Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tefilah: Empowering Prayer Communities through School Worship

As Reform Jews, our beliefs pull us in two directions. On the one hand, we cherish our autonomy: Our freedom to express ourselves as individuals and to make choices that are entirely our own. At the same time, we know the value of community: Our sense of obligation to others with whom we share a history and a destiny. This dynamic tension can be creative and inspirational – or it can be exhausting and alienating. Perhaps nowhere in Jewish life is the challenge of finding equilibrium between these two forces felt as strongly as in synagogue worship. Prayer is an intensely personal experience, yet when we come together for worship as part of a congregation, we often use words written by someone we have never met and in a language we don’t understand.

In our religious school at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, students learn to respond to this challenge by becoming sophisticated and empowered participants in prayer services. Tefilah (worship) is an integral part of our curriculum, comprising as much as 25 percent of the time that students are in school. Students not only learn the skills to pray as part of a Jewish community but also engage in a rich dialogue about the liturgy that helps them to find personal meaning in the words they say. The experience is transforming how our students see themselves, as they become equipped to grapple with their personal relationships with the Divine amidst a congregation of diverse individuals.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Tzedakah: Building a Culture of Equity

Last week, I posted a personal vision statement for Jewish education. Over the coming weeks, I will offer suggestions as to how this vision can be implemented based on examples from my work at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.

In so doing, I want to emphasize that collaboration is the cornerstone of our methodology, and I am reporting on the intersection between my philosophy and the work we do, not taking credit for our achievements.

I begin with a look at how we teach about tzedakah. I think this is something most of us working in supplementary school education get right. This is, to my mind, a clear way to demonstrate the critical role of Jewish education not only to guide value-driven practice and participation in Jewish community (as if those weren’t enough!), but also to offer unique ways of engaging the world.

At Emanu-El, we teach that the Hebrew word tzedakah literally means, not “charity” (from the Latin “caritas,” “altruistic love”), but “justice.” On our website, in our classrooms, and through family programming, we emphasize that sharing our good fortune equitably with others is not only an act of compassion, but a responsibility. We show how our tradition teaches that our achievements are always dependent upon Divine providence, and that with our wealth, we must seek equity. Further, we emphasize how this sense of responsibility has always, and continues to play, a central role in our communal identity.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Statement of Jewish Educational Philosophy

I am committed to developing learning experiences that are relevant, inspirational and transformative. I aim to provide students and their families with the tools to participate meaningfully in the community, with pride in their heritage and with the awareness that their actions will shape the future in ways beyond their imagination.

Education is an intrinsically optimistic endeavor. Our work as educators is predicated on the faith that we can inspire our students to personal growth and empower them to achieve greatness. 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 lessons of the past 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. As Jews, 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?”  The role of the educator is not to pass along definitive answers to these questions, but rather to engage our learners in striving together to formulate sophisticated and nuanced responses that inspire them to action.

The Jewish school can be a center for Jewish life, where our students encounter one another’s ways of being Jewish.  In accepting one another for who we are and what we believe, we empower one another to say “I can be myself here and I can figure out who I might want to be.” I believe our classrooms must be the “laboratory” for the Jewish future, providing vital and distinctive experiences our students cannot find elsewhere in their lives and in which cultural experimentation – the production, rather than consumption of culture – is the norm.

Parents, students and other members of the school community must be stakeholders in the success of this endeavor, playing a critical role in shaping the school’s vision and culture. It is essential that we validate the diversity of experiences of those individuals, offering access and authority to those whose voices have been absent from communal Jewish life. Simultaneously, a school’s faculty and leadership must strive constantly to model the thoughtfulness and mutual respect that we seek to promote in our students and their families. The care and concern our teachers have for each child enables our students to support one another and to challenge themselves to grow as individuals, as family members and as part of an ethical community.

As Jews, we are b’nai Yisrael, the “children of those who have wrestled with God and prevailed.” We are fortunate to be the inheritors of an ancient wisdom that guides us in living principled lives in complicated times. At the same time, we assert our right to be a part of a community that struggles to make meaning of the profound and the sacred.

It is our task to strive to become the best people we can be, proud of our heritage while accepting no dogma blindly, guided by the decisions of previous generations while empowered to take responsibility for arriving at our own conclusions. As part of vital networks of friends and families who are reflective about their actions, passionate about their beliefs and kindhearted toward one another, we can be confident in our children’s ability to shape their own destinies, and join together with those of all faiths and backgrounds to build a just and virtuous society.

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.