I invite you to listen in on my ongoing conversation with God. Perhaps you will...
We cannot hide behind our intentions, or rationalize them as being for the greater good. When we say, “Yes he’s upset, but he needed to hear it,” or “Yes she’s upset, but I needed to say it,” or “It’s not my fault they took it the wrong way,” we are lying to ourselves and putting or needs before the consequences of our actions on others. Our ego can convince us that those that we have hurt somehow deserved it, are overreacting, or are misinterpreting.
If the Passover Haggadah were to be distilled to a single sentence it would be “In every generation, it is an obligation for every person (notice that it does not say “Jew”) to see him or herself as though he or she made the Exodus from Egypt.” The Passover Haggadah does tell not a history lesson; it tells a memory lesson, because memory begins when history becomes personal. Passover is so core to the Jewish experience that we recall the Exodus from Egypt whenever we drink wine and recite Kiddush on any other holiday.
Our Pesach tradition, which demands that we imagine ourselves as if we had been slaves in Egypt, teaches us that we can learn about our present lives by taking an imaginary walk in the shoes of our ancestors. As I’ve been learning about Jewish education from Talmudic times through the Middle Ages, I’ve been trying to imagine myself as a Jewish educator based on this historical perspective.
The creative deviations and additions needed to be rooted in tradition so that the seder could be both relevant and fulfill the traditional role of a seder, telling the Exodus story. Creative liturgy is best when it is a combination of celebrating what has been inherited and addressing the tensions with our modern reality.
I thought teaching was going to be just like watching my teachers in the Beit Midrash. I would speak, my students would listen, and then they would study. The students did not listen. They would not sit still. They interrupted each other. They made fun of the gutturals in the Hebrew. They refused to make eye contact with me, preferring to stare at their laps, and their half-hidden phones, which I could not get them to put away. They would not even glance at my source sheets, and my slide show failed to entertain them. I left that day angry and dejected. Teaching was not for me, I decided.
I firmly believe in the power of studying Judaism, but I find it difficult to bring sacred text into a classroom that does not appear to be a sacred and holy place. I feel overwhelmingly blessed to take Jewish classes and to deepen my knowledge of Judaism, but sometimes I feel disappointed. I feel disappointed when the God I feel in the sanctuary does not match up with the God we speak about in class, or more often the God we neglect to speak about in class.
The training that American rabbinical students receive regarding Israel needs to change. Israel bond appeals and guided synagogue trips may remain part of the communal landscape in America, but they (especially the bond appeals) are less important than they once were. Instead, American and Israeli Jews now have a new kind of asset to offer each other: experience and knowledge regarding different kinds of Jewish communities and different ways of being Jewish.
Our brain drain will only get worse if we don’t nurture our high school learners and give them a taste of what excellent adult Jewish education can be like. These students aren’t kids any longer in an academic sense. They are learning at high levels in their secular schools, and they expect the same difficulty and quality from Jewish subjects. They want to start probing the depths of what it will mean for them to choose to continue being Jewish.
My definition of pluralism is based in the concept of b’tezelem Elohim, that we are all created in the image of God. There are many ways to be Jewish, and as I Jew I am first obligated to respect the divine spark that is in each person rather than concerning myself with the way that any one person chooses to practice.
The rabbinate is being disrupted. Like many other fields, journalism and healthcare among them, technological and societal changes are disrupting the traditional role of a rabbi. “Disruptive innovation” is a term coined by Clay Christensen. According to Wikipedia, “a disruptive innovation is an innovation that helps create a new market and value network, and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network (over a few years or decades), displacing an earlier technology.
Here in the United States, the trees still look bare, covered with snow and not yet showing signs of spring. Yet, we can anticipate what is to come. We look to a future that, unlike the old man’s carob tree, might be months away instead of years. Organizational change is also slow, and it requires a vision of a distant future.
I try not to compare myself to Moses. But sometimes, I cannot help but notice when he and I have something in common. Moses had a hostile crowd. He knew from the moment he was given his job that his labored speech and unconvincing persona would be a bit of a problem. And he was right. A number of times, including in this week’s Parashat B’shalach, he has to confront the Israelites who are discontent and doubt his leadership. His people are stubborn. Even a charismatic, confident leader struggles when she has a tough group. So it is with my students—they are a tough bunch.
I watched the incredible film Selma through a near-constant film of tears. Many of these tears were a function of the brutality depicted on screen that so many people of color faced 50 years ago in their struggle to gain the rights ostensibly bestowed upon them as American citizens. However, most of those tears were shed because I knew, deep down, that we still have so much further to go, and it seems that there are too many factions in our society today who are perfectly content in taking us backwards, rather than forwards. I cried copious tears because I know that I have an obligation to do right for those who have been dispossessed, for those who have been beaten and broken, not in spite of but because of my Jewishness.
I find myself sitting with students who are stressed out and frustrated. They are doing everything “right” yet find themselves craving meaning and a sense of direction. Although they are active on campus, most of them don’t feel that they really belong to a Jewish community. Few are generating their own solutions and starting initiatives. For the most part, they are searching for a connection. As experiential Jewish educators, the gap between inspiration and action is one that should concern us. We create close-knit cohorts, inspire teens, and tell them that they can change the world. However, the world often sends them the opposite message. The reality they encounter leaves them feeling that they are on their own, disconnected, and disempowered.
To me, Judaism is not just about doing Jewish things with Jewish people. Through my TJF Fellowship at Cedar Village Retirement Community offering pastoral care to the non-Jewish patients of the physical rehabilitation program, this belief has been reinforced.
I invite you to listen in on my ongoing conversation with God. Perhaps you will recognize God in it. I hope you will recognize yourself in it. I invite you to be part of this journey, both in listening and in writing your own Dear God letter and submit it to our editor for publication here, where we try to model how reflection, service and a commitment to the sacred in our lives shape effective and inspiring Jewish leadership.
Recently, on two very different occasions—a shivah call and a religious school parent activity—I overheard Jews discussing plans for their Christmas celebrations and shopping. I found this very revealing, since it was a sign that the December Dilemma is still relevant today, even among liberal Jews who care enough about Judaism and their community to perform two very important mitzvot: comforting mourners and giving their children a Jewish education.
Helping children explore the story of Chanukkah is a challenge. While often taught to young Jewish children focusing on the miracle of the oil, the tale is frequently turned upside down in high school or later, at programs called, for example, “The Real Story of Chanukkah.”
One Friday afternoon, the second grade class was about to celebrate Shabbat with the customary candles, challah, and grape juice. As is wont to happen when 21 second-graders are crowded around a small table, one child accidentally bumped into another and spilled his grape juice. What happened next awakened me to the presence of holiness.
On this Veterans Day, as you say Sh’ma, remember that someone else screamed “Airborne” as he jumped out of an airplane over Fort Bragg, North Carolina or Fort Benning, Georgia, so that you could utter our highest prayer. As you say Oseh shalom, someone else is shouting “Climb to Glory” (10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, New York) in Afghanistan.