The Gates of Gratitude

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2nd Grade Thank You Notes to God

The “Thank You Note” is one genre that will never go out of style. Putting pen to paper to express gratitude is, without a doubt, an irreplaceable act of human expression. What’s wonderful about these thank you notes, written by 2nd graders, is the unabashed simplicity and fullness of their gratitude. Parents, siblings, teachers, teddy bears, waking up in the morning, the earth. How could we be anything other than grateful? And if our hearts are filled with the awareness of gratitude, how can we not express our gratitude through words, actions, and indeed all of our being?

 

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2nd Grade Thank You Notes to God

Children’s Spiritual Watercoloring

 

I feel close to God when... (from upper left to bottom right) ... I see an ocean.  ...when I am close to my family. ...when I'm inside and outside. ...when I see a rainbow. ...in a synagogue and with my family. ... when I'm at synagogue.
I feel close to God when… (from upper left to bottom right)
… I see an ocean.
…when I am close to my family.
…when I’m inside and outside.
…when I see a rainbow.
…in a synagogue and with my family.
… when I’m at synagogue.

 

As I look at these water color paintings made by 2nd graders at The Davis Academy I can’t help but feel that there’s something truly refreshing and inspiring about the easy way that children express their spirituality. How can we ensure that as they grow we (parents, teachers, society) don’t inadvertently shut down this natural part of the human experience? How can we ensure that this openness to spirituality thrives and grows, developing alongside all the other capacities that we recognize as being important be they intellectual, emotional, or moral?

One simple thing we can all do right now without any preparation is listen to children when they express spiritual ideas, when they ask spiritual questions, and when they articulate spiritual beliefs. Our lives will be enriched by their innocent profundity and by listening we let them know that we care deeply about what they think, feel, and believe.

Opening the Eyes of the Blind

I started my day praying with 4th graders. Fortunately a colleague stepped outside to gather a rain-measuring device and encouraged me to take the kids outside because there was a beautiful mist resting on our baseball field. Going outside changed everything. The typical prayer routine was tossed aside and the 4th grade and I engaged in a moment of quiet mindfulness and appreciation:

“What did you notice or appreciate?”

“There’s a bird sitting on top of the fence.”

“The grass is sparkling.”

“The concrete is cold.”

“I’m sitting in front of a pole.”

“The sun is powerful.”

We then opened our prayerbooks to a series of prayers that thanks God for some of the daily basics that we often take for granted.

“Which do you think we should recite after taking some time to notice and appreciate?”

“Thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind.”

“I agree. Most people think that our eyesight just gets worse and worse as we grow, but maybe we actually can get better at seeing as we grow and take time to notice and appreciate.”

It’s wonderful when experience and tradition are in harmony. I spent the rest of my day with that prayer in mind: thank you God for opening the eyes of the blind. Then I was blindsided.

——

My day ended in a meeting with a small group of  colleagues. During the course of the meeting one of them shared a concern with me about something I occasionally (or maybe even often) do while leading prayers with our middle school students– calling students out by name, particularly if they’re talking out of turn.

The content of the conversation isn’t as important as the process. I quickly realized that something I considered a benign, even affectionate gesture, was being perceived differently. In calling out students by name I thought I was saying, “I know who you really are. I know that you want to contribute rather than detract from our community during this time.” Regardless of my intentions, rabbis and the rest of us must strive to never shame another person, especially a child or adolescent. Unintentional shaming is even worse because it often goes unnamed and unexpressed possibly causing resentment down the road.

It’s not easy to share a piece of feedback that we know might upset someone. But the strength of our communities, the functionality of our teams, and, ultimately, the spiritual well-being of those we serve demands that we share our perspectives. We have to demand of one another and ourselves that we open our eyes to things we might not see.

One of the greatest ironies of sharing feedback is that relationships sometimes cloud rather than clarify the process. We don’t want to hurt, offend, alienate, turn off, or otherwise damage the precious ties that we share with students, colleagues, and friends. Sharing, like my colleague did today, requires vulnerability and risks hurt. But the truth is that sharing feedback actually strengthens these ties and brings meaning to terms like collegiality and community.

Last week a parent shared with me that he felt naive in discussing God and theology. I suggested that naivety might not be a bad thing. Naivety brings with it the capacity for openness which in turns brings the capacity to see with new eyes and acquire new insights. We can help one another celebrate our naivety, see differently, and deepen our understanding.

I’ll admit that when my colleague mentioned that he had feedback to share I got nervous. As I listened and reflected my nervousness turned to embarrassment that I hadn’t seen this myself. Embarrassment quickly gave way to understanding and appreciation. It all brought to mind the 4th graders I spent the morning “enlightening.” All I can pray is that the more we help one another notice and appreciate, the more compassionate and vibrant our world will be.

Jewish Day School Kids are Blessed

 

If #JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed were a hashtag I’d have a lot to tweet about. But that wasn’t always the case for me. Though I personally attended a Jewish Day School for kindergarten (Stephen S. Wise in Los Angeles), I do not consider myself a “product” of the Day School Movement and I never thought I’d work at one. In fact, I’d say that, even as a rabbinical student, my attitude was somewhere between ignorance and wariness. Surely Jewish Day Schools were nothing more than small, parochial private schools, sheltering kids from the real world. And at a great financial and social cost no less.

For the last six years I’ve served as the Director of Jewish and Hebrew Studies at The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. When I look back on my former attitude regarding Jewish Day Schools all I can say is that I was 1) uninformed and 2) that the view is very different from the “inside.”

On the topic of #JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed I’ll simply offer one thought that’s particularly fresh in my mind. Students at Jewish Day Schools are among a small minority of children anywhere in the world that are given the time, space, support, and resources to develop an authentic and compelling spiritual practice.

Siddurim

 

Davis Academy students are consistently exposed to developmentally appropriate prayer (tefilah) during their years of study. I’ve personally witnessed countless children journey through different phases– the wonder and curiosity of early elementary, the literalism of upper elementary, the deep questioning, skepticism, and struggle of middle school. Few leave Davis fully formed and secure in their spiritual lives (indeed that’s not the goal), but all leave having had ample space and support in exploring their spiritual lives.

Even the finest public and private schools in the world typically don’t support the kind of spiritual exploration, experimentation, and growth that children need. Consequently most children (and in turn most adults) encounter spirituality as something foreign, intimidating, new-ageish, or perplexing, rather than as an intrinsic and essential part of the human experience.

While it’s quite possible to develop a spiritual practice outside of school through interactions with faith communities or through a variety of different activities, the fact that Jewish Day Schools carve out and dedicate time for spiritual practice is a powerful statement of purpose. The fact that it’s deeply countercultural is something to be lamented rather than celebrated. Spiritual education is an area where Jewish Day Schools can and should shine and it’s an area where we can offer expert advise and insight to educators that aren’t fortunate to work in environments that celebrate spirituality.

Through my doctoral studies I’ve learned that different countries have different attitudes toward spiritual education. The UK and Australia, for example, mandate that public schools provide some sort of spiritual education for their students. For obvious reasons that’s not the case here in the U.S. Unfortunately, banning spiritual education from the classroom has the unintended consequence of destroying this capacity for too many children.

#JewishDaySchoolKidsAreBlessed for many reasons. One reason is because they are given the space and encouragement to grow spiritually, in turn making them better able to begin to appreciate the many other blessings they are lucky enough to have.

Those of us who work at Jewish Day Schools have to work together to make sure that we do indeed support spiritual growth for our students. It is our obligation to make sure that time dedicated to tefilah isn’t a source of dread but a source of joy and inspiration for our communities.

 

 

Thank You Robert Coles

I’m working my way through Robert Coles’ beautiful book, The Spiritual Life of Children. It’s a great “Elul” read.  Here are a few of the insights that speak to me as a rabbi and educator with an eye toward the Blog Elul theme for day 15: “learn.”

 

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1. In all child/adult relationships power always resides with the adult. In the introductory chapter of Spiritual Life Coles describes how he systematically deemphasized spirituality and religion for the majority of his career. In reflecting on his younger self he writes, “A shrug of my shoulders (a thought to myself: who will ever know?) and a remark of mine that moved us into quite another realm of discourse– such are the fateful turns in what later gets called ‘research.'” Whether we are researchers or not, the lesson is clear: we see what we want to see. In our interactions with children are we patient or rushed? Do we sincerely listen or do we pretend to listen? Do we give children opportunities to explore ideas or do we shut them down? Children are undeniably and irrepressibly spirited. But as adults we actually do have the power to celebrate their spirit or slowly crush it. The power is ours.

2. It’s natural to seek evidence to confirm our preexisting theory. In differentiating his work from that of James Fowler (who developed a faith development theory based on stage development) Coles critiques the idea of stage development theory noting, “If a child fails to respond to a researcher’s predetermined line of questioning, the researcher is likely to comment on a ‘developmental’ inadequacy.” Coles is saying that, when we have a theory that we whole-heartedly believe in, we begin to interpret the world accordingly. Human beings are meaning making entities. We can’t help the fact that we greet each experience with a myriad of predetermined ideas and beliefs. The more compelling and subtle of these might qualify as “theories”– assumptions about what meaning we’ll find in a given experience. The tricky thing is letting our theories guide us but not letting them define us. If our theories define us then they actually hinder our ability to construct new meanings and insights.

3. Wisdom can’t be acquired in a day. We want to know, we want to understand, and we tend to be inpatient with ourselves and with others when we or they don’t “get it.” Coles reminds researchers that in order to truly understand something, to acquire wisdom, we need to be open to the idea of prolonged encounters. Coles argues that to truly understand a child’s spiritual life takes at least a year of engagement. During his career he interviewed some of his research subjects as many as 25 times. Many of us are quick to trust our instincts and to make snap judgments. Often we’re fairly accurate in our initial assessment, but to acquire true wisdom, we need to slow down and be patient as well as reflective.

4. The best teachers are first and foremost committed to learning. Coles writes, “A good way to initiate… research is to sit down with children, tell them what you want to learn, and then hope that they will become colleagues, instructors, guides.” Too many educators are trapped by the notion that we have to provide the subject matter and represent the voice of mastery. Meanwhile, a lot of lip service is paid to the idea of child- centered education. In a truly child-centered pedagogical framework an interesting possibility emerges– that the adult teacher will actually come to learn important lessons from the child teacher. While we can’t always flip the classroom quite so dramatically, the idea that children are great teachers is one that we need to continually revisit in our classrooms and our schools.

I’m sure many of us have read Robert Coles’ work. What has resonated with others that have had the pleasure?

In the Grave

First Clown:
A pestilence on him for a mad rogue! ‘a pour’d a flagon
of Rhenish on my head once. This same skull, sir, was, sir,
Yorick’s skull, the King’s jester.

Hamlet:
This? [Takes the skull]

First Clown:
E’en that.

Hamlet:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite
jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a
thousand times, and now how abhorr’d in my imagination it is!
My gorge rises at it.

Hamlet Act 5, scene 1, 179–188

Rabbi:

Where do you find God?

Kindergartener: 

In the grave.

Davis Academy Kabbalat Shabbat 

           One of the greatest joys of working with children is you never (yes, NEVER), know what they’re going to say. Early this week a 3rd grader shared with me that, “God created life by creating love.” Then, later that day, a 7th grader asked me if he could donate a portion of his bar mitzvah money to The Davis Academy as a way of “thanking the school for making him who he is.” And then, there’s the wonderfully macabre statement of the kindergartener shared above. When I say that there was a collective gasp from the 300+ adults that were present when this remarked was made, I mean it.

          Imagine the scene, a visiting rabbi, Rick Jacobs, the new president of the URJ, no less, asked the question: “Where can I find God?” Responses, “In the sky”; “In your heart”; “Everywhere”; “In the sky”; and then, “In the grave.” Followed by collective gasp.

         I couldn’t help but smile. Now I happen to know that this particular kindergartener has been curious about death lately. Thankfully he hasn’t suffered a recent personal loss or anything like that. Rather, he’s very curious about death and his parents have very open conversations on the topic. But I couldn’t help but smile because he’s absolutely right.

         When Hamlet confronted the skull of his old comrade, Yorick, his imagination was “abhorr’d”. He can’t grasp that something so vital could cease to be. It’s an affront to his desire to dwell in a meaningful and compassionate universe.

          When our kindergarten student thinks of death he, knowingly or not, is expressing his belief that death is a part of life. He’s expressing the belief that as God gives us life, so too God is present with us when the light of life is extinguished. He’s paraphrasing the traditional Jewish blessing, recited upon learning of someone’s death: Baruch Dayan Ha-emet, Blessed is the True Judge. He may even be making the point made by many an existentialist philosopher that the awareness of our mortality is the key fact that compels us to make the most of each day.

          How blessed we are to have children to teach us life’s most profound lessons!

Love Your Neighbor

This week’s Torah portion contains the oft-recited verse, “V’ahavta l’reacha camocha” (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). Not bad as far as Leviticus goes! During tefillah with our kindergarteners I asked them who their neighbor was? As usual hands went straight up and I started calling on children:

“The person who lives next door to me.”
“The person on my street.”
“Mr. Raymond my neighbor.”

But it wasn’t long before they arrived at a deeper understanding of the concept of “neighbor”:

“The person sitting next to me.”
“Someone who is close to your heart.”

And then most profound:

“God, because God is all around us.”

I was reminded of our recent 7th grade trip to Washington DC. Sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the National Mall spread out before us, we read the words spoken by Rabbi Joachim Prinz who spoke these words in his speech at the March on Washington in 1963:

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”

I’m no longer surprised (and haven’t been for some time now) that I probably (dare I say definitely) learn more from the children I teach than they learn from me. To what can the matter be compared? To the following parable told by the Maggid of Dubno, an 18th century rabbi and teacher (retold by Rabbi David Wolpe in his book Floating Takes Faith):

“Once a father traveled for miles with his son to reach a castle. Whenever they encountered a river or mountain, the father lifted his son on his shoulders and carried him. Finally they came to the castle, but its gate was shut, and there were only narrow windows along the sides. The father said, “my son, up until now I have carried you. Now the only way we can reach our destination is if you will climb through the windows and open the gate for me from within.”

It occurs to me that if “neighbor” is indeed a moral concept, so too are “father” and “son.”

Communicating with God

A few hours from now it will be erev Purim. It’s my day to stay late and I find myself juxtaposing two experiences I had today: this morning’s Purim Assembly at our lower school, and my afternoon 5th grade Judaics classes.
This morning the entire lower school gathered in the gym for a Purim Assembly (davka NOT a Megillah reading). One of the great blessings of The Davis Academy is that we often have the opportunity to welcome (i.e. utilize) rabbis from the community. Several of my rabbinic colleagues had agreed to dress up and participate in a Purim skit. A good time was had by all and there are pictures!
Purim is a holiday of contradictions. I find it to be intermittently profound and mundane, deadly serious and uncontrollably silly. The Purim story invites us inter alia to consider if/how/where/why God is present even as God’s name does not appear in the Megillah. I don’t want to attempt to answer that question here…
This afternoon I introduced what promises to be a rich and intense unit of study with my 5th grade students. Initially I thought the unit would center on prayer fluency and the basic concepts of Jewish prayer. As I contemplated a set induction I knew that I wanted to give the students an assignment that was vague, open to interpretation, and also personal. The assignment I came up with was: “Communicate with God.” I tried to offer as little instruction as possible. Being a beautiful day I thought it would be good to go outside.
After giving the students time to think, write, explore, or do what they would with the assignment we gathered as a class to discuss. Let me say only that it took very little prompting for students to share and listen to one another with the utmost respect. For some the assignment was a breeze, for others it was paralyzingly difficult. A number of comments were made. Here’s a selection:

“This was easy because communicating with God isn’t something I need to be taught. I already have everything I need to know inside of me.”

“If God created all of us, then when we communicate with one another, we are, in a sense, communicating with God.”

“I am always communicating with God, God is everywhere. In all that I do I communicate with God.”

“I drew a picture of Moses kneeling upon a rock and praying, God is depicted as a hand reaching down from a cloud.”

“I communicate with God by finding a quiet place to sit and relax. I like to look around and see what comes into my mind.”

“I told God about my day, about my plans for Purim and Spring Break. It doesn’t have to be a big special thing to talk to God.”

As I reflect on these, and the many other responses that were shared during these conversations, I realize now that the juxtaposition of this “assignment” and the rapidly approaching holiday of Purim needn’t be random at all, but actually quite purposeful. Purim is a holiday that invites us to speculate about God’s role in human affairs or imagine a world without God. By opening a dialogue about God with my students I found myself presented with a variety of options for negotiating these often abstract and/or dogmatically rigid questions.

Chag Purim Sameach.