Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Why "Welcome to the Next Level?"

This post may seem a bit self-indulgent. Please forgive me. As I prepare to transition to a new congregation and community after 27 years, I am finding it helpful to look a bit inward.

Full disclosure. I began this blog when I was applying for a Jim Joseph Fellowship at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar-Ilan University. They were looking for educators who wer tech and social media savvy to engage in a two-year journey into creating online Communities of Practice. It was clear from the application that they expected applicants to be bloggers. So I became a blogger. And it has been - off and on - a process I have found meaningful. It has led to some great conversations and helped me focus my thoughts and communicate them to others.

The title started out kind of cute. One of the gaming system companies (Sega?) had an ad campaign in the 90s that used it as the tag line for their commercials. It stuck with me. When I decided to create this blog, I decided that the focus had to be on where we go next in Jewish Education. 

In 1971, Joel Grishaver's original Shema is For Real and Debbie Friedman's Sing Unto God were the cutting edge. SiFR was a one color print book bound with staples. And Debbie's album was an long playing vinyl record. We have come a long way baby.

I began this blog three days after Barack Obama was first inaugurated as president. Jewish educators had been adapting devices, web sites, apps and social media platforms to find ways to keep the learning process relevant in 2009.

I was and am not a huge gamer (I do the Wordle and play a few puzzle games). We did have a Space Invaders arcade game in my fraternity though. And just like the Sega ad, every time you completed a level, another one comes and brings new challenges.

So welcome to the next level of Jewish Education. Please join me in conversation (send me something you have written and I will post it) as we all work to create the new cutting edge. Our students deserve it!

Sunday, May 1, 2022

It’s all chaos. Be kind.

In June I will be leaving Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT and beginning a new adventure with Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York. This is my final bulletin article for B'nai Israel.

It was a very tense time in my life. The reason for the stress is not important now. We were waiting to hear some news, but there was nothing more to do to affect the outcome. So, I found a comedy special on Netflix, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt’s stand-up special “Annihilation.” I think it is still available.

He performed this show a little more than a year after the sudden death of his wife, Michelle. And he talks about both that and the process of talking to their then seven-year-old daughter about it. It is incredibly powerful, moving and strangely very funny.


Oswalt recounted that Michelle was an author of True-Crime books. He said she hated the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” She would say, “It’s all chaos, it’s all random, and it’s horrifying. And if you want to try and reduce the horror, and reduce the chaos, be kind. That’s all you can do. It’s chaos. Be kind.”

It's all chaos. Be kind.

Her words and his story got us through that night. And I have shared it with many people.

You don’t need me to tell you about the chaos. Listen to the news. Look at your collection of masks and test kits. Ukraine. Terrorism. Cyber attacks. Politics and posturing from all sides.

What can we do?

When I meet with new teachers I share several principles that are sacred to me. The first is “Camp is for the campers.” In other words, always focus on the experience of our learners, rather than what is convenient for us. Another rule is “Dugma is Dogma.” Dugma Ishit is Hebrew for “personal example.” Always model the behavior you want the learners to emulate. In every moment of my life with you for the past 27 years, I have committed myself to live by the same rules I shared with our teachers. So, what can we do?

Be kind.

Over the years, we have developed our shared vision for education at B’nai Israel – for the children in Kehilah (formerly called Religious School) as well as for learners of all ages. Together we have explored what we want our congregation to learn about, and I have tried to teach how to apply Jewish values and “all of this Jewish stuff” in every aspect of our lives, not just at select moments. I have tried to live and model the sacred principles discussed with the teachers, and the Jewish values we espouse in our new curriculum, articulate as a congregation and hold dear as members of the Jewish people, every day of my life.  

By my count, this is my 296th and final article for the B’nai Israel Temple Bulletin. And while I am moving to a new congregation in New York City, we are not completely leaving the community. I look forward to seeing many of you in days and years to come.

Take care of B’nai Israel as it has cared for us all since 1859. And take care of one another.

It’s all chaos out there. All we can do is be kind.

L'shalom,

Ira

 

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

“Someone should…”

Catching up on some blogging with things I have already written. This applies everywhere!

Turn on the cable news channel of your choice. Fox, CNN, MSNBC, InfoWars, it doesn’t matter. Within a few minutes – at most an hour – a commentator will likely say that “Someone should…”


Hang out at a sporting event. Could be kids playing little league, a minor league game or a showdown between the Yankees and the Red Sox, it doesn’t matter. Someone in range of your hearing – talking about almost any topic – will eventually say “Someone should…”

We hear it all the time. Many of us say it ourselves once in a while. When we see something that could be done better, or maybe something we think should be done that isn’t, we think and sometimes say “Someone should…”

You have been hearing or reading me talk about Jewish values a lot over the past twenty-six and three quarters years. We built our new curriculum around the idea that Jewish values are what make being Jewish valuable. They give meaning and structure to our Jewish identity and give us roots and wings.

Today’s Jewish value isAchrayut – responsibility. The Hebrew comes from the root letters Alef, Chet, Resh. Put them together and you get Acher – which means “other.” So one way to think about responsibility is that it can be the duty to think about and act toward people and events that are beyond your own immediate needs. Kehilah – community – happens because we all see that we have a shared achrayut or responsibility to take care of one another.

Kehilah – and now I am talking about youth education at our congregation – only works when adults actually do something, rather than saying that “someone should…” In the coming months, you will be invited to participate in ways you may not have done before. We already need more substitute teachers. (Call me!) We will likely need a few new teachers in the fall.

The Kehilah Vision Team, which works with the Director of Education to imagine the future, make policies and respond to new needs will need members. The Community Building Team, which organizes special events and the room parents (who work to build relationships between the parents in each class) will need people to fill those roles and do those tasks,

“Someone should” is easy to say. We spend a lot of time in Kehilah building up our kids and helping to feel like they are really someone. For Kehilah to be successful, we need all of our adults to demonstrate achrayut for our kids. We need you to say “I will” instead of “Someone should.”

L’shalom,

 

Ira

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Don’t Cancel Alice Walker. Hold Her Accountable.

I have been a reader and follower of Yair Rosenberg for several years. He has been an amazing writer fighting the good fight against antisemitism in the media. And he has an amazing sense of humor. He has punk'd some of the most outrageous online trolls and spoken truth to power.

His regular newsletter, Deep Shtetl has become a subscriber based newsletter from the Atlantic Magazine. You can access past issues here as well as subscribe to the newest posts as well.

Because it is a subscription-based newsletter, I cannot share the entire text. You should go read it and subscribe. Really. 

Like most Jewish educators I have been teaching about redemption and the journey to freedom a lot in the last week or so. I have also been having conversations about cancel culture over the past few months. So when I read his article about Alice Walker, I was spurred to share it. The short summary is the title of this post (and Yair's newsletter post). He suggests that "for years, the public has responded to the celebrated author's antisemitism by either sidelining her or ignoring her prejudice. We can do better.

He suggest that rather than cancelling her, which is a pretty dehumanizing and humiliating act, she be challenged and asked to engage in conversation about her posts and public statements. Read Yair's article about that here. In his current post, he suggests that we treat her (and I presume others whom we might wish cancel) as a human, one who like the rest of us has flaws and brokenness. And we should instead engage with her on these issues and give her a chance to see how her words affect others. And perhaps to begin her path to redemption and escape from the narrow places.


Chag Pesach Sameach!



Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Jewishness of Disney’s ‘Luca’

 eJewishPhilanthropy has over it's long (for a Jewihs internet outlet) existence developed a reputation for sharing a lot of news in the professional Jewish world - often in advance of the rumor mill. One of the things I have always loved about it (and it's founder) is the ability to find people who write brilliant opinion or thought pieces. They don't tell us about what has happened so much as make us think about what we ourselves might want to make happen, or about how we go about our professional or private lives. This ran last Thursday on eJP  (click here to see it on their site - and make your comments there as well to take part in the larger conversation).

My wife and I LOVED Luca. From a story point of view I think it clearly outshone Encanto. And I like the impact of this Bruno a bit more than Bruno Mirabel - although his song is wonderful and John Leguizamo is amazing as always. From a musical and capture-the-hearts-of-children perspective, the Oscar rightly went where it did. But I am all about the story. I would have written my own piece, but Ben Vorspan already wrote a better one than I could have. For now anyway. Enjoy. 

FILM APPRECIATION

The Jewishness of Disney’s ‘Luca’

Everything we say to others matters. In Judaism, every word has the potential to bring holiness or profanity into the world. How much more powerful then, are the words we say to ourselves? How can it be that we teach our children to be mindful of their words and language to others, but we often fail to support them when they have a nagging voice or worse, we model for them the toxic and limiting behavior of our own negative self-talk?

I recently enjoyed watching the magnificent and kaleidoscopic Disney/Pixar film “Luca.” The central story revolves around two new friends, one a slightly older street smart teen (Alberto), and the other a bright and curious younger boy (Luca). In their adventures, they collaborate to accomplish many things neither could do alone. At one point, when Luca is not feeling brave, he responds to Alberto’s invitation to join him, “Nope. I can’t do it. Never in a million years.” Alberto accesses his own grit, and says to Luca, “Hey, hey, hey. I know your problem. You’ve got a ‘Bruno’ in your head…I get one too sometimes: ‘Alberto, you can’t.’ ‘Alberto, you’re gonna die.’ ‘Alberto, don’t put that in your mouth.’ Luca, it’s simple. Don’t listen to (silly ol’) Bruno!”

The simplicity of this scene is its brilliance. Since watching it with each of my sons, when they articulate self-doubt or worse, negative self-talk, I look at them, point and yell, “Silenzio Bruno!”  It is pure Disney-meets-self-help-guru-magic.  It breaks the tension, flips an intense moment into one of levity and allows us to connect and process whatever is on the mind.

Mindfulness practices and skills are essential at Jewish day schools. Whether through our social emotional learning programs or partnership with organizations like the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, these opportunities provide us with the tools to notice, interrupt and reframe negative self-talk. As someone immersed in this work, trust me when I say that there is no quicker way to integrate mindfulness into our own day, or that of our students or children, than using, “Silenzio Bruno!”

Once this tool is in the toolkit, we can go through the transformative steps of turning self-doubt into self-confidence. We identify the negative self-talk as negative, we “name” it (Bruno), and we take action and command it to stop (Silenzio!). This mindful process is an integral step in wellness and self-health.

As we move toward spring and Pesach, toward our holiday of the liberation of our people and nation, it can be a moment to break free from the Pharaoh’s voice within each of us. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that we can be a Pharaoh unto ourselves, that the true meaning of freedom is “the liberation from the tyranny of the self-centered ego.” In other words, while we eat the bread of affliction, we can embrace the virtue of self-compassion.  

May this Passover — one to remember as we move out from two years of Seders where we were chained to our own homes or our Zoom screens — be one of great liberation! May we each have a silent Bruno, and maybe instead, find and name that internal, affirming voice, full of compassion, love and encouragement.  Perhaps that name is none other than the one name Adonai, God of Compassion and Grace (YHVH El Rahum v’Chanun). That same compassionate voice we are so comfortable sharing with a friend, a student or family member… may we learn to hear it for ourselves.

Monday, April 11, 2022

Sing a Redemption Song

I alternate between Pesach and Sukkot as my favorite Jewish holiday. I love building and hanging out in our Sukkah. Feeding people I love and celebrating with them is my happy place – and so I love the seder as well. Passover is so much more than that though.

Geulah – Redemption – is much more than a moment in our history: the crossing of the Sea of Reeds on the beginning of the walk to freedom. It is a Jewish value. We invoke it when we participate in freeing someone from captivity or slavery. Some of us remember participating in the movement to free the Refuseniks – Jews in the Soviet Union who only wanted to be free to be Jewish, to teach Hebrew or go to Israel. That was Geulah. Natan Sharansky, a former Knesset member and leader of the Jewish Agency was perhaps the most famous Refusenik.

Many of you know that I have been a mentor for Jewish professionals who participate in the immersion program at Beit T’shuvah in Los Angeles. Beit T’shuvah (literally “house of repentance”) is a residential recovery facility for people trying cope with alcoholism or ay of a number of other addictions. The immersion program is designed to teach clergy, educators and communal workers how to better recognize and help addicted folks in their communities.

A scene from Freedom Song

A few years ago, we brought Beit T’shuvah’s Redemption Song to B’nai Israel. It is a piece of musical theater written and performed by people in recovery. It tells a story of families with addicted members against the background of Passover seders and the Exodus from Egypt. It was and is an amazing show.

Mark Borovitz, emeritus Rabbi of Beit T’shuvah, refers to Passover as the second High Holy Days for people in recovery. For them to achieve Redemption, they must go through the steps of Repentence (T’shuvah). They use the 12 Steps of Recovery to help them do that. The 8th, 9th and 10th steps all look a lot like how we Jews are taught to atone during the period leading up to Yom Kippur:

8.     Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

9.     Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

So as we prepare for own Pesach seder – as we buy and prepare the food, set the table, plan how we will lead the seder – let’s also take some time to reflect. What do I need to do to make sure I reach the other side of the Sea of Reeds? How can I make sure I and the ones I love will find redemption? I suggest making a list, making amends and continue to look to our own actions. Through T’shuvah, we can find Geulah!

We all wish you a wonderful Pesach and a safe journey to Redemption. If you need any help in preparing, let me know!

L’shalom,

Ira    

Thursday, April 7, 2022

The Neshama of Baseball - a New Season (again)

This was originally posted in 2017. Like the cycle of holidays, the cycle of life and the eco-cycle, Baseball is born anew each spring. With baseball opening today, I felt the need to repost it!

A busy winter has kept me away from the blog. But it is time for spring, Pesach and Baseball (although it looks like opening day is a wash for the Cubs and Cards. One of my favorite Cardinals fans is Stephanie Crawley, who is a rabbinic student at HUC-JIR and who interns at our congregation. This was a D'var Torah she gave on November 4, 2016, the week before the election and the week after the Cubs won the world series. She agreed to let me post it for opening day. Please enjoy!





Each year at this time, Jews read the story of Noah, of the terrible flood, and of the miracle of the rainbow, which signified a better future for humanity. 

On Wednesday night, an estimated 40 million people sat on couches, on bar stools, and on stadium seats, witnessing the Chicago Cubs make history.

For Noah, It rained for 40 days, and 40 nights.

For the Cubs, I did the math, and turns out that if you count the days, their 108-season World-Series losing streak amounts to just about 40 total years of baseball played.

For 40 years of day games and 40 years of night games, it rained on the Cubs.

Earlier this week, when the Cubs were down 3 games to 1, it seemed like the deluge of despair wasn’t going to end.

Noah anticipated his salvation. He had hope, sending out a raven to search for dry land.

The raven never returned, but like the Cubs’ fans, Noah didn’t stop hoping.

Noah sent out a dove who returned with an olive branch,

and the Cubs came back to tie up the series 3-3.

Noah’s ark finally came to rest on dry land after 7 months, on the 17th day of the month.

And the Cubbies finally broke their curse in the Game 7 of the world series, in their, wait for it, 17th postseason game.

Coincidence? Almost certainly. Creative mathematics? Maybe.
Or, perhaps, a sign of the magic that baseball and Judaism share.

Wednesday night was the stuff of legends, a game for the ages, baseball at its best—two underdog teams battling it out in a fantastical, impossible journey to win it all in the end.

Hearts jumped in simpatico as we watched home runs, stolen bases, errors, and even… a rain delay.

We were attending, what the classic baseball movie, Bull Durham, poetically describes: “the Church of Baseball.”

For as long as I have been a Jew, I have been a baseball fan. I am not unique in this respect. Much has been written about the love affair between baseball and the Jews. This passion can be attributed to the history of an immigrant community hungry to be a part of American culture.

But it is more than just historical correlation. Rabbi Jonathan Cohen enumerates the numerous parallels between baseball and Judaism: “both venerate tradition, both emphasize community, both attach importance to special foods (think of ballpark franks, and don’t forget the peanuts and Cracker Jacks). Both have their rituals – e.g., the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch, the seventh-inning stretch. There are even baseball “holidays,” such as the All-Star game and the World Series.”[1]

One of my favorite jokes asserts that even God is a baseball fan. How do we know? Because the Torah starts with “In the Big Inning…”

But the most important commonalities have less to do with the superficial similarities like traditional foods or dates on the calendar. The parallels exist on a more spiritual plane. Love for a team, or a sport, like faith, can often seem irrational. A pure rationalist might look at the outpouring of tears and celebrations that took place on Wednesday night, or at today’s parade in Chicago and deem them “silly.”
                                   
“It is only a game,” they might say. “What’s all the fuss?”

My answer to that would be, that, at their best, baseball and Judaism are about experiencing the ineffable, about transcending the mundane. The religious or spiritual resides [in a domain beyond words.] In an age of gigabytes and picoseconds, we tend to live too quickly and to miss much that we might see. Baseball, as it turns out, can help us develop the capacity to see through to another, sacred space,” writes former NYU Chancellor, John Sexton, who taught a yearly seminar entitled Baseball as a Road to God, which he later turned into a book.[2]

Baseball provides an opportunity “to transcend the mundane experience of everyday life…”[3] Sexton writes.  “While the teams and players on the field may change each autumn, the game’s evocative power is continuous. Opening Day in the spring and the World Series in the fall are the bookends of baseball’s liturgical time, and within the rituals of each season, fans are converted to believers…and events become part of a mythology, forever remembered and repeated with the solemnity of the most beloved sacred stories. And inevitably, each season brings its moments of heightened awareness—divergent from ordinary time and place—in which some discover a connection to something deeper than the ordinary. Such moments are remembered not merely for what they literally were but for what they evoked in those who experienced them.”[4]

If we just changed a little bit of the vocabulary, I could make this very same statement about Judaism.

Our team is Judaism. The worship-ers and synagogues may change over time, but every spring, Passover still arrives, and we still have Rosh Hashanah every fall, we repeat the same stories over and over, and add our own stories to Judaism’s sacred narrative. And from time to time, when it really works, we may experience moments of heightened awareness, some kind of connection beyond our ordinary experiences.

We need these rituals in order to experience moments of ineffable power. As much as we may try, we cannot rationalize the feeling of 100,000 people holding their breath as they wait to see if the wind will carry the long fly ball into the stands for a home-run.

Nor can we articulate the awesome power of hearing the blast of the shofar, or watching a Bar or Bat mitzvah chant from the very same book that our ancestors read.
This world series brought joy, comfort, and escape in a difficult time in our divided nation.

In his famous speech in the film Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’s character declares the saliency of Baseball in our nation: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.”

I don’t know what the outcome of Tuesday’s election will be. But I take comfort in the fact that in 149 days, my beloved St. Louis Cardinals will repeat the sacred cycle, and have another chance on opening day.

There will always be another year, more awe-filled moments, and a reason to hope.



[1]Sermon by Cohen, Rabbi Jonathan. "Baseball and Jewish Values. http://www.mishkantorah.org/rabbi-jonathan-cohen/baseball-and-jewish-values.
[2] Sexton, John, Thomas with Oliphant and Peter J. Schwartz. Baseball As a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2013. p. 5.
[3] Sexton, 9.
[4] Sexton, 14.

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