Tuesday, December 13, 2016

God was in this place...

Elaine Clayton is an adult who became a Bat Mitzvah in our congregation this past Shabbat. This is her D'var Torah in word and visual art. The images are full size paintings she brought to the chapel. She writes and illustrates children's books also including books by Jane Smiley (Pulitzer Prize winning author) and Gregory Maguire (who wrote "Wicked") and is also the author of Making Marks: Discover the Art of Intuitive Drawing.

Kol Hakavod, Elaine!




December 10, 2016

God Was in This Place: Dreaming of Jacob 

by Elaine Clayton  

And so Jacob said, “Goodbye Everyone”
And went to Haran
Copyright Elaine Clayton 2016
To wander and wonder
In the wilderness
Bewildered
And I saw him there
“Jacob,” I called out, “How are you?”
“Oh, so-so,” he said in his endearing way
“Why only so-so?” I asked him
Jacob answered, “I didn’t sleep well. For one thing
My pillow was as hard as a rock, and I mean as hard as a rock.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob,” I said, “Did you remember any of your dreams?
And Jacob said, “No. No, I don’t dream. I don’t remember my dreams.”


It is Shabbat morning in the year 5777
I wake up feeling a longing and sadness
Thank, God, it was only a bad dream
I whisper to myself
Of course Jacob had a dream
And of course Jacob remembered his dream
Its in Torah!
I say to myself
Jacob knew God was in this place
That place
Because where he rested his head
He slept and where he slept
He dreamt
And where we dream, God is

Half asleep, I still hear Jacob talking to me
He says, “I was only kidding about not dreaming!
You can do Freud, or Jung
You can say you ate something
Or saw a movie
That’s why you dreamed what you did
But keep your dreams close by”
He says
“The Talmud states that a dream not interpreted
Is akin to an unopened letter
Some dreams are messages of love
Some are bills
Some are junk mail
Some are invitations
Some are solicitations
Some are citations
All of them are letters
Given to be opened and read
Signed, sealed, delivered
They’re yours”
He says

“They’re your fears
Your desires and impressions
For ordinary time spent
And extraordinary actions
All of your comings and goings
Nobody can dream as you do”
He says
And I say
But some dreams we share
Like the one about going to work with no pants on
Or arriving late to the most important class
The one about flying
The one about monsters
Or lovers
Or things we are glad did not really happen

On the way to the temple on I-95
Jacob sits silently in the passenger seat
I say, Jacob, I am getting to know you
To learn from you
What are you thinking about?
“Just keep your eyes on the road,”
He says

Still sleepy at the temple
I whisper the blessing
And kiss the tallit on its embroidered hem
Swirl it like the world around me
And let it surround me
I clasp it over my shoulders as though
I just emerged from the sea
And close it over my heart

I am wrapped in
Where the sea meets the sky
Where the tides of life
Crash at my feet
Soaking into the dust of the earth

I see the lines on the tallit
Like the waves at sea
And like the rungs on Jacob’s Ladder
I see the waves coming
I sense the desire to
Capture them
To reach for them
Swimming or pulling myself upward
I go rung to rung
Feeling waves of emotion

Waves of despair
Waves of anger
Waves of joy
Waves of days come and gone
Waves of mercy
Waves of grief
Waves of love and sorrow
Waves of gratitude
And lessons learned

Reciting the Shema
The tallit settles like clouds
On my shoulders
Keeping my dreams
Upon me softly
A witness to the dream-letter opened
By Jacob

Chanting V’ahavta
I gaze at the heart of my own days
And close my eyes
Through waves of doubt and hope
And wonder if a ladder will
Appear for me
As it did for
Jacob

I play with the tassels
613 twists and turns
In the dreams of God
His for us, and ours for Him
Wave after wave
Dream after dream
With or without me
The dreams keep arriving
And disappearing

Our dreams of peace
For our children
Our dreams of justice
For us all
Our dreams of our place in the world
As crazy as the world is
We still dream
God is One

The Ark opens
My heart dares to open also
The prayer chants take us
High and low
Ascending and descending
On the Jacob’s Ladder
within each of us
And what is this ladder within?
Is it the Tree of Life?
Is it the twisting ladder of my DNA?
Is it the way I hold emotions

In my crown
At my mind’s eye
In my throat
In my heart
In my stomach?

I feel myself soar and dip
Slipping and gripping
Through the prayers
A malach is with me
A messenger
On each rung
As I rise and fall

Closing my eyes
During Kaddish
I see Jacob in Haran again
He is wandering expectantly in the darkening twilight
He places his head on
ha-evan, the stone
His pillow
I take off my tallit
And wrap it around him
As he gently falls asleep
Under the stars
To dream
To come to know things
To wake soon and wrestle
With his new name:
Yisrael

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Now what?

The following was originally published as a Facebook post by Timothy Snyder, the Housum Professor of History at Yale University and author of Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.

My Friend Josh Mason Barkin tweeted the link to Quartz, a blog that ran the piece. It ran there under the title "A Yale history professor’s powerful, 20-point guide to defending democracy under a Trump presidency." I have re-titled it in the interest of not using a headline to pour gasoline on a fire. I do believe he is right on all of these items. (#21 might be to maintain a valid passport for every member of your family.) I also believe we have to be very timely in declaring that the sky is falling. To soon, and we are chicken little. Too late and we can only hope to be survivors.

The video at the top of the page is a lecture by Professor Snyder called "What Can European History Teach Us About Trump’s America?" It was delivered at Yale on December 5, 2016.




A Yale history professor’s powerful,
20-point guide to defending democracy


Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today:

1. Do not obey in advance.

Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution.

Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3. Recall professional ethics.
When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words.

Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language.

Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps The Power of the Powerless by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev.

7. Stand out.

Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8. Believe in truth.
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate.

Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics.

Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11. Make eye contact and small talk.
This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13. Hinder the one-party state.

The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can.

Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15. Establish a private life.
Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries.
Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries.

When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed.
If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19. Be as courageous as you can.
If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot.
The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.


Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Valuing Life

Last week I was given the honor of giving a D'var Torah at Shabbat morning services. The Parshah was Chayei Sarah. The first half of what I wrote has been percolating for a long time. I am convinced Abraham failed the Akedah. The second half has been a long time coming. Midge vVas Nunes was already a matriarch of our community when we arrived in 1995. She became a very important person to me and my family. Life was hard as she entered triple digits, as her mind and body both began to let her down. We celebrated her life this past weekend. I am honored to share a bit of it.



Shabbat shalom.


Our parshah this week Chayei Sarah – begins with the death of Sarah. Some commentators speculated that her death, coming right on the heels of the binding of Isaac, was a direct result of her waking up and discovering Abraham and Isaac had departed. They suggest she knew that Isaac was to be sacrificed and it broke her heart.


I want to suggest that her heart was broken. Not because she believed that her husband was about to kill her only child. I am pretty sure that she expected that God’s promise that her son would be the beginning of a great nation would come true. I think she was heartbroken by Abraham’s failure.


Yes, I said failure. Last week the Torah told us that the Akedah was a test. When I went to Hebrew school, we were taught that Abraham passed the test. He was prepared to offer his son, proving his loyalty to God. The angel came and stopped the killing, saying “for now I know you are one who fears God, as you did not withhold your son, your only son, from Me.” Personally, I think the angel was offering the consolation prize, basically saying “thanks for playing.”


You see, only a chapter earlier, Abraham argued – ARGUED – with God to save the lives of a city full of strangers. Most of whom had been judged wicked by God. Abraham had demonstrated that he understood that God valued life more than anything else. It is what distinguishes Torah from all previous legal codes. But as soon as God “tests” Abraham, out comes the knife. Seriously.


And then what happens?


One.

Abraham comes down the mountain to return home with the servants. Where is Isaac? I assume anywhere far from his father and his knife. Some commentators say he went to study at the academy of Shem and Eber – Noah’s son and great grandson, somehow still alive after 8 generations – near Tzvat for three years and the end of chapter 23.


Medieval commentators, writing at the bloody time of the crusades suggest that Isaac actually died on the mountain top and went to heaven. Later, in mercy, God restores Isaac to life – reflecting the fears and reality of those writers.


Rabbi Jonathan Kligler, in Woodstock, NY, suggests that Isaac went to visit his brother Ishmael. He suggests that the brothers were very close, until Sarah forced Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Isaac couldn’t go home with his seemingly homicidal father, so he went to his brother.


Two.

Sarah dies. She must have heard about the debate over Sodom and Gomorah. She understood that their God was a God of life, not death. The Torah doesn’t say whether Abraham told Sarah what God had asked him the night before he set off with Isaac. It also doesn’t say he kept it a secret. Abraham and Sarah were together a long time. I am certain – based on my experience – that marriages built on keeping secrets don’t last that long.


God has been talking to Abraham for as long as Sarah has known him. The story of the Akedah is the tenth conversation. Previous conversations caused them to leave their homeland. I have trouble seeing Sarah just going without some kind of explanation. (Of course I am layering my own 21st century values on them. But that is what we do with interpretation – we put ourselves in the text. And God does include Sarah in at least one of those conversations – when her coming pregnancy is announced. So I think she gets what God is talking about.

When she gets up in the morning and sees they have left, she must have shried “Gevalt!” because she realized then that Abraham had missed the point of the lesson. If God is willing to spare an entire city of deviants if there are ten righteous people among them, certainly God has no intention of killing the young man whom God had given them to live out the promise of more descendants than stars in the sky. She knew that Abraham’s identity was completely interwoven in his relationship with God. And she now knew Abraham had failed the test. And it broke her heart, because she knew this would break the man she loved. Why?

Because Three.
  • God never speaks to Abraham again. Ever.
  • After that, Abraham seems to just be going through the motions of life.
  • Our portion today begins with Abraham in mourning.
  • He rises up from shiva and negotiates the purchase of a field with a cave to create a cemetery.
  • He sends his servant Eliezer back to the old country to find a wife for Isaac once he returns.
  • He takes a new wife, Keturah and has children with her. We hear nothing of his or their lives, just that they existed.
  • He leaves almost everything he has to Isaac and then dies.

I think his heart must have broken when he realized how completely he had failed. And I suspect God was also bereft, at least until he turned to Isaac to continue the covenant.

Finally.
Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” Later in the parshah, after his return, Isaac moves into Sarah’s tent and mourns her as well. By all accounts Sarah lived a very full life. She lived and loved and was loved. And she gave birth to the Jewish people. And we miss her.

Midge vas Nunes lived to be 104 years old…and tomorrow we will bury her remains as Abraham did Sarah’s. And we will mourn.

When I first came to Bridgeport, among of the first people I got to know were Manny and Midge. Midge always described their story as one of the great eternal loves, like Antony and Cleopatra, or Romeo and Juliet – although with far less drama. She described Manny as Sephardic royalty and was proud that their wedding was conducted by the great Rabbi David de Sola Pool, of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York. They were blessed with a long and rich marriage.

Midge often regaled me with stories of her family and B’nai Israel.

She has seemed to me to have many of Sarah’s qualities. She will be missed by many, whether they know it or not. I will leave you with my favorite story, one she delighted to tell and retell.

Her grandfather was a dry goods merchant on Golden Hill in the 1850’s and one of the founding members of B’nai Israel. She said he was no taller than her. He told her that he had been entrusted with acquiring our first Torah scroll just before the civil war.

It was purchased through a broker from a family in Europe and arrived by ship in the port of Bridgeport – the name is not a coincidence. When he came to collect it from the customs agents, he realized it was too heavy for him to carry back up the hill by himself. So he left it with the agents, walked to his shop, and returned with his stock boy. He was not a boy but a man, an African American, free man. She said her grandfather described as a shtarker – a big, strong man. And she giggled with delight describing this hakafah – a Torah procession of two: a short, stout Ashkenazi Jew leading a tall, muscular black man carrying a Torah scroll as they climbed Golden Hill. And she would often ask me to take that scroll out of the ark for her to touch.

Our portion begins “Sarah lived to be 127 years old … and Abraham proceeded to mourn and cry for her.” As we read from Chayei Sarah, I invite you to remember the life of Midge vas Nunes.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Encountering Truths, Opinions and One Another

I have I have waited to post about the presidential election results. I wanted to make sure that what I said here is what I truly want to say. I will likely share several postings on the topic. One thing I have decided is that since my blog is primarily about Jewish Education, I am not going to focus on the politics of the elections nor my concerns for what will happen next politically. At least for now.

Although there are protests going on in several places, until something changes through legal means, I am going to assume that on January 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States. And I do know that there are several educational and spiritual issues before us. 

I serve with two rabbis, Evan Schultz and Jim Prosnit. They are my partners in education and teachers in spiritual connection. Reeves Shabbat Lech Lecha, the first following the election, Evan shared the following sermon. I believe he captured some essential truths and rephrased how we need to think about politics, ideas and one. Another in a way that is brilliant, authentic and right.




My words to our community this evening:

Lech L’cha 5777

“Now Melchitzedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High and blessed him, saying “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, who has given your foes into your hands.”

I share this verse with you tonight, just days after a presidential election that has in so many ways deeply separated us as a country, that has brought us to realize there are so many in this country who we in no way understand, that has brought many here this evening scared and deeply anxious about the acts of hate, antisemitism, and bigotry that already are plaguing our schools and our streets.

Many of us have undoubtedly read countless articles and opinion pieces on why the election went as it did, and no matter where each of us stands politically, there now is a sense of soul searching and real questioning as to where we want our country to go and what we want it to be.

As I too engaged in this process over the past two days, and undoubtedly will for weeks to come, the realization I have had is this one:
I surrounded myself with people who shared the same ideas as my own and dismissed those with alternate views.  I read articles that furthered my own beliefs about the election and the future of this country, and dismissed any other point of view.  I stereotyped and generalized and characterized those who did not agree with my point of view as ignorant, stupid, and gullible.

As I dug deeper, I realized the world that I had created for myself.
A world in which I had, at some point along the way, mistaken my own beliefs and opinions for truth.

I, a Reform Jew, who joined this movementprecisely because we outwardly state that we do not have a stronghold on the truth,
have over time staked many truths firmly in the sand.  I turned a blind eye to those with other opinions, I dismissed them.

Just yesterday, as I sat in a room full of Reform rabbis and educators at Eisner camp, I realized how I have never shared with our kids and teens an opposing opinion on many social issues.
We take our tenth graders to the RAC, The Religious Action Center in Washington, DC,and they hear the Jewish position on social issues such as women’s rights, on gun control, on abortion.
We have presented these not as our opinions, not as our beliefs, but as truths to our children.  As if there is only one right way to think about this issue.

I recall a couple of years ago, on our trip to DC with our teenagers,
a student from another congregation, who I did not know, told me he was pro-life during one of the issue sessions.  I didn’t know what to say to him, there was no space for him in a room filled with teens committed to a women’s right to choose. And this was another Reform Jew.  I didn’t ask him why.
I didn’t try to understand him.
I didn’t raise my hand and point out there’s a student with a different opinion.
I shut the door on him.  Shame on me for that.

And I know the same thing happens on the other side.  Each side has essentially turned opinion into truth, we’ve staked our ideas deep into the ground, and look at the result, look at the dangerous world we’ve all now created.

I know there are extremists on both sides, I’m not here to talk about them tonight.  We know that bigotry, hatred, anti-semitism and misogyny are deep manifestations of evil and it is our obligation to fight that with no hesitation.

And I do know there are certain issues which have been irresponsibly turned into matters of opinion, such as climate change, and it is certainly our job to call out people who deny what science has proven over and over again.

I’m talking tonight about the many people who shut out the other side on issues that really do have two sides, who live in their own Facebook feed, who characterize the other side as just plain wrong, or even worse, idiots for believing any other way.

Our country is in need of healing.  And that is why I started with the biblical verse that I did.

This verse, from Genesis chapter 14, is a rare moment in the Biblical text.  Abram, who has just come victorious from battle, sits down with a non-Israelite king-priest name Malchitzedek.  The two come from opposite sides, opposite peoples, opposite places.  And what does Malchitzedek do, he breaks bread with Abram.  He pours him a glass of wine. And he blesses Abram.

Talk about a calling for what we need right now.

Yesterday I thus committed myself to two things.

One, more face to face conversations with people who have opinions and viewpoints different from my own.

Two, reading more literature and books that take me outside of my own ideas and opinions.

I am not naïve, I know there is immense work to be done and a great deal to be concerned about after Tuesday.  But in times of uncertainty I look to the Torah.  And if anything this verse pushes me to sit down and break bread with those who have different opinions and viewpoints from own.
It prompts me to listen.  To remind myself that my positions on many issues are opinions, they are deeply held, strong beliefs, but they are not Truth with a capital T.

I have begun the work.
This week I’ll be sitting down with a person from our community who holds positions very different from my own.  I said to him, I don’t want to talk issues. I don’t walk to talk policies.

I just want it to be two human beings, sitting down,trying to understand each other.
He agreed and welcomed the talk.
I know it is not going to change the world.
But it’s a small step in rebuilding a bridge that has fallen apart.

Our Torah portion this week begins with the charge to Abram –
“lech l’cha m’artzecha,” Go forth from your land. In other words, now is the time to slowly step outside of our own circles of ideas and opinions – and I say this to both sides, both sides who are here in our synagogue and community.

Now is the time to offer an invitation, to reach out, with a sense of curiosity and empathy, with a hope of repairing the bridge,
with a faith that like Abram and Malchitzedek, there is good in breaking bread together,of offering blessing to one another.
It is a first step on the journey as we go forth.

Please God, give us the strength and courage to do this work,
help us to see the path we need to forge together. Amen.

Friday, November 4, 2016

The Morning After

My friend Mark Borovitz, rabbi of Beit T'Shuvah in Los Angeles is a lifelong fan of the Cleveland Indians. We fantasized about attending one of the World Series games together. And he actually made it to game 1 in Cleveland along with his brother and sister. I made it to games 3 and 4 in Chicago, attending with my uncle Stanley, 3 of my first cousins and my college roommate and his wife. Mark and I spoke as I walked to the train for game 4 and talked about how the family connections are what brought a spiritual connection to the series and our appreciation. He posted this on Facebook on Thursday morning, following game 7. Thank you Mark. You are right - as usual.

The Neshama of Baseball (Bonus Edition)

The Morning After

Mark (center), his Brother Neil and sister Sheri
on their way to Game 1
I am sad and elated today. After watching my Indians give everything they had and losing by 1 run, I am elated that they never gave up! The Cubs played a Great Game! We Indians Fans have nothing to be ashamed of... Our team played it's heart out and this was as exciting a 7th games as ever played in my lifetime!

I have watched the ways that all of the fans, Cubbies and Indians, have come together as One Family. I know that we can build on this energy to bring all of us Americans, humans together to BE ONE FAMILY.

Families have differences AND we come together to help each other. Families can fight with each other and be there in good times and bad. I believe that we, Americans, need to come back together in love, Justice, Truth, Kindness and Compassion rather than the bifurcation and hatred that has been rampant over the past decades. We have the technology- Team Spirit; we have the path- what our country was founded on; and the only question left- do we have the will to surrender to God's Will of finding ways to live together, fight together, argue together and love together?

I am sad that my Indians lost this game and so elated and proud of all they accomplished with the odds against them! I am elated that the Cubs Fans are celebrating their victory. Lets join each other in both commiserating and celebrating for both teams and use this as the model for how we deal with victory and defeat! Doing this makes us all winners.

Let’s Play Two…

I do not typically share the articles from my Temple Bulletin on my blog. Their purpose is usually more focused on our congregation. This was my October article, and I want to use it (somewhat edited) to finish my 5 part series on the Neshama (soul) of baseball.)


The Neshama of Baseball

Let’s Play Two…

This has been an amazing summer for me. In our family we have had new jobs, a high school graduation and the last child is off to college. Special for us, but most of you have those things happening as well. If not this summer then another. Those of you that know me are aware that this summer has been amazing for me in particular for one other reason: The Chicago Cubs.

My Red Sox fan friends now chortle “Now that we’ve had a few World Series, it might as well be your turn.” And I remind them that Red Sox have NEVER been the longest suffering team in baseball. They missed that honor by ten years. And in 1918, they beat…the Cubs. But I digress.

My beloved team has been in first place the entire season. They last did that in 1969, and Mets fans know how that turned out. I digress again. I mention this here for two reasons: because I want to shout it from the roof tops and because I need to explain the baseball bat in my office. It is a metaphor for Jewish learning.

The bat is signed by Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, one of the heroes of my childhood and was a gift to me from B’nai Israel on the occasion of my 10th anniversary as educator. Whenever someone said “Hey Ernie! It’s a beautiful day for a ball game!” he would respond: “Let’s play two!”

I would tell this story whenever teaching about the Yotzer or Ma'ariv prayers. These are prayers we say as part of our regular worship service, praising God for creating the world in which we live. (We say Yotzer in the morning and Ma'ariv at night.) I would explain that Ernie believed that when it is a beautiful day, we need to show God our appreciation by doing the things we love best and by sharing it with others we love. For Ernie it was playing baseball and sharing it with all of Chicago. I was fortunate enough to meet him in the 80’s and confirm that is what he meant.

So what does the bat have to do with Jewish learning? Jewish learning – doing it myself or facilitating it for others – is thing I love doing best. Ernie’s bat reminds me that no matter the weather outside, it is ALWAYS a beautiful day for Jewish learning.

Whatever your age it is a beautiful day for Jewish learning.

Our Bonim Pre-school gets fully underway next week (We write these a month prior to publication), followed quickly by Religious School and Merkaz. Our Religious School Vision Team has already begun learning as part of the URJ Reimagining Jewish Education Community of Practice I described last June.

And our Adult Jewish Learning program, chaired by David Herbst, is also underway. I invite you to check out our offerings this month on page 6 of this bulletin. And I invite you to join me at 1:00 p.m. on Wednesday, October 12, which is Yom Kippur afternoon. Instead of going home, stick around for some Jewish learning on the topic of gratitude - something I hope to have an extra reason to express at the end of the post-season. We will spend an hour together and then have a little time before the afternoon service begins.

When it comes to Jewish learning, let’s play two!

L’shalom and G’mar Chatimah Tovah!


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Measuring Good: Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight

If you have followed my blog or Facebook, and are not living under a rock, you know that I am a bit bleary-eyed today. The Cubs made history last night, ending the longest (by forty years) championship drought in modern sports. After 108 years, the Cubs are champs. This morning a friend (and LA Dodgers fan) asked me what I will do now that THIS season is over. I replied "Wait 'till next year!" The traditional Cubs-fan greeting has a different ring to it now. I can't wait!

I have one more piece of my own on the Neshama (soul) of Baseball. It will run tomorrow morning. First, I want to bring this terrific piece to your attention. This, appropriately, arrived from eJewishPhilanthropy this morning. Warning: it is based on some seriously nerdy Baseball thought. It is also, I think, brilliant. Stick with it. Rabbi Harris brings home in the end.


The Neshama of Baseball, Part IV

Measuring Good:
Sabermetrics and Spiritual Insight

By Rabbi Maurice Harris

If Sabermetrics was a religion, Bill James would be the Messiah who was sent to reveal the Truth, Billy Beane his first prophet, and Theo Epstein the current High Priest of the Temple of Baseball. And if you have no idea what the previous sentence means, then permit this humble rabbi to invite you to into the garden of baseball nerdery.

I’ll start with a story: in the 1970s, while working as a night shift security guard, Bill James developed an alternative set of stats for baseball called Sabermetrics – an unorthodox analytical model worthy of Nate Silver. For many years, James’ ideas were only known to a tiny group of extreme baseball junkies. The story of how Sabermetrics was finally embraced by a major league team’s general manager, Billy Beane, is wonderfully told in Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” and the 2011 movie it inspired.

Beane’s dilemma was that the team he was responsible for building, the Oakland A’s, didn’t have the money to compete for the free agents who were the best players. Beane was a Bill James fan with a small budget and nothing to lose. He concluded that if James’ stats were actually better at predicting success than the traditionally used stats, then maybe he could build a winning team by acquiring overlooked players that traditional scouts would miss – players whose Sabermetric stats were cream of the crop. He did, and the A’s went on to become the winningest team in baseball for a good stretch of years.

Finally, there’s Theo Epstein, who’s in the sports headlines these days. He’s the Sabermetrics whiz kid who applied James’ model to the Boston Red Sox, finally ending their long championship drought. He’s spent the last five years doing the same with the World Series Champion Chicago Cubs.

So what’s spiritual about all this? I promise, we’ll get there, but stay with me a bit longer.

Sabermetrics works by applying probability math to a very large amount of baseball data. It claims to deliver a higher probability of winning games over a long stretch of time. The regular baseball season is 162 games long, and typically the best teams at the season’s end win no more than 60% of their games, and the worst teams no fewer than 40%.

Applied over many seasons, the model has produced impressive results. For the first 10 years the A’s used Sabermetrics, their winning percentage was 52.1%. That may not sound that amazing, but it actually is. Historically, out of 30 major league teams and over 100 years of stats, there are only 3 teams with a higher all-time winning percentage – the Yankees (56.9%), the Giants (53.8%), and the Dodgers (52.5%). The team with the worst overall record throughout its history, the Tampa Bay Rays, still has won over 46% of its games.

Now, finally, we come to the spiritual insight in all this baseball meshugas.

Judaism is an optimistic yet realistic tradition. Every High Holy Days, we’re reminded of the sages’ teaching that we should all think of ourselves as people who probably do roughly the same amount of good deeds and bad, and that by taking a moral inventory and doing teshuvah, we have the power to tip the evenly balanced scales towards the good. We’re also taught that the world is profoundly broken, but that we collectively have the power to improve it. And, at least in liberal Judaism, we tend to believe that the world includes accidents, random events, and uncertainty.

Judaism’s attitude towards the power we have as human beings to improve the world is very sabermetrical. This is true of individuals and it is true of our organizations and congregations. If a group of us works hard to do good in a proven effective way, does that mean good outcomes will happen next week? Who knows? Too small a sample set. But if we stick with it over the long haul, our faith is that the cumulative effect will bend the moral arc towards righteousness.

This isn’t to claim that all the world’s problems can, or should, be addressed with comfortable incrementalism. That would be a misunderstanding of the Judeo-Sabermetric Tradition! Global warming needs dramatic action, for example, in part because we’re reaping the awful harvest of many decades of harm.

No, the faith of the rabbinic Sabermetrician is a faith that accepts the existential fact that even if we do the most good that we could conceivably do to address a great problem, the probability is that we only improve the odds of success by a few percentage points. For those of us worried about climate change, we have to reckon with the possibility that even if the entire world suddenly cooperates with massive clean energy reforms, we may be too late to avert lasting terrible consequences. That said, our best chance at making the world a better place, whether regarding global warming or, say, Jewish engagement, is for us to develop the most effective strategy to improve the situation and then implement it with discipline and consistency.

Adopting a Sabermetrics approach forces us to ask: are we asking the right questions? Perhaps it is not total membership households that defines a congregation’s success, but some other measurable? Or should we even be talking about members anymore – maybe we should instead be categorizing peoples’ involvement and participation in Jewish communal life differently, and measuring it in some novel way that tells us more about how effective our work is?

Another thought: we live in a world of probabilities, and our tikkun olam work, if done well and over time, will shift those probabilities. Trusting that that is true – that the universe is wired that way – goes hand-in-hand with accepting that we can’t control the outcomes. Even if we make it more probable than not that justice will prevail, it’s still possible that injustice will win out in any given situation. Similarly, Sabermetrics is quite reliable at getting baseball teams to finish with a good enough record to get into the playoffs, but it loses its predictive powers in the face of a short series of games.

Sabermetrics and Judaism guide us towards comparable approaches to the work of improving baseball teams and human society, respectively. They say to us: 1) do the research to find out what specific work needs to be done to succeed – understanding that the best strategies may be novel ones; 2) do the best you can do as a team (or as a community) to implement that plan, and 3) accept the uncertainty of the outcome in any given situation but keep on keeping on.

To put it more succinctly: Study. Take action. Accept what happens next. Repeat. Have faith in this process. Play ball and/or Amen.

Rabbi Maurice Harris is associate director of affiliate support for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/ Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.




Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In the BIG Inning

The Neshama of Baseball, Part 3

Ari and Rachel
Rachel Margolis is an educator in Chicago and my partner in crime as co-chairs of the Communications Team for the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE). She and her husband Ari, a rabbi serving Congregation Or Shalom in Vernon Hills, Illinois. Ari and I have never actually met. When Rachel and I get together with our colleagues, he is usually home parenting their three spectacular daughters. But he has weighed in while Rachel and I have texted while watching the Cubs this post-season. He wrote this drash for Parshat Bereshit this past week. Rachel posted it on Facebook and The CCAR Blog picked it up as well. He gave me permission to post it here.



An ode to the intersection of this week's Torah portion, Bereshit, and my beloved Cubs:


In the beginning. . .

There was a team that experienced an abundance of success. They went to the World Series three times in a row. But they fell from grace after two straight championships. Expelled from the Garden of Greatness, they lost their way, squandering opportunity after opportunity. They experienced a deluge of misfortune, a famine of talent and success as they turned away from the land of the World Series, winding up in the bondage of ineptitude. They wandered, searching to find the promised land for 71 years, escaping the oppression of poor management and indifferent ownership, never losing hope.

Suddenly, a new team arose who knew not the Cubs of the past. Together with new ownership, sabermetric analysis, young talent, and innovative management, the long suffering crew has found its way to back to the World Series, standing on the precipice of the promised land.

By next week, we will all know the outcome of this part of our story, yet to be written. But what we do know is that sure enough, a new baseball season will come next Spring with new opportunities for redemption, renewal, and understanding, just as we have opportunities to find the same in our own hearts during this next year of reading our Torah.

Here's hoping that the team that taught me to understand the narratives of our people, always striving to return home to the promised land, will have found their Jerusalem. And whether they do or not, as we say at the end of Passover ... Next year in the World Series!

Monday, October 31, 2016

The Theology of the Cubs

The Neshama of Baseball, Part II
Irwin
I have known Irwin Keller since 4th or 5th grade. He was a year ahead of me in religious school at Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Glenview, IL. He was always the smartest kid I knew, but I never told him that until now. He was not a know-it-all. He was a great guy who took knowledge - especially Jewish knowledge seriously. While we were all trying to learn how to decipher the modern Hebrew dialogues in B'yad Halashon, Irwin was mastering the language. He led the service for his Bar Mitzvah completely in Hebrew - or at least that is how we all remembered it. He has become a lawyer, founded a drag a cappella quartet, the Kinsey Sicks, and for many years has been the spiritual leader Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, CA. He is studying with the Aleph Alliance and will be formally ordained a rabbi relatively soon. He also blogs at Itzik's Well. You should read it. I learn something every time he speaks or writes, and I am proud to call him a friend.

Like me, he is also a Chicago Cubs fan. We watched Game 4 of the series together Saturday night. I was in the bleachers and he was in a bar in West Hollywood (don't know why he was in LA, I didn't ask.) But with Facebook in front of us, we were watching together. He wrote the piece below last week and gave me permission to re-post it. Enjoy this second installment of the Neshama of Baseball. The original article is here.

A souvenir ball from Irwin's childhood

The Theology of the Cubs

by Irwin Keller

I grew up with a rabbi who regularly used baseball references in his sermons. I adored him (still do), and his outfield metaphors were usually just right. That said, he was a native South Sider, and a White Sox fan. Even as a kid I knew to look at his baseball enthusiasm with some skepticism. Sox fans were not like Cubs fans. My family – generations of North Side Jews – were the latter. Being a Cubs fan was as essential to who we were as being Ashkenazim, Chicagoans, Earthlings. We shared something special and formative with other Cubs fans. It was different from just being a baseball fan. Cubs fans had their own kind of faith, their own special theology.

I was raised into this religion from birth. My grandfather and his brothers-in-law were all formidable Cubs fans. Every summer Sunday of my childhood, like clockwork, like Shabbos, Grandpa Joe and Grandma Sade would pull up in their Oldsmobile and we would watch the ball game together. We'd turn on WGN at 1PM, in time to settle in with the announcers' pre-game chatter. My mother would pour her father a scotch on the rocks. I'd sprawl on the floor in front of the TV. And the game would start. My grandfather, like so many Chicago grandfathers, would yell at the umpires, would yell at Jack Brickhouse, would yell at Leo Durocher. Sometimes there were double-headers and all 6 of us would have to eat dinner in front of the TV so as not to miss any plays.

We were faithful fans, my family, although not fanatics. But fanatics did exist in my bloodline. My great grandmother's brother, Morris Levin, was a beloved figure at Wrigley Field. He earned a mention in the 1930 edition of Ripley's Believe It or Not for attending every game of the season and knowing every statistic in the National League, this while being completely blind. The players would say, "Hello, Mr. Levin" to him on their way onto the field, and he could tell from the sound of bat meeting ball exactly where a hit was headed.

Cubs games were daytime diversions in the days of my childhood; Wrigley Field had no lights. Too many extra innings and a game could be called on account of darkness. And who needed night games anyway? For Cubs fans, part of the joy was skipping school or work to go sit in the bleachers. And to a Cubs fan's eye, there was something vulgar about night games. Under electric flood lights, the White Sox looked like a Vegas stage show. Real baseball took place under the blue sky and bright sun.

I guess I'm saying these things to shore up my baseball cred, to try to convince you that I'm not just jumping on a Cubs bandwagon, although clearly here I am bouncing along on it. Baseball was, I think, something I sacrificed growing up and coming out. In perfecting my new, rebellious, gay identity, I embraced an outspoken and derisive ignorance of sports. And it was mostly true – I know nothing about basketball, football, hockey. I only care about soccer teams when they make beefcake calendars.

But baseball? Baseball I'm not ignorant about. I know the rules. I once knew the players. I know the pace and the feel and the culture. When I moved to California, that spirit chilled in me. I attended a few Giants games and a couple As games. And the company of my buddy Emily was wonderful. But I walked into Candlestick Park and it wasn't Wrigley Field. It was the wrong team in the wrong place. And rooting for a team that could actually win felt oddly meaningless.

Because being a Cubs fan has something to do with faith. Not faith in a specific outcome, but faith for its own sake. Faith as practice.

The Cubs last won a World Series when my Grandpa Joe was 5 years old. By the time I was watching ball with him 60 years later, the organizing principle of fandom could not have been any realistic expectation of winning. Instead faith was a posture, a relationship with the world, or at least the world of baseball. Rooting for a team that had a good chance was easy and it was beneath us. That kind of fandom was for people from other cities, where strength of character was not strictly required.

Whereas the theology of the Cubs fan had (and has) something to do with an embrace of the "is" rather than the "might be." It is belief without proof. Endurance without promise of reward. Patience just because.
If only we could live our lives this way! With such constancy. With exquisite endurance, faith that doesn't flag, joy even in the waiting. Holding the world – and each other – with love and loyalty, despite imperfection, despite unfinishedness. We don't need a perfected world; we don't need a perfect partner; perfect children, perfect self.  If we could just hang on to life, with all its ups and downs, with the fierce love with which Cubs fans hang on to baseball. What a world this would be!

And if every century or so there's a World Series title, no one would complain.

I sat last Saturday and watched the last National League playoff game, Cubs vs. Dodgers. Without a TV, without cable service, I had to connive my way onto the live stream. I sat, prodigal that I was, with my Israeli brother-in-law who had never seen a baseball game, and I elaborately explained it all. The rules. Why innings don't have a timer. How a normal game lasts as long as a movie but a memorable game with extra innings is like an opera. Why all the spitting (I had to make this one up) and crotch adjustments (ditto). What makes baseball fans better people. Pointing out how casual and respectful opponents were with each other. I felt all my love for the Cubs – not for these particular players, who were new to me and were all born long after my last visit to Wrigley Field, but my love for this religion that is the Cubs, that pours through and from me.

I relaxed in a deep way, a way that encompassed my entire life and not just that moment on the sofa. I forgot my work. I forgot the fatigue of the ongoing High Holy Days. I forgot the awful election. It was the 6th day of Sukkot, when we call in the biblical Joseph to be our guest in the Sukkah. Instead, it was my Grandpa Joe who was clearly at my side, his scotch in hand, in answer to my glass of local Sonoma wine.

And now tonight I settle in for the World Series. Sure, I'd like us to win. But it doesn't really matter. We want it but don't need it. We deserve it and so do the people of Cleveland who have been waiting a lifetime as well. We'll be fine either way. Because that's who Cubs fans are. That is our theology. We love, we believe, and we do so without proof or promise of reward.

Now play ball.

Joe and Sade arriving for Sunday baseball.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Take Me Out To The Ball Game!

The Neshama of Baseball Part I: Lessons learned in Wrigley Field

I often say I grew up in Wrigley Field.

That is not really true.

My grandfather, Uncle Stanley and great uncles Ted and Lee did all take me to a number of games.

Rusty, Uncle Stan, me and John
Friends and I did occasionally get called in sick to school so we could ride our bikes about ten miles to the Skokie Swift, a train that would take us to the Evanston "El" and then on to Addison Street and the ball park.

I spent more than a few hours on Waveland Avenue during batting practice, hoping to catch a ball launched over the left field wall (I never caught one, it was usually crowded).

And I had many exciting moments in the park, usually in the third base grandstands (made famous some years ago by Steve Bartman - who had absolutely no impact on the final score of any playoff game) or the left field bleachers.

Like most Cub fans my age, I was certain that I was the kid being portrayed by one of the actors in the play "Bleacher Bums," because I was a kid who sat in the bleachers when the play was written. (I certainly was not the kid. I never knowingly met the playwright.)

I did learn a lot of important lessons there.

Ernie Banks taught me that when God gives us a beautiful day for a ball game, we should play two. Because when God gives you the gift of a beautiful day you should take advantage of it and do what you love best.

I learned that you can trust strangers who share your passion. Because when someone passes a ten dollar bill across fifteen seats, they will receive their hot dog or frosty malt and ALL of their change.

Jack Kearney*, the ball park organist of my youth taught me that we can each have a theme song and that music can bring meaning and fun to life. And it can rouse a crowd to cheer even when there is little to cheer about on the field.

I learned that when the opposing team hits a home run you throw the ball back onto the field. We don't make trophy's of things that hurt us. Not in our house.

And as any Cub fan will tell you, I also learned how to deal with disappointment and failure. Lots of disappointment. And tons of failure. For Star Trek fans who don't follow baseball, imagine the Kobayashi Maru scenario, played out six days a week, occasionally twice in a day, 105 days or so per year, for most of your (in my case) 55 years of life.

It wasn't always that bad. When I was 8, life in Wrigley was nearly perfect. Until September 4. That was when the Miracle Mets took first place away from the Cubs. They went on to win the pennant and the World Series. We finished third.

And there have even been some stabs at the playoffs. And they were thrilling as long as they lasted. But so far, they have been graduate level courses in dealing with missing the mark.

Last year I was lucky enough to get a ticket for game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Mets. I went by myself, skipping a dinner with colleagues. It was a sublime experience. Memories of all of those games from my youth, and the beloved men in my life who brought me to Wrigley (only Uncle Stan is alive) came flooding back and they were standing next to me cheering as we battled DeGrom and the Mets. They took us apart. But I was there.

I am sitting on a plane bringing me home to Connecticut. I was blessed to have a friend whose brother works for a baseball team who arranged for me to get four tickets to each of the first three World Series games to be played in Wrigley Field since 1945 (a series we lost to Hank Greenberg and the Detroit Tigers, four games to one).

I attended the first game with Uncle Stanley, his son - my cousin Rusty - and my other cousin John (from my dad's side). John and I are closest in age, and as kids watched more than a few games together. We would debate who was more important to the team, Ernie Banks (me) or Ron Santo (him), while swimming at our grandparents pool. The Cubs were beat that night 1-0. It was not an exciting game from an athletic perspective.

But it was Shabbat with my family. A single beer instead of wine. A hot dog bun instead of challah. And those infernal ball park lights instead of candles (I still prefer a day game). But we were together. It was a beautiful evening spent with Stan, Rusty and John. Reminiscing without saying a word at times. Getting to know each other better as adults and fathers, since we often only see one another at special occasions with lots of family around. And it was also sharing the moment with more than 42,000 others who had similar stories and memories.

Last night I attended game four with my cousin Amy (Rusty's sister and Stan's daughter after spending the night at the home she shares with her husband David and their two beautiful dogs, Sesame and Poppy). We spent a wonderful day together before the game and then we were joined by my college roommate and fraternity brother Steve and his wife Nancy. More memories. Another 41,000 cousins-in-spirit. (Sure there were some Cleveland fans. But they were having a similar parallel experience. We were connected.

My dear friend Mark flew to His hometown of Cleveland for game one. He was joined by his brother and sister. We spoke as walked to the train to get to the park before the my first game. We talked about how amazing it was for him, and how excited I was for me to share the experience of each of our teams being in the World Series for the first time in our lifetimes with our families - with people who shared our connections with our recent ancestors who taught us to love our teams. We learned to love our teams because we loved the people who shared their passion with us, who taught us the secret handshake and bought us a frosty malt.

And it was the WORLD SERIES, DAMMIT. Here's the thing about being a lifelong Cub fan - and I by no means the first nor even the one thousand and first to say it - we have faith. We believe in the future. One week from now, whether we are the Champions or not, we will be tied with 29 other teams for first place for the 2017 season. We know in our hearts that there is always next year. And that makes us content, if not always happy.

Much as we believe in the future, and we have come to believe that Theo Epstein, the Ricketts and Joe Maddox have built the real deal in the last two years, none of us EXPECTED to see a World Series in Wrigley Field in our lifetimes before this version of the team. We have always hoped for it. We have always believed it could happen. But unlike my friends who follow the Yankees or the Red Sox (and I live amongst both in Connecticut), we didn't expect it.

And so I am frustrated and hopeful. Totally bummed that as of now we are down three games to one, yet completely excited that thirty minutes, Jon Lester will pitch and David Ross will catch. And I believe with perfect faith that the Cubs can win the next three games and win the World Series on Wednesday. And if they don't, well, it is a young team with a great organization and I am already planning to see them play the Red Sox at Fenway in April - a first for me.

When Uncle Stanley picked me up at O'Hare on Friday, we drove to Westlawn Cemetery. We visited my grandparents, Stan's parents. We told Grampa the Cubs finally made it to the World Series. And we were going. And he was coming with us. Then we placed pebbles on their stones and got ready to take ourselves to the ball game.

I learned a lot at Wrigley Field this weekend. Some I knew from my youth. I learned or was reminded that just like seasons, things go around and begin anew. The destination is awesome. The journey and people who take it with you, are what sustains you. Sometimes for an entire lifetime. Now if we can just get 81 more outs this week!

*I had originally written that it was Nancy Faust, but she was the White Sox organist, who made a deep impact on their fans too. She is the first one to play Na-na-na Hey, Hey, Goodbye in a ball park.

Friday, April 15, 2016

#BlogExodus: Examine

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer has for many years invited people to "Blog Exodus" at this time of year. See her blog from the 11th of April: http://imabima.blogspot.com/2016/04/blogexodus-purify.html Basically, she chooses a theme a day for the fourteen days leading up to the Seder, and invites us all to write on that theme. You can do it on her daily Facebook post or on your blog.

Today's theme spoke to me at a moment when I had some time to write. The theme is Examine.

Now Examine is very Pesadik trope - next week we will clean our homes of all chametz - the stuff that has been leavened. Some will even use a feather and candle to examine the nooks and crannies in our homes so we can find the last of the chametz. We have been examining store shelves for weeks, hoping to find everything we need in order to prepare meals for a week, including one or two fairly large feasts.

But seeing the word Examine as a theme for the day makes me think about something even more intimate. It is interesting that the Israelites were instructed to make sure the lambs they sacrificed on the night of the final plague had to be without blemish, but were not told to purify themselves in any way. But much of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is filled with various people in a variety of situations being commanded to purify themselves as they prepared for a ritual or to reenter the camp.

My wife and I agree that Pesach is one of our favorite festivals, and it may be number one. The reason has to do with the cleaning of the house and the switching of the dishes. For me, though, it is also the idea that I need to Examine myself, and find the chametz that is inside me. I need to find the things that are holding me back from setting out on the path to freedom this year. And I need to deal with them. Some I can handle on my own. Others are big enough that I will need some help.


My rabbi growing up, Mark S. Shapiro, used to say that as hard as it was to get the Jews out of Egypt, it is (still!) harder to get the Egypt out of the Jews. We bring our chametz with us, just like packing a lunch for the road. The forty years of wandering was God's attempt to get the chametz of actual slavery - and the fantasy that somehow Egypt was better than the reality of freedom - out of our heads.

Find your own chametz - the kind that is inside you. And get rid of it. I am hoping we don't need to take a whole generation to get it done.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Teaching in the time of Trump

One of my favorite subscription e-mails is from HistoryTech.  It is written by educator, consultant and tech guy Glenn Wiebe. He is definitely my kind of educator. His blog consists not only of his own thoughts about the use of technology in teaching history, but also those of others he learns from. And it is about good teaching, not just good use of technology. Each posting has links to web sites or apps that educators might find useful usually around a common theme or idea. Very accessible. 
History Tech
History, technology, and
probably some other stuff

Today he relies on his own wisdom as well as that of others to give some insight on how to approach one of the most troubling phenomena we have faced in some time in the American classroom - Donald Trump. It is a big issue for more than the Donald being Donald. In our classrooms - both secular and religious there is requirement of political neutrality on the part of the teacher and the school. But this is not a topic that can or should be ignored. So here is Glenn's post, which can also be found at https://historytech.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/teaching-in-the-time-of-trump/.


Teaching in the time of Trump


Several days ago, I wrote a quick post highlighting seven ways to survive a divisive election while making your students smarter. That post generated an interesting conversation – many teachers began asking similar kinds of questions. Specifically . . . how can we teach diversity and tolerance when much of the campaign rhetoric directly challenges these very American values while at the same time maintaining a neutral political stance?

A recent article in the National Council for the Social Studies journal Social Education can help us address this concern. Titled Teaching in the Time of Trump by Benjamin Justice and Jason Stanley, the NCSS article provides context, rationale, and specific suggestions for focusing on American democratic values and process.
The article is an incredibly useful teaching tool but it also provides a powerful reminder of our fundamental task. Head over to get the full text but I’ve pasted some snippets below to provide some flavor of what Justice and Stanley have to say.
Teaching in the time of Trump raises a fundamental pedagogical question: is it permissible for a teacher to adopt a non-neutral political stance in the classroom, either through explicitly addressing the problems with Trump’s rhetoric or, conversely, by remaining silent in the face of it? How can teachers balance the much cherished value of political impartiality (protecting the students’ freedom of expression and autonomous political development) against the much cherished American values threatened by Trumpish demagoguery?
Why should we even worry about this?
Democracy has two chief values, liberty and equality. In most conceptions of liberty, demagoguery is allowed in a democracy. Controversial speech is still free speech. The problem of demagoguery lies not in its conflict with freedom, but with the democratic value of equality. Demagoguery causes problems in the absence of equal respect; it feeds off of and strengthens divisions in society.

Public school classrooms are training grounds for liberal democracy, where students learn democratic skills and knowledge.

Students must learn the bounds of reasonableness by interacting with apparently fixed knowledge – such as that in their textbooks – and also by applying knowledge to their engagement with other students in the process of analysis of public issues. In that process, teaching for democracy is not the same as giving free rein to all perspectives so that all are treated as equally reasonable. Rather, teachers lead conversations and set reasonable parameters so that all students can safely participate and learn what is reasonable and what is not reasonable. This is the fundamental political purpose of a public education.

Democratic principles and ideals are not themselves neutral. Neither is teaching students to become citizens in a society that aspires to these ideals. Because of the value of liberty, one should not suppress the speech of those who argue that one religion should have a preference over others, for example. But it is reasonable for a teacher to observe that Trump’s rhetoric is a contemporary example of a violation of the democratic ideal of equal rights for all religions.

Teachers also cannot be neutral about the misrepresentation of facts or the violation of norms of truth in public speech. They should emphasize to students the importance of evaluating the accuracy of statements made by candidates. Some examples of websites that check these are FactCheck, the Washington Post Fact Checker, and PolitiFact.
Why worry about facts?
Trump’s rhetoric exhibits several characteristics of demagogic speech. If political speech ought to be guided, in liberal democracy, not just by reasonableness but also by truth, then Trump’s seeming willful disregard of it is also illiberal, whether it was his efforts as a “birther” to discredit President Obama by demanding his birth certificate or his recent claims about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the World Trade Center attacks.

In another example, Trump tweeted an inaccurate graphic claiming that 81% of whites who were murdered were killed by blacks; the real number in 2014 was 14%. Such disregard for truth is a mark of the rise of history’s worst tyrants. Hannah Arendt in her book Origins of Totalitarianism grimly observed this axiom in action: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such . . .”
Justice and Stanley suggest three strategies for teaching in the time of Trump:
  • One approach would examine the material conditions leading to a situation in which voters are attracted by undemocratic rhetoric. Perhaps the institutions of democracy have failed them. A state that promised its citizens a raft of goods, but in fact never delivered them, would in so doing lay the groundwork for a protest candidate who proved his or her credentials by violating its norms of respectability.

  • A second approach involves a comparison of the current material conditions to those present at other times in U.S. history at which demagogues achieved some measure of success through the politics of division and exclusion based on religion, race, and political belief. In short, one could compare the political environment that gave rise to Trump to the ones that gave rise to Father Coughlin in the 1930s and George Wallace in the 1960s, by examining similarities or differences in the state of the economy, social tensions, and disagreements over controversial government policies. Several of my Twitter PLN suggested a similar approach by asking students to look at other places around the world and in different time periods. Compare current US events to leaders and events in the past and discuss implications and consequences of those actions.

  • A third approach would track the genesis of Trumpism to the shift in rhetoric brought into public debate by partisan news media and social media. This would involve a historical project comparing previous media norms to the ones at work in contemporary partisan media. Students might examine the impact of the growth of stridently conservative radio and TV programs and electronic media during the last 25 years, and consider whether they prepared the way for the political rise of Donald Trump.
What’s our obligation? Our job?
Silence is not an acceptable strategy. As teachers, we should advocate no particular political party, candidate, or public policy. But we are all obligated, deeply, to hew to the basic principles of democratic life in order to help our students discern what is reasonable. Public school teaching is not neutral and has never been intended or understood as such.

Public schools are places where reason and reasonableness must be cultivated in the best traditions of liberals and conservatives alike, striking the balance between the principles of equality and freedom, preparing students for the maelstrom that awaits them.
It’s not necessarily an easy job. But it’s one that we cannot ignore.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

David L. Odom: History without a reason

One of my rabbis, Evan Schultz, shared this wonderful article with our staff yesterday. It is definitely a part of the Jewish Educational Theory of Everything! The idea that we do something because we have always done it, completely unhinged from the original, innovative rationale for doing it, can be debilitating. Let's talk about this!

The article comes from www.faithandleadership.com - a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. David L. Odom is the
Executive director, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. You can find the original posting here.


David L. Odom: History without a reason




SIgn announcing times of Sunday Services at The Church of St. Mabena
Many times institutions have traditions -- such as the Sunday service time -- that are preserved without a reason for doing so.
Wikimedia Commons/Theroadislong
Leaders must be able to articulate why an institution does what it does. Is it a matter of history, or is there a reason? writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Early in my new boss’s tenure, I asked her for help.

“Is this one of those situations that has a history but not a reason?” she asked.

The question stopped me cold.

She told me that in her two-week tenure, several people had sought her advice. In each case, she had asked, “Why are we doing this?” In response, the person would launch into a story that never included a reason for the project.

Since hearing the phrase from my boss -- Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis, who is serving as interim dean of Duke Divinity School -- I have repeated it to several leaders whose faces lit up. They can see in their contexts the projects that have a history without a reason.

Learning the history of an issue is critical. It reveals stakeholders whose views might remain important and can give hints about the circumstances that first gave rise to the issue. Those who claim to know the history often care about a situation’s outcome, and giving them a chance to tell the story helps bring them on board.

I have met several leaders who believed that the relevant history started with their own arrival at an institution. My boss was pointing to a different challenge.

During good times, an organization can coast on autopilot. The reasons for an initiative can get lost, though it can still seem to be productive. When times are tough -- economic challenges, leadership changes, neighborhood changes, stakeholder investment shifts -- it is critical to be able to articulate why the organization does what it does.

The starting point is to ask, “Why?”

But be careful. Asking why can make people nervous and cause them to wonder about your motivations -- are you simply trying to control of the situation? Assure them that you’re trying to understand the situation, and listen carefully. If their story doesn’t conclude with a reason, ask the question again.

In my case, Dean Davis asked the question to understand the dilemma and empower me to solve it. I had wanted her to make a decision, but she wanted to offer me some guidelines for solving it myself. The decision had high stakes, and we had not worked together before. Her question enabled us to share information and gain each other’s trust.

When I was a young pastor, I was the one asking questions.

I was troubled that my congregation had its Easter Sunday worship service at 9 a.m. Every other Sunday of the year, we worshiped at 11 a.m.

When I asked why, people said that 9 a.m. was more convenient for Easter, but no one had any evidence that it was. I was worried about the people who came to church only once a year and might assume that we held our service two hours later.

When I pressed the question, I learned that the church had historically held a sunrise service followed by a breakfast. Because of the long delay between the end of breakfast and the beginning of the 11 a.m. service, the second service had been moved back to 9. It had been more than 10 years since the last sunrise service and breakfast. The 9 a.m. service had a history -- but no longer a reason.

I was worried that newcomers in our community would show up at 11 a.m. thinking we would have a service and then feel left out when we didn’t. On my first Easter Sunday there, I decided to hang out in the parking lot after the 9 a.m. service to see whether anyone showed up at 11. Five carloads of newcomers pulled into the empty parking lot about 10:50.

If there is something significant at stake, it is unwise to frame the issue as simply “history or reason.” As a leader, approach the situation with a both-and mindset: How might you preserve the history and make space for something new?

My colleague Greg Jones refers to this mindset as “traditioned innovation.” In our case, church leaders didn’t want to change the time, but they did agree to invest in signs and other media to announce the “special time on a special day” for Easter. We worked hard to reach newcomers in the community who would find the 9 a.m. service appealing.

With the phrase “history without a reason” stuck in my mind, I listen carefully to the stories people tell me about why something is done a certain way. Does the story imply a reason? Does the person hear what the story implies? Does the reason make sense in the current context? Can the history and the reason be brought together?

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