Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pesach is Coming!

Update: Since this was written, in 2004, both children have graduated from college. Our Seder table is filled with friends we’ve had seder with for almost 20 years – and their grown children; with cousins who live in town; and adult friends of our kids’ who come to learn and to share. In re-reading this one more time, I’m struck again by my in-laws’ generosity in welcoming me in to their family, in sharing their rituals and customs so lovingly, and in supporting and sustaining us through the difficulties we’ve faced. We’ve been blessed.

Pesach is coming! Pesach is coming! The mantra in my mind begins shortly after Tu B'shevat, when I walk into grocery stores and see the first boxes of matzah stacked in the aisle. "Oh, no," I think, "Pesach is coming. I've got to get ready."

When I began to explore Judaism, Pesach was the most overwhelming of all of the rituals or practices. My husband-to-be took me home to his parents' in '78 before we got married. I'd been there often enough to recognize the pervasive changes in his mother’s kitchen. I panicked -- I knew I could never "keep Pesach" the way she did.... I suspected you had to be "born Jewish" in order to know all the rules... I had no intention of converting at that point. We had decided to raise our children as Jews and maintain a Jewish home -- and it would be my husband’s responsibility to pull those pieces together.

We continued to "go home for Seder" for the next couple of years, when we could. The holiday became more familiar, but no less overwhelming. By this time, I was studying with Rabbi Gene Lipman, z'l, and (although I had not yet decided to convert) knew that to "do Pesach" would take more than just my husband’s efforts -- it would have to be a family affair. I asked my mother-in-law how she ever managed to remember everything. She shared with me her “secret for remembering details" when she showed me her manila folder labeled "Pesach." Huh! I realized that meant we wouldn't have to remember everything -- just where we put the folder. Maybe this was possible after all.

In 1982, the emotional content attached to Pesach struck me with full force. That year, my mother-in-law greeted us at the door with outstretched arms as she took her grandson from me. "Pesach is coming," she crooned, "Pesach is here!"

Our son had been born 8 weeks prematurely the preceding fall. His English names remembered three out of his four great-grandfathers. But when it came to the name he would be called to Torah, I flat-out refused to name him "Fishel." "No son of mine is going to be called Little Fish," I sniffed to Rabbi Lipman. Gene grinned, as only Gene could when he knew he'd stirred up a storm, and suggested that we consider a name beginning with the "pey" sound. He made some suggestions. Finally, I settled on "Pesach" thinking, how appropriate it was for this child who had been so at-risk. My husband concurred: our son became Pesach.

That year, my father-in-law read from the haggadah (Maxell House, of course -- was there any other?) the mandate to tell the story as if we ourselves had been saved. I watched that little baby being passed around the table from person to person and the full impact began to sink in. For the first time since his birth six months earlier, I paused in my busy-ness. My son -- by the grace of God and modern medicine -- had been saved. The Angel of Death didn't stop by his crib in the Neonatal ICU. No sooner had I begun to grasp that reality than another one struck. By our decision, he would be Jewish -- no, that wasn't exactly accurate: by my decision he would be Jewish.

I could have said, "no," you see -- I could have said to my husband when we were courting: "Gee, I can't agree to raise our kids Jewish." Or "Gee, if that's what you want, I can't marry you." But I had agreed -- and the emotional import of that decision was beginning to make itself felt. By agreeing to raise our children as Jews in a Jewish household, I had also agreed not to raise them with the meaningful traditions I had grown up with. The holiday rituals, the life cycle rituals, the ebb and flow of the annual calendar, the sense of spirituality and the Divine -- all would be from his tradition and none from mine.

So along with the sense of redemption came a sense of loss. And I was struck again by how "in sync" I felt with how I imagined the Israelites must have felt -- leaving the familiar (even if, in their case, it was so bad) for the unknown must have involved a sense of loss as well as excitement, relief and liberation. How could it be otherwise?

When we went home that year, I bought a manila folder and inserted in it my mother-in-law’s recipe for chicken soup with matzah balls and my father-in-law’s recipe for matzah brei. It was a beginning.

Over the next few years, we made many decisions: when to clean and how much; who to ask to seder; what haggadah; separate dishes or not -- and did that mean pots & pans, too?; which foods to serve; who gets the afikoman prize; to sing or not (traditionally, my husband’s family didn't -- we do, but not a lot!). There was the year that Pesach only ate Cheerios (before the Kosher for Passover substitute) -- that was the year I declared Cheerios were "kosher-for-Passover-but-only-in-the-kitchen." My orthodoxly-raised mother-in-law rose to the occasion: she kept a spare box in the laundry room! Pesach was coming, you see.

Or the year that both my kids were eating only peanut butter. I was *not* going to spend 8 days in food wars -- that's not my definition of freedom. So peanut butter (a new jar untainted by bread crumbs) was declared "kosher l'pesach" by Rabbi Mom. (It was interesting to note that the Conservative Rabbis followed suit four years later!)

There was the year my daughter begged me to buy extra boxes of sugared fruit slices because all her friends kept snitching hers. And the year, my father-in-law and his brother-in-law grated horseradish root in the kitchen -- and the fumes were so intense their tears flowed freely -- and the rest of us were in gales of laughter for hours. (My father-in-law got a horseradish dish for Chanukah the following year -- and the laughter began all over). Or the year that I put symbols of the plagues on the table and challenged the kids to figure out which symbols represented which plague -- my kids were disdainful: they were too old for such nonsense. But next year, they searched until they found where I’d stashed the toys and insisted that they be on the table.

Or the year -- the one that ended up being our last all together -- when against familial protests, I inserted an adaptation of "The Four Children" entitled "The Four Generations." That reading ends: "And what about the grandparents, whose question is almost too difficult to ask? To the grandparents you shall say, "Look around the table. All of this and more." That was the year my in-laws schlepped chicken soup and pot roast on the plane from Florida – and my father-in-law again commandeered my kitchen to make matzah brei. The following year, we cried our way through seder: my mother-in-law had died unexpectedly right before Purim.

This year, Pesach is coming home early (spring break doesn't coincide), but he's asked to take Grandpa's matzah brei recipe back for his dorm mates. It will be our last Passover with our daughter home. I'll dig out my folders (they've grown to four), find my recipe for Passover granola, and decide that closets don't have to be cleaned, since we don't normally eat there and what would chametz being doing in the closet any way...

Tears and laughter; laughter and tears. Over time as the journey unfolded, the rituals have become as familiar as a favorite sweatshirt. Truth be told -- I find the preparations for Passover still almost overwhelming. But there is familiarity in the overwhelming-ness. I enjoy the Seder, and take comfort that it's finally become familiar -- but it's not my favorite part.
My favorite part of Passover? When I sit at the kitchen table on the first morning of Pesach -- crunching my matzah, watching the birds, rediscovering all my favorite Passover accoutrements. My house is clean, my menus planned for the next eight days, the office is closed. I pause. And remember. And feel connected to the generations of Jews who have gone before us. And I thank the Eternal for both life and freedom -- and the gift of being able to choose and recommit.

Pesach is coming! Pesach is coming! Excuse me, I've got to get ready!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Changes in How I Teach About Israel

these comments are from a report I recently gave to my Israel Educators Institute group, on the changes I've made in the last 6 six year in how I teach about Israel

Upon reflection, it’s evident to me that the role of Israel in the programming I do has changed significantly since I began directing at Oseh Shalom in 2002. The quality and frequency of programming has increased markedly in the last year, attributable to both this program [Israel Educators Institute] and my involvement with Mitzvah Heroes Fund.

What have I learned about successful programming?
  • Some aspect of Israeli life can be incorporated into many of the programs I do. It’s not necessary for a “stand alone” program to raise Israel awareness.
  • The connection needs to be relevant to the topic at hand.
  • Target audiences seem to relate best to stories about individuals – ie, the relationship aspect.
  • They are frequently eager to find points of commonality with Israel and Israelis.
  • There are a wealth of resources available, once one begins to figure out where and how to look for them (see some suggestions below).
  • Powerpoints using up-to-date graphics, photographs and illustrations carry more impact than dated videos or movies, or sepia-toned photographs.

Beginning List of Resources

The Home Page for Israel21c. Click on “links” for access to websites in 16 different topic areas.

Deviant Art for photographs about Israel. Type “Israel” in the search box. You may add filters (such as “flora,” “Tel Aviv,” or “camels”) to narrow the results.

Artzeinu: An Israel Encounter Teacher’s Guide has a wealth of information, as well as internet sites for additional information, pictures, videos, etc.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES) is a regional center for environmental leadership. By encouraging environmental cooperation between peoples, the Arava Institute is working towards peace and sustainable development regionally and globally.

Among other features of this Kibbutz Ketura website is a “virtual tour” of the Kibbutz. Click on “interactive map” for more information.

For sources to identify Israeli needs for tzedakah to weave into your program: Mitzvah Heroes Fund, Inc.

How has your programming/teaching about Israel changed in the last few years?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lev B'Lev - Reflections

So, ultimately, the questions remain:
What worked?
What didn’t?
What should we do differently next time?
What worked:
  • The key concepts made sense, hung together, and worked
  • Having someone help by reviewing the materials for teachers prior to distribution
  • The instant lesson from Torah Aura on “Rambam’s Rungs”
  • Involving congregational school kids AND day school kids in a morning of learning
  • Asking participating schools to plan to arrive between 9:45 and 10:00, so the program could begin promptly at 10:00
  • Assigning students to groups prior to arrival
  • Having extra name labels on hand
  • Identifying good presenters for the topics
  • Giving presenters a “two minute warning” before the end of their sessions.
  • Little time lost in transitions
  • Having envelopes with labels ready to go for tzedakah allocations
  • Literature to go home was distributed at the end of the program, counted and in pre-labeled bags by school.

What didn't work as well:

  • The arrival was chaotic, especially for schools who traveled by carpool.
  • Some of the adult chaperones felt the groups were too large
  • Some felt the hallways were too crowded during the transitions.
  • One teacher said she could have used the teaching materials earlier in the year.
  • We scrambled for presenters at the last minute.
  • The microphone on stage didn’t work.

What we will do differently next year:

  • Begin to identify presenters in the fall, as soon as we have a date on the calendar.
  • Distribute teaching materials in September, so the teachers have adequate time to integrate the materials into their teaching. (This year, there were only three Sunday sessions between the time I distributed the materials and the morning of the program.)
  • Order materials over the summer, so they are ready to go in the fall.
  • Designate the gym as the gathering/arrival place – and get the sign-in sheets to security from the gym instead of at the door.
  • Plan for 12 presenters and 12 rooms (instead of 8 and 8) – that will allow for smaller, more interactive groups and less crowding in the hallway at transition times.
  • Plan a better (stronger) intro session. Continue to use Debbie Friedman’s song – or find a different one? Begin with a brachah/blessing?
  • Make sure chaperones know about the on-line evaluation survey.
  • Design a paper/pencil survey for the kids?
  • Design an evaluation piece for the presenters?

Overall, feedback on the program, presenters, and content has been very positive. But, as always, there’s room to tweak it and make it even better next year!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lev B'Lev - Programming

Once we defined the key concepts (see the previous post) and put the curricular materials in the teachers’ hands, program design and implementation should have been fairly straightforward. “Should have been” being the operative statement!

We chose the following quote from Maimonides to use in organizing the structure of our Lev B’Lev Program:

עני שהוא קרובו, קודם לכל אדם; ועניי ביתו, קודמין לעניי עירו; ועניי עירו, קודמין
לעניי עיר אחרת:

“The needy who is your relative should be helped before all others; the needy in your neighborhood come before the needy in your city; the needy in your city come before the needy around the world.”
(Rambam, Gifts to the Poor, 7:13)

Dividing students into four groups, we decided, would allow presenters to discuss four different categories of tzedakah:
  1. the needy who is your relative --> we decided to define our synagogue communities as our “extended Jewish family” – and look for someone to discuss rabbinic discretionary funds
  2. the needy in your neighborhood/city --> we decided to look for a local non-Jewish organization that helped meet immediate needs
  3. the needy around the world --> we decided to look for a national organization that had a “bigger picture” impact.
  4. Our final category, we decided, would focus on the needy in Israel – as representatives of both our Jewish “family” and “around the world.”

Once we made our decision to program in this way, we ran into an unanticipated “glitch.”

Much to our surprise, once the key concepts were articulated, the projected number of student participants more than doubled – from 125 to 270! How very exciting! … except…..
  • …except the rooms we had reserved wouldn't hold twice the participants
  • …except doubling the size of the groups meant the presentations couldn't be as interactive
  • …except that meant we needed twice the number of materials

What to do? Change the format to accept the larger numbers? Or retain the format and double every thing else? After some serious discussion, we decided to remain with the original format we had sketched out – and double the space, presenters, and resources. We also realized that greater attention would need to be focused on the logistics of moving people from one point to another, while watching the clock very carefully to keep things “on time.”

Our host site - a local Jewish Day School - was most accomodating: they cheerfully increased the number of rooms available to us. In return, we extended an invitation to their fifth grade students to join us for the program.

One of my local contacts volunteered to present about the homeless shelter she works at (Shelter House), and suggested two other contacts (one involved with Moms for a Cure, with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and one with Computer C.O.R.E which provides training for under- and un-employed individuals). Another friend recommended a community rabbi to talk about rabbinic discretionary funds. A colleague recommended Israel Guide Dogs for the Blind and I was grateful to find someone to present about Mitzvah Heroes Fund.

Only two slots remained: another national/international slot and another person to talk about rabbinic discretionary funds.

What to do? The admissions director at the Day School called me: her 14 year old daughter got involved with supporting a needy school in Kenya for her bat mitzvah project.... and has continued her involvement since her bat mitzvah. Could she participate in our program? The young woman and I spoke.... she provided me with an outline.... and she became one of our presenters!

What to do? One slot left - rabbinic discretionary funds. By this time, I'd contacted over a dozen local rabbis - none of whom were available on Sunday morning, especially with such short notice. (Our community was also having its first ever community wide adult education day on the same day!)

Finally, I called someone who's been involved in synagogue life as well as on the national level as a board member of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. Morah Val has been my personal teacher and mentor for over a decade: she'd been a member of my teaching staff (so I knew she was good with kids), and understands the checks and balances that are critical pieces in the financial dealings of a non-profit organization. She'd even been involved in developing the procedures for her synagogue's rabbinic discretionary fund.

In the meantime, I'd laid out the floor plan, decided how the 277 students would be divided into groups (in advance of the morning's program), how sign-in procedures would work, and how groups would move from one presenter to the next.

I got up the morning of the program and realized, I'd not prepared at all for the introductory session! Fortunately, my laptop had a copy of Debbie Friedman's "To Save a Life" on it and although my ipod decided to run a funky "reset" message that I didn't have time to deal with -- my laptop was good to go.

Participants arrived early, as requested, so that the program could begin promply at 10:00. I welcomed them and -- because the microphone wasn't working -- carried my laptop into the middle of the gym so they could hear Debbie singing that "when you save a life, you save a world." I introduced our presenters as people who were saving lives -- and worlds -- and sent the students off to their rotations.

By 10:20 - students were learning and the halls were quiet. (It was a little unnerving, the quiet...)

By 11:45, we were all back in the gym. Students had heard four presentations and were ready to decide how to allocate their tzedakah dollar. Envelopes with pre-labeled selections were distributed, along with pencils for students to mark their choices. Once we collected the envelopes, students had an opportunity to share their reflections, in response to the question: What one thing did you learn today?

The learning was significant:
  • I learned that little amounts of money add up
  • I learned that dogs can help people be independent
  • I learned that we have so much here to be thankful for.
  • I learned that there are lots of reasons why people are hungry.
  • I learned that we can make a difference.
  • I learned that we have to take care of others.
  • I learned that we need to be careful how our tzedakah money is used.
My favorite comment, however, was written on one of the envelopes in which a student had placed his or her tzedakah and carefully allocated it among three of the categories of organizations.

The student wrote: I am saving a life.... I am saving a world.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lev B'Lev - Key Concepts

I’ve recently completed a regional program for fifth graders on tzedakah/philanthropic giving.

It’s the middle program in a three-year sequence dealing with “giving Jewishly.” Year One (for fourth graders) focuses on doing things to help others and, appropriately so, is called “Mitzvah Mania.” Year Three (for sixth graders) focuses on the work done by our local Federation which provides support for local Jewish partner agencies and (also appropriately) is called “Kallah,” which means “community.”

The Year Two program (for fifth graders), the one I worked on, is called “Lev B’Lev” or “Heart to Heart.” Our primary focus, as I said, was on giving money. The program was funded in part – as are the others in the series – by a grant from our local Federation. Part of what makes this program unique is that the fifth graders bring a dollar with them to donate to the organizations they learn about in the morning’s program.

The project design called for the following:

  1. Development of three key concepts involved in deciding where to donate tzedakah.
  2. Development of curricular materials which can be used by classroom teachers prior to the program.
  3. Planning the program – organizing the structure, identifying the presenters, working with the hosting facility, purchasing materials
  4. Communicating effectively – with the directors of the schools participating; the classroom teachers; the presenters; and the students
  5. Analyzing and assessing the program upon completion.

As a result of my work this past year with the Mitzvah Heroes Fund, I found it relatively easy to decide on two of the three key concepts on which to base our program: Maimonides’ "Ladder of Tzedakah" and "Circles of Giving" (again, Maimonides).

The Ladder of Tzedakah outlines clearly Jewish responsibility for caring for the needy in our communities. Starting with “giving reluctantly and unwillingly,” one can move all the way “up” the ladder to “teaching someone how to provide for him or herself.” The particular point I asked teachers to make with their students is that giving tzedakah is a mitzvah, in the commandment sense of the word. No where does it say giving tzedakah is optional. Torah Aura has a neat instant lesson that we got for the teachers to use with their classes. Called “Rambam’s Rungs” (Rambam is another name for Maimonides), it provides students with an opportunity to consider where different scenarios fall on the tzedakah ladder.

The second concept addressed the question: “To whom do we give?”

This is an area of grave concern within the Jewish community: should Jews give only to Jewish organizations or should they give to non-Jewish organizations as well? Advocates come down strongly on either side of the question. Demographic data gathered within the last decade indicate that younger Jews are no longer supporting Jewish tzedakah organizations as their parents and grandparents did – many times with dire results for the agencies and the people they serve.

And yet, even in the days of Maimonides, we were encouraged to support the local communities in which we live, with the understanding that they were not entirely Jewish. I found some wonderful materials at JustAction, a joint project between Hillel – The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life and Panim – The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values. I ultimately decided to include non-Jewish organizations as part of this program, basically for two reasons:

1) My belief that Jewish values should permeate ALL of our actions, including our involvement in the communities around us; and

2) the sixth grade program (see above) will focus specifically on the work that the Federation does by supporting its partner agencies.

The final concept I decided to focus on is one I’ve become much more adamant about as a result of my involvement as a co-founder of and the treasurer for the Mitzvah Heroes Fund. It also was almost a no-brainer in light of the publicity surrounding the shanda/scandal of Bernie Madoff: We would learn about “due diligence.” Just-Tzedakah has a wonderfully well-written guide called “Smart Tzedakah” (scroll down near the center bottom of the home page) which sets forth clearly things to look for in evaluating whether the organization one is sponsoring is a good custodian of the funds it receives.

In summary then, these were the three key concepts we based our program on:

  • Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah (How do we give?)
  • Circles of Giving (To whom do we give?)
  • Due Diligence (What’s "giving wisely"?)

Teachers were provided with source materials and some suggestions for implementation in advance of our program held on March 15th.

My next post will discuss how we implemented our concepts into the day's programming.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Pearls from Pain

a drash

Several weeks ago, our congregation had its annual “Disability Awareness Shabbat.” Instead of a specific d’var torah/”words on the torah” (aka “sermon”), a congregant gave a drash/teaching on her experience as the parent of a child with multiple disabilities. Her children are about the same age as ours (mid- to late-twenties) and I’ve known her “somewhat” since we were much younger parents.

She spoke about the journey that she and her husband have been on since her child which diagnosed within a couple of weeks after birth with viral encephalitis – and the changes resulting from it: cognitively and physically.

She spoke eloquently about the grieving process that she and her husband went through:

The inevitable questions of how and why this could have happened as well as the anger and sadness took time to work through. Any person who has ever experienced a loss understands these emotions and can appreciate what it takes to deal with these feelings. Fortunately, we had a strong relationship and we understood the importance of finding something positive in dealing with this life altering experience. We also understood that our attitude towards our child would influence our [other] children’s attitude as well.
She spoke about the caring people along their journey who supported them; people who cared for their child and chose to establish their own relationship with him.

Even though there have been many caring people and her child – now an adult – has been able to have a quality of life surpassing that which was originally projected, my friend admitted:

All this being said, having a child like ours does not diminish the challenge and sometimes isolation we feel as parents. We have developed some wonderful friendships with other families who parent a child with special needs. It is within this community that we can share our experiences and know that we are not alone and can help one another.
She ends her drash by quoting from My Grandfather’s Blessings by Dr Naomi Reden.

In her book, she describes an oyster as being soft, tender, and vulnerable. Without the sanctuary of its shell it could not survive. But oysters must open their shells in order to “breathe” water. Sometimes while an oyster is breathing, a grain of sand will enter its shell and become a part of its life from then on.

Such grains of sand cause pain, but an oyster does not alter its soft nature because of this. It does not become hard and leathery in order not to feel. It continues to entrust itself to the ocean, to open and breathe in order to live. But it does respond. Slowly and patiently, the oyster wraps the grain of sand in thin translucent layers until, over time, it has created something of great value in the place where it is most vulnerable to its pain. A pearl might be thought of as an oyster’s response to its suffering. Not every oyster can do this. Oysters that do are more valuable to people than oysters that do not.

Sand is a way of life for an oyster. If you are soft and tender and must live on the sandy floor of the ocean, making pearls becomes a necessity if you are to live well.

She ends with her own bit of wisdom:

Disappointment and loss are a part of every life. Many times we can put such things behind us and get on with the rest of our lives. But not everything is amendable to this approach. Some things are too big or too deep to do this, and we will have to leave important parts of ourselves behind if we treat them in this way. These are the places where wisdom begins to grow in us. It begins with suffering that we do not avoid or rationalize or put behind us. It starts with the realization that our loss, whatever it is, has become a part of us and has altered our lives so profoundly that we cannot go back to the way it was before.

Something in us can transform such suffering into wisdom. The process of turning pain into wisdom often looks like a sorting process. First we experience everything. Then one by one we let things go, the anger, the blame, the sense of injustice, and finally even the pain itself, until all we have left is a deeper sense of the value of life and a greater capacity to live it.

It is with this thought that I believe our child has become my pearl.

I learned a lot that morning, listening to my friend share her pearls of wisdom with all of us. I especially like the acknowledgement that it's not always possible to "put it behind me and move on."... that feelings need to be experienced honestly before one can begin to let them go. And yet, over time, it is possible to value and life life more deeply and completely.