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.

Now, every summer as students engage their assigned summer reading, the entire JCHS Professional Community (educators and staff) also have assigned reading. This summer it’s a selection of four books one of which is William Damon's "The Path of Purpose: How Young People Find Their Purpose in Life." I offered this particular book choice to empower the JCHS professional community to frame the urgency of helping our students discover their purpose.

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. 

What would you be in your snow globe? The journey -- markers of the steps along the way? Or the destination -- a marker of your end goal.

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. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Journey of Connection (Pekudei 5779)

It's been a remarkable year for JCHS athletics with three teams, so far, earning spots in state sectionals (Boys Soccer, Girls Volleyball, and Boys Basketball). The journey of this year's basketball team is especially remarkable leveraging exceptional  levels of teamwork to bring the school to a first-ever trip to the NorCal "Final Four." 

The basketball team played with tremendous heart and resilience. Their achievement can be measured in several ways. For instance, they won more games than any basketball team in school history. They scored 1,308 points and made 462 assists (another school record). With five players on the court at a time, they achieved 1,775 (that is, 5 + 1,308 + 462). The 1,775 represents not only their accomplishment but also the amazing connection they had with each other. 

Similarly, there are lots of numbers in this week’s Torah portion. Its name, Pekudei, could be translated as "audit" or “accounting.” In it, Moses accounts for and recounts the collection and donation of silver and other precious materials used to construct the Tabernacle in the wilderness. 

Friday, February 8, 2019

Moving Toward Face to Face (Terumah 5779)

Image Credit: iStock|FatCamera in
"Why Babies Need Parallel Play"
Parents of newborn twins tell me it can take several months before the babies express any explicit awareness of the presence of another infant. Even when twins are napping or sleeping together in the same bassinet or crib, each acts like an only child. It's not until months later they seem to wake up and take a keen interest in each other.  

That is echoed in child development as toddlers learn how to engage through the developmental stage of parallel-play. That is, they play adjacent to each other, but do not try to influence one another's behavior. Each toddler is, in a sense, playing alone, but in proximity with and some sideways interest in another. Only later do children learn authentic interaction, facing each other in true relationship. 

Torah this week echoes this developmental scheme as it describes the mechanics and artistry of constructing the tabernacle in the wilderness, Torah directs the making two gold statue images of kruveem or Cherubs to top the Ark. (Exodus 25:18-20.)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Don't Let the Light Go Out - JUDITH ELLEN ROBINS z"l (Bo 5779)

The Goldberg Twins 12th Birthday (Sept. 1946)
There are different theories about why we light candles on a birthday cake. Some say it has Greek origins -- dating back to ceremonies celebrating Artemis goddess of the moon. As the moon is seen only in light, Artemis was celebrated with a single, large candle in the middle of a cake. Others point to 18th-century German aristocrats who celebrated birthdays with candlelight cake. Candles to mark longevity with a candle for each year of life.  

But why is so much meaning ascribed to light? In the Jewish tradition, the story of Creation begins with the “creation” of light. It is the very first of all divine creations to be judged "good." Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) compares light to learning. (Even English uses the same idea with the word "enlightened.") Our tradition also identifies light with goodness, the human soul, and even life itself. For instance, we light a yahrzeit candle to mark the anniversary of someone’s death. 

This week's Torah portion, Bo, teaches us something more about light as we are introduced to the 9th plague deployed to persuade ancient Pharaoh to let our people go. That is the plague of darkness. Darkness so pervasive Torah describes it as thick. (Ex. 10:22). Darkness so heavy that Egyptians could not see each other. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Tender Threads Anchor Our Path (Vayigash 5779)

At times we wander aimlessly, but most often we walk with purpose. Leaving some place, heading to another. Or to boost our heart rate or lower our stress. To be by ourselves or to meet someone else. 

The Torah this week opens with a walk of purpose -- of approach and encounter. It occurs when Judah approaches the viceroy of Egypt who Judah does not recognize as his brother Joseph (yes, the same Joseph that Judah and their other brothers sold into slavery decades earlier). Their encounter with each other is dramatic and powerful. It is as if they were drawn inevitably toward reconciliation with each other by invisible threads of history, purpose, and family.

Those threads bring to mind author Anne Lamott's favorite story about the seemingly invisible threads that guide our lives. She heard the story on the radio about university research with adults who could not change direction, action, or focus. These subjects of the study had been unable to walk alone. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

Quieting Our Assumptions (Vayeishev 5779)

More than 30 million people traveled through airports for Thanksgiving. Traveling to be with family has its challenges. Fictional books and movies, along with real life, remind us that big family gatherings can "breed festering emotional wounds" with one report finding three-quarters of us have at least one family member who annoys us. All of that -- along with my favorite airport story and this week's Torah portion -- came to mind when stuck in heavy SFO traffic dropping off some of our (delightful!) Thanksgiving guests. 

In the Torah narrative this week, the biblical Joseph (of technicolor Dreamcoat fame) is sent out to find his brothers. His reunion with them ends very badly for him. Joseph's older brothers toss him into an empty pit, leaving him to die. Then they sell him into slavery and tell their father he was killed by a wild animal. That part of the Joseph tale is introduced with a verse, his brothers "saw [Joseph] from afar, but before he came close they conspired to kill him." (Genesis 37:18) Talk about "festering emotional wounds!"

I'll return to that verse in a moment. But first, my favorite airport story:

It is about a woman about to take a long flight. At an airport shop, she buys a book for the plane and a package of cookies. Putting them in her bag she heads toward her departure gate.  The lounge area is full so she is grateful to find two empty seats. One for her and the other for her stuff.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Be the Stranger in the Pick-up Truck (Vayetzei 5779)

As the week began on the Tuesday after Veteran's Day, we came to school with heavy concerns close to our hearts - in Israel - and close to our homes - in northern California. 

Close to our homes, the Butte County Camp Fire already had destroyed more than 7,500 structures, devastated 125,000 acres (an area about four times the size of San Francisco), and 42 lives lost. [Sadly, the fire has continued destroying lives, homes, and property.] 

Close to our hearts, there was death and destruction in Israel early this week when Hamas fired several hundred rockets into Israel from Gaza. Those rockets caused terrifying damage, many injuries, and one death. The rockets indiscriminately terrorized Israelis of all ages. In Ashkelon, on Israel's coast, a Hamas rocket killed a Palestinian man who was in Israel on a work permit that gave him permission to spend weeknights near his work in Israel. 

Close to our homes and close to our hearts: an individual in each place is linked, it seems to me, to this week's Torah portion. Close to our homes, it's fire-survivor, James Betts. Close to our hearts, it's rocket-victim, Mahmoud Abu Asabeh. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Grounded Resident or Alien Stranger: Reflection and Call to Action After Pittsburgh

On Monday at JCHS - Jewish Community High School of the Bay -  we reflected in a number of ways on the horrible tragedy in Pittsburgh. I am writing to share what I said at Monday’s school-wide gathering and to encourage you to support the Pittsburgh community of Jewish day schools (see link at the bottom). I hope you will join us in taking action to embrace them at this difficult time.

Since Saturday’s shooting, my JCHS colleagues and I are grateful for the many touching expressions of sympathy and support we’ve received from educators across the Bay Area. In that spirit, here is a picture from the makeshift memorial at the Tree of Life synagogue on Sunday as members of the Pittsburgh Muslim community step-up in support. (Photo by Alexandra Wimley, Post-Gazette.)

Here’s what I told JCHS students and educators on Monday:

This morning during Tefillah you had a chance to reflect individually or privately on the tragic shooting in Pittsburgh. We are making time now as a unified community to seek to understand, relate to, and stand in solidarity with the Pittsburgh Jewish community and Jewish communities everywhere.

What happened in Pittsburgh touches us deeply, close to home -- even at a distance of 2,500 miles. Some of us are feeling shaken or saddened. And some of us are not sure what to feel.

For many centuries now, the Jewish community has developed a well-exercised muscle for juggling tragedy and the life-affirming activities of daily life. We do that to ensure that daily life is not swallowed up by those who impose tragedy on our community, or by those who seek to extinguish the light of our community. We do that so that tragedy does not swallow our lives or our communities.