Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Telling Our Stories

(If you're reading this via Facebook post, you must click over to the original blog post to see an awesome picture of Brian Freedman at work. Trust me.)

In our last sessions with the professionals in our "Track Sessions," we practiced telling the story of our Hillel? What do we do? Why do we do it? What impact has it made? What impact will it make on the future?

What does it have to do with us?

(Brian from OSU and Micky from Towson, captivated with one another)

Telling stories is important because it connects our passion to someone else's, and hopefully makes them just as excited about Hillel as we are.

It's important for our students, their parents, our campus communities, and our supporters.

We each had two minutes to practice telling our stories to one another. Then again, and again, and again.

It was awesome.

(Brian's story ended with the word "chickens." No, really.)

What stories would you tell about our Hillel. If you could imagine yourself a year in the future, what story would you hope you can tell about what the next year will bring? What would each of those stories say about you, and the person you hope to be?

The Students are here!

Can I let you in on a little secret?

Hillel professionals? Without their students? Talking about Hillel stuff? After a few days, it's all good, but it's starting to get a little B-O-R-I-N-G. If you know what I mean.

(not boring anymore)

There are so many students FLOODING Wash U now, and they're all so excited to learn about Jewish dialoguing, engagement, and just making Jewish life so so so much more awesome on their campuses.

We are so excited to have them here we are giving them cookies emblazoned with the Institute logo. (Yeah, I stole one.)

Also, they get blue nalgenes instead of orange. I'm pretty sure they're going to pit us against each other in some weird psychological game based on who has what nalgene color. I'm kidding. But wouldn't that be AWESOME?

Substantive content hopefully coming soon.

If I am not for myself - Self-Care in Jewish texts

This morning, I'm going to be teaching at the EPIC Institute Beit Midrash (house of learning) session with Susannah Sagan, our unflappable Associate Director (and BRAND NEW EXEMPLAR OF EXCELLENCE WHAT'S UP) about Jewish Self-Care.

Hillel used to say:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?

We're used to viewing this text in a social service context, I think, or in a "get off your butt and do something" context. But as a rabbi, I see whispers of a call to take care of others around us by taking care of ourselves.

Using the following texts, we'll "plug them in" all around Hillel's famous quote to make a real-life plan for self-care in our busy Jewish professional lives. No one knows this better than our students - if we're not doing okay, we're certainly not going to do you - or Hillel - any good either.

Do not worry about tomorrow’s trouble, for you do not know what the day may bring. Tomorrow may come and you will be no more, and so you will have worried about a world that is not yours!

Talmud Bavli, Tractate Yevamot, 63b

In a place where no one behaves like a human being, you must strive to be human!

Hillel, in Pirke Avot 2.6

Despise no one, and call nothing useless, for there is no one whose hour does not come, and nothing that does not have its place.
Shimon ben Azai, in Pirke Avot 4.3

Do not give yourself over to sorrow or distress yourself deliberately. A merry heart keeps a person alive, and joy lengthens one’s days.
Wisdom of Ben Sira, chapter 30

It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.
Pirke Avot 2:21

Days are scrolls; write on them what you want to be remembered.
Bahya Ibn Pakuda

Stay tuned for updates from the "Track Sessions" (I think that means stuff with our own incredible staffs, woot!) this afternoon.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Waving Flags Doesn't Work Anymore

There's been a move from flag-waving tactics to emphasizing-Israeli-culture tactics in terms of Israel advocacy on campus.

People are looking to connect people to Israel with videos like this:

But: Is that all there is? Does that define what is supposed to make Israel so special and integral to our students' identities?

More and more, campus professionals are sensing a disconnect. Students are asking - what does this have to do with me? In the best cases, Israel ends up being an add-on.

What do we expect when our Israel celebrations are, honestly, kind of lame? We can't possibly wave any more flags, eat any more falafel, or listen to any more music with unintelligible lyrics.

The suggestion: When Jews in America celebrate Israel Independence Day, they're not identifying with it as "HOME."

Our challenge - to make Israel part of the Jewish narrative.
So, Buckeye Jews - do you think this sounds like something that would make celebrating Israel more compelling for you? What would be the best way to do it?

Live-Blogging the Hillel Institute 2011

Hi Buckeye Jews, fans, and loved ones! I've just arrived at the Hillel Institute 2011 at the beautiful Washington University in Saint Louis.

 I've only been here for dinner and the opening of the Israel Engagement Session, and I've already heard the word "amazing" three times. Also, the salad I had for dinner was amazing. So, four times.

The energy here is truly electric. On a personal level, I'm so psyched to see some of my rabbi besties and beloved colleagues. Also they bought us these Nalgene bottles, and honestly that's making everyone pretty happy since it's ONE HUNDRED AND TWO DEGREES in Saint Louis.

So, here's the official announcement - We are LIVE BLOGGING this event. Yep - anything that is worth hearing about, you'll get an eyeful of. Get excited.

Friday, July 1, 2011

One Time that Pounding the Rock Was Not Cool. At All.

This week in Shul: We're reading about more schlepping, more whining from the Israelites, and more Moses schvitzing over how to make them happy. Ho Hum, right? Wrong.

This time, God tells Moses that he can stand next to this giant rock, speak to it, and water will gush forth. Okay, says Moses. So he's standing there, in front of all the people, and he says, 

“Listen, rebellious ones! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” 

Then he hits the rock with his staff. He goes the extra mile, you might say. 

What Moses might have looked like standing on that rock, if Moses was a baby.

But God isn't happy, seeing as how Moses broke the first rule that you learn in Kindergarten and DID NOT FOLLOW INSTRUCTIONS. There's another interpretation (Nachmanides, yes I did my homework) that says that Moses' sin was saying "Shall WE" vs. "Shall GOD," which implies that Moses might have had anything to do with making a desert rock spout water. Right.

Either way, Moses was not using his listening ears. God yanked the privilege of actually crossing into the Land of Israel right out from underneath him, saying,

         “Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel..."

This says to me that God doesn't need big, grand gestures or fancy words to be heard. Sometimes, less is more. And sometimes, doing something with humility speaks a lot louder than doing something with fanfare.

It also tells me that just because some members of the Tribe mess up sometimes, even our leaders, as a people, we can hold it together and be okay.  (Thinking this helps me feel positive when I read Jean's hilarious weekly Jewish Fail Awards.)

Not such deep thoughts this week, but I love the story itself. I love that the interpretations of it are so different, and that we're still really not sure of its meaning today.

 What are your reactions to this Parsha? What do you think Moses' sin was? Do you think he deserved what he got?

(D'var Torah for Parshat Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1)
(Photo Credit Elle Muhlbaum copyright 2011, OSU's own erev erev erev erev Rav, who just landed in the Promised Land.)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Going Half-sies

halfsies.jpgThis article about the (apparently) large numbers of Orthodox teenagers texting on Shabbat, an activity that is forbidden according to Jewish law has gone viral throughout the Jewish blogosphere over the past few days.

There is, of course, a comment thread a mile long following the article. Here, in a nutshell, are the types of responses I've seen:

1. These kids and their parents are hypocrites for calling themselves "Orthodox."
2. There is no such things as "half-Shabbos," just like there's no such thing as being "a little pregnant" - you're either in or out.
3. These kids are addicted to their cell phones, how horrible, we should take them away from them right now but especially on Shabbos because it's clear they can't make any decisions for themselves.
4. Does half-Shabbos lead to half-kashrut? This is a slippery slope and we should be worried/scared/horrified that there are any kids that consider this okay. What will happen to observant Judaism????
5. It is sad that these kids' parents are working so hard to raise them/educate them/put a roof over their heads and this is how they repay them.
6. There are plenty of Orthodox people who disobey other Jewish laws, this is no different. *shrug*
6. Texting isn't actually forbidden on Shabbos, so they can do what they want.
7. You're an idiot, texting is definitely forbidden on Shabbos, check your sources and shut up until you do.

Wow. These responses fall into a few large categories:
  • Judgemental
  • Inflexible
  • Apathetic
  • Scared

Are those the attitudes with which we want Jewish  behavior to be challenged?

I've seen a few responses that say, "I understand." or  "They are just exploring."  Those are loving, and sort of understanding.  Still not helpful, though.

I haven't yet seen one that says "This is a challenge to us to better engage them in conversations on the sanctity/beauty/importance of Shabbat, so see what they think and how they feel."  

Huh. Thoughts?

(Photo credit: Dallas Poague 2008)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Jewish FAIL

My friend Jean Maskuli, Punk Torah contributor, fellow blogger and rabbi-type and generally hilarious lady just published the inaugural edition of  the weekly Jewish Fail Awards. 

She says the Jewish Fail Awards are not supposed to be about serious stuff, the impetus being all this internet sniping between Jews about this generation's view of the State of Israel and whether it's okay for us to change our feelings about it, and maybe even what it's okay for those feelings to be. (Read the original article here, and some commentary here and here and here, it is interesting stuff and you will find yourself in this discussion. Except the part where it gets nasty. I hope you don't find yourself in there.)

That's actually the kind of the point of the Jewish Fail I want to contribute to this week - Korach. I've blogged here a little bit about the Israelite's journey through the desert that we started reading about a couple of weeks ago. The basic authority structure during this time was: Moses + his team of judges = leadership (dealing with he people), Aharon (Moses' brother) + his family = priesthood (dealing with G-d.) 

Korach and his buddies decided they didn't like how Moses and Aharon had been leading things, and they didn't like how they had gotten the jobs in the first place. They think they know everything, and they think they can do just as good a job as Aharon, if not better.

FAIL. The earth opened up and swallowed all of them for this little episode.

Yes, yes, I know. There is a very thin line between FAIL-level dissent and arguing l'shem shamayim (for the greater good.) But that line is also very, VERY clear.

Here's the thing. We're the Jewish people. We argue, we kvetch. It's what we do, and it should even be encouraged, if it's done in the right way. You want to dissent, and that's great. You want to go against the grain, and believe me, I get that. It's great actually - it's what we're commanded to do. It's our imperative as a people to challenge.

But when I get uncomfortable is when we do it just to stir a pot, to be flippant, or to flaunt our disillusion or ignorance without having anything helpful to add to the conversation.

What I really hate is when we're unkind to one another, and what makes my blood boil is when we're disrespectful. That just makes us look bad - all of us.

Hopefully, this week, our Torah portion reminds us and calls us to be thoughtful, kind, and respectful, in ALL our conversations and challenges - especially the Jewish ones.

(D'var Torah for Parshat Korach, Numbers 16-18.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Leaning on One Another

102/365This week, we read about the Israelites standing on the cusp of entering the Land that God has promised to them.  It's all theirs, Divinely guaranteed to be awesome - but still, the people approach Moses, wanting to send scouts ahead to check it out first, just to make sure everything's okay.

So God tells them - "Shelach lecha"= "Send for yourselves".  Rashi explains that this means God knew that the people wouldn't want to go into the Land sight unseen, so He made a recommendation. "Suit yourselves. Send whoever you want. But it's only because you want to - not because I don't know what I'm talking about." (Clearly a lesson learned from last week's portion.)

You see, if God had wanted a people that would believe His every word the first time it was spoken, heed His every direction without a thought, He would have made humans that way in the first place.  This is not an error in Divine knowledge, judgement, or foresight.  This is about teaching the Israelites, and everyone, that the relationship between us and God is a real partnership.  We are meant to take our part into our own hands.

Taking things into our own hands, it's not only possible, but probable that we'll mess things up.  We're not the Almighty.  We can't see the consequences of our decisions. And that's okay.

Trusting in ourselves, and each other, isn't always the worst thing. We have to learn how to do that, even when we know that we, and the people we trust, won't always make the right choices.

We have a need to have control, even if the process is imperfect. It's a learning process. It might take 40 years to get there (hopefully not.) Even if we do, that's okay, because the deal we made with God empowered us  to make the decisions, encouraged us to keep on keepin' on even after we acknowledged our mistakes, leaning on each other to make it the rest of the way through.

Thousands of years later? We're still doing just that.

To all of you who just joined the ranks of Ohio State Alumni, Mazal Tov and welcome. As you embark on the journey of a lifetime, may you have the faith in one another that it takes to make it through, and whatever other faith it takes for you to know that that is absolutely the right thing to do.

Photo Credit: Elle Muhlbaum 2011, who is literally about to journey in the land of Israel. Nesiyah Tovah, my dear, and thanks for an awesome two years.

(D'var Torah for Shelach, Numbers 13-15)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

It's Not About the Fish

Almost two months ago, we sat around the Seder table and read the story of how G-d redeemed the Israelites from slavery in the land of Egypt.  With signs and wonders, spectacle and fanfare, thousands of us marched away from a life of oppression, never to turn back, singing songs of praise.

As the Israelites marched on,  the few possessions they were schlepping along with them probably started to feel pretty heavy. Their feet probably started to really hurt after a few days. They've practically never met this guy who's now leading them. They don't know where they're going, and they couldn't go back to where they came from even if they wanted to. They didn't have real roofs over their heads, and, oh yeah - the desert is hot.  Really, really hot.

To top it all off, the only thing they have to eat - the ONLY thing - is manna. G-d drops it out of the sky, and it tastes INCREDIBLE, but when it's the only thing you have to eat, no matter how you grind, chop, puree, bake, sautee, or roast, it's going to get old.

Now, the Israelites are really grateful and all,  but before they knew it, they were trapped in a sneaky hate spiral of epic proportions. Most of them keep it in check, but some of them complain.

4 The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! 5 We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. 6 But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!” (Numbers 11)

Moses says to G-d: "Seriously? You want me to deal with this? Because it is not my job to put up with temper tantrums."
(This is what the Israelites looked like when they were whining about fish. No joke.)

So G-d says, "Look, I can do anything.  Literally. I'll send you guys enough meat to open up a BBQ Palace in the middle of the desert if that's what you really want."

Then Moses says something incredible: "No matter how much you send, it will never be enough."

Meaning: "This kvetching is not about the fish, or the veggies.  It's not  about the heat or the schlep. It's not even about a bad attitude. It's about a lack of faith that everything will be okay. It's about fear, raw and open, that bleeds into every other aspect of their lives, and finally makes them whine and cry about FISH."

It's easy for us to look at this story, shake our heads, and say, "They should have had faith.  They should have trusted G-d. He already showed them how almighty He was, basically in person.  They should have just eaten that manna, shut up, and kept on trucking."

How many of us have complained, whined, and cried about the fish? It's funny - if you're a person of faith, you know G-d's got your back, and yet there's always doubt, doubt that comes from living life and watching sorrow and tragedy unfold, that lives in our human brains, and whispers, "Maybe it won't be okay. Maybe  He's not even really out there."

 I know I've felt like this, at some times more than others. We're still struggling with complaining about the fish.  Is it something that makes us more human, or something we should work hard to change?  Is it something that comes more naturally to some than others? All I know is that we're still at it, I'm still at it, and I don't even have to schlep all my stuff through the desert.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


77/365 - First Buds of Spring As human beings, we count down.  Minutes until the cookies are done, days until spring break starts, weeks until the season premier of our favorite show, months until the trees will blossom again. It's human nature to anticipate something good happening, a integral part of who we are.

Jewish culture is no different.  Every year, we count down the days from Passover to Shavuot, the festival where we celebrate receiving the Torah at the foot of Mount Sinai. There are 50 days in all, and the excitement builds as the week of Passover ends, then when we start to count in the teens, then in the single digits.  What is more incredible than the Torah?  What could be more awesome than the moment when God gave it to the Jewish people, amidst the boom of thunder and impossible spectacle? We had been schlepping in the desert.  What wonderful thing would our God give to us?

Then, we heard the Torah.  The Ten Commandments.  Rules, regulations, admonitions.  A few encouragements, Divine promises. Some stories to remind us of who we are.  But mostly, tasks being laid on us.  Things that we had to do, mitzvot we had to fulfill.  Standards for us to live up to.

Just like anything else we might anticipate, the Torah is only what we make of it. Getting that diploma doesn't automatically get you a job - you have to decide how to use it, together with your skills, personality, and determination, to  help you live the life you want.

Every year, at Shavuot, we get to decide - will we use the Torah as an excuse to complain about Judaism's restrictiveness?  Or will we view its commandments as opportunities to draw closer to God, to our communities, and to ourselves?  When we examine its words, will we turn them into daggers with which to wound our fellow humans?  Or will we search for the most loving and understanding of meanings within them?

Chag Sameach!

Sunday, June 5, 2011


The stories of our people are shot through with vibrant, painful threads of wishing for home.  Even though that home is Eretz Yisrael, not Columbus, Ohio, over the past year a big part of me felt like I was mourning my exile from Ohio much more than from Israel.

No one knows better than our people - when you leave home, it hurts.  No matter where "home" is.  And when you get to come back, it's so, SO good.

So, you can imagine the feelings that surged through me as my car rumbled over the Lane Avenue Bridge last week.  I saw the Shoe, and the Schott.  I saw how eighty percent of the students don't think it's weird to wear Ohio State gear, they're so proud to be students here.  I saw the huge "Champions Lane" sign.  I turned down Pearl Avenue, my car's tires crunching over the gravel and cracked cement, and into the parking lot of a gorgeous brick building.  Hillel.  Home.

Hillel was my Jewish home during college, and then as a brand-new rabbi.  It's where I heard kiddush every Shabbat, celebrated my children's namings, and found shoulders to cry on. It's where I learned so very much about what it means to be a Jew.  I'm so happy and grateful that, for this coming year, I get to work there again.  Even though it never stopped being home, it's very, very good to be back.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Parshat Naso - What's the Point of It All?

"All the men from thirty to fifty years of age who came to do the work of serving and carrying the tent of meeting 48 numbered 8,580."
~ Numbers 4:47-48

"Mishkan" - "The Tent of Meeting."  We've been reading about it for weeks and weeks now, the structure that hosted the Presence of G-d in the Israelites' camps while they journeyed through the wilderness. I guess that in my mind's eye the tent looked like, well, a tent.  Obviously it was made out of precious metals and fabrics and the finest woods, but structurally, I always imagined it to be similar to a really nice camping tent. 

Then we read this little section at the very beginning of this week's portion, Naso, that reminds us that, altogether, it took 8,580 men to schlep and service the mishkan.  Eight thousand five hundred and eighty. That doesn't include the young kids who scampered behind them, picking up stray pegs and scraps of fabric. And that doesn't count the women at home who cooked their meals, washed their clothing, and cared for the babies.  That means that, all told, over half the Israelite community's existence was entirely focused on this one task.  Pack up the mishkan. Move forward. Set up the mishkan. Rest. Repeat.

I got to thinking about that guy who carried the same pole or bolt of fabric week after week, year after year, and the woman or child at home that repaired the fabric on his shirt that it repeatedly wore away. Did he get it?  Did he understand how important his task was?  Perhaps he knew the concept - that this was how G-d would stay with his community, his family. When his feet ached, when his muscles burned, when his wife collapsed from the exhaustion of managing everything else all day, her own contribution, did he even think about that?  Did he care? After all, how could he have known that their work was contributing to one of the hugest spiritual concepts to develop in the last two thousand years?

 Though we don't have the same challenges as the Israelites, of course, I think we face the same thing.  Endless laundry and dishes at the Kopans bayit, children who wake too early and go to sleep too late, leave destruction and mess in their every path, and constantly pick at one another and whine. For those who work out of the house, annoyances with co-workers, pointless paperwork, people driving like idiots on the commute, and then still having to get dinner on the table and fold the laundry.  I remember being a student and feeling so frustrated that I really, truly had to take four general science classes, and pay attention and get decent grades in them. For everyone, it's the same - go through the grind, rest a little, repeat.  Carry the mishkan and still find time to play with your kids, eat dinner, and relax with friends. What's the point?

I see glimpses of it, sometimes.  I just had to leave the computer to un-wedge a plastic triceratops from the inside of a jack-in-the-box toy. When I turned to stalk balk out of the room, completely annoyed, my middle one threw his arms around my neck, gave me a hug and kiss, and yelled, "Thank you!" Sometimes I can see the holiness, catch a glimpse of the larger purpose.  Sometimes I get the rush that I'm doing a good job, that my work matters.  This is my golden pole, this is my two-by-four, this is my bolt of fabric.

Anyone else?  What's your daily grind, and what's the point?