Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ask the right questions

"With the arrival and maturation of my generation,
the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé."
David A. M. Wilensky is a young man with whom I have strictly - so far - digital relationship. I began reading his work when he was a college student writing for Jewschool and have been and remain impressed with the depth and creativity of his ideas. He published a piece in The Jewish Standard a few weeks ago that I just saw. I think he makes some very important and interesting points.

When I was in high school (in the 1970s!), the big conversation still revolved around Jewish identity in juxtaposition with American identity. Are you and American Jew or a Jewish American? Which is the noun and which is the adjective? When I first began teaching (in the 1980s) we were still designing lessons and activities around those questions. We over-did it. To my almost 16 year-old son, those questions are meaningless.

Following the CCAR decision on patrilineal descent, in 1983 and ongoing efforts by the religious parties in Israel to amend the law of return to require conversion according to halacha (Jewish law) and officiated by approved Orthodox rabbis, the conversation became "Who is a Jew?"

Now add a variety of Jewish population studies, studies of how Jewish communities are structured and now the Pew Report, and we find our lay and professional leaders wringing their hands and panicking over the imminent death of  (choose any or all): day schools, synagogue schools, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and/or the continued cohesive existence of the Jewish People as a distinct group in America.

Please read David's article. It splashes some cold water on those of us still fighting about things that don't really matter to the Millenials. And while I do believe we have put a bit more emphasis on Young Adults in Jewish life than is appropriate, they will soon be 40 year olds and able to learn Kabbalah and be treated like the rest of us!

It begins here, but the full article is worth reading and can be read on the Standard's web page. There are a number of comments there as well. I invite a conversation, there, here or on JEDLAB (in Facebook), in particular on the implications for us as educators. Thank you David for permission to cross-post.


David A.M. Wilensky is a program associate at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. He lives in South Orange, and he is single, straight, and utterly shameless. 

David A. M. Wilensky
Published: 6 March 2014

So, really, why be Jewish?

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?

And, of utmost importance in the case of Millenials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.

In each version of the question, the implication is clear: One is good and one is bad. When we make these questions central, whatever our intention in asking them, the question that many people will hear is this: Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew? And labeling people “bad” Jews probably is not the best way to draw them into deeper engagement with Jewish life.

 At the very least, the Millenials I know are bored with all this who-is-a-Jew business. And at the worst, the idea that this question will be useful as we confront the challenges now before us is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the changes we see today.

continue reading the rest of the article


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Purim Message for the PJ Library (via eJP)

Time for someone else's words - because they are worth reading and repeating. This post by Victoria L. Steinberg was in the daily posting from eJewishPhilanthropy.
(You still don't get eJP? Really?) 

PJ Library has filled a role in the Jewish community that many were not aware was needed. They have brought the joy of Jewish reading into many homes of young children.
In an effort to not offend, they have done something that I hope many will find offensive nonetheless (see below). Their misguided attempt at political correctness assumes the right of one interpretation of Jewish values trumps another. Beit Hillel won all but a handful of the 316 debates with Beit Shammai. We are not asked to "opt in" in order to read Beit Shammai's opinions - they are right there next to Beit Hillel's. 
Well said Ms. Steinberg.

Posted: 04 Mar 2014 11:00 PM PST

As a Jewish mother, I read with interest a recent blog post explaining the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s decision to make “The Purim Superhero” – a story about a boy, Nate, who has two dads – available only to PJ Library families who request it, but not to all of its subscribers.

My husband and I have two daughters under four years old. We signed up to receive PJ Library books immediately after our first daughter was born.

In our home, PJ Library books and CDs are much more than wonderful stories and songs. They create another way that our home is a Jewish home. They reflect back to our children the holidays, words and values that define our lives as Jews. They introduce visitors to those things as well, including some without previous exposure to Judaism. As Jews we are the vast minority; but the PJ Library books on our shelves integrate the imagined lives of Jewish characters with the rest of our daughters’ children’s literature.

But not every PJ Library book we receive reflects our family’s values. Some portray strictly divided gender-based roles in religious life (e.g., only men reading Torah). Those books contradict what we teach our daughters about their Jewish obligation and right to participate as full members of their Jewish community and the rest of society. Others depict Eretz Yisrael in a way that does not match our loving but concerned perspective on Israel.

Underlying almost every story are values – PJ Library books are no exception. When we receive a PJ Library book that doesn’t match our family’s values, we sometimes choose not to read it to our children, and instead pass it along to friends, bring it to shul, or donate it.

That’s why the Foundation’s rationale for not sending “The Purim Superhero” out to all subscribers – because it allegedly would offend some families – doesn’t make sense to me. Children’s stories routinely reflect value choices about important societal issues like women’s role in society or Israel’s importance to American Jews. Although I sometimes wish that the PJ Library didn’t send out certain books, I can appreciate that those books do fit its mission: disseminating age-appropriate, Jewish-themed books.

Requiring people to opt-in to receive “The Purim Superhero” inappropriately layers onto that mission a “controversy” litmus test. (I question this “controversy” – same-sex parenting is a Jewish reality, and is not controversial simply because some disapprove.) History unfortunately proves that when this litmus test is applied to books, we exclude books we later realize we needed most. At a given time, the most controversial books concern the most marginalized, unpopular viewpoint or group. Excluding them perpetuates that marginalization.

Of course, as a private entity, the Foundation is free to choose what to distribute. But that does not mean that it should exercise that power to discriminate. If it distributes “The Purim Superhero” to all subscribers, some families would (as we sometimes do) decline to read that book to their children. Speaking from experience, this is not a burden.

The alternative – not distributing the book except to those who opt-in – has a pernicious impact:
  • It sends a message to same-sex parents raising Jewish children that their own community does not accept them; their lives are offensive; and stories about them must never enter certain homes;
  • It says something disappointing about how the Foundation’s mission is implemented because a book fitting the purported criteria is yet kept from general distribution based on the particular Jews represented; and
  • It keeps from subscribers a fun story with an important message about bravery. Indeed, it contradicts that very message.

The Foundation suggests that it is trying not to offend some people’s deeply-held religious beliefs; but by holding back this book the Foundation is choosing among deeply-held Jewish beliefs. I and my Jewish community believe that it is our job, as Jews, to educate, promote inclusion, welcome all members of our community, and engage in the work of tikkun olam.

(I should note that I am not a major fan of “The Purim Superhero.” Like some other LGBT children’s books, it suggests that the protagonist’s family is “different,” and that same-sex couples’ children must struggle with and embrace “difference.” But the LGBT individuals, couples and families in my life are not “different.” They are simply a part of my Jewish community, professional life, children’s school, and family. I wish that books simply incorporated and reflected diverse families).

PJ Library certainly can’t please all readers all the time. But that cannot be its goal. Rather, its great success is that each month, it steeps our children in Jewishness, through stories celebrating our wonderful holidays, life events, and history, and songs that echo through the generations. My three-year-old can’t wait to dress up for Purim, go to shul for the megillah reading and spin a grogger – in part, because of “The Purim Superhero”. In other words, the book has done just what the Foundation hopes that its books will do.

Regardless of one’s views on same-sex parenting, it cannot be questioned that there are many Nates out there in the world. I hope that the Foundation will consider whether, if Nate were a real little boy, he would be welcome in all of their homes. He’d certainly be welcome in mine.

Please join me in urging the Foundation to be brave and bold (like Esther) and send “The Purim Superhero” to all of its readers. Chag Sameach! 

Victoria L. Steinberg is an attorney practicing business litigation and employment law at Collora LLP in Boston, Massachusetts. She lives in Cambridge with her husband and two daughters, who are helping her choose a Purim costume. But like Nate, she might keep it a surprise until the chag.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Online Brainstorming Marathon to Plan the Future of the Jewish People February 16 - 18

Another thing many of us would not know about if it were not for Dan Brown and! (Read on...)

Jewish communities from across the globe are invited to take part in a three-day online brainstorming marathon next week. The event will be open to all to help formulate strategies for strengthening both Jewish identity and Israel-Diaspora relations while ensuring the Jewish world continues to flourish well into the future.

The event is being organized by the Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative and is designed to expand the debate on the future of the Jewish people to every individual, community, or organization interested in taking part.

Groups and individuals from Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Mexico, Peru, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States have already confirmed their participation. The marathon will be run out of Jerusalem where some two dozen professionals will analyze participants’ insights and examine ways to integrate them into the recommendations set to be presented to the Israeli government in the near future.

Organizers say this process sets a new precedent. “We are catching up to global models of decision making and understand that we do not have all the solutions ourselves. This marathon aims to widen the decision making process and open the floor to the wisdom of the Jewish people’s masses,” they said.

The Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative is being spearheaded by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs in partnership with The Jewish Agency for Israel. It is a joint effort to identify the challenges facing the Jewish people today and subsequently formulate long-term plans to strengthen Jewish identity and ties between Israel and the Jewish world. It was initiated due to a growing sense that both Jewish identity and connections to Israel are becoming less certain, particularly amongst younger Jews. Funding will be split between the Government of Israel and Jewish communities, and the initiative is set to be brought for government approval this year and to kick off in 2015.

Participants in next week’s online marathon will be encouraged to take part in the debate surrounding seven key topics. To further expand the conversation and receive input from as broad a segment of the Jewish people as possible, the session will be “crowdsourced,” ensuring that the recommendations reflect a diversity of views and perspectives beyond those traditionally heard in Jewish communal forums. The marathon will begin on Sunday, February 16th and run through Tuesday, February 18th. To join the conversation, please register at

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Saying "Hineini" on the 6 Train
The Ethics of Street Tzedakah

The young man[i] on the number 6 train to Grand Central looked clean in his olive drab jacket. And he was visibly uncomfortable as he apologized for interrupting our journey under the streets of Manhattan. He told a short story of being an honorably discharged army veteran who was suffering from PTSD and unable to work to feed and shelter himself. He asked for some of whatever food we might have.

As he spoke I asked myself if I thought his story was true. I never answered myself. I reached into my wallet and pulled out a dollar. When he was finished, I gave it to him and I said thank you. So did he.

Before going to into the subway, I had been in a meeting at HUC-JIR. On the way out of the College-Institute, I had picked up free copies of Moment and Lillith Magazines. What follows is a wonderful article by Letty Cottin Pogrebin (I believe most if not all of what she writes is wonderful). B’shert? Kismet? One of Kusher’s Invisible Lines of Connection? Maybe. Maybe not.

In either case, I had said “Hineini” when this young man called – perhaps as the voice of God, perhaps not. Thank you Letty for sharing a story that gives me a sense of context.

And for teachable moments, my colleagues, Arthur Kurzweil’s piece “Brother Can You Spare A Dime: The Treatment of Beggars According to Jewish Tradition” Still stands up. We use it with our tenth grade Confirmation class most years.

As always, if you have comments about Ms. Pogrebin's article in particular, I urge you to make them on the Moment site.


[i] When did someone in his twenties become a “young man” to me? Yikes. But then again, my oldest son is now 21, so I guess I need to face facts, even though I do not feel like or think that I am an “old man.” 


The Politics and Ethics of Street Tzedakah

By Letty Cottin Pogrebin

There are many reasons not to give to the homeless, but we should do it anyway.

When I was young, it was axiomatic among radical leftists that one should resist the humanitarian impulse to give to beggars because handouts “postpone the Revolution.” Only when the poor become utterly hopeless and destitute will they rise up and rebel.

I haven’t encountered that reasoning for a while—nowadays, political arguments against giving to the poor are more likely to come from Paul Ryan and his cheerleaders in the House and Senate. But I’ve heard plenty of excuses for not giving money to homeless people on the streets:

  • “I can’t give to everyone, can I? There are just too many of them.”
  • “How do I know they won’t blow the money on drink and drugs?”
  • “I prefer to give to social change organizations that work on a macro level.”
  • “I don’t believe in tossing someone a fish; they need to learn to fish.”
  • “We pay taxes to maintain city services like shelters and soup kitchens. Why don’t these people use them?”
  • “That young panhandler looks fit and strong. I’m sure he could get work if he tried; maybe he’s just too picky.”
  • “It’s obvious the guy with the crutches is faking his injuries to get sympathy.”
  • “I hear stories from subway beggars that break my heart: he lost his veteran’s benefits; someone set fire to her apartment; their kids are sick. I never know what to believe so I don’t give to any of them. I give to the Red Cross.”
  • “Some chutzpah to ask me for spare change when he’s wearing $200 sneakers I can’t afford myself!”
  • “I get annoyed when I see this woman in front of my office building with a German shepherd lying on a ratty blanket at her feet. If she can’t afford to feed herself, she shouldn’t own a dog.”
A few of these thoughts were familiar. Until three years ago, I used to calibrate which beggars seemed most worthy and genuine and which ones might be exploiting the kindness of strangers. But in 2011 on Rosh Hashanah, with evidence of the economic downturn still visible every day, a congregant at my Manhattan synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, delivered a short commentary that changed the way I saw things.

Longing to feel God’s presence in his life, the speaker remembered that when God called to Abraham, Abraham answered, “Hineini”—“Here I am”—signaling his willingness to trust and his readiness to act, and thus his entry into the relationship we call “covenantal Judaism.” The congregant, whose name I never knew, told us he had decided that the presence of homeless people on the streets of New York was God’s way of calling out to him and that by changing his response to panhandlers, he, too, could say, “Hineini.”

From then on, in addition to his regular charitable donations to organizations with IRS bona fides and boards of trustees, he resolved to give a dollar to any human being who asked him for a handout. However many beggars might cross his path in a week, that’s how many dollars he would give out that week. He would stop judging, stop trying to distinguish the authentic needy person from the phony, stop worrying about enabling alcoholics and drug addicts or being scammed or hoodwinked. Of everyone with a hard-luck story or an outstretched hand, he would assume the best, not the worst.

Somehow his remarks struck a deep personal chord, and right then I made the same Jewish New Year’s resolution.My motives, I’ll admit, were not entirely selfless. Deciding to give in this across-the-board, quotidian, non-judgmental manner liberated me from an image of myself that I deplored. I’d always felt guilty about sizing up beggars before giving them money. I loathed the cynicism that fueled my suspiciousness. Who was I to second-guess the truth of another human being’s circumstances? What if I were wrong in my assessment and the person really was hungry, the shelter was a scary place, the dog was the person’s only source of love, the apartment had really been torched? Could I even imagine what I would do in the face of similar desperation, fear and loss?

Since making that resolution, I can’t count the dollars I have deposited in upturned caps and open palms. Because I live in New York City, where nearly 65,000 people are homeless, 22,000 of them children, and one child in six suffers from hunger or “food insecurity,” it’s a rare day when I don’t tap into my supply of singles. On an average stroll through my neighborhood, I’m likely to be asked only three or four times. But when I walk around other parts of town, I may have to cash a $20 bill to make good on my promise. A buck, obviously, isn’t even a drop in the bucket for most of these needy people, and I wish I had the means to make each dollar a five or ten. But for me, giving each dollar is an act of consciousness and an affirmation of human dignity. The point is to never pass a beggar without stopping, to look the person in the eye, to make conversation if possible and to give without judgment, resentment or disdain.

Practicing this minimal but unwavering street tzedakah has had a relatively small impact on my cash outflow, but it has returned to me a thousand blessings—literally. When I give, I almost always get three words back. Not “Here I am,” but “God bless you.” 

Monday, January 27, 2014

Harper in the Holy Land

The big news from Israel seems to be the usual combination of the sublime and the ridiculous:
  • Because Syria is following through on their agreement with Secretary Kerry to reduce their stocks of chemical weapons, Israel has stopped issuing gas masks and refills of oxygen.
  • Oxfam is considering dropping Scarlett Johansson as an ambassador because she is doing ads for an Israeli company which has a plant in Maale Adumim (and by the way I am told employs Palestinian Arabs at the same wages as Israelis). They are apolitically against all supporters of Israel. (What?)
  • Birthright is going to allow people who went on organized youth trips to begin participating in Birthright trips.
  • The Women of the Wall are close to approving an agreement with the Israeli government to move the group’s monthly prayer service to a new egalitarian area.
But for me none of those are the really important news out of Israel. Yesterday my 15 year old son Harper and I left religious school early (he is a madrikh in Kitah Bet), picked up my wife and two fifty pound suitcases and an indescribably heavy backpack, and drove to Kennedy Airport in New York.

Harper's 67 new best friends on EIE Spring 2014
(Harper is third row, 6th from the left, in the blue t-shirt)
On arrival Harper was immediately absorbed into a group of 68 teenagers from all over North America. They had been in contact via Facebook for the past several weeks. So over and over, Audrey and I watched Harper see someone, hug them like a long lost relative and then say, "Hi! I'm Harper! It's great to finally meet you!" And the same thing happened with all of the kids. It was amazing.  (Audrey and I met parents with whom we had 2nd degree connections, and one woman I had been a camper and counselor with in Wisconsin in the 70s and 80s. But that is not important.)

Harper's adventure was beginning. He and the other teens have just begun a four month journey with NFTY's Eisendrath International Exchange (EIE). It involves four months living on Kibbutz Tzuba, just outside of Jerusalem. They will be attending all of the classes they are missing in their high schools at home (minus the electives), and they will also be attending three hours of Hebrew Ulpan and Jewish History. At key points in their history lessons, they will jump on a bus and visit the place where those events occurred. They might return to the same place more than once, to see it through a different lens and time in history.

They will hike from the Kinneret to the Mediteranean, visit the Reform kibbutzim in the Arava, attend Gadna (teen level military training) on an IDF base, climb Masada and do all of the things you would hope a teen gets to do in Israel. Awesome.
A few weeks ago Harper decided to blog his adventures. I urge you to follow him and see Israel through the eyes of a young man seeing it for the first time. The blog is called Harper in the Holy Land.

Israel has shaped and changed my family in wonderful ways. Audrey and I left for a year in Jerusalem seven months after we married. It was a year without either of our friends, family or old habits being nearby. In that year we built the core of the family we have become. Twenty years later, Harper's brother Ethan attended EIE and the experience changed him in more ways than I can share. It was amazing. Harper began counting down the days until his turn when Ethan got off the plane. We cannot wait to see what the experience will do for him. And with his blog, we can all get a peak as it happens!

Saturday, December 14, 2013



What follows is a beautifully written azkara and notice of the death of a young boy I only met once. I am connected to his mother almost exclusively through online connections and the fact that their family is friends with my sisters' family. I am sharing it because it is beautiful and in case any of you are connected to Sam's family and did not get the information.  

Goodbye Sam. You left an indelible mark on the people who loved you and on those of us who knew of you. 

Rebecca, thank you for sharing your words. So many of us have none.



by Rebecca Einstein Schorr on 14 December 2013 @ 11:53 am
SAS zl
And Samuel died; and all Israel gathered together and lamented him
(1 Samuel 25:1)

Sammy. Sweet Sammy has died.
He is dead.

His parents haven’t “lost” a child.
They would never…could never…be so careless.
He didn’t “pass” or “pass away.”

We pass a driving test or a kidney stone.
We don’t just pass through life.
Sammy didn’t just pass through life.

He lived.
And at 12:33am, in the still solitude and with his beloved parents surrounding him with their love, Samuel Asher died.

And on Monday, December 16, 2013, all Israel will gather together and lament him.
Funeral services will be held at Am Shalom, Glencoe, IL at 1:00pm.
Tenderly, we will return his body to the earth and tuck him in for his eternal rest following the service at Shalom Memorial Park in Arlington Heights.
Shiva will be observed in The Crown Room at Am Shalom: Monday through Wednesday, 5-8:00pm, with a minyan service each night at 7:00pm.

We will not celebrate; we will mourn. Together. As we always have.
He is not in a better place because how could there be any place better than in his parents’ embrace?
And God didn’t want Sammy with Him; God weeps with us in our time of sorrow.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet.
Blessed is the Eternal Judge of Truth.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

JEDLAB and the Buber:
A conversation on I and Thou

Long time followers of this blog may know that I was one of fourteen fellows in a program at the Lookstein Center funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. Our brief was to create online communities of practice. Some of us were more successful than others. Some CoPs are still going strong, others have served their purpose and are but memories.

And then came JEDLAB! There has been a lot written about it and by those involved. It is worth reading some of it. More importantly, it is something you should join. Unlike CAJE of blessed memory or any number of conferences that have grown up in recent years (and may they all thrive and grow), it is an ongoing 24/6 conversation about Jewish education and the things that educators want to talk about, learn and teach one another. I try to check in at least once a day, and occasionally find I have something to say.

To join JEDLAB you need to be on Facebook. That is the central platform on which the community meets. (We do have the JEDLAB test kitchen on Google+ and we love to have ad hoc connections in a variety of places as well). And it is a community, currently 2,220 strong. Some write. Many read. And it crosses all lines: geography, movement, professional setting and methodology, relationship to Halacha, etc. Everybody plays, and no one can so you can't play (Thank you Vivian Gussin Paley). Just click on JEDLAB and ask to join. Or become my friend on FB (if we are not already) and ask me to put you in. Or ask anyone in JEDLAB to do it. It is worth your time. (If you are not on Facebook, you should join just for this. Set privacy settings so the kids from your 3rd grade class can't find you if you prefer.)

Ken Gordon, the founder of JEDLAB proposed a book group on Martin Buber's I and Thou. Not a light undertaking. He opened the conversation in a way that drew me and others in and if you follow, he moderated with a very light touch. Our first 36 hours of conversation is below. I think you will find it interesting and invite you to join in - preferably in FB at JEDLAB. If you comment hear, I will transfer your thoughts - in your name - to the group.

This is hopefully the first stop in a traveling blog carnival. That means that other bloggers in the group will hopefully pick up the thread of the conversation on their blogs in turn. I will put links in the comments section. (Note: Permission was given by the participants in the discussion before I posted this. JEDLAB is a safe place for conversation!)

Please enjoy and join us in JEDLAB! Consider this your present for the last night of Chanukah!


Below is a click-able link to the video!
Tikvah's link above: