Friday, October 12, 2018

The Folly of Imagining There's Only One Path (Noach 5779)

Tower of Babel by Dr. Seuss
This week JCHS welcomed undergraduate guests from Shalem College in Israel, whose motto is "leadership for Israel begins here." We enjoy our annual encounter with these students because, in a country where many college students specialize as undergrads, Shalem undergrads dedicate themselves to four years of conversation across the ages and disciplines. 

For them, “shalem” (lit. completeness) does not come from developing expertise in a single academic or professional discipline or following a single path, rather it comes from integrating diverse disciplines, being in conversation with a diversity of voices and perspectives. We love hearing that their JCHS visit is a highlight of their Bay Area tour because of the school community's vibrant, living laboratory of intellectual and Jewish pluralism. 

All of that is amplified by an infamous story in this week's Torah portion: The Tower of Babel. Its infamy always has intrigued me because the Tower could easily have been swallowed up by the even more famous introductory story this week's Torah portion: Noah and the Flood. Torah's Noah narrative is told over four full chapters with lots of detail and drama. By comparison, the Tower tale uses a mere nine verses. 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Wisdom, Scrutiny, Insight: How We See Ourselves and Others (High Holy Days and Ha'azinu 5779)

This post comes just after Yom Kippur in the midst of the Jewish season of profound introspection and reflection. This season demands courage to admit our mistakes. And strength to commit ourselves to a better way of doing things, in the new year.

But courage and strength mean nothing if we are unable to see the impact of our behavior on others or let ourselves be blinded by superficial appearances or if we simply refuse to look deeply at what motivates our conduct. All that requires clarity and authenticity.

In this weeks Torah portion, remarkable in part because it is composed almost entirely as a poem, suggests a formula for avoiding those errors in vision and authenticity. When speaking about the failings of the ancient enemies of Israel, Torah speaks not of their physical weakness or ineptitude, but rather their failures of vision, of not being able to see, truly see what was in front of them.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Mastering Our Impulses: Not Being Mastered By Them (Vayeilech and Yom Kippur 5779)

A panel from The Beat Within (TBW) annually presents to the school community at Jewish Community High School (JCHS) during the Jewish High Holy Day season when our minds are directed toward deep self-reflection and assessment. It is a time of judging our behaviors in order to return to the highest goals we have for ourselves. 

Since 1996 TBW has been giving incarcerated youth the encouragement and opportunities to share and publish their art, ideas, and life experiences. It also is the name of its publication of arts and writing from inside the juvenile justice system. TBW is a powerful bridge between youth who are locked up and the community that aims to support their progress towards a healthy, non-violent, and productive lives. They have learned to master their impulses rather than having their impulses master them. 

Friday, September 7, 2018

Power of Community: Invisible Lines of Connection (Nitzavim 5778 and Rosh Hashanah 5779)

A friend likes to picnic on Shabbat in the Shakespeare Garden of Golden Gate Park. She fills a picnic basket on Friday afternoon and sets it under a stone bench in the garden. That way the basket is waiting for her the next day as she finishes a long Shabbat morning stroll through the park.    

Recently, my friend was surprised to see an elderly woman standing on the grass in the Shakespeare Garden with a fishing rod. The old woman was casting her fishing line across the grass. Over and over again the woman cast her line. But the woman seemed more and more frustrated each time there was nothing on her line.  

My friend watched the old woman for a while. How sad, thought my friend. It seemed as if the poor woman was trying really to catch fish on the grass! My friend asked the old woman, “Fishing on the grass?” 

Friday, August 31, 2018

One Person Makes a Huge Difference on the Path (Ki Tavo 5778)

Mahalia Jackson at March on Washington August 28, 1963
Photo by Bob Parent, Getty Images
This week marks the 55th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington -- with 250,000 participants it was the largest political rally for human rights in American history. One of the most memorable and moving moments from that day was Martin Luther King Jr’s I have a dream speech.

But today it is not King's words themselves that move me. Rather it is how one person by encouraging King to speak those words links up with an evocative passage in this week's Torah portion and to how one person's caring regard for an orphaned family made it possible to sustain Jewish life in a small community for generations. 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Returning Home: First Day of School (Ki Teitzei 5778)

The tremendous paired excitement and anxiety of the first day of school seemingly is seemingly predicted in the seasonal alignment of this week's Torah portion and next week's. The name of this week’s portion is Ki Teitzei, literally "when you go out" and next week's is Ki Tavo, literally "when you enter" or "when you return." The start of a new school year pivots from going out to distant places toward entering back or returning home. 

At JCHS this week, just before I welcomed students back from summer, the student body president encouraged them to appreciate and celebrate the small treasures that can be found every day taking the opportunities available to learn and to grow. Her encouragement to seek out the sometimes hidden treasures brought to mind a folktale about Reb Izzy of Krakow.* 

Reb Izzy lived in a very small home. He always dreamt of something bigger, grander. Reb Izzy's house was so small . . . 

How small was it?

Friday, August 17, 2018

From Summer Days to School Days (Shoftim 5778)

The rhythm of transitioning from summer days to school days echoes the rhythm of transitioning from the closing days of the Jewish year to Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days. Our attention turns from aimless moments to purposeful days, from carefree activities to careful self-reflection. 

This week the JCHS professional community worked on campus to prepare for the coming school year. (And our largest student population ever - 187!) This week also began the Hebrew month of Elul, which winds down the Jewish year and comes just before Rosh Hashanah. For many it is a season of introspection and self-reflection – seeking to see ourselves honestly and as others see us.  

This summer also brought renewed attention to the Supreme Court and its justices as we often expect them to advance or discern justice even when it seems most elusive. But justices are only human as confirmed by a story about Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. when an impressive full-length portrait of him was painted for Harvard Law School. On seeing it - the handsome face, flowing robe, and distinguished white hair – Holmes exclaimed, “That isn’t me. But it’s a darn good thing for people to think it is!” 

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.” 


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.