An Awesome Day School Rabbi Day

 

 

Hadar Noiberg Trio, AJMF Opening Night, Steve's Live Music, 3/10/16
Hadar Noiberg Trio, AJMF Opening Night, Steve’s Live Music, 3/10/16

Today was one of those days that was so remarkable and yet so commonplace that if I don’t capture a few experiences I know the memory will fade and merge with all the other amazing days that I’ve had as a Day School rabbi at The Davis Academy. Here are some quick notes (because it was also a LONG day).

7:30am. Strumming guitar in the gym and waiting for 4th graders to bring their “reimagined Shabbat rituals” to the gym stage in anticipation of tomorrow night’s 4th grade Shabbat. The kids are so proud of their work, curious and supportive of one another, and generally awesome. The project is a great example of what you can do with kids who are home in Judaism.

8:00. Led a Tefilah session for 3rd grade where we did some creative writing around Ashrei. Specifically, I asked 3rd graders to think about the first line of the prayer, “Happy are those who dwell in Your house.” What did they think this meant? Did God have a house? If so, what do you think that house was/is? What does it mean to dwell inside. Their responses were, almost without fail, both honest and profound.

9:10 Middle School Tefilah. 3 totally awesome and completely different kids chanted Torah in front of the Kehillah in advance of their b’nai mitzvah this weekend. Then my colleague, Missy Stein, gave an incredible D’var Torah about the idea that, in parshat Pekudei, Moses blesses the people who made the Mishkan/Ohel Moed rather than the objects that they created. She went on to share beautiful words about the children on behalf of the faculty.

10:00 5 minute phone call with Ulpan Or to coordinate an exciting professional development program that I was able to arrange for our Hebrew faculty next week.

10:30-12:30 A rare couple of hours off campus at an Atlanta Rabbinical Association study session with Dr. Ron Wolfson and many area colleagues.

In the afternoon I was able to run out and get chicken soup for a colleague that’s been sick. Then I stumbled upon 6th graders in Jewish Studies singing the Ashrei (it was an Ashrei day). Seeing their pride in learning the prayer was truly heartwarming.

Later that afternoon Rich O’Dell and I got into a deep and meaningful conversation about a blog post that I wrote on this page last night. Eventually we found ourselves in the Media Center where our conversation expanded to include 1 very engaged 8th graders and a small audience of other kids who were really curious to know what was going on. The conversation basically focused on what it means to own one’s religious and spiritual journey.

At the end of the day I had a chance to meet with a few students who wanted to share some feedback. Listening to their feedback I couldn’t help but delight in their emerging leadership qualities. They were articulate, thoughtful, helpful, and so much more. It was actually a really impactful interaction for me and the other staff person that was there.

7:30 Davis Academy had an extra set of tickets to the opening night of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival. Listening to the Hadar Noiberg Trio at Steve’s Live Music was a great way to transition out of this totally awesome day school rabbi day.

 

9 (more) things to know about Reform Judaism

A recent column entitled “9 Things to know about Reform Jews” reminded me how little so many people actually know about Reform Judaism. Written as a way of highlighting the fact that thousands of Reform Jews are gathering in Orlando for the Biennial, the column offers a few interesting tidbits, but fails to deliver on what really makes Reform Judaism compelling. Reading the article reminded me what a shame it is that there’s such widespread misunderstanding and ignorance when it comes to Reform Judaism. Hopefully this response to the column will help to in some small way advance our collective understanding. Before delving in to my 9 (more) things to know, I want to say that Reform Judaism shares much with every other major denomination of Judaism. Reform Judaism is committed to honoring the Jewish past, securing the Jewish future, and creating a vibrant and compelling Jewish present. However, for those that want to understand some of the unique characteristics of Reform Judaism I humbly submit the following:

              Reform Judaism is committed to the idea of informed choice. All Jews make choices when it comes to Judaism. Any Jew that tells you otherwise isn’t being intellectually honest or truly looking in the mirror. Jewish tradition is too vast and all- encompassing for any person to fulfill every mitzvah and observe every aspect of it at every moment. Whether we admit it or not, embrace it or not, the fact is: all Jews make choices. As Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf (z”l) put it, each of us is walking on “Judaism Street.” Each of us walks, according to our ability, our interest, our need. Each at our own pace. Each to the beat of our own drum. The significant contribution of Reform Judaism when it comes to the fact that all Jews make choices is the idea that our choices should be based on knowledge, on study, and on reflection. We shouldn’t make choices by default or out of convenience. A choice isn’t a choice if it’s based on ignorance or if it’s mindless. Reform Judaism’s emphasis on informed choice places upon each person the imperative to own his/her choices and asks each of us to be able to explain the rationale behind the choices that we make as we walk Judaism Street.

            Reform Judaism affirms personal autonomy without sacrificing a sense of obligation. Though we live in relation to a Commanding Presence, the fact is that even the ancient sages understood that free will is granted. Free will means that, at the end of the day, we are responsible for our actions and our lives. Reform Judaism teaches that it’s a convenient ruse to pretend that Judaism requires us to do certain things and that we have no say in the matter. While Jewish tradition is overflowing with mitzvot that address all aspects of our lives, the existential reality that each of us knows in our hearts is that the only voice that can truly command us is our own. Only on the basis of the free exercise of our will can we choose to live in relation to commandment. To deny the truth of personal autonomy is to minimize the purposefulness with which many of us live out our Jewish obligations.

           Reform Judaism listens to and speaks with the Prophetic Voice. At the heart of the Hebrew Bible are the teachings of the prophets. Built into our sacred scripture is the idea that truth is more important than power. Built into the DNA of the Jewish people is the necessity of social critique wherever hypocrisy and abuse reside. Many people associate Reform Judaism with Tikkun Olam (“mending the world”) but few understand that our commitment to social justice is anchored in our understanding of the role and the teachings of the prophets rather than some vaguely humanistic desire to help those less fortunate. Currently the work of the Religious Action Center and the Israel Religious Action Center is the most compelling example of how the Prophetic Voice speaks through Reform Judaism today.

            The Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion isn’t only the oldest rabbinical seminary in North America, it’s one of the greatest centers of Jewish learning in the world. Though I’m an alum of HUC-JIR and therefore somewhat biased, I think it is fair to say that, when taken together, the faculty of the 4 campuses of HUC-JIR are unparalleled in the depth and breadth of their Judaic knowledge. Though many universities have exceptional Jewish Studies departments, the sheer amount of faculty and diversity of faculty scholarship at HUC-JIR deserves special recognition. The College-Institute is central to the Reform Movement’s ability to deliver on the principle of “informed choice.”

           Reform Judaism has many “haters.” It’s important to know that lots of Jews act as if Reform Judaism is a dirty word. They blame many (sometimes all) of the woes facing the Jewish people squarely on the shoulders of Reform Judaism. What’s sad and unfortunate is that most of these detractors have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about. They’re simple spouting dogma. And they’re slowly (or quickly) untangling the threads of Jewish unity that are already frayed in today’s world. There’s plenty to critique within Reform Judaism, and healthy debate is a good thing. But look at any “comment section” on a Jewish topic and eventually the conversation will trend toward the deligitimization of Reform Judaism. Any serious student of Judaism should be able to offer a nuanced and thoughtful assessment of Reform Judaism rather than simply casting stones.

           Reform Judaism is committed to ritual and liturgical innovation. The prayers and rituals that have been handed down to us by our ancestors are, for the most part, a beautiful inheritance. That the spiritual and religious sensibilities of Jews who lived thousands of years ago still speak so authentically today is a testament to the greatness of our sages. But I don’t think the rabbis who wrote those words ever thought that they had the final say in the matter. From a spiritual and religious point of view it doesn’t make sense to assume that a new prayer, new ritual, or new approach to a ritual is anything other than healthy. Similarly, the prayers and traditions left to us by our ancestors should be subject to the editorial hand of us, the inheritors. Assuming of course that we honor their words and their ideas whenever possible. By taking a healthily progressive approach to ritual and liturgy Reform Judaism is simply carrying on the spiritual and religious desire to give voice to the soul.

         Reform Judaism is about building, not destroying. Among the many outdated misunderstandings of Reform Judaism is the idea that Reform Judaism is about tearing down and doing away with large parts of Jewish life. Folks point to the general lack of rigorous Kashrut, the fact that many Reform Jews aren’t able to understand Hebrew, and things like this as proof. They also mistakenly think that Reform Judaism is anti- Zionist. It’s true that in an earlier era (like more than 100 years ago) Reform Judaism challenged the relevance of certain ancient ritual practices. Ritual practices were generally deemed less important (and sometimes not important at all) while ethical and intellectual precepts were elevated. This critical evaluation makes sense given the historical and sociological contexts in which Reform Judaism emerged. But for the last 50-60 years at least, Reform Judaism has come home to many of these ritual practices. That’s because Reform Jews have found new ways of relating to and finding meaning in these rituals. No aspect of Judaism is foreign to the Reform Jew assuming he or she is able to find meaning and purpose in it. Reform Jews who say, “I don’t do _____ because I’m a Reform Jew” aren’t good ambassadors of Reform Judaism. Better are those who can explain what they do and don’t do based on their understanding of Jewish tradition and how they choose to live their lives. Reform Judaism isn’t a reason, it’s an approach.

         Reform Judaism is a big tent. Just as Abraham and Sarah welcomed guests into their tent, so too does Reform Judaism. In a sometimes alienating, cold, judgmental or impersonal world, welcoming people into our faith community isn’t merely a nicety, it is a spiritual and religious obligation. The beauty of the big tent approach that Reform Judaism is striving to actualize is that it has the potential to enrich and elevate the experience for all involved. One way of measuring the depth and resilience of any expression of Judaism is how that expression responds to the challenge and opportunity of diversity. If Reform Judaism is able to deliver on the stated goal of celebrating diversity, learning from diversity, and blessing diversity, then the movement will surely thrive and flourish beyond what it currently is and be an even greater source of meaning to those of us that identify as Reform Jews.

Reform Judaism is about the “Thou Shalt.” Simply stated, Reform Judaism, like all good Judaism, is based on a fairly simple notion: Thou Shalt. Rather than simply cruising through life without ever stopping to consider one’s personal power, responsibility, potential, and ability, Reform Judaism affirms the most basic of all Jewish ideas– that we are not fully human unless we are a mensch. “Thou Shalt” means that there is a Commanding Presence that calls out to each of us and that the measure of our days resides in our desire to respond and in the content of our actions. This is an idea that I learned from Leo Baeck’s great book, This People Israel and that I think captures the essence of Reform Judaism and the essence of Judaism more generally, from Abraham to today.

So there you have it, my somewhat lengthy addendum to the column I mentioned at the beginning. In the unlikely event that you feel compelled to comment, let’s keep it civil! We’re all working toward the same goals.

The top 11 reasons why EVERY rabbi should consider a career in Jewish day school

NB: It’s been pointed out by a number of colleagues, quite accurately, that virtually everything in this post applies not only to rabbis to all Jewish professionals, particularly Jewish educators. Feel free to read it in that spirit as the focus on rabbis is simply meant to highlight the potential to increase rabbinic presence in the day school environment. 

 

I’m writing this post because I’m something of an anomaly– I’m a rabbi that works at a Jewish day school. Most rabbis, especially Reform and Conservative rabbis, don’t work at Jewish day schools. They work primarily at synagogues– which is great. If they don’t work at synagogues they work at a host of different worthy organizations– also great. But rabbis are radically underrepresented in Jewish day schools. I have some thoughts about why that’s the case (compensation, perceptions, seminary training– to name a few), but this post is dedicated to a different topic: why EVERY rabbi should consider a career in Jewish day school.

1. Rabbi means Teacher. While day school rabbis have an array of duties and varied portfolios one thing that is consistent is that our primary focus is on teaching and learning. As a day school rabbi I get to do what I thought it was that rabbis are supposed to do: teach Torah. There’s a lot of stuff that comes along with teaching Torah at a Jewish day school but none of it is so cumbersome that it detracts from this fundamental goal.

2. A Rabbi and a Jew. One of the unresolvable tensions of the American rabbinate is that rabbis work when Jews are supposed to rest. Shabbat is the best example of this. When the rest of the Jewish world is invited to stop what they’re doing and try to taste the holiness and shalom of Shabbat, rabbis are on the bimah officiating, presiding, and preaching. As a day school rabbi I get to be a Jew on Shabbat. I get to do what Jewish people are supposed to do. I get to rest. For me, the ability to live the rhythms of Judaism is important for the authenticity of my rabbinate.

3. 180 days. Day school rabbis see their congregants 5 days a week for at least 8 hours a day. Think about the depth and breadth of relationships that day school rabbis can nurture and sustain with this literally unparalleled access to our people. All the buzz in the Jewish world today is about engagement and meeting people where they’re at. It’s easy to meet people where they’re at if you work at a Jewish day school.

4. Lots of colleagues. Most Jewish organizations have very limited full time professional staff. Consequently, many rabbis are lonely, especially if they’re in smaller communities. I work with more than 100 professionals every day. These passionate professionals have diverse interests and talents, different needs and personalities, and so much more. A day school rabbi is never lonely.

5. Hebrew. Many of my colleagues, across denominational lines, report that their Hebrew language skills have dropped off the planet. Part of my portfolio as a day school rabbi is supervising our Hebrew program. That means sending and receiving emails in Hebrew every day. That means having coaching and mentoring meetings in Hebrew. That means department meetings in Hebrew. All this means that my Hebrew has actually gotten better since I left seminary. It’s sababa.

6. Impact. Judaism has long understood that our children are our most precious resource. Working directly with students and helping them find their place in Judaism and in the world is truly a joy and a blessing. For young children it means that their formative Jewish experiences happen under our roof. For older children and adolescents it means that we help them transition from the Judaism of childhood to a more mature and nuanced engagement with our tradition. This isn’t unique to the day school setting but the fact that our work is so child/adolescent focused is unique.

7. Authentic community. Jews are meant to do more than worship together. We’re meant to study together, to eat together, to play together, to travel the world together, to mourn together, to celebrate together, and much more. The Jewish day school environment allows all of these things to happen without the pressure of limited time. Colleagues in supplementary schools and synagogues often report that they struggle to reconcile their many goals and aspirations with the strict time constraints of their programs. As such many synagogues focus primarily on religious training and preparation at the expense of some of the other things that Jews are supposed to do. Summer camps are able to build authentic community from May-August but struggle to extend that programming into rest of the year. Sometimes the most important thing I do on a given day is hang out at recess and play football with 2nd graders.

8. L’shem chinuch. Many of us are familiar with the longstanding principle of “L’shem chinuch” (“for the sake of education”). The essence of this principle is that we are allowed to bend some of the rules and think outside the box when it comes to matters of Jewish ritual and practice when our goal is to teach these concepts in the most compelling ways. Because day school rabbis work in environments that exist for the sake of education we are empowered to bring an extremely creative and liberal lens to Jewish ritual and practice. Tefillah is a great example. Tefillah in the Jewish day school differs from tefillah in synagogue because the congregants typically aren’t obligated to recite prayers (since many aren’t b’nai mitzvah age). This opens the possibility of making tefillah incredibly dynamic. At The Davis Academy our middle school tefillot are a great example. You might find us having a traditional shaharit service (with abbreviated liturgy) or you might find us having iPod tefillah, yoga tefillah, or a hundred other types of tefillot. Because we are trying to cultivate a sense of prayerfulness and teach concepts like keva and kavanah rather than fulfill the obligation to pray, we are able (and obligated) to be creative, experiment, and innovate. The full power of “L’shem chinuch” can be realized in the context of the Jewish day school because it is the essence of why Jewish day schools exist.

9. Summer. One of the unknown delights of working as a rabbi at a Jewish day school is summer. I work year round but there’s no doubt that when summer comes the cadences of my weekly schedule shift dramatically. There’s plenty of work to be done over the summer, but a lot of this work is strategic and reflective in nature. At its best summer can actually feel like an annual sabbatical– a time to explore areas of interest and passion, to do some continuing education, to reflect on what’s working and what can be improved. The rhythms of Jewish day school life can be as intense as the rhythms of any congregational rabbinate. Summer is an amazing gift for day school rabbis. And, if you’re not a year round employee, it’s an opportunity to complement your day school work with time spent at Jewish camp, in Israel, or wherever else your rabbinate may take you.

10. Rabbis needed. There is currently and there will continue to be a need for rabbis in Jewish day schools. Jewish day schools need passionate, knowledgeable, professionally trained Jewish educators in a host of areas.

11. Jewish day schools work. Lastly, for now, there’s the simple fact that Jewish day schools work. Day school alumni are disproportionately represented in almost all areas of leadership in Jewish institutional life. Jewish day schools are helping to insure that subsequent generations of Jewish adults are engaged, empowered, informed, and passionate about carrying on the story of the Jewish people.

So these are my top 11 reasons for why EVERY rabbi should at least consider a career in Jewish day school. I hope other colleagues from the field will chime in!

 

Rabbi’s Pen: Preamble

For my own recollection I’ve cut and pasted the text of the landing page of rabbi’s pen and put it here:

 

Judaism then, now, soon…

then– Judaism resides in an abundance of history, thought, literature, creativity, stories, songs, philosophies, art, theater, texts, contexts, dreams, mysticisms, laws, tragedies, triumphs, heroes (nameless, timeless, limitless, infamous), visions, prophecies, teachings, journeys, wanderings, Egypts, Sinais, Canaans, exiles, returns, responses, mitzvot, and prayers.

How do we draw on this legacy to enrich our lives, our communities, and our world?

now– Our world is beautiful, confused, broken, angry, compassionate, resilient, bi-polar, stressed, small, digital, impatient, threatened, scared, and scarred.

now- We are searching for meaning, community, connection, hope, vision, integrity, wisdom, God, god, friendship, love, laughter, and courage.

For Judaism to survive it must broadly and urgently assert its relevance now.

soon- We can get there from here. It requires nuance, patience, listening, reflecting, and the desire to understand. These values and others need to be woven into the fabric of our educational systems, our faith communities, our public squares, and our souls.

What can Judaism be?

A Missing Priority in Jewish Day Schools

Perhaps it’s because we take it for granted.

Perhaps it’s because we don’t know what it is and therefore can’t work it into the curriculum.

Perhaps it’s because we’re focused on the letter and not the spirit.

Perhaps it’s because we’re focused on the content and not the vessel.

I’m not sure.

But I’ve spoken with colleagues from dozens of Jewish day schools and there’s a common theme: in spite of our deeply religious missions many of us are failing to make spiritual growth and exploration a priority for our students, our families, and our faculties.

And it’s a shame. It’s a shame because failing to educate for spirituality means our students will enter the world with a deficit. They’ll be less happy and they’ll be less whole.

Here are a few assertions that I’d love to discuss, debate, and reflect upon. I’d love to do so online and at the upcoming North American Jewish Day School Conference at the DSLTI-hosted session, “Holding the Unspoken Conversation.”

1) Spiritual development (I know, “development” is a loaded term) is no less important than intellectual, emotional, moral, and physical development. Our schools tend to the intellectual, emotional, moral, and even the physical development of children with great care and concern. Too often we relegate spiritual development to venues like tefilah and the Jewish studies classroom.

2) That’s because many Jewish day schools and faith based schools in general conflate religion and spirituality instead of treating them as interconnected but distinct phenomena.

3) We conflate them because many of our most cherished teachers and administrators aren’t really comfortable owning either the religious or the spiritual mandate that is at the heart of the Jewish day school. That’s in part because we are unsure how our own religiosity and spirituality fit into our professional roles or because we’re afraid to cross the threshold into this terrain.

4) That’s because the schooling that we received likely failed to prioritize our spiritual development. And now we’re paying it forward.

Here are some things that I’ve witnessed that help bring spiritual development into our schools:

5) Promoting spiritual growth and development among our faculty and administration. We can do this during time allotted for professional development. I’ve seen and felt the shift in energy that emerges when faculty and administration address the topic of spirituality– both our own and that of our students.

6) Distributing responsibility for spiritual growth and exploration across the curriculum. When we liberate tefilah and Jewish Studies from the unrealistic burden of owning the entirety of spiritual education it’s good for Jewish Studies and General Studies alike. Lifting spirituality from the “Procrustean Bed” invites teachers across disciplines to embrace the spiritual potential in their curricula.

7) Gathering our most forward thinking and thoughtful people around the table for conversations about the means and ends of Judaic programs like tefilah. When we do this we tap into the deep wisdom and varied perspectives of our diverse communities.

8) Educating parents about the importance of spiritual growth and development and enlisting them in our efforts. They’re favorably disposed, but often equally at a loss for how to bring spirituality into the home. They love discussing  how they and their school community can partner in helping cultivate this naturally occurring phenomenon that we all see in our children and adolescents.

9) Remember that we’re just spiritual beings having a physical experience!

If you’re at the NAJDS and want to share struggles, opportunities, successes, wisdom, and wonder about this topic I hope we can come together and “Holding the Unspoken Conversation.”

“A Palace in Time” – TMI/ Liner Notes

It’s Shabbat, what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called both a “cathedral” and a “palace” in time. My daughter’s eating raspberries and watching Beauty and the Beast and I’m seizing a few moments while the rest of the family is napping to jot down some thoughts and recollections about the 2nd album of original Jewish music I wrote and created for The Davis Academy, A Palace in Time.

Let’s start with the basics– A Palace in Time is a musical exploration of the psalms and other liturgy that make up the traditional Kabbalat Shabbat service. Kabbalat Shabbat is the portion of the Friday evening service that precedes Maariv. It’s a time when we focus on opening our hearts, minds, and souls to the possibility of Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat is about creating within ourselves the capacity for active receptivity. It’s about fine tuning our ears, our eyes, and all of our senses so that we might behold the beautiful imperfection of our lives and our world, all with God’s blessing.

Pretty much every contemporary Jewish songwriter/composer has set pieces of Kabbalat Shabbat to music. Kabbalat Shabbat and Shabbat generally are the anchor of the Jewish people– a weekly reminder of the core values of our people and a  time to be together in sacred community. I am drawn to Kabbalat Shabbat for these reasons and because Kabbalat Shabbat is both well-known and shrouded in mystery for many Jews. Some liturgical passages are sung weekly, others remain whispered. There are recurring themes such as God’s sovereignty and creation’s collective praise and affirmation of God and many others. It’s ripe for musical exploration.

Here are some things to I want to remember about the process of creating A Palace in Time:

1. The title of the album was never a question in my mind.

2. Will Robertson, my musical chevruta and the album’s producer, remarked that he’d never started a project knowing in advance the entire track list, track order, and album title.

3. Many of the initial seeds of the melodies came to me all at once– I’m talking about 10-15 songs in a single sitting. I remember in those moments a profound sense of feeling that I was discovering rather than writing music. I continue to believe, perhaps foolishly, that “discovering” is more accurate a way of thinking about my role in creating this music than “writing.”

4. Initially I wanted and continue to want the music to feel instantly familiar and author less. Those who know Jewish music know that there are many melodies whose composers names are unknown or meaningless to us as the melodies are a part of soul. That’s my dream. My dream is that when people hear these songs they’ll feel like they’ve heard them before, like they’ve always been there, like they’re old friends.

5. Initially I envisioned very simple instrumentation for the album so that congregations would instantly be able to hear how the songs could live in their worship services. Though the recording studio seduced me into pursuing more dynamic arrangements the fact remains that every song could be rendered a cappella or with whatever instrumentation a congregation has available. The songs are meant for Jewish congregations across the religious spectrum and could easily be sung in Orthodox shuls.

6. In a similar spirit to the aforementioned musical simplicity the songs were originally intended to be only in Hebrew. I chose to include English because I felt like I wanted to participate in the poetry of Kabbalat Shabbat by interpreting the words in ways that reflected my understanding. All the English is optional. Some people really don’t like English in their Jewish music and I totally understand this. In the end I feel very strongly that the English lyrics are really quite beautiful and remain very true to the spirit of the liturgy.

7. The L’chah Dodi on the album was “discovered” (i.e. written) in the city of S’fat– the mystical city where the original words of this prayer were written in the 15th century. The melody came to me as I was chaperoning a group of Davis Academy students on our 8th grade Israel trip. We happened to be in S’fat on Erev Shavuot (the day leading up to Shavuot). The fact that Shavuot commemorates the giving of Torah and the revelation at Sinai isn’t lost on me. Another way of saying that I want these songs to sound familiar or that I “found” them is to say that the melodies are “mi-Sinai” from Sinai. That’s a Jewish way of saying that they’ve always been here, waiting for us to find them.

8. The percussion on the song Mizmor Shir is comprised entirely of things you’d find at or around a Shabbat table– candlesticks, spoons, a challah plate, bread knife, and trash can.

9. Even if no one else likes this music my daughter loves it and has learned much of the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy by singing along.

10. The first couple of tracks on the album aren’t actually from the Kabbalat Shabbat liturgy. They’re included as “opening songs” in the siddur of the Reform Movement, Mishkan T’fila. For the song Hineih Mah Tov I reached out to the faculty and students of the Marist School, a local Catholic school with which we have an interfaith partnership. The message of Hineih Mah Tov– that it’s good for brothers and sisters to dwell together in peace– is a perfect message for Jewish and Catholic teens to share with the world. There’s a deeper story here but it will be told elsewhere.

11. The student artwork is incredible. Rebecca Ganz, Davis’ visual arts teacher and I together came up with the idea of merging the traditional Hebrew Illuminated Manuscript with 1960s psychedelic music poster art. The cover, which she created with some input from me, captures one of Shabbat’s key ideas: the dual remembrance of the original act of creation and the liberation of the Jews from Egypt. Shabbat is fundamentally an affirmation of creation and liberation. Rebecca’s profoundly beautiful cover tells this story. I’m sure many people will be drawn to this incredible artwork and the cover in particular without ever noticing the fact that Rebecca hid the word “Shabbat” in the candles flames.

12. The closing song, Bar’chu, is what’s traditionally known as the call to prayer. It typically comes towards the beginning part of the worship service. That the Bar’chu is the closing song on this album symbolizes a couple of things. First, it reinforces the fact that A Palace in Time is truly focused on Kabbalat Shabbat– the beginning of the Friday night prayer service. Second, it subtly implies that, having taken this musical journey, whatever you do once you’ve listened to the Bar’chu has the potential to be a form of worship or devotion. Typically the Bar’chu is followed by specific liturgical passages. On this album it’s an invitation to think differently about what you’re about to do next.

13. One tough part of this album is the fact that many melodies I “discovered” for Kabbalat Shabbat didn’t make the final cut. 18 songs is more than any album really should have. God willing there will be future opportunities to bring even more Jewish music into the world.

14. A Palace in Time is inspired by a quote attributed to musician Mickey Hart who said of The Grateful Dead, “We aren’t in the entertainment business, we are in the transportation business.” Hopefully this music will transport the listener spiritually and emotionally.

The album will be available for complimentary download on all major music sites.

 

Emory: From the Outside In

I’ve had the honor of officiating Reform High Holy Day worship at Emory for the last 6 years. This year’s Yom Kippur worship segued into the abhorrent acts of antisemitism on Emory’s campus. I’m speaking specifically of the graffiti that vandalized the AEPi house and its surroundings.  The juxtaposition of Yom Kippur, a day of worship focused on renewal and rededication to our highest aspirations as human beings, and these acts of barbarism hasn’t been lost on me or anyone paying attention. That I have something say about it didn’t occur to me until today.

Looking back over the last 6 years I’ve gained some insight into Emory’s Jewish community from the outside in. I’ve seen quite a bit in the limited capacity in which I’ve served Emory. For example, I saw a Torah dropped on Yom Kippur, a person volunteer to read Torah right in the middle of Rosh Hashanah services with no hesitation, and more. I’ve been asked to incorporate obscure words like “folliculitis” (sp???) into my remarks and other such anecdotes. Here are some of my perceptions and observations, all based on my experiences there.

Emory’s Jewish community is a welcoming community. No one, it seems, is from Atlanta. It’s not uncommon that when a Jewish person moves to Atlanta they find themselves at Emory for the High Holy Days. That’s because Emory’s Jewish community is committed to the mitzvah of welcoming strangers and guests. Many people come to Emory for that first High Holy Days and end up coming back year after year. Similarly, students from all the area colleges come to Emory for High Holy Days.

Emory’s Jewish community is vocal and thoughtful. As the High Holy Day officiant one of my only absolute “demands” is that students do all the “sermonizing.” Year after year I, and all of those who attend Emory’s Reform worship services are nourished by the insights and wisdom of the student body. This year’s sermons focused on themes of reflection, authentic repentance, commitment, and much more. They drew on sources ranging from The Lion King to Deborah Lipstadt.

Emory’s Jewish community is reflective. There’s a healthy debate about Israel and other topics of vital concern to the Jewish people taking place on Emory’s campus.

 Emory’s Jewish community is vibrant. Each year hundreds of students descend upon Hillel for holiday meals, services, and simply to be in community with one another.

Emory’s Jewish community is hopeful. Each year a handful of families from my school, The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, join for High Holy Day services. I always incorporate the kids (elementary and middle school) into the service by having them lead prayers and tell the rest of us how to make the world a better place. During these moments I look out at the congregation and I can literally see the hope and comfort that these children bring.

Emory’s Jewish community is shaping Jewish lives. This year I had the peculiar joy of running into multiple alumni of The Alfred & Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School. These students are thriving at Emory and other area schools. They are pursuing their passions and dreams and remaining active members of the Jewish community.

Lastly, Emory’s Jewish community is strong and resilient. Anyone connected to it will tell you as much. Plain and simple.

What’s true of Emory’s Jewish community is true of the broader Emory community. That’s why this crude and impotent anti-semitism is an anomaly. I’ll conclude with the following small anecdote…

At Kol Nidre I spoke of the importance of Jewish pride and suggested that we all derive strength from the fact that the Jewish people have endured countless hardships and existential threats during our long and inspired history. After sharing these remarks a member of the broader Emory community sang the Kol Nidre prayer with indescribable beauty and power.

That student, Julia Hudgins, is Catholic. She started singing Kol Nidre two years ago after I wrote to a professor in the school of music requesting his assistance in finding someone worthy of the beautiful and haunting melody that defines Yom Kippur. Two years ago Julia volunteered, without any compensation, to take on this project. After successfully making it through her first year of singing Kol Nidre she agreed to return for a second year. Not only that, but since she’s a senior, she took it upon herself to find a replacement to ensure continuity of experience for the Jewish community even after she’s left Emory.

In exchanging thank you emails with Julia we had the following exchange. It speaks, I think, to the “real” Emory and therefore I’ll conclude with it…

 

Julia,

There are no words to y express my gratitude for the work you did these last two years. In light of the anti-Semitic events at Emory following Yom Kippur your participation took on extra meaning in the spirit of building bridges of tolerance, respect, and partnership. I wish you all the best in your grad school aspirations and would be happy to help you in any way that I possibly can as a debt of gratitude! Keep singing Kol Nidre– you’re GREAT at it.

WARMEST REGARDS,

Micah

 

To which I received the following reply:

 

Micah,

The event was such a disgrace to our community. In my four years at Emory I have never seen signs of anti-semitism and I was horrified that someone could even think to do such a thing. I have always been a believer that there is no reason for intolerance, and I was honored to help serve the Jewish community at Emory. I can only hope our future includes greater religious tolerance and respect.

Thanks so much!

-Julia

 

 

More Jewish than Shalom

Today I decided, on a whim, to open up the Talmud and see what’s on tap for daf yomi (“the daily Talmud reading”). I came upon an interesting passage (Hagigah 10a). It reads:

אמר רב כיון שיוצא אדם מדבר הלכה לדבר מקרא שוב אין לו שלום

Which translates into something like:

“Rav said: When a person moves from the study of halachah to the study of Torah he finds no shalom (peace).”

Which got me thinking:

Halachah represents certainty. It represents the moment when debate gives way to law. It represents the fullness of rabbinic understanding on a given topic and is the distillation of this fullness of understanding into a legal code.

Shalom means peace, but it also means fullness, completion, and perfection. A person who studies halachah and lives his life in perfect accord with it can truly be said to live a life of “shalom.” Such a person, if he or she actually existed, would be living perfectly and completely within the Jewish tradition. Rather than striving for shalom his task would be to ensure that the shalom that he had achieved remain perfectly intact for all time.

Halachah offers the promise of shalom and with it the possibility of wholeness, certainty, and fulfillment.

But what about Torah study? Shouldn’t the study of Torah also offer the promise of (or potential for) shalom? After all, Jewish tradition says of the Torah, “All its ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace.” At first Rav’s statement, that Torah study and shalom don’t go hand in hand, seems absurd. But I think he’s right.

Torah study represents the never ending quest for insight and understanding. Struggle, incomplete understanding, doubt, and unrest– this is the stuff of Torah study. It’s what makes Torah study fun!

 The Torah doesn’t spell out exactly how a person should act, or even what the 613 mitzvot actually are. Instead, the Torah and Tanach present us with a world riddled with flaws, imperfections, ruptures, lack of closure, and more messiness than most of us know what to do with. Those who study Torah are perpetually confronted with the complexity of human beings living alongside one another and in relation to God.

Halachah is Judaism’s most comprehensive attempt to answer the question of what to do with our Torah and with our lived experience. When we prioritize Torah study over the study and observance of halachah we are prioritizing struggle over tranquility, brokenness over wholeness, and embracing a world where there is no absolute and unbreakable shalom.

I’ve remarked on more than one occasion that there’s nothing “more Jewish” than our pursuit of shalom. I’ve often called attention to the fact that our siddur has multiple prayers for shalom and that no prayer service is complete unless we’ve offered at least two different prayers for shalom.

However Rav’s teaching is making me question whether there isn’t something more Jewish than shalom?

I think the answer is yes. To be a Jew is to take seriously both halachah and Torah in the way that I’m describing them here. To be a Jew is to entertain the idea that there is a perfect, holistic, whole, wholesome, way to live in the world– a shalom of halachah. To be a Jew is also to know that our most sacred text, our Torah, perpetually reminds us that alongside shalom, and perhaps on the path to shalom, is a life of grappling, questioning, probing, yearning, and struggling.

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.

The Unparalleled Potential of Jewish Day School

My trip down memory lane brought me to this essay that situates Jewish Day School education amongst the landscape of Jewish life generally and focuses on the unique and vital role of Jewish educators within our schools…

For most of Jewish history Jews clung to the idea of the “chosen people.”  Chosen by God, we considered ourselves unique, both spiritually and metaphysically. In spite of the hardships of Jewish life, particularly in the Middle Ages, our sense of being different, unique, and chosen, gave us the fortitude to preserve our cultural heritage and our Torah.  Choseness was the bond that united all Jews.

But that was the past. Today we are living in a truly unprecedented era in Jewish history. The “chosen” people have become a “choosing people.” Here in America we are fortunate to be full participants in American society. We have access that our ancestors, even a few generations ago, never dreamt of. Like all Americans we “choose” what we want to do, where we want to live, how we want to spend our time, and who we want to be. 100 years ago a Jew could never escape her Jewish identity—it was constantly reinforced from within and without by the Jewish community and by the greater non-Jewish world. In a world of choice it’s possible to be a Jew only by birth and to completely sever all connections to the richness of Jewish life. It’s possible to have a Jewish body but lack a Jewish soul.

The more access we have, the more choices we face. In an increasingly distracting and oversaturated world we are seeing more and more people chose leisure over spirituality, freedom over religious duty, and individualism over loyalty to community.  Judaism finds itself confronted with a fascinating challenge: command respect, affiliation, and commitment, or disappear.

This is precisely why The Davis Academy is so important. Every family that entrusts us with the education of their child is “choosing”, from the wide range of options, to align themselves with the Jewish community. They are making a conscious choice that ensures that their child and their family learn the language, the rituals, and the values that keep Jewish tradition fresh and relevant.

The Davis Academy occupies a unique place in the landscape of contemporary Jewish life. Whereas most synagogues see their congregants once or twice a week, or once or twice a year, we see our “congregants” every day; and we, as faculty members are also part of the “congregation”. Whereas most Jews live according to the American calendar, and fit Judaism in where they can and wish, our Davis community lives according to the rhythm of the Jewish calendar as well as the secular calendar. Outside of the Land of Israel and strict Orthodox communities, day schools are the only institutions that allow families to have time off for Jewish holidays and to fully taste the sweetness and complex palate of Jewish life.

And what about us, the faculty? Our decision to dedicate our talent and passion to The Davis Academy also reflects a choice. We could all be teaching in public schools or other private schools in the Atlanta area. Part of the significance of Davis is that it requires us to be not only educators, but Jewish educators. Working at Davis challenges each of us to grow in our Jewish understanding, to find our Jewish connections, and to incorporate Jewish values into our lives. Simply stated we cannot fulfill our collective mission as a learning community unless we are just that: a learning community. By demanding that we, as a faculty, grow and learn, so that we may better teach and guide our students and families, we collectively advance a Jewish vision that commands respect, affiliation and commitment, and is worthy of our time, our dedication, and our tradition.  There is no other institution in Jewish life today that has the potential to revolutionize Jewish life as the very place in which we sit right now.