Friday, June 15, 2018

Resilience v. Resistance (Korach 2018)


Each summer as students engage their assigned summer reading, the entire JCHS Professional Community (educators and staff) also have assigned reading.  This summer it’s Elana Aguilar’s “Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators.” I selected this book for the JCHS professional community to deepen our individual and collective reservoirs of reflective learning, self-awareness, and ability to engage in thoughtful conversations about growth and learning for ourselves and our students.
Ironically, it is the lack of these same attributes that dooms the biblical Korach and his followers when Korach launches a rebellion against Moses in this week’s Torah portion. Korach has a fixed mindset believing he is infallible, smug about his talents, and lacking doubts about his abilities. Korach’s rebellion falls because of his intellectual and political hubris. Moses, by contrast, faces the Korach’s rebellion with open humility and eagerness to learn more about and grow in his leadership. As a result, Moses leadership endures.

JCHS is blessed with dozens of educators and professionals whose growth mindset empowers students and inspires colleagues. Our professional community’s commitment to a growth mindset began a decade ago when the JCHS 2009 summer reading was Carol Dweck’s seminal book, “Mindset.”

Dweck’s work affirmed what most of us at JCHS already were practicing. That is, encouraging and teaching students toward achieving high goals instead of judging them and fixing limited impressions of their capacity to meet those goals. In Dweck’s words, “great teachers set high standards for all their students, not just the ones who are already achieving.” Teachers who believe in a student’s (and their own) capacity to learn and grow create the conditions of that growth. Those who don’t believe it can’t create it.

Korach’s hubris is a kind of fixed mindset rooted in resistance that fails. While Moses’ humility is a kind of growth mindset rooted in resilience that endures.

Through the years, the themes developed through our professional community’s summer reading have included affirming that it is what one does, not what one’s got that matters most. Holding a deep commitment to developing a community of character that identifies who we want our students to become in relationship to each other. Building resilience and strength through practice, healthy risks, and reflection about mistakes.

My colleague, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, beautifully writes that “Judaism, writ large, is about resilience.” Her review of Jewish history reveals the consistent, repeated cycle of Jewish trauma and survival, reassessment and repair. In her words, “from trauma, we have had to heal. We have had to recover and re-vision, regenerate and re-seed vital Jewish life. We have found ways to cultivate resilience, both individually and collectively.” She continues,

Jewish history is, in many ways, a recurring cycle of crisis and renewal. The Second Temple in Jerusalem, the center of religious life, was destroyed in 70 CE, and our ancient sages created rabbinic Judaism, organized around synagogues and home observance through the prism of halakhah (Jewish law), was created. After Sephardi Jews were persecuted and expelled during the Inquisition, Jewish mystics responded by building up Kabbalah, a deep and complex tradition. In Eastern Europe, Hasidic Judaism emerged in the aftermath of the terrible Chelmnitsky massacres [17th century, Poland]. Jewish emancipation, made possible because of Europe’s Age of Enlightenment, brought many opportunities and also much confusion about identity and community.

This ferment sparked tremendous cultural creativity, itself a vibrant expression of resilience – witness Spinoza’s philosophy, Marx’s political theory, Freud’s psychiatry, Durkheim’s sociology, Einstein’s physics, Schoenberg’s compositions, and the list goes on. Emancipation, its opportunities, limitations and crises also gave rise to Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement, which ultimately created an independent Jewish state after nearly 2000 years without one. Even as these developments are more complex than this summary suggests, they are also only a handful of examples of collective Jewish revival after trauma.

At JCHS we believe this communal and individual capacity for renewal is the beating heart of education -- for students and for educators. Aguilar’s book coaches educators so that they might be even more effective at coaching their students. The traditional morning prayers of Judaism include an affirmation that creation is renewed every day.

Read through the lens of resilience, this prayer affirms that the world is not frozen in place when yesterday ended. Rather, the start of each new day gives us the opportunity to actively pursue the type of world and relationships we seek. May the summer ahead bring us many opportunities to refresh and renew.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

To Lose Memory But Not Be Erased (Beshalach 5778)

This week I want to focus on memory. I am especially drawn to memory this week because it is the 2nd anniversary of my mom's death and the 20th anniversary of my dad's. On the Hebrew calendar, they died exactly 18 years and 1 day apart. I dedicate this week's post to their memories.*

In this week's Torah portion, there is a first of its kind mitzvah (divine exhortation) involving memory. In the Torah narrative up until now, there have been people remembering places or things that God did to help us. But this week for the first time there is a mitzvah for people to remember a person. The stage is set for this new type of memory with the dramatic parting and crossing of the sea as Moses and the ancient Israelite slaves are running from their Egyptian pursuers. Safely across the wilderness journey begins. 


Early in this journey, the Israelites are attacked by Amalek and his tribe. A fierce battle follows, which the Israelites win. Then, Torah instructs us to remember Amalek by writing his name . . . which God will erase from existence. (Exodus 14:17). This is the first time in Torah when we are told to remember a particular person. Just to observe the name being erased!?! What good is a recorded memory if it can so swiftly be erased?

A story about memory and erasing it …

Almost ten years ago this winter on an icy day in Maine, a Reform rabbi, Alice Goldfinger, slipped on ice outside her synagogue. Her brain crashed into her

Friday, January 5, 2018

Our Most Precious Relationships and Places (Shemot 5778)

Last week, during winter break, we were in Israel and I spent a few afternoons in the Jerusalem neighborhood where I lived 25 years ago. Jerusalem - the place and the relationships nourished there - is still on my mind this week. Inspired by Jerusalem, this week's dvar Torah about the places and people most precious to us is in three parts.

Part 1: When I was living in Jerusalem, the (then 30-year old) comedian Jon Stewart would tell a joke about the intensity of claims to Jerusalem. "Israel is a tiny, tiny country. Yet every monotheistic religion began in Israel. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all began in Israel. All began in Jerusalem. All began within like a two block radius of each other. You know what this means? It means Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses all went to the same high school!" Stewart would get a lot of laughs - precisely because it is so untrue as the three lived several centuries apart and neither Moses nor Muhammad ever lived in Jerusalem. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

I Can't Hear You: Could It Be the Banana In My Ear (Miketz 5778 and Chanukah)

Banana in Ernie's Ear Shows He Isn't Listening to Bert
How often do we see others in pain, but ignore it? How often do we hear the cries of others, but don't listen?At this season of short days, our vision often is obscured by darkness. Our hearing often is dulled by long nights in our own homes. 

This week's Torah portion and the festival of Chanukah come together this week as a kind of warning and an inspiration. 

The warning comes when Joseph's brothers believe that they caused their own current distress two decades earlier when they first tried to kill Joseph then sold him into slavery. They are not yet even aware that the Egyptian viceroy who is toying with them is, in fact, Joseph. They say to each other, "We saw [Joseph's] pain and ignored it. We heard his cries, but paid no attention to them." (Genesis 42:21.) It is a startling revelation.

Friday, November 3, 2017

"Who is silent? Who speaks?" (Vayeira 5778)

2017 Limited edition MetroCard
Photo by Job Piston in the New York Times
This week New York city's transit authority released some limited edition MetroCards with pointed questions about privilege created by artist Barbara Kruger. A version of the conceptual art cards reads, "Who is healed? Who is housed? Who is silent? Who speaks?" Kruger has expressed these questions through her art since 1991.

This particular MetroCard seems to echo recent news stories about sexual harassment. This extreme misconduct often is hidden (or enabled) when some voices are privileged and others systematically silenced.  This MetroCard also seems to echo the arc of this week's Torah narrative, which is among the most profoundly complex interpersonally, emotionally, socially, culturally and nationally of all Torah. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down . . . Or Do We? (Noah 5778)

Camp Newman Star Survives on Hillside Blackened by Fire
Many imagine that the nursery rhyme phrase, "ashes, ashes, we all fall down" is a dark reference to 17th century London's Black Plague. But origins for this phrase seem more difficult to comprehend or explain.

It is even more difficult to comprehend or explain the northern California wildfires that in recent weeks have killed more than 40 people and destroyed more than 100,000 acres. It seems too much to take in. Included among the more than 7,000 properties that were destroyed, was much of Camp Newman (the beloved Jewish summer camp that succeeded Camp Swig where I was a camper, record producer, assistant director, and board member).*

These fires have created losses that are immeasurable -- of precious life, treasured livelihood, and valued property. Whole worlds were destroyed. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

In the Dark Shadow of a Las Vegas Massacre (Sukkot 5778)

2010 Sukkah Made from Signs From the Homeless
Our school community held its weekly gathering on Monday in the dark shadow of Sunday's Las Vegas massacre in which more than 500 people were wounded and nearly 60 killed. 

There are no words adequate to make meaning of such a monstrous tragedy. We are stunned. We are angry. We are afraid. We are speechless. 

Yet, something about Las Vegas calls to mind a story often told by my colleague, Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, about his young daughter, Nessa's fear of alligators under her bed or monsters in her closet. Inspired by his story I shared its themes with

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Ask the World, Why? Ask Ourselves, Why Not? (Rosh Hashanah and Ha'azinu 5778)

Apple Laffy Taffy & Bit-O-Honey
given to each JCHS student for Rosh Hashanah
This evening starts the new Jewish year of 5778. The timing of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) is in sync with the start of each school year. These new beginnings bring the opportunity to visualize our path and our learning in the year ahead.

Echoing the custom of dipping apples in honey at Rosh Hashanah (see below), I hand out lots of Apple Laffy Taffy and Bit-O-Honey at this time of year. Usually, Laffy Taffy riddles are juvenile. But this year, I discovered three that were (nearly) existential! 

#1 - Why was the boy covered in gift wrap? His mom told him to live in the present. #2 - What kind of tea is sometimes hard to swallow? Reality. #3 - What would you do without your memories? Forget.  

Embedded in these three riddles is the secret of this season that begins with Rosh Hashanah -- a season of reflection, introspection, and renewal. We have to be deeply present in order to reflect on our memories of real, authentic moments from the year past to inform a commitment to doing better in the new year. 

Along with the Apple Laffy Taffy and Bit-O-Honey, I shared an insight this week with our students from Rabbi Israel Salanter (19th century, Lithuania). He taught we have two eyes for a reason.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Measure for Measure: As You Judge Others, So Will You Be Judged (Ki Tavo 5777)

A blog post this week in three parts. A folktale. A framework from this week's Torah portion. And an apology.

The folktale*: There was a very wealthy man who loved only two things in life: work and cake. When he wasn't working he was admiring or eating cake. He had a favorite bakery that sold the most beautiful and delicious cakes. He went there every day on his way to work.

Once when he was walking out of the bakery with a beautiful slice of cake, the man stumbled. His cake fell to the ground. His piece of cake rolled in the dirt where it was covered with pebbles and grass. On his way back into the bakery to buy a replacement piece of cake, the man noticed a homeless person peering into the bakery's window. The man picked up the dirty piece of cake, handed it to the homeless person, and went inside to buy more for himself.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Orphans, Widows, and Foreigners Lives Matter (#Charlottesville) (Ki Teitzei 5777)

Earlier this week, we brought the school community together to reflect on Charlottesville. An educator and a student shared each their personal reflections about Charlottesville (see below) as we deepen our work to make JCHS among the most emotionally inclusive and intellectually diverse high schools in the country.

Yael Krieger, the educator, challenged us, “What would it look like for JCHS to be a school that celebrates the diversity within the Jewish community [and] committing itself to the principle of human dignity?” Mira Kittner, the student, exhorted us, "It's an important time, don’t check out! When the spirit of hate, bitterness, and division seems stronger than ever, each of us must tune-in and step-up.” 

For me, recent news about neo-Nazis and White Supremacists combined with the frightening scenes from Charlottesville -- including chants of "Jews will not replace us” and “America belongs to white men” -- brought me back to when I was about 10 years old and very different images of "Nazis." And as if Charlottesville did not fan the flames against those who are vulnerable as foreigners or strangers, the US government seemed to throw gasoline on the flames by announcing a repeal of #DACA