Who Resurrects the Dead

When I greet a Jewish friend that I haven’t seen in a very long time I typically say, “Mchayei Meitim.” It literally means, “who resurrects the dead.” Weird huh?

It’s less weird if you know that “Mchayei Meitim” is the conclusion of a traditional Jewish blessing that thanks God for, yes, resurrecting the dead. Some Jews take this blessing literally and recite this blessing x3/day as an affirmation of God’s limitless power. When greeting an old friend it’s a way of saying something like, “It’s great to see you” and “Let’s pick up right where we left off.”

I don’t put much stock in the traditional Jewish view that one day the dead will rise and be gathered back together in some sort of “Zion.” But this week the dead literally came back to life for me and my family.

I’m writing this post mid-journey so some of the details are still a bit fuzzy, but here’s as much of the story as I feel I can meaningfully share right now…

A couple of months ago I received an email from an active member of The Davis Academy grandparent community named Carol. She wrote to ask me if I was related to a man named Morris Lapidus who lived in Syracuse, NY. Like most Lapidus’, I’m fairly accustomed to being asked if I’m related to such and such Lapidus from such and such a place. It happens a couple of times a year and I typically respond by saying, “Not that I know of, but I’m sure we’re distant cousins somehow.”

As far as Morris Lapidus from Syracuse is concerned– well he’s my great grandfather. I’m named after him. So you might imagine my surprise and curiosity when out of the blue came an email asking if he was a relative.

Carol, who I have known for many years, was sitting with her friend, Ann, at Shabbat services at their synagogue– B’nai Torah. Coincidentally there was a Davis Academy student who was becoming Bar Mitzvah that morning. At some point during the service the Bar Mitzvah family said something along the lines of “Thank you Davis Academy and thank you Rabbi Micah Lapidus.” Upon hearing my name, Ann, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday, turned to Carol and asked, “Lapidus? I wonder if Rabbi Lapidus is related to Morris Lapidus?” Carol replied, “I don’t know, but why do you ask?” At that point Ann shared that Morris Lapidus rescued her and her husband from the displaced persons camp in Europe after World War II. Morris Lapidus was their sponsor, bringing them to the States, and helping them settle in Syracuse, NY. All this because Morris Lapidus’ first wife, whose name none of us recall at the moment, was Ann’s husband’s aunt.

I can’t speak for the rest of my family, but I can say that I knew none of this and I’m pretty sure that most of my cousins don’t either. What I’m saying is that this week I was reunited with family I never knew I had who live right here in Atlanta.

This week I met Ann and her daughter Hilda. They were kind enough to come and visit me at The Davis Academy. Together we started to unpack the story of our family. Preliminarily I learned a few things….

 

Hilda, Ann, and Micah
Hilda, Ann, and Micah

I learned that when Ann and her husband got off the boat in New York my grandfather Harold met them at the docks and escorted them via train back to Syracuse.

I learned that my great grandfather was an “entrepreneur” who owned various rental properties and was also a very learned man, always reading.

I learned that, at his medical school graduation, my grandfather downplayed the fact that he was at the top of his class saying that he had an unfair advantage because he had served as a medic in the war and was therefore older and more experienced.

I learned that my grandfather wrote a note to Ann when my grandmother, Florence, passed away in 1997. In that note he expressed his anguish and heartbreak.

I learned that my grandparents sent Ann and her second husband Rosh Hashanah cards every year, a few of which Ann still has and was able to share with me.

I learned that thinking about my grandfather, and particularly the fact that I officiated his funeral, isn’t something that I’ve fully processed on an emotional level.

During my visit with Ann and Hilda I learned a bit about their family as well. I heard a few of Ann’s stories from the war. I heard about how Morris Lapidus had helped her husband learn to become a kosher butcher, which became his profession. I learned that Ann and her husband opened a kosher butcher shop when they moved to Atlanta in the 60s.

A few times during our meeting Ann looked at me and told me that, when she looked me in the eyes, she could see my grandfather.

That’s about all I have to report at the moment. Hopefully there’ll be more forthcoming.

But the amazing thing about all this is the coincidence of Ann being at synagogue on the day when the Davis family mentioned my name from the bimah. I don’t attend many Saturday morning services of Davis Academy students but I’m fairly certain that I am only rarely mentioned by name at any of them. That this particular family said my name is the fluke that led to this whole discovery.  I’ve been living in Atlanta for 6 years now and Ann and her family have been here much longer. Who knows if we ever would have found one another if Ann hadn’t been at synagogue that morning and if my name hadn’t been mentioned?

Lech Lecha– a unique perspective

The following D’var Torah was prepared by Todd Williamson, a member of The Davis Academy faculty. It was shared at one of our weekly Middle School tefilah services in honor of a student that is becoming bat mitzvah this Shabbat and is published here with his permission. Todd has asked me to note that he did not write this D’var Torah expecting that it would be “published” on a blog and therefore did not include citations. He notes that Bruce Feiler’s work on Abraham was very influential in his thinking along with many additional resources.

In addition to being a wonderful D’var Torah in its own right, this post demonstrates part of the unique potential within a Jewish Day School such as The Davis Academy. Consider the following: a D’var Torah lovingly and thoughtfully prepared by a non-Jewish faculty member, presented in front of several hundred early adolescent Jewish kids– an exchange of ideas characterized by great thoughtfulness, tolerance, and pluralism. Some critics argue that Jewish day schools are not diverse. I’d be eager to hear about other Jewish organizations where it would be commonplace for profound words of Torah to be shared by someone of a different faith. The exchange of ideas, the diversity of life experience, and the sharing of Torah that this guest post reflects is truly unique. Todd can be followed on Twitter @Bookman30022. When Todd isn’t writing Divrei Torah he is immersed in technology, teaching, and literature. 

 

Lech Lecha:  Genesis 12: 1: 17-27

God instructs Abram to leave his father’s house and set off to the “Promised land” G_d will reveal to him.  G_d promises Abram that this land will be set aside for him and his descendants and that Abram will be the father of a great nation.  Abram, Sarai and Lot(Abram’s nephew)  travel to Canaan.

A famine in Canaan forces Abram to seek provisions in Egypt where Abram declares Sarai to be his sister, not his wife.  Abram and his family receive good fortune, while Pharaoh receives plagues.  Pharaoh realizes Abram’s deception and sends Abram, his wife and their possessions out of Egypt.

Abram and Lot separate and live separate lives and soon Lot is taken away as a hostage in a tribal war.  Abram and his men free Lot from his captors and G_d reappears to Abram and promises progeny and land.  Abram confirms G_d’s covenant and then G_d fortells the Israelite bondage in Egypt.  During this time Sarai gives her handmaid, Hagar, to Abram and she bears Abram a son, Ishmael.

G_d once again repeats his covenant to Abram, but requires all males to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant.  Upon this sign, G_d changes Abram and Sarai names to Abraham and Sarah.

Thousands of years ago Abram was called by G_d, just like you are being called to the Torah this Shabbat.  You are a direct lineage to Abraham:  a memory you should be proud to share with our ancestor.   One thing we can certainly learn from Abraham is that G_d listens when we as humans yearn, or cry out for his guidance.  God hears Abraham’s plea for help, but we first must believe G_d.  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God.  This is a huge difference, so I’ll say it again:  Abraham does not believe in God, he believes God and thus fulfills the covenant promised to him and his descendants, which leads to the original Kehillah of Jews on Earth

Could you follow in Abraham’s footsteps, could you have the faith he had to leave his father’s home and follow G_d’s instructions?  Despite being a believer, I’m not sure if I could…so perhaps I don’t really have the gift of faith: I certainly know I don’t have the faith Abraham had, but I don’t have to:  Abraham had faith for all of us.

The story of Lech Lecha beckons us, as humans and as Jews, to take risks and travel into the unknown in pursuit of our true purposes in life. It encourages us to listen to our intuitions, to pay attention to the inner voice that more often directs our heart than our head. It teaches us that we may have to leave what we know and move away from areas of comfort, in order to develop our potential.  One day, years down the road, you too, like Abraham will leave your father’s home: which invariably will bring you closer to your family you just left behind. Like Abraham, if we hear the call, we must remember to put our faith in that inner voice that guides us along the way and trust in our strength, ability, creativity and talents that when we make the journey, we too, may find our own personal “promised land” and that you personally will become the wonderful, brilliant and beautiful young lady you are destined to become.

G-d promised Abraham, and in turn promised us, that, if we become leaders and initiators, our initial efforts will never be forgotten.  Have faith and believe G-d and you too, just like Abraham will always be remembered as a blessing!

On behalf of the students, faculty and staff of The Davis Academy, we wish you Mazel Tov.

Extending the Symposium on Jewish Education

As the rabbi of The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s mechina-8th grade Reform Jewish Day School I thoroughly enjoyed reading the “Symposium on Jewish Education” at RJ.org. It’s wonderful to hear thought leaders from within and beyond the Reform movement analyzing trends, citing innovative practices, and making bold predictions about the future of Jewish education. The power of relationships, the impact of technology, the need for personal meaning, the interconnectedness of world Jewry, and the democratization of information… these are just a few of the themes that emerged across the various posts. I particularly appreciated the remarks of Rabbi David Ellenson, in his position paper submitted to the Jim Joseph Foundation (cited by Dr. Charles Edelsberg) that highlighted the ongoing centrality of Jewish schooling and suggested investing in institutions that are currently achieving great success in Jewish education so that they can continue to focus on and achieve their missions. I believe The Davis Academy, and many of our Reform Jewish Day Schools are such institutions.

The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy

Among the many ideas that warrant serious consideration when thinking about Jewish education in a Reform or liberal context is the difference between “performance” goals and “learning” goals. While this distinction has implicitly driven my own work and the work of countless colleagues, I’ve only recently acquired this specific terminology. My teacher in this area is John D’Auria, president of Teacher21. His work builds on that of renowned educational psychologist Carol Dweck.

Performance goals have to do with winning favor in the eyes of others. Winning a game, dazzling a crowd with a great guitar solo, or having a perfectly memorized Torah portion for your bar mitzvah– these are examples of performance goals. Getting an “A” on the big test is also an example of a performance goal. Performance goals have a powerful hold on us. We all want to please our parents and teachers, impress our friends and strangers, and experience the thrill that comes with performing well. The problem is that performance goals can be all consuming and distort our focus. Unfortunately, when it comes to Judaism, winning, dazzling, memorizing, and getting an “A” aren’t what it’s all about. Clear enough?

What do learning goals look like? Rather than focusing on the win, we might focus on executing the new plays that we worked on in practice all week. Rather than dazzling the crowd with our Jimi Hendrix like prowess, we might try to implement a new technique that we’ve been refining with our guitar teacher. Rather than memorizing our Torah portion we might strive to develop an appreciation for its meaning. Rather than focusing on the test, we might focus on the knowledge we’re being asked to master, evaluating whether it is of use in our lives or not. The joy of learning goals is that they are proximal, achievable, enduring, and transformative. Eventually we’ll earn the esteem of parents and teachers, friends and strangers, but we’ll do so from a much stronger and sure place.

When we focus ourselves, our students, and our communities on learning goals rather than performance goals, we are fulfilling our mandate as Reform Jewish educators.

I’m hard pressed to find a rabbinic colleague or fellow Jewish educator who favors performance goals over learning goals. The challenge is that the world around us can’t resist a great performance, and all too often couldn’t care less about great learning. Prone to anxiety and unable to resist comparison, it’s easy to sacrifice learning on the altar of performance. Many of our institutions, day schools and otherwise, are designed to make sense within this context of performance. Prospective parents are typically more concerned with test scores (performance) than they are with the depth and rigor of professional development amongst the faculty (learning). When it comes to life cycle events like b’nai mitzvah, confirmation, and beyond, congregational colleagues confess that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to migrate young adults and families away from performance and towards learning. It’s hard to be one voice speaking against the crowd.

One could argue that, from the very beginning, Reform Judaism has been counter cultural because it has always promoted learning goals over performance goals. It’s one of the reasons that bar mitzvah lost out to confirmation for so many years in Reform communities. As it has been a hallmark of our past, so too the prioritization of learning over performance must be a part of our future. Until we can demonstrate that the choice is clear, that learning must triumph over performance (or at the very least infuse and inform all our performances), then we will continue to encounter frustration as we try to achieve our many other future oriented goals.

The Bar Mitzvah Revolution

Gary Rosenblatt’s recent article in the Jewish Week provides a snapshot of the URJ’s plans to “overhaul” the Bar/Bat Mitzvah as it currently exists in many congregations, Reform and beyond. 

Rosenblatt summarizes: “The goal of the new project is to create more engaging ways to mark a bar or bat mitzvah for the youngster and his or her family, teach Hebrew as a living language and add a spiritual component to learning prayers.” He also quotes Rabbi Laura Geller who laments that for too many the bar mitzvah has become a “terminal degree.”

For too long dissatisfaction and frustration have been hallmarks of the b’nei mitzvah experience for many families. In spite of our best efforts too many kids report that the experience is performative, superficial, and meaningless. Many Jewish professionals lament the  distorted priorities reflected in ostentatious celebrations, the tangible reminder of which is typically b’nai mitzvah party favor clutter.

Fortunately, URJ leadership is committed to leading change in partnership with congregations, and ultimately with families and children.

My goal here is to suggest a few ways that Jewish day schools can serve as natural allies for those interested in reinvigorating and “revolutionizing” the b’nei mitzvah experience.

 

It’s time to open the door!

1. Not a terminal degree. All Jewish middle and high schools continue to provide rigorous Jewish education well beyond the bar/bat mitzvah. The simple fact that Jewish day schools surround b’nei mitzvah with years of study, both before, during, and after is significant. While Jewish day schools have our own “terminal degree” challenges, we don’t suffer from “degree” confusion– a diploma is meant to be a terminal degree, a JNF certificate isn’t. I’ve written elsewhere on the goals of Jewish day school education.

2.More engaging ways to mark the experience. Jewish day schools can and should be at the forefront of supporting and supplementing congregational efforts to make b’nei mitzvah more engaging. There’s ample room within our curriculum and ample resources within our school communities to make this happen. In Atlanta, I had an opportunity to sit down with a rabbinic colleague from a local synagogue to learn about their dynamic b’nei mitzvah program. The Davis Academy is currently helping our students who are members of that synagogue fulfill a host of creative tasks and projects. Beyond these obvious partnership opportunities, we also have multiple venues– from tefilah, to athletics, to theater, to tzedakah/ social justice programs. These can be sites for b’nei mitzvah engagement. Lastly, we have specialized faculty that can be part of the process- Jewish studies teachers, guidance counselors, rabbis, and others.

3. Hebrew as a living language. As this is one of the goals that Rosenblatt mentions, it’s simply worth mentioning that this is an area where day schools can and should excel. As part of enhancing the b’nei mitzvah experience might involve strengthening ties with Klal Yisrael, our commitment to teaching not only biblical and rabbinic Hebrew, but modern Hebrew as well, may prove to be of great value.

4. Spiritual component to learning prayers. Most Jewish day schools are committed to the study and practice of tefilah. Most Jewish day schools provide their students with siddurim at a very young age and strive to familiarize their students with both the keva (fixed components) and kavanah (personal/emotive components) of Jewish prayer. Speaking from experience, I know that Jewish day school students have ample opportunity to explore tefilah through creative writing, visual art, movement/dance, as well as opportunities to lead tefilah on a regular basis. The hope here would be that day school students could ascend the bimah (as well as sit in the congregation) with greater awareness, intention, spirit, pride, and connection. So long as the traditional service remains an integral part of the b’nei mitzvah experience, it’s worth considering how we can help our kids connect with the spiritual potential of Jewish prayer.

I hope that this article will contribute to the important conversation of how Jewish day schools can be at the forefront of helping to reinvigorate the b’nei mitzvah process. It’s a goal that I know is shared by most, if not all, of my day school colleagues across the country. As institutions dedicated explicitly and exclusively to Jewish education in the broadest sense, this is a natural area for us to serve as a resource. Where and how can this conversation take place? Ki va moed— the time has come.