Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Being a Straight Ally

This week, we have been bombarded by injustices surrounding the LGBTQQI community. Multiple suicides of young adults who were bullied and outcast because of their personal identity. To help prevent this from happening again, celebrities have been recording messages standing up and asking for the greater community to help. Friends and neighbors who are gay making "It Only Gets Better" videos on YouTube - targeted to young LBGTQQI people who are struggling. Leaders of LGBT organizations were asking friends and colleagues to go back to their elementary, middle and high schools (and religious organizations) to request that they open GSA's (Gay-Straigh Alliances) and work hard to protect our young people. Organizations like Keshet are asking us to sign commitments to stand up for bullying and discriminatory injustices in our Jewish communities. [I have already signed it as a sponsoring agency with my consulting firm.]

And then, The Jewish Standard (a Jewish newspaper in NJ) writes this:

Given the tenor of the times, we did not expect the volume of comments we have received, many of them against our decision to run the announcement, but many supportive as well.

A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community have made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation, and we apologize for any pain we may have caused.

The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future.

This is the note that I wrote to the Jewish Standard publisher upon hearing of their printing of this:

Dear Mr. Janoff,

I am writing to you as one voice in a firestorm of voices you are hearing right now on the issue of the same-sex engagement announcement. My name is Robyn Faintich and I live in Atlanta, GA. You may be wondering why someone from Atlanta is taking interest in a situation with a NJ Jewish paper.

First of all, I am a Jewish educator and have been for 15 years. I consult in Jewish communities all over the country and therefore my Jewish interests know no geographic limitations. Second, as a Jewish educator, especially when I work with youth and teens, I try to instill in them a sense of meschlichkite and the idea of making all choices through a Jewish ethical lens. I believe your team did not make a meschlichkite decision. Third, I teach these youngsters to stand up for the injustices in the world, whether it be in their home, school, neighborhood, country, or the world. How can I teach them this and not stand up against this injustice? Fourth, I also happen to have a degree in Journalism and when I was in school, I was taught that news outlets must remain impartial, and I believe you failed to do that as well. Lastly, in a time when we are bombarded in the news with stories of young gay, lesbian, transgender and questioning teens killing themselves, I can't call myself a Straight Ally and turn my head while you add to their emotional pain and burden.

Of these issues, I want to remind you of Jewish ethics that I feel needed to weigh into this decision. The Jewish value of not embarrassing, the Jewish value of love your neighbor as yourself, and the Jewish value of celebrating with a Jewish couple as they approach Chuppah. I believe your stakeholders made this choice out of fear and not through the lens of Jewish ethics. What a shame.

Please reconsider the message you are sending and the role modeling you are doing (or lack thereof) by maintaining this hurtful decision.


Robyn Faintich

p.s. I am almost afraid to ask what your policy is for publishing interfaith announcements ... if you do that and don't publish same-sex Jewish couple announcements it makes this situation even worse.

After hitting the send button, I wish I had written more. I wish I had asked them what their policy is/will be when a Lesbian couple has a child with a donor or a gay couple adopts ... will they deny the child the welcoming s/he deserves into the Jewish community? Because their parents are gay and it might offend someone?

Some people may question why I would get involved ... since I am not gay. I never feel like I have done enough when it comes to being a Straight Ally. Despite learning as much as I can from my gay friends and family members, about their journeys and their struggles, I can never truly understand. But I do understand what it is like to be teased and bullied. I understand what it is like to be a minority. So it's with that emotion and commitment to humanity that continues to motivate me to stand up and to make it my fight, too.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Elul Reflections 6-10:

Elul 6: http://jewishsagesoftoday.com/ essay on Michael Berenbaum who is a prolific Holocaust expert said that he is "protecting Jewish memory." What do you do to protect Jewish memory?

I think the easy answer to this is about being a Jewish educator, but I think it is more than
that. While the collective Jewish memory is incredibly important, the familial Jewish
memory might even be more so. One of my favorite times is when my extended family (most often my mom's family) is sitting around telling stories, passing them from generation to generation. I remember times where people have sat in total shock about a "family scandal" and other times when people are laughing so hard they are crying. These moments have duality - they are perpetuating the family memories of the past and creating new memories to be layered on top. I am lucky to have such wonderful relationships with so many of my extended family members, and hope that this continues for many generations into the future.

Photo Above Right: 13 of 34 members of 4th generation Goldman Family.

Elul 7: Rachel Brodie writes about the emotion around the birth of her 2nd child. When has the capacity of your own love for someone/something surprised you?


When I was told that my brother and sister-in-law were expecting their first child, I

was incredibly hesitant to let myself feel any emotion. I lived 1800 miles away, and had no idea how I would be a part of this child's life. The months leading up to the birth, I didn't even buy a single item for this child. The phone rang on August 8th, 2004 about 5 a.m. my time ... and I was told my sister-in-law was in labor. And I just laid in bed, phone in my hand, and cried. When I got the call later that the baby was born and they were waiting to hear if it was a boy or girl, I cried even harder. When I was told it was a boy, and his name - Evan Samuel, and that everyone

was healthy. I cried tears of joy. Then when the first picture was emailed to me (via a friend's phone), I sat on the floor and fell in love in an instant. (And then I booked a flight to St. Louis and went to Disneyland and spent $300 on gifts for him.) On June 28, 2006, Jack Ian came into our lives ... and my heart expanded to let the love flood in for this new nephew. I am lucky, that now at ages 4 and 6, I have such a beautiful relationship with both boys, despite never living in the same city as them, and despite only seeing them about four times a year. I know, I would do ANYTHING to protect them, give them unconditional love, and help guide them into their futures.

Photos: Evan (top) Jack (bottom)

Elul 8: Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater writes forhttp://www.craignco.com/jewels/) about the creative process he goes through to write sermons. What is your muse? What inspires you to express yourself?

When I sat to reflect on this question, the first answer that popped into my head shocked me. Anger. When I get angry about something - whether it's an injustice, a philosophy I don't agree with, being hurt by someone, a loss, a movie I didn't like, an issue I think that needs to be addressed ... the words just flow. I would like to have a muse more ethereal, maybe with time ... maybe with a love of b'shert ... maybe with my own children.

Elul 9: Comes from Rabbi Hayim Herring's @toolsforshuls http://toolsforshuls.com/ When were you recently at your best? When do you think that the Jewish people acted at its best? When do you think a significant part of the world behaved at its best?

I think that by launching my own consulting business, I have created so many new opportunities to be at my best. Those moments when I am teaching, learning, sharing, collaborating, exploring, growing, challenging, creating, connecting --- all in the same breath.

I think the Jewish people have rarely acted our best .... and in all the cases I come close to naming - they are in tragedy: 9/11, Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, hurricane Katrina, Daniel Pearl's execution ... we have a lot to work on. And again, when I think a significant part of the world behaved its best - probably 9/11 ... but just because the majority of the world was on good behavior, there was still so much hatred swirling - against Arabs, against Muslims, against America ... that it detracts to much.

Elul 10: Rabbi Shlomo RIskin writes for Craig Taubman's Jewels of Elul about being challenged & effectively standing up for his choice. In the past year, what choice have you been asked to defend and you walked away feeling good about it? http://www.craignco.com/jewels/)

Two things come to mind. The first is that when one of my cats was incredibly ill earlier this year, several people kept challenging my choice to put a lot of money and a lot of effort into trying to save her life. I have no regrets (as she sits in my lap now purring). I also had to choose during that time to walk away from a cruise that I had been planning with friends since last June ... and I don't regret that either. The second, is in my choice to take this untraditional path and not enter back into full-time employment, but instead to work on my EdD and build up my business. Sometimes you end up defending the untraditional professional path, but feeling great you took the risk.

Next blog: Elul 11-16

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Elul Reflections 1-5

As I have been posting questions about Elul reflections, some people have asked me to answer my own questions, so here goes:

Elul 1: Reading http://jewishsagesoftoday.com/. The introduction has me reflecting on Jewish heroes, who made me the Jew I am-Who are yours?

Who made me the Jew I am? I can't respond without including my parents and grandparents. But, I also have to include a great-grandmother whom I only met once when I was a newborn. My mom's maternal grandmother, Tillie Goldman, was a matriarch of 7 children, 17 grandchildren, 34 great-grandchildren (including me), and countless more great-great grandchildren, and even a great-great-great grandchild. Bubbie, as she is known to each of her descendants, was a traditional Jew, originally from Prussia, who came to the States

and maintained her observance of kashrut and of Shabbat. She lived in Israel for a while, establishing orphanages and funding Yeshivot. When she turned ill, her children brought her back to the States, but her wish was to be buried in Israel. Recently, I had the honor of visiting her grave (photo to the right).

In addition to Bubbie, my parents and grandparents, I have had countless Jewish peers and educators influence the Jew I am today. Here are a few: Joanne Barrington Lipshutz, Rabbi Avi Greene, Rabbi Ken Greene, Rabbi David Paskin, Rabbi Arnie Samlan, Yossi Katz, Rabbi Zvi Berger, David Mitchell, Maxine Weil, Joan Wolchansky, Harlene Appleman, Roberta Goodman, Elliot Gershenson, Cantor Mark Levine, Rabbi Kelley Gludt, and more!

Elul 2: Read the essay on Yossi Abramowitz in Jewish Sages of Today. The author quotes Abramowitz, "Values are what you live by, vision is what you live towards, and leadership is just simply living your values towards your vision." What are your values? What's your vision?

I guess my most basic value is Kavod (respect). Others include Kehillah (community), Mishpacha (family), G'milut Chesed (helping others meet their needs), Muchshar (capable/competent), and Nichul (leadership). My vision is living in a respectful family and community where people are competent and capable leaders whereby their goals include helping others meet their needs and build a strong Jewish identity.

If you are looking for an activity to help you figure this out, you can order Value Cards from 21/64 - a Jewish organization helping families figure out their philanthropy priorities.

Elul 3: More Abramowitz. He talks about Keeping Jews Jewish. What have you done this year to keep YOU Jewish? Others Jewish?

In terms of keeping myself Jewish, I have continued to immerse myself in my own Jewish experiences, including volunteering through JF&CS, serving on the leadership team for LimmudSE+Atlanta, and starting my EdD in Jewish Education Leadership. In terms of keeping others Jewish, my professional work, in the end is all about keeping Jews Jewish. In addition, my leadership role and presenting role in Limmud helps keep other Jews Jewish.

Elul 4: The next essay in Jewish Sages of Today is on Rachel Azaria. When Rachel sees injustice, she seeks change. What injustices have you tried to change?

I have been a big proponent of equal marriage rights for everyone in the U.S. I have helped use my voice to email/talk to people about this issue, including defeating Prop 8 in California.

Elul 5: The Jewels of Elul (http://www.craignco.com/jewels/) for this day is from Rabbi Naomi Levy. She tells a beautiful story of her daughter with physical challenges surprising her. When have you surprised yourself by overcoming a major obstacle?

I have always battled being significantly overweight (I think doctors have called me morbidly obese). However, I have tried to not let this be an obstacle for me - still climbing Masada, going snorkeling, riding a waverunner, going ATVing, etc. And as much as I had surprised myself by being able to do all of that, I think overcoming the obstacle of "giving up" and always being that size, I have shocked myself at my commitment to being a healthier person. While there are still daily battles to overcome, I have lost about 120 lbs (still have about 50 more to go) and every day consider the choices I am making.

Today Before

Friday, August 13, 2010

Back in the Saddle

Last year I blogged about how I need Elul to ramp up to the High Holy Days. So this year I am doing two things to prepare (see my work blog here for details).

The question asked on the first day of Elul in Jewels of Elul, was:

If you had to count the number of times you “got back in the saddle again” this year after a fall, how many times would it be? Is it harder or easier the more times you do it?

Well, let's count, shall we?
  • Dad died
  • Agency Funding Ran Out = Out of Work
  • Cat almost died
  • Relationships ended
  • Was sick for 5 months which resulted in 20" of my colon being removed
  • Denied reasonable health coverage TWICE and medical expenses tapped me out
  • Oh, and there was that random flat tire which always causes a headache!

I would say it isn't harder or easier the more times you do it, it's just hard. But with some support from friends and family (THANK YOU to each and every one of you), you manage to get back up and face the world again.

It is also important to admit when the horse has dumbed you one-too-many times, and you need a professional counselor or pastoral care, to help you help yourself to get back in the saddle. Some people see that as a weakness, but it's truly strength that allows you to admit when, despite their love and care, family and friends just aren't strong enough to hoist you up.

The Holy Days are about reflection and refocusing. They are about admitting our mistakes and committing to not make them again. They are about visioning your future and beginning to take the steps to enact that vision. And in that way, it's really about today. About now. It's not about "do it tomorrow" or "do it next year" .... which reminds me of this song from the musical RENT (listen to it here):
The heart may freeze or it can burn
The pain will ease if I can learn

There is no future

There is no past

Thank God this moment's not the last

There's only us

There's only this

Forget regret-- or life is yours to miss.

No other road

No other way

No day but today

There's only yes

Only tonight

We must let go

To know what is alright

No other course

No other way

No day but today

I can't control

My destiny

I trust my soul

My only hope

is just to be

There's only now

There's only here

Give in to love

Or live in fear

No other path

No other way

No day but today

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Originally posted on Davar Acher blog ...

I am one of those people who has always thinks "Help" is a dirty four-letter word. For some reason it feels like failure, it feels like a loss of independence, and it certainly feels vulnerable. Of course, I am always willing to help others - enjoy doing it, but almost never admit I need help or ask for it myself. Well, until recently. In my personal life, I have just come through three serious situations over the past 8 months that required me to ask for help.

The first was in October 2009 when my father had a cardiac event, was in and out of a coma for a week, and then died. I asked for help a lot those two weeks and each time, people were jumping at the chance to be there to support me in some way. I asked for meals, I asked for someone to send me clothes (my family is in St. Louis and I live in ATL), I asked for someone to just check and answer my voicemails. I asked for someone to take care of my cats. I asked for people to pray for my father. I asked a friend from out-of-town to drop everything and come officiate the funeral. Despite the fact it was tremendously hard for me to ask for all of these things, it was easy for people to respond "yes."

For those of you who are pet people, you will understand my second instance .... In April, one of my cats suddenly took deathly ill. The vets didn't think she was going to make it, and the over the course of a week she went from "fine" to battling about a half-dozen ailments. It was all I could do to go back and forth from the vet, to the animal hospital (where she was overnight on i.v.'s), to my house, and back again. I didn't eat or sleep for almost 8 days ... and I found that I had to ask for help that week. I was so distraught, I wasn't functioning, and yet it still took me 5 days into the chaos to ask for help. Just asking a friend to come be with me when I couldn't be alone - a friend who came over and held me while I just cried and cried and cried. A friend who forced me to eat (and cooked for me), a friend who brought over ice cream without my needing to ask. And yet asking for that help was so painful ... but receiving it was so comforting.

Three weeks ago, I had 20" of my colon removed ... and found myself in the third situation where I had to ask for help. Help from family, help from nurses (great nurses rock and are under-appreciated!), help from neighbors and friends. Each time, my independence threatened to get in the way of asking for the help ... but each time my community came through for me on so many levels. Even people from across the globe recognized that one way they could help - even though geographically disadvantaged - was by cheering on my spirits - sending notes, text messages, emails, flowers, books, magazines, gift certificates, etc. (This Jim Joseph Fellows community put a smile on my face more than once the last few weeks!)

So why is it that it takes serious - life threatening (whether for me or for a loved-one of mine) for me to be able to ask for help? Why is when people are so generous and willing to give, I hesitate to ask? Why is it that despite the fact that people have proven to have truly giving spirits over the past 8 months, that I still will wait for crisis to ask for help? And if this is how I respond in my personal life, professionally it is even harder to ask for help ... Why can't I give myself over to asking without hesitation?

Reflecting on it, I am reminded that one of the first acts in Torah is G-d telling Adam that he needs a help-mate.

Genesis 2:18:
And God said: 'It is not good that the man should be alone;
I will make him a help mate for him.'

This is a reminder to all of us ...we are made in G-d's image, and it is innate in us to recognize when someone needs help. It is important for us to recognize that both the act of helping and the act of being helped are holy. It truly is that simple.

And just as simple is the response when someone helps you.... say "Thank You."

So I offer up this blog as a Todah Rabah for all the people who have helped me - particularly over the last 8 months. You have not only helped me in the moment I needed it, but you have also helped me better be able to ask for help.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


Cross Posted to: Davar Acher

One of my personal Jewish outlets is participating in Limmud Southeast+Atlanta. As you may know Limmud is an international organization that represents a cross-communal approach to Jewish learning. It began in 1980 in the UK and now has about 35 all over the world.

Limmud Southeast+Atlanta has several events through the year; the highlights are a day-long Limmud in March, a full weekend over Labor Day called LimmudFest, and piloting a Jewish music festival this June. I am an active VOLUNTICIPANT (a cool Limmud concept for a participant who is also a volunteer!). For LimmudFest 2010, I am the co-chair of a committee called Participant Care (i.e. hospitality, special needs requests, transportation, housing, etc). It is such a rewarding experience to be involved in Jewish community for personal reasons and not just professional ones.

Limmud gives me a phenomenal multi-generational community amid which I have made some of my closest friends in Atlanta. They are all people who are committed to Jewish life - however they personally define it. They are engaged, intelligent, and loving (not to mention a ton of fun!). Limmud gives me an outlet for my post-denomination Judaism. Limmud gives me on-going adult Jewish learning for learning's sake. Limmud has given me front-line access to some of the world's best Jewish educators. But now, Limmud has given me something else.

I was recently asked to represent Limmud Southeast+Atlanta to be a part of an international Limmud project called the Chevruta Project. It is a book, published once a year, in which texts are examined around one theme, through many lenses, and by-way of both traditional and modern texts. The Chevruta book is divided into four sections and each section is developed by a geographic team. This year's theme is TIME and my team is North America. The North America team has representatives from Toronto, New Orleans, Chicago, NY, Boston, LA, Philly and Colorado. The section of the book we were assigned is around Communal Time.

In thinking about on-line learning communities, one of the greatest strengths is what has become known as "crowd-sourcing." The Jim Joseph Fellowship has reinforced the useful nature of tapping into the collective wisdom of a community. So combining my participation in the Fellowship with my participation in the Limmud Chevruta Project, I wanted to take this opportunity to ask all of the Davar Acher readers to participate in crowd-sourcing around the topic of Jewish Time. I invite you to answer any one, a few, or all of the questions below.
  • What does Jewish Time mean to you?
  • What traditional texts best frame or guide your view of Jewish time?
  • What modern texts do this?
  • How does Personal Jewish Time play out in your life?
  • How does Communal Jewish Time play out in your life?
  • What comes to mind when the concept of G-d's Time is introduced?
  • Do you have thoughts about Eternal Time?
I look forward to the amazing discussion I think we can have in asynchronous TIME about this topic.

NOTE: Picture to left is Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Time"

Friday, March 26, 2010

Slavery to Freedom

There has been much discussion about the high cost of being involved in Jewish life .... day school, congregation dues, JCC dues, summer camp, youth group conventions, fundraisers, b'nei mitzvah celebrations, Federation campaign, Israel trips ... my check book hurts just thinking about it. But this has been talked about at great length by many of my colleagues. What I want to talk about is Pesach.

I hate Pesach. I think it is a true experiential learning opportunity (and not just the Seder) ... but I face the cleaning, the changing of dishes, the cooking, the family tension around the Seder table, the week feeling cabin feverish (because I don't eat out at all and can't get that out-of-the-house social interaction with many friends), and lastly the shopping, as my own personal slavery. Let's be honest, observing Pesach in the most strict of ways is a total pain in the ass. And somehow, that last night at sundown - walking out of the house and heading to an Italian restaurant (come on - admit it, you probably eat pizza or pasta to break the Pesach restrictions) - that moment is my own personal freedom.

This year, I have even a stronger dislike for the holiday. Firstly, it is the first Pesach since my father passed away and while my family doesn't have many strong Pesach traditions, there will be the sense of the "empty chair" void left by his absence. Second, it is always difficult to go away for Sederarim and still have to come back to my house and have it kashered for just a few days. [Note: The best Pesach I ever spent was at a Kosher-for-Passover resort in Puerto Rico! But it's very expensive as a guest and I spent it as a staff person.] Third, this year I am dealing with incredible transition in my life both professionally and personally. My exhaustion managing the events in my life has left me completely depleted for REAL kashering and so I have personally wrestled with how much do I allow myself to not do and how what standard of Pesach cannot I just not give up.

And lastly ... there's the shopping. This year I faced the shopping through the eyes of those who have to watch their spending very carefully. I am blessed that in the years past, I have not had to worry about each item I placed in my cart and the total at the end of the day. But this year, it's different. This year, I am one of those people for whom the budget is enslaving and therefore the cost to be Jewish a true burden. Should the capitalism of the industry actually cause people to make painful choices between observance and not? Are the Kosher for Passover manufacturers and the grocery stores our modern-day Pharoah?

I say: Let My People Go. I am not sure if I am going to articulate this clearly, but I think as Klal Yisrael - as a people, we need to wonder this desert together. We need to bond together and have some leadership facilitate our collective negotiating and price monitoring. We also need to advocate for individual-sized portions/containers of many of the items. Being single, I am stuck paying for many family-sized items. I am not familiar at all with the process of how the prices get set, but what I do know is that my Judaism shouldn't be for sale at I price I cannot afford.

I want to be able to truly celebrate Pesach, in the spirit it was intended and I don't want to resent the process. I want to see the Promised Land ...

Chag Kasher v'Sameach Pesach.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

My Valentine Dilemma

So we spend so much time focused on the traditional "December Dilemma" that we often forget the many holidays that we as Jews in America encounter, but aren't ours. Halloween. Valentine’s Day. Thanksgiving. Fourth of July. Living as a Jew in America means existing with a constant dual tension. While some of these holidays may have been Americanized to a point where their original meanings aren’t even recognizable, there are implications for observing them as Jews. As the secular calendar brings us to each of these, I will look at some of the holiday origins and will offer ways to encounter them Jewishly and also point out how Jews observe similar celebrations.

If we asked a second grader in 2010 about Valentine's Day, we would most likely hear about love, hearts, sweet tarts, candy, red/pink, flowers, cards, etc. And while this may be the Americanization/Secularization of the holiday, it isn't really the basis for the holiday. Ask the average adult, and they might tell you that they know it was originally St. Valentine's Day, but beyond that, have no historical context. They might re-iterate the seven year-old's list, and then go on to add jewelry, a date night out, and romance/sex. But again, no real historical context.

So, in our attempt to evaluate how Jews should approach the day, we must first look at the historical account of Valentine's Day. [www.petalsnetwork.com/info/valentines.htm, www.homiliesbyemail.com/Special/Valentine/history.txt]

The first interpretation has The Feast of Lubercus celebration originating as a pagan tradition in the third century. During this time hordes of hungry wolves roamed outside of Rome where shepherds kept their flocks. The God Lupercus, was said to watch over the shepherds and their flocks and keep them from the wolves. Every February the Romans celebrated a feast called Lupercalia to honor Lupercus so that no harm would come to the shepherds and their flocks. Also during Lupercalia, but in honor of the goddess Juno Februata, the names of young women were put into a box and names were drawn by lot. The boys and girls who were matched would be considered partners for the year, which began in March. This celebration continued long after wolves were a problem to Rome.

Valentines Day started in the time of the Roman Empire. Under the rule of Emperor Claudius II - Rome was involved in many bloody and unpopular military campaigns. Claudius the Cruel, as he was known at the time, was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. He believed that the reason was that roman men did not want to leave their loves or families. As a result, Claudius cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome.

This was when a Christian priest named Valentine came to defend love in the empire. Valentine began to secretly marry couples despite the emperors orders. When Emperor Claudius was informed of these ceremonies Valentine was sent to prison where he remained until his death on February 14 in the year 270.

It wasn't until a few hundred years later when Valentine's Day began to develop as we know it. At the time Christianity was beginning to take control of Europe.

As part of this effort the Church sought to do away with pagan holidays. Valentine's Day came to replace a mid-February fertility festival called Lupercalia. In honor of his sacrifice for love Valentine was made a saint and Lupercalia renamed in his honor.

Interesting, huh? But what did we learn ... this holiday is based in Pagan, Roman and Christian history ... the date was chosen because it is the date that Valentine died ... and it's really about standing up for something you believe in (in this case it just happened to be the right to love and marry). Knowing this, based solely in the history, should Jews observe this holiday? [I would be interested in a healthy debate about this.]

On the other hand, if it's just about celebrating love, weddings, marriage, partnership, etc ... then Judaism provides us our own holiday to do so. {disclaimer: some of the following may have been adapted from other sources, but I originally put it together over 5 years ago, so I can't remember what was originally mine, and what was adapted....}

Picture this, as we go back in time: women clad in white, dancing in vineyards, men flocking to see them. As the second century Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel put it, “There were no better, happier days for the People of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Israel/Jerusalem got all dressed in white and danced in the vineyards. What were they saying: Young man, consider whom you choose (to be your wife)…” —Taanit, Chaper 4

Centuries before Hallmark even thought about Valentine’s Day cards, Tu B’Av was a day that did more than celebrate love. It sanctified it. It ushered it into the highest realms of spirituality. Although it is difficult to cite the origins of the holiday, the Gemara says that on this day the biblical “tribes of Israel were permitted to mingle with each other,” namely: to marry women from other tribes.

This was no meat market. Women were not to be judged solely by the shape of their bodies and the clothes that they wore, but by their character. In fact, it is said these women all borrowed white dresses that looked the exact same; that way, men had to look beyond their surface for a deep inner beauty. This was the day where the interior was as important as the exterior (and maybe even more.) The rabbis who ushered in this holiday understood that true love could not exist without substance, without respect, without an acknowledgement of another person’s inner beauty. Can you think of a better cause to celebrate than this?

So while I won't turn down flowers, chocolates, jewelry, love notes and "I Love You/Be Mine" sentiments any day of the year, I would prefer that extra-something come my way on Tu B'av and not specifically on Feb 14th.

And, just in case you need/want to add it to your calendar on my behalf ... here's the dates for the next three years.

Erev Tu B'Av:
Sunday, July 25, 2010
Sunday, August 14, 2011
Thursday, August 2, 2012

p.s. Note the name of my blog ... get it now?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

MLK and Shared Dreams H.S. Lesson

Here is a link to a lesson I wrote when I was working for the BJE of Orange County.
The lesson is based on the book and associated lesson plan book

SHARED DREAMS: Martin Luther King, Jr. & The Jewish Community



The lesson is most appropriate for 10th-12th graders.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Minding the Gap

Kaplan PSAT/SAT 20hrs of private tutoring = $2,599
Kaplan SAT Class, 8 lessons (approx. 20 hours) = $499
Gymnastics Class, 1 session (50 minutes) per week @ $75/month x 9 months = $675
Tennis Lessons, with Junior Pro, $75/hr x 30 weeks = $2,250

Jewish education = it's always too much (according to the parents).

When Jewish education institutions provide high-quality, high-impact programming to children and their families, somehow we can never charge what it is exactly costing us to implement the programs, much less to even make a little profit to invest in other agency programs.

For example, one program I know of costs a community bewteen $1200-$1800 per teen (depending on enrollment numbers) to run the program. It takes place two and a half hours per week, 25-30 weeks a year, with highly respected teaching faculty, social breaks with breakfast or lunch, a few parent programs, and occasional guest speakers. However, the agency that runs the program feels that the parents won't pay anything more than $400 per year. (BTW, this comes out to about $5.75 per hour - less than babysitting these days!) How do we mind (aka fund) this gap?

There are only two ways to do it (that I know of - suggestions welcome):
a) Philanthropists
b) Change the culture of what families will pay for services

I will leave the discussion of philanthropists and turn to the issue of parents and financial priorities.

When we know parents are making significant financial investments in non-Jewish activities like SAT Prep and Tennis Lessons (itemized above), how do we make the case for investing these dollars in Jewish education? How do we convince them that they should pay more for quality Jewish education than they do for babysitting? and even for SAT prep courses? How do we articulate the need for their children to have a Jewish education in order to have a solid future (which seems to be how they view the other activities)?

In most circles, it would articulated that parents have been trained (over generations) to not pay for Jewish education because:
a) congregations/agencies wanted to limit the barriers to participation so they began offering low-cost portals;
b) the quality has been collectively so poor over the years that consumers don't want to invest significant dollars; and
c) we haven't made the case, again over generations, that Judaism is critical to a successful future

In some ways, it might now be a self-fulfilling "prophecy" and it could now be "chicken-and-the-egg." Meaning, we now have fixedness (see SIT) in terms of our budgets and therefore we assume we can't offer something new, something risky, something innovative and something with high(er)-expenses attached to it. I sometimes hear my colleagues be stifled in their imagination simply because the budget won't support it. And because we don't offer new and imaginative programs filled with "surprise and delight" (thank you Amy Sales for that phrase!) we perpetuate the stigma of passe (aka boring) religious education programs.

And, on the flip side, the more innovative and creative we are, the more we include immersion and experiential techniques into our offerings, the more the programs cost - and for now we can't turn that cost over as a direct fee-for-service. Caught in the paradox!

I am not sure how we address the issue of convincing parents that Judaism is critical to a successful future, but I know we aren't paying attention to this important issue. It should be on the agenda of Jewish education change agents to somehow combat this part of the gap. We have to collectively work to alter the perception and create a universal brand message about role of Judaism in life-long success (and certainly worth more than babysitting!) and therefore worth the financial investment to have quality Jewish experiences.

There are a lot of moving pieces to this gap between what it costs to run amazing Jewish education experiences and what we are charging ... and somehow we have to mind this gap and not perpetuate it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Good for Israel! Not Good for the Jews?

had not been to Ben Yehuda Street in 12 years. I had been to Israel twice during that time, but Ben Yehuda had been deemed "unsafe" for travel groups and therefore off our itinerary. As a result of these restrictions, I had heard that over time Ben Yehuda had become a ghost town.

This past Saturday night, I hopped over to Ben Yehuda to meet a friend (who was staffing a birthright trip with Hillel). And the street was a mob scene (see photos to the right). Shops, restaurants, and cafe's were wall-to-wall people. Street performers could be observed every few feet. The noise was deafening and the energy electrifying. And it was clear, this crowd was 99% due to Birthright Israel buses converging on the popular shopping area after Shabbat ended. No question - Birthright is good for Israel. It is good for Israel's economy. It is good for Israel's image.

But I once again had to ask, just because it's good for Israel, does it mean that is it good for the Jewish people? And I am pretty sure that the answer is ..... depends on how you look at it.

Having staffed two Birthright trips (2004 and 2005), I see that there was a great place for Birthright in assisting young adults who couldn't go to Israel during the intifada (many of their trips were cancelled) to make their way to Israel. However, there are no more of these students remaining.

There is a large number of young adults who are marginally (if at all) connected to their Judaism and Birthright gives them a no-barrier access point to their heritage. For this, Birthright is great for the Jews.

I have heard stories of young married interfaith couples (where one partner has recently converted to Judaism) who travel on Birthright together. For this, Birthright is great for the Jews.

But, there are many reasons Birthright isn't great for the Jews.

Take for instance, the amount of alcohol that is consumed during Birthright trips. While wondering the packed Ben Yehuda street, I watched as four Birthright participants stood in a circle passing (and chugging) two 1-litre bottles: one of vodka and the other of orange juice. While the buses hosting older participants (22-26) don't necessary have the same issues, I know from personal experience that the young participants (18-21) take full advantage of the lower drinking age in Israel ... to a serious detriment. Many participants travel through the country hung over, sometimes having to stop the buses to be sick. Some participants even end up spending a few hours in a Magen David Adom clinic being treated for alcohol poisoning. Alcohol abuse is prevalent on Birthright trips. This is NOT good for the Jews.

In some ways, many Birthright participants bring a little part of Vegas with them on their Israel trip. "What happens in Israel, stays in Israel." I have witnessed, time and time again, young adults on Birthright trips being incredibly promiscuous. Hopping from room to room at night ... having contests to "hook" the Israeli's imbedded on their trips .... keeping track of who can lure the trip's shomer (guard) into bed ... picking up random Israeli's and giving out their hotel information. This is NOT good for the Jews.

In terms of pure exposure to the country, the people, and the history, ten days is just tiny glimpse. Because Birthright has a policy that a young adult is ineligible for the program if s/he has been on a previous peer trip, many teens (and their parents) are opting to skip in-depth teen programs for this free excursion. This NOT good for the Jews.

Developmentally, it is much more effective to have a teenager (15-18) spend between four and eight weeks (or longer) in Israel, than it is for a college student/young adult spend 10 days racing from city to city. However, the cost differential is a hard sell to families. Most trips run about $1000 a week and Birthright is free. As a result, teens and their parents are opting to "wait for Birthright" (I have heard it hundreds of times) rather than invest in a program that will have a much greater - and a much healthier - impact on the participant.

Several teen organizations have banded together to promote the quality and impact of the teen experience. Lapid is working as a coalition to spread the word and lobby for recognition and financial support that is equal to that of Birthright.

I was recently at the Federation General Assembly and heard over and over (and over ad nauseum) again about Birthright and MASA. No one mentioned the phenomenal statistics teen programs produce in relation to affiliation, philanthropy, and in-marriage. Having teen programs be ignored by the Jewish media, the Jewish Agency and Jewish Federation of North America is NOT good for the Jews.

So what lies in front of us is a challenge ... to create a situation that is not only good for Israel but great for the Jews too. I am by no means advocating that Birthright disappear (it's too good for Israel!) ... but perhaps be modified:
  1. be more selective and targeted to the types of young adults it brings (i.e. those with minimal or no prior connection to Jewish community)
  2. have funders also provide funding to in-depth teen programs
  3. partner with teen programs to mass-advertise Israel experience

We must capitalize on the energy and the "economy" of Birthright while still capturing the impact of teen programs.

Disclaimer: I am not sure how coherent this blog posting is ... as I am writing it under full jet-lag. What an amazing 19 days in Israel I had (also good for its economy!).