Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Encircled by the Cages We Keep (Yom Kippur and Haazinu 5780)

At this season the Jewish community is focused on teshuvah -- translated often as repentance, it literally means to turn or return. We return to the highest goals we have for our behavior, we return to our community, we return to our friends and families. Each of these returns is a stop along the path we set for ourselves in the Jewish new year that has just begun. Those moves bring changes that transform our lives. Even the Yom Kippur liturgy echoes this thought ("Teshuvah . . . transforms our fate"). 

One colleague talks about her parents loving to needlepoint. In anticipation of Yom Kippur, they needlepointed the saying, "Teshuvah Changes Things." They proudly displayed the completed framed needlepoint on the mantle. It was gone
the next day. They asked their partner, "Did you see what happened to my needlepoint." "Yes. I took it down.' "But I thought you valued Teshuvah," the needlepointer exclaimed. "Teshuvah is just fine. It's change I can't stand!" 

Probing our relationship to change is vital to this season. As another colleague, Rabbi Erica Asch, teaches, "These holidays are not a time to change others. Instead, we must focus on changing ourselves." She observes that incremental are both achievable and impactful. Making a 180-degree turn seems impossible. But a turn of even 3 or 4 degrees if we hold to it long enough will dramatically change the path of our lives. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

What Woodchoppers and Songwriters Teach Us About Inclusion (Nitzavim 5779 and Rosh Hashanah 5780)

Woodchoppers are mentioned only once in Torah
UK Women's Land Army (1941)
Torah teaches a powerful lesson about human interaction this week. A lesson that it took researchers a few dozen centuries to figure out. That is, teams comprised of those with diverse perspectives and ideas outperform collections of individuals who all are similar to each other. 

This is especially true when a team is creating something, solving complex problems, or performing complicated tasks. The contemporary research is explained in Scott Page's The Diversity Bonus: How Great Teams Pay Off in the Knowledge Economy. This was one of the books JCHS educators read over this last summer. 

Page writes about the Beatles' John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He presumes most people know that as a songwriting duo they top the "Billboard" list of songwriters with the most number one hits. What most people don't know is that in third place on that list is Martin Sandberg (who writes songs under the name Max Martin). Martin is famous for writing song such as I Want It That Way for Backstreet Boys, DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love for Usher, and I Kissed a Girl for Katy Perry. 

Friday, September 13, 2019

Molding Character with a Forgotten Sheaf and a Magic Seed (Ki Teitzei 5779)

Last month, an international aid organization reported that after observing a 12-year decline in global hunger, there has been a concerning increase over the last two years. 

This called to mind a hand-lettered sign I saw in a community food bank: "Sometimes I want to ask God why She allows people to go hungry when there's plenty she can do to fix that. But I am afraid God would ask me the same question!" 


Friday, September 6, 2019

Finding Our Way (Shoftim 5779)

2017 Women's March Poster by Ruth Mergi
(Voicing pursuit of justice in Hebrew feminine)
One of the most famous phrases in the Torah comes from this week's portion. It's so famous that presidents use it in speeches. A Supreme Court justice has the phrase posted in her chambers. The phrase is "tzedek tzedek tirdoph - justice, justice you must pursue." (Deut. 16:20.) 

This phrase seems a fitting introduction to the season of introspection that began last weekend. That's when the Hebrew month, Elul, opened. It is the month that comes right before Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year). This sense of being judged at this season moved the ancient rabbis to call Rosh Hashanah, "Yom Hadin - Day of Judgment [or justice]." As the calendar turns toward Rosh Hashanah it is customary to become especially self-reflective; judging ourselves and our behaviors in the year that's coming to a close. As my colleague, Rabbi Elyse Goldstein writes about this week's Torah portion, "It is now that I try and focus on the coming period of introspection and self-evaluation." 

Friday, August 30, 2019

Only You: The Power of Individuals in Community (Re'eh 5779)

"Smokey Bear" Turned 75 in August 2019
Earlier this month the U.S. Forest Service celebrated the 75th birthday of Smokey Bear - the iconic forest dweller who still encourages individual responsibility to prevent wildfires -- as many as 90% of which are sparked by human activity. 

When I was a kid, we took Smokey seriously whenever we were making fires or with people who smoked outdoors. Each of us thought, "It is on me!" 

In recent years, though, with the accelerating frequency and intensity of wildfires caused by climate change and urban planning factors, I wonder if Smokey's message still resonates. Can any one of us really prevent a wildfire?

Friday, August 23, 2019

Outside Matching Inside: First Day of School (Eikev 5779)

Orange on the inside and the outside
At JCHS this week, I invited students to reflect on all the different paths they took to come to school. Walked. Skateboard. BART. Shuttle. Public bus. Carpool. Bike. Ferry. Car. Some combination of these. 

In some ways, my own journey to JCHS began 40 years ago this month when I started law school just a few blocks from JCHS. I was still working at a Jewish summer camp in Saratoga about 50 miles away from law school. (URJ Camp Swig later moved to Santa Rosa as URJ Camp Newman). 

I remember my first day of law school so vividly. I knew no one. I had never visited the campus before that first day. I took a Greyhound bus at 6:05am to be at law school by 8:00am. 

Nervous, afraid -- about how people would look at me. Whether I had the right bookbag, pens, highlighters. I even felt stressed about what type of paper to use for taking notes (in the days

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Year Ahead: A Path of Purpose (Eikev 5779)


The rhythm of transitioning from school days to summer days and back again to school days calls to mind one of my school teachers. On the last day of school in June, my teacher told us the best plan for summer “is to do nothing.” That seemed pretty cool, I thought to myself. No early wake-up! No homework! No schedules! No more chores! No more responsibilities! Do nothing!

My dreams of “doing nothing” were shattered when a classmate asked if the teacher literally meant “do nothing!” “Not exactly,” they explained, “I mean find a purpose outside of school. Try something new. Don’t be afraid to fail. Practice kindness without being blocked by peer pressure. Take responsibility for your boredom. That’s the purpose of summer!”

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Listen Closely for the Spark; Fan the Flame (Summer Reading 2019; Beha'alotecha 5779)

Mike Norbert, former NCAA All-American, founder of
Swim with a Purpose swim school in Atlanta
Summer was time for fun in my family. But it also was a time for learning with a purpose -- whether it was beginning swim lessons or lifeguarding courses at the local pool, learning new social skills at public school enrichment day camp, theater and literature classes at summer school, or reading one of my parents' favorite childhood adventure books. Summer was a time for exploration, taking risks, and pursuing a passion or two.

As I got older summer also became a time for work to earn bus and gas money and learn new skills. While we couldn't afford big vacations, our summers were rich with experiences. Many of those experiences have informed important life choices -- working with children, encouraging others to pursue their passions, being open to learning from all experiences and people, celebrating diversity and honoring differences among people.


Friday, June 7, 2019

Are You a Journey Person or a Destination Person: Graduation 2019 (Bamidbar 5779)

My precious students*, I had a high school teacher who on the last day of class put a snow globe on her desk. Then she directed each of us to make a list of the most important things we’d be leaving behind when we finished high school. She asked us to imagine putting those things in a snow globe. That way, she explained, our imagined snow globe would be a kind of high school souvenir. Then she warned us to consider carefully whether it would be a journey snow globe or a destination snow globe. 

A journey snow globe would have artifacts from one's daily experience: maybe a pair of soccer shoes, a picnic lunch we enjoyed with a friend, and a park bench where we sat with a bestie up all night talking. A destination snow globe would have big memorable buildings,, the college we would be moving to in August, and a favorite swimming pool. 

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Journey: The Blues or Blue Skies (Shemini 5779)

Photo by Ramon Llorensi
We often are ambivalent about Sundays. Some Sundays leave us with dissonance and anxiety anticipating the week ahead. We feel helpless: those are Sunday blues. Other Sundays inspire us to carry optimism and hope into the coming week. We feel hopeful; those are blue sky Sundays. 

This Sunday every JCHS student will be adventuring far from home - to southern California, to Zion National Park, to New Orleans, and within Israel. These journeys empower our students by engaging them with others who think, live, and believe differently than they do. These journeys empower our students to see their own world from different points of view -- and to imagine shaping the world through their effort and labor. Still just as Sundays start each week, some journey encounters will generate dissonance or anxiety while others inspire optimism and hope.

The Torah portion this week hints at our inherent capacity to choose optimism over anxiety - seeing blue skies instead of feeling the blues.