“MLK: Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” Beit Midrash

Regrettably I did not have time to correctly identify the images I used in this PowToon.

The following “text sheet” contains more expanded versions of some of the quotes/commentaries from the PowToon. I am grateful to Rabbi Peter Berg, Rabbi Brad Levenberg, Rabbi Jan Katzew, and Rabbi Michael Shire for their contributions. Rabbi Katzew and Rabbi Shire’s quotes aren’t in the PowToon because they were a bit beyond what I thought our Middle School students could tackle in the short time we had for this lesson!

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

–      Martin Luther King Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Rabbi Peter Berg from The Temple in Atlanta writes:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…The Torah teaches lo tuchal l’hitaleim – you shall not remain indifferent.  Literally translated it means do not hide yourself.  Our Jewish values teach us to face the world head on, to engage in study and moral debate, to raise questions about the world and about ourselves, to enhance life, and to struggle to repair that which is broken an incomplete.


Rabbi Levenberg from Temple Sinai in Atlanta writes:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere… Jewish tradition compels us to protect the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable among us.  Among us… among us.  That’s the challenge, is it not?  There are those who firmly believe that we must care for the Jews first and, if we have time and resources, to care for others.  I disagree.  As long as anyone is homeless, we can be homeless.  As long as anyone is hungry, we can go hungry.  And as long as anyone is subject to another’s ill treatment, we need only look at our tragic history to realize that, in fact, Jewish tradition compels us to protect the poor, the weak and the vulnerable.  Everywhere.

Rabbi Michael Shire from Hebrew College writes:

I just watched the movie ‘Mandela; Long Walk to Freedom’ and was struck that Nelson Mandela was in prison throughout the time that Martin Luther King was also fighting for civil rights. I don’t know if they corresponded or knew about each other but how fascinating to compare the situations of the two men. One, starting an epic struggle of a black majority violently fighting against an apartheid Government and military that was increasingly vulnerable to world wide condemnation. The other, bringing to an end 100 years of a process of Black emancipation in a society built on the values of equality and universal suffrage. It is definitely the case that there was ‘a network of mutuality’ where the nature of just being of a black colour demanded a new perception by others and by blacks. People of colour had been considered inferior, infantile, slovenly, ignorant and lazy. In South Africa, it took the nobility of men like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko (murdered in prison) to demonstrate that blackness was nothing to do with character. In fact they had also to prove it to their own people that had so long been downtrodden. Steve Biko’s work on ‘black consciousness’ echoed a similar attempt by Theodore Herzl to do the same thing for the Jewish People. In his writings about early Zionism, Herzl declared that the Jews were proper and fit to have their own land like any other people. At the time, this was considered inconceivable by most people including Jews themselves. Jews were  considered inferior, miserly, dirty and shifty. What does it take for a people to learn not only that they can be free but that all deserve to be free? At Pesach we say, if not all are free, then none are free’. Do we have responsibility for the freedom of other peoples? And for their self-worth as well?

Rabbi Jan Katzew from Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion writes:

“I cannot sit idly by” – ‘לא תעמוד על דם רעיך אני ה
– Leviticus 19:16 – You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor; I am Adonai. Martin Luther King’s words echoed a מצוה, and not just any מצוה, but one embedded in the very heart of Torah, the Holiness Code. Standing idly by would be a sin, and not just in the eyes of Martin, but also in the eyes of God. Elie Wiesel noted that rather than use the word אחיך – your brothers, Torah teaches רעיך – your neighbors, thereby making the מצוה apply to humanity as
a whole rather than to a particular family or people. Finally, the words אני ה – make it clear that this מצוה to confront the oppression of any person or people not only involves human dignity and compassion but also divine dignity and compassion.

Rabbi Micah Lapidus from The Davis Academy writes:”It’s not enough for a Jewish person to be smart. It’s not enough to be talented or successful. It’s not enough to be HAPPY. A Jew needs to be righteous. We need to do the RIGHT thing, the HARD thing, the JUST thing.”

Drew Frank from The Davis Academy shared the following quote from Haim Ginott: “I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness. Gas chambers built by learned engineers. Children poisoned by educated physicians. Infants killed by trained nurses. Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education. My request is: help your students become more human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human.”

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.

The Fig Tree and the Bottle Cap

I had 4 b’nai mitzvah students in my office. A teacher rushed in asking me to go to the boys bathroom. I soon learned that a student had swallowed a plastic bottle cap. Freak accident. He was breathing and able to talk. Definitely in pain. We called 911. The paramedics came. His mom came. They took him to the hospital. They took out the bottle cap. It’s in a plastic bag now. Thankfully he’s fine. He won’t be swallowing any more bottle caps.

None of this is what I thought I’d be doing this afternoon.

I received a call out of the blue this morning from Kathie C. Kathie is my colleague from The Marist School. This Spring we initiated a very successful interfaith partnership between The Davis Academy and The Marist School. She called to tell me that she’d bought us a fig tree. She explained that she knew that fig trees had great symbolism in Judaism and that she thought it would be a wonderful symbol of our new partnership. Could she bring it by this afternoon?


Fortunately Kathie was late and missed the whole to-do with the bottle cap. After speaking with her I started thinking about her remark regarding the fig tree as a symbol in Judaism.

On my recent trip to Israel we spent a fews days staying on a kibbutz on the banks of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). To call it idyllic is an understatement. The rainy season was great this year and the Kinneret is more full than most Israelis can remember it. We saw the tops of trees that were completely submurged.

During a few precious quiet moments I took out the guitar and decided to write a song. Kendrick P., one of my fellow chaperones joined me. We wrote a simple song with three words: ayeka, hineni, l’famim.

“Ayeka” is the first question in the Torah. God asks Adam, “Ayeka?” It means, “Where are you?” Since God likely knew where Adam was physically, the question is clearly meant to dig deeper.

“Hineni” is a powerful response to the Divine Call, however and whenever we hear it. It means, “I am here and I am fully present.” When God called to Abraham and Moses they replied, “Hineni.” While “hineni” traditionally speaks to the vertical relationship between humanity and divinity, it’s even more powerful when we can say “hineni” to one another and be truly present for b’nai mitzvah students, bottle cap swallowers, paramedics, colleagues, friends, and family.

“L’famim” means “sometimes.” We’ve got to show compassion to ourselves and one another. We can’t constantly barrage one another with existential questions or expect complete and total presence from one another. “L’famim” is grace. It’s embracing our humanness. It’s celebrating the sloppy and imperfect. It’s both contentment and striving, likely not at the same time.

“Ayeka” and “Hineni” are an intuitive match. The nuance of “L’famim” is an idea I learned from a great teacher: Rich O’D.

So there we were, harmonizing on the banks of the Kinneret. I looked up from the bench we were sitting on and realized that we were sitting underneath a fig tree. Go fig-ure (sorry).

I immediately thought of my biblical namesake, the prophet Micah. His vision of a perfect world looked something like this: “Every person shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him” (Micah, 4:4). I couldn’t have said it better myself.

As I sat and chatted with Kathie C. we shared some of our hopes and dreams for the partnership between our two schools and what it might mean for our students. In the back of my mind I worried about the student who swallowed the bottle cap, praying for his health and speedy recovery. I told Kathie I was planning to blog.

While looking up the quote from Micah I found a similar quote from another biblical prophet: Zechariah. He wrote, “In that day– delcares the Lord of Hosts– you will be inviting each other to the shade of vines and fig trees” (Zeachariah 3:10).

Micah’s vision is solitary. Zechariah’s vision is communal. I’m grateful to Kathie for the beautiful gesture of giving us a fig tree to plant on our grounds as a symbol of the partnership between our schools. If it weren’t our moment of interfaith dialogue today I might not have ever stumbled upon Zechariah’s teaching from our shared traditions. I’m glad I have. Micah’s vision is beautiful and I’ve always found it to be inspirational, but Zechariah’s teaching has expanded my understanding of what redemption might look like and how we might get there, together.

Ayeka, hinenu (we are here), l’famim.


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.




Marist World Religions Test Answers!!!!!

here’s a shout out to the marist students I had the joy of teaching today in doc seanor’s world religions class. this post is my attempt to give y’all the answers to any test that the mischevous doc might throw your way. for those of you who were in the 11:30 class may the opening line, “on bagels…” live on forever! if y’all have any questions or what to know more about judaism feel free to email me at mlapidus@davisacademy.org. in the meantime…


judaism is…

A bookshelf in Safed

a wisdom tradition

– not sure we really “hit” this point, but basically, Judaism is there to give us guidance through the complexity of human existence.

a legal and interpretive tradition

— which is why the version of Leviticus that I showed you has all those different commentaries from across the centuries.

a spiritual discipline

– which is why, yes, parker, we pray three times a day. it’s why we have shabbat, a palace in time when we attempt to leave the world unchanged, focusing on the blessings that we already have in our midst, like friends, family, food, and a roof over our heads.

– which is why we observe the festival of sukkot, when we dwell in booths and remember our sojourn through the desert on the way from egypt to canaan, reminding ourselves that, with god, we have everything that we need.

a social justice voice

– which is why, as a jew, i dedicate myself to leaving the world better than i found it, which is why davis academy students are given opportunities to do social justice work from kindergarten all the way until they graduate.

the faith of the prophets

– judaism has always been a tradition that speaks truth to power, that attempts to right the wrongs, that attempts to build a more fair and equitable world and society.


Rosh Hanikra, Northern Israel

a civilization

– which is why we passed around the “light up shabbat” cd, which is why jews love bagels, why we speak yiddish and hebrew, why we have our own forms of dance, cinema, literature, and beyond. it’s why you can hear my original jewish music under the tab “davis academy album.”

a calendar

– which is why some of y’all got to do your project on jewish holidays. which is why we sounded the rams horn “tekia, shevarim, terua, tekia gedola!” and why i lead high holy day services at emory, which is why shabbat is my favorite holiday (because it comes every week and there’s no pressure).


– the only democracy in the middle east, the only place where women have equal rights to men in the middle east, the only place where you can be openly gay and not fear persecution. is israel perfect? no! but when it comes to israel we all need to be critical consumers of information and avoid rash generalizations!!

hebrew language

– doc told me he’s gonna quiz you on the hebrew alphabet (not really)! just in case…


Yitzhak Rabin Square, Tel Aviv

The Western Wall, Jerusalem

the story of the jewish people

– which is why individual jews have their own interpretations, stories, and experiences as they live their way through judaism.

a way of living with, for, and through God

– got it????