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.

A Moment of Connection Amidst a Pillar of Defense

 The following is a guest post from Leah Zigmund. Leah is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert.


I’ve just returned from a week at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir with our semester abroad students. The week was very moving for me, and truly a cross-cultural experience. I wanted to share with you some of what I saw there. These are crazy times here in Israel, and my week in the Beer Sheva region did coincide with some of the bombings. But in spite of it all it is so important to keep these ‘connections with the other’ alive…

I spent the last week with my semester abroad students at the Bedouin village of Qasr a Sir, about 10 km from Dimona, in Israel’s Negev region. We spent the week working with an aid organization called Bustan. Bustan has a camp set up in the village and does various projects there, the most successful projects so far are a women’s catering business that they are helping to establish and an educational tour of Bedouin settlements in the Negev that they run called the “Negev unplugged tour”.  In particular my students and I were helping with some earth plaster construction of an eco-tourism site that Bustan and some of the villagers are trying to create. We lived on the site of this future tourism area together with a few of Bustan’s interns for the week.

We spent the week working; learning about Bedouin history and culture; getting to know some of the villagers; and drinking a lot of very sweet tea. One of the most consistent things about all of our interactions with the Bedouin over the course of the week was what everyone said at the end of any formal conversation with our group. Every single time we finished a conversation about culture or politics or history we were told, “Thank you for coming to visit us, we are so glad that you are here. Please tell people about our lives, about who we are, about how we live and what we are going through.”  So, friends and family, I write this post in an attempt to do just that—to describe for you these wonderful people that I spent a week with, and to share with you a little slice of the enormous human tapestry of this world that you might not know of otherwise. Below I give you a very brief glimpse into just a few of the people who became our friends last week.

Tanwa is a woman who lives just up the hill from where we stayed; we went to her house several times to watch her make fresh pitta bread. She adds the water very slowly to the flour and kneads it for a long time until the dough is very elastic. Then she twists the balls of dough like a pizza maker until it is nearly paper-thin and cooks it on a steaming hot metal oven called a saj. Whenever we went she fed us fresh hot pitta, and then we bought a few to take back to our place to eat later.

Anwar is a young man, just married a few years ago with two children. We did not meet his wife but throughout the week Anwar was our main connection to the village. He came by often, helped us get things that we might need like tools and other supplies, he figured out  why our drinking water had been disconnected at one point and took care of that too.  Anwar took us on a tour of the village a few days after we arrived and besides giving us a history of the village (which dates back at least 300 years, in this exact spot), and pointing out the ancient spice route which runs right through the middle of the village, he also told us why he is so glad that we are here. “I am a man of peace,” he said. “I believe that we will make the peace, the simple people, not the men who wear the ties. When you come here, when people come here, and we sit together and we talk, we are learning about each other.  Tell our story when you leave here. Tell people about our lives here in the village. This is what will bring peace one day. And if I come to America I will visit you, and I will learn about your lives, and I will be making peace too.”

Atia is an elder of the section of the village where Bustan has its base. The village is made up of one extended family, and is organized into neighborhoods by smaller branches of that family tree. They can trace back 300 years to a common ancestor and most of the people here know exactly how they are related to everyone else. If is confusing for us to understand, however, because when the men have multiple wives the distinctions between brother and cousin get blurred. Everyone there has the same last name.  Our second night in the village we had a small bonfire and one of the other visiting Israelis had a guitar. We were singing a combination of Hebrew and English songs, when someone asked for a Bedouin song. At first the men were very reluctant to sing for us but then Atia said that he would sing, if one of my students, Laura, played with him. They were already sitting next to each other and so he told Laura to watch him and somehow he managed to teach her the song with music as the only common language between them. Watching her play with him was one of the sweetest moments of the week for me.

After about 5 days in the village I left my students in the hands of the wonderful staff of Bustan for a few hours and went into Beer Sheva to make some connections for the coming spring semester.  I came “home” to the village to the news that the girls had been invited to a birthday party. Shaima was turning 23. This made her not too much older than the students themselves, about the age of their older sisters. We met Shaima a few times already over the course of our week. Her Hebrew was very good and I talked with her a lot one day about her experiences since leaving school and before getting married. Shaima is the second wife to Atia, they were married about a year and a half ago and have a baby who I about six months old.

When we were getting ready to go I thought that we were going to a traditional Bedouin party, and I was very excited. I hadn’t brought any skirts, and was hoping that I wouldn’t offend anyone in my jeans. We arrived at Shaima’s house and were welcomed into her guest living room. This is a separate room from the rest of the house; it had a large television even though they don’t have any electricity. I asked about this and was told that it just “looks good”. The room was lit with candles and there were plates of food on tables—the kinds of things that I would expect to find at any birthday party—pretzels, cookies, nuts, other snacks. Shaima was wearing jeans and a tight fitting shirt, and she was showing her hair—this was very very different from the last times I had seen her with her traditional loose black dress and her head covering. The other surprising thing was that we were the only guests. I asked about this. It turns out that Bedouin adults don’t have birthday parties, but she had been to one of the international volunteer’s birthdays a few weeks ago and really wanted to have one. So this was our present to Shaima—we were throwing her a birthday party. Well, we quickly organized some party games—we played “broken telephone” in 5 languages such that no phrase ever made it around the circle. We played “keep the balloon up in the air”; we danced;  we took photos of each other with our cell phones and then looked at them; and then we lit candles and sang happy birthday in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

I haven’t said anything here about Bedouin history, or what is happening with Bedouin land rights here in Israel. If you want to find out more about the Bedouin or about the organization Bustan and the wonderful work they are doing you can check out this website, www.bustan.org

Leah Zigmond grew up in Pittsburgh, PA and is the Academic Director for the Center for Creative Ecology, at Kibbutz Lotan in Israel’s Southern Arava desert where she has been a resident since 1999. When Leah is not in the classroom, the garden, her office, or on a trip with her students she enjoys baking, reading, and hiking with her husband and two kids.




Kristallnacht/ The November Pogrom: A Personal Story

Dr. Michael A. Meyer, the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History at HUC/JIR Cincinnati shares the following thoughts in acknowledgement of Kristallnacht/ the November Pogrom:

On November 9, 1938, I was not yet a year old and living in Berlin with my parents and grandmother.  My mother used to wheel me around in a stroller, being careful not to sit on benches that were reserved for “Aryans.”  What I remember of that night is not from direct recall but from what I was later told.  Following what is now called by historians the “November Pogrom” rather that the earlier “Kristallnacht– which makes one think of a crystal chandelier–the Jews were required to pay for all of the damage to property that the Nazis had wrought on synagogues, Jewish stores, and homes, lest Gentile insurance companies should have to pay.  My grandfather, who had served in the German army, was one of the tens of thousands of Jewish men that were sent as hostages to concentration camps until the huge amount would be paid.  He was able to get out after a few weeks only because he and his wife had succeeded in getting a visa to Chile.  The Gestapo also came looking for my father, but he was tipped off and rode the Berlin subways for many hours until they gave up and left the apartment.  That pogrom was the first nationwide act of organized violence against the Jews of Germany.  Though few realized it at the time, it foreshadowed what was to come.


Cultivating a Growth Mindset

The following is a guest post from Drew Frank, the Director of Academic Operations and Lower School Principal of The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy. You can follow Drew on twitter @ugafrank. He shared a version of these remarks at Back To School Night.


I want to share with you some very important research that is helping shape our classroom, guidance, and school experience here at The Davis Academy.  Over the course of the past year, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of educational researchers and thinkers who are looking into the amazing work of psychologist Carol Dweck.  Her research has helped shape our teacher training during preplanning and will be incorporated throughout the year.

Carol did many research projects, but her seminal work was on the idea of the growth mindset.  Carol’s initial research was done by bringing in thousands of children for a testing session.  She would first give them an easy task which she knew they could solve.  Next she would give them a challenge which she knew they could not solve.  She observed two very different reactions.  The first set pushed away from the table, exclaimed, ‘this task is dumb’ which led to ‘I am not smart enough or good enough’. The second group of testers actually moved closer to the task and embraced the challenge.  It was this distinction and trying to figure out what makes someone shrink away or embrace a challenge that focused the rest of her research.

Years later after doing many follow up studies  she made the distinction between the fixed mindset, those who feel they have a fixed amount of intelligence, ability, and competencies, versus those who have a growth mindset or believe their intelligence, abilities, and competencies are ever growing.  The piece of her research most important  for us  as parents and for us as educators, was that the key factor was not in how adults interacted with children when the children experienced failure that impacted their mindset, but what we said after a success that was internalized by children.

In her latest research she selected 1000 students who tested in the 9th stanine on New York’s  end of year assessments. By selecting this group she knew she had a top group of achievers.  She split the group in to two set.  Group A she gave the easy task, and then after they got it correct  she said, ‘Wow,  You are great.  awesome job’. Group B, she gave the easy task then after they got it right, she said, ‘I love how you used a diagram to solve that’ or, ‘I noticed and appreciated that you listed the components and I think that really helped you to solve the problem’.  She then gave both groups the hard problem.  At the end of the session she thanked the students for participating, and she held up two envelopes and told the students they could only select one.  The first had the list of all participants and where they all ranked on the tasks.  The second had the solution to the second, more difficult task.  The first group that received the, ‘great job, you are amazing’ feedback selected the rankings over 80 percent of the time.  However, the group that received recognition for the strategies they employed selected the ranking less than 30% of the time.

So what does this mean as parents and educators?  While it is almost instinctual to praise the ‘A’ on a spelling test, the goal scored in a soccer game, or the beautiful created piece of art with a, ‘You are so smart, you are the best, great job’ it is far more impactful an beneficial if we can recognize the processes and strategies that were employed as opposed to the results that were attained.  We are going to be incorporating this research in our classrooms, professional development, and parent learning opportunities this year.

On Abraham Lincoln and Hope

This post was written by Rabbi Peter Berg, the senior rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta, GA.


On Abraham Lincoln and Hope



It is well known that Abraham Lincoln was a master storyteller.  As a leader, he was able to motivate his Cabinet, the U.S. Army and countless Americans through the art of the parable.  Lincoln’s favorite story, the one that got him through all of his trials and tribulations as a public servant, is titled “This Too Shall Pass”.


It is said that King Solomon had two tables before him – both containing the phrase gam zeh ya’avor – this too shall pass.  When the kingdom prospered and he feared falling prey to arrogance, he glanced at these words and was reminded that wealth is only temporal.  When troubles befell him, he once again looked at the tabled and was comforted that his difficulties would be resolved.  With the simple phrase: this too shall pass, King Solomon realized that his wisdom, tremendous wealth, and power were fleeting.  One day, he would be nothing but dust.


While this story is rooted firmly in Jewish tradition, it was President Lincoln who first made popular the saying – this too shall pass.  He used the expression as a mantra to help him through the stress of troubled times with his family and during his Administration.


Like Lincoln, we too live in a world plagued by financial run, devastating hurricanes, political upheaval, international conflict, terrorism, poverty, disease, and environmental threats.  Many of us are wondering about our jobs, our retirement funds, whether or not we can pay the mortgage or send our children to college, or whether we will be able to give enough tzedakah to the world.


When tragedy strikes, when we loose a loved one, when we loose perspective – we can find comfort in saying this too shall pass.  These words have been passed down from King Solomon to President Lincoln.  During World War II, it became popular for Jewish soldiers to wear bracelets with this inscription.  Now, this powerful phrase belongs to the human family and the collective psyche.  The words are a constant reminder that however we suffer or are exalted, the moment is fleeting.


Let us follow Lincoln’s example with conviction and honor, with passion and resolve.  To pursue our deepest dreams, to follow our fervent prayers, to preserve our lofty ideals, and to embrace the hope for a better tomorrow.


Lincoln was neither bone of our bone, nor flesh of our flesh.  Indeed, he was spirit of our spirit and essence of our essence.  With this simple phrase, he was able to communicate the singular greatest contribution of the Jewish people:  hope.