Monday, October 13, 2014

From "Repentance" to "Recovery" - a rare NYC performance of Freedom Song

My friends,

The performance of Freedom Song that we’re hosting this Sunday at Emanu-El rises to such a high level, in my estimation, that I feel I need to share it with as many people as I can – and especially, to my friends who are parents of teens, or who work with teens.

I’m pasting the email I sent to the Emanu-El community below. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Beit T’Shuvah, I think you will be amazed to learn about it. Please help me spread the word about this program, and perhaps I will even see you (and your family?) there. Tickets can be purchased on-line at Further, a private session just for educators and youth workers will be held at 3pm; for details email me at

With love,
We went to teen high holiday services, we told the eScapegoat about the things we did wrong...what now?

As I am now in my eighth year at Emanu-El, I have for the first time in my professional career seen the students I met as children grow to be teens and young adults. I couldn't be prouder of the responsible and capable people that you have become and are becoming. Further, I am inspired by the caring and thoughtful parents in this community as I think about how I am striving to raise my own (still little) children.

And, as someone who grew up in NYC, I am very aware of the kinds of challenges with which we teens, young adults, and parents struggle. There is a lot of pressure to succeed and to fit in, and it frankly doesn't get any easier as you get older, it just changes shape.

Which is why it was so important to me, when I first learned of the work of Beit T'Shuvah and their musical Freedom Song that we bring it from Los Angeles to New York City. Beit T'Shuvah is a residential treatment center that approaches addiction and other self-destructive behaviors through Jewish wisdom. Freedom Song, written by residents in recovery, parallels a Passover Seder, with its message of liberation from oppression and internal bondage, with a 12-step meeting. Why? Because, as their Rabbi Mark Borovitz, writes:

"Addiction can happen in every family, no matter what religion they practice and despite any facade of normalcy. If you look at all the things we're addicted to, it's not just drugs, alcohol and gambling - it's a way of living that's become so ingrained in people. We're living in a society where we've forgotten what's important about being Jewish, about what we've brought to the world."

Freedom Song will be performed live on-stage here at Emanu-El on Sunday, October 19th. Doors are at 5pm and the performance at 5:30pm, followed by a talk-back with the cast and then breakout discussion groups led by the performers and our educators. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased through our website, I hope you will be able to join me. This event, run in partnership with the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center, is open to the general public - so please tell your friends!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part IV)

Tomorrow evening we enter into the sabbatical or shmita year, and so once again I share with you a section from my master's thesis on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. In my three previous posts, I discussed the significance of sanctifying the act of eating, how saying this blessings can help us think about proper nutrition and a healthy diet, and how we should always relate to our food as a Divine gift.

This week, as is only fitting in the days after the world's largest climate-change protest here in NYC, I discuss how saying this blessings can help us to confront our increased alienation from the sources of our food. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education.
Birkat Ha-Mazon is an opportunity to examine where our food comes from, how it is grown and raised, how it is packaged and transported to us, and how it is prepared. In the modern era, most city-dwellers have lost touch with the sources of origin of their food. This is evident in the description of the world in Goldberger’s How to Thank HaShem for Food: “The earth is the most ancient and the most modern food-factory which was created and is constantly maintained by the Master of the Universe” (p. 21). We have become so alienated from the processes of farming and harvesting that in order to provide an analogy that makes sense to the contemporary reader, Goldberger describes the workings of the world in terms of a factory, the strongest symbol of industrialization and the human domination of the planet one could find!

Arthur Waskow analyzes the problem, asking whether “in our own time of earthquake both in the world and for the Jewish people . . . we need to rethink how to make food sacred as deeply as our ancestors did? For them, food was no longer what they grew in a small land by dint of their own labors, but what came to them by ship and camel train. For us, food has more and more become what is manufactured, not just grown: It comes from crossbred and genetically engineered plants and animals; it comes with inserted vitamins; it comes heavily packaged, precooked, frozen, irradiated, invented” (p. 68). Dr. Steven M. Brown asserts the value that Birkat Ha-Mazon can have in responding to this situation, for each time we say a blessing we acknowledge God and the chain of events (human or otherwise) that enabled us to have the gift of food in front of us.

Even when the Israelites experienced the miracle of manna falling from the sky, they still were obligated to collect it every morning, for it would rot if kept overnight (Exodus 16:21). The lesson here seems to be that our sustenance is the result of a partnership between God and human beings. Food is a miracle, but human effort plays a critical role in planting, raising, harvesting, and preparing the food we eat. Ultimately, God is the source of all of our nourishment, but we must also be aware of the humans (such as the farmers, the truckers, and the cooks) which brought the food to our mouths.
    Goldberger, Moshe. How to thank Hashem for Food: Lessons from Birkas Ha-Mazon. New York: Gross Books, 1988.
    Waskow, Arthur. Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part III)

Before I share with you this third gleaning from my master's thesis, I want to mention that my brilliant (and pedantic) friend Ori correctly observes that the title of this series is poorly worded, as we do not actually bless our bread. Rather, when we say a blessing we are blessing God, or rather, we are blessing God's ineffable name.

This is, of course, a critical difference. If you arrive late to Shabbat dinner, you are still required to make the blessings over the challah before you start eating. This is because, when we say a blessing over food, the food itself is in no way changed. What was previously an ordinary piece of bread is not made sacred (as is, for example, believed by many Christians to be the case for the communion wafer). Rather, it is our relationship to our food that is altered and made sacred, as is described in more detail in this excerpt. My thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section is after the jump.
According to tradition, Birkat Ha-Mazon was instituted by Moses at the time when the manna miraculously descended to feed the Israelites during their travels in the Sinai desert (Talmud Berachot 48b). Elie Munk, quoting S. R. Hirsch, writes that by connecting Birkat Ha-Mazon to the manna, the rabbis teach us that “every piece of bread eaten now is as much a gift from God as the manna was.” (1954, p. 211). Goldberger, drawing from Talmud Pesachim 118a, asserts that the process by which God “causes a seed to transform earth into food [is] as spectacular as the miracle of the splitting of the sea” (1988, p. 5).

The point of each of these statements is that food is always gift from God, a gift which cannot be taken for granted. The provision of food is a daily miracle, whether it is effortlessly picked from the trees (as in the Garden of Eden) or reaped from the earth through great effort (after leaving the Garden). “The message appears rather clear: When we thank God for giving us food, we are recognizing that there is no intrinsic difference between the manna and the livelihood one wrests from the earth through sweat and hard toil; both are gifts from heaven” (1984, p. 182).

This connection is also made in the blessing said prior to eating bread, “Ha-Motzi.” This blessing thanks God “who brings forth bread from the land.” Bread – not wheat, which would be more technically accurate – to affirm God’s centrality to the entire process of making bread, from the sprouting of the grain to its baking in the oven. As Evelyn Garfiel puts it, “finding his daily bread never ceases to be a Nes [miracle] even to the farmer who toils so hard to produce the grain, for he recognizes its ultimate source to be God’s loving care for all His [sic] creatures. It is God ‘Who brings forth [the] bread from the earth’” (1958, p. 122).

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part II)

Continuing to mine my master's thesis on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals, as we build up to the shmita year, this week I share with you the section on using the prayer as an opportunity to focus on proper nutrition. I won't overstate the analogy, but I believe that just as saying this prayer can be a time for personal and communal reflection on issues relating to food, diet and nutrition, so too can we look at the coming year as a chance to rethink and renew our approaches to these topics. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section is after the jump.
The World Health Organization defines "Health" as balance between physical, mental and social being. Birkat Ha-Mazon reminds us of the need to pay attention to, and strike a balance between, each one of these aspects of our health. Birkat Ha-Mazon is a social activity, as it is often said as the conclusion of a communal meal. Focusing on the text can lead to heightened cognitive awareness of, and encounter with, challenging issues affecting Jews and people in general. Here, I wish to look at the role that Birkat Ha-Mazon can play as a focal point in thinking about the physical impact of food on our bodies, or in other words, for nutrition education.

According to Genesis 1:26, humans are created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. Although the interpretations of this are manifold, one generally accepted implication is that any form of self-harm violates Jewish law as it is a desecration of the Divine image. The extent to which this principle is applied varies: Some communities forbid body-piercing based on this idea, while others will not smoke cigarettes. Arguably, a concern for proper diet and exercise should be considered a Jewish obligation.

Birkat Ha-Mazon is a mandatory pause at the conclusion of a meal. We can use this time to make a connection between the food we have eaten and the nourishment it has provided us. This is also an opportunity for us to reflect upon the choices we have made with the foods we have eaten. One might ask oneself questions along the lines of: Did I waste food?  Did I overeat? Was the food grown (or raised) in a manner that fits with my ethics? How did this food get from its point of origin to me? How did the choices I made affect other people’s lives?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Why do we bless our bread?

As some of you will recall, my master's thesis as a student at Davidson School of Education (15 years ago!) was on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. As we round the corner into a shmita year, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you a section of that work. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section be found after the jump.
A concern for food appears at the very beginning of the Bible. Sustenance for human beings, and for all creatures, is viewed as an intrinsic component of the Divine plan of creation. In God’s first address to humanity, in the first chapter of Genesis, God instructs the humans that they may eat from every plant on the ground and every fruit of the tree (Gen. 1:29). Shortly thereafter, this is qualified with the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Just as babies receive nourishment while in the womb, in the “perfect” paradise of the Garden of Eden, food is provided for humans without any effort on their part.
When the humans are expelled from Eden, a new stage in their relationship with food begins. Now, God admonishes Adam, only “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Gen. 3:19). This is the first mention of bread in the Bible, which, in contrast to the fruit of the Garden of Eden, requires human labor. In the next chapter, perhaps in response to the anxiety provoked by the responsibility of providing food for oneself, Cain and Abel bring the first sacrificial offerings to God (Gen. 4:3-4). This offering can be seen as a petition, or as a thanksgiving, for successful harvests and healthy livestock.

Arthur Waskow writes of two ways by which the ancient Israelites sanctified the food they ate, which can be traced back to these first four chapters of Genesis. “One major approach they took to hallowing food was to set some aside as sacred, others as forbidden” (23).  The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge can be seen as paradigmatic of this approach, later reflected in laws of Kashrut, tithing, fasts, Sabbatical years, and so on. The “other process for hallowing food was to take the products of the land to a single place, the Temple in Jerusalem, there to bring God near to them” (24). The offerings of Cain and Abel are the prototype for sacrificial worship, evinced in stories of Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7) and so on, and which ultimately reaches its peak in the unified system of regulated sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.
These two dimensions for the sanctification of food -- that of making distinctions between food which may and may not be eaten and that of consecrating food as an offering to God -- will be discussed in great detail in the upcoming sections.  Here, I wish to emphasize that there is a third conception of the sanctification of food. The very act of eating, the turning of physical matter into energy, of the life-force in a plant or animal into one’s own life-force, is in itself a sacred activity.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

How to ask a question (?) (!) (?)

The following is a excerpt from the article "Active Learning in the Halakha class" by Mark Smilowitz, which first appeared in the Lookstein Center's journal Jewish Educational Leadership:
Classically, teachers and students alike tend to view questions as stemming from problems; if nothing bothers you, you don't ask. Even progressive methods devised to make students active learners through questioning seem to view questions as stemming from problems. For example, the "inquiry training" model relies on presenting students with puzzling events that will naturally arouse their curiosity and stimulate their questions. This approach "deliberately selects episodes that have sufficiently surprising outcomes to make it difficult for students to remain indifferent to the encounter.

Perhaps you've seen a science exhibition where they put a blown up balloon into liquid nitrogen, and it comes out shrunk. The kids are naturally stimulated to ask why it does that, because the outcome is surprising. This is precisely the kind of curiosity-generating activity that would kick off a unit in the inquiry training approach.

But let's consider another way to stimulate curiosity. Take a regular balloon, a normal object that doesn't automatically generate questions, and hold it up in front of a classroom as is, and tell students they have two minutes to write down as many questions as they can think of that will help them understand the balloon better. Tell them not to hold back, but to let their imaginations go.

When I do this experiment on myself, I find that I suddenly become interested in things I wasn't interested in before – science questions such as why balloons lose their air after a while, manufacturing questions like how balloons are made, or maybe economic questions like how do they decide how much balloons cost. When one is prompted in this manner, instead of curiosity generating questions, it is the discipline of questioning that generates the curiosity. We might refer to this latter kind of question as a research-oriented question, as opposed to a problem-based question, because asking this kind of question is often the key to researching a topic

My guess is that most students only know about problem-based questions and are never taught to ask research-oriented questions. Neil Postman expressed his “astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward” the art of formulating questions. “All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question asking is our most important intellectual tool. I would go so far as to say that the answers we carry about in our heads are largely meaningless unless we know the questions which produced them.”

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 year, 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.