Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Sounds of our People

I grew up with a mother who loved WFMF radio in Chicago. Today we would call it “easy listening” but to mom it was the music she always loved. Henry Mancini. Mel Torme. Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme. Tony Bennet. You know, old people music – at least it was to a teenager in the 70’s.[1] Of course my music was very different. Meatloaf. Simon and Garfunkel. The Grateful Dead. Supertramp.

We both loved Debbie Friedman and Kol B’seder – two of the many amazing sources of Jewish music that started to appear in the early 70’s. If you come to services this (or any) Shabbat you are certain to hear some of their music. Each generation finds its own sound, its own beat. Our musical choices say something about us. While the sound reveals a great deal, the lyrics – the poetry – says even more.

Whenever we greet new Shinshinim – Young Israeli Emissaries – I ask them what Israeli artists they have on their playlists. I often buy the music they suggest and I listen to it for my own enjoyment and I also play it on the loudspeakers in the school as students arrive and depart for Religious School.

The poetry of Israeli music is fascinating to me. On the one hand it often reflects the current mood and reality of life in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or even in the desert. On the other hand, because bible is taught in the public schools as a source of our history, many Israeli songwriters use words and imagery that comes directly from the Torah, or the Prophets or even the Psalms. To the average Israeli, this is part of the everyday vernacular. To an American Jew who is listening to and reading the words, it is a revelation.

Sometimes we will share the lyrics in translation with our students as a way of unpacking the meaning of song. We will look at its biblical sources (if there are any) and look at how the story the song tells reflects current reality on the streets and in the homes of Israel. We use it to open a window into the lives of our cousins across the ocean.

Yuval and Rotem, our current Shinshinim, have created a bulletin board near the stairs in our school wing. You can see that it looks like a Spotify page. They introduce us to some Israeli songs and artists. It also has a special Spotify bar code. If you have Spotify on your phone you can use its scanning feature to scan the bar code. This will give you access to Yuval and Rotem’s 93 song Israeli Music playlist. I urge you to scan it and start listening. They include songs from many genres and generations of Israeli music. Get to know Shlomo Artzi, who is as big as Elton John or Paul McCartney over there – and from their generation. Or listen to Idan Reichel who brings in musicians from all over the world. Let your ears bring the sounds of Israel to you.

Scan this image from within the Spotify App to access the Playlist
The purpose of the Young Emissary program is to create a living bridge between our community and the land and people of Israel. It is a program cosponsored by all of the area synagogues and the Federation for Jewish Philanthropy. And it relies on each of us to help. Yuval and Rotem will return to Israel and begin their military service after the summer.

We will welcome new Shinshinim in September. If your community has a program like this, please think about inviting one of them to live in your home for 3 months or so. We did and we talk or text with Lidor every week. It changed us for the better. Please email, call or visit the coordinator in your community to talk about whether hosting an emissary is right for you!

[1] Full disclosure, I now love Mel Torme and most of Mom’s favorites, but I listen to it when I am alone in the car.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Words Matter. Actions Matter More.

This is Jacob, one of our Hadrakhahnikim
helping students and parents!
Language is a funny thing. Since we also teach (and pray in) Hebrew in our school, it can be twice as challenging for us. For twenty three years, we have put two teenagers in most of our Sunday classrooms that serve younger students. Originally just Gan – Kitah Gimel (K – 3), since 2010 we have also done so through Kitah Vav (6th grade). Our goal for them was threefold: 1) they served as role models to younger students, both in terms of classroom behaviors and as something to which they might aspire; 2) the teens provided a teacher with additional eyes, ears, hands and legs. As the teenager develops skills, the possibilities for creative learning expands exponentially for the class; and 3) the teens develop into pretty well trained teachers themselves. I have helped them find jobs near their colleges and two of them have returned to teach for us here!

For all of that time, we called them madrikhim. It literally means “those who show the way,” deriving from the route derekh, which means road or path. Madrikhim describes a group of them, with at least one member of the group being male. A single male would be a madrikh, a single female a madrikhah, and an all-female group would be madrikhot. A nice word, very descriptive. But language is a funny thing. Hebrew is a gendered language. And we have two veterans of that group who each prefer to be called they/them instead of he/him or she/her. Hebrew gives us no help.

Our Jewish values can give us a clue. Genesis says that the first human was created in God’s image (B’tzelem Elohim). It does not tell us that the image in question is about physical attributes, even though many through history have thought so. The Gevurot prayer, which we chant at every service praises God for all of the things God is described as doing in the Torah – redeeming the captives, freeing the slaves, visiting the sick (to name three). It suggests that this B’tzelem Elohim business is about how we have been created with the ability to do the stuff God does.

If Torah has taught me anything, it (and my parents) has taught me to make my home – and our synagogue – a place where ALL will feel welcome. That includes people whose understanding of themselves is different from what others might choose to think. So the Religious School Vision Team and the faculty have agreed that we should no longer use the various forms of the word madrikh to describe our teen educational leaders. Instead we will refer to the program in which they participate as Team Hadrakhah. Same root, but the translation is “Leadership” which is perfectly descriptive. While the word may be in the feminine form, we are not using it to label the gender of those in it. We will refer to them as Hadrakhahniks (like Kibbutznik!) if we need a descriptor like that.

The hadrakhahniks, parents and teachers now understand all of this. The younger kids likely won’t notice. They tend to be more interested in knowing the teen in their classroom by name and relating to them, rather than what name we adults use. And hopefully, if one of our pre-teens is struggling with issues of personal gender identity, they will hear the message and know this is always a safe space for them. And that here we have people with whom they can talk. Language is powerful.

Monday, April 8, 2019

On Being Chosen

When you share print things other people say, it can go one of two ways. If you claim their words as your own, it is plagiarism. And that is not a good thing. On the other hand, Pirkei Avot 6.6 says that “one who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world.” Our world is definite need of redemption, so let’s hear from those who have taught us best – our students!

In Kitah Hey (5th grade) at my school, Susan Walden asked her students to pair up and pretend to be Moses. As Moses they had to answer the question “Why did God choose me (of all people) to lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” Their answers are brilliant in so many ways…these are excerpts from much longer answers.
  • “God said I was honest, selfless and brave and I respect Him/Her. Maybe I should take the chance!” – Rachel and Lila
  • “I think God chose me to lead the Israelites because I followed God’s command.” – Kate and Ethan
  • “God chose me because He noticed me having compassion and putting others before myself.” – Adam and Jack
  • “As a leader I give the people what they want and inspire them to do what they do.” – Brooke and Isaac
  • “I realized that the Israelites are important and they were suffering.” – Ruby and Sophia

As I read their answers, I hear three things. First I hear the plain meaning – what the rabbis call the p’shat. They are learning the stories. They are getting the information.

Second, I hear them putting themselves into the Torah. All of their answers are in the first person – “I realized,” “I was honest.” “I followed.” By writing themselves into the story, by trying to see through Moses’ eyes, they are interpreting the text. The rabbis called this drash.

Finally, I hear a clue of where these stories are taking them. “I was honest, selfless and brave.” “I had compassion and put others before myself.” The rabbis referred to these clues in the text as remez. The remez here is also about what we are seeing these young people becoming. If they could not see themselves as possibly having these qualities, I am not sure they would have answered the same way.

It is exciting to see learning happen. You can almost visualize the gears turning or the flow of electrons if you prefer the digital version. It is exciting to see teachers like Susan make this happen by challenging the students to dig deep into themselves.

And I visualize these same students in five years as members of our Confirmation class. Just as this year’s class did a few weeks ago, they will travel to Washington D.C. with our rabbi. They will use the skills of discerning the plain meaning, interpretation and seeking clues as they encounter issues before Congress. They will stake out a position rooted in Jewish values. Then they will go up to Capitol Hill and tell our representatives how thy expect them to vote.

It is a powerful lesson. And it started in Kitah Hey. And in Gan (K). And in all the grades in between.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Yes, I am conflicted.
Yes, I love Israel.
Yes I am going (as often as I can).

I love Israel. I hope you do to.

There is not a “but” or an “except” that follows that statement. That is the thing about love. When you love someone, you love them. You love them even though you know they are not perfect. You love them even though they make you sometimes want to be in a different physical space when they are doing or saying something. You love them even when they do things that fly in the face of everything they have always said they believe in. You even love them when they choose to believe something else.

I will not recap the news for you. The government of Israel has done a number of things that some of us wish they hadn’t. By the way, some of us wish they had done it sooner and with greater impact – that is the nature of family, we don’t always agree. On college campuses and in the leadership of several movements that some of us have felt drawn to, there have been profound attacks on Israel and those who believe in her.

Our Israeli "son" Lidor,
who lived with us for four months
Even some Jews have decided that the actions of the government make it impossible to support Israel at all. And there are certainly moments when I wish that many of those actions were different. And I still love Israel. I love Israelis. Not all of them, but I have a lot of friends and some family there. All of our shinshinim are there and I try to visit many of them whenever I visit.

I love the fact that I can walk the streets of Jerusalem and feel like I am not a tourist, but in my second home. I love that I am finally starting to explore Tel Aviv. I love the stories of the building of the nation and have had the privilege to meet some of the non-famous people who helped to build it. And I love that I feel it is mine. It is family.

And that means even when I am disappointed, I still love Israel.

In our curriculum, and with the help of our teachers and the shinshinim, we are trying to help our students find that kind of connection. That is why our Kitah Hey (5th grade) students have an ongoing relationship with their peers at the Nitzavim School in Rishon L’Tzion south of Tel Aviv. And that is why we encourage our teenagers and adults to travel to Israel.

For the past five summers I have chaperoned the NFTY L’dor Vador trips on their first leg through Eastern Europe on their way to Israel. We explore a thousand years of Jewish life in Europe and the yearning hose Jews had to return to Eretz Yisrael – the land of Israel. We also explore the tragic end of most of those communities. Then I escort them to Israel as they begin a four week adventure, and hopefully turn their connection with Israel into a love affair.

We need your help. Read the news. If, like many American Jews you have avoided engaging in Israel because it is complicated and sometimes troubling, stop. Engage. Form an opinion that allows you to engage. I urge you not give up on Israel, but rise to the challenge of imagining a peaceful, complete Israel. And talk about it with your kids. We cannot make them love it if you don’t.

I hope you will note that I have not told you what opinions to have about Israel. That is not up to me. I just want you to engage and teach your children to engage. Because this is about family. I can remember signs that once said “America. Love it or leave it.” I hope that you will join me in loving Israel. Leaving it is unthinkable to me – even from this side of the Atlantic.

And plan on sending your child or your family to Israel. If not this summer then soon.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Won't You Be my Neighbor?

We all have our heroes.

Some of them are athletes. Ernie Banks. Walter Payton.
Some of them are fictional. Winne the Pooh. Frodo Baggins and Sam Gamgee.
Some are intellectuals. Rambam. Spinoza.

All of the people or characters whom I think of as my heroes have something in common. They have taught me something important that goes beyond the accomplishments that brought them fame. Ernie Banks taught me to appreciate the world God gave us. Walter Payton taught me about loyalty, perseverance and living my values.

I also have at least two heroes who were teachers. Janusz Korcazk and Fred Rogers. I will write about Korczak soon. Last night I gave myself a treat and went to see the film Won't you be my neighbor? It tells the story of Fred Rogers and Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. I should have brought a tissue.

I am not writing a full review of the film. You can find A.O. Scott's New York Times review here.

I didn't discover Mr. Rogers and his neighborhood until I was a little too old to be his primary audience. He would say that I am still his primary audience. When she was little, my sister Leslie like to watch Daniel Striped Tiger and X the Owl in the Land of Make Believe. I was 10 or 11, old enough to know it wasn't really for me, but not so jaded that I didn't love to watch it. Sometimes I would watch it without Leslie there.

It wasn't until I became a camp counselor (when Leslie was 10) that I began to understand what Mr. Rogers had taught me. And I didn't realize HE had been the one to teach it to me until I met one of his biggest friends (fan seems an incomplete term).

If you see the film, you will meet Jeffrey Erlanger. He is the young man in the motorized wheelchair who appears on the television show as a little boy and again during the credits when he surprised Mr. Rogers during his induction to the Television Hall of Fame. You can read about Jeff's friendship with Fred Rogers here.

I was blessed to have Jeff as a camper in my cabin during his first summer at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute. It wasn't always easy, but it was truly a blessing.Our first day, we sat the guys in a circle in the cabin and Jeff invited them all to ask him any questions they wanted about him, his physical condition and his chair. It took all of three minutes before they were bored of talking about his condition. Once they knew what they needed to be cautious about, they were only interested in getting to know all of their new friends, of whom Jeff was one.

Except for the physical assistance he required, none of the boys - including Jeff - acted, spoke or made us counselors feel like he was any different than the rest of them. It was awesome. I cannot claim the credit. Camp is camp and kids are kids. No one told them anything strange was happening, and so nothing did.

Until the day one of the kids asked me if I thought Jeff really knew Mr. Rogers. It seems that one night after the counselors had left he told them that when he was little, his family had driven to Milwaukee, stayed at a hotel and ate lunch with Mr. Rogers. Wow. Some of the boys were certain it could not be true. Others were convinced it was.

So we talked about it at Minucha - rest time. Jeff described the event. He told us that Mr. Rogers was his friend. He had been since the first time Jeff had seen him on TV. The doubters took that to mean that Jeff had imagined a real relationship. My co-counselors and I looked at each other. They shrugged, which I took to mean I had to pass judgment.

I asked the boys "Has Jeff said or done anything to make you think he is dishonest? Has he ever lied to you, or promised to do something that he then did not do? Has he ever let you down?"

They all said no.

I asked them if any of them had ever done any of those things in the week we had been together.

They all said no.

I said "I don't know whether Jeff really met Mr. Rogers in Milwaukee. I do know that Mr. Rogers always calls everyone he meets or who sees him on television his friend. From what I understand, Mr. Rogers always really means it. He is always glad to meet a friend. I also know that Jeff has always been honest and real with all of us. So if he says it happened, that is all the proof I will ever need."

The show in which Jeff appeared aired about a year later. I have no memory as to whether it had been taped before we shared a cabin in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. I do know that it proved to any doubters that as we already knew, Jeff had told the truth. And that he would never treat his friends - us - any way other than honestly, openly and authentically.

I cried when I watched the film. Seeing all of Fred Rogers' work in one sitting like that was overwhelming. I recommend reading some of his writing. It is essential reading for educators and parents. I also cried because seeing Jeff on the screen reminded me not only of him, but of all of my campers over the years and how knowing each of them impacted who I am today.
Thanks Jeff.
Thanks Mr. Rogers.
Thanks for reminding me that camp is for the campers.
That the experience of our learners is more important than any one datum.

It's you I like.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Why Camp: Living Values L’dor V’dor

And...we're back! A lot has happened since my last post, including serving seven months as the content coordinator for

This is a moment of schepping nachas (Yiddish for taking pride in something someone has done) for me. The author of this piece, Sarah Stein is one of my kids. That is to say that her formal Jewish education was in my religious school, I recruited her to be a camper at URJ Crane Lake Camp and I have been her teacher and supporter all along. Of course she has done amazing things - nearly all of which I had no hand in accomplishing - and I am proud to have been one of the people cheering her on. The was originally published on the Crane Lake Camp blog.

by Sarah Stein, Unit Head Team Leader

This past week, I attended an evening program with Crane Lake’s Olim Girls, the rising 10th graders, our oldest campers. Many of them had been my very first campers when they were in Nitzanim, entering 4th grade, as our youngest campers. The program was about female empowerment, and I just sat, watching, listening, and learning from these young women I had once been a counselor for. Throughout the year, I had seen so many of them standing up and speaking out for causes that they are passionate about, embodying the values we live by during the summer. I watched in awe and admiration as they came together after a long, hot day, lifting each other up. They spoke eloquently about the struggles they face as teenage girls, and how camp is an escape for them. Camp is a place where they feel heard and loved, a place that is fueled by the value of Chesed, a place where we have created a Culture of Kindness; and a place that has provided all of these things for me.

My first year at Crane Lake was in 2006, the summer before entering 6th grade. I was a quiet child, but each summer at camp, I saw myself growing. I began coming out of my shell, finding my voice, stepping up as a leader, but still staying true to my inner self. I feel my most confident, my most challenged, and like the best version of myself when I am at camp.

Inside of our red gates, I always knew I was not only accepted, but celebrated for who I am. I came to camp from a town where the Jewish population at our school was pretty much just me and my brother. I attended Hebrew School and had Jewish friends from Temple, but I had never felt so immersed in a Jewish community. It was remarkable to me how effortlessly Judaism was infused into our everyday camp lives, our values present at every activity period. T’filah drew me in with the beautiful music and elaborate hand motions, and always has this energy that I find incredibly comforting. It made me feel welcomed and inspired.

At the start of Leadership Team training each year, the Directors challenge us to “discover our why” – our motivation for being at camp, the lasting impact we hope to create. My why is that I believe we can change the world by raising the next generation of leaders. I hope to share with the campers and counselors the important lessons and values I continue to take away from Crane Lake; the values of having courage and speaking out, of being generous and openminded and kind. During the year, I work at a temple in a shared position with the URJ, and I’m able to bridge the kehilah kedoshah, the holy community we create at camp, with the greater Jewish community. I hope to create spaces where campers, staff, students and teachers, feel loved and accepted, can flourish and find their confidence, discover who they are, and then share that with the world.

Sarah is in the dark blue shirt in the middle
At camp, we have the opportunity to find a spark in every child. Crane Lake’s mission statement declares “Hineini, I am here”. I have heard the phrases that follow this declaration read through the collective voice of our community year after year, at the start of every staff training and during every opening ceremony. When I leave the Berkshires at the end of the summer, I take those echoing voices with me. Throughout the year, I find myself constantly repeating a piece of Crane Lake’s mission statement in all the work that I do – “I am here to do as much as I can, in the time that I have, in the place that I am, and to inspire others to join me in this holy work.”

This statement, our mission, asks every counselor, camper, staff member, and guest to live to their fullest potential, to be present in every moment, and to take advantage of every opportunity. But it also acknowledges that there are limitations. While we may each strive to do as much as we can, in the time that we have, we are able to accomplish so much more together. To me, Crane Lake is a place where I feel loved, accepted and celebrated for who I am. At camp, I am in a place where I can lift others up, and invite and inspire them to fulfill their own potential. This is what I saw in the Olim Girls last week, and this, to me, is the embodiment of camp. I guided the Olim Girls when they were younger. I was able to show them the magnitude of their potential at camp, and all that they can take away from every summer. And now, I have the honor of watching them shine, of seeing them flourish as leaders in the camp community and then bring that courage and perseverance out into the world, inspiring their own campers, and creating their own future.

Sarah as a young camper
Sarah is so excited to be back home for her 13th summer at Crane Lake! She is looking forward to spending time at the lake, eating grilled cheese, and getting to know everyone on camp. Sarah is originally from Stratford, Connecticut. She studied Business and Anthropology at Brandeis University, and spent this past year working in Youth Engagement at Temple Shalom of Newton, MA. After the summer, Sarah is looking forward to moving to New York to become the Youth Director at Temple Israel of the City of New York!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Don't Play With the Nazis! Laugh At Them.

Dear Amy Schumer, Aziz Ansari, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, Henry Cho, Janeane Garofalo, Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Louis C.K., Margaret Cho, Maz Jobrani, Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman, Tig Notaro and Wanda Sykes:

America needs your help, right now. And we need all of your funny friends and colleagues who I did not name (I just chose the sixteen who make me laugh the most, and who also represent so many demographic groups hated by the Nazis) but don’t have room to include.

I have been reading about a number of places around the country where groups are applying for permits to have demonstrations similar in nature (to varying degrees) to the “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, VA last weekend. Some will be held this weekend. An old friend from my high school youth group days who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area had posted about one such permit request on Facebook. She was joining others who were asking friends to contact various public officials connected to the permitting process to urge them not to grant the permit.

Here is my response to her:
So when the Nazis marched in Skokie, Illinois in 1977, I lived in the area as a teenager. Skokie at the time had a huge Jewish population, including a lot of survivors. All of the youth movements joined the adult organizations in deliberating what to do in advance of the rally.

I will skip the long story. We all eventually agreed with ACLU that in America, we have to let them march and speak. But in America, we don't need to listen. We went out of our way as a community to empty the streets, leaving a dozen idiots with a megaphone on display to a bunch of journalists. And a handful of Kahane followers from the JDL. (At least that's who showed up when they finally marched in Chicago the next year. They never marched in Skokie even though they won the right to do so.)

It was beautiful. I am not critical of those who went to Charlottesville to protest the hatred. I stand with them. And if that is the decision in New York or Boston, I will stand there as well.

But I do wonder how much coverage these anti-American idiots would have gotten if there was no one for them to fight.

Maybe the best move would be to have an anti-Hatred comedy festival across the bay from these mouth breathers. Let them play in the park by themselves while everyone with a brain and true love for America and all it stands for and promises, with the whole spectrum of skin tones, faiths, identities, political preferences and countries of ancestral origin represented comes to hear the funniest people in America tell jokes about the fools who "don't want to be replaced?" (And who wants their places anyway? I am sure they smell by now.)
I do believe that these feckless idiots (yes, I am judging) have every right to march and speak. The Boston Common or a Park in San Francisco or the public land in Mountain View, CA in view of the Google campus are theirs as much as they are ours. And these open spaces are not crowded theaters. No one is shouting fire.

We love the Constitution and the First Amendment. They give us our lives and meaning as Americans. And if one group can silence another in the public arena, then in the words of Sir Paul McCartney, we are “Back in the USSR.” So yes they get to hold their little rallies.

So Amy, Aziz, Chris, Dave, Eddie, Henry, Janeane, Jerry, Kevin, Louis, Margaret, Maz, Patton, Sarah, Tig and Wanda (and friends) – this is where you all come in. We need you more than ever. We need you to put on a Summer of Love and Laughter. Many of you have been tweeting your outrage (and making us laugh). Let’s take the show on the road!

Maybe in small groups you can set up in a public space ten miles away from wherever the Nazis, White Supremacists and their fellow idiots (let's not give them the cover of calling them the "Alt-Right") get their permits. Invite everybody who stands against them to come out for a few hours of laughter. Invite food truck owners to serve. Invite other artists to perform. And give the Nazis an empty space.

In his commentary about the Charlottesville events and why David Duke and the Nazis like Donald Trump, John Oliver suggested that Nazis were a lot like cats. If they like you, it is only because you are feeding them.

So come on comedians – Unite! Starve the Nazis for attention. And help us laugh at them.