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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 Three Most Important Qualities of Educational Leadership

There’s a lot of ink spilled on the topic of leadership and an abundance of good ideas about what great leadership looks like. My own thinking about leadership is continually evolving. In short, leadership requires a diverse and ever expanding set of traits, skills, and capacities. As I approach the 2015-2016 school year, here are my top 3.

The three most important qualities of educational leadership are: reflection, curiosity, and relationships.

Reflection: Educational leaders must practice ongoing reflection. We must consistently think about who we are, what we are doing, how we are doing it, and how our actions, decisions, and presence impacts others. We must encourage everyone around us to take time for reflection as well. Students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders– the school year often moves at a frantic pace. We must encourage reflection, we must model reflection, and to the extent that we are able we must encourage and help others around us to do the same.

Curiosity: When we are curious about something we show that we are interested in that thing, that we care about it, and that we are willing and interested in deepening our understanding of it. If we are curious about something the implicit message is that we value it. As educational leaders we have ample opportunity to be curious. We can be curious about our colleagues lives and aspirations, we can be curious about curriculum and how it impacts learning, we can be curious about our students and the work that they create. We can be curious about our families and why they choose our school and what they hope for their children. We can be curious about why things are the way they are within our schools. We can be curious about the impact that our school has on the broader community.  If we maintain a posture of curiosity we might find ourselves asking the right questions and uncovering new insights to help move ourselves and our schools forward.

Relationships: The essence of leadership is relational. There’s no point in talking about educational leadership in the absence of relationships. The relationships that we have and the relationships that we promote in our schools are the most important thing that we do as educational leaders. In the context of a strong relationship built on mutual trust and respect anything is possible. In the absence of a positive relationship or when a relationship is deteriorating, it is virtually impossible to be an educational leader. Sometimes the work of relationships is pushed to the side because of the many tasks that fill our days and the days of our colleagues, teachers, and students. It is the responsibility of the educational leader to make sure that the work of relationships never comes off the list of top priorities.

The Great Migration: Back to School 2015-2016

The month of August ushers in one of the greatest of all human migrations: the migration back to school. It’s a migration not only for students but for parents, teachers, administrators, and the countless other people that make schools come to life each year. As we collectively gear up for this annual journey I want to share a few thoughts that might inspire us to pause and reflect on what this migration is all about. Though I write from a very particular context, that of The Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School, I believe most of these thoughts are relevant for anyone embarking on the great migration back to school.

 

Davis Tree

 

 

1. Old School. Formal education is one of the most ancient of human institutions. There have been societies that didn’t have the wheel or know how to kindle fire, but there has never been nor could there ever be a society without a structure for ensuring that the young learn from the “less young.” Though the aims, content, and structure, necessarily vary, education is one of the roots of human experience. It’s something we do out of biological necessity. Knowing that we are participating in this great and timeless undertaking should be a source of pride, and more importantly, a source of meaning. There is truly no calling more noble than that of teaching and learning.

2. Covenant. Too often we think of the relationship between student and teacher, between teacher and parent, between family and school, as a contractual or worse a transactional one. If we dig a little deeper we’ll discover that these relationships are actually covenants. A covenant is a relationship between equals. It is a relationship that places mutual obligation and mutual promise at its core. It’s a relationship that, by its very nature, cannot be broken (though it can be damaged). It’s a relationship of deep accountability and respect. It’s a relationship built on honesty and dialogue. A relationship where both parties are responsible for teaching and learning.

3. Whole child. We talk about educating the whole child, but too often talk isn’t translated into action. The whole child is mind, heart, body, and spirit. Would any of us really assert that American schooling as it exists today is educating the whole child? From where I sit, the answer is no. One particular area where we could and must do better is nurturing spirituality. The separation of church and state doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t be helping students cultivate a sense of connectedness, awe, and wonder. The sciences and the humanities provide endless opportunities for awakening and engaging the human spirit.

4. The classroom. The classroom is an undeniably important learning site, but it’s not the only one. Learning doesn’t start and and end in the classroom. When our students come back to school, they are coming from somewhere. When the bell rings they are headed to somewhere. We are all learning all of the time. Students don’t come to class ready to learn, they come to class in the midst of learning. If what we teach them is operative only within the classroom then our students won’t carry their learning with them. If we ask them to disconnect from the natural learning that they’re doing when they enter our classroom then we are inadvertently stunting their learning. We all have the chance to view our classrooms as spaces wherein we can acquire certain skills and knowledge that will help us thrive in the ultimate classroom of human experience: the world.

5. Poetry. There are times in life when prose is insufficient. Wherever we are, whatever we teach, however we fit into the back to school migration, let us find ways to bring poetry into our lives and into the world. Read a poem, write a poem, be a poem. Let us show our students the poetry of the world and let them show us the same.

6. Relationships. Relationships are the core of our humanity. Our existence is meaningful only to the extent that we are connected to one another. That we value other people and are valued by them, that we take an interest in other people and are of interest to them, that we care… This is what gives our life purpose. The relationships between teachers and students, children and parents, teachers and fellow teachers, teachers and administrators– these and other relationships are what make schools work. Good relationships are built on trust. They take time to cultivate. They are simultaneously strong and fragile, dynamic and stable. Growing and sustaining meaningful relationships may be the most important thing to focus on as we head back to school.

7. Optimism. There’s a great debate out there. Sometimes it takes the form of an obscure argument about whether human nature is good or evil. Sometimes it focuses on whether human beings will eventually destroy or save the planet. It’s basically a debate between people who think things inevitably (if sometimes slowly) get better and people who think things inevitably (and sometimes rapidly) go down the toilet. If you’re headed back to school then you are, by definition, an optimist. Even if you don’t think so. If you’re headed back to school and you’re not an optimist then you should consider taking an eternal summer or reconsider your self-assessment. Optimism, a belief in progress and human potential, is a non-negotiable for education. If we believe in the human capacity to learn and grow then we inherently also believe in the human capacity to become more compassionate, thoughtful, loving, gentle, and interested in advancing not only our own betterment but the betterment of all.

As we flock to gather our school supplies and migrate back to school I want to wish all of my fellow teachers and learners a meaningful and memorable school year.

A prayer for graduation

Thank you.

Thank you for this day and the countless days leading up to it. And thank you, in advance, for not making me say goodbye, but rather see you later.

Thank you for all the things we’ve taught one another, most of which are so deeply embedded in our souls that we don’t even know when or how they got there.

Thank you for noticing me beyond the classroom, for assessing me beyond the curriculum, for challenging me to climb to new heights.

Thank you for lighting a fire within me. Thank you for showing me what passion can create. Thank you for shattering my idols, stirring me from complacency, and making my mind race with new ideas and my heart beat to the rhythm of the possible.

Thank you for helping me to see with fresh eyes, to hear with new ears, to experience the invigorating feeling of discovery.

Thank you for showing me all that I am capable of both on my own and when I join my voice to the voice of others.

Thank you for reminding me that my learning is only transformational when I let it transform me and use it to transform the world around me. Thank you for allowing me to grow, setting me free, and creating a space where I can flourish and blossom.

We are all teachers. We are all students. Life is our classroom, our curriculum, our most enduring understanding, and our essential question.

Amen.

Asking a child to do a grown up’s job

A recent JEDLAB discussion on Passover got me thinking. Are Jewish educators asking children to do the job of grown ups when it comes to Jewish life and living? And if so, are we inadvertently infantilizing grown ups in the process? Here’s what I mean…

When it comes to Passover, Jewish tradition is pretty clear that it’s the job of the grown ups to find ways of engaging children in the seder. As a Jewish educator I know that I have limited capacity (time, influence, and otherwise) to equip grown ups with the skills to do this if they don’t already have them. So I focus on the kids. I make sure that they’re conversant in the liturgy of the seder and also that they’re equipped to bring something creative, provocative, engaging, and different to their seder so that they might be the ones who engage the grown ups. A complete reversal of the traditional Jewish view that places this onus on the grown ups.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the grown ups are very appreciative that their children come to seder ready to engage them in a meaningful experience. But this comes with a potential (and I do mean potential) shadow side– we empower the children but infantilize the grown ups and the seder experience more generally.

While children are more than capable of bringing something cute and interesting to their seder table, they’re not capable of facilitating and participating in the kind of adult conversation that really honors the complex themes and social critique embedded in the Passover story. Seder, when focused only on the children and built around their engaging contributions, may be memorable, enjoyable, rewarding, celebratory and many other things, but it is likely not deep,  challenging, transformational, or significant. Of course a well-timed query from a child can propel a seder table to new depths, but this isn’t a guarantee. As grown ups wait for and depend upon the energy and creativity of the children at the seder table the really important questions may go unanswered.

More than likely seder is actually a blend of child generated joy and adult conversation. But as Jewish educators we have to ask whether our focus on the child runs the risk of letting grown ups off the hook a little too easily.

10 Quick Predictions for NAJDS15

Many of us in the Jewish Day School “World” are gathering in Philadelphia for our annual conference. Here are 10 quick predictions for our time together.

1. There will be too much food. We may kick the coffee pretty quickly, but there will be too much. And the food will be carefully scrutinized.

2. We will be asked, or ask ourselves, at least one “agitating” question. [NB: this is a good thing]

3. We’ll meet multiple people and hear about multiple schools that are doing something different and quite possibly better than we are. [NB: this too is a good thing]

4. The opposite is true: meaning that each of us has expertise, wisdom, or experience in areas that others might be interested in hearing about.

5. We will be more raucous than the “Flower Show” folks. Game ON.

6. Pearl Mattenson’s question, tweeted earlier this morning, might be the key agitating question. Pearl wrote, “Wondering: If you really believed the success of the conference depended on what you bring and not what you get, what would be different?”

7. Someone will play hooky to enjoy some delightful aspect of this fascinating city. Restated in conference lingo: someone will plan their own excursion.

8. There’s someone who is attending their first NAJDS. How will we welcome them?

9. There’s someone who is attending their last NAJDS. What if it was/is our last NAJDS?

10. We will do the work of relationships– forging new, strengthening old, and, perhaps most importantly, bringing others together. There are multiple people at this conference that we don’t know but should, people who can impact our lives in meaningful and wonderful ways. Let’s connect!

Bonus thought, totally unrelated, I visited the Louis Kahn Memorial Park here in Philly yesterday since I’m a fan of his architecture. There I saw an idea that I absolutely love. Apparently Kahn believed that the “city” should be a place where children can walk around and discover who they want to become and what they want to be in their lives. In Havdallah/Purim speak: ken tihiyeh lanu! 

Jewish Education is Dangerous

Today I realized something— it’s dangerous to be a Jewish educator. It’s dangerous because if a Jewish educator is not thoughtful, caring, creative, passionate, visionary, authentic, wise, loving, and so much more he or she can inadvertently do more harm than good.

You could say the same about any educator teaching any topic, but I think it’s especially true for Jewish educators and religious educators generally. Because of the complexity and emotional energy of the topics we teach, if we don’t have an entire constellation of character traits we can run the risk of undermining the very aims to which we aspire.

The implications of this are significant. Training programs, professional development, opportunities for reflective practice– all of these things need to be in place for Jewish educators. The Jewish community has come a long way in this respect, but have we come far enough? Are we aware of the danger inherent in being a Jewish educator and have we done enough to hedge against it?

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?

Be a Blessing Liner Notes

Welcome to the “Be a Blessing” Page

First and foremost, I am very proud to share that “Be a Blessing” is available for complimentary download at CD Baby.

If you love this album and want to know more here are some extended liner notes… If you haven’t already, contact me to receive sheet music for any and all of these tunes.

Zichru L’olam/ V’Heyeh Bracha

 

Zichru L’olam/ V’heyeh Bracha are actually two songs combined into one. To make things even more confusing they are parts 1 & 2 of a 3 song “medley.”

The first part of the medley is called Zichru L’olam. It is based on a poetic passage from I Chronicles 16:15, “Zichru l’olam brito, davar tziva l’elef dor” which means, “Be ever mindful of God’s covenant, the promise God gave for a thousand generations.” I am most drawn to this passage because of the phrase, “thousand generations.” I love the connection to history, to voices from the past, to our ancestors. It evokes mystery and a sense of profound wisdom.

The second part of the medley is called V’heyeh Bracha. “V’heyeh bracha” comes from parshat Lech L’cha where God first speaks to Abraham, telling him to leave all he has ever known. I can imagine Abraham being very scared and questioning the voice that he hears. After dropping the big news that Abraham is to leave his entire world behind, God commands Abraham, “V’heyeh bracha” (“Be a blessing”). I love the simplicity of this message. It’s not enough to simply “Be.” We have to “Be a blessing.”

There are many different ways to be a blessing. That’s the reason why there are so many voices singing in harmony in this song. V’heyeh Bracha ends with a cool, upbeat instrumental section. I hope you enjoy it! It was very fun to record!!

Halleluyah

Halleluyah is a very important song as it’s the last song on the album, the closer. It’s also the third part of a 3 song medley (that includes Zichru L’olam/V’heyeh Bracha). Halleluyah is the perfect song for the end of this album because it’s all about “praise.” The Hebrew text comes from Psalm 150—the very end of the book of Psalms. It says, “Kol hanshamah t’halel Yah” (“Let all that lives praise God.”). Imagine all creation singing a song of praise—shouting a song of praise even. That’s the vibe we’re going for here. It’s a celebration of life, living, and being a part of this amazing universe. The end of this song features a variety of different voices, all singing Halleluyah/ Kol hanshemah, in their own way. One of the groups of voices sounds very “angelic”, another sounds very “earthy.” The goal behind this idea was to bring Heaven and Earth together in a song of praise to God.

Zeh HaYom

Zeh HaYom is based on Psalm 118. Psalm 118 is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving that is a part of Hallel—the special collection of psalms chanted and sung on major Jewish holidays. The phrase, “Zeh hayom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismecha vo” (Psalm 118:24) often appears on wedding and b’nei mitzvah invitations as it means, “This is the day that Adonai has made—let us exult and rejoice on it.” The other Hebrew in the song is a very common expression of praise, “Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki l’olam hasdo” (Psalm 118:1). This means, “Praise Adonai, for Adonai is good, God’s steadfast love is eternal.”

The English verse in the song, “All praise to the One, shining like the sun” is meant to be a poetic interpretation of Psalm 118:1. Just as the sun is always shining (somewhere) so too God is always with us, bestowing blessings. Just as it’s cloudy some days and we can’t see the sun, sometimes we don’t see how God is with us.

This song is meant to have a southern rock/ Allman Brothers vibe. I think it’s very important that music reflect the spirit of the place where it’s created. You can hear the southern rock vibe in the guitar solo and the slide guitar work throughout.

Yihyu L’ratzon

 

The words, “yihyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha Adonai Tzuri v’Goali” (Psalm 19:15) are familiar to many because they are in most siddurim at the end of the Amidah as a “meditation” for silent prayer. They mean, “May the words of my mouth and the prayer of my heart be acceptable to You, Adonai, my rock and my redeemer.”

Many musicians have set these beautiful words to music, so it’s a fair question to ask why we wrote a new version. Here are a couple of things that make our version unique.

First, “simplicity.” This song only has two chords. These chords repeat over and over again. Most songs have at least three chords, so this song is particularly simple. We did this because the words “yihyu l’ratzon” are simple words. We are simply asking God to accept us for who and what we are.

Second, this song evolves on the basis of harmony. It starts with a single voice in Hebrew (Mr. Kudlats) and then adds a voice in English (Ms. Kendrick), and then adds harmonies in Hebrew and English. Lastly, the song ends with a “niggun.” A niggun is a wordless melody. Sometimes music speaks louder than words and words lose their importance. By removing the words and focusing on the melody we return to the idea of simplicity.

This song is meant to make you feel peaceful, calm, and at one with yourself and with God.

With All My Heart

With All my Heart may sound like it’s based on the “v’ahavta” but it’s not! It’s actually based on the Psalm 9:1-2, “I will praise You, Adonai, with all my heart; I will tell all Your wonders. I will rejoice and exult in You, singing a hymn to Your name, O Most High.”

The English lyrics are an original poem that expresses the different situations we find ourselves in as our life unfolds. Sometimes we’re leaving, sometimes we’re coming home; sometimes we’re with the ones we love, and sometimes we’re on our own. Sometimes we have doubts. But always, always, always, we can find something to be thankful for.

The music for this song is very simple. It’s meant to have a John Meyer kind of vibe.

Seek Peace

Seek Peace is based on Psalm 34. Psalm 34 asks an interesting question (Psalm 34:13), “Who is the person who is eager for life, who desires years of good fortune?” Stated differently, “What makes someone a good person.” Part of the answer comes later in the Psalm (34:15), “Bakesh shalom v’rodfehu” (“Seek peace and pursue it.”). A good person is one who strives for shalom.

This song has a kind of “reggae” vibe. It features about 20 students from The Davis Academy. It’s meant to be playful and upbeat, but also to encourage people to really think about the idea of “pursuing” shalom with our heads, our hearts, and our hands.

Kol Yisrael

Kol Yisrael is based on the Talmudic teaching, “Kol Yisrael Aravin Zeh L’Zeh” (Babylonian Talmud, Shevuot 39a). It means, “All Israel is responsible to one another.” Based on this teaching we set out to write a Jewish version of “We are the world.”

When describing Judaism many people focus on three things: God, Torah, and Israel. Each of the three verses in this song is an expansion on this “trinity.” The first verse is about Torah, the second verse is about God, and the third verse is about Israel (the people and the land).

This song begins with a single voice and piano. It builds with each passing verse and chorus. Finally, at the end of this song you hear the entire Davis Academy community (“kol Yisrael”) singing in unison.

Rise Up

Rise Up is based on the famous words of the prophet Amos (5:24), “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” Significantly these words were also spoken by Martin Luther King Jr. many times during the Civil Rights Era.

Rise Up is a social justice song. It’s meant to bring people together around causes of righteousness and tikkun olam. It’s inspirational, hopeful, and upbeat. It’s also funky, so that people literally feel like “rising up.”

The vocalists for this song are the Mt. Zion 2nd Baptist Church choir, feature Ms. Janice Durden, our beloved Davis Academy receptionist.

Lastly, in addition to citing Amos and Martin Luther King Jr., there’s also a quote in the first verse from Theodor Hertzl, the founder of modern Zionism. He famously spoke the words, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Darchei Shalom

Jewish tradition makes it very clear that the Torah is meant to help us bring “shalom” into the world. Thus the well-known words from Proverbs 3:17 that we recite when we return the Torah to the ark, “D’racheha darchei noam, v’chol netivoteha shalom” (“Her ways are pleasant ways and all her paths, peaceful.”

The phrase, “mipnei darchei shalom” comes from the Mishnah (Gittin 5:8). In this chapter of Mishnah a number of different laws from the Torah are presented. The explanation for all of the laws is that they were created, “mipnei darchei shalom” (“for the sake of peace”). Many of these laws relate to how Jews are meant to treat the poor in their community, as well as how they are meant to interact with non-Jews. This, to me, is significant.

The chorus of this song is, “mipnei darchei shalom, for this world we call home, is not ours all alone.” It’s meant to have at least two meanings, depending on where you put the comma. For example, “mipnei darchei shalom for this world we call home.” But also, “For this world we call home is not ours all alone.” Basically, peace is good for everyone and everything. It’s good for nature and the earth, and it’s good because we have to share this world with others. The rest of the lyrics are a series of metaphors and interpretations of “shalom.”

This song has a pretty upbeat feel and also a significant musical change toward the end—when it basically turns into a jazzy jam. The instrument you hear featured is a trumpet. The basic idea here is that we should all rock out for peace.

Ki Va Moed

Ki Va Moed juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated Jewish texts. “Ki va moed” comes from Psalm 102:14 and means, “the appointed time has come.” In Hebrew “moed” refers to the three festivals of Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. To me the phrase “ki va moed” means something like, “Sacred time is upon us.”

The second Hebrew text is, “Ki hem chayeinu v’orech yameinu.”It comes from the prayer “Ahavat Olam” recited immediately before the Shema in the evening. These exact words mean, “For they are our life and the length of our days.” In the context of the prayer they refer to the idea of performing mitzvot—basically that our time on earth is measured by the amount of mitzvot that we do.

So how do these two Jewish teachings fit together? In my mind the connection has to do with the marking of time. Sometimes God tells us that a significant moment is coming and that we should prepare (“Ki va moed”). However most of the time it’s up to us to make each day holy (“Ki hem chayeinu”).

This song is a very powerful song. It’s got a strong beat, and a lot of percussion as well as electric guitar. The music is meant to convey a sense of urgency. It’s saying, “Pay attention. Life is happening now. This is important.”

Jacob’s Journey

 

Jacob’s Journey tells the story of Jacob’s ladder from parsha “Vayetze” (Genesis 28:10-19). It’s starts with a fairly literal translation of the story, but becomes more poetic as the song evolves. The Hebrew in this song is the phrase, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati” (“Surely Adonai is present in this place, and I did not know it!”). These are the words spoken by Jacob when he “wakes up” from his vision.

The music in this song is very different from the rest of the album. The Middle Eastern sounding instrument is an “oud.” This song is meant to make you feel like you are in the Negev with Jacob, thousands of years ago. The violin and viola arrangement that you hear is very intricate and meant to bring drama to the song.

Over the years many commentators have noticed that Jacob’s expression, “Yesh Adonai b’makom hazeh v’anochi lo yadati” is very interesting. For grammatical reasons that I won’t go into here it’s basically as if Jacob is saying, “God is in the place and I (anochi), I didn’t know (lo yadati).” A modern commentator, Lawrence Kushner, wrote a book called, “God was in this place and I, i Did Not Know.” I love the idea of the capital and lower case “I.” For most of this song there are two vocal parts. Each vocal part sings the same words but one does so with a capital “I” and one with a lower case “i.”

This song is about Jacob’s journey toward increased enlightenment and awareness. It’s basically a song about encountering God in a new way. At the end of the song it says, “Join him at the foot of the stairwell and gaze into the light.” That’s meant to be an invitation to the listener to pursue their own enlightenment and discovery/rediscovery of God.

Beit Yaakov

Beit Yaakov is built around the words of the prophet Isaiah who said, “Beit Yaakov lchu v’nilcha b’or Adonai” (Isaiah 2:5). These words mean, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

This song began with the guitar part. As the guitar part evolved it became clear that this song would be great for things like b’nei mitzvah and graduation ceremonies. Knowing that the words “Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai” made perfect sense, because they focus on the idea of the “journey” or in the case of graduation, “walking” across the stage to receive your diploma.

The English lyrics in this song are a poetic expansion on the verse from Isaiah. The words are written as if they were spoken by a parent or teacher to the child/young adult who is going on the journey.

The last verse of the has several references to other Jewish ideas. First it says, “Lech l’cha we’re with you.” This is a reference to Genesis 12:1 when God tells Avram, “Lech l’cha” (“Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”). Also, the line, “May the mitzvot be a lamp to you and Torah fill your days” is a reference to Proverbs 6:23 (“For the commandment is a lamp, the Torah is a light.” This verse fits perfectly with the idea of light in the line, “O House of Jacob! Come, let us walk by the light of Adonai.”

One final thought. If you take the first letter of each word in “Beit Yaakov L’chu v’nilcha” you get: bet, yod,lamed, vav. In Hebrew this forms the acronym “BILU.” “BILU” was the name chosen by a group of brave Jewish university students living in Russia in 1882 who decided to move to Palestine. They were among the first to make Aliyah to Israel in modern times and were incredibly brave.