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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Home is Where the Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Nose Are (Shoftim 5777)

See No, Speak No, Hear No, Smell No by Angela Quitoriano
Greeting the largest entering class ever at JCHS, I was excited yesterday to "welcome home" all of our students.

Coming home from summer vacation, whether one travels near or far, or simply changes one's daily routine can be both exciting and confounding. It is comforting to be back with things that are familiar, and it can time time to readjust and fit back in. Friends got accustomed to getting along without us -- and us without them. Others sat in the places that we used to call ours. It is a time of mixed feelings. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

A mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi walk into a ... (Graduation 2017)


My precious students*: Earlier this week, I was reading my notes from your first day of school at JCHS when I encouraged you to avoid the kinds of intellectual blindness and emotional deafness that reflect a fixed way of experiencing the world. 

Also, I encouraged you to seek out classmates who are profoundly different than you are -- so you might learn from and be inspired by those differences. And to discover that one other person at JCHS who has exactly what you are lacking and to discover that one other person at JCHS who needs exactly what only you can share. As we heard from your classmates this afternoon, you have actively embraced each of these. 

In a moment I will share my gift for your graduation -- a mash-up mixed from one mathematician, two musicians, and a rabbi. But just a few more thoughts about your first day of high school. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Hold Your Head Up: Winners or Losers (Bamidbar 5777)

Hold Your Head Up 1972 hit by rock band Argent
When I was in law school an apocryphal story was going around about winners and losers. The story was about a murder trial: A man was charged with murdering his neighbor. 

But it was a very circumstantial case. There were no witnesses to a killing. They found no body. There was just an apartment building filled with tenants who overheard two of their neighbors constantly fighting. One night, after a really loud argument, one of the quarreling neighbors disappeared. The victim just disappeared; never heard from again. Everyone assumed the worst.

The surviving neighbor was tried for murder. At trial, his attorney focused on showing reasonable doubt. She argued he could not be convicted on such flimsy evidence. In her closing argument, the defendant's lawyer looked up at the jury

Friday, May 19, 2017

Its a Hammer of Justice, Its a Bell of Freedom (American Jewish Heritage Month 2017) (Behar-Bechukotai 5777)


Cesar Chavez receives replica Liberty Bell from UAW,1970
Fifty years ago this summer, Cesar Chavez, as leader of the United Farm Workers, launched a nationwide boycott of California table grapes in support of farm-worker rights. His boycott brought attention to the plight of farm workers and his life's work liberated thousands of workers from inhumane wages and working conditions.

One of the most potent symbols of liberty in the United States is the Liberty Bell. When the bell was cast about 250 years ago, words from this week's Torah portion were put on the bell, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto the inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10) It seems fitting to call out the bell's links to Torah during American Jewish Heritage Month

Friday, May 12, 2017

Season of Senioritis: Don't Let the Light Go Out (Emor 5777)

Toward the end of each school year, there are moments when the excitement, energy, and (even) inspiration with which the year started seems to fade. Every grade has its own version of senioritis. At those moments it is important to remember that we each are responsible for the daily inspiration needed to keep being motivated. No single event or moment from August is sufficient to keep us motivated through an entire year.


Eldridge Stree Synagogue, New York
This week’s Torah portion, which includes a feature of every Jewish sanctuary, the ner tamid (a so-called “eternal light”), teaches a powerful lesson about continually encouraging motivation.


And so does an Ethiopian folktale about an elderly king worried about which of this three children would succeed him. Each child had unique traits. The oldest was strong. The middle child was clever. The youngest had insight. The king loved them all equally and tremendously.