July 12, 2019
In the town I grew up in, the 4th of July fireworks were set off from the football stadium. No one was allowed to be in the stadium during the show because of the inherent danger of being too close to the fireworks, and also because it’s easier to watch the show from farther away so you don’t have to look straight up. Therefore, people watched from parking decks and buildings and fields nearby.
The reason the stadium was kept closed during the show made a lot of sense to me growing up.
Also. . it’s not true.
The truth is that I was terrified of loud noises as a child. As a result, my parents avoided the stadium with its live music and other entertainment and instead, brought us to my father’s office parking deck near the stadium where we (and others) watched the fireworks from a safe and quieter distance. I made up the rest of it to make the facts fit into my understanding of the world as I saw it. I must confess that I didn’t “unlearn” this story until I was in college.
Why do I tell this story? It’s an example of one of the things that I “knew” when I was younger that, as it turns out, was not true at all. I also “knew” that Orthodox synagogues were always in the basement of conservative synagogues, that fathers called their mothers “mom” while mothers called their mothers “stepmom” (this was done to avoid confusion, obviously), and that all schools brought TVs into their classrooms to watch basketball the Friday of the ACC conference basketball tournament. I “knew” quite a lot back then.
These reflections make me wonder what I “know” today that I will need to unlearn at some point in the future. The things I must unlearn now and in the future are likely of greater consequence—they cover areas of unconscious bias and cultural norms. As a leader and a parent, the things I know impact a wider circle than they did when I was a child.
In Pirke Avot, Ben Zoma asks “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” (4:1.) It takes a certain level of humility to learn from every person. It takes even more to unlearn our understanding of the world and to relearn it through the eyes of people whose voices we have not always heard. While I tell these stories of the things I “knew” with a nostalgic smile, it is far more challenging to face those things I must unlearn today.
So I ask. . . what do you “know” today? Are you willing to unlearn and learn something new?
June 28, 2019
Is it possible to be utterly happy and painfully sad at the same time? It is. It surely is.
Those two emotions dominated my experience during our family vacation on the Outer Banks of North Carolina last week. As I sat on the beach, as I played with our children, as I watched their love and comfort for the ocean grow, I experienced moments that were as close to perfection as I ever expect to be.
At the same time, I felt profoundly aware of the fragility of the location where we sat. The Outer Banks are a thin, low-lying strip of land between the mighty Atlantic Ocean and the waters of the Sound. With rising sea levels and increasingly powerful hurricanes, I’ve accepted that this beach will not be there for my children’s children. Each year, as we say good-bye to the cottage we’ve come to love, I know that we may not be back.
The Torah tells us that G-d gave Adam “dominion” over the earth, both plants and animals. The Midrash (oral tradition that accompanies that Torah) explains that this dominion is a responsibility, not a power. It records that G-d told Adam, “See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” As the children of Adam, we are failing utterly in our charge.
What will we do? What can we do? What can JVC do in service of our responsibility to the planet? On Good Deeds Day, volunteers cleaned streams and prevented trash from reaching the Chesapeake Bay. It was a small step, yet an inspirational one to volunteers and neighbors who expressed interest in continuing to monitor and clean this strip of stream.
We will continue to take small steps. Much of the work that JVC does falls into the category of “micro-actions,” individual activities that impact one person or a small group. That’s our work. That’s our task. We add up micro-actions, we take care of one need at a time, we come together to create collective good. Yet we still must keep our eye on the larger picture. We must and we will continue to ask how we can meet urgent needs. . . and we must ask how to change the world so those needs never become urgent in the first place.
I look forward to continuing our work.
June 14, 2019
I often encourage people to use their daily experiences to connect with and build empathy for people who are struggling – financially, emotionally, physically. Yet even as I’ve written and spoken those words, I’ve struggled with them. Empathy helps to build understanding, helps us to touch another person’s pain. Yet empathy also runs the risk of becoming equivalency, which devalues the experience of another by trying to equate it with one of your own.
A simple example is that of budgeting. My experience of having to budget for camp, private school, and vacation can give me empathy for the frustration of working hard to make a life for your family and of occasionally struggling to make ends meet. It should not, however, be mistaken for the stress of having to budget for food, medicine, and housing — and of regularly having to choose between paying one bill or another but being unable to pay both.
So how can we understand and build empathy without falling into the trap of equivalency. Do our Jewish sages have wisdom to offer? Of course they do!
In the Talmud (brachot 57b,) the authors wrote about the concept of 1/60th. A dream, they write, is 1/60 of prophecy. Sleep is 1/60th of death.
When we wake up from a dream, we may have a moment of confusion, a moment when we are unsure of what’s real and what was the dream. As we emerge back into consciousness, however, we know the difference. We know that a dream is something to remember, something to interpret, something to revisit even. We equally know that it’s not prophecy, not a sure sign of what’s to come. For the most part, especially when our dreams take on the characteristics of a Hollywood movie, we’re probably even grateful for that knowledge.
So we can do the same with empathy-building experiences. We can take the feelings they inspire – the frustration, the stress, the grief, and we can use those feelings to connect with the experience of another person. And we can. . . we must. . . understand the rule of 1/60th. We can accept that while we can touch another person’s experience, we cannot know it. We must not equate it. And if our own experiences inspire us to want change, let us apply that inspiration to our empathy and work toward a more just future for everyone.
May 31, 2019
In anticipation of the Star Wars Episode IX movie coming out in the theaters this winter, I’ve started showing my two sons all the Star Wars movies. This led to an interesting debate in our house – what order is the “correct” order to watch these movies? Should they be viewed in the order in which they were made or the chronological order of the plot? How would the kids’ experience be shaped if they watched Anakin Skywalker as a young child and troubled teen, without the context of knowing (spoiler alert) that he would become Darth Vader. How would they feel about the development of an army of stormtrooper clones to “protect” the republic without having the visceral reaction of associating stormtroopers with the Empire?
This led me to speculate on how often people judge others for making decisions without “seeing” something that may in fact be unseeable to them. I have heard people say they don’t understand why the Jews of Europe didn’t see the Holocaust coming and I would suggest to them that in a world where the Holocaust hadn’t yet happened, the idea of it was virtually unimaginable. As a country, we are wrestling with this issue as we grapple with how to understand and honor (or cease to honor) historical figures that both shaped the nation and were themselves deeply flawed human beings. If Obi-Wan Kenobi could have seen the future, what might he have done differently? Would it have made a difference?
In the end, we showed the kids the original 1977 movie first, after which we went back to Star Wars Episode I and are now working our way forward chronologically. I do wonder, though, how they would understand a path that began with hidden greed, untreated psychological trauma, and the stoking of fear, if they didn’t already know that it ended with tyranny.
May 17, 2019
Beginning on the second day of Passover, Jews traditionally “count the Omer.” This Biblically dictated process of counting each day from the beginning of the harvest to its peak was originally focused on the sacrifices and offerings being brought to the Temple. Since the destruction of the Temple, the period has also been seen as connecting the holidays of Passover (when we left Egypt) and Shavuot (when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai).
Both approaches to the counting of the Omer are really about the process of going from potential to full actualization. From an agricultural perspective, the period from the beginning of the harvest to the peak is a race against time. The crops have grown, the yield looks good, yet until it’s out of the fields and in storage, many things could still go wrong and what looked like a bountiful harvest may turn into a year of struggle. Similarly, the act of Exodus from Egypt gave the Israelite people the potential for freedom. Yet until they reached Mount Sinai and were given the Torah to guide the creation of their own society in the land of Israel, they were not really free – they had liberty, but not a structure to maintain that freedom through the taking on of responsibility.
At the same time that we look forward to commemorating the receiving of the Torah and experience the heady anticipation of a good harvest, the period of the Omer is also one of semi-mourning, marking many tragedies and massacres that occurred during this time. This juxtaposition of mourning against great anticipation has relevance to us today. As we work to build a culture of service, empathy, and care for the other, we also recognize that the more successful any social movement is, the more voices of hate and anger may try to interrupt it. We work diligently. We feel optimistic. We celebrate our success. At the same time, we also stay attuned to voices that seek to sew discord and keep people apart.
May this period be one of optimism and introspection for us all.
May 3, 2019
My week began with an interfaith dinner at the Muslim Community Cultural Center and will draw toward
its close with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At the interfaith dinner, Rabbi Daniel
Burg cited Holocaust survivor , who proposed that the United States should be bordered by the Statue of Liberty on one coast and a Statue of Responsibility on the other. These two concepts – liberty and responsibility – must work in tandem to ensure a just and safe society. By itself, liberty is insufficient as a goal because it focuses only on a person’s own self-interest. A society that is truly “free” is one with a sense of communal responsibility. Anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts of violence have increased in both frequency and scale in this country. At the same time, every act of service, every relationship built, every stereotype challenged, strengthens the threads that tie this nation together. As we commemorate Yom HaShoah, we remember that unthinkable things can happen when a society fails to feel responsible for the humanity and human rights of all of its members.
April 19, 2019
In a Facebook group of Jewish educators, a recent post suggested that while we all look for ways to keep the Seder relevant and engaging, we need to be careful about making the 10 plagues into too much of a game. The toy jumping frogs, cotton ball hail, and small rubber locusts can make us forget that the plagues were, in fact, plagues. They caused suffering and destruction, even death. They were a punishment on the people for the actions of their leader.
The Haggadah reminds us of this fact. As we recount the name of each plague, we spill a drop of wine onto our plate. We can’t fully rejoice when our freedom comes at the cost of another’s suffering. The spilling of a drop of wine shouldn’t be confused with an apology. The Haggadah never suggests that the plagues were the wrong thing to do, or that the Egyptian people weren’t both complicit and in some cases actively involved in the suffering their leader inflicted on the Israelite people. Still, we take a moment from our rejoicing to remember that our freedom came at a cost.
In our long history as a people and even today, we have frequently been caught in a struggle for survival. The moment that we lose sight of the humanity of the group with whom we are in conflict is the moment that we lose sight of our own humanity. The physical action of spilling out a drop of wine, of reducing our joy and remembering the suffering of an enemy in the process of our own liberation, reminds us that all people are made in the image of G-d.
April 12, 2019
Don’t look now but Passover is coming up fast! In two weeks, Jews around the world will sit down at their Seders and recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, studies show that participation in a Passover Seder is one of the most common expressions of Jewish participation, even for people who are not otherwise engaged in Jewish life or ritual practice.
These Seders will be diverse in form, varied in length, and will range a spectrum of Jewish ritual practice. Yet the Seder, at its core, is an invitation from our sages to engage in experiential education at its finest. We’re given props—mostly edible ones like charoset and matza. We’re given thought-provoking questions – four of them, to be exact. Most importantly, we’re told that each of us must see him/herself as if we personally had come out of Egypt. We’re given the opportunity to dive into the story. Whether we take that mandate literally as some Sephardic traditions do, setting up water to create a literal splitting of the sea, or whether we adopt a more metaphorical approach, talking through the experience of slavery, the plagues, and the flight from Egypt, we are invited into the exodus narrative.
At JVC, we talk a lot about empathy and the importance of trying to see the world through the eyes of another person. The Seder is designed to be an empathy building experience. This year, before the Seder, I invite you to read the Haggadah. Find something in the story that speaks to you, that intrigues you. Ask yourself what it would feel like to have to choose between a terrible present and a dangerous journey toward an uncertain future. Ask yourself what it would feel like to have to pack up and leave your home at a moment’s notice, not knowing if you would ever return. As you spoon the charoset onto your plate, ask yourself what it would feel like to work all day every day and still not be able to improve your situation. Understand those parts of our history and know that they are today’s reality for many people.
The Passover Seder, like much of Jewish tradition, contains lessons that are relevant for today. It has a special connection and appeal as it invites us into the experience and reminds us that but for a miracle, we would all be slaves today.
March 8, 2019
Two times in the last couple of months, we have been outraged by news reports of vicious crimes committed against innocent people. The first, a stabbing allegedly perpetrated by a homeless individual asking for help. The second, a hateful attack on a famous actor in Chicago. Both stories fed into deep societal fears. Both stories made us angry. Both stories made us want to reach out in deep compassion– to the victim in one case or to the victim’s family in the other. And both stories, apparently, were false. The husband and stepdaughter of the stabbing victim have now been arrested and charged in her murder. The actor, while the story is still incomplete, has been accused of staging his attack for unknown reasons.
Now what are we to do with the residual damage caused by these false accusations? What are we to do with the knowledge that people in Baltimore and far beyond stopped rolling down their windows to give blessing bags, money, and a human connection to people on the street? Can that damage be undone? Once people are given license to fear, how do we reconnect them with empathy? Once people are given license to doubt the accusations of victims, how do we reestablish their sense of justice?
There is a Jewish folk tale, told in many versions, of a person who sees the community rabbi accidentally eat an apple off the fruit seller’s
cart without paying for it. The person whispers the story to a few people, speaking in greatest secrecy. The story, of course, spreads like wildfire, as secrets usually do. The rabbi is shamed and the source of the rumor guiltily asks his forgiveness for spreading the story. The rabbi instructs him to take a feather pillow to the town square, open it, and spread the feathers everywhere. He then gives the person the impossible task of gathering up the feathers once again. The rabbi’s point is that words, like the feathers, can never be fully gathered once they begin to spread and it’s often hard to know even how far they’ve traveled.
So what do we do? We double down on our empathy. We tell the stories of the people we meet on the street. We treat people with dignity. We remember that the story of one does not define the reality of all. We send our words like feathers into the world, not to do harm but to do good.
February 22, 2019
I’ve become fascinated recently with the concept of optimism, of daring to believe that the best
outcome is both possible and likely. In Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book To Heal a Broken World, he highlights a moment when the Israelite people are invited to choose optimism. In the dessert, as they are about to enter Israel, they are instructed that they have before them “life and death. Choose life.” To a people who have known only slavery for generations and who’ve spent 40 years wandering in the dessert as penance for their lack of faith, this is an extraordinary thing to ask – not only must they be able to imagine a better future but they also have to believe that this better future is a possibility for them and not just for others.
As I read further into Rabbi Sacks’ philosophy on optimism, I was reminded of a story about Coach Dean Smith, the legendary former coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels. The story is that the team was losing badly at home in one particular game. Carolina was down 22 points with just over 11 minutes to go. Coach Smith called a time out, gathered the team and, as legend tells it, he smiled at them and said “all right guys. . .we’ve got ‘em right where we want ‘em. This is gonna be fun.” He then proceeded to explain exactly how the rest of the game would play out. He pointed at one player and said he would get things started with a three pointer, then told another to steal the inbounds pass and get a lay-up. He predicted that the other team would get flustered and start making mistakes. Carolina would capitalize on them and would retake the lead at around the five-minute mark. True to his prediction, Carolina won that game by several points. It all began with a confident statement, an optimistic outlook, and faith in the players.
While I can’t say for sure if the story of what happened in that huddle is true, I do remember the game and the electric feeling of optimism that spread through the entire building as the team clawed its way back. As JVC builds optimistically toward a future where service is a priority in every household in Jewish Baltimore and where recognition of the inherent humanity of the other is a priority and Jewish value, I’m often reminded of that philosophy. Choose life. Where we are right now is exactly where we need to be. We have everything we need inside ourselves and as a community to get where we’re going. We have optimism. We have talent. We have each other. We have the conviction that this work matters.
This is going to be fun.
February 8, 2019
Did you know that the first American-built steam engine train once lost a race to a horse-drawn carriage? Personally, that is one of a near infinite number of train facts that I never thought I needed to know until I had children. I find this one particularly fascinating however, as I put myself in the place of the engineers and entrepreneurs who had staged the race to prove the merits of this new technology. I can imagine that there were some people in the crowd that day who scoffed at the idea that a machine could ever outrace a horse and who gloried in its failure. Fortunately for us, there were others who recognized the potential and understood that failure is a necessary piece of progress. Jewish history is replete with stories that highlight the decision to proceed in the face of uncertainty, to believe and to work toward an uncertain future. From the very beginnings of Jewish people-hood at Mt. Sinai, as the Israelite people are given a law code that will guide their future nation, there is a statement that “we will do and we will learn.” In other words, “we believe it’s possible – let’s get started.” We saw this optimism in the early days of the Zionist movement, as kibbutzniks and other Jewish settlers turned swamps into forests, deserts into gardens—day by day, challenge by challenge, toward a future they believed could be. We see it today, as scientists and engineers advance sustainable energy technologies, even in the face of derision at every set back.
Do we believe in what we are trying to build? Do we believe that something better is possible? Do we commit to learning from every failure and mistake? If we do, then we can fly – remember that the path from steam engine to jet plane ran straight and short.
January 25, 2019
I have to.
There’s no other way.
We often live our lives with these statements of certainty. Subconsciously, these terms demonstrate an absolute belief in things happening in the one and only way they can and a decision that we can’t handle things going any other way.
But what happens when things don’t go that way? When the world doesn’t cooperate with our absolute certainty that it “must be” a certain way? I thought about these questions last week as I looked forward at a calendar packed full of meetings and I thought “everyone better stay healthy next week. I’m really busy. I can’t handle anything going wrong.” I thought about these questions a lot more this weekend as my two sons were diagnosed with the flu and my husband and I scrambled to balance their need to stay home and recover with our need to fulfill our work commitments.
Did we handle it? Of course we did. That we did it with no real consequences is a reminder that we’re fortunate to have flexible jobs and people in our lives that can support us. And in the end, we were grateful for the gift of an inconvenient but ultimately mild (as the flu goes) illness, and for the modern technology that allows us to work remotely.
3,000 years of living in Diaspora (away from the Jewish homeland of Israel) has created a Jewish tradition that is steeped in the idea of transience, that values community over physical location. As Tevye says in the play Fiddler on the Roof, “we’ve been kicked out of many places. Maybe that’s why we always wear our hats.” Confronting the unexpected helps to both clarify our values and bolster our sense of community and our feeling of empowered self-worth. Can you handle it? Of course you can – you have no choice.
So the next time I find myself giving in to a statement of certainty about the way things have to be, or what I can and cannot handle, I’ll remind myself that in this life, few things are certain. One thing that is certain is the human ability to cope with what we must. As we all see people around us and on the news who are coping with unimaginable circumstances, we can both celebrate their ability to manage the unmanageable and consider ways to support them in their journey through an uncertain life.
November 16, 2018
I took my younger son to the playground a couple of weeks ago and since there was no one around, I took a turn on the swings. I went higher and higher, relishing in the memory of how much I’d enjoyed the swings as a child. Suddenly, I experienced a feeling that the enthusiastic child inside me didn’t understand– sheer, abject terror. My stomach dropped, my fingers clenched, and I tried desperately to stop as fast as I could. What happened?
As I pondered that moment, I recalled that a year ago, I’d had a similar experience as we plummeted down the “big slide” at a water park. Ahh, I thought, I’m afraid of falling. No, I argued with myself, I just spent a week at Disney World and didn’t have that reaction to any of the roller coasters.
What was the difference?
The difference, I realized, is that I was buckled in for all those roller coasters whereas the swing and the slide are free falls, with nothing holding you in but gravity and faith.
Why is that relevant to JVC?
We live in scary times. It’s challenging to find a feeling of safety, even when we’re inside our safe spaces at home, at the synagogue, at work, and at school. Threats, both natural and human-made, seem to surround us everywhere. How do we face it all?
To me, my connection to Judaism is the “buckle” that keeps me grounded, that keeps me feeling safe even when it feels we’re hurtling out of control. Judaism is a religion, a faith, a people, a tradition, a community, an ethical system, and more. Whatever Judaism is to you, my hope is that it can serve as the grounding force that keeps you feeling safe in challenging times, and ties you to community in all its forms.
November 1, 2018
There’s a well-known Facebook meme of Mr. Rogers, which quotes him as saying that in any tragic situation, people should “look for the helpers.” They’ll always be there. The helpers always show up to provide assistance, comfort, and a helping hand.
As our nation begins to process the horrific crimes committed by a man filled with hatred and anti-semitism, we should simultaneously take a moment to look for the helpers. In this case, the helpers I mean are the volunteer members of the community’s chevra kaddisha, the burial society that takes on a sacred commitment to honor the Jewish dead by ritually preparing their bodies and escorting a person from the time of their death until they are buried.
As I read a compelling NY Times article (note: this article contains graphic details) about the work of the chevra kaddisha, I was reminded of a conversation I had with my father years ago. My father has been the volunteer head of the chevra kaddisha for their community since I was a child. Not particularly religiously observant himself, this role has connected him to Judaism in so many meaningful ways.
In this conversation, my father commented that while there are a number of doctors on the chevra kadisha list for their synagogue, they rarely volunteered to perform a tahara (the ritual preparation of the body.) My father speculated on the reasons for this but he was clear about why they would always be on the list. They got called in for “special cases,” situations where the state of the body meant that most volunteers would find it difficult to participate.
The context of the conversation was the sudden and tragic loss of a 20 year old member of the congregation, whose life ended in a violent accident on Erev Rosh Hashanah. At services the next day, as news spread among the congregation, one of those doctors approached us and simply said to my father, “Whatever you need. I’ll be there.”
This is what we do. We show up. “Whatever you need. I’ll be there.” This is the sacred promise that Jews make to each other. This is the sacred promise that volunteers make when we connect meaningfully to the work that we do.
October 5, 2018
With the high holidays now behind us, we prepare to enter the Jewish month of Cheshvan. Cheshvan is unique in being the only month of the year with no holidays (except for Shabbat.) After the intensity of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, the emptiness of the month of Cheshvan can be both comforting and disquieting.
Because of this lack of holidays, Cheshvan is known as the “dark” month of the Jewish year. I like that image. Not darkness in the sense of emptiness, but darkness as in a blank slate. Judaism is a ritualistic religion. With each holiday, we are told what to do, what to eat (or not eat,) what to say, how to act, and even how to feel. Cheshvan gives us a whole month with no such guidelines.
Therefore, the question of the month of Cheshvan is “what will you choose?” What will you choose to imprint on this blank slate of a month? How will you choose to act? How will you choose to feel as you are driven by modern events rather than rituals built around historic ones?
If Cheshvan is the “dark” month, then we have the opportunity to bring light to it. An organization in Israel has deemed Cheshvan “Jewish Social Action Month,” and while I generally reject these “Hallmark holidays,” I do like the idea of bringing light into darkness, of bringing meaning to the blank slate. Perhaps with the holidays behind us, each of us can find a little extra time for one more act of service. Knit a scarf. Visit an isolated friend or neighbor. Check out Bookworms and see what a difference volunteers make in the lives of children.
Cheshvan begins on Tuesday, October 9. Let it be a month of light and hope.
What makes something sacred? Are spaces inherently sacred? Can a moment be sacred by definition?
These were questions raised by Rabbi Posner of Beth Tfiloh on the last night of shiva for Sam Gold, Pammy Franklin’s grandfather.
Maimonides says no. He argues that space and place are not inherently sacred; rather, their sacred nature comes from actions that have happened there, from the decision of people to name the place as sacred. Israel is a holy land, he says, because we believe it to be sacred, because that is where G-d entered into a covenant with the Jewish people.
To me, this raises a larger question of the nature of things. How do we define sacred and profane when it comes to a place or an object? Who defines those things? Can they ever be redefined?
This question came to the front of my mind this week as students and protesters at UNC-Chapel Hill, my alma mater and hometown, forcibly removed a statue of “Silent Sam,” a confederate soldier who has stood in the middle of the campus for generations. Many people cheered this action as long overdue, others condemned the action while celebrating the intent, and still others argued that this statue, like other confederate monuments, represents a history and tradition that should be honored even today. For me, seeing the story and commentary flaring up on social media brought me straight to the question of how we define the sacred and the profane.
Silent Sam, like most confederate monuments, went up on campus in the early 20th century, during the height of the Jim Crow South. The speech made during the dedication was rife with racist vitriol and white supremacist sentiments. Can a statue so dedicated ever shake its profane nature? Can a statue honoring a movement dedicated to the continuation of human slavery ever shift its identity to honor bravery and dedication to home? At the same time, can the space be redefined, likely absent Silent Sam, as one of memory and history?
Maimonides says that we the people are the arbiters of sacred and profane and I agree with him. As the nation wrestles with a history full of promise, progress, and deep inequity, we will confront this issue more and more often. We must ask ourselves how we choose to define our shared spaces, how we will understand history in the context of our modern values.
Each year at Rosh Hashanah, we look forward and we look backward. This year, I invite everyone to look forward, backward, and inward. I invite you to think about the spaces and places you see as sacred or profane. I invite you to also look at those spaces through the lens of someone who disagrees with you. May we all gain in wisdom and empathy as we choose to create the sacred and shun the profane.
It can be overwhelming to face the challenges in the world today. What can we do? What can we impact? Can we really make a difference?
I’ve been asking myself these questions as the tide of daily news brings story after story of hunger, hatred, inequality, destructive fires and on and on.
Then I saw a story on the internet, the story of a single act, intended only to provide a limited benefit but which ultimately changed an entire ecosystem. The story, recounted here, describes the release of only 14 wolves into Yellowstone National Park. The goal of the release was, simply, to reintroduce wolves into their former habitat. The results ranged far beyond that one simple goal. The wolves preyed on the deer population, decreasing their presence and creating a host of other benefits, from increasing the diversity of plant and animal species to stabilizing the river banks. All from the reintroduction of 14 wolves.
Our scholars understood this. They said “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.” (Sanhedrin, 37a) We may never truly know the impact of our actions. Who will be the beneficiary of an act of kindness? The one we help, certainly. And the one they then have the strength to help. And the next one and the next one. Who will be saved when we save a life? The ones we save, certainly. And their children, and their grandchildren and on and on through the generations.
As we begin our preparations for Rosh Hashanah, this is a good time to think, not of big things that need to happen but of the little things we can do each day. Now is the time to do what we can, when we can, and how we can, and trust that with each small action, the arc of the universe bends ever further towards justice, a notion championed by faith leaders throughout history.
July 27, 2018
On Tisha B’Av, we marked the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. As I mentioned in the last Schmooze, we’re taught that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “causeless hatred.” The story of that causeless hatred is a complex one, about two men named Kamtza and bar Kamtza, the enmity that another man felt towards one of them, and what happens when a misdirected party invitation creates a moment of stubbornness, pleading, humiliation, anger, and revenge, followed by a cascading series of decisions that led to the invasion of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The story is too long to recount here but you can read it on this Chabad website.
The question is often asked—who was most at fault in the dramatic scene in which bar Katza arrives at the party to which he was not invited, begs to stay, and is unceremoniously thrown out by the party’s host? Who is most at fault in his subsequent decision to inform against the Jewish community to the Roman emperor? The answer, generally, seems to be that there’s plenty of fault to spread around.
I want to highlight one group that sometimes goes overlooked in this discussion. The guests at the party, particularly the community’s leadership (the Rabbis,) stand by and do nothing to stop as bar Kamtza is thrown from the house. Could they have intervened? Was it their place? What is, after all, the role of the “innocent” bystander?
These questions plague me. Social media is rife with videos of verbal and physical assaults, of bullying, and of other instances of tragedies in progress. In many of them, you can see bystanders stepping in, using their voices and their bodies to intervene. I wonder for myself, and I encourage you to ask yourselves, what would you do? What would you risk?
In moments both big and small, we have the opportunity to use our voices as our power. To stand beside the person who needs to be defended, to align ourselves against causeless hatred. It’s uncomfortable and risky. It may be thankless. It is, simply, the way to save the world.
June 29, 2018
The Talmud says that Sleep is 1/60 of Death, and Dreams are 1/60 of Prophecy (Brachot 57b.) The amount 1/60th seems to constitute the merest taste, the edge of experience. Why so little? Perhaps it’s all we can handle – prophecy must be an overwhelming experience and death is certainly an experience not to be pursued. Or perhaps a taste is all that’s really needed. Perhaps we can use that experience to project and empathize with the full experience.
I’ve been troubled recently by what seems to be a decrease in empathy in civil discourse and even in basic human interaction. Have we lost the ability to understand anyone whose experiences don’t mimic our own? Could the concept of 1/60th help us to regain that ability?
I’ll give one small example. When we left the beach on Sunday, my children went home with my parents while my husband and I drove back to Baltimore. I miss them terribly. Yet I know they are safe, happy, on a scheduled vacation, and I have the plane tickets ready to go to bring them home. My experience is the merest taste of what a parent would experience if their child were taken from them against their will. As I read stories of families separated at the border or forced apart by other circumstances, I grabbed back onto that feeling, nurtured it, allowed myself to dive into it and consider a reality where my children were lost to me. Painful as it was, I used my taste to further develop empathy for people who are genuinely suffering. My goal is not by any means to equate my experience with theirs, but to foster and develop empathy for a trauma happening at a scale that I can’t begin to imagine, and to use that empathy as an impetus to action.
It would have been easier to simply cover the feeling, to dismiss it and enjoy our free evenings. It would have been easier not to make any connection between my short-term, chosen experience and the terror being experienced by other families. It would have been easier not to engage empathetically. It would have been easier. And it would have been wrong.
As members of a community, we have a responsibility to seek opportunities to connect, to develop empathy, and to relate to others. Perhaps 1/60th is all we can handle. Perhaps 1/60th is all it takes to begin.
June 14, 2018
If I asked you to tell me how you know a day has passed, you would probably talk about the rising and setting of the sun. If I asked you how you know a month has passed, you might talk about the phases of the moon. If I asked you how you know a year has passed, you might offer me points about the seasons, the stars, or even the position of the sun.
What if I asked you how you know when a week has passed?
There is no way to tell from nature that a week has passed. That’s because a week is entirely a human/divine construct. Seven days make a cycle. Why? Because the Torah says so. G-d created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. We are instructed to do the same. Seven days = one cycle = one week. The boundary marking the change from one week to the next is Shabbat.
We spent time last year engaged in a deep and thoughtful conversation about the role volunteerism may play in defining Shabbat for some people. The conversation turned around making a separation, defining a moment as special, though perhaps in a non-traditional way. Shabbat is sacred because G-d decreed it so. Shabbat is special each week because people make it so.
Next week, my family and I will travel to the North Carolina Outer Banks for our annual pilgrimage to the beach. For me, this week at the beach often serves as one long, extended Shabbat. It is an opportunity to step away from the hectic schedule of “regular” life, to do some deep reflection, to find spirituality in the waves, to read, to think, and to reset for a return to Baltimore and the busy, wonderful, chaos of daily life.
I encourage each of you to find the opportunity to retreat into a deeper contemplation of life, whether that’s each week on Shabbat or at more sporadic intervals. As we seek to see, understand, and serve others around us, we must first and foremost ground ourselves.
Shabbat Shalom (and thank you for your patience if I don’t return emails next week).
May 31, 2018
In honor of Memorial Day this weekend, I paid close attention to the “Prayer for Our Country” that we read in the synagogue each week. In that prayer, we beseech G-d to “Pour out blessings. . . .” to our country and its leaders. I was struck by the word Harek, meaning “pour.” It’s a graphic term and creates an image of a jug overturning, spilling its contents far and wide. It feels much more effusive than a simple “please bless them,” which sounds like a discreet and more limited request.
What’s necessary in order to “pour out” blessings? (it’s worth noting that the word Harek is also used in the Haggadah when we beseech G-d to pour out G-d’s wrath upon the nations but for here, we’ll concentrate on the positive uses of the word.) For a jug to pour out its contents, it must be filled; there must enough in the jug for something to be available to come out.
For G-d, this is no issue. But what about for us? Are we prepared to pour out our “blessings” of care, nurturing, attention, patience, thoughtfulness, and all the others things that are asked of us each day? Do we have enough in our metaphorical jug to pour out for those in our inner circle and even more to reach those people we don’t know but who need our attention nonetheless?
In May, the JVC Live With Purpose project was making sugar scrubs, which were given to clients of CHANA with the hope that the women can engage in a measure of self-care while navigating the traumas and uncertainties of being survivors of domestic violence. Through this project, it was our goal to help women fill their proverbial jugs, to achieve a level of self-care that will enable them to continue to pour out love, care, and blessings for themselves and their children.
For each of us, the use of the word “pour” when describing the process of blessing others is important. Remember that you cannot pour out what you do not have, and that the continual process of refreshing, refilling, and pouring out the goodness in our souls is the very process of living in community. I hope that everyone has a chance to refresh, refill, and pour out blessings to others this summer.
May 17, 2018
On Saturday night, we begin the holiday of Shavuot. Known as the “Festival of Weeks,” Shavuot marks seven weeks since the beginning of Pesach and traditionally commemorates both the beginning of the grain harvest and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. One tradition during Shavuot is the reading of the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of Ruth, a Moabite woman who marries an Israelite man. Upon his death, her mother-in-law Naomi encourages her to return to her people and begin her life anew, but Ruth insists on staying to support Naomi, potentially at the risk of her own future remarriage and any possibility of having children. Ultimately, Ruth’s dedication is rewarded as she not only marries the Israelite man Boaz, she becomes the ancestor of King David.
This story fascinates me, as our society increasingly engages in a conversation about “the family you choose.” A few years ago, Bar Mitzvah student Matthew Grossman led a JVC-supported project at Dru/Mondawmin Healthy Families, a program serving parents of young children in central west Baltimore. Through the project, participants made Family Trees, on which they listed not only their biological relatives but also the “families they chose,” whether they be neighbors, teachers, relatives, or friends. In a recent conversation with the Executive Director of Dru/Mondawmin Healthy Families, she reminded me how impactful that project was and how families still talk about it today.
The “families we choose” are, ultimately, our community. They are the people we rely on and for whom we feel responsible. They are the people we celebrate with and who we support and are supported by in times of crisis. They are the people to whom we feel most connected. They represent a fundamental belief that family and community cannot be defined externally; they must be developed internally.
As we head into Shavuot, I encourage each of you to think about the “family you choose” and to reach out to let people know that they matter to you. I hope that we can each make sure that those people we encounter who are isolated also have the chance to find their families of choice, to know they have a community that supports them.
Hag Sameach (have a happy holiday.)
May 4, 2018
As you read in the email that I sent earlier this week, this has been a tough week at JVC. The sudden death of former JVC Program Associate Sara Feldman’s fiancée Mitch Liebeskind has left us all reeling and devastated. It has also prompted a lot of thinking for me about Jewish rituals in mourning. Traditionally, the week following the funeral is called shiva, during which bereaved family stay home and are comforted by a steady flow of visitors who provide both emotional and material comfort in the form of visits, food, and daily prayer services. It is a period of deep grieving, when everything else is put on hold while mourners cope with the initial magnitude of their loss. The community is there, not to fill the void left by the loss of a loved one, but to remind mourners that they are not alone, that while the specter of loneliness and isolation may loom large in the path ahead, there are people who will be there to walk that path with them, who will support each mourner in taking those first hesitant steps back into a normal routine and who will be there for each painful “first” in the future.
I draw two important lessons from the practice of sitting shiva. By forcing the mourner to step back from the daily rituals of life, the practice of sitting shiva insists that the mourner confront his/her grief. Trauma cannot be ignored. Grief should not be minimized. Engaging with grief and trauma is a key step to healing. As we confront some of Baltimore’s most challenging issues and strive to make an impact through volunteerism, I believe that underpinning our work with a sense of empathy toward trauma and grief is critical to creating successful and meaningful relationships.
The second lesson is that of community. While each mourner must find his/her path forward and will walk that path alone in many moments, Jewish rituals in mourning are all built around community. People are social animals. We understand the risks of isolation. The challenge comes when we are asked to find the time to reach out to the isolated senior, the lonely relative, and the grieving friend. By understanding the demand that Judaism puts on us to comfort the mourner as a reminder of the importance of seeing those people who live on the edges of community, we find the motivation to notice, to reach out, and to be present.
April 19, 2018
Who have you lost? Who do you remember? Who do you honor?
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day,) these are the questions that come up in conversation and on social media. In the last few days, I have seen stories about grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, and neighbors who were lost to the horrors of the Holocaust or in the defense of the state of Israel. Each one of these stories had one thing in common – connection. Though we all bear the responsibility to remember those who have no one to remember them, these particular stories were not about strangers. They represented the opening of people’s hearts to expose the pain within and they give life to the departed through the sharing of memory and the commitment that their lives should not have been lost in vain. I am grateful to read their stories, to commit their memories to mind and heart.
Now on Thursday, the mood has shifted abruptly as Israel marks its 70th anniversary. 70 years ago, the Jewish people became the first people in the world to establish a modern state in an ancient homeland from which we had been exiled for 2,000 years. As renowned educator Avram Infeld reminded me several months ago, “Because of Israel, there are no Jewish refugees today.” In other words, because of Israel, Jews everywhere have a safety net should we discover that our citizenships around the world are not as secure as we believe them to be. That is one lesson of the Holocaust. It is also a reality that ethnic groups throughout the world face every day.
Israel is our answer to the question of where we would go if we couldn’t stay where we are. What is our responsibility to people who have no answer to that question because they’ve become refugees from their homes? What is our responsibility and what is our opportunity? What is the lesson we have learned from our own history?
April 5, 2018
One of the better known aspects of the Passover Seder is the song Dayenu. The word Dayenu translates to “It would have been enough for us” and the song narrates the experience of leaving Egypt and traveling to the land of Israel to set up a nation with laws, rituals, and ethical boundaries. After each statement, we sing the refrain “Dayenu.” If only G-d had done this but not that, it would have been enough. Again and again, we’re reminded of G-d’s bountiful blessings.
This song has long puzzled me. I appreciate the overall message that we should count each and every blessing, every miracle in our lives, and not take any one for granted, yet I often find myself wondering “what if.”
What if Moses had led the people out of Egypt and the Red Sea hadn’t split? Would the voices begging to be taken back to the seeming safety of slavery have won?
What if G-d had taken us out of Egypt but not helped us in the desert by providing food, water, and all the necessities of life? Would the Israelite people have survived? Would they have developed a national identity or devolved into small survivalist groups?
What if, having survived 40 years in the desert, the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan with no laws, no ethical grounding, and no sense of peoplehood? Would that people have formed a nation?
As I pondered these questions this year, I began to reflect on the American experience of slavery and particularly the experience and aftermath of emancipation. Perhaps “dayenu,” freedom from slavery was enough. But freedom begun where education was previously prohibited, where income or the prospect of income was insecure at best, freedom without full rights and equal treatment under the law, was not a full freedom at all. While the Israelites had 40 years to transition from slavery to freedom, 40 years of being cared for and 40 years of learning how to live and wield power in the nation that would be theirs, the experience of slavery in America provided the opposite experience. From the indignity of slavery to the indignity of racism codified into law, emancipation in America was far from a smooth experience. As we sing Dayenu and ask ourselves “what if,” we may also ask our American selves “what if” and “what now” as we confront a history that, like the story of the Exodus from Egypt, shapes our identities today.
March 21, 2018
Next Friday night, Jews around the world will sit down at their seder tables to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Throughout the text, we will be challenged with the question “why.” Why is this night different? Why do we eat certain foods and not others? Why should we recount the story of the exodus from Egypt? Why does this all matter?
The answer to almost all of these questions can be summed up in the mandate to see ourselves personally as having come out of Egypt. The retelling of the story, the traditions around food, the mandate to tell the story to others. . . .all of these are about helping us live an experience we did not actually live, to develop empathy toward a narrative that may feel foreign.
At JVC, our service learning curricula draw wisdom from this tradition. We often ask questions that encourage volunteers to put themselves in the shoes of the clients they serve. “What would it feel like?” “What would you do in this situation?” Just as the Haggadah invites us into the story of the exodus from Egypt and reminds us that it is our story because it is the story of our ancestors, we are invited each day to join the story of the people we serve and reminded that their stories are our stories because we are neighbors, citizens, and human beings.
As you gather around the seder table next week, I invite you to bring yourself into the story of the exodus, a story that plays out anew every time refugees flee a desperate situation, every time a family loses their home to eviction or foreclosure, and every time a woman or man leaves a dangerous living situation. We care for the strangers because we were strangers ourselves.
Hag Sameach (have a happy holiday!)
March 8, 2018
Joy and sadness, terror and relief, light and dark. . . . Judaism is a study in contrasts.
The holiday of Purim which just passed commemorates the story of the Jews of Shushan, who were threatened with destruction by the evil Haman and saved at the last minute by the courageous intervention of Queen Esther, who had hidden her Jewish identity up to that point. The story takes us from the depths of despair to the freeing joy of relief and on to the triumph of military victory over an enemy bent on our total destruction. This pattern repeats throughout the Jewish calendar, inviting us to examine the world between two extremes. With the seismic swings of fortune that are not only possible but routinely appear in Jewish history, we are reminded never to get too comfortable. . . or too uncomfortable. . . . in any situation.
Jewish philosophy follows a similar pattern. A professor once reminded my graduate school Ethics class, “if you can see the validity in two different sides of an argument, keep looking. You’re missing at least a dozen more.” His argument was not for moral relativism. He believed strongly in a traditional understanding of Jewish law and ethics. Rather, he reminded us that polar extremes of perspective rarely lead to strong communities. I think about that reminder often as I encounter people whose perspectives on social issues vary widely from mine. I think about it when I speak with someone whose life experiences are foreign to me and whose choices defy my easy understanding. I remind myself of it frequently when I find myself quick to judge, eager to present the “easy” answer that another person has “clearly” missed.
As we connect people with volunteer opportunities that challenge their sense of comfort and even their perception of safety, we invite them into a rich Jewish tradition of seeing the world between two extremes. The experience of service through the lens of dignity invites people to find the commonality between “us” and “them” and to remember the swings of history that move people and communities from joy to despair and back again.
February 21, 2018
There’s a well-known teaching from Pirke Avot that says “It is not your obligation to complete the work. Neither are you free to desist from it.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately, because of its resonance in so many areas of my life.
I’ve been challenged often with the question of whether our work, particularly our indirect service projects, truly meet JVC’s mandate to serve “vital community needs.” Are these projects the answer to society’s most pressing needs? And the answer, very honestly, is no. These projects are not the answer. They are one answer. They are today’s answer. They are the answer to one individual, one family, one person who will breathe a little easier knowing that the chronic stress of food insecurity has been lifted for one moment. And we will continue to be today’s answer even as we strive to find ways to push for longer term, more systemic solutions. Because if we each do our part, we can make lives easier, not just moments.
Recently, I’ve also found myself pushed more toward political advocacy than I ever have before. I have tended to leave the work of advocacy to others while I take leadership in the area of direct service. I’ll admit to feeling that my lone voice didn’t matter. As I consider the admonition from Pirke Avot, however, I recognize that each voice does matter. I am not alone, nor am I free to isolate myself. That applies to all areas of life.
February 9, 2018
At the end of my trip to Florida for the conference last week, I spoke with a group of Associated donors in Palm Beach Gardens, including former JVC Chair Laurie Luskin and the father of former JVC Chair Lynn Baklor. It gave me the opportunity to think about JVC’s path over the 17 years of our existence. Three directors, nine chairs, at least three significant changes in direction. . . and each time building from strength to strength, all leading in a straight line from the radical idea that people need an easy access point for volunteering through a Jewish lens to today’s JVC that has already engaged volunteers in more than 10,000 acts of service by the midpoint of the year.
In just a few weeks, Jews throughout the world will sit down at their Seder tables to recount the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah reminds us of the importance of retelling the story every year, even though we may know it well. Why? We’re told that we each must see ourselves in the story, that one of our responsibilities is to remember that if not for the miracle of the Exodus and the faith of our ancestors, that we and our descendants would still be slaves today.
As I consider my legacy in the line of JVC leaders, I remind myself that if not for the bold vision of The Associated in creating JVC, and if not for so many dedicated lay leaders and staff over the years, we wouldn’t be where we are today, a leader in the growing field of Jewish volunteer engagement.
January 24, 2018
Rabbi Chanina, a 3rd century scholar, is quoted as saying “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and most from my students.”
I’ve been thinking about this text as the JVC staff prepares to travel to Florida for a gathering of a national cohort of Jewish Federation-based Volunteer Centers. JVC is one of the largest and arguably the most multi-faceted of these centers, and we often serve as consultants to colleagues around the country. As I’ve stepped into an informal leadership role with this growing national cohort, I’ve been privileged to work with inspiring and dedicated colleagues from around the country. JVC Baltimore is recognized as the national leader in most areas of Jewish volunteer engagement. At the same time, I’ve been struck by how many questions I want to ask colleagues about their programming, approaches to outreach, and strategies for service learning.
Jewish scholar Ben Zoma asks “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” As I prepare to stand in the front of our national cohort as the leader of next week’s conference, I look forward to learning from each and every person that I encounter.
January 12, 2018
One of my Rosh Hashanah resolutions this year was to spend more time learning. For the first time in six years, I’ve stepped away from reading books primarily for escapism and picked up books that are rich and deep in content. I’m currently reading To Heal a Fractured World by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sachs, the chief rabbi of England. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore the deep connection between social justice and Judaism.
Rabbi Sachs notes an inherent contradiction. “The word tzedakah is untranslatable because it joins together two concepts that in other languages are opposites, namely charity and justice. Suppose, for example, that I give someone $100. Either he is entitled to it, or he is not. If he is, then my act is a form of justice. If he is not, it is an act of charity.” How then, he wonders, does Judaism insist that tzedkah means both?
JVC exists at the nexus of justice and charity. Our mission and our mandate is to help people see the connection between those concepts, to remember that volunteering isn’t only something we do because it feels good. Volunteering is something that we do because it is the right thing to do.
December 29, 2017
I’ve written before about the short periods from one holiday to the next when we’re invited to reflect on life, relationships, and our place in the world. I’m about to enter another such nine day period. You won’t find this one on any calendar, though. It’s the nine days between my husband Alan’s birthday on New Year’s Day and the fourth anniversary of his fall off a ladder from a height of twenty-five feet. We’ve marked this period in different ways each year. We’ve hugged our children close and tried not to dwell of “what might have been.” We’ve asked ourselves if we’ve earned this second chance he was given. We’ve tried to appreciate each day.
There’s a tradition in Judaism that invites us to say 100 blessings a day. Many of these blessings are prescribed at certain points of the day or as a person does certain activities—eating, learning, even going to the bathroom. Others come along as they come up—seeing a rainbow, hearing thunder, reaching a destination safely. To achieve the goal of saying 100 blessings a day, though, one must become profoundly aware of everything that is both wondrous and fragile in the world – from the functioning of our bodies to the majesty of nature to the extraordinary benefits of modern technology.
For me, profound awareness was an outgrowth of trauma but it has become a blessing in itself. I hope that each of us can find the opportunity to notice and appreciate 100 blessings a day.
December 15, 2017
During Hanukkah, we light candles, fry foods, and recall the miracle of a small amount of oil lasting far longer than it should have following the rededication of the Temple. We celebrate the holiday for eight days because, we are told, that’s how long the small amount of oil lasted.
I never questioned that story until a friend who was both student and teacher to me asked a simple question.
“What was the miracle of the first day of Hanukkah?”
There was enough oil for a day. The oil should have lasted that day. Therefore, one might argue, no miracle actually happened on that first day.
Or did it?
“What was the miracle of the first day of Hanukkah?”
The miracle on the first day of Hanukkah was the decision to light the flame.
It was the Maccabees’ leap of faith that if they took the first step, the rest would work itself out. The belief that by acting immediately instead of later, a miracle could occur.
I believe that we’re all faced with those moments in our lives. The moments when we have the opportunity to take a leap of faith. The moments when our actions can serve as an inspiration and a call to action. During this Hanukkah season, I hope that we can all take a moment to think about the miracles we’re trying to create, and to have the courage to act on them.
November 17, 2017
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, DC with a delegation of leaders from The Associated system and area synagogues. Our delegation met with both of Maryland’s senators as well as Congressman Andy Harris and Congressman John Sarbanes. When Congressman Sarbanes spoke, he made the point that “proximity matters.” In order for people to identify and come together around common areas of interest, he said, they must first meet each other. They must get to know each other and move beyond stereotypes and misconceptions to a place of real human knowledge. As I listened to him, I was reminded of the oft-repeated message in the Torah to love the stranger, care for the stranger, and protect the stranger in our midst. The two concepts work in concert. You can’t care for the stranger if you don’t know the stranger. Relationship requires proximity. Much of the work that JVC does is about creating opportunities for relationships to build by creating experiences where people from diverse backgrounds come into proximity with each other. As we work to develop our low barrier Live With Purpose programs, one of our challenges and opportunities will be to ensure that we work to build from low-barrier experiences to those that create proximity and therefore the opportunity to truly know the “other” in our lives.
November 2, 2017
A recent New York Times article by Nicole Karlis highlights the important benefits of volunteering, not only for the recipient but also for the volunteer. The article notes that human beings are social creatures and are not meant to exist in isolation. As a result, the instinct to protect the group is strong, especially following natural disasters like the ones that have pummeled our country and our world this summer and fall. Volunteering is inherently a deeply satisfying act of self-preservation. These concepts strike a powerful yet familiar chord in the Jewish community. The concept of “peoplehood” and common responsibility are threaded through every aspect of Jewish life – the need for a minyan of 10 to say certain prayers, the creation of a chevrei kadishe (burial society) as one of the first acts of many nascent Jewish communities, and the existence of a communal charity fund are only a few examples. We recognize that what is good for the community is ultimately good for us.
On Wednesday, November 1, our colleagues at the New York Time for Good program (the JVC equivalent in New York City) traveled to St. Thomas with the Afya Foundation to deliver medical supplies to residents struggling to recover from the summer’s hurricanes. While there, they met a woman who has been organizing volunteers, identifying needs, and connecting with humanitarian organizations to provide relief. At the same time, the volunteers discovered, her own home is damaged and her income is gone. Read Agi’s story on their Facebook page for an example of how helping leads to healing and also how important it is for the caregivers themselves to be taken care of.
We all know how good it feels to do good. We all recognize the inherent value of helping. It’s comforting to see that the instinct to do good is a healing tool that is built into both our human psyche and our Jewish tradition.
October 20, 2017
This weekend, we mark the beginning of the Jewish month of Cheshvan. Traditionally known as the “dark” or “bitter” month, Cheshvan has the distinction of being the only month of the Jewish year without any holidays or other commemorations (other than Shabbat.) Following a month of both joyous celebrations and heartfelt atonement, Cheshvan is a quiet time. I’ve spoken recently about the “in between” times as we move from holiday to holiday, from commemoration to commemoration. Cheshvan doesn’t have those defined boundaries and, on the surface, it can feel like a vast and open desert. At the same time, this gap in the calendar allows us the space to do reflection at our own pace, to begin the process of living those High Holiday promises we made to ourselves. As the leaves turn colors and the natural world stores its resources for the cold winter months ahead, Cheshvan offers us the opportunity to take stock of our own worlds and to notice those around us who may feel isolated when the calendar stands empty. We are given more control to build our own celebrations, to reach out to our neighbors “just because,” and to create our own communities. I look forward to using this time to restore, refresh, and recommit.
October 9, 2017
At first glance, our decision to make our October Live with Purpose project the “Soup-Kot Soup Kits” project may seem to be more about a catchy name than any strategic connection between the project and the holiday. In truth, however, the connection goes much deeper. Soup Kits are containers of ingredients that will make a hearty, nutritious meal for four people when boiled with water and a can of tomatoes. They are targeted for people who have stable housing and yet experience food insecurity, meaning that their income is insufficient to meet their basic needs for food, housing, medicine, etc.
Similarly, Sukkot represents the celebration of the harvest, the end of a long period of food insecurity – not economic insecurity but the insecurity of an agricultural people who don’t know until the harvest comes in whether it will provide bountiful plenty or be lost in the fields to a sudden storm, a disease, or any other calamity. Sukkot invites us to appreciate not only the harvest and the divine and natural forces that bring it in, but also the return of a feeling of food security. At the end of the harvest, an agricultural people can take stock and know what they have to store for the winter. They may not have all they want but they know what they have and they’re able to plan.
As we address issues of food insecurity through JVC’s programmatic initiatives, I invite everyone to remember that providing food is only one step toward addressing the issue of persistent hunger. We should also stay attentive to opportunities to enhance dignity by putting control in the hands of the recipient. In The Associated system, Jewish Community Services does this by providing gift cards to grocery stores rather than packages of food, giving control and dignity to the recipients. At JVC, we do it by ensuring that gifts of food are delivered packaged as a gift and not a handout, as well as by working with organizations that encourage people to achieve economic self-sufficiency and that strive to provide healthy food in neighborhoods that are food desserts and lack access to fresh, affordable, and healthy food options.
September 25, 2017
The story of Jonah and the Whale is one of the better known stories in Jewish tradition. In this story, which is traditionally read the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the prophet Jonah is instructed to go to the city of Ninevah to warn them to repent before they’re destroyed. Unwilling to go, he flees aboard a ship, which encounters a storm. Jonah is cast overboard, where he’s swallowed by a whale (actually, a “big fish.”) After three days inside the whale, Jonah is deposited on land, where he fulfills his mission and successfully gets the people of Ninevah to change their errant ways.
There’s a lot to unpack in this story and I want to focus on an aspect that I’d never thought about until I heard a d’var Torah by Rabbi Phil Miller. Phil speculated about what happened to Jonah inside the whale. What did he do with his three days? Perhaps being in the whale for three days gave him time to reflect on his life, to get his priorities in order, to confront his anxieties directly, even to take a much-needed break from his daily responsibilities in order to focus on his mission and purpose. Perhaps having three days of introspection was actually more valuable to Jonah than the more overt message of being chased down, scared, and swallowed by a whale in the first place.
Each year during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I try to find time to “get inside the whale,” whether that means taking a walk, finding a spot in the woods, or simply finding a place in the house to do some quiet reflection. I invite each of you to do the same. Whether it’s 3 minutes, 3 hours, or 3 days, try to find time to step away from the daily grind and focus on the year that’s passed and the year to come.
May we all be inscribed in the book of Life for a good year.
September 8, 2017
Even as Hurricane Harvey bore down on Houston, the country marked the 12 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As a former resident of New Orleans, I was profoundly impacted by that storm and carry the memories of it and the impact of our volunteer work in that community with me to this day. JVC’s first volunteer group arrived in New Orleans three months after the storm and mere weeks after the last of the flooding had subsided. Our work focused on rebuilding – not buildings, but lives and hope. As we helped homeowners clear the destruction from their homes, we sought to salvage any memory we could. How do you help a family cling to their memories when you open a closet door and see photo albums stacked floor to ceiling, all waterlogged to the point where they can’t be opened? You sit and you listen and you share in their joy at finding a Kiddush cup that can be cleaned and used again. That trip taught me more about the Jewish value of kehillah, community, than any other experience in my life. If you would like to see the impact that volunteers have following a disaster, I invite you to watch this documentary made by a volunteer on our December, 2005 trip to New Orleans. As we mobilize for a response to Hurricane Harvey and likely Hurricane Irma, I know without a doubt that people recover best from disaster when they feel the embrace of a community that feels responsible for them.
August 11, 2017
Next Monday will be the last Monday of JCamps. While this date may not seem to be of great significance, it was seared into my memory two years ago. On that date, I remember the phone ringing in the middle of the morning. “There’s been a terrible accident,” said my friend.
Our community lost a leader, a mensch, a friend, and a change-maker that day with the death of Neely Snyder z’l.
It’s been difficult to say what Neely’s full legacy is, or rather which of her many legacies is most prominent. Because of her, children at the Historic Samuel Coleridge Taylor School in West Baltimore worked in partnership with Pearlstone to create a community garden. Because of her, LGBTQ Jews in Baltimore have an organization dedicated to creating an inclusive community. Because of her, those of us who knew her are more intentional in our work, more present in our family lives, more aware of those members of our community who are isolated and excluded, and more willing to step up in moments of need.
The anniversary of Neely’s passing comes as we enter one of the “in-between” times of the year, with camp wrapping up and a few weeks before the beginning of school. It’s a good time to reflect and set goals for the year.
In Neely’s memory, my commitment is to keep my eyes open for the most vulnerable among us and to use my place, my power, and my privilege to ensure that everyone knows that they are valued.
I invite you to join me in making a commitment to making the world a better place this year.
In Neely’s memory. Zichron L’vracha (May her Memory Be for a Blessing.)
July 28, 2017
In today’s world of “rush, rush, rush”, and information overload, it can be challenging to find time to reflect. The “next thing” often crowds our thinking, even as we try to focus on where we are and what we’re doing. The Jewish calendar recognizes this challenge, and creates reflection points throughout the year, times when the schedule of holidays and observances both offers and requires a period of reflection.
We’re in one such reflection period now. The nine days between the 1st and 9th days of the Jewish month of Av are a period of communal mourning leading up to Tisha B’av (the 9th of Av) the day that commemorates the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem. During this time, many people refrain from eating meat, avoid music, and focus their thoughts on the many tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people throughout time. As I mentioned in the last Schmooze, there’s a tradition that the 2nd Temple was destroyed because of “causeless hatred” and this nine day period can provide each of us the opportunity to reflect on our own role in building or breaking down community. In both my personal life and in my role with JVC, I feel fortunate to have this gift of structured reflection time built into the calendar as a reminder to check in with myself on my intentions, my actions, and the role I want to play in this world.
July 14, 2017
The 17th Day of Tammuz (July 12 this year) on the Jewish calendar is commemorated as a fast day from sunrise to sundown. Tradition teaches that several calamitous events happened to the Jewish people on this day, including the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem three weeks before the destruction of the Second Temple on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av.) There is an additional teaching that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “causeless hatred.” (sinat chinam.) Causeless or baseless hatred is conceived of as hatred for no reason, with no rational explanation. How often, I wonder, do we use this strong word “hate” to describe our feelings toward a person about whom we have little or no knowledge, simply based on a different political, racial, or religious identity, or even a different sports team preference. How easy is it to walk down this path of causeless hatred as the algorithms of social media technology feed us information that reinforces our own beliefs? As we enter this three week period, I hope that it can be a period of reflection for each of us, an opportunity to consider how and why we make judgments about people. Much of JVC’s work focuses on building bridges across communities by bringing people into contact and communication with each other. As we get to know the “other” on a deeply human level, we have the opportunity to break down much of the causeless hatred that keeps us apart.
June 30, 2017
My summer began last week with a trip to Nags Head, North Carolina with my family. For the third summer in a row, I stood on the beach where I stood as a child and watched my kids play in the sand, test their sense of adventure in the waves, and generally embrace nature in a way they don’t often get to at home. Several times during the week, I looked around and thought “this is altogether good. This is everything I need in the world right now.” It’s nice to have moments like that, even if they require you to briefly shut out the world beyond your immediate view.
One morning, as I stood looking out over the horizon, I remembered reading that in Judaism, there is a blessing for every moment, whether momentous or small. You can see some of these blessings on this website. Upon seeing the ocean, we are reminded to bless our Creator who “re-enacts the work of creation.” That struck a particularly powerful chord with me during this trip, as we watched the beach in front of our cottage get redesigned several times by passing storms. The gentle slope to the beach became a cliff one day and then returned to its gentle slope the next. As each individual grain of sand moved according to the force of wind and waves, I was reminded that we are all engaged in acts of creation and re-creation all the time. Sometimes, we don’t even notice the change at first but with our persistent and committed efforts, we can truly move mountains.
June 16, 2017
I recently finished reading the book Daring Greatly by Dr. Brene Brown. In the book, she describes the gremlins that begin to whisper in our ears when we are getting ready to make a bold and uncertain move—when we’re ready to try something new, step into a leadership role, or make ourselves vulnerable. In this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha, Israelite scouts face the same dilemma as they are sent to inspect the land of Canaan in preparation for bringing the people into the land. Upon returning, all but two of the scouts give in to their “gremlins” and spread lies about the size and strength of the inhabitants of the land, in order to make people too afraid to try to enter. Only two scouts have the courage to dare greatly and believe that they will be successful, with G-d’s help.
How often do we look at the challenges facing our world today and see, as the Israelite scouts did, giants that cannot be overcome? How often do we fail to act because we simply don’t believe that we can make a difference?
As I write this, Baltimore City is reeling from a spike in violence and struggling to secure funding for education, youth engagement, and basic city services.
Can we fix these problems? On first glance, we cannot—as the Torah records one scout saying, they are giants and we are grasshoppers. Can we make a difference? Can we put in our best effort and trust in the future? We can. In fact, we must.
May 24, 2017
The holiday of Shavuot begins next Tuesday evening at sundown. In preparation for this holiday, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the Center for Jewish Education (where the JVC office is located) put out a display of books related to the holiday. I found myself intrigued by the children’s book “No Rules for Michael.” It tells the story of Michael, a child whose teacher decides to have a day without rules. Initially excited at being “free from rules,” Michael becomes more and more distressed at discovering that not having rules means his friends don’t share, the classrooms toys aren’t put back where they belong, and he never gets a turn. Like the Jewish people at Sinai, Michael discovers that having boundaries and guidelines for life creates freedom rather than restricting it because people learn to live in community with each other. Jewish law demands of us that we care for the stranger, protect the weak, and educate children. These laws set the basic outline for civil society, a community in which people recognize their interdependence and the inherent humanity of each person. At JVC, we strive to ensure that our volunteer work protects the dignity of the recipient and honors each person’s essential humanity. By doing so, we work to build a society where the “rules” benefit everyone.
May 5, 2017
In the last week, we have commemorated three important holidays—Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day,) Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day,) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day.) On both Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron, the entire state of Israel comes together for two minutes of collective memory as a siren blasts throughout the country. If you’ve never seen it, I suggest checking out this video to see the power and camaraderie of this moment.
In reflecting on these two days, spaced only one week apart, a Facebook friend recently noted that “We have two memorial days in Israel every year: one to remind us the cost of having a state. One to remind us the cost of not having one.”
As we look forward to the American Memorial Day in a few weeks, I hope that we’ll all remember to honor the service of those individuals who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country and to look for opportunities to serve those who have served us and who carry their wounds both inside and out. And may we also honor and serve those members of our community who survived the Holocaust and commit to carrying their stories forward to the next generation.
April 21, 2017
As I prepared my kitchen for Passover this year, I encountered, for the briefest of moments, the feeling of scarcity. While pondering the Passover groceries, looking for a snack, I thought, “if I eat that now, I won’t have any for later. . . and what if one of the kids wants it and it’s gone.” In that moment, I felt a fraction of what it must be to live with food insecurity, to have to make every food choice with great thoughtfulness and consideration for both future needs and the needs of others. It was a false equivalence, to be certain. My fridge was full, my “scarcity” temporary and of my own choosing. Still, I chose to embrace the feeling and will use it to be more thoughtful and empathetic in the future. At Passover, we celebrate the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt and their emergence as a free people and a nation. Food insecurity enslaves millions of people in this country and I’m proud of the work that JVC does to address this issue in the Baltimore community. When a person’s basic need for healthy food is met, they’re able to focus on larger issues such as education, work readiness, and family care, thus creating a path out of poverty and into self-sufficiency.
February 11, 2017
On Shabbat this week, we will celebrate the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shvat. Tu B’shvat, often known as the “birthday of the trees,” represents the first signs that spring will return as the earliest budding trees in Israel begin to emerge from their winter slumber. It’s a good reminder that even in challenging times, we hold out hope for the spring to return and new life to emerge. This holiday, which is traditionally celebrated by eating fruits, is a good opportunity to reconnect with the natural world and I encourage you to spend time outside this weekend, reflecting on the wonder of the natural world and considering the role that each of us can play in connecting people to the earth and to each other.
January 27, 2017
Earlier this week, I attended a workshop entitled “How To Have Difficult Conversations” taught by educators from Pardes, Institute for Jewish Studies. The workshop focused on the importance of engaging with people with whom we have honest disagreements, and discussed how to have challenging conversations “for the sake of heaven.” (Pirkei Avot 5:17) In the discussion, we learned that the willingness to acknowledge another person’s perspective is one of the most valued qualities in Jewish scholarship and law.
I find myself intrigued by this idea of sharing another person’s perspective. How easy is it to assume we know how a person ended up in the situation they’re in, why they’ve made the choices they’ve made, and what they should do to fix their situation? Do we take the time to understand the perspective of another person, especially one with whom we disagree?
I’ve identified a challenge for myself and I encourage you to join me. My goal is to have a conversation with at least one person with whom I have a strong, philosophical disagreement, and at least one person whose life is, on the surface, very different from my own. In having these conversations, I will seek to understand their perspective and be able to share it as a story I “own,” even though it will not be mine. By understanding each other, we build community and strengthen our world.
January 6, 2017
JVC Assistant Director Erica Bloom recently sent me a link to a “Personal Impact Canvas” exercise. Linked here, the canvas helps to guide a person from intention to action, focusing on each person’s issues of passion, personal impact circle, and short and long term trajectories. In many ways, this canvas encapsulates the work that JVC does. It asks “what do you care about?” “how can you help?” and “who can you get involved?” The exercise reminded me of a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the Modern Musar (Ethical Mindfulness) Movement. Rabbi Salanter recounts that as a young man, he wanted to change the world. He learned that he couldn’t make the impact he wanted so he focused instead on changing his community. Faced with frustration again, he turned next to trying to change his family. Ultimately, he realized that the only thing he could change was himself. By changing himself, however, he began to influence his family, his community and ultimately the world.
As we enter the secular new year, I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to engage in a Personal Impact Canvas, to consider the impact you want to have on the world and what resources you have to achieve your goals. Consider also the role that JVC can play in moving forward your goals and please let us know how we can be involved. Together, we can change ourselves, our families, our communities, and our world.