Unfortunately, one of my daughters has estranged herself from me  … Sadly, my granddaughter is cheated out of having her grandparents in her life.

As grandparents, my husband and I have been the major Jewish influence in our grandchildren’s lives.”

My level of exhaustion directly influences how much I am willing to do things to influence my grandchildren.”

How did the presence of grandparents influence your Jewish life? If you’re a grandparent, how are you – or are you – transmitting Jewish values, rituals, culture or ethnic intimacy? With these issues top of mind, The Jewish Grandparenting Network, spearheaded by Lee Hendler and David Raphael, partnered with the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at The George Washington University to host a two-day convening (June 12-13, Pearlstone Center) to share the results of an in-depth survey on Jewish grandparenting and lay out avenues for further research. The central result: today’s modern Jewish family is more complex than ever, and the organized Jewish community stands before an immense opportunity to respond to trends, to provide support and to chart new territory.

The convening brought together 30 academics, national agency heads and senior leaders of denominations and foundations – many who had never met – to study, critique and think out loud about demographic trends and possibilities. After a text study called “The Silver Crown – Grandparents in the Bible and Talmud” conducted by the Mayberg Center’s director, Dr. Erica Brown, Karen Radkowsky, founder and president of Impact: NPO, shared the results of a survey answered by close to 8,000 North American grandparents, across a wide spectrum of Jewish background and practice. Radkowsky teased out the salient findings into categories of grandparents, from those who found their role joyful and Jewishly engaging to those who are not interested in passing on anything Jewish to the next generation.

Grandparents with multiple sets of grandchildren may find they can be meaningfully involved with one set of grandchildren and not another, depending on the family gatekeepers and the relationship they have with their birth and in-law children. Cognitive psychologist and former head of Israel’s Mandel Center, Dr. Eli Gottlieb, added greater levels of complexity by framing the conversation around changing notions identity generally – a disregard for exclusivity, a need for acceptance, the speed at which people move in an out of identity today and the technology they use to showcase their identities. Compounded by the demographics of aging (people living longer) the rise in intermarriage rates, and strong economic demands on the family, multi-generational families may find themselves re-configuring in unexpected new ways.

One of the survey results demonstrated that grandparents are anxious to share their family stories and want the tools to do so effectively. In that spirit, Dr. Marshall Duke, Jewish grandparent and Charles Howard Candler Professor of Psychology at Emory University, worked with Dr. Sharon Blumenthal-Cohen of the Mayberg Center, to create a session on the importance of story-telling, helping participants weave memories of their own grandparents or thoughts about grandchildren into six word memoirs. In the evening, Dr. Eric Goldman, professor and film historian at Yeshiva University, showed clips of Jewish grandparents in film to catalyze a conversation on roles and stereotypes, from the old Yiddish grandfather reciting a psalm with his grandson in a village to the modern grandfather counseling his grandson out of a bar–mitzva hangover. Multi-racial families, interfaith families and same-sex parents mean that these stereotypical images no longer resonate when we see Jewish families on the screen.

Jane Isay, former publisher and author of Unconditional Love, a book on grandparenting, addressed the group by constructing four pillars of the moral imagination critical to being a loving and thoughtful grandparent: empathy, perspective, knowledge and agency. Grandparents have an important counterbalancing role in the family, as she writesin Unconditional Love, “The current vogue in child development is to focus on noncognitive skills: self-regulation, grit, and the ability to process stress. Loving attention from adults is essential to the development of these traits.” Here’s where the grandparent comes in. Often, to establish this role, Isay points to the negotiation that must take place with one’s adult children to smooth old hurts: “Mindful of the boundaries between us and our grown children, we make the effort to take the differences between us less personally.”

The convening concluded with small group conversations around central questions from what kind of support and programming the organized Jewish community should provide to help multi-generational families navigate challenges to how the survey findings could be fine-tuned and disseminated. Across groups, there was concern that the communal hyper-focus on the millennial generation may be blinding the broad Jewish community and its leaders from looking carefully and holistically at the changing family unit. A participant from PJ Library shared a small but potent change inspired by a grandmother who wrote to him and enclosed a photo of herself, challenging him to re-think the illustrations. “I went skiing yesterday. I don’t look like the grandmother in your books.”

So what is your Jewish organization doing to support Jewish grandparents? If Jewish continuity is to be meaningful, it will come from strengthening the entire Jewish family and from a Judaism robust and engaging enough that it deserves to be passed on from one generation to the next.


Every Purim as we celebrate the victory of the Jewish underdog in exile, we are reminded of antisemitism’s most ancient roots. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, enemies of the Jews killed for “rational” reasons. Pharaoh worried that the meteoric population increase of the Jews in Egypt would create a fifth column. Israelites at risk in their desert wanderings were regarded as a military threat. Even when Amalek attacked the young and the elderly, theirs was a detestable strategy but one used in a state of war. Elie Wiesel once asked a perplexing question: “Which is worse: killing with hate or killing without hate?” Enter Haman. Haman might have the dubious honorific of being the first recorded antisemite. He was the first to kill Jews simply because he hated them, a hate that was deep and irrational.

In addition to all the revelry, the Book of Esther reminds us to take time to reflect on the phenomenon of antisemitism and note its pernicious origins and its stubborn constancy. This year, to aid us in this reflection, Deborah Lipstadt’s new bestselling book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, frames antisemitism (her spelling – and explained in the book) as an outgrowth of prejudice: “Prejudice is the act of negatively prejudging or assessing someone’s personal character and behaviors based on stereotypical beliefs about the racial, ethnic, religious, cultural, political, or geographic group to which she belongs.” Lipstadt, in accessible language, contends that the antisemitism of Haman’s variety is not a thing of the past but is, tragically, here and now. To enhance Lipstadt’s reading, The Covenant Foundation supported the creation of a study and teaching guide to the book that contains chapter-by-chapter questions, an interview with the author, case studies and interactive exercises to enrich and personalize the reading experience.

Using Lipstadt’s definition, Haman, in making his case against the Jews, notes how different Jews are from all the others in Ahasuerus’ vast empire: “Haman then said to King Ahasuerus, ‘There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them” [Esther 3:8].

The fragment – “there is a certain people” – alerts us immediately to Haman’s evil machinations. He has singled out the Jews by observing their differences, a claim that, in and of itself, was true for every one of the king’s 127 provinces, an empire of multiple languages, faiths and customs. Sixteenth century commentator R. Joseph ibn Yahya from Portugal, explains that in concept Haman’s claims were true: “There is a nation whose characteristics and behaviors are different from others. They don’t eat, drink or marry others…” Hatred of difference is despicable enough. But Haman drew two extraordinary conclusions based on his observations that lace religious intolerance to this day: this certain people do not observe the king’s laws, and, as a result, they should be killed.

The claim that Jews did not observe the king’s law profoundly troubled exegetes for centuries, given the Talmud’s insistence that “the law of the land is law” [See, for example, BT Bava Kama 113a-b, BT Gitten 10b]. Jews must always observe the laws of their reigning government. This principle is derived from Jeremiah’s remonstration that Jews in exile must pray for the welfare of their government [Jeremiah 29:7]. Rashi, among others, ponders what Haman could have meant and concludes that Jews did “not pay taxes for the king’s work.” Yet Jews must have paid taxes because Haman had to bolster the king’s coffers to compensate for the revenue from the empire’s Jews. Haman scapegoats the Jews, all the while covering his own barely disguised desires for the king’s throne. Perhaps what ultimately undoes Haman is that far from the Jews being disobedient, the Jews of the ancient Persia were far more loyal and devoted to the king than Haman and his devotees.

In Character and Ideology in the Book of Esther, Bible professor Michael V. Fox departs from his own scholarly tone to share his emotions as he listens to the megillah each year, “As the annual reading of the Esther Scroll comes to an end, I breathe a sigh relief, but this expresses a prayer more than a certitude…” This Purim, as we hear the megillah, we are more likely to hold our breaths than collectively breathe a sigh of relief. The antisemitism of there and then has sadly become the hatred of here and now as Haman’s canards return to haunt us again and again. Most of us respond to antisemitism with the heart. Antisemitism: Here and Nowreminds us that the only way to combat antisemitism is with the mind. Inspired by Purim, this year let’s make a commitment to be better informed.


Now that the semester’s ending, I’ve decided to take up quilting over the winter break. Specifically, I’m making a quilt out of tote bags I’ve gotten at Jewish conferences. You know the ones; representing the entire span of Jewish organizational life, they tumble out of your hall closet, making you feel like you just came back from the G.A. every time you open the door. By the look of it, my quilt is likely to cover a small state, possibly Rhode Island or New Jersey. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this quilt, just like I’ve never been sure what to do with all these bags.

Use them, you’re thinking. Not a chance. Even those of you who sprung for the two-toned gusseted, heavy-gauge 12 ounce canvas with a pocket, two-ply 28” handles and attached key holder, I will not be wearing your tote bag. I will not even wear it if Prada produced your tote bag … well, I’d think about it.

Here’s why: First of all, every organization in our community is important. Why would I privilege one over another? You’re right, I could wear a different one every day. Good compromise. Problem: I’m the type who always forgets to transfer my wallet from one bag to another so this arrangement would not work. Plus I have a small hall closet.

Second of all, I’m not a billboard for your organization. If you work tirelessly on behalf of a specific denomination, I cannot wear your bag, and if you don’t have a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator, I am, in principle, not wearing your bag. Decades ago, to amuse myself, I sent one of my sons to his Lubavitch pre-school with a change of clothes in a bag that said “The Courage to Be Modern and Orthodox,” given out by a now defunct organization from one of their conferences. I know. It was a little snarky. But it gave me a laugh, and it made me feel good to re-purpose the bag.

Here’s reason number three: In doing research for my new quilt project, I looked up the cost of the two-toned gusseted bag. On sale with the logo, it was $9.39 each for a quantity of 25. That’s close to a thousand dollars for a conference of 100 participants. You bought the bag to house all the material that you want to give out. Reams and reams of paper. Color brochures that will be skimmed during your plenary session and tossed into a recycling bin without a hesitation. Annual reports that need to stay on your website. Don’t think color. Think content. If a hard copy of your educational material helps people learn, print that. But if someone is reading all your literature during a plenary, the problem isn’t the literature; it’s that your plenary may not be sufficiently engaging.

While, we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Jewish pens. Either your organization is getting the cheap pen that will not even write without aggressively pressing it down in continuous circles until it punctures your notepad, or you’re buying a really expensive pen that makes me feel, well, uncomfortable. Please don’t spend money on that pen. We all own pens. And then there’s the journals with the stretchy elastic marker. Everyone who’s anyone has one of those. I have a library of them, empty sentinels to well-intended reflections that didn’t make it on to the page. Sometimes, if I’m feeling really pluralistic or naughty, I use a different tote, pen and journal just to confuse the enemy.

Here’s reason number four and the most important reason to stop with the tote bags: the Bible contains a prohibition against waste: baal tashkhit. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 prohibits the cutting down of fruit trees during war. Needless destruction is unwarranted. Thus, the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud extended this principle to chopping furniture, ripping clothing unnecessarily, and wasting oil [see BT Shabbat 67b, BT Hullin 7b, BT Kiddushin 32a]. Had they been around today, I wonder what the sages would have to say about our conference USB flash drives, mugs, our monogrammed stressballs, our water bottles (so many water bottles!) our caps and t-shirts. We all own these already. Too many of these.

It is a profoundly Jewish value not to waste. But there’s a Jewish value far deeper: the waste of human resources. Those tote bags are produced cheaply because someone overseas is getting paid a pittance per day to make them for the huge maw that is the American consumer. That person may be a child. Is your tote bag worth that? If you told me that in lieu of your tote bag, your organization has sent the same amount in a charitable donation to support education for children who would otherwise have to work in Africa or the Far East, I’d smile broadly, go home without shoulder pain and think to myself, “Finally, we got it right. “


These are my remarks this past Monday, November 26, 2018, when I addressed the Pittsburgh Jewish community at their community sheloshim commemoration - the thirty day mark after a death, in this case, eleven deaths. It was very powerful, dignified, and, for me, exceptionally humbling. There were about 800 people in the room - the rabbis and congregants of two of the three synagogues housed at Tree of Life, along with people across the Jewish community and beyond. College students said the names of the dead and lit candles. The mayor was there. A representative of the Israeli consulate in New York spoke. First responders were given a standing ovation and rabbis from every denomination, the head of the Federation, other organizations and the head of the JCC, all got up to offer brief prayers, poems and remarks. A string quartet that rehabilitates banned music played several beautiful, ethereal pieces written by Jews who had themselves suffered tragic circumstances. It seemed like the community was at a pivot point, honoring the dead while needing the permission to return to a semblance of normalcy. 

A long time ago across a mighty ocean, a pious man shouldered the sorrows of the world. He lost his job. Many of those he loved died. He was ill and deeply confused.  With the last of his savings, he travelled many days to see his Rebbe. You see, this man – this hassid – had always lived with strict ritual observance and intense belief. When his world began to collapse and his faith tottered, he felt there was only once place to go – to his teacher and mentor – to seek an explanation for his great troubles.

 He arrived at the Rebbe’s court anxious to understand why all of this befell him. He was escorted into the Rebbe’s study and saw the Rebbe’s radiant face. The hassid poured out his heart. He cried and shared his catalogue of woes. “Why, Rebbe, why is this happening to me? Why?”

 When he finished, the two – one standing, the other sitting – were enveloped in silence. The hassid waited and waited for his Rebbe’s verdict. Nothing but silence. The hassid was about to take leave of his Rebbe, feeling more dejected and isolated than ever. Suddenly and without a word, the Rebbe got up, walked around his desk and stood next to his disciple. He held his hand and gently said, “My son, my dear one, I cannot explain why all these tragedies happened to you. No one can. If anyone tries, they are spinning falsehoods. All I can do is stand with you in your suffering.”

I am not a hassid. I am not a Rebbe. I have no disciples. I have not been through the anguish you all have suffered. I, like many of you, was born in Pittsburgh. But I was not raised here. And I was not in the Tree of Life Synagogue. But I am the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who never thought this could happen in America. And I am here to tell you that we are all one family. One Jewish family. One human family. I represent thousands of people around this country and around the world – Jews and non-Jews - who simply want to stand with you in your suffering. Because that’s what a family does. And in crisis, we do it best. In families, we know who shows up for us. We note presence. The Rebbe taught the hassid the gift of simple presence. It was up to him now to be present when others suffered.

 In Jewish law, both joy and suffering follow a similar pattern of intensity and incremental change. There is a time for each, as Ecclesiastes

 עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃

“A time for weeping and a time for laughing. A time for wailing and a time for dancing.”

 There is a holiness to the emotions. When we experience them, we must do so fully. There are laws related to the joy one generates around a wedding on the day of the wedding, the week that follows, the month that follows and the year that follows. Joy is not to be experienced and shelved in one day. It is to be savored. It must linger. We move from peak intensity to a slow simmering happiness for a couple as they launch their new lives.

 When it comes to mourning, there are laws the day of a funeral, the shiva week after, the commemoration or shloshim a month later and the recitation of a kaddish the year after. Judaism’s great wisdom is helping people move from one stage to the next, honoring their dead through ritual that allows mourners to hold on to the pain while helping them slowly let go. And because we never let go of the great traumas of our lives, we commemorate a yartzheit annually. For as long as we live, we will always say a prayer for those who are no longer with us.

 This sensitivity to a mourner’s emotional landscape is encapsulated in two Jewish laws of mourning. During shiva, the mourner always speaks first, not the visitor. The mourner determines the emotional temperature of the moment. And if the mourner does not want to speak at all because of the horror, because of the pain, the two sit in silence. This silence is the silence of the Rebbe in our story. He understood that words can betray, and words can sometimes belittle the depth of our most difficult struggles. Silence is often the more noble and honest response. But the Rebbe understood something even more powerful: the power of presence. We do not let people suffer alone. We show up. We hold a hand. We make the space sacred simply by being there together.

 And when the shiva period is over, we invite the mourner to walk around the block, to step outside, symbolically joining the world again. And here, too, we accompany the mourner because re-entry can be much harder than sitting together in the shelter of shared memories, in the comfort of a home. We walk the mourner outside because it is time to re-affirm life, it is time to rejoin the world. But who, I ask you, can really rejoin a shattered world, what mystics call the alma deperuda – a universe of separation and brokenness? On the day of a funeral, it seems impossible to begin mourning. On the last day of shiva, it seems equally impossible to end it.

We all know that sometimes the darkest moments of mourning are when everyone leaves. And the wise organizers of this commemoration understood that a month later is precisely when the hardest emotional work begins. They brought us together in this room. We are here to strengthen broken hearts that they may beat again. We are here to acknowledge and to honor the incredible unity that’s been created in the wake of this tragedy. We are here to hold each other’s hands without the platitude that it will all be alright. Because it won’t. We cannot bring back the eleven precious souls who are no longer with us. We must name evil and dedicate ourselves to fight it. We cannot be afraid of expressing our outrage. At the same time, our mourning teaches us the wisdom of sharing our vulnerability. 

And we must stand in awe of the words of the psalmist: Olam Hesed Yibane – the world is held up by kindness. Even coming here, I was struck by this. A few of us at the airport who had all been delayed for more than three hours getting to Pittsburgh started to schmooze. A man traveling for business asked me what was bringing me to Pittsburgh, all of us assessing how critical it was to get there in navigating the hours we waited. We finally got on the plane only to wait an hour and get off again with our luggage. Determined to be with you tonight, I rushed to get a seat on the next and only possible flight that would get me here just in the nick of time. I was stunned when the man I had spoken with, a complete stranger said, “I got a seat on the next flight. I want to give it to you. What you’re doing is more important than what I’m doing.”

By all accounts, for the past month, you too have been held up by such everyday kindnesses. The author, David Gelernter, once wrote, “"If you insert into this weird slot machine of modern life one evil act, a thousand acts of kindness tumble out." Just as we extend mourning and don’t rush to normalcy, let us be grateful for the thousand acts of kindness that were precipitated by this tragedy. Let them continue. With each kindness, we honor those who died.

I’d like to conclude with the opening of a poem by Wallace Stevens. I believe it captures what it means to transition back to life, to embrace life and to celebrate it while carrying all of our wounds.

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.

Yes is this present sun. Yes. Light is on its way. We are a week away from Hanuka. In the wake of this tragedy, let it be the most meaningful and powerful Hanuka of our lives. If you have never lit a menorah, I encourage you to do so this year - to move from the shiva candle to the Hanuka candles. With each night, with each candle, with each act of light, we tell the world, that darkness has a cure. We must be the light.


When my book on death was published a few years ago, I went on the typical book tour, but there was nothing typical about “Happier Endings.” It was a book on dying better; the conversations around it were very personal and often full of anguish. During one stop in the spring, a woman in the audience confessed she could not get her parents to talk about death, burial plots or last wishes. She thought this book might help them start an important family conversation.

“Do you think this would make a good Mother’s Day present?”

“No, that’s a terrible idea,” I said, “possibly the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

Mother’s Day is not a time to talk about death, unless you really don’t like your mother. But on almost any other day, it’s a conversation that needs to happen. I have had dozens of conversations with adult children who have tried unsuccessfully to get their parents to talk. I myself shared the story in the book of broaching my beloved bubbe to gently ease her into a conversation about what she’d like to do with her remaining years. She was 98 at the time. “What? You trying to kill me?”

That’s a conversation stopper.

A friend of mine buried her father some years ago. He was really sick for more than a year. When it was clear her father was getting worse by the day, she told me that she was trying to write down everything of meaning her father said to her in those past difficult months. Now, it is the notebook of her heart. I imagine that she might even be holding it now with her fingers pressed hard into its cardboard covers, as if holding on to it tightly could make him somehow come back.

And I think of the lines in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “His life was gentle, and the elements / So mixed in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’”

“Do you know what he said to me today?” she asked rhetorically, when he was near his last breath. “He said, ‘You are so beautiful.’ Imagine that? He can hardly say anything, but he said that to me today.” I know that she will hold on to those words for the rest of her life. In darker moments, she will know that a childhood hero thought the world of her. She may have lost her father, but she will always have a parent. His voice will continue to whisper to her.

From speaking to hundreds of people who have lost parents, it seems like nothing can prepare you for it, even when you know it’s coming. No matter how prepared you think you are. No matter how old you are. You can arrange the logistics of hospice care and a funeral beforehand. You can talk to friends, your rabbi and your therapist, and somehow all the words do not add up to the confrontation of this primal primordial, loss.

People who have just lost a second parent described the new layer of grief that sets in with four words that fall like bricks: “I am an orphan.” By this they do not mean that they are like small, pitiable children in a Dickens novel. What they mean is that the foundation of their lives — whether they were close to their parents or not — has been viscerally removed. They walk in the world now with a phantom limb.

My friend will gnaw on her father’s kind words, to borrow an expression from Maya Angelou. It makes you ponder what we need to leave our children when we leave this world that goes far beyond the financial last will and testament of a family estate. This man left his daughter a legacy of language, even as he moved in and out of coherence.

But for most adult children and their parents, a deafening silence is the norm when it comes to tying up loose practical and emotional ends and making last desires known. This may be because a parent has not yet made his last desires known to himself. Or herself. More time was likely spent contacting home help and sitting in doctors’ offices together than having conversations of final meaning. It’s a parent’s last lesson to a child. Arguably more important than teaching children how to grow up and how to age gracefully is teaching them how to die well.

If you’re celebrating Mother’s Day, have a great time. Enjoy each other’s company. Soak up the love and appreciation. But the day after, ask yourself if you’re ready to talk about what no one wants to talk about: a time when you are no longer here. I envy my friend. Her father was not afraid to speak of his death to his children. Are you? 


Setting out on a new venture in Jewish education, I was interested in the hard-earned wisdom of notable professionals in and around the field. As part of the work of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, we seek to bring academics and practitioners into conversation on the educational issues that matter most. To do this well, it’s critical to identify today’s educational landscape. To that end, I spent nearly a year interviewing professionals in and around the universe of Jewish education, formally and informally. I had initially intended to save the formal responses in a personal collection to direct my own work. But there was too much richness and depth to keep the responses to myself. While the conversations continue, clear patterns emerged.

What did these experts see the as the current contributions of Jewish education, particularly day school education, and could they point to successes? What are the most pressing leadership challenges today and the viable initiatives tackling these problems? What skill sets do they believe are most important to the work, and what kind of lay support is most helpful in achieving their goals? Although I sent a set of questions in advance, I allowed the conversation to flow freely. Many respondents immediately problematized the subject. I gently nudged them into focusing on what is working. It is with these successes that we begin.

Quotation marks indicate direct quotes from respondents. Those I spoke with are listed in the aggregate at the article’s conclusion. The terms thought-leader, expert, authority, senior professional/educator and academic are used co-terminously, since the academics cited here function in many of these capacities. For the sake of brevity and anonymity, the most salient and repeated observations are distilled into 18 main points supported by verbatim quotes – a chai guideline, so to speak – to inform a communal agenda.

1.We are really good at strengthening belonging and building community. The commitment to creating community is working. “We’re not building community perfectly, and we’re not doing it for everyone, but we are still doing it.” We have a greater understanding of the dynamics of belonging and inclusion and are more sensitive to those who feel on the margins, with one caveat: “If we do a great job of creating community, and we make some people feel very connected and welcome, but we don’t do it for all, then we are powerfully and painfully excluding some.” Communities are more porous today. The big tent may have more room, but we need to be friendlier to get people who feel excluded into that tent.

2. More people are accessing Jewish education in more ways than ever before. “I think the depth of Jewish learning among young people has expanded,” observed one respondent. We’ve also created more opportunities and expectations around learning. “Gap year programs and deep immersion in learning is standard in some communities.” Others point to inclusion within the learning process: “We’ve made strides across the board in strengthening progressive education, like differentiated learning. Across the sectors, everyone understands that’s a goal. Inclusion is a principle. Learning styles are well-known, even if the implementation required isn’t always as good.” This access is not only a change in where people learn and how but who is accessing Jewish education: “There seems to be a lot of talk and action around outreach, meaning Jewish education for the unaffiliated or those on the margins of the organized Jewish community. There is a big chasm in the middle.” Despite the strength of work with these populations, Hebrew school students are still left with very little high-quality programming: “there is nothing but hand-wringing.” The “energy for young adults and millennials” should translate into more concentrated focus on congregational education.

3. Education as a field has become more professionalized. “I think we have begun the process of professionalizing,” stated one expert. “More people are getting graduate degrees than they were two decades ago.” Pockets of mediocrity would not be tolerated today the way they once were. Another observed that although there is more professionalization expected today, this development comes with “pros and cons.” There are “a lot of people in the past who couldn’t find training in the Jewish world who now have programs and paths that never existed before,” which may also lead to having people in the field who are not suited. The “constant communication problem” means that many opportunities for professional development are not broadly shared. “If you’re not in the know or confident enough to be persistent, you won’t know. Too many things are the best kept secrets.”

4. Success lives at the nexus of strong practitioners and strong leaders. Professionals who are well-supported by lay leaders and have a strong sense of mission coupled with productivity can produce remarkable results. “When innovations have really taken hold, it’s when resources are available, and the community provides support.” Strong partnerships among professionals also yield success. “In schools and where you see teachers and principals working closely together, that’s where we are seeing successful learning. Where teachers are learning along with students – that’s where you see success.”

5. We are generally more honest about acknowledging difficulties. One educational leader felt that there is “more willingness to talk about the challenges.” In years past, there was an unarticulated fear that talking about challenges might diminish funding or recruitment. Today, we are more willing and able to address problems publicly that have always existed but were sidelined. “It’s more acceptable to say it’s hard to be a head of school. We can be honest about affordability.” This admission may lead to greater urgency around problem-solving or willingness to use mistakes as case studies for advancement.

6. There are too many programs and not enough strategic thinking. The organized Jewish community is too program-focused, said many respondents, with a tendency to “diagnose problems and try to find the right program to solve them.” Instead, the field needs to grow teachers more effectively, invest in developing better educators and limit the programming. “Grow people, not programs.” Investing in programs distracts us from investing in solid infrastructure and making the case for Jewish education generally: “We’re just not putting out a vision of what learners and participants could really get from meaningful Jewish education of any kind, a vision that pushes people beyond Jewish-light.” Another professional bemoaned the fact that we do not have a career path for teachers other than running schools, which is not a natural trajectory. “After department chair, there’s nothing. In public education, there are so many intermediary positions, where you are paid to mentor.” Teachers also need to be supported beyond their first year. “Without pay and kavod [respect], the field is going to stay the same… You need support to keep growing.”

7. The stress on innovation can undermine the fundamentals of good teaching. The stress on innovation has produced some exciting initiatives but has also raised critical issues about implementation and scalability and mastering techniques of good teaching. One interviewee gave a keynote address on reinventing congregational school education was asked not to talk about innovation. “It’s become so demoralizing. Teachers are tired of chasing innovation. They have to keep inventing something new, when what they care about is kids and community building. Let’s just do smart work.” Innovation, for many, is not always a helpful buzz word: “Lots of innovation grants are scraping the bottom of the barrel. There is not a uniform culture of vision and innovation. Innovation is a mindset. Why do we have to stimulate research in innovation with prizes? Let ideas grow organically. Let’s stress moral, inspirational, visionary leadership… Vision is a twin sister of imagination. Where there’s no disciplined production of vision, there is no imagination.” Hearing these observations from a number of senior educators made me wonder, what would happen if we stressed imagination more? Imagine a school where every teacher was outstanding. This may do a lot more for the field than small pockets of innovation.

8. There arent enough crosssector solutions for problems: “If you want the riches of a talent pool,” said one authority emphatically, “you have to speak across the spectrum.” We need to stop talking to ourselves and “seek solutions from unexpected sources. The day school movement doesn’t need to talk to itself about tefilah [prayer] but talk to those in other faith communities who are having a hard time finding a role for prayer in schools that is meaningful to students.” Schools should be talking to camps and congregational schools should be speaking to JCCs, and “all of us need to speak to those outside the Jewish community about schooling, camping and other forms of experiential education.” This kind of fertilization is critical for growth. “There are not enough cross-sector conversations. There’s a limitation on conversations that are too silo-ed. We need to think of education as an eco-system … and blur the lines between formal and informal.” We need to take down firewalls. “Organizations and communities can be very resistant places.” We may not be asking the right questions: “How do you maximize your inspirational potential? What does it mean to create inspired communities? That’s what I want to think about.” Another academic suggested more integration and cross-fertilization between the Academy and the community. “There is amazing work done by Jewish academics, but their work is marginalized. Maybe each side feels criticized or under-valued by the other. This might itself be a subject for exploration – on why sides aren’t talking.”

9. There is a lack of useful research in Jewish education: It’s hard to be data driven if we don’t have enough data. One scholar shared that there is simply not strong enough evidence on how to teach Hebrew effectively. She then paused and added the same for Israel and Jewish texts. Another said it’s hard to talk about what we are doing well when, “We don’t have a lot of data to inform that question, but we have substantive evidence that Jewish education is key to the success of the Jewish people.” The push for continuity as a cross-communal goal is mystifying because “continuity is static. Education is dynamic.” Within the field of education, we specifically need more information to inform action: “One of our concerns is assessments and outcomes, and can we have more rigor brought to understanding what interventions are or are not leading to better outcomes?” Adding to this problem, another notes, is that some research produced is not widely disseminated. “Because much research is funded by private foundations, a lot of research that could be valuable never gets used broadly.”

10. We need more great teachers. And we need to celebrate the ones we have. There are simply not enough good educators to go around. “No school and no educational process can succeed without extraordinary educators. Teachers – the guidance, connection, relationship, and their masterful guidance of students – are what will make a difference in learners’ lives, and we don’t have enough people choosing the sacred profession of Jewish education.” One academic contends, “We keep lowering the bar on people’s Jewish knowledge who are entering the Jewish education world. But if we want to provide a substantive Jewish education, we need teachers with deep knowledge and bandwidth who can provide that for their students.” This is coupled by the concern that we don’t do enough to honor those who have already chosen education professionally: “…unless we celebrate Jewish educators for the extraordinary professionals they are, who will want this career?” This academic was not the only one to bemoan the difficult lot of Jewish educators today: “It breaks my heart that we have people teaching our children who can’t afford to have their own children in day schools. Every Jewish educator should have tuition for their kids free of charge.”

11. We need to identify talent earlier and grow it. We need to do a better job of recruiting students on an undergraduate level to consider careers in education. One scholar felt strongly that Federations and other Jewish communal organizations “give lip service to education” and don’t help bring prestige to the field by throwing most of their support to non-educational endeavors. We might find and encourage more part-time educators to do this work full-time. “Part-time educators don’t have support structures. They are really left adrift… There is no place for them to go.”

12. Philanthropy works best when philanthropists and professionals talk to each other more. “Professionals used to create the vision and brought funders along. Then it switched. Now philanthropists are the drivers, and professionals are there for implementation.” Neither formula works consistently well. “Only in authentic partnerships can this work get done well.” Another expert would like, “to see more investment in helping funders and parents understand what good Jewish education is. What should they look out for and what should they support instead of what’s new and exciting. What’s sexy to fund is on the micro-level of what touches a child this minute, but we need to look on the macro-level of what is going to work in shifting the culture… The current philanthropic culture has pitted us against one another instead of inviting collaboration.” An academic is concerned that we are isolating learning from funding instead of scholarship, “being part of a rich base of cultural literacy. I have been thinking about a challenge we are facing in Jewish education: our funding structures are so driven by family foundations and their predilections towards specific projects that I’m worried about our intellectual infrastructure.” As a result, this academic believes that the field might actually be worse with the strong infusion of philanthropic dollars. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have not made us better in the field. Institutions are weaker, and funders have unrealistic expectations about what we need. We didn’t make progress on intellectual infrastructure.” One can dispute this claim, but it’s important to hear it. “The lesson is that we need to think system-wide rather than in terms of specific projects, investing for the long-term rather than the short-term. We need a better metaphor for thinking about the Jewish eco-system.”

13. Day school education outside of the Orthodox community is really struggling. So are small day schools. A number of Orthodox day schools are over 50 years old; some over 75 years old and have not necessarily kept up with progressive education trends. They can be very teacher-centric and are having difficulty finding qualified and philosophically appropriate teachers, particularly in Judaic studies. More than a few respondents, however, were “thinking a lot about day school education for non-Orthodox Jews.” One educator describes a wave of popularity for non-Orthodox schools that has past. Those schools are now closed or struggling. “Are they making meaning and conferring substance and information?” another observed that, “Does this mean that within a generation, non-Orthodox Jews will have no ownership of these texts? …I can’t imagine a Jewish people that is not Torah-centered.” This remark does not imply that subjects like history and Hebrew language are not taught seriously in non-Orthodox schools, but that ancient texts may not be taught with enough rigor or given sufficient attention. Another mourned these losses: “Some day schools have defied gravity and have created excellent and viable institutions with quality education. But it’s interesting and sad that a great many non-Orthodox schools are struggling to survive.” [Note: All these comments came from non-Orthodox contributors]. This sense of struggle was also true for smaller schools with smaller resources. “Jewish institutions in small communities are struggling … It can’t be good for Jews to live only in major cities.” Communities with small or no day schools have difficulty attracting Jewish communal professionals, and the delicate eco-system of community gets compromised. Are there ways to use technology more effectively to provide professional development at low-cost and across distances? There have been some experiments but not sustained models. Added to this, suggested one academic is the, “lack of a unified Jewish vision of what Jewish flourishing looks like… As we are becoming more polarized, how do we nurture sub-communities?”

14. We need to make a stronger case for textbased education. “We need to do a better job explaining why substantial Jewish literacy-based programs are important…We are not telling the story well, and we don’t really understand the values and needs of the population we’re trying to reach to help create a form of Jewish education that meets those needs,” observed a senior professional. One educator described the lack of communal support for study as a “serious assault against text.” Education is, in some sense, about unsettling people. That’s harder to do in a culture that values comfort and ease. “Everything is easy. In marketing you want things to be as easy as possible. When you’re in education, you have to create an on-ramp, but not make it easy. Marketing and education represent a real clash of cultures.” This clash may also explain the different way board members and faculty look at schools. “The messiah may come and not be able to lead a Jewish day school,” quipped an academic. “There are a lot of technical challenges so the bigger challenges get neglected.” In teen programming, we tend to stress what teens are interested in and then drop substance, creating another intellectual vacuum.

15. Jewish studies teachers are often the weakest educators in day schools. Several educators and academics identified the weakest educational link in day schools in the arena of Jewish studies, what should be the hallmark of a day school education. “It’s hard to get good Judaic studies teachers and those who teach Hebrew language.” Many such teachers are content-rich but pedagogically poor. “The big problem is Judaic studies teachers, especially in small communities. I’d like to see a lot of people come together to think about issues of prestige, job availability, and excellence. We should bring all the major schools doing teacher training together, increase the pipeline and do better training. Many content-rich teachers lack classroom management skills.” The head of a teacher-training institute who is in the field to “cultivate talent” complained that there is, “lots of effort in building schools but not enough talent to run them.”

16. We may be obsessing too much about Jewish identity. “Not everything has to be defined as Jewish education to provide education.” Schools don’t look at what camps are doing to build identity or youth groups and learn from each other. “In the experience of doing something – a policy or program that has outcomes – our model is always one of deficit and crisis. That’s the general paradigm.” In this model, too many questions are asked about building identity. We catalyze so many conversations on identity that it led one academic to wonder: “A lot of Jewish identity stuff is obsessive; you don’t hear it in a lot of other communities. We need to re-think how we think about Jewish identity. What has our obsession with identity helped us evade?”

17. Demography is destiny. Conversations on education must focus on Jewish demographics. “Demographics play a great deal in the challenges and opportunities of the system: intermarriage and people getting married later and having kids later” will all impact and have already impacted our schools. “The ripple effect from the millennial cohort and its characteristics, contributions and challenges are also important – they are the largest single age cohort in history – and there’s more of them than baby boomers today.” This shift in demographics shifts society. “Millennials are allergic to institutional belonging. They are a free-floating, self-initiating, exploring demographic group, and not likely to pay for membership. They’re more likely to create more niche, more boutique, more grass-roots kind of identities. Given that and given their large size, we have to figure out how to serve this population.” Specifically, we need to think about “ways they think about education for their children… Early childhood education will be important again. If the community is going to focus resources, then early childhood is important.” Jewish education within interfaith families will present another very real challenge moving forward given current demographics. “It’s a real conceptual challenge.” One suggested the purchase of a franchise of early childhood centers made into a new Jewish network.

18. Jewish education needs to be higher on the communal agenda. “There was a time when Jewish education was more important as a topic of conversation than it is now. It’s just not what people are talking about,” said this senior leader who talks about Jewish education constantly. The creation of small sub-committees does not do justice to education’s enduring importance for us as a people. “There needs to be some idea of what we want to achieve. Communities need to do this so they can support clusters of institutions.” Jewish communal structures should “help people scrutinize what they’re doing and build capacity for people to re-imagine their work.” A lot of good models are one-offs, commented one academic engaged in teacher development. We need more platforms to “convene around ideas.” “We’ve been doing Jewish continuity under the banner of Jewish continuity, and it’s not working. It needs to be about relevancy, meaning and added value – Jewish education can help people in their lives.”

As with all conversations, they never really finish. I have spoken to many more people since I conducted these interviews, and there are more people to speak to tomorrow. One thing is clear from all this talk. Conversations on Jewish education deserve a bigger communal platform. Critical issues need a bigger mainstream stage where practitioners, funders, conveners, end-users and researchers can talk to each other, not merely listen to others talking to them or about them. Can we talk?

Contributors: Sharon Avni (CUNY), Josh Feigelson (Ask Big Questions Initiative), Idana Goldberg (formerly Prizmah, now Russell Berrie Foundation), Leora Isaacs ( Consultant, Founding Director of the Berman Center for Research), Susan Kardos (Avi Chai Foundation), Orit Kent (affiliated scholar, Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University), Jon Levisohn (Brandeis University), Mitchell Malkus (Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School), Kim Marshall (Independent Education Consultant, Marshall Memo), Rona Novick (Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Yeshiva University), Alex Pomson (Rosov Consulting), Bill Robinson (William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary), Jon Ruskay (Executive Vice-President Emeritus, UJA-Federation of New York), Miriam Heller Stern (HUC-JIR School of Education, Hebrew Union College), Jonathan Woocher (of blessed memory, Lippman-Kanfer Foundation).


If you’re an introvert, Kiddush is a living hell

Extroversion,” writes Susan Cain in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” “is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” Cain believes that extroverts represent half to two-thirds of the population. America, she writes, is one of the most extroverted countries in the world. Hey, extroverts have to live somewhere.

Most extroverts direct attention outward, are naturally outgoing and feel at home in a crowd. To introverts, the extroverts always seem comfortable in their own skins and feed off the energy of others. In contrast, many introverts don’t love crowds and can’t stay in them for long. They are more nourished in private and by time alone. Moses is a classic introvert in charge of extroverts. No wonder it took 40 years for Moses to move them.

Many Jewish activities take place in the presence of others, often a crowd. It got me thinking: Is Judaism, as it’s practiced today, built for introverts? Do we sufficiently praise and value the “still, small voice” of introversion? One rabbi believes that Judaism has room for both but tilts towards extroversion: “Purity preferences introversion, while holiness vectors outward. Since occasions for the holy are more frequent than rituals effecting purification, the collective, communal, seems more pervasive.” 

I asked some self-defined introverts and extroverts to weigh in. “There are parts of religion that are good for introverts, like prayer or mikvah, but the community aspect of religion is very much geared to extroverts. Jews love to be in your face.” Other rituals came to mind: “Pilgrimage holidays were probably terrifying for introverts. If you’re an introvert, Kiddush is a living hell. It’s hard to host people and introduce yourself to lots of people.” Someone else added that Yom Kippur, tefillin, mourning and blessings are spiritual experiences that can be particularly rewarding for introverts.

Camp life seemed to be a challenge for many introverts, although one shared that she simply gravitated to other campers who liked to disappear into books. She walked away from circles involving personal sharing. The same was true of school: “School is fine because you find your smaller group. I never raised my hand in school. It’s an extroverts’ world.”

Others felt that weddings, most holidays, communal responsibilities like board service and even being called up to the Torah can be a struggle if you find the presence of a lot of people intimidating. One summed it up with “exhausting.” A mother of introverts shared that the bar/bat mitzvah can be hard but a real growth experience. “Recognizing what makes your child comfortable is important before deciding how to observe the bar/bat mitzvah. It can also be the moment that an introverted child can practice being a little more extroverted, but you need to recognize that you are taking the child out of his or her comfort zone, and the child needs to be willing.”

A convert/introvert shared that her journey often left her feeling isolated. “People are instantly interested in your story, but you don’t want to tell it over and over again. People can ask you a lot of questions, and if you’re an introvert and a convert, it’s a double whammy.”

“Everything is more raw to you,” struggled an introvert trying to explain himself. “You can perceive something as embarrassing or uncomfortable, but others don’t see it that way. You recharge by being alone. If you’re not an introvert, you simply don’t understand what we go through. People perceive you as being rude, shy or socially awkward. There’s too much judgment of introverts.” Someone who loves a crowd can’t always understand those who don’t. But one introvert confessed: “If introverts got their way, there might not be community. You have to learn to make sacrifices to live in a community. You don’t want to miss out on experiences.”

Maybe we need a Jewish introvert/extrovert inventory, looking at events and activities through the lens of these two personality types and interrogating experiences to make sure there is a balance of small and large group activities. Do we have sufficient reflection, writing, meditation, one-on-one and processing time to balance out large and noisy Jewish settings? We need to help children within camp, synagogue and school settings understand and value introversion and introverts. Emphasizing relationships with God and others and not only community helps. We give introversion more value when holding up models throughout Jewish history of those who walked in the world quietly with immense authority. If, as one respondent wrote, “A richly furnished inner life is what makes inner-directed individuals into more influential leaders,” then maybe our Jewish extroverts would help their own inner lives by slowing down, listening and spending more time alone. 


First of all, I just want to say that I own a pair of your shoes, and they are fabulous — as was every outfit you wore on the campaign trail. You are certainly going to raise the fashion standards in D.C. Maybe we can finally retire those stiff Washington pantsuits for women. But enough of the girl talk. We’ve got business to do.

Some say the biggest threat to democracy is the average voter, but I still feel proud to live in a democracy and will always honor the office of the president. I’ll admit, I was crushed by the fact that a woman did not become president. This does not mean a woman will not be president soon, but it’s another four years of the XY chromosome on steroids. I had qualms with the woman who ran, but Hilary was competent, even-tempered and experienced. I do not feel the same way about your father. This has been an existential struggle. As a teacher, I feel duty-bound to help bring people of different opinions to the same table from a posture of curiosity rather than judgment. This election has tested that, but I remain committed to it nonetheless.

Right now, it feels like we’re living in two Americas and maybe two Jewish communities. We’re a small people, and we need each other. Here’s where you come in. Ivanka, we welcome your commitment to be Jewish with open arms. We need more smart and tall Jews like you. No doubt you know that Jewish life is more than community, family and ritual. It is also about lived virtues. One of our foundational values is kindness to the stranger. That began with the first Jews and has been with us ever since. So help me understand how it is that your father has not taken a stand against the hate crimes and slurs that were directed against your people of choice and others? My mother, like yours, was an immigrant to this country. How then could your father not say a few words of appeasement to immigrants who are now so afraid? He has won. Is that not enough of a victory to start building bridges? Let him utter a few words of comfort and healing.

Please talk to him. He listens to you. (And tell him to shut down his Twitter account.)


Where is Leonard Cohen when we need his maudlin adaptation of our most famous Yom Kippur refrain: “Who by fire?” Little did we realize when we recited it in prayer this past Yom Kippur that it was not merely moving medieval prose but a signal to pay attention to all of the ways that danger will strike us in our beloved homeland this year.

Only a month after our holidays ended, arsonists in Israel had only to light a match in Israel’s driest season to watch mass destruction spread from one forest to another, from one region to another. It makes terrorism even more unforgiving for its wanton devastation. And here are the rough statistics: An estimated 2,000 fires, 20 of them major. 100,000 Israelis evacuated from their homes. Seven hundred houses destroyed. Over 120 people treated for smoke inhalation and related health concerns. An entire yeshiva burned to the ground with only one of its Torah scrolls untouched. Close to 40 people arrested and charged with arson, as of this writing. All of this while we in the American diaspora ate turkey, watched football and pondered election results.

Fire is, arguably, the most pernicious method to destroy something because it leaves nothing but ash in its path. Anyone who has lost anything to fire knows that Prometheus had power at his fingertips. Fire burns with its mystique and its capacity for evil. It attracts and repels. We, who light candles once a week to honor Shabbat and throughout the holiday year, see the beauty of light. Our small candle ushers in domestic peace and reminds us of Isaiah’s mandate to be a light to the nations, to be a member of the covenant who takes people out of darkness. Maimonides, in “Guide to the Perplexed,” understood the power of language as a lit match in a dark room that highlights a pearl. But all of these examples are of fire contained.

We can reflect on the miracle that of all of these hundreds of fires, no one died. True. But there is something almost biblical about this plague. It called attention to two Bible passages. In Numbers 11, God was angered by Israelite complaints and created a fire on the edge of the camp, mimicking the way that complaints are a form of conflagration, an agitation that mounts and decimates. “Now the people complained about their hardships, and when God heard them His anger was aroused. Then fire from the Lord burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the Lord and the fire died down. So that place was called Taverah, because fire from the Lord had burned among them” [11:1-3]. The fire was so traumatic a warning that the Israelites named the place “Fire” so that no one would forget what happened there. You never forget a fire.

The other biblical text is from Deuteronomy: “When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them?” [20:19] The message is clear. Even in wartime, nature is not your enemy. Destroy it at your own peril because whether you win or lose a war, if you destroy trees, you destroy your own food supply. Your short-sightedness will cost you dearly. The irony of the last clause hurts. Trees are not people, who in wartime somehow seem more dispensable.

An Israeli-Arab parliamentarian observed that this form of terrorism damages everyone in a country beset by so much conflict already. “We all live in a house on fire,” Tennessee Williams wrote in “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” “no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” We were not trapped, however. We had firefighters to call from Israel, the U.S., from Russia.

About a dozen countries sent help, and 40 firefighters came from the West Bank. The fires prompted thousands of acts of kindness from strangers.

But here’s an ugly observation: a child filled with hatred has only to light one match to destroy a village, a school, a forest. A simmering rage burns in me. Where are all the human rights activists and campus protestors who are so quick to find fault with Israel now? Why aren’t they speaking out and demanding justice? If not for our people, then at least for our trees?

“And who shall I say is calling?” Cohen asks with his haunting lilt. Our brothers and sisters are calling. They need us to protest. They need us to help them rebuild. 


It’s that time in America. The sun burns brightly. School is out. And parents all over this United States are stockpiling large duffle bags for summer camp. Care packages will be carefully prepared for posting, lest children in their air-conditioned cabins lack, heaven forfend, a snack or two. You need not make these packages yourself because there are now companies that make luxury boxes for the luxury children who will receive them.

I never went to camp. Growing up in a seaside resort, the summer was the best part of the year. “Why would you go to camp?” quipped my parents, “Everyone comes here for the summer.” We went to the beach, played hours of tennis, rode our bikes everywhere and listened to music on porch swings and rooftops. Having been bullied as a child in elementary school, the thought of being alone in a bunk in a Lord of the Flies universe dominated by children was in no way appealing.

But the distinct absence of adults was true of our non-camp summers as well. We spent most days in this listless summer cloud, uninterrupted by the abiding authority of grown-ups, something that in these days of extreme parenting, is hard to imagine. Life was so different then. Parenting was so different then. I recently asked a friend if he thought during those summers, we suffered from benign neglect. “Why benign?” he responded.

My English husband went to Bnei Akiva camp, an experience that seems nothing like American Jewish camping. There was no sentimentality in his description. “It was basically two weeks in white tents set up in the soggy field of a school where we spent most of the time trying to get dry.” He couldn’t remember any actual activities. Fun was never mentioned. He did remember the legs of dinner tables sinking into the mud making the eating area a haphazard mess. He has no idea why he went. He didn’t look forward to it and, for the most part, has blocked out any memory of it.

My youngest daughter has had three glorious years of summer camp and is going on a teen tour of Israel this summer. In my next life, I want to come back as one of my children. She can’t wait for camp. She has a whole new group of friends, a whole new setting in which to experience life without the shackles of school and, dare I say, parents. Her Jewish life for a few months is not straightjacketed by the Jewish institutions of school and shul, dominated by the adult demands of behaviour, ritual and decorum. It is filled with songs and cheers and fields and lakes. The community of campers and counsellors is thick with joy and meaning, friendship and warmth. No wonder so many children look forward to it. It’s simply magical.

Research on the impact of Jewish camping shows an important causal link between Jewish life and the strengthening of Jewish identity. Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe from Brandeis University in How Goodly are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socialising Experiences analyse the component parts of Jewish camping that contribute to a meaningful and personal engagement with Judaism. The academic study, Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp, demonstrates that many of today’s Jewish communal professionals and leaders came up the ranks of Jewish camp and decided that their summer immersion was so rewarding that they made careers out of their passions. In fact, Jewish summer camp is often regarded in these studies as most important and transformative in the lives of those least Jewishly affiliated back home.

What’s summer camp like in Great Britain these days? I imagine there are still a lot of overcast days. Maybe the white tents have been replaced by something a bit more durable. What we know about camping today is the durability of the experience in the crafting of a better Jewish life. And it’s not because there is rich content knowledge to be disseminated in camp. It’s because nothing beats havdalah by the lake, arm-in-arm with your new best friends and a counsellor who really cares about your life. Camp is expensive, but the experience is priceless.

I don’t know about you, but my Judaism could use a little adult camping right now. Just imagine what it could do for your Jewish child.


My assumptions about civility are at great risk. I’m tired of people who talk loudly on their cell phones in public places or who watch movies or listen to music without headphones. I have little patience for the litterers, the loud gum-chewers and the knuckle crackers. On a plane recently, I actually saw a man repeatedly blow his nose into a handkerchief then hang it over his armrest. Gross, you’re thinking. Me, too. I need company in my new fight to preserve the ways of old, when people actually flushed public toilets.

Today’s screed is related to a civil assault on language. Have you noticed it? It’s not that adults curse more. But I have noticed that even in fairly traditional circles, curse words are used as flourishes in conversations and in writing in ways that are new, disturbing and distracting. We’ve all witnessed someone apologize to a nun or a rabbi for letting a cuss word slip out in their presence. This may be a thing of the past. Some friends and students don’t hesitate to use curse words in explaining an idea or judging an opinion. And they’re not the passable words like “H-E-double hockey sticks” but the gezunte curse words that used to be totally taboo.

`Maybe cursing is liberating as stress relief or the only reasonable reaction to anything from a stubbed toe to tragic news. Dropping a language bomb signals to others how strongly one feels about a situation. Maybe people find it fun or revel in vulgarity as a sign of independence from convention, the way a kid curses to impress peers. I side with George Washington, who wrote a whole book on civility. Forget the weird cherry tree story; our first president was a stickler about decent language: “The foolish and wicked practice of profane cursing and swearing is a vice so mean and low that every person of sense and character detests and despises it.”

If cursing is the fashion today then maybe it’s become the new normal. Sorry, George. Civility is subject to time and place. Yet I find myself unable to go there. Here’s my hypothesis: We curse more because our capacity to articulate ideas with accuracy and clarity is dying. Tweeting and texting have not only made terrible spellers of us all, they have also robbed us of sophisticated means of self-expression. This includes our verbal reactions to pain and tragedy, to surprise and shock. We have allowed four letters to replace full sentences, and in so doing, we’ve let go of the nuance that language offers us to express our deepest feelings.

If this sounds old-fashioned, it’s because it is. This approach to language dates all the way back to Genesis, when language was the building block of creation. There are many rich debates on why Hebrew is called “lashon ha-kodesh” — holy talk. Some of this discussion is covered masterfully in Lewis Glinert’s new book “The Story of Hebrew.” If you start off with an assumption that words should be holy, de-sanctifying them becomes all the more crass.

To understand just how deep this debate on the holiness of language extends, we need to spend a few minutes in the world of Jewish medieval scholarship. Maimonides, in his magnum opus, “The Guide to the Perplexed,” writes that one indication Hebrew is holy is that it contains no words for genitalia: “I have also a reason and cause for calling our language the holy language — do not think it is exaggeration or error on my part, it is perfectly correct — the Hebrew language has no special name for the organ of generation in females or in males, nor for the act of generation itself, nor for semen, nor for secretion. The Hebrew has no original expressions for these things, and only describes them in figurative language and by way of hints, as if to indicate thereby that these things should not be mentioned, and should therefore have no names; we ought to be silent about them…”

Nahmanides disagrees: “The reason why our rabbis refer to the language of the Torah as the holy language is because the words of the Torah, its prophets and all holy matters are all stated in that language. It is the language that the Holy One, blessed be He speaks to his prophets and his nation” (Exodus 30:13). Maimonides points to the words. Nahmanides points to the concepts. Either way, both point to holiness.

Holiness is really hard to achieve. But it’s a good benchmark for language. It makes human speech aspirational and not only conversational. It encourages us not to cheapen the gift that separates us from other animals but to use it wisely and well to express a fuller range of ideas and emotions. #georgewasright


"If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.”

If I told you that this was found in an abandoned journal in Birkenau, written by a Jew forced into labour and despair, it would not surprise you. It surprises no Jews because stories of the Holocaust have a profound imprint on us, even if, according to some sociologists, they no longer are the Jewish identity shapers they once were.

Nothing shocks us; there is no story that is implausible in that thick catalogue of cruelty. But ours are not the only stories of suffering. There is no competition for victimisation.

It was Elizabeth Freeman who wrote those words in the beginning of the 19th century. She was a black slave working on the estate of John Ashley, a powerful Massachusetts attorney. John’s wife, Annetje, once maimed Elizabeth’s arm with a hot kitchen shovel. Elizabeth was a Revolutionary War widow who overheard a discussion about the state’s constitution and wanted to make good on its promise of liberty. She sued the state for her freedom and won.

I learned about Elizabeth’s story of loss and triumph when I accompanied my daughter’s 10th grade class to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the latest Smithsonian on the National Mall. It takes months to secure tickets. It’s fair to say that Jewish day school children in the DC area have probably been to the US Holocaust Museum once, if not several times. It was interesting to walk among them when they had to take in someone else’s collective story of prolonged anguish, the pain of centuries.

The museum “begins” on the lowest floor. Its low, dark ceilings and cramped exhibition space seem to create a spatial parallel to the slave-trade ships it documents. In 1788, a British surgeon Alexander Falconbridge who travelled on several of these ships observed: “The deck… was so covered with blood and mucus… that it resembled a slaughterhouse.” Five years earlier, an editorial in The Maryland Gazette opposed slavery with the words of the slave: “Though our bodies differ in colour from yours; yet our souls are similar in desire for freedom.”

I watched a young black mother show her two daughters pictures of the cotton fields and bales that slaves used to pick. I heard an older black woman in front of photos of segregated buses tell her friends, “I remember walking through the white section on the bus to get to the coloured section, as if sitting there wasn’t shame enough.”

In Britain, you abolished slavery in 1833. On some days in America, when race issues flare up like wildfire, I feel like we still haven’t abolished it here. In law, yes. In spirit, no. We are mired in a legacy of hate that we cannot shake. I took a photo of the Martin Luther King quote, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” It sounds just like something one of our own homegrown heroes and prophets would say.

Suddenly you ascend from dim light to a soaring wall with the words of the Declaration of Independence chiselled in large letters: “All men are created equal…with certain unalienable rights…” Beneath the words is a statue of Thomas Jefferson. He called slavery “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot” but had hundreds of slaves who were not freed even after he died. We lived and still live in a place of sinful paradoxes that need to be ironed out into more consistent truths.

The highest floors take us from sadness and protest to black contributions in music and religion, poetry and prose, art and food and politics. It’s a story that moves from the commodification of human beings to their immense contribution on the world stage, culminating in a black president of the United States. But, of course, the story does not end there. It does not end.

When I left and looked in the direction of the US Holocaust Museum, a wave of regret came over me. We could have done the same with our story. But we didn’t. We have made our suffering our story; you can even purchase a map of all the Holocaust memorials and museums there are in the United States alone. When will we climb out of the darkness and tell a richer, happier, more complete and more redemptive story?


The Haggadah is fascinating for what it says and for what it does not say. It tells our story of exile and exodus through rabbinic eyes. Although it starts with slavery and moves to freedom, the slavery story it tells is weak on details. We learn that we were worked hard by Egyptian taskmasters but quickly transition to songs and plagues. Our suffering lacks details. This is also true in the biblical text. In Exodus 2, we have basically one verse that speaks to our pain. “During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites in their slavery cried out, and because of their slavery, their cry for help went up to God” [2:23].

The biblical text communicates the tension but then moves on to Moses and his mission, the plagues and the Passover sacrifice. Hundreds of years of slavery are summed up in a cry. But perhaps there is something in that cry which speaks to the larger issue of the human condition when it suffers oppression. As Rav says, “A sigh breaks down half the human constitution” [BT Ketubot 62a].

This melancholic thought of Rav in the Talmud was meant to stimulate a discussion of what sighing actually did physiologically to the body. Rav substantiates this thought with a verse from Ezekiel: “Sigh therefore, you son of man, with the breaking of your loins and with bitterness will you sigh” [21:11]. The sigh draws attention to parts of the body that are broken, almost as if that specific part had its own voice. And then the very next verse is marshaled in support: “Why do you sigh? … because of the tidings, for when they come, every heart shall melt. All hands will become slack, and every spirit will faint, and all knees will drip with water” [21:12]. All of these different body parts are crouched over in suffering; bad news brings the listener to his or her knees, knees that are stained with tears.

We have sighing all over the Hebrew Bible, particularly in Psalms: “For all out days have declined in Your fury. We have finished our years like a sigh” [90:9]. Like the inhalation of a breath that suddenly releases, time passes by with a sigh. “For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing … my body has wasted away” [31:10]. We sigh as the body falls apart.

The Haggadah asks us to recreate a story. In a festive mood, we tend to minimize the pain and move on quickly to redemption. But if we are to be true actors on this vast historic stage, we must try to embody, quite literally, what the experience of slavery was like. Sadly, we are assisted in this task by the many tragic accounts of slavery in this country; they can only offer the slightest glimpse into brutality. We all know about the beatings of slaves, but do we really know? And do we really know what someone today feels in his or her body when they become the victim of hate. Ta-Nehisi Coates says it baldly: “Racism is a physical experience.” He writes, “I think the body is the ultimate thing. The soul and mind are part of the body. I don’t think there’s anything outside of that. Your physical self is who you are.”

If you want to understand slavery, stop conceptualizing. Imagine yourself in the body of the slave, the harshness of the labor on your shoulders. The thinness of a tunic that cannot protect you. The sores on a back that’s been whipped. The bent neck of the one knocked over. The coarseness of the hands. The mind twisted into obsequiousness for what seems like forever. Coates writes, “I’m the descendent of enslaved black people in this country. You could’ve been born in 1820 if you were black and looked back to your ancestor and saw nothing but slaves all the way back to 1619. Look forward another 50 or 60 years and saw nothing but slaves.” The body understands what the mind can never fathom: the way pain blinds us with its darkness, the darkness of a Treblinka and an Auschwitz.

This Passover, let’s tell a more honest story. Let’s sit with the pain and let it enter our very bones. We cannot get to true joy any other way. We cannot treat the stranger differently if we cannot experience the bodily pain of the stranger. Compassion lives in that sliver between us and them that collapses with a sigh. Passover is about learned compassion. I love our people, but there are few things I like less than a Jewish racist. That’s the blight of one who forgets what pain feels like. That’s not our Passover story. It’s the opposite of our story.


Passover, in some ways, seems to offer an ancient leadership development programme that took Moses from silence to song. In honour of Passover, let’s think together about Jewish leadership. The Jewish leadership craze is happening on both sides of the Atlantic. Jewish organisations, many of them old and well-established, are offering more and more leadership development programmes. Here's why...

The world of philanthropic giving has changed radically. Micro-giving, designated giving and hands-on philanthropic work have been quick to replace long-standing models of charitable giving. 

Jewish non-profits that were typically top-heavy on the bureaucratic front have been forced to trim down and lower overhead costs. Social media has made everyone a critic and forced new levels of organisational evaluation and self-reflection. 

Research on millennials has showcased a distaste for organisations generally; membership and dues are less important to an emerging generation of leaders than commitments to social justice and spirituality. Out of all our organisational abbreviations, it appears that the letter “J” is the most important one to this population and the one least valued and explained. 

Young adults want to know what an organisation stands for and, when we can’t give a compelling answer, they are quick to look elsewhere for charities that are more articulate about their values, more nimble and responsive. 

Since people can connect in lots of new ways, the networking that organisational affiliation once offered is less necessary. 

Many legacy organisations whose original mission has been fulfilled or is no longer relevant are in danger of obsolescence; young Jewish start-ups get more and more funding. 

I often use a metaphor that helps me understand recent changes in Jewish communal life. There was time when you moved to a new city and became a Jewish joiner. You joined a synagogue, sent your children to Jewish day school or an after-school programme, joined a Jewish community centre and gave donations to local Jewish causes. We’ll call this the fixed-price menu. It was all laid out for you.
All you had to do was enter and pay your way into a well-orchestrated Jewish landscape.

Stage two: the fee-for-service model. Instead of accepting communal offerings wholesale, many opted to pick and choose, to enter organisational life only when needed. People join a synagogue for a milestone event and then leave. In demographic studies in the US, we started to notice some unusual findings. There are people who send their children to Jewish schools but are not members of synagogues. The fee-for-service model in restaurant terms might be called an a la carte menu. Take only what you want. 

We have changed the menu again. People come in and out of Jewish organisations. They experiment. Brand loyalty is passé. People want to enjoy the benefits of what an organisation offers without properly supporting it — the tapas menu. It’s hard for legacy organisations to adapt to this change because these episodic joiners often don’t pay rent, dues, or salaries or give to annual campaigns. 

Here’s where leadership development comes in. We create programmes to make our organisations better to combat these problems. This emphasis on leadership may be productive; it may also mask a much larger, darker truth. Ultimately, we don’t need better fundraisers. Money comes with meaning. We need visionaries to chart new, unseen courses. The time has come for disruption, mergers and acquisitions, for new ways to think. Just because an organisation has always existed, doesn’t mean it should continue to exist. 

There are some we absolutely must sustain. We must take care of the frail and elderly, educate the young and make sure everyone who needs a meal will get one. But we also need to face a sad reality: many Jewish non-profits are no longer as relevant as they once were. We can’t guilt people into support (but goodness knows, we try). We have to inspire them. 

We are suffering an inspiration deficit. If you want to stay relevant, create great storytellers. That’s the ultimate message of Passover. Share a great story enough times, and others will want to be part of the magic. Own this story, and tell it better. Passover challenges each of us to re-create history and make history. It reminds us that great leaders inspire.


We need to talk candles. I don’t get it. Someone recently gave me a candle to say thank you for some assistance. It was a lot of work. I was happy to do it for her, but the candle gift was confusing. When I brought it home, one of my children said, “Those are really, really expensive candles.” How expensive can a candle possibly be? Five dollars? Not even. She looked it up. Sixty dollars. I’m not worth that. I must have missed this new trend in wax. At that price, why would anyone ever light a candle?

It got me wondering. What is the most expensive candle you can buy today? That information was only one search away. Lalique makes a candle for, get this, $718.75 excluding VAT. This is a sale price. It wasn’t even a tall candle, like those shiva ones that go for a whole week. I don’t think you’d even get an afternoon out of it. But this is still not the most expensive candle. The most expensive candle is made by Luxury Soy Candles and is called “The Ultimate Luxury Candle.” It is encircled with a diamond bow necklace of 2.23 carats. The price for you? $5,000. If you want to light two for Shabbat, I’ll see if we can get them down to $9,000.

Here’s the irony of it all. Remember when you were a kid and you drank from the little yahrtzeit candle glasses that people saved after they used them? My bubbe had service for 12, minimally. When I finished using my $60 candle, it didn’t even make a good glass. I had to put it in recycling. What a waste.

But this insane discussion did get me thinking about the significance of candles in my own life. The mitzvah of candlelighting was, I believe, the first one I observed on my path to an intensified Jewish life. Those small two flames from thin, white Shabbat candles created a way forward, a light that grew into other mitzvot: prayer, study, full Sabbath observance, kashrut, a desire to go to Jewish day school. That cheap candle set of tin masking itself as brass held my Jewish future. I just didn’t know it at the time.

Now, candlelighting is pure joy without any of the hardship of the earlier years: the family arguments about religion, the nail-biting difficulty of learning to pray, the challenge of keeping Shabbat and kashrut alone as a young teenager. Today my daughters light candles. More importantly, that light eventually lit the way back home for my mother and grandmother, of blessed memory, as they made their way back to Judaism. All because of those candles.

On Friday afternoon, we rush to light candles at a very specific minute so that after we light them, time ceases to matter. We enter the sanctity of a time-free zone where our only clock for the next 25 hours measures the spiritual force we put into making Shabbat extraordinary. As someone always bound by the demands and confines of time, I take off my watch right before candle lighting to remind myself to step into that transcendent zone and leave this world behind for a little while.

We never know what one ritual in our lives can turn into. Robust Jewish life is not an all or nothing gambit. Think instead about the parents who “keep nothing” and decide to bless their children each Friday night. Creating that family moment of tenderness and holiness may one day turn into a whole Friday night dinner with guests. Or not. More than one serious Jewish philanthropist has shared with me that his or her charitable impulse was nurtured by a parent who cared about this one mitzvah. The parent had, from the child’s earliest years, insisted that a cut of the kids’ weekly allowance went to tzedakah. The pushke one day turned into a foundation. Perhaps that’s the thinking behind the rabbinic advice to make one mitzvah particularly beloved. We should personalize altruistic or spiritual behaviors. Sometimes something small when done right can easily become something bigger. So what’s your special mitzvah?

Of course, I was worried that since my early days of candle lighting, the price on those plain, thin, white candles had gone up, given this new, crazy candle fervor. Here’s what one of these candles will set you back. You can buy a box of 72 for $6.99. I don’t believe there is any VAT charge associated with them. My calculator renders each candle at about 9.7 cents. For less than a quarter, you can light Shabbat candles for several hours and bring extraordinary light into your home. No diamond necessary. The gem is in the light.


As of this writing, I have officially tweeted 2,982 times.

Let me explain. I began the cycle of Daf Yomi — the study of a folio page of Talmud every day — four-and-a-half years ago. To help me summarise what I study each day and retain a pearl, I tweet a statement from the talmudic page followed by a loosely connected quote. This is a really hard exercise most days because the Talmud is a very complex document. Think of an ox goring someone else’s ox or a debate on the impurity of vegetable stalks. Hard to tweet that out, right? Right.

Nevertheless, it’s been a great way to hold on to what I’ve learned a little longer. I wish I could retain a fraction of all of this ancient wisdom but, as a friend summed up this method of study: “Daf Yomi: forgetting one page of Talmud every day.” So true. I’ve also been struck by the amazing creativity of others who are trying to do the same thing — integrate and retain some of their learning via a different expression of it. There is someone who does artistic renderings of the daily page and one who writes poetry. That’s harder than 140 characters a day.

In the poetry department, someone actually does a haiku each day. I once wrote one, as a joke, and emailed it to her when someone gave me her contact information. She wrote back: “I didn’t know anyone else was writing haikus on the daf.” I assured her this was only a one-time event. I would never infiltrate her niche market.

Tweeting was just catching on when I started. I mocked it along with the other sceptics. You know that celebrity who just bought a vanilla soy latte at Starbucks and tweeted it out? Don’t care. You know that weird classmate of yours from primary school who tweets his assessment of current events? Don’t care.

Knowing the way of all technology, I reckoned that by the time the Talmud cycle finishes in seven-and-a half years, there will still be a Talmud but no more Twitter accounts. We will then move to another inane platform for self-expression.

With your permission, I’d like to revise that statement in the light of the past year. Twitter is going nowhere because it is now the most popular and incendiary form of political conversation. It has managed to flatten all sophistication to naught. Angry Chinese citizen Kwon Pyong tweeted out a photo of himself in a tee shirt that likened President Xi Jiping to Hitler and is now facing court charges of subversion. And Twitter isn’t even accessible in China.

But why look so far away when I can look right here at home, starting with our new POTUS (President of the United States). Policy decisions are now triggered as impulsive rants. People who publicly question the judgment of this president often become the subject of his next tweet. On February 7, The New York Times published an article called, “The 307 People, Places and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter: A Complete List.”

The political magazine, Mother Jones, conducted an investigative report on an even scarier trend. Someone in the administration or close to it writes or forwards a racist or antisemitic tweet, post or article then quickly apologises and removes it.

By that time, the damage has already been done. This strategy has lots of advantages: you get out your message, you fire up your base, and then you say sorry.

Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway recently apologised for re-tweeting (forwarding someone else’s tweet for those still in the dark ages about technology) something written by white supremacists.

During the campaign Gen. Michael Flynn, at #NeverHillary, tweeted: “Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore.” He then claimed it as a mistake. On the same campaign trail, Trump tweeted — as we know — an image of “Crooked Hillary” superimposed on a pile of cash with a Star of David. He then quickly retracted.

Less known is that he retweeted from @WhiteGenocideTM, @EustaceFash, who use the term white genocide in their header. Racially compromising crime statistics that are not true are regularly public fare. Let’s call them alternative facts.

This is not about politics. It’s about responsible journalism in an age when everyone is a journalist. The remarkable educational tool that social media could be today is being compromised every day, perhaps every minute. Maybe we should stop and just let the birds tweet.


I took my food from the buffet and looked for a seat. This can always be socially awkward, but in a room of hundreds of Jewish communal professionals, I was bound to bump into dozens of people I knew. Nope. My food got cold. I recognized no one. This was wonderful news. A room filled with fresh young faces dedicating their professional lives to our people means “not knowing” is a blessing.

I was at the Hillel International Global Assembly in Orlando this past December. Hillel International supports programming at 550 campuses globally and employs more entry-level professionals than any other Jewish nonprofit. Many faces were unsurprisingly new. At professional conferences, people who haven’t seen each other in a long time skip plenaries to kvetch about work and its limitations. Not here. There was a vibe of positive energy, an openness to possibility. And there was an extra reason for all the good energy.

The Marcus Foundation announced a $38 million gift to the release of hundreds of blue and white balloons dropping from the ceiling. It felt like a political convention, but just much more hopeful. The gift is designed to help identify, train, recruit and retain top Jewish professionals for a powerful talent pipeline.

If that wasn’t enough, there were other gifts — totaling $11 million in new investments to launch Hillel U, ongoing professional development in person and online. Hillel professionals are reaching young Jews at an impressionable time in their decision-making lives. The better equipped they are, the more they can give.

All this good news was a wonder to watch. For too long now, foundations and federations have thrown themselves at the unaffiliated, the just Jewish, the undetermined and un-proud with the promise of engagement — whatever that mystery word means. Millions of dollars have been spent to lure people to enjoy something for nothing as they consider what will next be free. The results of this have been, for the most part, a terrific short-term high. Long-term, deep commitment still eludes us.

Jewish nonprofit professionals have stood on the sidelines and watched philanthropic dollars go to those who have shown the least interest in the Jewish project. Meanwhile they scrape and save for camp and school tuitions. A friend with three kids can’t afford to keep them in a Jewish school because she works in a Jewish nonprofit.

Who is watching out for those who are watching over us?

Hillel is showing the Jewish world that if you take care of your own — you educate, celebrate and invest in your people — they, in turn, will want to serve our people. It’s a winning formula for excellence. Unfortunately, it’s not intuitive in our community. Look around at many Jewish nonprofits, and you’ll find inconsistent supervision and evaluation. Very few organizations have created and sustained a culture of learning. If they have episodic programming, it’s often not meaningful enough to have real impact. Our talent pipeline has been drying up for years.

Then there’s the matter of Jewish literacy — music to my ears. The first major initiative in Hillel U: The Center for Jewish and Israel Education, funded by a $7.7 million grant from the Maimonides Fund. Serious Jewish learning shapes better people and better professionals. There are many important benefits to enhanced Jewish study. Here’s one of my favorites: eliminating imposter syndrome. No one working on behalf of the Jewish people should be intimidated by a Jewish text or not know the difference between a mishnah and Maimonides.

We’re not going to master a 4,000-year history of Bible and Talmud, of commentaries and history, of philosophy, prayer and mysticism. But every person who works for our community should be able to stand tall and self-confident as a Jew, informed and able to make knowledgeable Jewish choices. When professionals driven by passion and mission lack the anchor of Jewish study, it’s like standing naked on the frontlines of this work, feeling embarrassed as the “ambassador Jew” who can’t answer questions about our tradition.

These generous donations are reinforcing best practices and creating new ones. Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel International, wisely said, “These grants will not just transform Hillel, but transform the Jewish world.” Yes. All this magic can happen if other Jewish organizations pay careful attention to what Hillel is getting right. Think again about investing much in those who care little. Invest more in those who care much. The returns will be immeasurable.


Having recently turned 50, I scheduled a spate of medical appointments, at the urging of my children, to make sure I wasn't falling apart. It seems, in fact, that I was. At the end of each exam, virtually every doctor sat me down, looked me in the eye and said: "As we age..." in that patronising voice that doctors often adopt. As we age? You don't need to tell me that everything is not in smooth working order. I can look in the mirror for that update. It's when your husband croons: "I love you just the way you were," that it really hurts.

We live in a youth-centred society. Someone over 50 recently complained to me that although she has a lot of institutional memory, a terrific work ethic and a great deal of work experience, she’s routinely passed over for much younger colleagues when applying for a job. She can’t prove it. She just feels it.

To this ageism, I spit out the words in Leviticus: “You shall rise up before the grey-headed and honour the aged, and you shall revere your God; I am the Lord,” (19:32). In the Jewish tradition, we revere the process of ageing into wisdom. We regard it as a blessing, as we find in Proverbs: “A grey head is a crown of glory; it is found in the way of righteousness” (16:31). As we learn from our mistakes and hopefully grow in wisdom, we open ourselves to the possibility of greater piety and understanding.

I once asked my class to name one feature of ageing that they really enjoyed. Not one could name a physical change they appreciated, but they had no trouble identifying emotional benefits. There was the relief of expressing oneself more freely, understanding personal needs better, ridding oneself of baggage that had been carried for decades. They told me that they prioritise better and invest long-term in what they truly care about. They know who’s loyal. They know who their friends really are. This made me think of the prophet Isaiah: “Even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your greying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you,” (46:4).

These verses and observations are not about the body but about the mind. In a universe of the body beautiful, it’s hard not to see age as a dent in the dream. But in a universe of scholarship, it is usually the young who are at a disadvantage, just as we read in Job, “Wisdom is with the aged. With long life is understanding,” (12:12).

And just as I was getting myself good and depressed that everything may not be in the same working order, I read this story. In January of this year, Amy Craton, a 94-year-old woman living in Honolulu, earned a college degree online from the University of Southern New Hampshire. She started college in 1962 but married, had four children and needed to work. She never finished. Online learning allowed her to study where she lives. She finished up with a perfect 4.0 GPA — a first.

Being in her nineties and in a wheelchair, she couldn’t receive her diploma in hand at the graduation. It’s a demanding flight. Instead, the university’s president, Paul LeBlanc, flew to Hawaii (hardship duty) and gave it to her. She’s their oldest graduate. In one photo, the frail Craton looks up at LeBlanc with gratitude for this momentous occasion.

“It feels good to graduate, but in many ways I feel I am still on the road; I have more to learn” she told a journalist. “If you’re thinking about going back to school, do it. You’ll open up a whole new life.” She is now studying for her Masters.

It’s a heartwarming story but, in our tradition, not unusual. As people of the book, we revere those steeped in learning. We don’t ignore the physical changes of ageing.

At the same time, don’t ignore Maimonides — philosopher, legalist and physician — who believed that only a sound body could produce sound ideas. It is the sound ideas that, in the end, offer us deep meaning and grounding long past the time when our bodies may let us down.

Jewish education of the young has always been about offering study skills to protect our minds when we’re old. Maybe it’s time to replace “ageing” with “sage-ing” and set new mental challenges for our golden years.


Many churches are holding a prayer service for healing today, to bring people together with humility and contrition over election-related bad behaviors, to try through faith to bring people together who have sparred mightily. The Episcopal Church of the First Ascension in Cartersville, Georgia will hold one at 12:15, if you’re interested. Alternatively, you can go to the “Unity Service of Healing for Our Nation” at the Avondale Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina at noon. The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson of St. Aiden’s in Virginia Beach will be preaching at his healing service. Virginia is not only for lovers. It’s for pray-ers, too. Wilkinson wants us to go back to being good neighbors, better friends, empathic congregants. “I think it’s incredibly important to go back to treating each other with some sense of dignity,” he has said. Maybe noon is the popular hour because the hangover after the all-night drinking stupor, brought about by the Trump victory, needs time to wear off.

But can healing take place so quickly when the fragmentation is so deep? I wonder. What will rabbis be doing across the country in their sermons this Shabbat? Will they, too, lead healing services? If I were a rabbi, I would teach II Chronicles 10 because this election cycle was biblical in its hubris and in the possibility it presents for redemption.

Here’s the basic plot. After King Solomon died, his son Rehaboam took his seat on the throne. Rehaboam would then reign for 17 years, have 18 wives, and 60 concubines. (That’s nothing compared to his father, who had 700 wives and 300 concubines.) Rehaboam had 28 sons and 60 daughters. He also had a very rough leadership start. One of Solomon’s ministers, Jeraboam, wanted a change in the kingdom and approached the new king with a committee (because if it’s Jewish, it needs a committee). They respectfully asked him to lighten the punishing work load that Solomon placed upon the people. For Solomon’s ambitious building plans of Temple and palace, he burdened the people with great labor. The people wanted a break: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you” (II Chronicles 10:4).

Rehaboam asked for time. He wanted three days to think about his response, which would ultimately determine what kind of leader he wanted to be. This seems wise and thoughtful. He took the case to his father’s advisers, the old guard, to seek their considerable wisdom. They counselled Rehaboam to follow the people. Lighten the load. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked. They replied, “If you will be kind to these people and please them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants” (10:6-7). Lead with compassion and you will be rewarded with steady followship.

But Rehaboam then made a tragic error. He sought the counsel of his peers as well. These young, brash friends, full of machismo and arrogance, gave him different advice. Reject the peoples’ pleas. Stress your power: “If my father hit you with whips, I will hit you with scorpions,” they said. Ouch. “Now tell them, ‘My finger is thicker than my father’s loins’” (10:10). We hear the bravado and the sexual innuendo in these words. Politics for Rehaboam and his friends was not about influence; it was about power, the power to corrupt, to exploit, to diminish, and to demean.

Three days passed, and the committee came back. No surprise, Rehaboam used the language of his rag-tag band. He spoke of scorpions and loins. The people left dejected, but instead of simply accepting more of the king’s dominance, they fought power with their own limited power. The king hired a task-master—and like in an earlier version of a young Jewish man who killed an Egyptian task-master beating a slave—the people fought back. “King Rehaboam sent out Adoniram, who was in charge of forced labor, yet the Israelites stoned him to death. King Rehaboam, however, managed to get into his chariot and escape to Jerusalem. So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day” (10:18-19).

The people got the last word. They killed their tormentor to access their freedom. Rehaboam escaped, frightened of the mutiny that his bravado generated. When people feel highly charged and their needs are grossly neglected, they sometimes resort to violence.

Many of us woke up today to a different America. All across this country, we find voters, who felt angry and disenfranchised, today proudly claiming victory in a fight colored by bravado, by a mean-spirited, hate-filled campaign. They feel heard. Trump’s America promises a different landscape, not the liberal elite one that his supporters feel has controlled the country for too long. The people, just as in Rehoboam’s day, ultimately triumphed. But in our story, the king had to run away because he used his power inappropriately.

I think about Donald Trump’s first days of leadership. I wonder, President-elect, who will your advisers be? Only you can decide if you will continue the bold swagger of power or opt for the civilizing influence of persuasion. This country’s deep political divide requires more than reaching across the aisle. It’s almost like reaching across the universe. Raw power appeals to people who feel powerless. It appealed to Rehaboam. But the Bible always advocates a referendum, so to speak, on human power. It contains story after story of power gone awry with the hope that someone is listening, that someone will privilege influence over power. It’s a return to the politics of respect that will ultimately heal us.

Healing is not only about bringing people together who are in pain. It’s about changing the binary discourse of hate and control that created the suffering in the first place. As citizens, we may not have political power, but we have the power to heal ourselves and each other and this country.

Let a new day begin.


We've recently finished reading the whole Torah. I love the ritual upon the liturgical completion of a biblical book. We stand tall in the synagogue and recite three words out loud asking for renewed strength: "Hazak Hazak Ve'nitchazek." We hope with the close of one book and the opening of another, we retain our sacred energy and amplify it. We say a dignified goodbye to what we've read. We hope that the words soon to be read will also jump from the scroll and into our lives, that this text is not static but electric. This is all the more so when we complete the entire Torah. I confess. I always feel a bit proud and weepy when we do this together.

Judaism does endings well, whether it's finishing a biblical book or the intricate laws of shiva that frame how we say farewell to those we love. I feel sad for my non-Jewish colleagues and friends who don't have such closing rituals, who go to work the next day because - well - what else is there to do? We end the shiva week by rising and walking around the block, signifying that we must also say goodbye to mourning. We don't rush it, but we don't stay in that dark place for so long that we can't remember the light.

These rituals of beginnings and endings help us manage the transition time in between. A few years ago, my husband bought me a book by Harvard professor Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot. He knows I admire her writing, although it's just a little weird when your husband buys you a book called Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free. I didn't take it personally. But what I did take to heart is what she wrote in that book about the way we say goodbye. She contends that in contemporary society we celebrate beginnings more than endings. The way we offer small goodbyes, she believes, are often connected to our capacity or incapacity to end larger chapters of our lives in an authentic and meaningful way.

One of the smoothest leadership transitions in the Bible is unexpected. When we closed the Five Books, we said goodbye to Moses, a prophet who Deuteronomy 34 tells us will never have an equal. We can only imagine, therefore, that the next leader will face insurmountable difficulty in establishing credibility. That's not the case. When we open the book of Joshua, we encounter a repeated expression that mirrors our close of biblical books. The people keep telling Joshua to be strong and of good courage, imbuing him with the confidence that they never offered to his predecessor.

I've been thinking a lot about that goodbye and hello lately. As I write this, we are eleven days away from November 8. The polls opened yesterday. Pollsters have commented on the unusual uptick of early voting this election. Why? People are sick of this presidential campaign, and even though it's not over when they vote early, it is over for them. They need the psychic reassurance that their own part in it is done and gone. What's even scarier is the thought of the day after the election, the predicted violence or the questioning of the integrity of the voting system. How will we heal?

There will be no smooth leadership transition. In actual fact, after the president is sworn in in January, she or he has about six hours to move into the White House. The Secret Service moves one president's personal belongings in and another's out the week before the inauguration, following a detailed floor-plan created by the new president and family. Even if the move goes smoothly, the country is in such a deep state of fragmentation, it seems impossible to imagine all the bad feelings swept under the Oval Office rug.

I, too, thought of voting early, disgusted by the tenor of the debates, the meanness, the cult of personality trumping the discussion of policy and the strange October surprises. I cannot wait for November 9.

But I decided, nevertheless, not to. I love voting as a community. Any student of Jewish history must celebrate the rights of citizenship. I kvell when putting in my ballot and happily wear an "I voted" sticker all day. No ugliness is going to take away this ritual, even if this election has been the worst in my memory. I just hope we can say goodbye and hello with more dignity. Politicians, please learn from the Jews. We know how to exit well.