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.