Monday, February 17, 2014

My favorite quotes: Mamie Gamoran

When did people start talking about post-denominationalism and identify themselves as "just Jews?" Could it perhaps have been as long ago as the 1930s? Let's see what Mamie Gamoran, author of "Hillel's Happy Holidays" and the wife of Emanuel Gamoran (the first director of education for the UAHC, now the Union for Reform Judaism) has to say on the subject:

“We were liberals in our thinking, in our children's education, in our religious practices. Nevertheless, we erected a Sukka on our wide, open porch each Sukkot holiday, and served wine tea and cake to as many as two hundred visitors. Some guests shook the lulav and said the blessings for the first time. I used to say jokingly, 'the Reform say we are Orthodox and the Orthodox say we are Reform.' But we wanted to be Jews without a label, and I think we had a real Jewish home.” 

From Mamie Gamoran's manuscript, "A Family History," in the American Jewish Archives, cited in Jonathan Krasner's "The Benderly Boys and American Jewish Education" (Brandeis University Press, 2011). 

Friday, January 24, 2014

What does it mean to live a life that is "authentically Jewish?"

Identity theorist Elli P. Schachter, following Erikson, observes that one’s “historical era or social environment” constrain one’s options for identification or practice, limiting the available choices. Awareness of, and knowledge about the cultural traditions that have already shaped one’s identity and continue to influence one's behavior -- in other words, the stories of those who came before us and how they lived their loves -- allow the individual to more fully recognize the scope of available options. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it seems to me that for us today, being Jewish demands a constant re-examining of, and re-committing to, one’s beliefs and practices.   

Given the social and geographic mobility common to North American Jews in particular, and the rapid pace of change in technology and science in contemporary times, it is certain that we will consistently be exposed to new ideas and information throughout our lives.  We can expect to be faced with unfamiliar situations that allow for (and demand) new responses.  In such a context, ongoing study, skill-building and dialogue becomes an imperative, so that we, our communities and our institutions may respond appropriately to new situations as they arise -- this is one of the things I mean when I speak about "life-long learning." By imitating successful endeavors, past or contemporary, intentional or developed through trial-and-error, we take on a new positions and practices, we modify the beliefs we previously held as conclusive.  

To be authentically Jewish is to take a stance on our values and behaviors and to articulate how they relate to our inherited traditions.  I say stance, rather than commitment, because I believe our values and behaviors must be constantly reaffirmed, in the context of each particular set of circumstances, with an openness to the possibility of realigning one's beliefs and practice in light of shifting settings and newly acquired information. 

I contend that taking such a stance is a possibility - and legitimate - at any point in one’s life, at any level of knowledge. The need to better inform oneself in order to intentionally choose one’s behaviors and beliefs is necessary at all points of one’s life – as true for those who are knowledgeable as those who are at the beginning of their study. In actuality, we can never have comprehensive knowledge so that we might make a completely coherent decision. So we must be unafraid to take a stance on an idea or a practice simply because there is more to be learned. Choosing to delay making a decision to change is, after all, a decision as well.

An analogy: When we commit to another person in a relationship, both the relationship and the commitment itself grow and change over time.  They are tested by a variety of new contexts and situations. Just as some relationships will fail to survive, or to thrive, over time, so too must some values or behaviors be modified as new ones are learned that fit better with one’s increasing knowledge or changing life-experience.

However, at some point we must acknowledge that the change is so great that we can only describe it with the words "break." When we can no longer explain how our values or behavior relate to the previous tradition, at that point, we must admit that we have started something new.

In other words: I am disagreeing with the definition of "authentic" that says it means "true to oneself" or in other words, authenticity as relevance. But I'm also disagreeing with the definition of authentic as "the way we used to do it" or authenticity as consistent with the past. I'm saying that those two principles are in tension, and authenticity means taking a stance that accounts for both of them, being reflective about that choice, and being open to rethink in light of changing circumstances.

So, it isn't "keeping kosher is a more authentic way of being Jewish" and it also isn't "I eat pork and that's an authentic expression of who I am," but rather "let me explain what keeping kosher means to me."

Reference: Elli P. Schachter, “Identity Constraints: The Perceived Structural Requirements of a ‘Good’ Identity.” Human Development 45 (2002), 417.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Ahavat Olam (Lennon/McCartney/Kaiserman): Love is All You Need

So, I finally posted to YouTube a recording that Evan Schultz surreptitiously made of our version of "Ahavat Olam" to a familiar Lennon/McCartney tune at Kol Zimrah a decade ago. It has since become a standard at Shabbat Unplugged at Temple Shaaray Tefila of New York City. 

I'm on guitar and lead vocals, along with the incomparable Reut Regev ( on trombone, Michael Witman on percussion and backup vocals, Evan on guitar and backup vocals, and, if my memory serves, David Monblatt and Amy Deutsch on backup vocals. (The photo is from my wedding weekend, though). Love is all you need. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My favorite quotes: Barnett R. Brickner

With all the talk about how the religious school is broken and in need of redemption, and how we need new models for, and approaches to, supplementary Jewish education, I appreciated discovering this quote from the CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly (#33):
“I do not think there is a rabbi in this Conference [the Central Conference of American Rabbis] who is satisfied with the Sunday school, who is not willing to subscribe his name to the fact that the Sunday school has been, as far as the purposes of Reform Judaism are concerned, a failure.” 
That's Rabbi Barnett R. Brickner writing in ... wait for it ... 1923!

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My Full List of Torah Commentaries for Congregation Emanu-El

In my time at Emanu-El, I have contributed twenty essays to our weekly commentary. These commentaries are written not only by the clergy and educational staff, but also our administrators. They vary widely in style, from academic scholarship to thoughtful homiletics to amusing retellings of the story from the point of view of one of the minor characters. In my own commentaries, I’ve often written about the educational programs at Emanu-El and how they attempt to make ancient wisdom relevant to our lives today.

I’m assembling here (after the jump) the full list of my commentaries, with a brief excerpt from each one.

This is my absolute favorite thing I’ve written in six years, from my March 2012 Commentary on Parshat Tzav: “Jeremiah is not opposed to the pursuit of wisdom, strength or wealth, and neither should we be. Jeremiah tells us, if you must be driven by ego, then take pride in how you emulate God in your behavior. Don’t simply attain wisdom for its own sake, he says. Use your wisdom to bring about kindness. Use your strength in the pursuit of justice. And with your wealth, seek equity.”

You can subscribe to receive the weekly Torah commentary by email, and it is also available as an RSS Feed.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Vision-Driven Institutions: Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan

In 2007, I wrote on this blog about the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Israel. At the time, I expressed my skepticism about my ability to turn this into a regular feature, but here I am, just six short years later, with a description of another innovative institution, the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. I wrote this piece as part of my coursework for the executive doctoral program at the Davidson School of Education. This is not a comprehensive discussion of the institution, but a description of just one element of the program, and the institutional leader who created it.

Dr. Steven Lorch is the founding headmaster of the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, a K-8 Jewish Day School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that is currently in its 18th year. I taught at Schechter Manhattan for three years. I loved its team-teaching approach (every class is led by two teachers, both fluent in Hebrew, who share responsibility for all areas of the curriculum), its constructivist philosophy, and its focus on menschlichkeit [kindness and empathy] as a core component of the institution. Yet, no aspect of my work there has influenced me more thoroughly than the experience of leading daily worship and teaching its tefilah [prayer] curriculum. At both Central Synagogue and Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, the two institutions I have served since leaving Schechter Manhattan, I have attempted to adapt the Schechter prayer curriculum to suit the needs of a Reform Jewish supplementary school setting. This sketch focuses solely on this aspect of Dr. Lorch’s work: His role as the creator of the Schechter Manhattan tefilah curriculum.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Parshat Toldot and Halloween

I wrote this week's online Torah Commentary on Parshat Toldot for Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.

Here is the text in its entirety. Happy Halloween!

Genesis 27:22-24
(22) So Jacob drew close to his father Isaac, who felt him and wondered. “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau.” (23) He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; and so he blessed him. (24) He asked, “Are you really my son Esau?” And he said, “I am.”

Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press,
Original Text:

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

HERE IN NEW YORK CITY, it is impossible to not notice that it is Halloween this week. But, it should be noted that costumes and trickery are as ancient as the Torah. One of the most famous stories is in this week’s portion, Tol’dot.

Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Nearly blind and in his dying days, Isaac intends to give his blessing to his favored son, Esau. But Jacob, the younger son, is his mother’s favorite, and with her help, Jacob disguises himself as Esau. He costumes himself as his hairy brother by putting goatskins on his arms and his neck. When Isaac reaches out for Jacob’s hands, he feels the goat hair and is deceived. The trick works! Jacob receives his father’s blessing in place of his brother.

This is just one of the many tales in the Bible in which people wear a disguise or conceal who they are in order to achieve their goals. In some stories, a disguise enables the wearer to engage in forbidden behavior. For example, after King Saul outlaws sorcery, he puts on a disguise so that he may consult a soothsayer. (I Samuel 28:8) At other times, a disguise provides a way to ascertain another’s true intentions, as when Joseph, in the attire of the governor of Egypt, takes care not to be recognized by his brothers. (Genesis 42:7) Still other times, the deceit arises out of a fear for safety, as when Abraham professes to the Egyptians that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife. (Genesis 12:12-13)

From the earliest passages of the Bible, in the story of Adam and Eve, clothing is associated with dishonesty. After disobeying God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they recognize their nakedness, sew together fig leaves and hide themselves. (Genesis 3:7-8) It is a thin line between clothing and costume, between dressing up and deception.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Jewish Education: An Intrinsically Optimistic Endeavor

I wrote the cover story for the April 2013 Temple Emanu-El Bulletin, Volume 85, No. 8. Here is the text of my article:
Jewish education is an intrinsically optimistic endeavor. Our work as Jewish educators is predicated on the faith that we can inspire our students to personal growth. Further, we believe that by studying the past we can successfully prepare our students for an unknown future. Therefore, we act as translators, of a sort: we strive to make the ancient wisdom of our people relevant to contemporary sensibilities.

I believe the most compelling questions of value and meaning have remained largely the same since the days of the Bible. We look to our people’s history for direction as we ask ourselves the same questions that confronted our ancestors, like “What kind of person do I want to become?” and “What kind of world do I hope for myself and for future generations to inhabit?” Our people have struggled with these questions over the centuries, providing us with a legacy of their responses under varying circumstances.

The role of the Reform Jewish educator is not to pass along definitive answers to these questions, but rather to engage our learners in striving together to make meaning of our Jewish inheritance in all of its complexity. Our religious school is a “laboratory” for the Jewish future, providing experiences and opportunities our students cannot find elsewhere in their lives. The classroom is a center for Jewish life, where our students encounter one another’s ways of being Jewish. In accepting one another for who they are and what they believe, our students empower one another to say “I can be myself here and I can figure out who I might want to be.”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Responding to Crisis on the Eighth Night of Chanukah

If, like I, you are finding yourself speechless after using words like “tragedy,” “devastation” and “disaster” so many times this fall, you may find some words to say by looking at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland's “Responding to Crisis” website.

Some links you might find particularly useful:

How to respond to children and teens in a crisis generated by humans

Many of the quotes in the section “texts from our tradition” speak to me, but I particularly note one that we have been teaching our Sunday 3rd-5th graders at Emanu-El

Who is mighty?
                            One who conquers his evil impulse. 
            As it is written,
            Those who are slow to anger are better than the mighty,
            And those who rule over their spirit than those who conquer a city. 
                                                                                                                 PirkeAvot 4:1

Finally, many useful links in the resources section, and I sadly note that this one is helpful to know about right now:

Helping your children manage distress in the aftermath of school shootings

This being the final evening of Chanukah, I thank all of you reading this for your dedication and rededication to keeping alive the flames of hope, courage, and faith. At times like these, I am so proud to belong to a tradition that for thousands of years has asserted that every human life is sacred and dared us to strive for a more righteous and more loving society. I know the metaphor of “passing along the torch” is a tired one, but when you are lighting the Shamash so your kid can light her menorah . . .

Thanks to Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz for posting a reminder about this resource to the NATE facebook group.