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Bar Mitzvah Bucket List

What does it mean to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? As parents how often do we allow ourselves to ask this question? Far too often we see ourselves as consumers of the synagogue industrial complex who produce these experiences for our child. Even if we do ask this question, what is the possibility that our tween is asking that it means to become a Jewish adult? It is tragic to realize that our children are lead through these experience as if it was designed by Temple Grandin. The entire enterprise of synagogue education is leading them as painlessly as possible to this alter with no sacrifice. What would it take for us to stop being consumers and to empower our children to be producers of their own experience of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah?

While I am happy consumer of synagogue life, I was not satisfied handing over the entirety of this sacred process to someone else. To that ends Adina and I instituted a process of creating a “Bar Mitzvah Bucket List” with Yadid in the years moving toward the event. This is a list of things that all three of us agree the child will accomplish before or during the year of becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I was thinking about this again when Yishama’s school brought together the 6th graders to help us the parents prepare for all of Bnei Mitzvah in the next two years.

As we learn in Proverbs:

 חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ –Initiate a child according to his path so when he grows old, he will not turn away from it. ( Proverbs  22:6)

It is critical that we find a way to surface what grabs the child. Have we asked them? It is also important for us to find a way to share what think is the core to coming a Jewish adult in a way that is in conversation with their wants and desires. In partnership with our youth we need to make something that is rigorous and relevant. We need to empower our youth to be authentic authors of our collective narrative.

I have found that this process is a means of determining our highest values without getting lost in philosophical discourse with a 11 year old. I find that even when sharing this idea with parents, they too want me to bring this idea out of the clouds into the world of practicality. To this ends I wanted to share with you some examples from Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah Bucket List. Beyond reading Torah and giving a Dvar Torah we added things like:

  • Build something out of wood
  • Learn how to chop wood
  • Cook the family Shabbat dinner from soup to soup nuts
  • Make the Shabbat accoutrement  from kiddush cups to challah cover
  • Learn a masechet of Gemara – It was great having him Yadid do a siyum at his Bar Mitzvah
  • Interview a list of people we all agree on as to what it means to them to become a Jewish adult 
  • Hike a section of the Appalachian Trail and get a pen knife- This still needs to happen. 
  • Shul hop, it was good for him to learn how different kinds of Jews pray

This is a projection of what the three of us think it means to live as a Jewish adult. As you could see we did not accomplish everyhthing on the list, but it was amazing to transform being “Bar Mitzvahed” into a life long effort to becoming a Jewish adult. Now have a starting point to prepare for Yishama’s Bar Mitvah, I would welcome some practical suggestions at this point as well.

– Look at related piece on the 300 and Bnai Mitzvah

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Bob’s Your Uncle

A few months ago I was watching a show with Yadid and one of the characters said, “…And Bob’s your uncle”.  We were dumbstruck. What does this expression mean? As it turns out this an expression of unknown origin, that means “and there it is” or “and there you have it.” It is commonly used in England. Typically, someone says it to conclude a set of simple instructions or when a result is reached. For example: “left over right; right over left, and Bob’s your uncle – a reef knot.” The meaning is similar to that of the French expression “et voilà!”

I was thinking about this expression yesterday as it was the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.  The Balfour Declaration was a single paragraph in a letter dated November 2, 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It read:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The text of the letter was published in the press one week later, on November 9, 1917. The Balfour Declaration was later incorporated into the Mandate for Palestine. The issuance of the declaration had many long-lasting consequences.

Portrait of Arthur Balfour (1892)

But what does any of this have to do with our mystery expression? As it turns out A. J. Langguth and others have suggested that the expression “…And Bob’s your uncle” arose after Conservative Prime Minister Robert “Bob” Cecil appointed his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, an act which was apparently both surprising and unpopular. In this sense, the expression also carried a hint of sarcastic envy or resentment, rather like “it’s who you know, not what you know” that gets results.

So Lord Balfour write his declaration, David Ben-Gurion declares Statehood, the Israeli army fights countless wars, and Bob’s your uncle we are blessed with the modern State of Israel.

 

 

Shabbat Shabbatot

It seems strange to have Yom Kippur on Shabbat. It feels like I am missing out on Shabbat this week. In so many ways it is central to my personal sanity and family’s sense of sanctity and rhythm.  My friend Zev just posted this on Facebook:

The great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was very calm when Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat and explained why it was so. It is known we are commanded as not to write on Shabbat, that it is a desecration of the holy Shabbat! Just for saving a life one is allowed to write. And therefore G-d can only write us in for a year of life as writing is only permitted for saving lives but for no other exception. We will surely be blessed and inscribed and sealed for a great year filled with all good both physically and spiritually!

Living my whole life within a structure of Jewish law is the normal of my existence. One of the most wonderful unintended consequences of raising children within a legal system is that we as parents are not the originators of all the rules of the household. They have to keep Shabbat because it is the law, not just because Abba said so. Nothing gives me more pleasure then when my children challenge me to keep these rules. There is an order bigger then any one of us in which we find out place. This means that I can be an authority, but not an authoritarian. Similarly it is an amazing idea to project the idea that G-d also has to keep the laws of Yom Kippur  and Shabbat. In so many levels this imagination brings be comfort and sense of order. May we all be blessed to have meaningful Shabbat Shabbatot.

Gmar Chatima Tova

The Binding: Fenrir and Isaac

On the Second day of Rosh HaShana we read arguably the most central texts to Jewish life, the story of the test of Avraham. As we read God commands Avraham to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem. Isaac is bound and placed on the altar, and Avraham raises the knife to slaughter his son. A voice from heaven calls to stop him, saying that it was a test; a ram, caught in the undergrowth by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s place.

The Bible doesn’t specify how old Isaac was at the time of event. One clue to his age is when Isaac notices wood and fire but, seeing no animal, asks Avraham about it (Genesis 22:7). This implies that Isaac is at least old enough to know what the proper sacrificial process is and perceptive enough to ask his father about it. From the chronology of Sarah’s life we learn that the oldest he could have been was  36 or 37 when he was offered as a sacrifice (Sanhedrin 89b and Genesis Rabbah 56:8). So, Isaac was certainly not an older man when he was to be offered as a sacrifice, but neither was he a toddler. Probably the most useful clue to how old Isaac was their climb up the mountain.  Isaac is the one carrying the large pile of wood (Genesis 22:6). This fact tells us Isaac wasn’t a small child when he was to be sacrificed; he was at least a healthy teenager.

What is invested in the age of Isaac? If he was strong enough to carry the wood up the mountain, then he was probably physically and mentally strong enough to resist being sacrificed. The fact that Isaac allowed himself to be bound and placed on the altar shows that Isaac continued to trust his father.

I was thinking about this question recently while reading up on my Norse mythology.  And yes I was preparing to take my boys to see Thor: Ragnarok which is coming out in theaters soon. I read the story of Fenrir  the monstrous wolf  who is foretold to kill the god Odin during the events of Ragnarök. As the story goes Odin foresees that Fenrir will kill him so he gets the gods to capture him in hopes of saving himself. The gods plan is to control Fenrir to preempt his destroying the world by binding him in chains. Like a virile teenager Fenrir enjoys the challenge and is happy to prove his growing strength in breaking their chains. Eventually they produce Gleipnir, a magical slender unbreakable silken strip. Even though he wants to prove his strength Fenrir is no fool and does not trust them. He concedes to be bound as long as one of them will place their hand in his mouth. Everyone refused to place their hand in Fenrir’s mouth until Týr put out his right hand and placed it into the wolf’s jaws. They bind him and like the wolf from Peter and the Wolf the more Fenrir kicked, Gleipnir caught tightly, and the more Fenrir struggled, the stronger the band grew. At this, everyone laughed, except Týr, who there lost his right hand.

Why does Fenrir want to be bound to prove his strength? Fenrir is driven by pride and glory. Like a teen Fenrir needs to test his limits to understand himself. This growing power is exactly what the other gods fear in him and leads to his tragic capture. Ultimately he is limited by his drive for success. And while the gods do this for self-protection, it is not without a price.

Coming back to this test of Avraham the story of Fenrir is a fascinating foil. First of all it is not ever called the test of Avraham, but rather the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. If in fact he is not a young lad at the time of his binding, it is easy to see him as a teen. What is Isaac proving by carrying the wood, let alone being complicit his binding, getting on the alter, and almost sacrifice? Isaac is seeking to push his limits and understand the limits of his own body and his relationship with his father.  And what does the binding of a 37-year-old man mean?  Like Fenrir does Isaac have something to prove? We never see Avraham and Isaac interact again after the Akedah. Might their relationship be severed like  Týr’s right hand?

Coming back to Rosh HaShana the story of Fenrir is also a fascinating foil. What drives us to success? Might these traits that help us grow and strive for more also limit our success? In what ways are we heroic or tragic in proving we can deal with being bound?  May we all find a way to be unbound this coming year. Shana Tova.

 

 

The Job of Making Mensches

In just over a week,  on September 13th, will be the annual celebration of Character Day created by my friend Tiffany Shlain. In preparation for this I wanted to share a new article I wrote for the September addition of the American Camp Association Magazine entitled The Job of Making Mensches: Campers with Integrity and Honor. In this article I explored the process of sharing the resource inspired by Tiffany Shlain’s Periodic Table of Character Strengths  titled “Making Mensches Periodic Table”with the field of Jewish camp.  This this poster and accompanying resources inspired and continues to inspire discussions about how to develop Middot, character traits ( see below links). At the outset of this project, to get the creativity flowing, we  intentionally left it as an informational resource for you, your family, or your organization to utilize in whatever creative way you find relevant. As time moves on we realize that we need to provide more specific resources. You might enjoy this expanding and interactive website version of Making Mensches. We have some interesting new functions, programs, and fun things planned for this coming year. We also continue to develop additional educational resources surrounding this project.  If you would like to contribute any ideas, suggestions, or directions to take this project please contact me or just comment below.

I hope that seeing this blog or even reading my new article inspires you to find a  new way to join in celebrating Character Day this year.

Resources for the Making of Mesnches

Making Matzah Balls

I was just in the kitchen when Yishama our 11 year old walked in proclaiming that he is bored. I suggested that he go play basketball. He said, ” Well, if you or my brother would join me I would go.” I responded, ” Well the matzah balls will not make themselves.” Yishama smiled and then said, ” Well, maybe if a Daddy Matzah Ball loves a Mommy Matzah Ball…”

Image result for matzah balls cartoon

There is a profound lesson here. You will never be bored if you have a rich imagination that anything is possible. Shabbat Shalom.

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.


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