I was recently honored for my twelve years of service to the Temple Beth Elohim community. I was given the opportunity to share a few thoughts, which are found below. I am humbled and profoundly grateful to have been a part of such a significant and exciting chapter of the TBE story, and may we go from strength to strength.
“What really matters is that we care about the people we seek to engage. When we genuinely care about people, we will not only welcome them; we will listen to their stories, we will share ours, and we will join together to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.”
Dr. Ron Wolfson’s charge from “Relational Judaism” just begins to scratch the surface. For more than 68 years, the power of relationships have transformed our Temple Beth Elohim family, and for the past 12, have certainly transformed me. The events were great. The trips were epic. The classes were inspiring. But it is within the relationships – the connections made in between – where the holiness dances and thrives. Dr. Wolfson identifies nine levels of relationship, which speak to how my time at TBE has deeply impacted me, and for which I am forever grateful.
Bayn adam l’atzmo – between you and yourself: a strong internal Jewish identity, a definition of self that includes “Jewish” as a key factor. From my own formative years as a teen and emerging adult, NFTY, Camp Bauercrest, Hillel and URJ Eisner Camp helped me find and develop pride in my Jewish identity. But it was at Temple Beth Elohim where I learned how I wanted to and could explore the many different components of my Jewish identity.
Bayn adam l’mishpachah – between you and your family. Immediately upon joining the TBE staff and congregation, I expanded my concept of family as I gained and appreciated the addition of many new Jewish mothers and fathers in my life. As a TBE family, we work really hard, and we play even harder. Our caring community is a blessing, and has supported me throughout the many turns of my journey.
Bayn adam l’haveiro – between you and your friends. Temple Beth Elohim introduced me and gave me the opportunity to work with and learn from many colleagues and congregants over the years, many of whom I consider to be my teachers and friends. (Hillel was on to something, I guess). Each member of our community, and especially our staff, has had a significant impact on who I am as a person and professional. But I need to specifically thank Rabbi Sisenwine, Rabbi Saphire, Cantor Sufrin, Rabbi Franklin and Rabbi Sherman for the light that they have and continue to provide in my life. And to Alison, Judy, Judy, Nancy, Hannah, Leah and Susan – thank you. And to Henry, Harriet, Mike and Pam – your leadership, love and guidance for our community, along with our amazing lay leaders and volunteers, is what enables it all. We could not have done what we have in the past 12 years without your support, vision and care. My sincere gratitude.
Bayn adam l’Yahadut – between you and Jewish living and learning. I had known I wanted to become a Jewish educator and youth professional for many years, but it was Temple Beth Elohim that challenged me to think about how I wanted to continue my learning and exploration of Jewish learning and living for myself, in addition to that which I was helping to provide our youth.
Bayn adam l’kehilah – between you and your community, both sacred and secular. There are a lot of beautiful moments, memories, laughs, tears, hugs, fist bumps and smiles that fill 12 years of holy relationships. To have been a small part of the unique and exciting Jewish journeys of our amazing community of teens in BM3T, Havayah and beyond - I am truly blessed to be part of such a kehilah kedoshah (holy community). You can all check that one off on your bingo cards now :)
Bayn adam l’am – between you and Jewish peoplehood, wherever Jews are. The roots and wings that TBE has given me and many of my colleagues over the years has had a significant impact not only on our community, but on the broader Jewish community as well. The Rashi School is blessed to have Rabbi Clevenger as part of their community. Rachel Happel has and continues to change the landscape of Jewish experiential education in Greater Boston and beyond. Now Rabbi Sarah Marion is serving her first congregation in Baltimore, and Ariel Milan-Polisar is currently in Israel for her first year at HUC-JIR. And now Laura and I are both blessed to take what we have done and learned from our TBE family to help strengthen the fabric of youth engagement throughout the Boston Jewish community.
Bayn adam l’Yisrael – between you and Israel. Through writing curriculum, designing Shabbatonim, attending conferences and speakers, becoming a Birthright Israel Fellow and staffing URJ Kesher trips, TBE pushed me from not having much of a relationship with Israel to think about how Israel could be a significant and meaningful part of my work.
Bayn adam l’olam – between you and the whole world. The acts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) that we have done together have forever changed me. From soup kitchens to Songs of Love to homeless shelters to breakfast for backpacks to reading at schools to volunteering with the Special Olympics to community organizing…I can only say thank you for giving me many, many opportunities to join hand in hand and, together, work to repair our fractured world.
Bayn adam l’Makom – between you and God: belief or disbelief; either way, a willingness to wrestle with the Devine. This one’s pretty easy. .מַה־נּוֹרָ֖א הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה אֵ֣ין זֶ֗ה כִּ֚י אִם־בֵּ֣ית אֱלֹהִ֔ים Mah norah hamakom hazeh, ayn zeh ki im Beit Elohim. 12 years ago, I thought I was simply taking a job. But I soon realized that, in deed, as it is written in our community’s core text from the book of Genesis, “how awe-inspiring is this place! This is none other than a Beit Elohim.” (Genesis 28:17)
12 years. So immensely blessed. And as Rabbi Tarfon teaches us, we do not have to complete the work…but we must not desist from it. .לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה (Pirke Avot 2:21) As I begin the next chapter in my Jewish journey, I look forward to continuing to connect with our TBE family in new and different ways, both as a congregant and in my role as Associate Director of the North Shore Teen Initiative. I am excited to watch our youth community continue to flourish under the skilled guidance of our team.
…and, to think, for me - it all started with a little red book.
Thank you. Shabbat Shalom.
Growing up, dress-up was a frequent part of my routine. Trying on different costumes and outfits, along with their connected personalities and attitudes, was exciting and always something new and different. From being a superhero saving a city to assuming the role of an actor in a movie, I loved the feeling of adventure and opportunity that came with putting on that hat, shirt, mask or even going by a different name and story. My friends and I looked forward to these adventures and stories, and our alter egos spent many hours traveling and exploring.
You know that old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Well, it's true. Many years later, I still love stories and adventures. Those who spend any significant amount of time with me know that I am a fan of all things Spider-Man and Batman. I wear many hats (and masks) in the various roles I play in my communities, and I am always down for a good adventure during a road trip or (infrequent) non-scheduled weekend afternoon. But here's the thing: all of these examples are voluntary situations where I can choose how I dress or act. Sometimes, we don't have the ability to decide which mask we're wearing. When do I find the right time to share my story with someone? What parts of my identity do I reveal in an effort to be authentic and true to myself while in relationship with others?
The themes of identity and donning/removing clothing are threaded throughout our ancient texts. A biblical narrative beginning with Adam and Eve as they ventured into uncharted territory outside of the Garden of Eden and passed down through the generations, the Scroll of Esther presents a poignant account of donning and removing clothing and tells a story which is largely focused on revealing and concealing. What can we learn from the act of concealing? When are the moments that we let our true colors shine through, and when are the times that we feel like we must hide or alter ourselves? What do the masks and costumes we wear say about ourselves, as well as provide insight into those around us?
Baseless hatred (see Brussels) and discrimination (see North Carolina) surrounded our Purim celebrations this week. Many of my colleagues, teachers and friends were faced with an interesting dilemma while attending a policy conference - stay and listen to a leading Presidential candidate who has not been leading by his values, or exit the public space and go study those very values which have been absent from said candidate's campaign.
As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker (Spider-Man) as he navigated his abilities and identities, "With great power comes great responsibility." (See also: Pirke Avot 4:1) Hillel spun it (pun intended) a bit differently: "In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader." (Pirke Avot 2:6) When do we know it is our time to jump in? Are there times when we feel compelled to act because of the mask that we wear? What are the obligations that come with the uniform, title, hat or role that we present - quietly or loudly - when interacting with others? How do we represent who we are through our actions? (See also: Batman Begins)
This Shabbat, Parashat Tzav encourages us to find the fire that burns within. Scratch that. We are commanded to keep the fire burning. While the text is somewhat vague when it comes to identifying the fire of which it speaks, we can read it a few different ways:
Literal: Priests should take care of the sacrificial alters in the ancient tabernacle and Temple;
Poetic: we should be encouraged to develop our passions and turn them into action.
At times, we may not be quite sure how we feel about something...or know that something is bothering us, but can't quite put our finger on it. Other times, we are filled with passion and purpose. And while many of us live in between and embrace periodic ambivalence, deep down we know that we must make a decision and do what is right [for us or for the situation]. Those moments and decisions may be planned, or are surprises at other times. While we're not always comfortable, we must challenge ourselves to follow our hearts and guts...even if it means doing so while wearing a mask. After all, it's not always who you are or what you wear, but it's what you do that defines you.
...and just like that, there was one week of camp left. Summer 2015 has flown by, a bit quicker than I usually feel the summer months tend to do. We began the summer recognizing our staff as superheroes, entering training week with excitement for the potential of what would lie ahead. We built our team, identified goals and priorities and set off on a journey.
Fast forward a few weeks and countless memories later, and we have one week left on our adventure. Time moves quickly, and there never seems to be enough time to pack it all in during a day at camp. So as we enter the home stretch, how can we really make it count? How can we ensure that we are as intentional as possible in our interactions with others? How can we make time to seek out and capitalize on those special "ah-ha" moments? What can we do to help our campers wrap-up their summer with the best experiences?
It starts with us (the camp staff). This Shabbat, we have the opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to our mission, values and role. We have the opportunity to re-commit to the goals we set out to achieve at the beginning of the summer. We have the honor of being able to guide our campers through this chapter of their Jewish journeys and help them discover and explore who they are and who they want to be - while challenging them (and ourselves, walking step by step beside them) to be the best version of themselves.
At last night's staff meeting, we passed out "staff home stretch support kits" to each member of our team, with each item symbolizing something important and intended to express our gratitude for the hard work that has been ever present this summer:
Tissues: stay healthy and take care of yourselves!
Starburst: you’re all stars on our team!
Paperclip: remember that you’re a link in the chain of something bigger and amazing!
Rubber band: don’t forget to stay flexible and practice savlanut!
Band-aid: even super heroes get booboos sometimes!
Laffy Taffy: make time to laugh and have fun!
Life Savers: you are making a significant difference in our camper’s lives!
Smarties: real talk: we have some super smart people in this room!
Chocolate: sometimes you just need some chocolate to help you power through a long hot afternoon!
Cough Drops: our song sessions are chigaon…crazy…and we need to keep our throats in good condition!
Todah rabah תודה רבה – many thanks for all that you have done to make our 2nd summer an epic one! Yashar koach! Kol hakavod! Yeah!
We need to take care of ourselves and each other. We need to hold on to the joy in our work, and celebrate our successes. We need to learn from our challenges and struggles, and continue to grow as we look toward the next adventure. We need to remember to support our teammates as we journey toward the finish line. We need to appreciate how lucky we all are to have had this opportunity to help shape the future. It is holy work that we have done and continue to do. But now, for just a few hours, we rest, reflect and celebrate. Shabbat Shalom.
"Are we there yet?" As a Jewish youth professional who spends a fair amount of time travelling with groups of all ages, I've heard this question only a few times. In this week's parashiyot, we catch-up with the Israelites as they near the Promised Land after forty years since leaving Egypt. Generations have passed, and they have matured into a nation ready for the next challenges that lie ahead. They look back, reviewing where they have been, and quickly turn to the future. What are the tasks that lie ahead? What are the plans to move forward as the journey nears completion?
At camp, we mark time in different ways. While our daily schedule keeps us moving from activities to meals and everything in between, there are also specific days on our calendars. Just a few examples are:
Crazy hat day.
Yesterday was that funny period of time in the camp calendar called "Intersession." Two weeks (one session) down. Four (two) to go. We've accomplished so much, and we have more that lies ahead. What better opportunity to take a few minutes to sit, breathe, grab an iced coffee and reflect on all that we've already done this summer.
We've come a long way, from where we began. Check it out on our blog >>
Summer #2 at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy blasted off with a great sense of ruach (spirit). Our campers were busy making new friends from 24 different states and 3 countries, getting sweaty from singing and dancing at song session, learning new skills and tools, building a catapult while learning about kinetics, creating music videos, learning how to program in Minecraft, flying rockets and drones, learning about fermentation and food science, working with a doctor to study how our bodies react to exercise and activity...and the list goes on.
We've come a long way, from where we began.
Wrapping-up another book of Torah, we say "chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek" -- be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened. We have already built so much this summer as a Sci-Tech community. As we begin Session 2, let us go from strength to strength and continue to build upon this foundation as we explore, innovate, create, discover, connect and find joy as a kehilah kedoshah (holy community).
Are we there yet? Yes. We are there, and we will keep going! I'll write more later...but we're about to open the gates for Session 2!
Balance is interaction among being, feeling, thinking and doing. Superheroes integrate those four core stages of existence amid the turbulence of the world and daily activity, and in doing so, are able to creatively solve every challenge they are faced with and create an atmosphere of empowerment and love wherever they are. - Deepak Chopra
Camp is the place I go to block out the turbulence of the world.
Camp is the place where I go to help inspire the next generation of superheroes.
Camp is the place where I learned how to hone my ability to understand, connect, love myself and others, search, appreciate, problem solve and explore.
Camp is the place where I feel the most like me.
The Sh'ma is said by Jews across the world. Whether or not we have much in common beyond our connection to the larger fabric of Jewish history and people hood, this simple yet complex statement connects us deeply with our people and tradition. Listen to it. Listen to you. Listen to us. We are one. God is one. So - even just for a moment - block out all the other noise and be one.
Think about who you can be this summer and how you can help others become the best versions of themselves. Shabbat Shalom from camp. Staff week is awesome.
"Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." One of my favorite childhood movies, I am finding Ferris Bueller's words to resonate with where I am and how I'm feeling. We're always running. Moving. En route to the next place, thing or task. When does it stop?
I haven't blogged in months. Not because I haven't wanted to or had thoughts I wish I could share, but because I haven't been able to prioritize a frequent opportunity for sitting, thinking and writing. Now that I've typed those words, I'm cringing and questioning why my internal alarm hadn't sounded before now.
Wrapping-up another "day off" from work where I had a constant flow of work-related thoughts as I was catching-up on a few things on the personal side of the fence, I came across two articles that are very much connected:
The Disease of Being Busy
Mindful Moments in a Multitasking World
I read the articles. I posted one of them on social media and then I stopped. I read the comments. All of them. Scrolling through dozens of personal stories and connections, I am reminded once again that we are not alone on the journey. And while, at times, we feel that we are, I still wonder why. Why are we caught in this race-to-nowhere culture? Why do I feel bad when I want to schedule a lunch date or coffee with a friend while I know that my to-do list is waiting for me? Why don't we do something about it?
Today is Friday. Tonight is Shabbat Vayeira. Just a little bit of drama in this one (!) with Abraham arguing with God, Lot's home is attacked and his wife is turned into a pillar of salt, and there's a great deal of family-related crap to boot. Ultimately, God tests Abraham, instructing him to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Skipping over some pretty juicy parts of the story, this summary is only half of what's happening here. So what am I taking from the text this week, in connection to where I currently am?
Abraham gets educated on what is right and just.
It's not in the lesson, but in the journey that he figures it out.
He is confident that there is good among the evil.
While we're running around, we don't always see what's happening around us. We don't always hear what we need to be listening to. We don't always take time to appreciate what is not sticking out in front of us. So, maybe, in the coming week, we can try to do the following:
Listen a little more carefully.
Silence the unnecessary noise for just long enough to discover something new.
Find an answer to a question that's been present.
Remember that there is good...even if you have to search among the bad.
[Originally posted on the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Blog]
Aaron is appointed as Cohen Gadol, high priest. He is reconfirmed through the test of the staves in which Aaron’s staff miraculously sprouted almonds. (Numbers 17:16-24)
Yesterday, I drove to a new place. In 11 days, this place will become a new Jewish overnight camp. In between these two spaces in time, we have A LOT of work to do. I am feeling incredibly blessed to be in this place, at this time, with these people and doing what I love. We’re creating a camp. We have an amazingly talented leadership team, and I am in awe of the insight and creativity that surround me. I’m developing systems and protocol and schedules that will help provide the tools our staff needs to make this place come alive and support the transformative experiences that will undoubtedly be part of this summers’ narrative for both our campers and staff. I am vastly aware of the sprouted almonds in my life. I am beyond excited, and while I’ve been here for just over 24 hours, I haven’t been able to catch my breath…until now. It’s almost Shabbat. While we will continue to dream, build and create, it will be in lockstep with opportunities to reflect, recharge and renew our excitement for the holy work we will be doing over the next week. Throughout this inaugural summer at URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy, we will have the ability to make magic happen. And for this first Shabbat at camp, I’m thinking a lot about how I can help our staff team be the best we can be, and how we can give some of our “sprouted almonds” to each other as we begin this journey.
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Today began like any other Friday. I got up, excited to celebrate Chanukah with the TBE community this evening. I got to school. Studied. Went to class. But during my class, my phone was vibrating and glowing with notifications. I sat there for two hours trying to pay attention to my classmates, as my mind kept drifting to places outside the classroom. I was thinking about the students, educators and administrators of Newtown, CT. I was thinking about the local officials trying to help a community facing such tragedy. But I was also thinking about my kids. No, I'm not a parent. But I have the honor of working with thousands of youth throughout the year. They're my kids. They're our kids. I want to make the world a better place for them. And I can't even begin to understand what's going on in Connecticut right now. I exchanged greetings with my classmates, and ran to my car to turn on my radio. I sat in my car and listened. I listened to parents crying. I listened to members of a shaken community asking why such a thing would happen, and why it had to be them. I listened to an emotional President address our nation:
And then my mom called. Even though I'm 30, and am in the middle of finals in my grad program at school, some things don't really change. Ever. It's nice when your mom calls you when you're upset about something. I'm thinking about the young lives that were lost. I'm thinking about a community that needs a whole lot of love and support right now. And I'm thinking about the program I ran for NFTY Northeast when I was an Overall at December Institute my senior year of high school where I had my peers write letters to their local officials asking for stronger laws around gun control. That was 12 years ago.
But right now, our Junior Youth Groupers are having a blast at their Chanukah Extravaganza. Our community will light the Chanukiyah and celebrate the 7th night of Chanukah and Shabbat with song, community and plenty of delicious fried food. And on Sunday, we'll gather to celebrate the end of the holiday, engaging in acts of tikkun olam and enjoying the music of Safam. We have much to be thankful for. And yet, our hearts and prayers are with those in Newtown. As we light our Chanukiyot and Shabbat candles, may some of our light illuminate our fractured world. May those affected by this tragedy find some form of shalom this Shabbat. And may we hug our friends and family a little tighter, sing a little louder and come together and continue our efforts to make this world a better place.
I hope you'll join us tonight and on Sunday. More information can be found on our website: http://tbeyouth.org/chanukah. Also, here are some articles and resources worth checking out:
RJ.org: Coming Together After Tragedy
Union for Reform Judaism: Bereavement
Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism:
Reform Movement Horrified by CT School Shooting; Reaffirms Call for Sensible Gun Control
The Jewish Bereavement Project
NFTY: Reflecting on Tragedy
Zichronam Livracha - may the memories of the departed be for a blessing.
Kavanah that I wrote for the first Shabbat of Staff Training Week at URJ Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, MA.
All the people that we saw [in the Land] are people of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. (Numbers 13:32-33)
Come with me on a journey back through time.
You and I are part of the Israelite people. We have gotten out of Egyptian slavery. We are free. Slowly but surely, we are making our way to the Promised Land of Israel, the land God promised to our ancestors. Through all those years of slavery, we have waited, and now we are about to enter the Land.
But, we can't just walk into the Land. Yes, God will lead us, but we will have to fight for it. Moses tells us that we need to know more about the Land before we enter. God tells Moses to send people to spy out the Land, to sense its strength, how fortified the cities are, the nature of the people and armies we would encounter, and to figure out how difficult the battle will be. We all have so many questions.
But, God says not just shelach, "send," but shelach-lecha, "send for yourself." Send the spies - for your own benefit, not Mine. It's as if God is saying, "Moses, your people have doubts. So, to be more confident, send people to take a look, to investigate, to learn and prepare. I am not asking for blind faith here; go and look for yourselves.
So, Moses sends out spies - not just anyone, but tribal leaders. They complete their task, and then they return and give their report. "It is a good land," they say. "It flows with milk and honey, but the cities are large and fortified, the people are extraordinary fighters and gigantic. They are too powerful for us."
We become nervous. How can we do this? We have not finished training yet. What tools do we have to help us?
Let's pause and switch story lines for a moment.
Much like our text reads, so has been the path for many of us as we came to camp this summer. A new land. Unsure what lies ahead. Many of us have come from taking exams at university or return after working our "real jobs." Some of us are new, exploring the land, meeting the people, learning the culture. We see ourselves as grasshoppers amongst giants. Others are returning home, excited to reunite with old friends and meet new ones, taking on new roles and experiencing camp in new ways. We're not sure what adventures this summer will bring, and if we are prepared for new challenges with which we will face.
How often in our own lives do we shy away from challenges? They may be difficult. If we walk around, seeing ourselves as grasshoppers worried about the uncertainty that lies ahead, we will miss out on accomplishing the dreams and hopes we have for ourselves. We must lift our heads up, see the promise that lies ahead, and the excitement of the unknown. We can do great things.
Use staff training as an opportunity to become acquainted with the people and places that make camp the special place it is. Take advantage of the time you have to refine your skills (and learn new ones). And this summer: pick your head up. Don't be a grasshopper. Rather, be a Nachshon. Take that leap. Explore the land. Meet the people. Walk with purpose. Dream great dreams. Aim higher. Look for the little things that will lift you up. Be the person you can truly become.
Adapted from Don't Be A Grasshopper by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman in Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens, edited by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin. This is a new publication that I highly recommend for anyone that works with youth, or wants a fresh take on Torah which we can relate to our daily lives.
Last spring, I wrote about why I thought every classroom needed to include iPads for student learning. Fast forward a year, and many downloaded apps, and I stand by my previous blog post.
I'll cut right to the chase. The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) Press has released iT'filah: The Mishkan T'filah App. I downloaded it on the first day it was available for a few different reasons:
1) I was curious about how it would be formatted, and what different technologies would be incorporated into the app. Not surprisingly, there are multiple surprises included! From the ability to navigate effortlessly through the e-Siddur, to the option to listen to selected prayers and blessings with a simple tap on the screen, I consider this a very successful first attempt.
2) Continuing from my last point, I then thought about how the app could be used in the educational setting. Whether in the classroom or sitting at home with a B'nai Mitzvah tutor, this hits a home run for many reasons. Our students (read: digital natives) are hard-wired to tap, scroll, search and record. They do it all day long, and they need to be doing more of this in the Jewish educational setting. Center-based learning opportunities? Check. Individual enrichment? Check. Smart-technology-based lesson ready? Check.
3) This is the first (of my knowledge) Reform-friendly siddur application for the iOS. There are a large number of apps that have been around for a while, but none of them connect to me like the book I pick-up when I enter the sanctuary on Friday nights. To be able to pray out of my iPad...is a thought I haven't had yet. But now I'm wondering: what will it feel like to be holding the digital device vs. an actual book? Will I find it enhancing my worship experience, or taking away from it? I don't want to distract others, but also am interested in providing an example that there are different ways to connect (pun intended) to the worship experience. Does an iPad belong in a sanctuary, even one that is using screens, a wide array of microphones and musical instruments? The iPad is all of these, but in a different case.
Rabbi Marci Bellows (fellow tech-lover and URJ Eisner & Crane Lake Camps enthusiast) has a thoughful piece in The Jewish Week.
Here's an interesting blog post by a colleague in the field that poses the counterpoint.
So...in summary...my jury is still out...kind of.
For the Jewish educational setting: homerun. Kol ha'kavod to Dan Medwin and CCAR for making this happen. As always, I'm excited to see what the next steps will be as we better utilize technology to enhance our learning and connections to Judaism.
For the worship experience: stay posted.