Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Need for Rest-and-Digest Philanthropy:
Strengthen Jewish Education by Tending to Jewish Educators

Dr. Zachary Lasker
I have gotten to know Zachary Lasker, director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary over the past few years. We met when he was presenting at the Network for Research in Jewish Education (NRJE) conference about the ReFrame program - which is teaching educators about experiential learning. He is a very smart guy and a dedicated Jewish educator. 

The following piece was in my inbox this morning courtesy of - you guessed it - eJewish Philanthropy. I thought it was worth sharing. Please discuss on the eJP site so we can participate in one conversation!


The Need for
Rest-and-Digest Philanthropy:
Strengthen Jewish Education
by Tending to Jewish Educators

By Zachary Lasker, Ed.D

Most of us can identify with the automatic response triggered when a child falls into potentially dangerous or stressful circumstances – he goes missing at the supermarket, she chases a ball into the middle of a busy street, he wakes up from a night terror. Without any conscious decision, we drop what we are doing and a jolt of energy and clarity propel us to ward off danger. When the challenge is surmounted, we settle back into a more calm and relaxed state as our system recharges for the next crisis. We can generally tolerate incidents of stress presented when caring for a few people at a time, but what happens to the body and mind when it takes responsibility for 20, 100, 500, or 1,000 people and the frequency of stress inducing events increases exponentially?

Recently I had the good fortune to brainstorm with a group of philanthropic leaders committed to the vibrant future of our Jewish day schools. The discussion centered on national initiatives that can guide and support leading educators. We were joined for a portion of our time by sets of school heads and board chairs to discuss their work, and the room began to buzz with excitement as school heads shared their innovating efforts in the areas of instruction, recruitment, fundraising, and governance. There was no shortage of ideas, and it was inspiring to see the group grow animated as they described their dreams. While school leaders ease-fully identified ideas crying out for incubation, they also shared their struggle to find the time and space required to leap forward from idea to implementation.

When the philanthropists reconvened there were two important revelations:

1. Schools vary in their needs based on the nuances of their specific community

2. School leaders have great potential as ground level innovators, reflective of a rising trend in entrepreneurial leadership wherein individuals are their own best problem solvers

Education leaders who identify a challenge and then design a solution are more likely to hit home runs, driven by an invigorating amount of empowerment and enthusiasm. This approach leaves plenty of room for networking, sharing of best practices, and collaboration, but honors the fact that the Jewish community – like the world over-– has outgrown a one size fits all, top-down way of working.

How can philanthropy move the needle of day school education on a national level in a way that empowers the local leader? Our group started to peel the onion:
  • Could school heads identify the challenges they faced? Certainly.
  • Did they have ideas for solutions and an interest in taking a lead as problem solvers? Absolutely.
  • Did they have the time, space, and support to design, pilot, and assess these ideas? NO!

Jewish educators on the front line spend more time extinguishing fires than igniting them. When a program or school term is up and running we have a responsibility to ensure the physical, emotional, and social safety of our constituents, along with the administrative and financial security of our institutions. Children and parents are vocal with their needs, faculty/staff deserve attention, we are responsible to our lay leaders, and accidents happen despite the best-laid plans. Leading an institution forward under these circumstances is tough.

Fight-or-Flight Work

My tenure as a Jewish camp director was phenomenally fulfilling, but also taxing. Working in a vibrant Jewish community exposed me to spiritually moving experiences of prayer and song, awesome encounters with nature, ridiculously fun recreational activities, and an incredible group of people who became family. The work of a camp director – like my administrative colleagues in day and congregational schools, youth groups, and community centers – is also marked by days of great challenge. One single day could include the following curveballs:
  • § Prank pulled by the oldest campers in the middle of the night sets a negative example and raises safety concerns
  • Phone calls from parents concerned that photos posted on the website featuring their kids with a neutral facial expression is an early indicator of flu, homesickness, or bullying
  • Call from the infirmary: a handful of campers tested positive for lice
  • Head wilderness guide needs extended time off to be with an ill grandparent
  • Surprise inspection by a health inspector

Each of these incidents triggers an automatic physiological response, similar to when a child is missing or chases a ball into the street. What to do? Take flight to some unidentified tropical setting OR take a deep breath and face each incident head on. Opting for “fight” over “flight,” my body shifted into autopilot mode marked by a rush of adrenaline as I did whatever was needed to overcome the obstacles. Physical and mental energy went to the issue at hand, over other needs such as rest, food, and hygiene. Most Jewish educators prefer to spend time observing programs, mentoring faculty/staff, teaching, and cataloging inspiring moments, but when a program is in session we have no choice but to face the curveballs when thrown. Many of my summers were spent in “reactive mode,” responding to the daily needs of the learners, staff, and parents under my care.

The Jewish Educator’s Nervous System

There is a scientific explanation for when a Jewish educator shifts into this “fight-or-flight” mode. Our autonomic nervous system regulates many of the primary functions of the body – heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, and urination. When the body perceives a harmful, threatening, or otherwise stressful event there is a discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, which primes animals for the mode of “fight-or-flight.” A physiological reaction follows wherein the body produces a specific hormone that increases blood pressure and sugar, and suppresses the immune system.
  • Heart and lung action accelerate
  • Stomach/intestinal action slows or stops digestion
  • Metabolic energy sources are released for muscular action
  • Bladder actions relax
  • Tunnel vision (loss of peripheral vision)

The body is now physically prepared to instinctively face the challenge head on. Physiological responses by the sympathetic nervous system when in flight-or-flight mode are accompanied by emotional, cognitive, and social responses. Individuals naturally prone to higher levels of emotional reactivity may experience an increase in anxiety or aggression. Cognition is generally more inclined to recognize the negative over the positive. We are more likely to perceive ambiguous situations as negative, and recall negative words. This inclination may extend into social situations, manifesting in behaviors that are aggressive or hostile.

The sympathetic nervous system is our best resource as a temporary, adaptive reaction to stress. Prolonged endurance of stress pushes the sympathetic nervous system into “overdrive,” and puts us at risk for a number of consequences ranging from headaches and problems sleeping, to lack of motivation and social withdrawal.

The body functions most effectively in fight-or-flight mode when given time off to generate and conserve energy. This occurs when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and the body nestles into a state of “rest-and-digest.” Heart rate and force decrease, intestinal and glandular activity increase, and the body relaxes its sexual and urinary functions[1]. The body is more protected from the risks associated with the fight-or-flight state.

As a Jewish camp director the summer was rarely the time and space for my own creative and strategic thinking, for learning and growing, and for attending to my own needs. Rather, I needed to create space to fulfill these needs during the year. I was lucky. As a Ramah director, I was part of a network of camp leadership who offered each other professional and emotional support, and who met regularly during the off-season to exchange ideas and to set strategic goals for the Ramah movement. I was also fortunate to benefit from professional learning opportunities through the Foundation for Jewish Camp and American Camp Association, and through doctoral studies with the full support of my lay leadership.

Rest & Digest Philanthropy

Philanthropists committed to the vibrant future of the Jewish people have a responsibility to ensure that our education leadership can rest-and-digest in order to face the inevitably long stretches of fight-or-flight that accompany responsibility for the physical, spiritual, emotional, and social well being of their learners. Lay leaders encourage rest-and-digest when they ensure their professionals take personal time off to maintain a healthy work-life balance. Two other priorities will secure the space educators need to rest-and-digest:

1. Claim opportunities for personal Jewish experiences

Jewish education is an emotional endeavor, and professionals are at their best when they can draw on their own encounters with Judaism. Those that champion Jewish educators have a responsibility to ensure that they experience prayer, text, Israel, Shabbat and other holidays, and a wide array of Jewish cultural expressions. There are great benefits to enabling Jewish educators with explicit opportunities for Jewish living and learning:
  • They are likely to maintain their own passion to promote Jewish living and learning for others
  • These experiences trigger concrete ideas for their work with learners
  • Educators serve as role models for their learners in the instances where the learner sees the educator immersed in their own Jewish journey

2. Secure time and space to pursue new ideas with colleagues and mentors

As stated earlier, most Jewish educators can identify areas in need of improvement, and many even have innovative solutions. Few can find the time and support needed at their workplaces to design, implement, and assess these ideas. The need for sacred spaces and relationships to enable this process is critical.

Fortunately, there is a range of rest-and-digest opportunities currently available for learning, networking, mentoring, and assessment provided by a collection of institutions and agencies committed to emerging and seasoned Jewish educators. The Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary offers an array of experiences for institution and instructional leaders in schools, early childhood centers, and community centers. Many camp networks, such as the National Ramah Commission and the Foundation for Jewish Camp, are at the forefront of these efforts by providing opportunities for summer and year round staff to pursue their own Jewish learning and training. Mechon Hadar provides programs for Jewish educators to encounter Judaism through text and music in an egalitarian, beit midrash setting.

However, strategic action is required to grow, protect and leverage these opportunities. Our field needs more visionary philanthropists who will partner with national providers to ensure they remain accessible to local communities and professionals. On a local level, philanthropists and lay leaders can partner with their professionals to identify the interventions that will most behoove the professionals and carve out pockets of time for rest-and-digest within the constantly busy rhythm of the year. “If not now – when?”


Dr. Zachary Lasker is director of Melton & Davidson Education Projects at William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Previously he served as camp director for Camp Ramah in California, and a teacher in day and congregational schools.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Torateinu ARZA:
Unto Zion Shall Go Torah

Torateinu ARZA with
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, ARZA President,
with Rabbi Rick Sarason,
and Rabbi Bennett Miller, ARZA Chair
When I open Outlook each work day, I find a an e-mail from the URJ's Ten Minutes of Torah. Some days I read it with great interest. Other days I know I won't have time and set it aside for later. This morning - with one son on his way to a NFTY regional event and the other working out and doing errands (he is cooking Shabbat dinner tonight) - I decided to come into the empty office and finish a project, put away the Chanukah decorations and clean off my desk. But first e-mail.

One day each week, Ten Minutes of Torah is about making Israel Connections. Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the president of ARZA (Association of Reform Zionist of North America) was the author from Wednesday. I was struck by his words. In part because I can visualize the places in Ben Gurion Airport (NTBG) her describes. In part because of the power of a congregation her sharing a Sefer Torah with a new Reform community in Israel. And in part because of the reaction of the elderly woman at NTBG to seeing a scroll in the hands of another woman.

I share this as a Shabbat gift for those who didn't see it. You can see the link after Josh's name to discuss the article on That is the blog of the Reform movement where the article is posted online. I urge you to make any comments there so you will be part of a much larger conversation.

Shabbat Shalom!


Torateinu ARZA:
Unto Zion Shall Go Torah
By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Discuss on
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.
Pirkei Avot 1:1

Dan, the official in customs, told me to have a seat with my Torah and wait. Well accustomed to Israeli bureaucracy, I immediately knew I should have canceled my plans for the rest of the day. When Dan returned, offering me a cup of coffee, I knew I was in for it. Surprisingly, within 10 minutes, having signed the necessary paperwork and paid the required fees, Torateinu ARZA (Our Torah to the Land) and I were cleared to leave.

As I headed into the arrivals hall, cradling the Torah, Dan asked, "So, is that a real Torah?"

"Absolutely," I responded.

"A great mitzvah…" he called out with a wink. Even the customs official understood the importance of our work to bring the gift of Torah to Kehilat Sha'ar HaNegev, a fledgling Israeli Reform community.

In the back of the hall, near the vending machines, I took the scroll from its box, passing it carefully to Yael Karrie, Kehilat Sha'ar HaNegev's student rabbi . Amidst swarms of Orthodox Jews, we weren't sure how a woman holding a sefer Torah would fare, but we needn't have worried. No sooner did Yael take the scroll than an elderly woman, her head covered in a scarf ran up to us, asking if she could kiss the Torah, exclaiming, "May it bring good things for the people of Israel!"

Traditionally, when we take the Torah from the ark during services we chant these words from the Book of Isaiah: "From out of Zion comes Torah." With the arrival of this particular sefer Torah, we can modify Isaiah's words to these: "Unto Zion shall go Torah."

Generously donated by Congregation Beth Israel of San Diego, Torateinu ARZA, an initiative of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), had traveled throughout North America for nearly six months - from west to east, from San Diego to the Negev - visiting dozens of congregations and events on its way to Israel. Recently, I was honored to walk with Torateinu ARZA on Shabbat morning at the joint URJ-HUC-CCAR board meeting in Cincinnati and to be granted an even greater honor: to receive the Torah upon its arrival home - at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport. It has since arrived at Kehilat Sha'ar HaNegev, the congregation that will be its permanent home in Israel.

As we celebrate the last day of the Festival of Lights, may this Torah be a symbol of much needed light, unity, and good will in Israel. Let it show the world that the Reform Movement is building a strong and growing presence in Israel, that we are committed to making Torah accessible to all Jews, and that our congregations place Torah at the center of their existence.

This spring's World Zionist Organization elections have the potential to enhance recognition of the Reform Movement in Israel, help our communities to thrive, and demonstrate that there are many ways to be religious in Medinat Yisrael. If you haven't already done so, 
please pledge to vote in the upcoming WZO elections. 
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is president of ARZA.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

One Educator’s Response…
... on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

Several years ago, Joel Grishaver told me that he had been told that Nancy Parkes is the best Jewish educator in the country. I had to meet her. So I asked her to lunch. And she asked me to teach her teachers. And then we were in the Leadership Institute together. And traveled to Israel and learned together. I am not sure if she is the best - I have not actually studied her school, and I am not sure I am qualified to determine or declare who is the best. 

I will say that she is one of the smartest and most creative colleagues I have ever had the pleasure to learn and talk with, and we do not get together nearly enough. Like many of you I have been reading and attending meetings and thinking about the Pew report and the responses. Nancy went a step further today. She spoke up - from the perspective of a synagogue based supplementary school educator - and proposed a way forward.

After thirty seconds of "that's what I was thinking" and "I should have said that" nonsense, I decided to re-post her ideas that ran today on eJewishPhilanthropy (what? you don't get Dan Brown's daily email? Shame on you!) and hopefully expand the audience and the conversation. I suggest comments should be on eJP (Leave a Comment) or Jedlab ( - look for a posting by Saul Kaiserman around 9:30 am EST on December 3. What you are not in JEDLAB? For shame! Fix that too!).

I agree with everything Nancy says and wish I said it first. More students come through our supplementary schools than any other part of the Jewish education eco-system. We must get it right. And when get students to couple their enrollment in our schools with Jewish camps, Israel programs and youth groups (to name just a few opportunities) we can really change the future. Read on!


One Educator’s Response….. on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

By Nancy Parkes
I have read the reports and the responses. I have attended meetings and have discussed the findings of the Pew report with many of my colleagues and with experts in the field, all whom I would define as people who care deeply about the future of Jewish life in America.

And, like many others, I am concerned about the Jewish future. But not in the way you may think.

It is clear from the findings of the Pew Report that we still have work to do in making Jewish learning and life meaningful, engaging, and relevant for American Jews. I don’t believe that anyone would deny that. My issue with the articles and proposal presented by Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer is that there is absolutely no mention of the value and importance of supplementary synagogue education.

It is interesting that despite the Pew Report demonstrating that supplementary education in the high school years is indeed effective, the proposal makes no mention of supporting these programs. It does, however, mention day schools, Jewish camps, youth groups and trips to Israel.
I don’t know of one Jewish educator, lay leader, or Rabbi that would dispute that day schools and informal educational experiences are powerful influences in the lives of our young people. I certainly believe that they are. One of the reasons why these experiences are so effective is that they do not occur in isolation. As noted by Cohen and Wertheimer, “These programs work synergistically with each other and also with formal schooling during the critical high-school years.”

As a Jewish educator and director in a supplementary synagogue school, I would never claim that supplementary education alone guarantees or leads to Jewish engagement as adults. Why then is this the way so many evaluate our programs?

Educators and directors in the synagogue setting have done much soul searching during the past decade. We were told that our system was “broken”; that children and parents were not finding the joy in Jewish learning in our settings; and even more importantly, we were told that the learning that was taking place was not leading to Jewish living.

We took all of this to heart- because we were concerned and because we care deeply about the future of Judaism.

How did many of us respond? We made changes - significant changes – in the structure and design of our schools. We advocated for Jewish camp and even brought the camp experience into our schools. We made youth groups an integral part of our educational programming blending the formal setting with this valuable informal Jewish experience. Many programs now take teens on trips to Israel, and more and more programs take learning out of the traditional classroom setting. Perhaps one of the most significant changes that has been made is the education and involvement of parents. We involve them because we know that if Judaism is not relevant and meaningful for them, they as the decision makers, will not only remove themselves from Jewish life, but their children, as well.

With more than 60% of our families enrolling their children in supplementary educational programs, we know that much is at stake in the kind of educational experiences we create for our learners. So, what kind of message are they receiving by the silence – and worse, the negativity – leaders in research and education send them by not supporting their decision with funding? That they are not worth the investment? That they have made the “wrong” decision? That they care less about their child’s Jewish education?

I keep a running list of the negative comments I hear from lay leaders, clergy, and professionals in the Jewish world about supplementary education. Unfortunately, the list is long and continues to grow. Is it any wonder that less and less young people are going into the field of Jewish education, and why synagogue schools have difficultly finding educators and leaders for their schools? This kind of rhetoric perpetuates a self-filling cycle.

Supplementary schools matter – and they do make a positive difference in the lives of our families. Can they be better? Absolutely. But, they need support to do so.
Here is my proposal:
  • Stop the negative narrative. Leaders and clergy need to become vocal advocates for supplementary education, whether it is from the pulpit, in writing, or at conferences.
  • Be our partners. We need more leaders and clergy to truly be our partners in creating the educational excellence that we all want. If your synagogue school is not a place that you would send your own child, how can you work with your educational team to make it so?
  • Encourage people to consider Jewish education as a career. We need more Jewish educators – in all settings. We need to do a better job at reaching out to those who we believe could make a difference in the Jewish world of informal and formal Jewish education. We also need more scholarships dollars to help those who wish to become Jewish educators to realistically be able do so.
  • Provide mentorship and consulting for supplementary education directors. Change is hard, and it’s even harder when you are doing it on your own.
  • Collaboration. Jewish camps and youth groups “work.” So does supplementary education when it is combined with these informal experiences. More conferences should be held which bring leaders in these fields together to think about how they can truly collaborate to bring powerful experiential education to the supplementary school setting, while also encouraging our children and teens to attend camp and become active members in youth groups.
I am not an alarmist, but I do believe that supplementary schools matter and that the lack of support that they receive and the negative narrative that is perpetuated is indeed, in the words of Cohen and Wertheimer, “a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.”

Nancy Parkes is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, an egalitarian synagogue in White Plains, NY.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Addicted to Redemption:
A response to Har Nof

Nearly every Friday morning for the last six months I meet Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T'shuvah (BTS) in Los Angeles for coffee. Right at 10:00 a.m. unless one of us is running behind. We catch up on the past week and and study Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Insecurity of Freedom. We have gotten most of the way through the first chapter in half a year of 30 minute conversations. We may be moving too fast. I look forward to our weekly coffee. He is usually at a Starbucks somewhere between his home and Beit T'shuvah, which is in or adjacent to Culver City. I am usually at my desk or kitchen table.

It is only 7:00 a.m. his time and he has already written his weekly d'var torah which will be in the Shabbat service bulletin at BTS which they call the shmatteh. He has also written his weekly blog post for the LA Jewish Journal. I have just arrived at work following the gym and picking up my Cafe Americano. He makes me feel like a slacker and he is a decade older!

I usually don't read his blog or d'var until after we talk.  This paste week it took until just now. I need to share. Mark, thank you for putting this into words and giving me a context. I am signing the pledge.


Combating Hatred:
Honoring The Five Men Who Died in Jerusalem

By Rabbi Mark Borovitz

I am sitting in the lounge at the Los Angeles Airport, on my way to Florida with my wife to help her 102+ year-old mother, Molly, move into assisted living. I am thinking about Molly’s life and how she has survived on her own to this day. She says it is Bridge playing and a great sense of humor, as well as not getting angry with others, understanding that everyone has their way and that we can learn from each other. Juxtaposing this attitude with what happened in a Synagogue this week in Jerusalem is almost more than I can handle.

When we foster hatred in any way, we beget more hatred. When we practice a way of being that is based on personalities, it is doomed to cause destruction. Watching the way the world plays out it’s Anti-Semitism would be a great study, I must admit, if they were not out to get me. Listening to the way the “liberal” establishment has been co-opted by haters and killers is so very sad. Hearing students trash the name of Israel and Jews while saying nothing about real despots like the leaders of North Korea, Syria killing their own people, Iran, ISIS, the Chinese and Tibet, Sunnis and Shiites, the way that our “oil allies” treat their people, Russia and Ukraine, etc. All of these countries are not singled out, yet Israel is. I think that I have finally figured it out.

The “liberal” establishment is angry that Israel didn’t stay down!! Israel stood up, grew up, became self-sufficient, etc. (certainly I am not saying they did everything right) and thus betrayed the “liberal” establishment. The “Poor Palestinians” will never betray the “liberal” establishment because their leaders will not let them become self-sufficient and their benefactors will not allow them to have any power for fear of a revolution. I guess that there is a deal in place that we didn’t realize.

How often does this happen? We go into something with a “deal” in place in our minds and not in the minds of our “partners.” We make up a story and if the other person/people don’t buy into the story or change it, we get angry and walk away. I have seen it in work situations, I have seen it in family situations, I have seen it in friendships, marriages, etc. I have participated and been an unwitting participant as well.

The murder of five men in a Synagogue is a great example of the hatred of people, God, and principle. The UCLA Student Union voting for Divestiture is a mockery of what College Campus Activism was in my day. We looked for ways to make peace, to heal old wounds, to fight for the rights of all people, not just one group over another. Where do we go from here? Being an optimist, like my mother-in-law, Molly Reiffin, I have an idea.

Let us all sign on to be Addicted to Redemption by: 1) using our minds, heats and souls to connect to Truth, 2) using our sense of humor to not take ourselves soooooo seriously, 3) reaching out to understand each other and see the similarities as well as celebrate our uniqueness, 4) owning our part in our successes and our “missing the mark,” 5) continuing to learn from what did not work and repair and improve our ways to wholeness and peace.

In these ways, I believe, we will honor the lives of the 5 men who died this week in Jerusalem; we will honor and redeem the lives of soldiers who have died in these past 13 years of terror. We will honor and redeem our souls and the souls of our countries. Join me and sign the pledge to be Addicted to Redemption.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Real Hannah Senesh

Joshua Weinberg is the President of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). And he is awesome. Right now he is working to get people to take a pledge to vote in the upcoming elections for World Zionist Congress. It is really important that we participate and make our voices heard. Today he posted this on the RJ Blog and 10 Minutes of Torah. It is not about the elections, but about how Israel might fit in our Jewish identity. Enjoy!

The Real Hannah Senesh
By Josh Weinberg

It was 70 years ago this week, according to the Hebrew calendar, that a young Jewish girl named Hannah Senesh was executed by firing squad by the Hungarian-Nazi police force. She had been captured after parachuting into Europe with a group of Jewish paratroopers of the Haganah who were sent to rescue Jews from the Nazi war machine.

At the age of 23, Hannah Senesh became an epic and heroic figure largely due to the letters, poems, and diary entries she left behind, exposing to the world her deepest thoughts and feelings. Not long after her death, one poem that she had composed during a walk from her kibbutz, Sdot Yam, to the ancient Roman ruins of the port city of Caesarea (1 km to the north) became her most famous. Known to most as Eli, Eli, the poem Halikha LeKesariya (A Walk to Caesarea) was set to music by David Zehavi and proceeded to be prominently featured at virtually every memorial ceremony for the Holocaust and for Israel’s fallen – deliberately linking the two to forge a linear narrative in the young Israeli psyche.

While the classical Zionist narrative claimed Senesh as one of its own – total assimilation only to find redemption in her aliyah to the Land of Israel (Palestine at the time) – we now know that there is much more to her story than previously understood.

Just as the great Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl’s own upbringing (in the same city as Senesh) begs a deeper inquiry into the struggles of living a both Jewish and modern life, and that the Dreyfus trial was for him a tipping point rather than a great awakening, so too must we dig a bit deeper into Senesh’s own spiritual and evolving Jewish identity.

On September 18, 1936, a teenaged Hannah Senesh wrote:
I’m not quite clear just how I stand: synagogue, religion, the question of God. About the last and most difficult question I am the least disturbed. I believe in God – even if I can’t express just how. Actually I’m relatively clear on the subject of religion, too, because Judaism fits in best with my way of thinking. But the trouble with the synagogue is that I don’t find it at all important, and I don’t feel it to be a spiritual necessity; I can pray equally at home.
Later on November 2, 1940, she continued this sentiment by saying:
I was never able to pray in the usual manner, by rote, and even now neither can nor want to. But the dialogue man holds with his Creator…is what I, too, have found. I see the sincere, inner link, even if it comes through struggle within myself and through some doubt.
From reading her diary, we learn that her Jewish identity was much more complicated than often presented. Her struggle with belief, faith, prayer, and observance lead us to appreciate a deeper and more complex outlook on her life, challenging the classic Zionist narrative. Senesh reflected in her life on what many of us may be searching for today. Her worldview and outlook on Israel and Judaism is one that can resonate with those struggling to find the balance between our national, ethnic, and religious identities.

For many Israelis, the discovery that she was not definitively secular, and that she struggled deeply with personal religiosity, may come as a shock. But it is also a welcome call to say that it’s okay to question, to have a grey area, and that there are many ways to be religious. Our Reform movement in Israel is ready right now to engage such seekers; to offer meaning to those for whom the polarizing dichotomy between “secular” and “religious” no longer answers their needs. Based on Senesh’s example, this struggle has been occupying the minds of Zionists and young people for many decades.

While many of Senesh’s writings were published and now feature prominently in Israeli and Diaspora ceremonies and liturgy, one amazing discovery came to light only two years ago. Sixty-eight years after it was written, the poem Hora L’Bat Golah (Hora to a Daughter of the Exile) was discovered in a drawer. Senesh wrote the poem in 1943 while she was being trained for her mission to parachute behind enemy lines.
Hora to a Daughter of the Exile (Translation by Elie Leshem)

A hora, roaring, tempestuous, blazes around me
With the mystery of rhythm, gladdening and forging,
It tugs at my body and heart
The foot marches, the back quivers, the song is ignited, a searing chorus
Dance and song, a wordless prayer,
Hail to the future, hail to creation

But then a figure flutters before my eyes
My arm has escaped my friends’ embrace
My heart spurns the tempestuous singing,
Far and near it consumes me whole

Blue eyes Such a bewildered glance
A sad silence and a stubborn mouth
The stillness grows in me I remain standing
Alone, in a crowd of a hundred, her and I
Click here to listen to the song composed for this poem.

On this 70th anniversary of her death, communities across Israel and throughout our Israeli Reform movement will be marking her life and contributions. I encourage our North American movement’s congregations to do the same. Let’s dedicate time to highlight the person she was and the legacy and challenges she left for all of us.

This Shabbat, sing Eli, Eli not in a somber, mournful tenor, but in a celebratory and upbeat tone, since this is a prayer offering thanks and praise for life’s natural wonders that should never cease. On the 70th anniversary of this important hero, let us re-examine her life, her hashkafa (outlook and personal philosophy), and her contribution to Jewish life.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hacking Hanukkah to Design the Jewish Future

This return to the blog has turned into a sharing of other people's wisdom rather than my own. That is probably the best assurance that it is actually wisdom! Today is no exception. Charlie Schwartz first came to my attention when he and Russel Neiss developed Media Midrash and later Pocket Torah. Now he is at Brandeis. I love the Design Lab approach they are using there.

I have been reading and touting Fast Company Magazine since it was first published. Fast Company has made design - as a concept and discipline - a hallmark of the way a "fast company" works. It is the only periodical I read cover to cover and I almost always find something that is applicable to my work as a Jewish educator. Check out what Charlie has done now.

And as for the invention, remember kids, don't try this at home!


This was originally posted in eJewishPhilanthropy.

By Rabbi Charlie Schwartz

The epiphany came half way through the session. My design team, a rag-tag group of Jewish high school students, had already identified the centrality of food in creating powerful experiences with family and friends. Then, during a frenzied brainstorm, a jaunty ninth grader shouted, “Wait – there are no good Hanukkah drinks!”

Thus, after several iterations, the Flaming Hanukkah Milkshake was born: sixteen ounces of milk-chocolate deliciousness with a ribbon of strawberry jelly running throughout, served in a double-paned glass with ignited olive oil floating between the layers, and a nine pronged sparkler put in for good measure.

This design experience was part of a series of Hanukkah Hackathons run by the Brandeis Design Lab – a joint project of The Union for Reform Judaism, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Brandeis|HSP. These sessions instruct teens in the methodology of Design Thinking and provide them with the tools to innovate Jewish life and practice. At first glance, the idea of a Hanukkah Hackathon seems kitschy, a mash-up of old words with new jargon. But the idea of hacking Hanukkah – that is, repurposing and/or refining it in ways not previously imagined – has ancient origins.

After all, Hanukkah is rooted in celebrating the Maccabees’ fight for military and cultural supremacy. The rabbis of the Talmud “hacked” this original purpose, transforming the holiday into a celebration of God’s power, symbolized by the miracle of the oil.

Fast forward to modern times, and Hanukkah is “hacked” again, this time as a tool for integration, providing Jews with a light-focused holiday around the time of the winter solstice on par with Christmas (with presents to match of course). The idea of “hacking Hanukkah” has been part of the Jewish world for a very long time.

This is the goal of the Hackathons: to teach Jewish teens a new approach to listening to each other, to themselves, and to Jewish tradition, and to engage these teens in the age-old process of building, transforming, and hacking Jewish life.

Arielle W., a Hanukkah Hacker who developed a way to share and celebrate everyday miracles, summed up the power of Design Thinking: “Our design team came to the conclusion that we need a way to focus on our journeys and recognize the miracles around us while tuning out the negativity and the haters. This statement didn’t come out of the blue; it came from interviewing members of our team, discovering the memories Hanukkah brought to us, and delving deeper into the meaning of Judaism. It was an intricate process designed to find the root of what we’re really looking for.”

This Spring, the Brandeis Design Lab will use the powerful approach of Design Thinking to give teens the skills to build solutions for real challenges facing the Jewish community. If you are in the Boston area and are interested in taking part in an upcoming Hackathon, or if you would like to learn more about the fellowship or how Design Thinking can change the Jewish world, please be in touch.

In the meantime, I’ll be sipping my flaming milkshake, keeping warm through the soft light of the oil and the knowledge that the Jewish future is in good creative hands.

**Brandeis|HSP cannot be held responsible for injuries or property damage sustained while attempting the Flaming Hanukkah Milkshake.**

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the senior Jewish educator and Director of the BIMA and Genesis summer programs at Brandeis|HSP. Charlie can be reached at For more information about the Brandeis Design Lab visit:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

You Can Do Miracles. Believe?
Sure. But pick up the phone!

I worked a summer in a telephone boiler room. We would cold call business owners in some town and try to sell them on sponsoring public service announcements about safe driving, drug or alcohol abuse prevention or other topics on a local radio station. In teaching us how to get through to the business owner, the veterans told us to be persistent and friendly. One maintained he could get to the office of the President of the United States. We never heard him speak to the Oval Office, but I did manage to reach the owner of Dean's Ice Cream, which is now owned by Unilever and sold him an add on WCEV - Chicago's Ethnic Voice. I learned that anyone can talk to anyone.

Ken Gordon is the Senior Social Media Manager and Content Strategist at PEJE. He is also a founder of JEDLAB and my hero. He knew this lesson on his own and applied it. We all should. (I did last spring and ended up having coffee with - can you believe he took my call? - Ken Gordon!

This post was both on the PEJE blog and eJewish Philanthropy


You Can Vanquish the Jewish Communal Professional Inferiority Complex. With Email. Yes, Email.

by Ken Gordon

On September 25th, Frank Moss, the author of The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, successful entrepreneur, and the former director of the MIT Media Lab, participated in a live Jewish-ed event in suburban Boston. Moss, an expert in creating cultures of innovation, offered up some terrific lessons about work, school, and life – and we were thrilled that he schlepped out to Newton.

At one point, an attendee came over and asked, sotto voce, “How did you get him to do this?”

“I wrote him an email,” I said.

Her immediate response was a look that said You can just write to someone like Frank Moss?

That expression of worried wonder reminded me of something I often in my work with Jewish educators: The Jewish communal professional inferiority complex.

Let’s be honest: We Jewish professionals don’t esteem ourselves enough. Why? It could be that some non-communal people think that we – no matter how necessary we are to the Jewish ecosystem – simply couldn’t make it in the real world. Lacking the chutzpah or brains to duke it out in the grownup marketplace, we instead stay in the professional shtetl, earning minor money and engaging in the less-than-essential “Jewish” tasks of the world. I fear we sometimes believe that ourselves.

And so we wouldn’t dare dream of writing to an important entrepreneur/author/academic such as Moss.

Which is sad and wrong.

We should contact whomever we wish. Period. Moreover, I believe we should be audacious in our choices of correspondents – and not just to spite those people who look down on our professional choices. The parameters of our conversations shouldn’t be set by the layout of our cubicles. Instead, let’s choose to engage great thinkers, great doers, and in the process make our communities, and ourselves, greater. We can do so, easily, via email, Twitter, or any of our ubiquitous online communications. You just need to ask. Such conversations can be responsible for great leaps in professional development; in bringing great speakers, programs, and ideas to our networks; in making our work environments more engaging and fun.

You’d be amazed, for instance, at how effective a tool email is, when you give yourself permission to use it the right way. As a journalist, I’ve found that smart people, even world-famous ones, are often happy to respond when they receive an email written with sufficient care and maturity. Email can put you in direct contact with all kinds of important and influential people who, in all other eras, would be insulated from you by thick doors, loyal assistants, annoying layers of bureaucracy, the U.S. Postal Service, social convention, wealth, snobbery, hierarchical thinking, various old boys’ clubs, and a variety of other impediments.

Email can leap over all of them at the touch of the Send button.

Of course, it’s not as simple as pushing Send. The correspondence of which I speak requires quite a bit on your part. For instance:

  1. Diligence. You may have to dig to find the necessary email address. But the great thing about writers and experts: they either have their own websites – with easy-to-find contact information – or they work at a university or some other org, and these typically set up emails as Start by engaging in the requisite Google work.
  2. Understanding. You must demonstrate that you get what your expert really is all about. It’s a terrific idea to show, by quotation, that you’ve read his books, and that you can intelligently talk about them. Don’t just quote chapter two, page 63: Ask a smart, detailed question about the passage in question, based on your professional experience. Most writers spend a great deal of time typing away by themselves. It can be enormously gratifying for them to meet someone who has paid real attention to their work. We’re not talking about a fan letter but about making a real connection. No fawning.
  3. Equanimity. The busy person you’re addressing has the option of not answering you immediately, or at all. You cannot demand a response; you can only put yourself in the position to receive one. Don’t get impatient. Don’t follow up with a hurt email – Why didn’t you get back to me immediately? – or hurt second, third, or fourth emails, for that matter.
  4. Professionalism. Proofread your stuff until you can proof no more. Make sure you’ve got your facts correct. You are the unknown quantity in this equation. If you want to person at the other end of your correspondence to respond positively, you must show that you’re a pro. One way to do so: produce clean copy.
  5. Patience. When you’re first getting to know someone via email, what you want to do is create an exchange. You’re not there to do business. Maybe somewhere down the line you will want to, say, bring this person to speak at your org – but it would be a mistake to lead with that (unless you already have budget approval and aren’t really interested in improving your mind, organization, or professional standing).
  6. Restraint. Write when there’s a legitimate reason to write. If your VIP is interviewed by the Forward and her responses provoke you to write, go for it. If, however, you are bored and watching Parks and Recreation, don’t suddenly write to your professional pen pal and ask, “What’s up?”

Strategically written communications can go a long way to making your professional vision into a reality. If you want to write to Frank Moss, write to Frank Moss. Don’t wait for an invitation. Start the dialogue right away. Right now.

A version of this post appeared on the PEJE Blog.