Sunday, May 8, 2011

The 8th Grade Dilemma—Solved for the Moment

I had a wonderful experience this morning. We are preparing for our 8th grade graduation ceremony, and asked the students to write a speech about their Hebrew School experiences and how they see themselves as members of the Jewish community in the next 4 years. They came back with the idea of writing a group speech that would include all the above, but they each would read a paragraph.  I told them to go to work figuring it could be something different.
What I found at the end of the day was very different than I expected (not that I really knew what to expect). This class had gone through the second major rite of Jewish Education—attrition. We lost 5 students to “my Bar/Bat Mitzvah is over and so is Hebrew School.” The remaining students attended sporadically, each having a unique excuse for each week. With the exception of field trips and special activities, it was hard getting everyone to show up at the same time. Added to that, the 8th grade mantra, this is boring.
Then the moment came. They read their “speech.” They brainstormed different moments in their years here on Sundays or Tuesdays, and Shabbat mornings. They remembered incidents that I had either forgotten about, or even never knew. They related lessons learned from the myriad of teachers they had. They even wrote about some specific lessons from the Midrash (they actually used this word that was introduced in third grade) and their current connection to Israel. These seemingly uninterested kids expounded on one teacher’s demand that they read the weekly Torah portion; and strongly suggested in their speech to students in the upper grades that they really should try it—“it’s not that bad, after all.”
I spent some time with them and just talked about Hebrew School. Of course they offered lots of suggestions, many of which are pretty good. But more important to me, they were excited about their time here. All of them have already signed up to be Madrichim (teacher aides) for next year. Sometimes when you think nothing is working, all of a sudden a moment pops up when you can sit back and realize that all of this that we do—does work. The rewards are many, just not immediate. Whatever you’re doing, I suggest you take a minute, because it does work.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dogs and Judaism

My 7th grade students love their dogs. When they asked if they could bring their dogs to Hebrew School, I of course said yes, and then turned the day into a learning experience. They all know how to take care of their pets, but does that connect to Judaism? We all know the answer is yes, but they haven't made that connection. Check this link out to see what we're going to learn, and how to make a "bring your dog to Hebrew School day" one of learning and fun.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

National Day of Unplugging

My name is Arnie, and I’m a techno-holic. I have become addicted to my Blackberry, and it to me, I’m convinced. There is not a waking hour that I’m without it, checking emails, texts, updates, etc, etc. I admit making the mistake of checking an email while at dinner, only to be reprimanded like a little kid caught passing notes during class—right in front of the teacher.
I also admit I’m not looking for any rehab at this time. I like it. I like being connected. So do my kids, who are the ones that started me on the road. We don’t really talk on the cell phone—very passé—we text. And I get more information from them this way; remember when you asked your child, “What did you do in school today?” only to get a ‘nothing’ answer. Now the responses are at least 2 or 3 words, spelled creatively of course.
As connected as I am to technology, I find it healthy and refreshing, if not challenging to put it aside for one day a week. And that is precisely what Reboot, a nonprofit think tank, is encouraging Jewish people to do the weekend of March 4 & 5. This past week, reported on a new app for your smartphone, due out by Feb 25th, developed as part of Reboot's 'National Day of Unplugging'.  As reported on the blog, they explain:
Bucking the trend of technology that allows people to tell everyone that they’ve checked into their local restaurant, cafe or bar, Reboot has developed a smartphone app that helps users “check out” of the internet altogether. The app ironically will use technology to shut down technology.
Think of it as rehab for the smartphone. By using technology, the Sabbath Manifesto app is intended to spur a massive movement away from technology on the National Day of Unplugging, March 4-5, 2011 and beyond, and a return to the values inherent in a modern day of rest: reconnecting with family, friends and the world around them.
A number of my students and I are going to experience this together—essentially going through a ‘day of withdrawal’ and supporting one another. We will lock up our cell phones in my office, in the off position, of course, and celebrate Shabbat—one hour at a time. It’s going to be a difficult challenge for those who text, update, call, photograph on a minute by minute basis. And at the end of it all, we’ll update you on how we did.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Darth Vadar waves the Lulav

Rabbi Miller's blog had these pictures and they are too good not to pass around.
Posted: 25 Jan 2011 06:47 PM PST
Last night, Jon Stewart decided to blow a shofar on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" to alert his viewers to some breaking news (Keith Olbermann leaving MSNBC). He called it a News Shofar and announced "Something happened!" but never actually blew the shofar.  Instead he just put the shofar to his mouth and kept repeating the words "Hey Look" in a staccato fashion. It sort of sounded like a Tekiah blast followed by Teruah.

Technically, it didn't look like a ram’s horn, but rather a gazelle’s horn. (Either one is sufficient to use on Rosh Hashanah.) Since Jon Stewart is a producer for The Colbert Report, I think he just borrowed the shofar that Stephen Colbert used to sign off at the end of his show back in 2009.

I wonder what it would take for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to come to my synagogue on Rosh Hashanah for a shofar duet?

Seeing Jon Stewart (Jewish) and Stephen Colbert (not-so-much) blowing the shofar got me thinking about Jewish rituals in which other celebrities have engaged. Here are a few that I was able to dig up:

Howie Mandell putting on tefillin

The Bob Dylan Tefillin

The Beastie Boys Playing Dreidel on Hanukkah

George Costanza, I mean Jason Alexander, Giving a Sermon in Synagogue

Ryan Gosling Leading Prayers (He looks like Eminem here!)

 Leonard Nimoy Duchenen (Blessing the Congregation)

Krusty the Klown Reading Torah

Rabbi Ben Stiller Teaching Torah

Darth Vader Waving the Lulav 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Science, Faith, and Biblical Archeology

How are faith and science unified? This could be one answer.

Science, Faith, and Biblical Archeology

By Alex Joffe

Biblical archeology was born out of twinned desires: to "illuminate" the world of the Bible and, ultimately, to prove the truth of the Word. Armed with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the other, 19th-century archeologists in the Holy Land, most of them Protestant clergymen, had little difficulty finding what they were looking for. Their certainty came from within.

As the premises of the field changed in the 20th century, so did its practitioners. The enterprise is no longer undertaken by religious men driven by their faith but by professional, secular scholars following both their intellectual curiosity and local regulations mandating standards of historical investigation and preservation. But what has really changed? To some it might seem that the old certainty, born of religious faith, has been not so much lost as replaced by certainty of another kind, based on a faith in "science."

It can hardly be denied that, thanks to science, enormous strides have been made in facilitating the task not only of observation but of analysis. Computers have done for archeology what they have done for movie-making.  Gone are the days of surveyors standing beneath umbrellas and peering through theodolites, laboriously penciling their architectural and other finds on paper and animating them one by one, by hand. With the aid of digital equipment and sensors suspended from balloons, it is now possible to record precisely every rock, every potsherd, nearly every grain of sand. Entered into a computer, billions of data points can then be projected and manipulated on wall-sized monitors or with virtual-reality goggles. Ancient sites can be brought back to life like scenes out of Toy Story. Archeologists can walk through them, shifting the view, zooming in on items of interest.

There is more.  Only a few years ago, archeologists had to bag and tag metal objects or pollen samples, ship them off to labs around the world, and wait months or even years for results. Now, portable equipment can sit next to an excavation trench or in the dig house and produce results almost in real time. Questions about technological processes, the composition of materials and their places of origin, climates, diets, and many other things can be answered swiftly and used to guide excavations tomorrow rather than next year. The cost of such technologies is still steep but is dropping fast. Someday soon, it may not be necessary to excavate at all, but merely to scan deeply into sites or whole regions using sensors out of Star Trek, creating precise three-dimensional pictures down—who knows?—to the level of individual atoms.

When that day arrives, archeology may become something closer to a real science. But will it be more certain? Many archeologists seem to be betting on it—a forthcoming conference at Tel Aviv University, "Biblical Archeology and the Pursuit of Certainty," is devoted to the issue—but one may be permitted to doubt.  Much depends on the assumptions brought to the task of analysis. Much also depends on the questions being asked, and not only by archeologists.

Khirbet en-Nahas in southern Jordan is the largest site of ancient copper-mining known in the eastern Mediterranean, with mines and slag heaps extending for kilometers along desolate desert wadis. Research there is being directed by Thomas Levy of the University of California at San Diego. Who were the miners, and who were their customers? How were workers fed and directed, what tools and technologies did they use, what was the place of the enterprise in the larger economy of ancient commodities-trading? Such issues have indeed been addressed by the excavators, but they have been overshadowed by questions of chronology, and in particular by the question of whether the period of heaviest industry dates to the 10th or the 9th century B.C.E. Why so? Because the answer will bear on whether the site and its production can or cannot be correlated with the biblical account of the reign of King Solomon.

At Megiddo, in Israel, where the archeological project has been directed by Israel Finkelstein of Tel Aviv University, the historical issues are even more salient. The excavation at Megiddo encompasses periods ranging from the proto-urban Early Bronze Age (ca. 3600–2000 B.C.E.) to the very end of the Iron Age (in the Near East, ca. 1200–586 B.C.E.). But public attention has again focused on the finds relating to the putative periods of David, Solomon, and their successor kings. And again the reasons are understandable: Finkelstein happens to be the leading proponent of the controversial thesis that David and Solomon were not great kings presiding over a far-flung realm but rather provincial chiefs whose greatest triumphs were the products of the minds and hands of scribes writing centuries later.

In short, the Bible will not be ignored, either by scholars or by the public. With all the new data and up-to-date technologies, the core questions dominating the profession and its surprisingly large audience remain much the same as they were a century or more ago. And, at least so far, they do not admit of definitive answers. Even with scientific techniques, it remains difficult to establish the veracity of many biblical accounts—at least those to be dated before 900 B.C.E. King Hezekiah's preparations against Assyrian attack in the second half of the 8th century can be dissected on the ground, but David and Solomon still straddle the boundary between the literary and historical, and Moses and Abraham are altogether hidden from view. The larger truth, up to and including Truth with a capital T, remains elusive.

Is this a bad thing? The impulse to solve the problem of transcendence may uniquely complicate the enterprise of biblical archeology in perpetuity, coloring the very premises with which archeologists of differing dispositions approach their twin tasks of observation and analysis. But the impulse itself is nothing to be embarrassed about. Perhaps science and religion would strike Martians as two easily separable matters, but here on earth, where even scientific perceptions of reality are based on successive approximations made by relatively puny humans, they remain difficult to disentangle.

What does unify faith and science is the desire to understand ourselves. And in the end, that may prove to be not only biblical archeology's greatest strength but more than enough to propel it into the—by definition, uncertain—future.

Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. He has contributed a chapter to Historical Biblical Archaeology and the Future: The New Pragmatism, edited by Thomas E. Levy (Equinox). 

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Songs, Katrina, NOLA and God

I teach a course called "God Talk" at our Jewish Community High School, Merkaz, to juniors and seniors. The following blog by Rabbi Jason Miller gives them, and us, something to think and talk about.
Posted: 14 Jan 2011 02:28 PM PST
It's hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina occurred five-and-a-half years ago. I traveled to New Orleans in 2007 with other rabbis to help in the cleanup effort and spent two quick days there this past August when I was the keynote speaker at the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) Fraternity Convention. It was impressive to see how New Orleans has returned to a great city thanks to the hard work of its people.

This Shabbat, the Jewish people all over the world will read Parashat Beshalach, the section of the Torah narrative in which the Israelites walk through the water of the Reed Sea. When I returned from New Orleans in 2007, I spoke about the experience on Shabbat Beshalach. I am reposting those words below and congratulate the great people of NOLA for navigating their way through the disastrous waters of Katrina.

NOLA: A Story of Hope and Rebirth

There was a part of me that was curious. Perhaps curious in a similar way as I was in 2001 following September 11th when I wanted to see the aftermath of the disaster. There was a natural desire – a sense of inquisitiveness – in wanting to see Ground Zero. I had seen the news footage of New Orleans after Katrina hit in August 2005. I watched Spike Lee’s documentary, “When the Levees Broke” about the Lower 9th Ward’s ravishing after the flood. I wanted to see it for myself.

Unlike 9/11 when I was, as we say in Hebrew nogeah badavar, very much connected to the tragedy, since I was living in New York City, about to leave for a year of study in Israel, and found myself stuck in Chicago where I was visiting friends and unable to return to Detroit where my wife was at the time. When Katrina hit I was thousands of miles away from the U.S. I learned about the storm a couple of days after it hit when I turned on the T.V. in my hotel room in Kiev. I had been traveling throughout Ukraine with some of my university students and no one seemed to know anything about Katrina yet. I felt removed from the situation because I was.

So, for the past year-and-a-half I had a strong desire to become more connected to the situation. Further, I felt that it was a travesty that Katrina was so far from our minds this many months after the fact since it wasn’t a hot enough story anymore for the evening news or the 24/7 cable networks. There was a feeling deep inside of me that I had to find out what I could do to help. And to see it with my own eyes.

Touring the worst hit areas this past week, as part of a Rabbinical Assembly Mission to New Orleans with thirty-five other Conservative rabbis, there were many thoughts running through my head.
Miracles. I thought of the difference between keriat yam suf and bekiat yam suf. Keriat yam suf is the miraculous feat of God to separate the waters of the Sea of Reeds. When Moses held his staff high in the sky, there was a strong wind that forced the waters to recede so the Israelites could cross the sea escaping from the pursuing Egyptian army. But there was also bekiat yam suf – the water crashing back down on the Egyptians who like the Israelites were children of God, part of God’s creation.

I thought of the many theological conundrums presented by Katrina. Returning to my own conception of God and God’s role in the world, I considered the hurricane from God’s point of view. Did God feel powerless watching His children perish in the flood? Did God resent those who didn’t flee for higher ground? Was God frustrated by those who believe Him to be omnipotent and questioned why the All Powerful was not taking advantage of that power? Was God disappointed by those who erred in catastrophic ways by not repairing the levee walls years ago when it was determined they would not withstand a storm of this magnitude? Was God distraught by the horrific criminal acts of many in the days and weeks following Katrina?

I thought about divine justice. How could a student of the Bible not consider the narratives of Noah, of Sodom and Gomorrah, of the generation who constructed the Golden Calf. No human beings seem deserving of the devastation that was wrought on the victims of Katrina. No doubt there were those arguing that New Orleans was a city of strife, of sin, and of moral debasement.

But I also thought about faith. Who were the victims of Katrina? Who were the ones working toward revitalization and a potential renaissance? What gave them the courage and the conviction to rebuild? I thought about Hugo Kahn, the leader of our incredibly powerful tour of New Orleans. Hugo is a past president of the New Orleans Federation and very active in the Conservative shul, Shir Chadash, where his wife is the president.

Everyone in the shul sang Mr. Kahn’s praises and told us that were it not for the Kahn's, the day school in New Orleans would not exist. A refugee from Kristallnacht, he was raised in Omaha and became an accountant. He ran a major department store in New Orleans for many years and he told us how the store supported many projects in the community. He is currently on the Finance Committee of the Federation helping to figure out how to cover the $4 million deficit of the Jewish institutions in the community due to Katrina. He was “resurrected” into service because so many in the Jewish community have left New Orleans.

What gives people like Hugo Kahn the faith to persevere? He survived Kristallnacht as a child and could have relocated last year with his wife to many Jewish communities around the country. But his faith drove him to return to New Orleans and to lead the rebuilding effort.

As I toured the area, I also thought about water. How could I not think about water? It was all around us. From the Mississippi River to one side and from Lake Pontchartrain on the other. I learned about canals, levees, and deltas. I learned that New Orleans is basically a bowl that filled with water. I thought about how the Torah is compared to water. Moses proclaims: “May my teaching drop like the rain.” Both rain and Torah descend from the heavens and provide relief to the thirst. Water is the source of life – deprived of water; a person will become dehydrated and ultimately disoriented. But here, I realized, it was water that was the source of death and destruction.

I also spent some time thinking about responsibility. There’s a part of me that wants New Orleanians to move on and not focus on whose fault Katrina was. Was it the responsibility of the Federal Government tasked with the building and maintenance of the levees? Was it the responsibility of the local government to have better prepared for the storm? Should the evacuation efforts have run more smoothly? Should there have been better civil order maintained by local law enforcement? Should the local residents have been more responsible with their own safety and survival?

There were many, unfortunately, who didn’t recognize they were being saved and brought to safety. They made their own mistakes by not taking responsibility for their own best interests. I was reminded of the old joke about the guy standing on his roof while the flood waters swirl around his house? He turns down a rescue helicopter, a Coast Guard boat, and a raft, insisting God is going to save him. He dies and goes to heaven, and asks God why He didn't save him. God says, "I tried. I sent a helicopter, a boat, and a raft..." "The Lord helps those who help themselves."

* * *

Our scholar-in-residence for the mission, my colleague and teacher Rabbi Gordon Tucker, opened the mission with a text study session about the mysterious manna that our ancestors ate in the desert. Through several midrashim found in the Talmud, we learned that the Israelites didn’t have to work very hard for this food that rained down from heaven each day. There are many stories told about this manna including the fact that there was actually home delivery. The manna would essentially be delivered right to your door – the same helping each day. In fact, Rabbi Tucker taught us that upon eating the manna, which would taste like anything you wanted, there was no excretion. He compared this to infants who are also not concerned about excretion because they don’t have to be. The Israelites were babied. They were given what they needed and didn’t have to work for it.

This all changed, of course, in the time of Joshua when our ancestors had to sweat and toil to create a land and a community. They had to fight and they had to be more responsible. The people of New Orleans will now have to sweat and toil to rebuild the city. I can tell you that from what I witnessed, there is a lot of work to be done. They cannot, and should not, have to do it alone.

Shutafo. We were partners with the Holy One Blessed Be God in seder beriat ha’olam – the creation of world. We are now shutafo, partners with God in Tikkun Olam – trying to repair our severely damaged and fragile world. We need to be shutafim with the people of New Orleans. We have to remember that there are many down South willing and able to hammer their homes back together. They might just need us to give them the hammer. There are many who are dedicated to starting new schools, they might just need us to show them how to teach. There are many who desperately want to get back on their feet and start new jobs. They just might need the financial assistance to take the first step.

We will benefit because the people of New Orleans are a people with soul. New Orleans is a city with soul. Tuesday night following a lecture, we headed to the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans. The Maple Leaf is one of oldest and most beloved music clubs in New Orleans. We were blessed with the opportunity to hear the true New Orleans sound of the Rebirth Brass Band. The 10:00 pm show finally began at 11:30 pm, but it was well worth the wait. It was loud and it was soulful!

After the concert, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Daniel Schweber wrote in his journal that “the music experience demonstrated to me first hand that New Orleans’ soul is worth preserving. In Judaism we do not make a big distinction between the body and the soul. It is the body and soul in tandem that make the person who they are. The same is true with New Orleans. New Orleans is made up of its soul dwelling in the body of the Mississippi Delta. I came to the realization that if we are going to preserve New Orleans’ rich culture then we have to preserve and rebuild the body, the physical city itself.”

May we all come to see what I saw this past week. In New Orleans, there is much hope amid the suffering. There is faith amid fear. We, as American citizens and men and women striving for justice in the world need to help New Orleanians see the possibilities amid pessimism.

It’s been a year-and-a-half since Katrina struck. Let us end the blame game. Let us end the questioning. Let us strive to rebuild. We all have to help. For the sake of a people with deep faith and abounding soul. For the sake of the future. For the sake of justice. For the sake of godliness.