coaching to more camps.

John F. Kennedy said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” Brian Schreiber from Pittsburgh articulated the unique role of the Hiddur team in this challenging change process: “Three years ago we knew we were good, but not great. We wanted to up the game on Jewish life, but didn’t have the right people or focus to make it happen. Hiddur gave us direction, justification for making change and made us intentional about everything we do when it comes to Jewish life at camp and this entire agency.” With Hiddur, we at FJC are thrilled to see the emergence of wonderful forests of Jewish life at each of these camps. From where we sit, in all of our work we know that we cannot lose sight of the majestic forests for a “gum tree.”

– Read the full evaluation conducted by Rosov Consulting, Beautification and Exploration: Evaluating Three Years of the Hiddur Initiative.

– Reposted from Jim Joseph Foundation 

 

Big Bird z”l: A Little Torah in Memory of Caroll Spinney

Caroll Spinney, the legendary actor and puppeteer who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street over five decades, died Sunday at age 85. Originally designed by a drawing from Jim Henson and built by Kermit Love in 1969 Big Bird was the iconic central character from Sesame Street. This huge yellow bird was bigger than life and at the same time a surrogate through which the children watching the show could understand the world being introduced to them through the television. Here is a fitting tribute to Spinney.

 

His passing gives me pause to reflect on the impact of Big Bird and Sesame Street has had on the world.

I also pause to reflect on another legendary bird, this one comes from Jewish mythology. Bar-Yokhani was a colossal bird which was believed to have a wingspan large enough to block out the sun. In the Talmud we learn:

Rabbi Yishmael ben Satriel also testified before Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: Once an egg of the bird called bar yokhani fell, and the contents of the egg drowned sixty cities and broke three hundred cedar trees. The Gemara asks: And does the bar yokhani bird throw its eggs to the ground? But isn’t it written: “The kenaf renanim bird rejoices, but are her wings and feathers those of the stork? For she leaves her eggs on the earth, and warms them in dust” (Job 39:13–14)? The Sages understood that kenaf renanim is another name for the bar yokhani bird. If so, how could its egg fall if it lays its eggs on the ground? Rav Ashi said in explanation: That egg was unfertilized, and since it would never hatch the bird threw it to the ground. ( Bekhorot 57b)

Now that is another big bird. It is a powerful image of the impact that a simple but big idea could have on people.

Caroll Spinney’s passing is the end of an era. It is a sad day. It is a bad day. As Big Bird taught us:

Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.

Big Big made us feel good about ourselves without ignoring these bad days. May Caroll Spinney’s memory be for a blessing. 

The Sound of Deep Empathy: Thoughts on the Rise of Antisemitism and the Sound of the Shofar

In getting ready for Rosh HaShanah I have been giving some thought to the strange year which was 5779. From the shouting in synagogues to demagoguery in the White House is has been a tough year. One thing that stands out this year is a rise is antisemitism domestically and abroad. From political antisemitism like Corbyn’s Labour Party and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to the physical violence we saw in Pittsburgh and Poway as Jewish people we find ourselves being hated by the left, the right, all over the world. From Cohen to Kushner and Adam Schiff to Volodymyr Zelensky we are in the thick of much of our current crisis. While no one knows how this will all go, it does not take the Vilna Gaon to realize that this will not ends well for us. Given the current context it is hard to imagine the scenario in which we will not be blamed.

Since the advent of Elul I have been thinking about this resurgence of antisemitism in the context of the daily blowing of the shofar? All of these blasts are leading us to Rosh HaShanah which is filled with the blowing the Shofar. And why do we blow Shofar on Rosh HaShanah? On one level we could see that Rosh HaShanah is the trumpets announcing God’s coronation. Is Rosh HaShanah just another expression of nationalism? How is our celebration of our King with shofar blasts categorically different from any other jingoism? Is it so different from China’s celebration of 70 years of communism with all of the tanks and missiles on display?

In fact there are a number of different reasons given for blowing shofar on Rosh HaShanah. One of the more interesting reasons comes from a discussion in Gemara of Rosh HaShanah where the Rabbis were trying to determine the length of time a shofar blast should last. The Mishnah suggest  that a terua should be equal to the length of three whimpers. There we learn:

Isn’t it taught in a baraita that the length of a terua is equal to the length of three shevarim, i.e., broken blasts, which presumably are longer than whimpers? Abaye said: In this matter, the tanna’im certainly disagree. Although the first baraita can be reconciled with the mishna, this second baraita clearly reflects a dispute. As it is written: “It is a day of sounding [terua] the shofar to you”(Numbers 29:1), and we translate this verse in Aramaic as: It is a day of yevava to you. And to define a yevava, the Gemara quotes a verse that is written about the mother of Sisera: “Through the window she looked forth and wailed [vateyabev], the mother of Sisera” (Judges 5:28). One Sage, the tanna of the baraita, holds that this means moanings, broken sighs, as in the blasts called shevarim. And one Sage, the tanna of the mishna, holds that it means whimpers, as in the short blasts called teruot. (Rosh HaShanah 33b)

Simply to quote Numbers and say we blow shofar on Rosh HaShanah because it is the day of blowing shofar is tautology and does not add much insight. In comparison it is interesting to make the connection to the wailing of  Sisera’s mother. As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

It is strange enough that the Bible depicts this general’s mother there at the window watching her son die, but it seems even more peculiar that we evoke the sound of the mother of our enemy on Rosh HaShanah. Why?

Image result for empathy

While it is easy to relate with our family, community memberd, or those who are like us, it can hard to empathize with those that are different from us. Hearing to the voice of the mother of an antisemite in the sound of the shofar can help us build a profound foundation of empathy. We can never forget that every child regardless of what they turn into or do started life with a parent who loved them. So yes we need to call our and confront antisemitism in any form and from any source, but even with this vigilance we cannot forget that even Sisera had a mother who deserves our empathy. If we can hear that voice we can build on that love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” We will not uproot antisemitism with more hedonistic hatred or nihilistic nationalism. The sound of the shofar is an invitation for us to cut through the darkness and build on the light of empathy. On Rosh HaShanah, the Day of Judgement, we must work hard and unearth ahavat chinam, a love without cause.  We need to construct a foundation of universal and deep empathy upon which we can build a better world. If we can do this we will be judged favorably in 5780.

Shanah Tova. Maybe all be blessed to do our part to build a foundation of universal and deep empathy.

Yahrzeit for 9/11

The 23rd of Elul is the 18th Yahrzeit of 9/11. Where were you when you heard about the Twin Towers being hit? Where were you when you realized we were under attack? These are moments we will never forget. This series of four coordinated terrorist attacks killed 2,977 people and changed the world as we  knew it. For many of us, 9/11 is formative to the people we are today.

We are two professionals, partners, and parents jointly committed to strengthening institutions of Jewish Life. Adina has spent much of her career working in Jewish Federations on behalf of synagogues and more recently day schools and strengthening the pipeline of professionals in Jewish communal organizations, Avi has spent his career working at a national umbrella on behalf of camps and on a college campus. As we recall that inauspicious day, each of us found ourselves taking solace in institutions. When the plane hit the first tower, Avi was in the basement of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. Adina had just come out of the subway on her way to HUC cantorial school after the second tower was hit, catching a horrifying glimpse of the first tower crumbling. While both of us had already chosen paths of  Jewish communal life to make an impact, in the days that followed 9/11 we were inspired by the heroes who were driven to fix this broken world and we recommitted ourselves to doing our part through our sacred communal service. 

We pause today to take stock of who we are as individuals, the blessings of our family and our community, and what we have become as a nation. Looking back 18 years we shutter to realize that this year the 9/11 babies born after this fateful day will go to college. The junior counselors in our camps who will be looking after our children were born into this new reality. Like our own kids, this generation will only know a post 9/11 world. 

As we think about what will become of the legacy of the institutions of Jewish life that we inherited, we must note the poignancy that to this next generation, 9/11 is their legacy. On a visceral level this generation will have a radically different orientation to brick and mortar buildings, to the value of community, and to the causes that matter.  We must recognize that 9/11 represents a radical paradigm shift, especially for a generation for whom active shooter drills are the norm and the daily effects of global warming remind them of the fragility of their future. They are a generation living with existential and physical angst; where will they seek comfort? As we learn in Psalms 121:1, “I lift my eyes to the mountains, from whence shall my help come?” Our daily work is informed by the need to radically rethink our institutions, so that the next generation continues to find comfort, be motivated and inspired by Jewish life. 

 

Cantor Adina H. Frydman is the Executive Director of Community Resources at UJA-Federation of New York. Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow is the Vice President of Innovation and Education at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Together, they are the proud parents of four children born after 9/11.

* reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com

Little Birdy: Emunah and Protecting Our Children

Today in the 13th of Elul. It is the Hebrew birthday of our daughter Emunah. Today she is 10 years old. I marvel to see the young woman that is growing up in front of our eyes. We were particularly moved to see how much she changed after a month at camp this summer. Emunah is becoming a better little sister to her two brothers and a nurturing big sister to Libi. She is curious, caring, loving,and resilient.  Here is a picture of her from when our little angel was just one:

Her birthday marks my writing this blog for 10 years. I take pause today to think ahead to what the next stage of parenting Emunah will look like for us.

In thinking about this I think about Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young. Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may fare well and have a long life. When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:6-8

First there is a law about sending away the mother bird from her nest before taking her eggs. Then we are mandated to build a fence around the roof of our houses. This juxtaposition brings interesting things to light. We see the mother bird defending her nest and then we are instructed to be like the bird and make a safer nest on our roofs to defend our young.

Once we make that connection and empathize with the mother bird, we are left asking ourselves a number of questions. How could we ever take the egg or young from the mother bird in the first place? What does it mean for us as parents toward our children?  Are we the problem or the solution to the child’s development? Are we the aggressor who is taking the eggs or the builder of fences there to protect our child? If we externalized the aggressor and focus on the risks in the world, how do we best prepare the child for this dangerous world? Are we victims to the whim of men our children might meet on the path or are we builder of fences to keep them locked up and safe? Of is there another model? One thing is clear that parenting is filled with many questions and not that many answers.

Happy Birthday Emunah. Thank you Adina for bringing this miracle into the world and partnering in parenting her. We will do what we can to raise our little birdy.  And here is to another 10 years of writing.


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