Friday, November 27, 2009

Shabbat Veyetze

When I first read this triennial portion (31:17-32:3), my first thought was “darn” – all the good stuff is in the first two sections of the parshah: Jacob runs away, sees angels on a ladder, meets Rachel, works 7 years, marries Leah, works another 7 years, marries Rachel, works another six years, Leah has kids, Rachel wants kids, handmaidens have kids, Rachel has Joseph – and that’s before we even get to this year’s portion. As the teacher’s guide for this week’s parshah on G-dcast says,

“It’s hard to understand the significance of Vayetze without comparing it to a story of similar breadth and importance in our own culture: Gone with the Wind, for instance, or the first episode of 90210. In this parsha, we see the culmination of Abraham’s past with his future, and all his family fights; Vayetze sets the stage for all the future family battles, as well. From here, Jacob’s twelve sons will start resenting Joseph, and fighting, which will cause the entire nation of Israel to move into Egypt and become slaves…But we’re not there yet. For now, think of this as the pilot episode for what is to come.”

Question: What foreshadowing or themes do you see in this chapter?

Rabbi Aaron Pankin of the URJ, refers to the two monuments Jacob builds during this parshah – one at the beginning of the parshah, after his dream; and one at the end of the parshah [in the section we read today] as Jacob begins his journey home.

On the level of p'shat (the simple, direct meaning), these monuments serve as markers of agreements––first between Jacob and God, and then between Jacob and Laban. On a deeper level, they create timeless memorials to Jacob's vast change and growth.

Jacob builds his first monument (Genesis 28:22) immediately after his famous dream of the ladder connecting earth to heaven, when he notes God's presence in a most unexpected place. Lost and alone, Jacob is the quintessential adolescent: He is alienated from his nuclear family and in search of lasting love, somewhat misunderstood by the world, on an intense personal journey, but not yet fully able to articulate his values and commitments. He still sees the world in the binary dualities of childhood: his land versus a foreign land; heaven versus earth; Jacob versus Esau. His world is black and white, but not yet gray.

And so, Jacob arrives at his second monument in flight once again. This time Jacob's pursuer catches him, and Jacob is ready to stand up to him. This time, instead of mismanaging his human relationships and making an agreement solely with God,
Jacob reaches an agreement with Laban. This second monument represents the newly adult Jacob, who, in a more spotted, more speckled, far-grayer way, is able to maturely and honestly coexist with those around him, despite their differing ideals and desires. Jacob shows us that God is in that place, too. But this time, he knows it as an adult and gives us a powerful model for the mediation of competing ideals and desires in our own adult religious lives.

Rabbi Kerry Olitsky says:

Social psychologist and researcher Bethamie Horowitz has taught us through her work that Jewish identities are not static. Rather, like Jacob, our identities are reflective of our journeys. They continue to evolve throughout our lives. And the shortcoming of research is that it usually only gives us a snapshot of the population under study at any one moment in time. As a result, it is difficult to draw conclusions for the future from them.
Question: How do we see Jacob's behavior/identity evolve during this parshah?

Rabbi Brad Artson, of the American Jewish University, asks:

How, despite the difficulties and the disappointments [of his life in Haran], did [Jacob] manage to keep on keeping on?

For Jacob that question became especially poignant as he left the home of his father in law, Laban. Having worked for fourteen years for his two wives, Leah and Rachel, and another six years for a share in Laban’s flocks of sheep, Jacob sees twenty years living in a foreign land, away from his cherished Israel, and away from his family and his childhood haunts. Only after the fact could Jacob allow himself to see the enormity of his struggle and the extent of his own inner exile and transformation.

In Chapter 31:42, Jacob responds to Laban’s statement that everything Jacob took with him was due to Laban’s generosity. "Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been with you, you would have sent me away empty-handed. But God took notice of my plight and the toil of my hands, and He gave judgement last night." (Etz Hayim translation)

The phrase, “had not the God of my father…” coming at the beginning of the sentence is an unusual grammatical construct. Rabbi Artson quotes three understandings of the phrase which help answer the question, How did Jacob manage to keep on keeping on?

Ancestral merit is an awareness of being connected to those who preceded us. It is found in cherishing our traditions by living them in our daily lives and by transmitting them to our children and to their children. It is a sense of identity that involves the continuing stream of Jewish people, starting with Abraham and Sarah, continuing through ourselves, and extending to each new generation of Jews. The goodness of his ancestors gave him his sense of purpose, his vision of what could be, and the ability to work toward that distant goal.

Kiddush ha-Shem, the sanctification of God, is an awareness of spirituality and the importance of making God’s presence and love a pervasive part of our consciousness and our lives. Through prayer, contemplation, song, dance, meditation, and study, we sanctify God by focusing our minds, hearts, and souls on our sacred source.
Acting in a way that reflects positively on God, motivated our patriarch to live up to his ideals, to walk in God’s ways even during times of sorrow, want, and fear.

Faith and Torah translate into a devotion to the mitzvot, the 613 commandments of the Torah as understood, amplified, and defined through rabbinic interpretation (drashot) and legislation (takkanot). By regularly acting out the deep wisdom of Jewish values through concrete actions, Judaism provides a pedagogy of hands and feet, a spirituality of pots and pans, a sense of fidelity to God that extends to every aspect of our lives. Jacob was inspired by his sense of God’s presence in his life, the pervasive holiness made concrete through the mitzvot, the sacred commandments that link the Jew and God.

On those three legs, ancestral merit, sanctification of God, Torah and mitzvot, Jewish life is assured and our Jewish lives are enriched. Holiness, wisdom, and belonging are within our grasp, able to sustain and to nurture us through life’s trials, even as they did for our patriarch, Jacob.

Or, as Esther D. Kustanowitz at G-dcast sums it up: "As Jacob learned: sometimes you have to leave home to find it."

I guess it wasn't such a "dull" section of the parshah, after all!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Shabbat Noach

Earlier this week, I was trying to get caught up on some of my internet reading and I happened across a blog written by a friend and colleague on Jewish Family Living. The questions she posed for families reading her blog focused on words. One in particular resonated with me: Why do you think God names things? What is the importance of a name?

I began to think of the names – the labels – we apply to the children we work with (whether our own children, or someone else’s) and the profound impact the use of those names can have on the individuals so addressed. I also was reminded anew how the use of names/labels – even when used privately, in my own mind and never spoken aloud – affects how I view a particular student. “Motor-mouth,” “whiner,” “naysayer” – all carry a connotation that’s best not even allowed to enter my mind.

Labels applied in frustration, anger or fatigue color my perspective indelibly. How much more positive are interactions with students that I describe as “eager,” “sensitive,” or “cautious.”

Those were the thoughts that framed my view of this week’s parshah. Beginning with “This is the line of Noach…” through the story of the world around him, his building the ark, the flood, the receding waters, the covenantal sign of the rainbow, the Tower of Babel, the listing of generations to the birth of Abram, and ending with the death of Terah (Abram’s father) in Haran. There’s a wealth of commentary on the story of Noah. Much less is readily accessible (ie, available online) on the remainder of the parshah.

This year’s triennial portion is Chapter 11 of B’reisheit. It begins with the words: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

We know from our studies that repetitions are like flashing lights which say, “Pay attention to me!” I wonder why the repetition of “language” and “words.” They seem to mean the same thing. How are they the same? And how are they different?

The Big Question for this story seems to be “What’s so bad about building a Tower?” And in fact, our text never gives an explicit answer to this question.

Chapter 11:8 Let us build us a city, and a tower with its top to the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.

God, in essence, then says, “Well, if that’s how you’re going to behave, then I’ll scatter you anyway.”

But it doesn’t really say what specifically God was objecting to – building a city; building a tower; building a tower to the sky; or making a name for themselves. That’s called “Missing Information,” and all commentators can do is try to fill the gaps.

And so, over the course of time, a variety of “explanations” have been suggested:

  • Rabbi Boruch Leff: When man can accomplish all that he wishes to accomplish, he does not need God. Witness that they left 'from the east.' The previous reference to 'the east' was to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8). They wished to leave the closest possible place to God that existed then and wanted to forge their own destiny without God's assistance. They wished to build a unifying city and tower but specifically wanted to begin the building in a valley. Although the usage of a hill or mountain would facilitate making the tower as high as possible, they didn't want to use anything natural or 'God-made'. There was no room for God's involvement in their project.
  • Louis Ginzburg, Legends of the Jews; "Come, let us build us a city and a tower." Many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it. So intent were they upon accomplishing their purpose that they would not permit a woman to interrupt her work of brickmaking when the hour of travail came upon her. Moulding bricks, she gave birth to her child, and tying it round her body in a sheet, she went on moulding bricks.
  • Rabbi Matt Carl: The Torah indicates a second problem with Babel-esque development. It says that the people built the tower "to make a name for ourselves (Genesis 11:3-4).'" The builders had reputation and status on their agenda. The midrash adds that cultivating a reputation, "a name," is usually accompanied by inequality at the deepest level. Nimrod's project required enslavement of his people and abject inequality, all in the service of ego, arrogance and narcissism.
  • Rabbi Avi Geller (in The Lively Parshah overview) writes: The descendants of Noah all decided to live together in the great valley of Babel. They appointed the first dictator and all spoke the same language (Hebrew, according to tradition). They then decided to wage war on their Creator. "We will build a Tower to ascend Heaven and battle the Almighty!"

    Others explain that they denied God's Hand in the Flood, and saw it simply as a quirk of nature. Thus it was imperative to build supports for the Heavens, to insure that they don't fall down again!

Most of these “explanations” – attempts to fill in “missing information” - are more or less familiar to many of us. I found none of them particularly satisfying to me, at this point in my life, in the year 5770.

I kept hearing the echo in my mind from verse 1 of this chapter: Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.

Words … scrambled languages…. failure to communicate …

Within the recent past, in my professional life, there have been several instances in which communication between individuals became terribly mangled – feelings were hurt; frustration experienced; anger expressed at perceived slights.

Words….in the same language…scrambled meanings … failure to communicate

And then I stumbled across these words from Arthur Koestler, a prolific writer in 20th century Europe, a secular Jew, and recipient of the Sonning Prize at the University of Copenhagen in 1968 for “outstanding contribution to European culture.”

Language promotes communication and understanding within the group, but it also accentuates the differences in traditions and beliefs between groups; it erects barriers between tribes, nations, regions, and social classes. The Tower of Babel is an archetypal symbol of the process that turns the blessing into a curse and prevents man from reaching into heaven. According to Margaret Mead, among the two million aborigines in New Guinea, 750 different languages are spoken in 750 villages, which are at permanent war with one another.

As much as we focus on being part of one huge melting pot – or tossed vegetable salad, depending on your current frame of reference – sometimes our biggest misunderstandings arise when what I hear is not what you meant, even if I understand the words that you used. Our meanings become “babbled,” if not the actual words themselves.

So, for me, the message behind the Tower of Babel is to be mindful of the words I use – and to check for understanding as carefully in English as I do when I speak to my non-English-speaking friends.

Shabbat shalom.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Book Review: Toolbox for Teachers and Mentors

Earlier this summer, a colleague sent me a link to a new book that he thought might be of interest to me. I scanned the review, ordered it, and added it to my pile of "books I really should read sooner rather than later." It's a great stack of books and currently includes the following:
  • Isa Aron's The Self-Renewing Congregation: Organizational Strategies for Revitalizing Congregational Life
  • Olitzky & Sabath's Striving Toward Virtue: A Contemporary Guide for Jewish Ethical Behavior
  • Rabbi Levi Meier's Seven Heavens: Inspirational Stories to Elevate Your Soul
  • Sedlar & Miners' Don't Retire, REWIRE!
  • Just ASK's Strategies in Action
  • Paula Rutherford's The 21st Century Mentor's Handbook

Given the fact that much of my work so far this academic year has been focusing on working with madrichim and their supervising teachers, I bumped Richard and Elaine Solomon's Toolbox for Teachers and Mentors to the top of my list.

I'm glad I did!

It's a fairly easy read, since much of the "teaching" is done in the form of a dialogue between madrichah (about to become co-teacher on her way to being a novice teacher) and mentor. Educationalese is translated into English (I'm not as well versed in educationalese as I might be); pragmatic examples for a Jewish educational setting are provided (either day school or supplemental school); there are charts and forms to use in helping to categorize or plan out specific strategies.

As I was reading, and thinking.... and then reading and thinking some more.... the thought occured that this could well be a handbook or source text if we ever were able to get our Midrashah L'Morim program going again. There are also huge segments that we could use in our regional training programs for beginning/novice teachers. The only area I think gets a little short-shrift is the area of learning disabilities - although they do a good job of presenting learning differences and multiple intelligences.

The challenge for me, now, is to go back and engage in some of the exercises the Solomons suggest for their teachers-in-training in order to see if I can plug what I'm doing into the format they suggest. If I can do that, it will make it easier for me to teach others to do so.

My specific challenge? I get stuck on the words "enduring understanding" and "essential questions." I know why I think what I'm teaching is important, but have trouble articulating that importance in that specific terminology. HELP!

The book is excellent. I highly recommend it for schools looking to start a mentoring program for older madrichim; for those that have frequent staff turnover and want to provide novice teachers with a solid foundation; and for teachers who have agreed to mentor others. And it's available through Amazon.

Addendum: After writing this piece, I happened to mention to my daughter that I was struggling to articulate an enduring understanding for the madrichim course. She looked at me quizzically and said, "That's easy."

"Huh?" I responded.

She paused a moment and said, " 'All students learn differently.' That's your enduring understanding."

"Doesn't it have to include something about teaching or Jewish Ed?" I asked.

"No," she responded firmly. "All students learn differently. That's why you teach what you teach."

"Oh," I answered humbly. And then demanded: "How do you know thus stuff?"

"I took an ed course in college. Even though it was taught horrendously, I did learn stuff."

In the words of Yehuda haLevi: Much I have learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most from my students. Substitute "daughter" from "students" and that describes it perfectly!

Monday, October 12, 2009

End-of-the-Holidays: A Look Ahead

So what might the new year bring? "What changes can I effect to improve myself and the world I live in?" That's one of the key questions of the Fall Holiday liturgy.

In early September, I went to see my internist for a long-overdue general physical (about 3 years overdue). As we reviewed my general health and he began to order some tests and referrals (also long overdue), it dawned on me that I'd spent the last decade focusing on other family members' health and other concerns, and continuously deferred my own. (Except for the gall bladder surgery - and the sleep apnea diagnosis).

My doctor is very direct - and doesn't believe in spreading guilt or mincing words. How he is able to accomplish those two things at the same time, I will never know. But I admire him immensely for his ability to do so and am a grateful recipient of his expertise. He's also an excellent diagnostician, has a superb group of specialists he refers out to, and does a great job of serving as "case manager."

So when he looks me in the eye and says, "You've got some things to pay attention to," I sit up straight and listen.

BP - very high; LDL cholesterol is high; HDL is too low; blood sugar numbers are in the "glucose intolerance" range. He also gives me a referral to a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy, and to a radiologist for a mammogram (long overdue, especially with my history). He prescribes a BP med, vitamin D, recommends the Mediterranean Diet, exercising, and we schedule several follow-up visits in order to monitor progress.

My dentist tells me I need dental work done.

My ophthalmologist has me scheduled for my second cataract surgery and toric implant surgery on October 14th.

I leave their offices feeling vulnerable. A little angry. Guilty for letting things get to this point.

I cling to two thoughts: my dad's favorite saying: You can't control the cards you're dealt, you can only control how you play 'em. And my internist's final comment: Change what you can - diet, exercise - but realize that part of your health and these numbers are determined by genetics. You can't control genetics.

Both are helpful - they have become my mantra.

So, changes I can make:

  • We've joined a CSA (Consumer Supported Agriculture group) for the fall season and will get a share of fresh vegetables each Monday to use in building our meals around.
  • I picked up a couple of cook books and have scanned the internet for recipes that are both kosher and fit the Mediterranean Diet.
  • I've begun to do a little walking - got thrown off base by Yom Kippur but will get back to it.
  • I'm using my CPAP machine for my sleep apnea a little more consistently - my goal is to use it 5 nights out of 7.
  • I've determined to pick up my knitting needles again.
  • Before I leave a doctor's office, I schedule my next appointment.
  • I had my colonoscopy - even if it was my first child's 28th birthday!
  • I've decided to jetison the "guilt" thing - I was busy with other people's health issues these past 10 years - and that's okay. It's done. Now it's time to take care of my own - and that's also okay.
Other changes the new year offers:

I'm teaching a course (training madrichim) at the very first synagogue I ever attended services at - where I converted with Rabbi Gene Lipman, z'l, and where my husband and I joined. Many warm and wonderful memories - it's interesting to be "on staff" there. So far, I'm loving it!

I'm also doing a series of madrichim workshops at a synagogue where I had taught for 8 years and directed for 2 years. Our "classroom" is the library, where we used to have senior staff meetings. I was surprised that there were parents who still remembered me - I left there almost eight years ago - a lifetime in a supplemental school setting!

[Note: my husband's taken to calling this year "The year that Mary revisits her roots"!]

I'm part of a planning committee that's working on our regional training in November. We're drastically changing the way we'll do things. More about that later, as things evolve.

I'm leading two Torah study sessions in the next two months: Shabbat Noach at Tikvat Israel and Shabbat Vayeshev at Oseh Shalom.

Next weekend, we celebrate the 70th birthday of a dear friend - someone who's been a mentor and helped sustain me through many of the challenges the last decade presented. Without her loving and caring, it would have been much more difficult than it was.

"To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven" (Eccl 3:1)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

End-of-the-Holidays: Reflections on the Past

For many of us, this time of year is filled with introspection, reviewing the past year and looking forward to the coming year. Some years, moreso than others. This has been one of those seasons for me.

I realized as some point in the middle of the holiday liturgy that this last decade has been a most difficult one for us. Beginning in January 2000, here's an abbreviated chronology:
  • January 2000 - a dear aunt died after heart surgery
  • February 2000 - my mother-in-law died unexpectedly in her sleep
  • Spring 2000 - trying to help one child find the "right" college, all while
    grieving his grandmother
  • Spring 2000 - one child is grappling with clinical depression
  • September 2001 - one child leaves for college
  • September 2001 - September 11th - particularly close to home for those of us in the greater Washington DC area. Almost every family I worked with at that time was impacted directly - or had a co-worker who was.
  • September 2002 - our second child leaves for college; I began a new job
  • October 2002 - the Washington area sniper struck - six victims were killed within five miles of our house
  • January 2003 - I was "let go" from my job (first time ever! Two weeks before my 50th birthday)
  • June 2003 - began a job as interim religious school director
  • May 2004 - one child graduates from college; is unable to find a job
  • July 2004 - gall bladder surgery
  • July 2004 - my mother's health continues to decline; she becomes a recluse
  • Spring 2005 - one child developes a health condition, which results in a 10-day period of hospitalization
  • May 2005 - second child "walked" across the stage; graduation pending completion of several credits
  • November 2006 - auto accident: hit head on, car totaled; walked away with "only" a broken toe and some mobility issues
  • November 2006 - second child returns home, needing to complete some coursework by January
  • Winter-Spring 2007 - child's health problems increase
  • June 2007 - leave job and open my consulting business
  • Winter 2007-08 - child hospitalized twice
  • September 07 - my father has emergency surgery; does not go well; hospitalized for almost 2 weeks
  • Summer 08 - mom's dementia is constant; losing weight; my father struggles
  • Winter 08-09 - my father-in-law meets a new health challenge; we feel helpless to assist
  • December 09 - mom goes into home hospice care
  • February 09 - mom goes into a nursing home for hospice care
  • April 09 - spend a week with my dad and mother - dementia is total; there's no time but "right this instant" - the strain on my father is worrisome
  • June 09 - my mother dies - her death a release for all
  • August 09 - I have cataract surgery on one eye (second eye scheduled for 10/14)
  • September 09 - a friend of my son's from college days dies unexpectedly - from an infection picked up in the hospital. We are shell-shocked.

There have been some blessings along the way: children both graduated from college, both currently gainfully employed in jobs they like and which allow them to contribute to the communal weal; I find that my consulting business is doing well - I'm grateful for the colleagues who support me; my husband and I have celebrated 31 years of marriage - and we're still going strong! My mother's death has provided a release for many of us. It was good to spend time with my brothers and sisters-in-law when we were home for the funeral. I've been involved in starting a non-profit tzedakah organization; and currently sit on the board of another (educational) nonprofit. My child's health appears to have stabilized - and we're all rejoicing about that! Cousins' children get married - it's nice to gather for something other than funerals! We've found a place we dream about retiring to... and anticipate that the best is yet to come. We traveled to Israel.... and are determined to return. Our finances, which took a hit because of high medical costs and job changes, are beginning to stabilize and improve. Perhaps most importantly, all four of us are working -- the three of them full-time and me part-time.

In the listing of our challenges (above), I am struck by two things: 1) how truly my husband and I fit the profile as members of the "sandwich" generation; and 2) that the feelings of being overwhelmed and/or sad that I sometimes have stem from reasonable causes.

Some thoughts on looking ahead tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Teaching YK - to First Graders????

Many of us struggle with how to make the "big themes" of the High Holidays relevant to students in the early childhood years (PreK-2nd grade). We're not quite sure how to move past the "birthday of the world" or "sorry for what I did wrong" stage. Both of which, to be sure, have their place, but.... the holidays are about so much more.

Homeshuling (a blog I read daily) had a wonderful post on how to convey the concept of the "Book of Life" to her first grade students. With her permission, I share it with you.

Kol haKavod, Amy - may you continue to reach and teach!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reflections of This High Holiday Season

Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I had an email exchange with a dear friend and colleague. An organization to which we belong is preparing to engage in a discussion of guiding principles behind some of its practices. My friend articulated the specific steps that would guide this process of re-examination and asked for comments. I responded by sharing that I had once belonged to a 12-step group in which the discussion leader frequently used the phrase “the best of me connects with the best of you.” My friend's leadership in clearly articulating the respectful process to be used, I said, would allow the best in each of the participants in the discussions to rise to the occasion.

He responded by thanking me for my comments and then posed the following:

“I have to admit it sometimes feels harder to maintain my equanimity. Maybe I’m getting older and have been doing this too long??”

There have been several instances in the last year, where I’ve found myself asking the same question. The same – or similar – issues seem to recur in a variety of setting. The first time the situation comes up and I’m called upon to provide the guidance (generally in the form of establishing a process for the resolution of the issue), I’m able to do so with a sense of calmness and patience as we (the group and I) establish the ground rules for discourse, decision-making, resolution, whatever. By the fifth or sixth time a variation on the same theme occurs, a change in my response occurs:

  • I find myself making certain basic assumptions about the process and group interactions – and assume that we’re all starting at the same place.
  • I am less likely to explain the guiding principles that have informed and shaped the recommendations I’m making.
  • My explanations become a little more clipped – my tone a little more abrupt.
  • I feel a sense of weariness, frustration, sometimes futility - and I begin to wonder if it's worth it.

And, like my friend, I begin to wonder if the difficulty in retaining my sense of balance is because I’m getting older and have been doing this too long?

So, his question rang true.

Coming, as it did, right before the beginning of the ten days of introspection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I’ve found myself reflecting on it frequently. I didn’t answer then, but here’s what I’d say now:

“Too long” is hard to define. I think there comes a point at which the guidance we’re being asked to provide is so second-nature to us that we forget that many of the people we work with have not reached that point of automaticity in their problem-solving responses. Especially when we end up working with the same group of people (or similar groups of people), we expect that because we’ve laid out the information before – they get it. They remember. They’ve seen it work. Our street “cred” is good. It hardly bears repeating.

What we forget is that even when the organizations are the same, the people we’re interacting with at this point are not. They may not have participated in earlier problem-solving opportunities – either because they weren’t part of the group then, or because it wasn’t “their” issue.

What we forget is that in many environments or cultures (workplace or volunteer), the goal is “winning” – not necessarily coming up with a solution that “everyone can live with.”

What we forget is that often the goal of so-called “discussions” is really to convince others of the rightness of our viewpoint, instead of encouraging individuals to really listen and hear what the other is saying.

Perhaps part of the solution might be to recognize what we forget. Another part might be to try and approach repeating situations as new. Yet a third part might involve finding someone safe to discretely vent to – without a safety valve, it’s hard to prevent frustration from seeping out. Another suggestion might be to remind ourselves that our approaches have resulted in positive outcomes in the past – and that the guidance we provide helps keep the discussion focused on the issues instead of deteriorating into personalities.

And part of it might be forgiving ourselves when we feel frustrated or impatient. And remembering that feeling impatient is different from acting impatiently.

May the year ahead be filled with blessings and growth for all of us.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Get Set....

Wow: two weeks plus since I posted last. The time has flown by, with some wonderful experiences between "then" and "now."

Two of the most energizing involve my work with madrichim/teen aides.

The first (on August 27th) was a new leadership training module I developed and used in working with a group of teens whose assignments are different from our typical "classroom aides." Typically, most of the training I do is with teens who work under the direction of a teacher or group leader. The adult is present to give direction, refer things back to, and adapt the daily plan to what actually occurs.

This particular group of teens, however, has the responsibility for Shabbat morning programming for students. The plans are developed by the director or his assistant, but the teens run the program from start to finish.

Clearly, my standard workshop focusing on "teacher-in-the-room, watch-for-cues, be-responsive-and-anticipate-teacher/student-needs" wasn't going to cut it.

Fortunately, the University of Florida has a wonderful series on youth leadership developed for their 4-H teen leaders. It has some fantastic material on leadership focus, and styles of leadership. Combining that material with some of the Jewish values material I've developed and used over the years gave us a wonderful program. The students were engaged, asked great questions and were able to apply the content to examples in their own lives -- and see how it could be relevant for their work this coming year. We ended the session with a work period in which they were able to "block out" their first session of the school year.

This was a new area of focus for me -- and I'm thrilled it worked out as well as it did!

~~~~~

August 30th was the date of the "1st Annual NoVa Madrichim Training Course" - a five-hour program designed to provide classroom madrichim with some basic skills in

  • clarifying their roles and identifying their responsibilities
  • teaching to different learning styles
  • respectful classroom management

In addition to the "general" program, we offered a simultaneous program for more advanced madrichim who wanted to increase their knowledge and skills in working with students with special needs. The SNAP (Special Needs Assistance Program) component was led by a colleague from the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

As the first program of this nature, we had high hopes, but no track record to guide us in planning.

The end result was fantastic: we had 85 teens from nine congregations participate in our day's training. In addition to the SNAP Program Facilitator, we had eight facilitators who led small groups of 8-10 teens in three 50-minute workshops. We had bagels and cream cheese... and pizza for lunch: 35 pizzas, to be exact. We sang some songs, did some text study, and guided students through the reflective practice that we hope will be part of their professional lives.

But the best part? (Other than the 85 kids!) They filled out evaluations! I'd worked with a specialist at the Partnership to devise an evaluation that would both provide quantifiable data and be open-ended enough to "take a pulse" of what the madrichim were thinking.

The results were stupendous: 75% said they'd recommend the training for new madrichim; and 75% said they'd return next year, if we expanded upon existing content or added additional content. Additionally, they provided such suggestions as "break us into groups according to the age student we'll be working with," and "all madrichim should have some knowledge of working with kids with special needs," and "can we do 'a life in the day of a madrich'?" It'll take a while to organize all the information we received. I'm really glad that I got help with the evaluatation form - the info I received was more complete than I would have gotten otherwise.

One more critical piece of information to share with you: this program was funded in part by a grant from our local Federation, which provides cluster grants for "Innovations in Congregational Education." Thanks, Federation!

~~~~~

So, school's drawing nearer - the pace is accelerating.... Are you ready?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Your Mark...

The pace has really accellerated this past week or so. It usually does, in August, but this year, the summer was busier than usual. Here's a recap:
  • June began with our air conditioner needing replacement (a necessity in the Washington DC area!).
  • My mother died shortly thereafter, after a long illness. I spent a week with my father and brothers.
  • We received notice of grant funding for Madrichim (teen aide) training, to be held on August 30th.
  • A colleague contracted for a major curriculum rewrite - we worked together over 25 hours between the end of June and the end of July.
  • Our kitchen, dining room and hallway were painted and "re-staged."
  • I met with another client to plan some family programs with her.
  • We went to Israel.
  • I wrote lessons and teacher guides for the Madrichim Training - and submitted two of them to a publisher who'd asked me to develop some materials for madrichim training.
  • We staffed the Training session and distributed teaching materials to the facilitators.
  • Five directors spoke to me about doing training workshops - three for staff orientations, and two for training during the school year.
  • I met with another colleague, who's piloting an innovative idea for family education.
  • I had eye surgery (successfully!)
  • We received notice of funding for another large program (Lev B'Lev - "Heart to Heart") in Northern Virginia that I'll be facilitating again this year, in January.
  • Materials for that program were compiled, duplicated and will be distributed at a regional directors' meeting next week.
  • And there's been the usual complement of volunteer work: meetings (committee and board), knitting, Mitzvah Heroes work.

Whew! I knew the summer was busy as the weeks were passing - but, wow! I really did get a lot more accomplished than I thought. My "to-do" lists have seemed unending - I hadn't really focused on the "Done" part of the list until now.

That's the recap. Tomorrow begins the Hebrew month of Elul - which is a preparation month in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement): a month in which we focus on how the past year has gone and what we look forward to in the year ahead.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Update: The Chesed Center

Just a note to update my previous entry on Mercaz Chesed.

Monday, in looking at the photos that Avichai shared with us, Steve pointed out that the lettering on the side of the van in one of the pictures says, "Afikim b'Negev."

Afikim b'Negev is an organization composed of a number of families who moved to the S'derot area some time before the bombing from Gaza began. Their purpose was to work to improve the lives of many living in S'derot.

Over time, Afikim B'Negev has made significant contributions: among them, the outdoor play area I referenced earlier; providing portable block parties for kids in S'derot ("the playground comes to them instead of them going to the playground"); converting underground shelters into attractive, functional spaces that can be used for after-school tutoring and programs -- you get the idea.



Afikim B'Negev is also one of the Mitzvah Hero organizations supported by the Mitzvah Heroes Fund. For information how to support this organization, and other Mitzvah heroes I've discussed (Meled, Crossroads, Atzum, the Rabbanit Kapach), here's the link to our donation page.

~~~~~~~~~~

Enjoy the last couple of weeks of summer - I'm scrambling to prepare for back-to-school sessions!

I can't believe it's the middle of August and I haven't done my annual back-to-school (delusional) shopping. I wonder if that means I've finally outgrown that compulsion???

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Chesed Center

One of the most amazing hours we spent in Israel was the hour we spent with Avichai Amusi.
Nine years ago Avichai initiated the Mercaz Chesed center in S’derot that he runs full time as a volunteer.

The Chesed Center, under Avichai’s leadership, manages to accomplish the following:
  • reclaim food that would otherwise be unused (produce grown in the area by local kibbutzim and moshavim, (farms) that’s not “pretty” enough to be purchased)

  • package the reclaimed food into bags to be distributed to hungry people in S’derot and the surrounding area

  • distribute the food bags to approximately 600 families a week

  • prepare and feed lunch to approximately 150 additional people a day

  • maintain a clothing center where people can buy a “gently used” or brand-new (donated) article of clothing – for a few shekels

  • run a young parenting room, filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a wide assortment of toys and games, and other baby/toddler equipment – all available for parents to borrow and then return when they are done.

  • distribute formula and diapers (when they have them to give away) to families that need them

  • provide an opportunity for parent education and for parents to meet and talk with others.

Mind-boggling, isn’t it? That one organization can manage to accomplish so much – efficiently.

Even more amazing is that all the work is done by volunteers. Avichai volunteers* his time and his energy. Volunteers pack the food bags. Other volunteers help cook and clean up after meals. People donate clothing (new and “gently used). More people have donated supplies for the parenting room.

All donated.
Everything.
All used to fill critical needs.
Without spending money on overhead.
Just doing.

Look closely at the picture on the left. The tables are cleaned and ready to go for the next meal.

Notice the flowers on the table? I don't know about you, but we don't usually have flowers on our table unless we have a guest - or it's a holiday.

Flowers on a table when hungry people are being feed. To me that speaks to several things: hiddur mitzvah/"making beatiful" the performance of a mitzvah; hachnasat orchim/welcoming guests; and -- perhaps most important -- kavod/respect.

I saw the same look in Avichai’s eyes as I saw in the Rabbanit Kapach’s eyes: the awareness that the work they are engaged in is sacred work. That it must be done. And that, somehow, people will be generous in donating their time, energy, money and stuff in order to get the job done.

Truly Mitzvah heroes.

A special thanks to Karyn London, of Atzum, who was willing to edit this piece before I published it. Todah rabbah, Karyn!

Friday, August 7, 2009

Totally Random, Disconnected Musings About Israel

Israeli drivers drive like bats (you know, "bats out of.....") BUT we didn't see a single red-light runner.

Traffic lights in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are timed so that you can only get half-way across the street at a time. Fortunately, there's a median in the middle where you can wait until the light indicates it's safe to cross the second half of the steet.

No right turn on red meant we didn't have to play dodge 'em with cars wanting to turn right while we were crossing the street.

Didn't see any "don't block the box" signs.... but also didn't see anyone blocking the box.

North of Tel Aviv, we began to see some green stuff growing; almost totally covering the brown soil. But still too much brown and not enough green for my psyche.


(Left) Jerusalem hills from the Old City, in August.

(Right) Wisconsin farmland, early summer




Next time, we'll make a conscious effort to see more green spaces - the Golan and the Galilee are supposed to be beautiful and green. Our son says there's nothing like a walk around the Kinnert after dark.

Neither of the Israeli hotels we stayed in had washclothes. Getting a towel wet to cool down our faces seemed like over-kill. Next time, we'll bring a few extra washclothes.

Speaking of hot faces, next time, we'll cut up some old t-shirts into wash-cloth sized pieces. I'll stash several in my purse. As we are out "enjoying" the heat, I'll have something to dry my face and neck with during our "pause that refreshes."

We'll do a better job of looking for brochures about the places we see. There was a lot of verbal information, but very little written info to jog the memory a couple of days later.

We'll continue to take cabs everywhere. How much fun not to have to drive!

Probably won't do a July or August visit - one cab driver said, "I don't understand you tourists. I'm glad you're here, it helps the economy. But why don't you come in October or November or December when it's really beautiful? January and February aren't so great. And I'd avoid March. But October and November - that's when you should come." I think we'll take him up on his advice.

If we go during the school year and class is in session, I'd like to sit in on a class at Meled, if that wouldn't be a violation of any kid's privacy. I love to watch experts at work - I get really revved up again and think all things are possible.

When we go again, I'll pack a bunch of good sci fi for Caryn Green's library at Crossroads. I'm thinking maybe some Heinlein and Assimov.

We'll have dinner at the Village Green again in Jerusalem and we'll hit Benedict's for shashuka again. Maybe Renee (pictured right, waving) will still be working there: that would be awesome!

We'll make a conscious effort to find a felafal stand and some schwarma - didn't get either this time, which was a mild disappointment balanced (for me) by my discovery of shashuka.

We really didn't meet any rude Israelis.... I kept waiting to see if we would. We weren't crazy about our tour guide - but he wasn't rude: just not the right guide for us.

Next time, perhaps we'll rent a guide and do a self-designed tours. But if we'd done that, we wouldn't have met Susan and Steve Grad.

Next time, we'll look for a non-stop flight from Ben Gurion to either Newark or Philadephia. The six hour-layover in Madrid was very frustrating.

I'm really glad we took our first trip together - that it was new for each of us: no preconceived notions or prior experiences to live up to.

Neal got his dream of swimming in the Mediterranean and was thrilled when he watched a ball game on TV and found he could understand enough of what was going on.

The El Al security desk in Madrid (going into Ben Gurion) was curious about our names: "Meyerson," he said, "Isn't that the name of someone famous? Are you related?" "Golda," we answered "was a Myerson before she became Meier." "No," he shook his head, "Someone other that Golda. Who was it?" We had no clue and only later remembered that Neal's grandfather Philip had received several thank you letters written shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel for his work in fundraising. Letters thanking him came from Chaim Weitzman, Albert Einstein, and Eddie Cantor. Maybe this young man was taking a course about that time and came across those letters? Who knows? In any event, Irv's making copies for us. Next time, maybe we'll take the letters with us.

I was surprised by how many words of Hebrew I was understanding by the end of the trip, compared to the beginning.

Next time....

Thursday, August 6, 2009

If I Could Have One Wish

It was a wonderful trip, in many ways, and a different kind of a trip than I suspect many people think of when they talk of "going to Israel."

Many people decide to try and see as much of the land of Israel as possible - from the Golan to the Eilat, from the Dead Sea to Haifa, and all spots in between.

The first decision that Neal and I made was that this might be our first trip to Israel, but it wasn't going to be our last. Therefore, we didn't have to try and fit everything in during an 8-day period of time.

Simultaneously, we decided that we were going to focus a significant amount of our time getting to know some of the Mitzvah heroes that The Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc. supports. It was important to me to begin to put some of the names and faces together - to begin to breath life into the websites I've researched and the emails we've exchanged in the 15 months that the MHF has been in existance.

We didn't expect our trip to necessarily be "fun" - because issues of hunger, PTSD, abuse, and destructively low self esteem aren't "fun." And we were right - much of our trip wasn't fun.

What was it?

Provocative.
Eye-opening.
Meaningful.
Significant.

And ultimately: Transformative.

Many of the individuals we met are in my thoughts when I wake up in the morning, and among the last people I think of at night.




The Rabbanit Bracha Kappach, who's been feeding hungry people for 45 years;










Karyn London from Atzum, and our host at the new JNF
"blue box"
in S'derot






Avichai who runs the most amazing volunteer organization at the Chesed Center, providing food, clothing and parenting resources for hundreds. [ADDENDUM (Aug 9): Here's a link to a more complete description of the work Avichai does.]










Arnie Draiman, tour guide extraordinaire, who does the vetting MHF needs in order to ensure the groups we support are using their funds wisely



Caryn Green, from Crossroads, who provides a haven for teens who are lost and have difficulty find a purpose or a goal to strive for











If I had six wishes, I'd have you meet all the Mitzvah do-ers Neal and I met. It's a rare privilege to have the opportunity to talk with people who consistently make a significant difference in the lives of others.

But, if I had only one wish - this is what I'd wish for every person I know who works with kids - as a teacher, program/school director, youth worker, lay leader involved in congregational education, think-tank person who writes about educations... any one and every one who has a stake in "our kids."


A chance to spend one hour, listening to and talking with Menachem Gottesman, founder and director of the Meled School. Menachem's school is a school of last resort for many kids - teens who have dropped out or been kicked out of other schools and sometimes kicked out of their homes as well. Menachem talks about the type of school he runs: "It's a cardiac care unit," he explains. First, he adds, they fix the kids' hearts .... and then, (and only then) they work on the academics.

An hour with Menachem reminds us that all kids are only kids. That all kids have potential. That it's worth spending the time and energy to "invest" in our future - our kids.

For every teacher, every director, every youth worker who's burned out and tired of trying to fit square pegs into the round holes of our schools, an hour with Menachem would have them seriously considering how to make the holes square instead of the pegs round.

An hour with Menachem, with someone who honestly, sincerely believes that kids are worth the effort....

An hour with Menachem, who's realistic about the challenges involved in caring about kids who don't seem to want anyone to care about them....

That's what I wish for all of us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

JNF's New "Big Blue Box"

Before we left S'derot with Karyn London, we decided to try and find the new indoor playground in S'derot. We asked someone for directions and were told "Look for the big blue box." Sure enough, we found it at the end of the street!




The inside of the building was just as welcoming as the entrance - and even more amazing!



There were areas for little kids to play "pretend" and to jump and roll around;


DDR stations; basket ball hoops and punching bags; a half-length soccer field with goals;


a climbing wall; a fuse-ball (!) table; and even a separate space for teens to have dances!

For so many of the kids (who are struggling with PTSD), perhaps the most important space was this one:



a place where parents can hang out comfortably, yet be in clear view of their children!

The facility has a computer room, an arts and crafts room, party rooms (one with "boy" decor and one with "girl" decor), and a comfortable area to have snacks.

As you can see, the colors are bright and cheerful; the facility is well lit; and kids can do the running and jumping and bouncing that kids need to do.

What you don't see is how the building has been reinforced. Not only has extra reinforcement been added to the structure itself, but each individual room within the "big blue box" has been reinforced as if it were a stand-alone bomb shelter. It's that extra that makes the kids -- and their families -- feel secure here.

I used to think JNF's job was growing trees. I guess they're in the business of "growing kids," too.

For more information about the Sderot Indoor Recreation Center, click here.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Pluralism in Israel?

Rabbi Michael Marmur, the Reform Rabbi who gave the d'var torah the Shabbat that we were in Jerusalem, has some interesting comments on the issue of pluralism in Israel in a Thursday, July 30th blog for the Jerusalem Post. One of the key paragraphs is as follows:
In one session, a panel comprising principals from four Israeli schools discussed dilemmas of pluralism as they encounter them every day in the field. It is interesting to note that this discussion included important figures from the Modern Orthodox community, as well as the "usual suspects." Increasingly, it is becoming clear that the divisions in Israeli society are not between those who belong to one team and those who belong to another - the Sharks against the Jets, Middle East Side Story. Rather, the conflict is between those who insist on imposing their will exclusively on the rest of us, and those of us who prefer to live in the midst of difference and diversity.
Read the whole thing and tell me what you think!

Thanks, Neal, for sending the link!

"Put It on Pause!"

That's what my kids used to shout when they needed to take a short break from what they were involved with in order to attend to life-details.

And that's what I've had to do this week: put this blog on pause.

Between jet lag and resulting brain- and body-fog, trying to get back into the swing of work and meetings, and just "life stuff" -- the time to write simply hasn't been available.

Hopefully, I'll be back in the swing of things shortly: I still have a few more things I'd like to share about our experiences in Israel.

In the meantime - I'd welcome your thoughts and reactions to any of the posts I've written. I'll try to respond and maybe we all can get a dialogue going! Wouldn't that be fun/interesting?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

S'derot: The City That Survives

“Israelis say that Haifa is the city that works,” our guide on the coastal tour said last Tuesday, “Tel Aviv is that city that dances. Jerusalem is the city that prays.” We were in Haifa at the time, and everyone on the bus smiled appreciatively.

The following day, Neal and I went to S’derot, with Karyn London from Atzum. Karyn, as I’ve written before, is the Social Worker for the Roberta Project for Survivors of Terror.

How would one describe S’derot?

It’s very different from the other Israeli cities Neal and I have stayed in, toured in, or been driven through. The other cities are teeming with activity: people walking and talking, automobile traffic, kids playing in parks, people shopping, horns blaring.

S’derot (on the day we were there) was quiet, with few people on the sidewalks, and less automobile traffic. That may have been partially because we were in primarily residential areas, and the open-air market was not operating that day. Or it may have been because many of the residents of S’derot have lived for the last 10 years with regular bombardments of kassam missiles by terrorists from the Gaza strip- approximately 2 miles away. As a result of Operation Lead Cast (from December 2008 – January 2009), the missiles have been almost silenced, at least temporarily.

One might think, with the danger set aside, that residents of S’derot would be out and about – enjoying the freedom to roam their city. Unfortunately, although the attacks have ceased, the fear resulting from them remains unabated for many.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychological disorder that many of us are unfamiliar with. It generally results from a traumatic event – physical or psychological – and manifests itself in a variety of ways. Paralyzing fear is triggered by sights, smells, sounds, or memories of the traumatic event. These triggers often occur randomly, with no prior warning. The fear causes the body to react as if it were in extreme danger and to seek to protect itself as best it can. Self-protection becomes the primary goal, frequently resulting in regression from previously-attained competencies. For example, a child (or adult) may begin bedwetting at night. Sleep disturbances are common. Clinging to a safe person in a safe place is critical.

Most of us don’t really understand the complex dynamic between fear, triggers, physiological reactions, and the body’s natural reaction to protect itself. We frequently offer well-meaning advice: “Just push through the fear” or “You can’t let the past event rule your present and future” or “Everyone’s afraid of something: just pull yourself together.” In our society, fear is often seen as a weakness, a lapse of moral fiber, something that can be conquered with just a little willpower.

If only it were that easy.

It’s not.

I can’t begin to envision what it must be like to live through attack after attack; to see my children injured; to experience such profound fear myself and yet know I must find a way to help my child heal. This in addition to the physical injuries resulting from such attacks and the loss of property – and the sense of violation that comes with those losses.

These are the people that Karyn works with. Atzum helps by providing direct services – money for therapeutic swimming lessons or tutoring for a child who’s missed too much school because fear keeps him/her glued to a mother’s side. Atzum also helps provide indirect services – helps survivors navigate the bureaucracy in order to obtain necessary disability payments or home repairs or career training for a life that’s been altered.

Neal and I had the privilege of making three home visits with Karyn on Wednesday.

The first family – mom, 15 year-old daughter, and 9 year old son – still struggle with the aftereffects of a rocket hitting their home. And, oh yes, Mom’s mother who’s had a severe stroke lives with them – lying on a bed in the living room. Mom suffers from mental illness resulting from earlier attacks; also, the son’s vision is impaired and he lost almost a year of schooling because he was unable to leave the house due to fear. The daughter has participated in leadership programs in England and New Jersey – and behind her bright sunny smile, one can see the fear in her eyes when she talks about hearing the missile hit their home. Atzum is paying for the son’s tutoring in hopes that he will be able to re-join his class in September. Karyn’s encouraging both children to participate in after-school chuggim/clubs this coming school year, but a final decision has not yet been made. It’s a testament to how safe the son feels with Karyn that he’s willing to leave the apartment to show us the reinforced, “safe” outdoor playground. He demonstrates the apparatus for us, climbs through the caterpillar and generally acts like a giggly, nine year old boy who’s loving the attention. But the playground is a short car ride away – there’s no place near his apartment for him to play outside safely. So most of his time is spent indoors. It seems safer.

The second family is fairly new on Karyn’s caseload: two children, a mom and a dad. The dad’s PTSD first manifested itself in the early 1980’s as a result of his army duty in the late 1970’s. Mom’s PTSD is of more recent inception. She used to support her family by cleaning houses. Now, neither she nor dad is able to leave their apartment. Recently they needed to make a choice – tutoring for the almost-bar mitzvah aged son? Or shoes for him? … They chose shoes. It’s hard to envision needing to make such a basic choice.

The last family we visit is a more financially stable family. The first attack destroyed their roof; the second one hit the front room of their house. Mom relayed that after the attacks her now-ten year old son began to wet the bed, refuses to leave the house without her, and sleeps with her at night. She quit her job because he was unable to function without her physically near him. He’s agreed just this summer to attend camp each morning, allowing Mom to work four hours a day, but refuses to go on field trips to the swimming pool with his camp group. Mom’s working on establishing support groups for others in their situation and has a proposal pending for an afterschool program/ curriculum to be introduced in S'derot to help the children understand what’s happening to them, and empower them. And by the way, did I mention that when he was eight, he wrote a letter to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert which was published in Maariv newspaper asking for him to protect his school?

Karyn works with approximately 15 such families in S’derot (in addition to families across the entire State of Israel who are survivors of other terror attacks). Most of the families she works with are people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Historically, many families in S’derot lived a marginal existence even before the rockets began to fall. There’s no industry in S’derot. The train from Tel Aviv doesn’t go that far.

It would be easy to think of the families Karyn works with as “victims.” She – and we – prefer to think of them as “survivors” whose daily lives demonstrate great courage.

CORRECTION:
I was in error by saying "There's no industry in S'derot." From my friend and colleague, Arnie Draiman, comes the following: "There is a LOT of industry in S'derot. a big industrial park with some of the biggest names in Israel there - Osem, for example."

Todah rabah, Arnie: thanks for the info.
7/30/09

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shabbat Shalom - from Home

Neal and I arrived back home late last night. The trip was not easy, but eventually we arrived in the middle of a fantastic thunder and lightning storm, and awoke to the sound of rain this morning.

More to come on Israel in the week ahead:
Our trip to S'derot
JNF's New Blue Box
The Miracle Maker
Odds & Ends and an Afterword

Wishing you a sense of peace this Shabbat -

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A New State in an Ancient Land

The Palmach Museum, which Neal and I visited on Monday, July 21st, had been on several "must-see/do" lists we got from friends while planning our travels. Our son actually said, "If you don't do anything else, you have to go to the Palmach." Pretty high praise indeed.

So a few words of context:

The Palmach was one of the groups that formed during the British Mandate to begin to prepare an Army to fight for Israel's independence. (A couple of other names that might be familiar: the Irgun, the Hagannah, the Stern Gang). All of these organizations fell somewhere along the spectrum of independence fighters. Some were more radical than others and functioned along the lines of the Sons of Liberty (from America's pre-Independence War Days).

The Museum itself requires admission tickets for a specific time of day; the tour lasts for 90 minutes; group size is limited; and the visitors receive a recorded translation of the Hebrew keyed to the specific information at each given display or exhibit.

Much like the American Holocaust Memorial Museum's "Daniel's Story," the Palmach Museum uses a group of individuals to represent the living history of the time period under discussion. This story focuses on a group of approximately 8-10 older teens or 20-somethings who become a small unit in the late 1930's or early 40's. The exhibit traces their growth and development both as individuals and as a unit, representing the hundreds of young men and women who had similar experiences during these years.

Each display area included life-sized models, usually behind a black transparent curtain, arranged in a "typical" staging; with black and white videos of the characters shown either behind the scene or on an adjacent background. The area in which the museum visitors stand also has props and scenery which evoke the setting. One of the scenes actually has a model whose facial features (and mouth!) move in response to the audio recording.

The entry point and exit point are through the same room: a dimly lit room, with the names of all the Palmach soldiers who died in the fight for Israel's freedom etched into a glass counter-high display that is parallel to three of the four sides of the room. The counter is uplit in green. Each name is provided, without rank or other destinguishing feature, so that each individual's contribution (his/her life) is equal to every other individual's contribution.

On the wall, in white, lit-up Hebrew and English letters are the words of the Israeli poet, Nathan Alterman:

We
Are the silver platter
On which the Jews' state
Was presented today
It was a "nice, thematic, expression" as we walked into the exhibit area. As we came out, we read those words again, which had become more heavily charged with meaning as a result of what we had experienced.

===========

Reactions? Many, deeply felt; interwoven typically with my own experiential filters through which I (we all?) try to make sense of new information.

I am 56 years years old. Although we lived for a short time in Madison (from 9/65-2/69), most of my formative years were spent in the small towns and farmlands of midstate Wisconsin.

The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was passed by Congress in August 1964, giving LBJ the authority to wage war in Vietnam. I was 11 and a half. A scant two years later, a family friend was on the front lines in DaNang and Hue. Although we were terrified for him, he was convinced that being an American meant being willing to be part of her armed services. Dennis was followed by Tim a few years later (in 1971).

Tim's unit was adopted by my dormitory floor -- and we wrote regularly to let them know of our support. Many of them, by that time, had questions about whether the US should be in Vietnam. Tim felt - more than anything - that we were blessed to have a country where freedom played such a primary role and that he had an individual responsibility to try to help straighten out the corruption in South Vietnam so that her people could have the same right to freedom that we have. We corresponded for the entire two years he was overseas and remained in touch until I moved east in 1976.

When I moved to the East Coast, I discovered that the pervasive expression on the War was that the US government was evil, that the soldiers that fought in her army were all baby-killers and that any American who was really patriotic should have rioted in protest or gone to Canada.

It seemed to me then, as it does now, that that's a far too simplistic response. Many of the young men I knew - Dennis, Tim, Chuck, Dan and others - had a deep and abiding love for this country: her physical land, the principles upon which she was built; and the freedoms they inherited as a result of sacrifices made by earlier Americans. They didn't necessarily agree with the politics or the implementation of the war. They were dehumanized by the protestors and paid a price for that demonization when they returned from their service.

What does that filter have to do with our experience at the Palmach Museum?

The young actors depicted in the exhibts were roughly the ages of my young friends who served in 'Nam roughly 40 years ago. The discussions they had about the "rightness" of what they were doing - the desire to establish a homeland where all Jews could be free to be Jewish - included echoes from the dialogues I participated in with my friends slightly more than a generation ago.

One of the exchanges from the movie that particularly resonnated with me was this one:

Soldier: Sir, we find ourselves in control of several hostages. What should we do with them?"
Commander (pauses, then says quietly): Whatever you think you should do.
Some of the activities shown in this exhibit include blowing up bridges and train tracks; bombing hotels; attacking villages to protect farmers living near by. I can't help but wonder whether the label "terrorist" depends in part on where one is sitting: some of these actions are similar to ones the Palestinians engage in these days.

As I was trying to sort through these memories and impressions, Neal helped me put some of it in perspective. He reminded me that every group, every country, every civilization has its own "creation story:" stories of heroism and decision that describe "how they came to be." In time, those stories become part of the shared memories and help bind the group together.

Ultimately, his comment made me realize how "detached" in many ways I am from our American experience of grasping freedom. The re-enactors at Williamsburg seem "quaint" to me. Our Israeli experience is so new, that it jars and has an immediacy that our American experience no longer has. Our "creation story" has already been codified. Israel's is still being written.

Sometimes I think we forget that although eretz Israel / the land of Israel is an ancient one, Medinat Israel / the State of Israel is still in the process of becoming.

Postscript: I just discovered this summer, while home for my mother's funeral, that Tim committed suicide within the last several years. He never quite "got over" his Vietnam experiences. Had his service been more recent, I think he might have been able to get treatment for his PTSD. May his memory be for a blessing.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Our Last Day

Today was our last full day in Israel and it was a very full day, indeed.

We took the train to Ashkelon this morning to be picked up by Karyn London, of Atzum. Karyn had invited us to go to S'derot with her as she made some client visits. We met with three clients - all families of survivors of terror - and saw a remarkable one-man miracle maker who as a volunteer, and ONLY WITH VOLUNTEER ASSISTANCE

  • provides food for 600 people a day;
  • feeds an additional 150 in their soup kitchen;
  • runs a parent room for families to borrow books and toys (also providing families with diapers and food);
  • and runs a clothing center where people who need new or extremely-gently-used clothing can pay a few shekels and have something clean and in good condition to wear.


From there, we went to an indoor playground. Opened after the war and funded totally by JNF and the municipality of S'derot, this "Blue Box" is a reinforced bomb shelter which provides a wide variety of indoor recreational activities for children of all ages. A few of the activities include DDR stations, a half-size soccer field, basketball hoops and a climbing wall; foam climbing and tumbling mats for the younger set and a pre-school-sized house for the little ones to cook, clean, have tea parties, and put their "babies" to bed. It's only been opened since March, but it's a safe place for both current survivors of terror and will be available in the future, as needs arise.

That's the short version - so many impressions/feelings/thoughts rolling around. They'll need to settle before I can write more. So that's now two pieces I "owe" you - on the Palmach Museum and on S'derot.

Back at our hotel in Tel Aviv - getting ready to go out for an early dinner. Then it's packing and early to bed for a nap before the desk calls us at 2:00 am for our 2:30 pickup for Ben Gurion Airport. Our flight's at 6:10 am (Israel time); with a 6 hour layover in Madrid, we hope to land at Dulles at about 7:30 tomorrow night (EDT).

And here, I thought today was a long day!

L'hitraot / See you soon!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

History - and Making History!

Today was a very long, full day. From the beginning, Neal and I had talked about doing a one-day guided trip once we got to Tel Aviv. When we arrived, we looked at the brochures in the lobby - talked about options and decided to take a one-day trip up the northern coast of Israel. Today was the day.

We left the hotel at 7:15 am. That's right: 7:15 In. The. Morning. (Those of you that know me really well can quit smirking now - or your face just might freeze with that expression!).

Our group was small - about 11 people on a huge charter/tour bus. We actually got sorted out and on the road about 8:00 am and headed north of Tel Aviv to Caesarea, site of ancient Roman ruins (built during the time of Herod) and Byzantine ruins. The tour itself was an hour - we saw Herod's palace, an excavated market place along the Cardo (generic name, we learned, for the main north-south road of any town the Romans built), an ampitheater, a hippodrome (used for races) and a whole bunch of other stuff. The mosaics were still in pretty good shape in many places - Neal got some great pictures. The views of the Mediterranean from different points were absolutely gorgeous. It was a lot of walking - all out in the hot sun on sandy, gritty paths.

After an hour of walking, it was a relief to get back to the bus. It was air conditioned and the a/c worked great!

From Caesarea, we went north through the Carmel vineyards and fields to Acco (aka "Acre"), site of Crusader and, later, Turkish ruins. This was a longer walk - almost two hours - and included both interior and exterior segments. Perhaps the most interesting was seeing examples of where more recent builders had built on top of the Turkish ruins which were built on top of the Crusader ruins. Unfortunately, we didn't manage to get any written materials, so I'm rapidly forgetting what we "learned" earlier: I'm not an auditory learner.

By this time, it was 1:00 and really, really, really hot. Did I mention that the bus had a great a/c system? And that it worked really, really well?

After Acco, we had a quick lunch and then drove north to Rosh HaNikra - at the Israel/Lebanon border. Our guide explained that there were 120 km between the boarder and Beirut -- and that between the two was "no man's land" where there was no government authority to let people cross the board. We couldn't actually see into Lebanon (I remember when Neal's mom and dad went to Israel many years ago, they were able to go into the Golan Heights and look down on Lebanon), but we did see a guard at the security station.

The other part of this stop was a trip through the grottos formed by the Mediterranean Sea pounding against the land and rock outcroppings for thousands of years.

That was actually my least favorite part of the whole tour - it was hot, very humid, loud, the stones were slippery and I was afraid of falling, and there were parts where I got really claustrophobic (a phobia that seems to have developed since I moved away from the wide, open spaces of Wisconsin). It took about 45 minutes to go through the grottos - next time, I'll sit in the coffee bar and wait for the group to rejoin me!

By this time, it was after 3:00 and the heat was really getting to me. Did I mention that the bus had a great a/c system? And that it worked really, really well?

On our way back to Tel Aviv - we stopped all too briefly in Haifa. We drove to the top of Mount Carmel, got out of the bus for about 10 minutes to look down on the Baha'i Temple and the German Quarter and then were rushed back into the bus. I didn't even really have a chance to get hot!

Got back to Tel Aviv about 6:30 - hot, exhausted, thirsty (despite the water we kept guzzling all afternoon). After a quick shower and brief rest - we headed to the Port of Tel Aviv for a wonderful dinner of kabobs and a great assortment of salads.

============

So that was the "history" part of the day.

There actually was a "history in the making" piece as well.

One of the couples on the tour that we gravitated towards was Susan and Steve Grad, from LA. Steve is actually here in Israel on business and they were able to get away for the first time since around the 7th or 8th of July, I think they said, to spend a day just touring.

Steve Grad, you see, is a sports reporter, here in Israel for the 18th Maccabiah Games. The Games provide a chance for Jewish athletes from around the world to compete against each other. Like the Olympics, they're held every four years.

Steve's reporting for the Jewish Life TV . Okay, that's cool enough - but what's REALLY awesome is that this is the first time that the games have been broadcast outside of Israel.

I looked at him and said, "You mean this has never been done before?" He said it hadn't and talked about some of the logistics that went into having all the pieces come together so that it could be done this year. I looked at him, stunned, and said very slowly, "You're making history." And I thought of all the kids I've taught throughout the years who would have been absolutely thrilled to have been in my shoes today and have a chance to talk to Steve about what he's doing.

What struck me profoundly was the juxtaposition - we spent the day together, exploring antiquities - ruins and mosaics and grottos and stones - while at the same time one of the participants was a part of history being made: the land is ancient, but the state is still so relatively young.

Amazing... simply amazing.

So here's to Susan and Steve - thanks for letting us share in your special time this week. When you come to the DC area, please look us up.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Museums + Shopping + Beach = Tel Aviv!

Today was the most "tourist-y" day we've had so far.

After a breakfast provided by our hotel this morning, Neal and I were off to change money (a most necessary exercise!), and wander down Dizengoff Street to look at the shops. The humidity in Tel Aviv is much higher than in Jerusalem, but the terrain is much flatter and the sidewalk (stones) are not as slippery. Consequently, I found myself bopping along at a good pace instead of picking my way gingerly up and down the hills. I'd felt old and more infirm in Jerusalem - Tel Aviv makes me feel like maybe I haven't quite lost "it" yet.

Dizengoff was shady and the sidewalks were wide, so we ambled along for a while.... And then of course, I saw a Crocs store and I was gone! (Others go for jewelry and other adornments. Me, I go for Crocs - hmm, not quite sure what that says about me.) It's actually all Barb's fault - she introduced me to them in Atlanta!

I got a great pair of one of the newer styles. Not really on sale, but probably a little cheaper than I would have been able to get them in Maryland, if I'd been able to find them.

Neal pointed us in the direction of Ben Gurion's home. No cost to get in and a chance to see the house kept as it was when he died. Neal called it "Israel's Mount Vernon" -- and although it was a fraction of the size, the significance is probably pretty similar.

What amazed me was that in the four upstairs rooms, plus one room on the first level, there were over 20,000 books - floor to ceiling in most cases. Subjects ranged from Greek and Latin classics to Jewish law to Kabbalah to American history, French history and more. Not just one or two volumes of each, but shelves and shelves and shelves. It was humbling to think about how well-read he was - even as he was busy building a county - and how narrow and liminted my own reading is in comparison.

We went back to Benedict's for lunch (shakshuka again for me; something different for Neal) and saw our "new friend," Renee - the head wait person, who we'd met last evening. Renee is an interesting person: she's just returned to Israel about a year ago after having spent 8 years in the United States - living in Pittsburg, Chicago, New York and Baltimore. It was fun to compare memories of some of the same places! Lunch time is much busier at Benedict's than early evening is, so Renee had just a few moments to talk in between seating customers, clearing tables, and helping to serve customers. When I told her that I'd blogged about Benedict's, she beamed and then said teasingly, "Make sure you tell your friends how great the service is, too!" So, here's to Renee and her co-workers - all of whom know the meaning of the phrase "service with a smile."

After a brief rest, we headed out to the Palmach Museum. When our son visited Israel two summers ago, he said that if there was no other museum we visited, we had to go to the Palmach. He couldn't quite articulate why we had to go - just that we did.

It was a very moving experience. I understand why our son found it so difficult to articulate.... I need to let things roll around for a while before they become clearer.

After a "happy hour snack" provided by our hotel, we (again) rested for a bit and then headed across the street to the Hilton beach. Although it's next to the Hilton Hotel, all beaches in Israel, our front-desk person told us proudly, are public beaches. The Hilton Beach is lovely, the sand was cool underfoot and the water was tepid. Neal snagged two chaise lounges and I plopped down (he went swimming). We'd hoped to get there in time for sunset, but it was hazy and not very picturesque.

But the breeze was pleasant. It was quiet. A wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on a very busy day.

Although it's only 10:30 pm here, we'll be turning in soon - tomorrow morning, we're leaving at 7:15 for a day trip!

Lailah tov /good night & pleasant dreams from Tel Aviv!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

*NOW* I Understand....

...why, when my students and I were studying about Israeli diversity several years ago, Morah Val had the cooking chug make "shakshuka"... and why the Rabbi paused in his departure from the building that evening to enjoy a small taste of the leftovers....and why the dish brought back such pleasant memories of trips each had taken to Israel in the past.

Today, within two hours of arriving in Tel Aviv (after checking into our hotel, visiting the roof-top terrace for a view of the Mediterranean, and walking down to Ben Yehuda street -- this time in Tel Aviv, instead of Jerusalem), we found what I'm sure will be our favorite Tel Aviv restaurant, Benedict.

I have a new favorite food... actually two new... no! make that three new favorite foods.

To describe shakshuka as "fried vegetables and eggs in a tomato sauce" doesn't do justice to the combination of herbs used to flavor the sauce. I suspect the sauce may also have been fresh, instead of canned or from a jar - the tomato flavor was much more robust than preserved tomatoes usually are. The meal was accompanied by a huge Israeli salad, with a wonderful touch of lemon (it's all too easy to have too much lemon or not enough). The "bread basket" was a basket of six freshly made, hot-from-the-oven, rolls .... and I learned about chocolate syrup to spread on the rolls. My formerly favorite spread for rolls (apricot preserves) doesn't hold a candle to chocolate syrup. And the fruit salad - a complimentary gift as a result of showing our hotel ID - was to die for. I'm not sure exactly what fruits were in it, but they were fresh, not mushy and with a slight orange taste. My guess is orange juice to prevent the oxidation - but if so, this was orange juice like I've never had before. (That may be more than 3 foods, but at this point, I've lost count!)

::sigh:: Pure, unadulterated bliss.....

So next time (if there is one) that Morah Val teaches the kids how to make "shakshuksa," I'm gonna be right there, in the kitchen, breathing deeply!

=========

This morning, before we left Jerusalem, Neal took a walk down to the Artists' Colony near our hotel (the Eldan - they were lovely and we recommend them highly); and Steve and I met for one last time this trip to discuss the Mitzvah heroes we'd seen earlier in our visit; our individual "transformative" experiences (more about those later); and to sketch out some of the tasks ahead of us in the next couple of months. I treasure the opportunity to share these experiences this past week.

We left Jerusalem at 2:00 - our wonderful guide/driver Taki had many insights on some of the issues shared by Americans and Israelis - the inflation of real estate values; the issue of illegal immigration; education that's inadequate to prepare kids for the world ahead of them. He talked a little about his own army service, and some of his concerns for his son, who's now in the army. After the slightly more than two hours we spent with him, I think it's fair to say that we have a better idea of what some of the issues are that Israelis grapple with - at least what this individual Israeli grapples with. It's certainly a deeper understanding... and a more nuanced one than the media is able to provide.

As we drove down Rehov Hayarkon (the street that our hotel is on) in Tel Aviv, Neal and I looked at each other and grinned. After we got out of the cab, he said to me, "This reminds me of Collins Avenue in North Miami Beach, a block or so over from where Grandma Fannie lived."

Although I don't know Collins Avenue, this area does remind of me places in Florida that we've visited together - the palm trees; the beach, the humidity in the air; the sun umbrellas wherever you look - and the high rises along the beach front.

The next few days offer opportunities for different experiences than we had in Jerusalem - and all I can say is "Bring 'em on!"