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Changing Lives, Saving Lives

L’chaim! To life! In Jewish culture, we give small gifts in multiples of the number 18. This may seem arbitrary but in Gematria (an ancient and esoteric method of interpretation in which the numerical value of words can be found in their constituent letter values), “chai” – meaning “life” – is equal to the number 18. In an act that is part gratitude and part mindfulness, we give multiples of the Jewish ‘lucky number’ 18. We take a conscious moment to recognize how fortunate we are for this life we have been given and the blessings in it. While Gematria is a game of sorts, a type of Jewish numerical poetry that has become embedded in the culture, there is no doubt that we as Jews we take life very seriously. We believe that small, symbolic acts like this are habit-forming and ultimately create a life of great character. For Jews, the goal is to live as a Mensch.

Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) is celebrating a special chai benchmark – the 18th bone marrow transplant found and facilitated by the Gift of Life Marrow Registry from a member of the FJC Gift of Life donor circle. Through our partnership to grow the donor registry, one quick and painless act – swabbing your cheek to enter a public bone marrow and blood stem cell registry – can result in a match and a transplant for a child or adult suffering from a life-threatening illness, including leukemia, lymphoma, other cancers and genetic diseases. For Jewish camp counselors that sign up with Gift of Life, this is one small act of many, is part of a pattern of kindness and caring for others.

Throughout the summer at camp, the youngest campers are taught to share responsibility with and for their bunkmates by caring for one another and working to keep their communal space clean. They learn kindness and service are Jewish values. Approaching the age of 13 (bnei mitzvah and beyond), even more trust and training is instilled in the camper, who takes on responsibility for leading Jewish traditions at camp and helping younger campers. As counselors at the age of 18, they are trained to nurture the safety, well-being, happiness and Jewish identity of their campers. At this young age they are charged with caring for a bunk of campers, to teach and model these small acts that make Mensches. It is also at 18 that counselors becoming eligible to test – swab – to join the public bone marrow registry to save a life.

Since the founding of FJC’s partnership with Gift of Life in 2010, 4,298 people have swabbed at FJC network camps, providing 120 matches, and recently the 18th transplant. These are extremely high rates of matching and transplants, due in-part to the uniqueness of Jewish DNA, which – like all minorities – is currently underrepresented in the national bank. A non-Jewish Caucasian person has a 98% chance of finding a match in the national bone marrow registry. In 1991 when the Gift of Life was founded, there was only a 5% chance for an Ashkenazi Jew to find a match. With each drive for the registry at Jewish camp, we increase the likelihood that a Jew will find a life-saving match. Thanks to Gift of Life, Ashkenazi Jewish people now have a 85% chance of matching.

We still have much more work to do to ensure that everyone in our family – regardless of ethnic or biological origins – can find a DNA match if they need it. Jewish family extends far beyond the DNA of Ashkenazi Jews, to include Sephardic Jews, Jews of color, Jews by choice, Jews who join their families by adoption and others. Family is not simply an identity, or DNA – it is an act, a behavior, and practice in giving and gratitude. No matter what our genetic makeup, we care for each other and show up to help. Jewish camp is a family.

A DNA match is necessary – but not sufficient to facilitate a transplant. What must really be celebrated as the true success of this program, is the consistency with which former and current Jewish camp counselors answer the call to care for others, help someone in need, and donate. In order to match, facilitate a transplant and share that gift of life you need to first be willing to act. At Jewish camp, we are training one generation to look after the next.

We all know how much Jewish camp changes people’s lives; we do not always think about how it could actually save someone’s life. With this 18th transplant, we celebrate Jewish camp for all of the small, symbolic actions that make up this kind, giving, life-saving family.

Contact Lindsay Katz at lkatz@giftoflife.org to schedule a bone marrow registry drive for your staff.

Reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com

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Positive Narrative: The Shift in Tablets and Positive Psychology

At the start of the summer I had the pleasure of going to the International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference in Fort Worth Texas. IPEN aims to bring together teachers, students, parents, higher education, charities, companies and governments to promote Positive Education. The objective of Positive Education is not only to improve students’ well-being but also their academic performance. Positive Education is the programmatic/educational cousin of Positive Psychology. Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that complements the traditional focus on pathology with the study of human strengths and virtues and the factors that contribute to a full and meaningful life. There at the conference I got to hear Dr.Martin Seligman , the father of Positive Psychology, explain the history of how the shift from focusing on pathology to building on strengths and how that opened up an whole scientific study of human flourishing.

At the conference I learned about a ton of compelling research proving the success of this work and many interesting strategies that people are employing to support their students’ flourishing. Hearing Seligman, I was moved thinking about how much of the shift from a pathology to strength based approach is actually determined by your fundamental understanding of the human condition. Our primary myth of who we are as people might itself set limits to our imagination and capacity to flourish and be successful. Since that time I have been giving a lot of thought to the stories we decide to tell that might help us flourish.

I was thinking about this shift this week when reading Eikev, this week’s Torah portion. There Moshe reviews all of the bad things that the Israelites did in the wilderness. Moshe rebukes them for their failings recalling their worship of the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korach, the sin of the spies, and their angering of God. He admonishes them for being rebellious against God.  But than Moshe shifts the conversation and speaks of God’s forgiveness of their sins, and the Second Tablets following their repentance. There we read:

1 At that time the Lord said unto me: ‘Hew for yourself two tables of stone like unto the first, and come up unto Me into the mount; and make for yourself an ark of wood. 2 And I will write on the tables the words that were on the first tables which you did break, and you shall put them in the ark.’ 3 So I made an ark of acacia-wood, and hewed two tables of stone like unto the first, and went up into the mount, having the two tables in my hand. 4 And God wrote on the tables according to the first writing, the ten words, which the Lord spoke to you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly; and the Lord gave them unto me. (Deuteronomy 10:1–4)

There is a lot to say about the how we could shift from the first Tablets to the second, but now I am intrigued about the implications of this shift in narrative. Moshe starts by telling the story of the Israelites as rebellious sinners who need God’s forgiveness. Here Moshe transitions to rewriting the narrative with these second set of Tablets. As a people we have a lot of pathologies that we are trying to correct by keeping these set of rules. It is clear that system was not that successful. In writing the second set of Tablets Moshe is literally and figuratively rewriting his personal and our national narrative. Moshe has tremendous strength to partner with God to write the rules that will help us flourish. This story of Moshe writing divine rules in partnership with God is a profound story for all of us about the human condition. We all have strength upon which we can build in order to flourish.

As we learn from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi:

Every day a heavenly voice goes forth from Mount Horev and makes proclamation . . . 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). For there is no free man but one that occupies himself with the study of the Torah. (Avot 6:2)

When we are operating from a place of pathology our future is engraved and fixed in stone. Everything changes when we can partner in writing the rules. Not only can we own the process, but we can change our understanding of what it means to be a person. When Moshe engraves the second set of Tablets he is modeling what takes to operate from a place of strength. We can all build on our strengths and in so doing become truly free. The learning of Torah is not the act of just following rules and fixing what is wrong with us. The very act of learning Torah is curating a positive narrative of the human condition .

– There is do doubt I will be writing a lot more on Positive Psychology in the weeks to come. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Be in touch.

An Open Invitation to Enter Faith ( or at least the discussion of it)

In  Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion we read the first paragraph of the Sh’ma -the Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. And you shall write them upon the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates. (Deuteronomy 6: 4- 9)

These words are familiar to many of us. We rarely stop to think about what they mean. I am interested how this statement of creed is simultaneously the most private and intimate aspect of faith happening in our hearts as well as being the most public expression of identity being the Mezuzah on the door posts of our homes. While we are obligated to place this testament to our faith in every door-post in your house, today most Jews who still have a Mezuzah in their homes limit this practice to their front door. This makes this  juxtaposition even more interesting.

As a religious person I realize it is challenging to speak of our faith in public. As a Jewish person it is noteworthy that at this moment in history living where I live it is very easy to express my cultural identity. This point came clear to me when I was watching the video for Wait, a new song by Maroon 5. I know that Adam Levine the lead singer is Jewish, but this image from the video still caught my eye:

 

And this Mezuzah was from the doorway next to his kitchen, not even the front door. Wow, so frum? It seems to be that we have made it.

Even if we are not ready to have a conversion about the faith in our heart of hearts in public, maybe this is an invitation into a the conversation of faith. What would it mean to not be on the outside of our faith just looking at the Mezuzah? What would it look like to come on in and explore how our tradition might impact how we go about our day?

The Depths of Tisha B’Av

On Saturday night we will start the observation of Tisha B’Av, commemorating many other calamities that have befallen our people throughout history including the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem. For thousands of years prior to 1948 the Temples represented the seat of the autonomous Jewish state. The Sages famously asked why were the Temples destroyed? The logical answer would have been that it met the needs of our oppressors subduing and conquering our ancestors, but our Rabbis went in another direction. In the Talmud we learn:

Why was the First Temple destroyed? Because of three evils in it: idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed . . . But why was the Second Temple destroyed, seeing that during the time it stood people occupied themselves with Torah, with observance of precepts, and with the practice of charity? Because during the time it stood, sinat chinam, baseless hatred, prevailed. This is to teach you that baseless hatred is deemed as grave as all the three sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and bloodshed together. (Yoma 9b)

While the rites of the Temple and what it signified for our people seem very distant and irrelevant to modern life, strangely the issues of baseless hatred discussed in Tisha B’Av seem rather prescient to our current social and political environment.

Given our long history of struggling with issues of  baseless hatred, what might Jewish thought offer us today? To this I share the oft quoted teaching of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. He wrote:

The depth of the evil and its greatness of its roots are found in the depth of the good, we find there that the depth of the hatred is commensurate to the depths of love. If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love.(Orot HaKodesh vol. 3, p. 324)

Our society in embroiled in a very dark chapter of baseless hatred, what does it mean that we need to face this with the depths of baseless love? Like many millions of people around the world I could not stop reading and watching the emergent story of rescue of the Thai soccer team and their coach.  They were literally stuck a mile underground and three miles through a flooded cave. People from around the world rushed to put themselves at risk in order to save these people who they never met. I think that the truth of Rav Kook’s comments comes from the literal meaning of his figurative flourish of the word “depth”. The measure of the communities we build are how we create environments where people regularly dig in deep, give of themselves, and share their baseless love with people the do not even know. We clearly have a lot of work to do. On this Tisha B’Av we need to reflect on how we need to invest in building  less walls and more communities.

Image result for new yorker cartoon thai rescue

How do you say Treason?

How do you say treason  in Russian? Evidently the answer is “измена- IZMENA.” In Hebrew the word is ” בגידה- BEGIDAH.” It has the same root at BEGED- meaning clothing. So in many ways the act of treason is figuratively the act of being a turncoat, changing closes to move your agenda forward. 

I was thinking about all of this in wake of a comment made by John O. Brennan the  former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency from March 2013 to January 2017.  Recently he tweeted:

Brennan seems to know a lot about national security. I would trust that he knows the definition of treason. 
So the better question is not how you say treason in Russian or Hebrew, but how do you say treason in Republican? Our republic depends on their patriotism.  We can only hope that they act on in before it is too late.

Image result for new yorker cartoon thai rescue

Authentic Return

We find ourselves in the drive toward Tisha b’Av. Liturgically that translates into a series of sad Haftarot. The haftorah we read for Matot Masai, this week’s Torah portion, is full of Jeremiah’s condemnation of the Israelites for being backsliders. It ends on an encouraging note, assuring the people that if they return to God with sincerity, they will be restored to their full glory. There we read:

If you return, O Israel, says the Lord, to Me, you shall return, and if you remove your detestable things from My Presence, you shall not wander. And you will swear, “As the Lord lives,” in truth and in justice and in righteousness, nations will bless themselves with him and boast about him. ( Jeremiah 4:1-2)

What is the metric for sincere return? You could assume that God would know, but how would an individual let a lone the nation know if they had experienced authentic redemption?

This line of questioning reminded me of something I had learned in Rambam’s Mishnah Torah with my my son recently. In a discussion of cultivated good character Rambam writes:

… he shall not be one thing with his mouth and another with his heart; but his inner and outer being must be the same, for the subject of the heart is the matter of the mouth… But man must be of true lip, steadfast spirit, and pure heart, free from all travail and clamor. ( Sefer De’ot 2:6)

If nothing else Rambam provides a way of measuring when something is inauthentic. If the insides are not like the outsides it is not authentic.  There is no doubt that our current state of representing ourselves online and in social media makes this increasing difficult. There is just so much sizzle and so little steak in how we see others and how we see ourselves. It is so difficult to allow ourselves to show up, let alone “return”. Each of us and all of us should strive to return to an authentic state of being true lipped, having a steadfast spirit, and being pure of heart.

-See more on Authenticity in a post on Ugly Delicious

Pinchas and the Pitch 

In a conversation this week with Corey Cutler, the heads of Fundraising for the Foundation for Jewish Camp, we got to talking about the art of the fundraising pitch  and Pinchas, this week’s Torah Portion. In preparation for entering into the new land the Israelites had a lottery to determine who would get what property. There we read:

Then drew near the daughters of Zelophehad, the son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Machir, the son of Manasseh, of the families of Manasseh the son of Joseph; and these are the names of his daughters: Mahlah, Noah, and Hoglah, and Milcah, and Tirzah.  And they stood before Moshe, and before Eleazar the priest, and before the princes and all the congregation, at the door of the tent of meeting, saying. ‘Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not among the company of them that gathered themselves together against the Lord in the company of Korah, but he died in his own sin; and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give unto us a possession among the brethren of our father.’ ( Numbers 27:1-4)

The daughters of Zelophehad nobly presented their case to Moshe. Corey pointed out how they must have prepared, they went together, they defined their common cause with Moshe, and they made their pitch short and sweet. 

I was intrigued  by their fear of their father’s legacy disappearing because of an oversight. To me it seems that this is what gave their pitch gravity to Moshe. Even if Moshe could not relate to these women, how could Moshe not empathize with Zelophehad? For many philanthropists one of the motivators to invest beyond a common cause and a relationship with the person making the pitch is establishing their own legacy.  

As I discovered in my conversation with Corey, all of us involved in not-for-profit work need to learn from the  example of the daughters of Zelophehad. 


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