I love Pesach/Passover. Love participating in a Seder. Love leading a Seder. To me, a Seder is a magical time that brings together families and friends for food, celebration and meaningful conversation. The Hagaddah, which guides the evening, is not a stationary document. It is dynamic, having evolved over (at least) several centuries and has had more than a few revisions and variant versions over the centuries since it was (somewhat) canonized.
Over a lifetime, I’ve seen a number of attempts to make the Seder more relevant. In my files and bookcases are the old Seder readings for Soviet Jewry (yes, I’m that old), the Shalom Seder that was all about peace, a Hagaddah for those whose Mitzrayim (Egypt) was addiction, Women’s Seder, LGBTQ inclusion Seder, American Heritage Hagaddah and more. They are all pretty cool and, along with the orange on the Seder plate and Miriam’s cup, some of these innovations sometimes are frequently included in my Seder. Along with a good dose of some Bob Marley redemption music.
At the same time, I saw a red flag when some new “hagaddot” and readings showed up in my (snail) mail box and (email) inbox. My concern is that relevance might actually kill people’s Seder. How so? I look at the Seder as a road map / outline, not as the total story. Four questions should pose other questions. Seeing one’s self as though s/he had personally left Egypt should naturally lead to the discussion of what slavery one has experienced. Dayenu ought to provoke conversation about “how much is enough?” Matza, the poor person’s bread, should take us into a conversation about poverty and about refugees.
My fear is that, by creating all the “relevant” readings, Hagaddot and Sederim, their authors may actually be destroying organic discussion by spoon-feeding us relevancy.
So, this year, I am planning to forgo the relevant additional readings, trash the inboxed Hagaddot and get back to basics. I crave the old school Seder and Hagaddah. And I want to let them serve as the jumping off point for important conversations about relevant and contemporary issues that they, done properly, take us to.
Best wishes for a Chag Sameach, a wonderful and meaningful Passover.
“Although the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel disagreed, the House of Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the House of Hillel, nor did the House of Hillel refrain from marrying those of the House of Shammai. This is to show you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace”(Zechariah 8:16).”
– Talmud Eruvin 13b
In the same year that Prince, George Michael, and David Bowie died, civility in political discourse died in America. It happened slowly, almost imperceptibly. References like “cheating Hillary” and “lying Hillary” entered the public forum, showing complete disrespect for a long-time public servant. People expressed disdain for “libtards”. Others began to charge that a candidate was a “Nazi”, showing both disrespect for the individual and for those who were persecuted by actual Nazis. Then there were unproven allegations that people were “racists” or “anti-Semites”, when no overt proof for the charges existed. And so, libel and slander became everyday occurrences on television, radio and social media. It got so bad that one writer declared that it was causing the “death of Facebook”.
Unlike American law, in which freedom of speech allows for some level of defamation, if a report appears to be truthful, Jewish values do not. Judaism considers lashon hara, evil speech, to be evil, even when true.
The Talmudic quotation above addresses the disagreements between the Talmudic scholars Hillel and Shammai, and for a number of generations, their followers. It tells us that disagreements regarding theology or religious practice did not drive a wedge between fellow Jews. While there were certainly occasions in Jewish history (including the Talmud) in which there was hostility between those with differing opinions, the optimal situation was always considered to be that demonstrated during the disagreements between the followers of Shammai and those of Hillel.
It is time for us all to chastise those who denigrate others, whether they be public officials, your best friend or the president. The Torah’s teaching of “do not hate your brother [or sister], but surely rebuke your neighbor, so that you do not incur sin” is as much about public discourse as it is about stopping any crime. We have an obligation to warn people away from defamatory speech, even if that doesn’t make us popular.
There are deep issues that divide us. Deeply. Individuals are passionate, and sometimes even extreme, in their opinions. The American constitution, with its guarantees of a free press, separation of powers, and checks and balances is being attacked. And the above mentioned obligation to “rebuke your neighbor” applies to critiquing a government that behaves in ways that betray the public trust. And yet, even in fulfilling that obligation, Judaism cautions us to still do so from a position of love, or at least, respect.
Jewish tradition is so careful to seek purity in communication (lashon naki) that the rabbis suggested that, whenever the Torah referred to animals that “are not pure”, it used that expression rather than “impure” intentionally. The goal was not speak in a more positive way, rather than even directly impugning the reputation of a poor animal. Don’t our fellow humans deserve at least that level of consideration?
We are living in challenging times. Let’s elevate the conversation.
During a training session in which I participated through my friends at Keshet, I learned the word “heteronormative” (which my spell check, clearly living in 1950, doesn’t recognize as a word). For the uninformed, the word applies to the default assumption that everyone is straight. Or that, “normal” equals “straight” and every thing else is a riff on that.
In Jewish life, particularly in North America, we appear to have default assumptions about Jewish and Judaism. The assumed norms play out socially, religiously and educationally.
First, the assumption that “normal” or “normative” equals “Orthodox”. Disclosure: Author is yeshiva-ordained, shomer Shabbat, kosher and is a member of an Orthodox congregation. And yet, I find myself offended when, in typical conversations, it is assumed that Orthodox Jews and “religious Jews” are synonymous. In my experience, and I’ve had a lot, there are Orthodox Jews who I would not categorize as religious, and Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews who clearly are religious. While I believe that the denominational labels, themselves relatively modern designations, continue to mean less and less to the “consumer”, those close to the core of daily Jewish life still toss them around. To be honest, as a Jew who others probably see as Orthodox, the idea of being religious often fades into the background, with behavioral norms (daily prayer, kashrut, Shabbat, mikveh) in the forefront. My Reform and Reconstructionist friends (and to a degree, my Conservative friends), when they choose to “do Jewish” are often making much more conscious decisions on a regular basis. Does that mean they are “not religious”? I don’t think so.
A few years back, I began to see the expression “ask your LOR” on a number of Jewish online groups. After scratching my head for some time about what that meant, a friends informed me that it meant that a person was being advised to contact their Local Orthodox Rabbi for advice on a variety of matters. The assertion clearly being made was that only Orthodox rabbis, and therefore Orthodox rulings had any validity. Poor assumption for two reasons: 1. the vast majority of American Jews (over 85%) are not Orthodox and therefore do not feel the need to consult a specifically Orthodox rabbi for any particular Jewish concern or practice and, 2. the assumption that, in any community, there will be only one valid Orthodox approach to a given issue is false.
It has become my personal mission to educate and correct those who make such assumptions, and to move us to a more inclusive place in our conversations.
On to “Ashkenormativity”. Unless you live in enclaves that have historically large non-Ashkenazi communities – Deal, NJ; Flatbush or parts of Brooklyn, for example – the working assumption is that Jews are Ashkenazi, descendants from immigrants from Eastern Europe, the former USSR or Germany and central Europe. Indeed the teaching that occurs in most Jewish day schools, in synagogue education and in Jewish youth groups and summer camps, assumes that everyone came from the shtetl and shares a historical memory of pogroms and the Shoah. The Golden Age of Spain, the Sefaradi origin of the Shulchan Aruch (a major code of Jewish law), and the recognition of the North African Talmudic scholars (whose names are familiar, but whose dwelling places are not) is too often an afterthought in our curricula.
This plays out in some interesting spheres: Among the “ba’alei teshuva”, the so-called “returnees”, like myself, who moved to a place of greater ritual observance, and among those who are naturalized Jews (I prefer that to the more commonly-used “convert”). Absent some clear reason to assume Sefaradi ancestry, unless we happen to be taught by Sefaradi teachers or rabbis, we are given guidance to adopt Ashkenazi practices. Trust me, if I knew I had a choice when moving into the strictly Kosher world, I would have opted for the custom that would have given me hummus on Passover (another conversation…).
So I have a few suggestions: First, please let’s not suggest to people who aren’t Orthodox that they consult with an Orthodox rabbi. Not on a one-to-one conversation. Not in a Kosher consumer group on Facebook. Not when teaching a class composed of all types of Jews. Secondly, when people are on a Jewish journey (and we should all be), rabbis and educators need to communicate that there are many types of Jews with many types of backgrounds and practices. And they need to be honest about the choices that people without clear historically-based practices get to make.
As a rabbi and Jewish educator, part of my job is to both comfort people at difficult times and to challenge and teach them how to face the future. Both are difficult for me this morning, living in a country that is seriously divided. As CNN reported yesterday, 58% of voters indicated that they would be “scared” or “concerned” if Donald Trump were to win the election http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/08/politics/first-exit-polls-2016/index.html. I have no words of comfort for those 58%, nor do I have words of exuberance for those celebrating the election.
What I do have, and offer as a rabbi and Jewish educator, are prayers and aspirations for the future I would like to see, and that our communities would most benefit from. My prayer list:
- For President-elect Trump to have the humility and critical thinking to seek out and bring on board the best people to be his partners and advisors. May he move away from his belief that “I alone” can lead change or that “I know more than the generals”, and instead surround himself with the people who will help him to lead
- For those who thought that Donald Trump was giving a green light, either passively or actively, for hatred and bigotry (including anti-Semitism and racism) to crawl back under the rocks from which they came, and for our country to make progress towards being a society that doesn’t hate
- For members of the Senate and House of Representatives, in which his political party holds the majority, to step forward with integrity and without regard to party lines, to fulfill the important role of checks and balances that will keep the executive branch from any possibility of overstepping
- For the wisdom that President-elect Trump and the Congress need in appointing Supreme Court justices and other judges that will not lead the national backwards in regards to issues what we’ve moved forward: women’s rights (including the right not to be harassed), reproductive / choice rights, LGBTQ rights, and other freedoms that have been guaranteed in recent years
- For a system that will improve or replace the Affordable Care Act and continue to provide health care for those who have been covered and who need to be covered
- For President-elect Trump to break his campaign promises:
- To prosecute or jail Secretary Clinton – She has served her country well, and has endured more than enough investigations, none of which found her guilty of anything deserving of prosecution. We have a justice system; It did its job. Move on.
- To require allies (including Israel) to repay all foreign aid. It’s called aid for a reason, and serves a strategic purpose.
- To ban all Moslems from entering the country. It’s a really, really bad precedent.
May our incoming president be a force for good in our country and across the world. And let us say: Amen.
Sex scandals. Abuse of power. Arranged “hits”. Family conflicts. Challenges to the country’s security. Endless battles with foreign forces. Clashes between religious forces and the state.
Think we’re talking about the American political scene and campaigns? Guess again.
These issues are representative of the rulership of King David, who is described as the forerunner of the Messiah in Judaism!
During a community-wide series of events, led by Temple Kol Ami Emanu-El and its Women of Reform Judaism chapter (and with the proud partnership of Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education and others), Geraldine Brooks’ remarkable book, The Secret Chord, became a catalyst for exploring King David and the biblical books of Samuel and Kings across the Broward County, FL area
Interesting how, in an election year that is presenting candidates (at many levels) with significant character and ethical flaws, so few people have bothered to look back to the Tanakh / Bible to see what it has to say about leaders with flaws.
My takeaways from the Biblical texts (and I’d like to know yours) are:
- The characteristics of a person that bring him/her to a position of power are also the same character traits that can easily get him/her into trouble
- Leaders aren’t perfect. They are flawed. Because they are human
- One, or even a series of, mistakes and errors of judgement do not necessarily disqualify a person from ruling a country.
- Failure to acknowledge mistakes and errors, and continuing to deny any wrongs, might disqualify that person
- Good leaders take critics, especially critics with a solid moral compass, seriously
- If you look for perfection in who you elect to lead, you’re going to be disappointed consistently
- Even the person whose name is associated with the coming of a messianic era, was deeply flawed, yet also a great man
What are your observations?
Earlier this month, a dozen of the leading educational directors from synagogues across Broward County, FL joined in this year’s opening meeting of their network, housed and staffed at Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education. Joining with us was a representative of Jewish Federation of Broward County, who challenged the group with the following: What is the best way for the community to invest its money to build the reach of synagogues’ educational programs?
It’s a huge enough question, yet it only touches on part of the challenge that we, as a community face. For many in our Jewish community, the question isn’t “where in the Jewish community should I connect?” but “how does connecting with a Jewish community add value to my, and my family’s life?” This question is not unlike the questions raised by the best-selling author, Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, bemoaning the decline of communities and their attraction. We can curse the darkness, blaming this decline on generational factors, synagogue and organizational dues, the online world, financial considerations and more. But, as one of our insightful educators pointed out, we have also failed to recognize that the nature of what a community is (or should be) has changed drastically.
Based on recent writings and research that I’ve perused, I would like to humbly suggest that we, who are invested in Jewish communities, consider the following as part of a plan:
• Stop and listen to the folks that you would like to engage. Do it before jumping into action with marketing and outreach. Can they identify something missing from their lives? What are they asking for that we aren’t providing? What are the causes that do engage them? What are the things they will leave their digital lives for? Are you noticing generational differences in these answers? Once you get answers, identify how you can change your community in ways that meet the needs of today and tomorrow.
• Welcome everybody. We’ve opened the doors to community, but we need to continually open the doors even wider. Are you sure that your organization doesn’t put obstacles or fail to meet the needs of the broadest possible number of participants? Can everyone find programs and a chevra (smaller, more intimate community) within your community: Singles, childless adults, empty nesters, LGBTQ members, Jews of color, non-Jewish members of families in which there is a committed Jew? You don’t need to be everything to everyone, but we do need to work together as a community to identify where everyone has a place and offer opportunities to those who may not find their place in our own chevra.
• Put membership on the back burner. I still remember with astonishment the synagogue welcoming committee that came to my door in one community and handed me membership forms and information about cemetery plots (!) before asking us whether we needed anything in our new home. Create value and relationships first. Do the ask much later.
• Bring resources, people and organizations together. The competition is not between one synagogue or Jewish organization and another. The competition is between Jewish organizations and opting out entirely. Recruiting? Join forces with other synagogues and organizations. The people opting out aren’t interested in the subtle differences between one brand and another. They want to know why they should be engaged at all. Let’s band together and show them what a Jewish community can do for them and for their world.
Community building is not on its face the goal of a Jewish educational organization, but in reality it is what we do. Yes, we offer an incredible variety of educational programs, opportunities to grow and work with other Jewish professionals to expand access to learning in Broward County, but what we really do is make sure there is a place for every learner in our community. For those that are curious about the basic, for those that are looking for something more advanced, for teens who aren’t sure what they are looking for – we are offering them a chance and a place to learn and connect. We are offering them a chance at community.
Let’s band together and show what a Jewish community can do for all Jewish people and for their world.
It is 9-11, 15 years after a group of terrorists attacked American and the American way of life.
I am spending the day at the Day School Leadership Training Institute’s Lay Leadership Institute, a program of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. The partners in this program include Jewish Federation of South Florida, Friedman Commission for Jewish Education of the Palm Beaches, and Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education (with the support of Jewish Federation of Broward County).
This is part of my response to the attacks of 9-11. We are joining in strengthening American Jewish Education across two South Florida counties.
Please join me: Find something today that supports and affirms freedom, education, peace and all other values that were under attack fifteen years ago. May the memories of those who were murdered then serve as an inspiration and a blessing.
Last night I watched my beloved Chicago Cubs win a truly strange baseball game. After falling behind early, with a new pitcher on the team allowing three two-run home runs in the first three innings, the Cubbies caught up in the bottom of the ninth inning, and went on to win in the 12th inning.
Some of the highlights:
Pitcher Travis Wood got the Cubs out of a jam in the 6th inning. In order to keep him in the game, manager Joe Maddon moved him to left field, where he made a spectacular catch, then returned to pitch the Cubs out of another jam.
Hector Rondon, recently replaced as the Cubs closer, wasn’t supposed to pitch at all. But when the game went into overtime, he pitched two great innings and earned the win.
The Cubs used every position player, with some playing two or even three positions during the course of the game. When position players were depleted, Joe went to his pitching staff for pinch hitters.
The close of the game was Joe Maddon calling on Jon Lester, a career .051 hitter, to bat with a runner on 3rd in the 12th. With two strikes against him, Lester laid down a bunt, batting in the winning run.
Today, media (including social media) is abuzz with praise and disbelief of Joe Maddon. He’s being called a miracle worker, iconoclast, genius and more. He’s also, correctly, being seen as a great leader, which he is.
Here’s what we can and should learn, as Jewish communal leaders, from Joe Maddon:
- There is no inherent value in being an iconoclast. There is, however, great value in not accepting the status quo as being necessarily the best way to get things done. Challenging “the way we’ve always done it” makes sense in a world of change. And if “the way we’ve always done it” leads to a 100+ year absence from the World Series, then for sure the time has come to question conventional wisdom and practice.
- Make sure your people (professionals and volunteers) know how to do more than one thing. The Travis Woods of our organizations will be the superstars.
- Have a strong bench. We may have great staffs or great boards. But unless we have great people waiting to jump in, we risk depleting our human resources when the going gets tough.
- Make bold moves and take calculated risks. You never know whether that .051 hitter can lay down a game-winning walk-off RBI bunt unless you give him a shot.
- Bring fun back into your Jewish organization game. Joe Maddon, when interviewed after the game said, “I hope you enjoyed it”. Right. It’s sports. A game. You’re supposed to have fun watching it and even playing it. While Jewish communal life is not a game, it should include joy and celebration.
- Be purpose driven. When Joe told Javier Baez jokingly to “try not to suck”, it went from being a joke to becoming a fundraiser for Maddon’s foundation. And, as any good leader, behind him are players who have been encouraged to pursue their own charitable and volunteer good works.
Maybe Joe Maddon and his team will bring a championship to Chicago, maybe not. But he has already blessed us with some wisdom about what it means to lead.
In 1988, a group of American Jewish educational leaders, working in tandem with a group of Israeli leaders, took a huge gamble. Envisioning a time at which the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel would be a faint memory, they launched what in today’s world would be referred to as a “start-up initiative” and the March of the Living was born. The American Jewish educators who stuck their necks out and innovated (nobody was using that terminology back then) risked a great deal. Some put their organizations in debt. Some took so many staff that they practically shuttered their offices for months at a time. Some of those pioneers are retired. Some are even deceased. Yet, the traction was such that this educational program continues to thrive and to evolve 28 years later, and impacts thousand of American Jewish teens annually.
Other pioneers of that era whose efforts continue to pay off include those who founded Alexander Muss High School in Israel and more recently Birthright Israel. Experiment in Congregational Education is another innovation whose work, while very different today, spawned new approaches.
Surprisingly though, in our day, when innovation is the catchword in our society as a whole, our communities are uneven in taking calculated risks to try to change outcomes [i.e., if you do things the way you’ve always done them, you’ll get the results you’ve always gotten]. Some communities have gone all out to back new initiatives in congregational learning. Some (including my own) are supporting blended learning through initiatives like Shalom Learning. Some (again including my own) are moving from tired models of teen education and engagement to exciting, hands-on models that include Community Internships, Jewish Service Learning, Jewish Teen Philanthropy, Jewish Environmental Learning and more.
At the same time, there are those communities that have been slower to invest in new approaches, preferring safe ground even if numbers decline.
We as a Jewish educational community need to look for and invest in the next big things. Innovative approaches will look different from the chalutzim of the March of the Living or High School in Israel. This generation of chalutzim are likely to be much more local and are as likely to be independent entrepreneurs as they are to be the “establishment” organizations that dived into the March in the 80’s. But our establishment (and yes, I am a proud leader of an establishment organization) needs to perform an act of tzimtzum (to borrow the Kabbalistic term), retracting to give room for new entrepreneurs with experimental ideas, to gather momentum and to create impact. We need to be bold and brave enough to make our institutions into laboratories in which new ways of educating are tested and proved.
The future of Jewish education and engagement depends on it.