6th Grade Tefilah Bootcamp

At the start of every school year we take our 6th graders aside for some special Tefilah learning that helps them get ready to participate in Middle School Tefilah. I returned to my office after the first of these special sessions, called “6th Grade Tefilah Bootcamp” to find the following thought-provoking prompts and responses on my desk. I hung them on my walls and took some time to think about what I found there…

 

I am thrilled that our 6th graders have so much to say about Tefilah and are so comfortable sharing their ideas. I know that their journey through Middle School will bring much nuance and insight to these emerging ideas as well and look forward to that. In the meantime, since I am not able to attend the next installment of bootcamp I wrote some responses that will be shared by one of our Jewish Studies teachers. What would you say differently? What would you add? What would you challenge?

I was quite interested in seeing the notes from last week’s chalk talk. I am so happy to see my friends in 6th grade thinking about tefilah in such diverse and dynamic ways. Here are a few things I would share with the 6th grade if I had a chance. Perhaps you could share these with them:

 

  • When it comes to favorite parts of tefilah. My response would be that my favorite part very much depends on what’s going on in the rest of my life. If I have a friend who is sick or having surgery then my favorite part is mishebeirach. Since my father in law died this summer I appreciate the mourner’s kaddish in new ways. When I’m having a rough morning I like Modeh Ani because it reminds me that I am actually luck to be alive. What if our favorite part of tefilah changed based on what’s going on in our lives?
  • I really like the question of whose job it is to make tefilah a positive experience. I am glad that so many people think it’s my job! It is definitely my job to make Tefilah a safe, meaningful space. To make sure that everyone has what they need in order to have a positive experience. But I also like the idea that it’s up to every individual to make Tefilah positive for themselves. The more we take personal responsibility, the better life is in all areas. Also, a lot of people interpreted “positive experience” as “fun.” I think that lots of things can be positive experiences without being “fun.” Tefilah will not and should not always be fun. But it should always be a positive experience.
  • Camp Tefilah. There’s no doubt that camp tefilah is often a positive experience. It’s really nice to be able to have Tefilah at camp, in such a beautiful setting, surrounded by friends and counselors who are all happy to be there. The biggest difference between Camp Tefilah and non-camp tefilah in my opinion is represented by the idea of the gym. It’s not such a bummer to me that we pray in a gym. Instead, the gym is a symbol of the fact that during non-camp Tefilah we have the extra challenge of figuring out how tefilah fits into our regular lives. The best part of camp is that it’s not our regular daily lives. The challenge of non-camp tefilah is figuring out how it fits with our busy and demanding schedules.
  • There are plenty of reasons not to enjoy tefilah. My own reasons for not enjoying tefilah are these: I don’t like to sit so much. Some of the prayers really don’t speak to me all that often. And I don’t like getting dressed up to go to synagogue. Having said that, the best tefilah in my opinion is one where everyone is literally on the same page. When everyone sings the Shema at an all school Kabbalat Shabbat I can literally feel god, my ancestors, and all the generations there in the room. I look forward to those moments very much and there’s not really anything that creates those chances like tefilah. I sometimes get frustrated because I think we could have at least one of those moments every time we have Tefilah if we would just open our hearts and be less scared of taking chances.
  • Bar Mitzvah—It’s always risky to put all your hopes into a great party. It’s too easy to be disappointed. I prefer to focus on the things I can control—making the most of spending time with my family, really learning prayers so I don’t feel like a phony, writing a dvar torah that actually expresses my ideas about life when so many people are listening, developing a relationship with my rabbi. These are the things I can control. It’s hard for a 13 year old to control whether they have a great party or get a lot of money. It’s too bad that this continues to be the focus, but it’s understandable given the age at which we have bar mitzvah. I still think bar mitzvah should be at age 16 when we are older and more mature!

 

 

empty-handed

This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, ends with the idea that no one should come to God empty-handed (Deut. 16:16). As I heard these words chanted from the Torah this morning, I found myself wondering whether it’s actually possible to show up empty-handed. To me, empty-handed implies that we’ve got nothing. Absolutely nothing. To bring. To offer. To share, contribute, teach. But if the human condition is one of inherent abundance, can any of us really show up empty-handed? If we can’t bring the fruits of our harvest or the choicest of our flock, certainly we can still bring our presence, our humanity, our stories, our listening ears, our loving hearts. And if we bring these things are we truly empty-handed? Or are we actually overflowing with abundance?

Believing in the possibility of empty-handedness seems to have a built in bias for materialism. You can only truly be empty-handed if you believe that empty-handedness is about the stuff that you have in your hands. No stuff in your hands? Then you’re empty-handed. If we make the move that says that what we bring is much more than what’s physically in our hands, then it’s not really possible to show up before God or anywhere else empty-handed. Which raises the more interesting and sometimes problematic question of what we really bring to each experience, encounter, and moment.

Rather than thinking about what we’re not bringing, let’s think about what we are bringing. The inherent abundance of our being, much of which we share with others simply by virtue of being alive, and much which is specially our own.

And if we are physically empty-handed, doesn’t it just make it that much easier to reach out and joins arms with one another? Seems like we need a bit more of that in our lives these days!

Archaeological Dig, Beit Guvrin

Driving on Roswell Road

The other day I was driving on Roswell Road.

In Atlanta.

Sandy Springs, technically.

It was about 6:15 pm.

Suddenly.

I realized.

I knew the person.

In the car.

In front of me.


 

Which made sense.

Because we were headed to the same place.


 

But then.

I looked.

In the rear view mirror.

And realized.

I knew the person.

In the car.

Behind me.


Which was surprising.


 

Because.

I wasn’t expecting.

To see her.

And didn’t know.

She.

Had a son.


And then.

I realized.


 

I knew everyone.

In every car.

On Roswell Road.

At about 6:15 pm.


 

And everyone.

Not on Roswell Road.

At said time.

And everyone.

On Johnson Ferry.

And Glenridge.

And Hammond.

And Sandy Springs Circle.

And so on.


Fathers.

Mothers.

Sisters.

Brothers.

Sons.

Daughters.

Friends.

Lovers.

Grandmas and Grandpas.

Bandmates.

Colleagues.

Teachers.

Preachers.

And so on.


And like the car in front of me.

I realized.

We were.

All.

Headed.

To.

The.

Same.

Place.


 

The Naivety of Hate- Tisha b’Av

Today’s Hebrew calendar date is the 9th of Av (Tisha b’Av). Tisha b’Av is a day of mourning. It commemorates the destruction of the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem. It commemorates other tragedies in Jewish history.

 

Mitzpeh Ramon, 2016

There are many reasons given for the destruction of the 2nd Temple. There are military reasons, economic reasons, cultural reasons and spiritual reasons. Among the spiritual reasons is a rabbinic tradition that attributes the destruction to the pervasiveness of baseless hatred (sinat chinam) between Jews and their fellow Jews.

Given a series of current events that have stressed (to put it lightly) the relationship between Israel and Diaspora (mostly North American) Jews and the relationship between Ultra Orthodox and non-Ultra Orthodox Jews, I suspect that many Jews are exploring the idea of sinat chinam this Tisha b’Av. Hopefully many Jews will explore the theme of sinat chinam while simultaneously renewing their commitment to finding positive, constructive, healthy, and good ways forward for the Jewish community and Israel. Hopefully Tisha b’Av ends up being a hopeful observance.

As I watch the tensions mount and the schisms widen I can’t help but marvel at the absurdity of it all. It’s absurd to me because, from where I stand, it’s obvious that we are all bound together. Hatred, rather than pushing us apart, actually brings us closer together. Discrimination hurts not only those who are discriminated against, but also those who do the discriminating. And again, it doesn’t sever, it binds. Deeply. At the heart of all the Jewish in-fighting is the mistaken notion that somehow our existence isn’t irrevocably intertwined. That’s the naivety of hatred. And all the tactics of fear, discrimination, hatred, stereotyping, and the such simply bind us to one another in mutually unhealthy ways.

Once people realize the naivety of hatred and realize that hating isn’t good for anyone, maybe we can start to envision heathly ways to co-exist. I look forward to visiting an Israel free of hate and discrimination, where all different types of people are able to live autonomous and meaningful lives that allow individuals and groups to be who and what they are, without infraction from others. The only way for any of us to actually achieve this autonomous and meaningful context of living is for all of us to achieve it. Together. So long as we think that hatred, discrimination and all the stuff of sinat chinam is the way forward, we will only add to the suffering that Tisha b’Av tries to show us.

We’ve gotta keep the world big.

“Tikabel” (“Receive”), Tel Aviv, 2016

 

During the opening “rant” of Episode 830 of his bi-weekly WTF Podcast, Marc Maron said something that resonated with me. He said, “We’ve gotta keep the world big.” I like that. I like it because, for at least a little while, it seems like lots of people have been trying to make the world smaller. Consider:  “It’s a Small World”, globalization, the internet. Not to mention echo-chambers, bubbles, and all that. A small world has its potential upside– a greater sense of connectivity, of interconnectedness, interdependence, and so on… some of the promise of globalization and internet-ization. But Maron got me thinking about why a big world is a better than a small world and what it means to keep the world big. It seems to me that the art of living, the task we collectively and individually face, is keeping the world big while still recognizing and honoring the interconnectedness and interdependence that seem so undeniably obvious and yet so elusive and easy to dismiss at the same time.

Maron’s comment was made in the context of setting up his interview with David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker. He was praising The New Yorker for helping keep the world big by providing diverse, thoughtful, international content that spans genres and subject areas. For Maron, keeping the world big seems to be about keeping an open mind, staying connected to and challenged by culture, and to some extent, engaging with diverse and even opposite points of view, narratives, and ways of being.

I’m inclined to have a similar view when it comes to keeping the world big. I’d simply add that part of keeping one’s personal world big means actively cultivating spaciousness and expansiveness of heart, mind, and soul. Whether that means lingering in the pause between each breath a bit longer, waiting a bit longer to jump to conclusions, listening 1% more than usual, casting one’s gaze a bit wider when scanning the horizon, or actively remaining or re-opening to possibilities of different sorts. Keeping the world big means being willing to revisit core assumptions, habits of mind, ways of being, identity anchors, and patterns of all kinds. It means being willing to take a hard look at suffering, at pain, at fear, at the stuff that pushes us towards seeking shelter in the smallness that we think might keep us safe from the radically vast wilderness of existence.

I’m a fan of WTF and always grateful when I find something there that I reminds me of something that I believe and helps me think about it in new ways.

Death (Day 3)

Everyone else in the hotel has their plans for the day and we have ours. People look at you a little funny and with a tinge of pity when they see you dressed in funerary garb.

The limo arrives at the house. We check to see if it has lathes for car seats. We head to the synagogue. Eventually others arrive. The funeral begins.

My wife and her siblings all spoke beautifully. They found the right words and stories for the occasion. I know that each of them found meaning in sorting through a lifetime of stuff, each a little surprised at how the stories wove together. Funerals are like people, similar in many respects but no two the same. I sat with my daughter. All around her there were tears and some laughter too. What she calls “sweet and sour” tears. Watching my wife lead the El Maale prayer in honor of her father I think about the strength in each of us and the need to honor those we love however difficult it may be.

Riding to the cemetery. My father in law is to be buried in a newly dedicated section. There aren’t any stones there yet and only a few markers. It’s oddly spacious for such a place. A longtime family rabbi, Sharyn Henry, facilitates the interment. My daughter throws flowers into the grave rather than dirt. We shovel dirt. I feel compelled to shovel more than the usual amount. For some reason I keep the Kaddish card. We are deeply touched that so many joined us at the cemetery and returned with us for a meal at the Shul.

While the rest of the family heads back to the house to sit and be together, I take the kids for a swim back at the hotel. It’s the single most exciting gift I can give them and it feels good to be in the pool. After swimming we stop at a book store so I can buy a few books for our trip to Alaska (which begins tomorrow). I also buy a few books to give as gifts to my brother and sister in law and mother in law.

Dinner is a testament to the sacred power of friendship. We’re joined by two couples who are friends of the family and of my father and mother in law in particular. Friendship is so powerful and touching because it’s completely voluntary. Somehow people connect across the vast multitudes of time and space to forge a bond that eventually becomes a bond of love. There’s really no other way to say it.

Shiva is an important part of the healing process. Tonight I realized that part of shiva is acknowledging that death transforms relationships. There were people at Shiva tonight that we may never see again and also people that my wife and I have never met before. There was time dedicated to sharing stories about my father in law but it didn’t really get going. I wonder what happens to all the stories, all the experiences, all the moments of meaning.

Tomorrow we leave Pittsburgh for a previously scheduled trip to Alaska. It will be hard to leave but we are eager to fulfill the vision we set in motion when we made these plans. My father in law always wanted to visit Alaska and I believe he was not only envious but also so excited for us to go. We will certainly think of him often when we are there.

 

Death (Day 2)

All of a sudden it’s a new day. I guess it’s obvious but you only have one date of death. Quickly time starts to accumulate.

Today my daughter got a napkin and wiped tears from my wife’s eyes.

Then she sat in my father in law’s oversized arm chair and said it felt like he was sitting beside her.

My son asked questions. Some we could answer authentically and some we couldn’t.

Visits with the rabbi and the funeral home. Lots of micro-decisions about a subject that feels anything but micro.

Eulogies need to be written.

Conversations about what happens when you die. Is there such a thing as unfinished business or is death the finishing of all business?

Facebook messages posted.

People start to bring food in earnest. They call and check in.

Some measure of relief as people indicate whether they are coming to the funeral or not.

While days are a convenient way of marking time, it seems more helpful to think in terms of moments. How am I now? Now? Moving through different emotions.

Death

My wife was out running the Peachtree Rod Race. And making good time.

My phone rang. It was my mother in law. She rarely calls me directly.

I answered the phone and she told me through her tears that Jim, her husband, had died.

I called Loren, still recovering at the finish line. I have terrible news, I say, your dad is gone.

When we’re all together we tell the kids, 6 and 3. They’re sad, especially Hadara, but they’re mostly upset that their perfect day of swimming and baking cookies and launching champagne poppers has gone out the window.

We pack not only for Pittsburgh but for our planned adventure to Alaska. Jim dreamed of going to Alaska but never got there. We’ll go for him.

Delta is helpful then not then helpful again. Hilton hotels are helpful then not and then helpful again.  The same with Alamo.

Peter and Karen stop by to check on us and play with the kids a bit. Lots of phone calls and texts as details come together.

We lnd, get picked up, and go to the house to hug Cathy and cry a bit.

14 hours later and we are now in Pittsburgh. She’s at the house and I’m at the hotel trying to get the kids to rest. They’re watching fireworks displays on TV. It’s the 4th of July.

Its hard to get beyond these simple descriptions. There’s much to say but the words aren’t yet formed. I’m trying to be mindful of what’s unfolding around and within me. And mostly I’m trying to be compassionate and present and attentive and aware.

Want to Be A Better Leader? Then Adopt These 9 Habits!

I borrowed the title of this post from a blog post written for Inc. by Gordon Tredgold on 6/28/17. A colleague posted Tredgold’s article to our email distribution list and asked for feedback. Sometimes when I receive an article like this I prefer to write my own version before (or in place of) reading the original article. That’s what I’m doing here. But here’s a link to Tredgold’s article in case you want his excellent thoughts!

Chicago, 2017

Since leaders are basically human beings with certain responsibilities in the context of a cause or organization it makes sense to think of habits that leaders might cultivate since human beings are in the business of cultivating habits. Rather than falling into habits through a kind of mindless default, there’s power in consciously selecting and then habituating ourselves to certain habits. We can quibble over whether the following list contains habits, mindsets, dispositions, ways of being, traits, or some other form of personal commitment. But when I think of good habits for leaders, “these are they”:

  1. Be Present. It’s quite difficult to lead if you’re not present. Of course this means physically. But it also means intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. It turns out that being present might be the most basic and most difficult habit of all.
  2. Be Connected. We are connected. That’s basically a cosmic truth if you stop and really think about it. But that doesn’t mean that we feel connected. It doesn’t mean that we exist in ways that honor relationships, that overcome perceived isolation, that bridge chasms of understanding. Technology has laid claim to the idea of connectedness, to the detriment of real connection. Leaders and human beings need to be present and be connected– to ourselves, to one another, to our shared values and visions, and so on.
  3. Be open. Different than being transparent. Different than being honest. Though these are important as well. Being open means being ready to encounter reality as it is. It means being open to feedback, new ideas, better ways of doing things, criticisms, opportunities. It takes tremendous discipline to cultivate a habit of openness because being open means letting go of many of the things that potentially anchor our work and our identity. But the opposite of being open is a no-go. Find me a leader or human being that has succeeded by being closed.
  4. Joy. There’s much cause for celebration in daily life. And it’s a rare and special person who is so deeply attuned to the joy of living that they are able to infuse their life and their community with awareness of that joy. It’s also a rare person that doesn’t respond positively to little infusions of joy in their day or their workplace. As joy sometimes gets lost amidst the work, leaders and human beings do well to cultivate a habit of joy.
  5. Care. Leaders and human beings must care. It’s really that simple. Read Nel Noddings. I’ve written about this before. If you don’t care about yourself, others, your organization, the quality of your work– then what’s the point????
  6. Meaning. As problem solvers and doers, sometimes we get so focused on how that we forget about why. There’s nothing wrong with how. It’s just that we do well to surround ourselves with lots of different types of questions, especially those that push us toward understanding the meaning(s) that we and others have in our lives and in our work. Leaders do well to cultivate a habit of reflecting on the meanings that permeate every community and workplace.
  7. Be reliable. Life is tough and reliable people make life better for everyone. Being reliable means being honest, being trustworthy, being accountable, being responsible, and being organized. Leaders are only reliable if they complete tasks, get back to people in a timely fashion, follow through and so on. Reliability is an undervalued but critical habit.

Well, I’ve come up with 7 instead of 9 but I’m pretty happy with the list. I’d love anyone’s thoughts or feedback that might have read this far!