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Content, Connection, and Compassion: Three Steps to a Productive Religious School

January 5, 2012 1 comment

At a National Jewish Book Award ceremony not so long ago, an award recipient took the stage, smiled broadly, and told the audience that “it’s nice to get a prize.” Then she added, “the last time I got a prize was in Religious School…” — for what? — “…for being quiet.”

Yes, she was awarded a prize for simply being quiet, the bar in her school sadly having been set so low that by doing nothing she was already outperforming her peers. (Rabbi Larry Milder expresses a similar sentiment in his song about his experience teaching Religious School: There’s a Riot Going On in Classroom Number Nine.) Equally unfortunately, most of the audience at the award ceremony chuckled in solidarity, probably remembering their own not-so-different experiences in Religious School. Some of them may even have thought, “so you’re the goodie-goodie who got us all in trouble when we were pasting our yarmulkes to the wall.”

How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Many Religious Schools seem like case studies in institutional bipolar disorder: children must attend but nothing should be required of them; or everything should be required of them and there should be no consequences for not fulfilling the requirements; or the consequences should be so severe that everyone hates being there; or loving Religious School is so important that the school is turned into a playground where nothing is taught; and so forth.

Hidden in this list of institutionality-disorder symptoms are three of the elements that I believe are crucial to a productive Religious School: content, connection, and compassion.

I think we have an absolute obligation not to waste the time of the students who show up to Religious School. After all, they aren’t allowed to leave. If I go to a lecture and I’m bored, I can walk out. But we don’t give children at Religious School (or public school, for that matter) this prerogative, so I think we have to make sure that their time in class is well spent by giving them challenging and engaging content.

Having fun also seems like a good idea. And some people believe that the best way to have fun is to turn learning time into game time. But I disagree, because, fortunately, children naturally love learning. So I think that by providing a stimulating environment we will also create a place where children enjoy themselves. Schools that dumb down their curriculum to make the place more enticing have it backwards.

Having fun also contributes to my second element of Religious School: connection. If the only point of the school were to convey information, we could distribute textbooks, offer a yearly exam, and do away with the weekly gatherings. But Judaism is not merely a collection of facts to be learned. It is also a sense of connection — to our history, to each other, to the Jewish people, to Israel, and to the synagogue.

Thirdly, I think our school has to offer compassion to people — children and parents — whose lives are increasingly lacking that vital component. Too many parts of our lives are uncompromising and rigid, forcing us to adapt to them rather than letting us be ourselves. Our school can offer an island of relief against this troubling trend.

Taken in isolation, any of these three aspects — content, connection, and compassion — can lead us astray. If we focus only on content, our Religious School will lose its soul. Connection by itself won’t work, because we have to offer something to be connected to. And compassion alone threatens to make the school irrelevant to people who are already thriving.

But in combination, I think these three goals can help provide the foundation of a school worthy of the collective energy we all invest in it.

[Reposted from the Vassar Temple Blog, in turn reprinted from my article in the Vassar Temple January, 2012 bulletin.]

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The Subtext of Our Lives: Unetaneh Tokef and the High Holidays

September 27, 2011 Leave a comment

“Who shall die by fire, and who by water?”

For many people, that question — part of the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer — is reason enough to boycott the Days of Awe. After all, the text of that famous medieval poem offers a simple, clear answer to why people suffer: it’s their own fault. They were given a perfectly fair trial (conveniently featuring God as prosecutor, defense attorney, witness, and judge), and every last chance to return to the right path, but they stubbornly refused God’s lifeline. So they died.

But the subtext of Unetaneh Tokef tells a different story, referencing the Book of Job more than any other. For example, the “still small voice” of the Unetaneh Tokef text mirrors Job 4:16. The text of the next line of Unetaneh Tokef deals with angels, as does Job 4:18. Literally reading between the lines, we find Job 4:17: “Can humans be acquitted by God?”

The text and subtext vehemently disagree, so what looks like an answer — people die because God makes them — is really a question: What’s going on here?

The High Holidays in general are like that, and so too are our lives. We have a text. But we need the subtext to understand it. And the simple, clear answers are usually wrong.


[Adapted from my essay “How was Your Flight” in Who by Fire, Who by Water: Un’taneh Tokef, pub. 2010 by Jewish Lights Publishing, ed. Rabbi Larry Hoffman.]

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Accidental Mutineers

September 14, 2009 Leave a comment

With Rosh Hashanah less than a week away, our thoughts turn to starting a new year, and, we hope, improving on the old one. The theme of asking for forgiveness is a common one. But we pay less attention to the other side of the same coin: have we created an environment that lets others apologize to us?

We usually find it easier to see the faults in those around us than to recognize our own. The shortcomings of family members, coworkers, and friends leap out at us in vivid detail, while our own imperfections remain obscured behind veils of psychological obfuscation.

So what do we do when we see that a parent is needy or a boss insecure, a spouse jealous or a friend unsupportive, a child ungrateful or an employee combative?

Like all instruments of power, our knowledge of other people’s faults — so clear to us and yet invisible to them — can be a force for betterment or for destruction.

In this regard, the 1954 film The Caine Mutiny is a brilliant study of how we deal with what’s wrong with other people.

Captain Queeg, in command of the U.S.S. Caine, is a well-meaning and capable commander, but years of combat have taken their toll and he is also nervous, obsessive, and prone to paranoia. As is frequently the case, those around him see his faults right away, while he himself remains practically unaware of them.

What, then, do his shipmates do?

Rather than try to work with their captain, rather than accepting his failings and trying to help him overcome them, rather than compensating for what he cannot do, the officers of the ship antagonize Queeg. They scoff him. The provoke him. They follow the letter of his orders even when they know it’s a bad idea.

In this combative and unsupportive environment, Queeg’s insecurities worsen and his paranoia becomes more pronounced. “Sometimes the captain of a ship needs help,” Queeg pleads. But his subordinates use his weakness against him. “Look at the man. He’s a Freudian delight,” one officer tells another, hoping to make a case that the captain is unbalanced.

Eventually the ship finds itself maneuvering around a typhoon. The crew no longer trusts their isolated captain, and they relieve him of command.

The key to the movie is the trial for mutiny. The crew are found not-guilty, because by the time the typhoon hit, Captain Queeg was unable to make sound decisions. But they are also found morally culpable, because they paved the way to the captain’s demise, in the process almost destroying the boat and ending their own lives.

What will we do next year when we see the shortcomings in those around us?

Like the officers on the Caine, we have a choice. We can try to create a tolerant, forgiving environment. Or we can use other human beings’ flaws to our own short-term advantage and amusement.

Will we choose well?

Or we will become accidental mutineers?

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

All I Ask

August 26, 2009 4 comments

The Jewish month of Elul is traditionally connected to Psalm 27. And with its familiar haunting melody, the 4th verse of the Psalm is particularly well known: “I ask only one thing of God — it is what I want: To live in God’s house all the days of my life, to gaze upon God’s glory, and to visit God’s Temple.”

The nuances of the words — is it “glory” or “beauty,” “visit” or “seek,” etc. — are less interesting to me than the obvious contradiction in the line, because after specifically claiming only to want “one thing,” the Psalmist lists three: The Psalmist wants (1) to live in God’s house, (2) to gaze upon God’s glory, and (3) to visit God’s Temple.

What are we to make of this? Why can’t the Psalmist count to one?

I see insight into the nature of being human and wanting.

The Psalmist wants to live in God’s house not just for the sake of being there, but for what it will lead to, namely, seeing God’s glory. The next lines, verse 5-6, continue in a similar vein: …because in times of trouble God will hide me and keep me safe, bring me safely out of reach, and bring me victory over my enemies who are all around me. The Psalmist has the whole thing planned out. If he can only manage to live in God’s house, he’ll see God’s glory, then get God’s defensive protection, which will naturally lead to an offensive victory over his adversaries. “If only I could live in God’s house,” the Psalmist thinks, “I could finally beat them!”

The Psalmist has perpetrated his own internal bait-and-switch on himself, confusing what he wants with how he will get there. The result is a jumble in his mind, with tranquility, Godliness, safety, and retribution all mixed up.

It seems to be human nature to confuse our desires with the paths that might lead to them, and advertisers exploit this trait of ours.

Coca Cola’s website, for example, displays a prominent image of a Coca Cola bottle with the caption “open happiness.” Who wouldn’t like a little more happiness? The advertising at Coca Cola nudges us into thinking that Coke will lead us in that direction. Next thing we know, we get confused between buying Coke and becoming happier.

Most of the material goods we think we want work the same way. We get confused and think that they are a path to happiness. Then when we buy something and it doesn’t make us happy, we come to the reasonable but wrong conclusion that we have bought the wrong thing. Like Charlie Brown — who is the only one who doesn’t know that Lucy will never cooperate — we think that all we have to do is try again and buy something else. Most of us keep stumbling, and we never learn that what we really have to do is play a different game.

Non-material desires are really no different. We want power, a loyal following, recognition, or what-not, but for what we imagine they will lead to, not for what they are.

I have nothing against money or material possessions. (As the Russians say, it’s better to be healthy and rich than sick and poor.) Money can buy really important things like medicine and education and food, and make it easier to visit friends and fix the world, just to name a few benefits. On a smaller scale, if buying new clothes makes you happy for a day, it seems like money well spent.

We just have to be careful not to get confused. The Psalmist’s mistake is not that he wants to be with God or that he wants to defeat his enemies. His error is right at the start of verse 4: “I ask only one thing.”

We are seldom seeing clearly when we think that our lives lack only one thing or that with the addition of one thing our lives would be perfect. Yet even without the incessant prodding of advertisers, it would be part of our very nature to make this mistake. Ignore it, and we can’t even notice when “one” is “three.”

But once we see past it — once we differentiate between what we want and what we think it will do for us — we begin our journey toward spending our time, money, and energy wisely.

Categories: Bible, spirituality

Paving and Paradise

April 24, 2009 2 comments

By Joel M. Hoffman

Pave over a field and an amazing thing happens each spring: grass grows through the blacktop. Somehow, even the industrial strength of the pavement, powerful enough to support the tonnage of trucks, can’t stop a single, fragile, nascent blade of grass yearning for light.

At this time of year, we are like the grass.

Our springtime holiday of freedom ended a short while ago. Our next major celebration comes exactly fifty days after Passover, on May 29, this year. It’s Shavu’ot, the day that commemorates when we stood at Mt. Sinai and received the Torah. The 49-day period in between is called the Omer, and it’s a time of spiritual limbo. We have our freedom, but we don’t yet have guidance from Torah. So we can do what we want, but we don’t know what we should do. The Omer is our yearly moral navigation check-up, a time to ask: “Am I going in the right direction?”

The seven week period of the Omer (“seven weeks of seven days,” it’s called in the Torah) has become so important that we traditionally count each day. When we do, we note the total number of days, and also how many weeks they comprise. Mother’s Day, for example, falls this year on the 31st day of the Omer, which is four weeks and three days into the Omer. That’s how it’s done.

It’s a period of high emotion. For some people, most of the Omer is a season of mourning, during which weddings are forbidden and even pleasurable music is not allowed. But the 33rd day of the Omer — lag ba’omer, in Hebrew — is a day of rejoicing. So is Jerusalem Day, on the 43 day of the Omer. (If you want a traditional springtime wedding, it has to be on the 33rd day of the Omer, making that day one of the hardest times to find a wedding hall in Israel.)

We juxtapose confirmation with Shavu’ot, using our celebration of Torah to publicly acknowledge the students who have chosen to continue their Jewish education. Bar/bat mitzvah may have been when they became Jewish adults, allowed to make their own ritual decisions, but without Torah, how will they decide what to do? That’s one reason we hope they continue to study.

Shavu’ot usually comes around the last day of Religious School, as if to underscore the connection between going to Religious School and working to accept Torah. On Shavu’ot, we celebrate another successful year of school.

And Shavu’ot, like Memorial Day, marks the beginning of summer.

In Aramaic — the language of the Talmud and of prayers such as the Kadish — the word for Torah is oraita, literally, “the light.” In this context, we are all like the grass that breaks through the blacktop. The grass is searching for the sun. We are searching for our light, the light that is Torah. And our job during the Omer is to find it. Like for the grass, sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles block our path. Instead of blacktop, we have to overcome petty rivalry, jealousy, hatred, and ego, just to name a few. These are often harder than pavement.

There’s another way our journey is more difficult than that of the grass. Gravity causes chemicals called auxins to pool in the lower part of the grass shoot, which then has no choice but to grow upward. It will eventually find light. We have more freedom. We can go anywhere we want, do anything we please. We can grow toward Torah, or shift away from it. The Omer is our time to ask if we are going in the right direction: Are we becoming better people? Are we working toward the right goals? Are we proud of where we’re going and what we’re working to do?

We have one final thing in common with the grass. We can’t see the light until we overcome the obstacles blocking our path. The Omer can be dark and frustrating, but if we spend our time wisely, it will be worth it.

Categories: holidays, spirituality

Do Not Oppress The Stranger

March 2, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

“Do not oppress the stranger,” the Bible warns us over and over again, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The saga of the Jewish people is to know what it’s like not to fit in, which is why this notion of welcoming the stranger defines Judaism as much as any other central precept.

The English word “stranger” offers us additional insight into what the Bible is talking about, because our word is nicely ambiguous. A “stranger” is someone from another place, but, equally, “stranger” is “more than just strange.” And of course that’s why being from another place is so hard. When you go somewhere new, you think everyone else is strange, and they all think you are. Visitors wonder at our customs just as we wonder at theirs.

So we learn not only that we shouldn’t oppress the stranger, but equally that we shouldn’t oppress people who are strange.

It’s important, for being from a foreign place is only one way of being strange. There are many others. In fact, Scott Dunn teaches that anyone who lives honestly in the world is perceived as a little bit strange. People wear odd clothes, walk crooked, have funny body shapes, listen to bizarre music, say strange things, have silly habits, and on and on. Are we careful not to oppress them?

I know a student with what she calls — having been told to call it so by her doctor — ADD. I understand the ‘A.’ It stands for “attention.” I even understand the first ‘D,’ which stands for “deficit.” She has an attention deficit, which is a not-so-polite way of saying she has trouble paying attention to one thing at a time. A nicer way to explain her situation would be that she can focus on more than one thing at a time, a skill that helps her notice connections that others often miss, and a quality that makes her a consistently interesting interlocutor.

As bad as the first ‘D’ is, though, it’s the second that really troubles me. It stands for “disorder.” What happened to “do not oppress”? When we classify people’s thinking — their natural way of being in the world — as a “disorder,” haven’t we pretty much destroyed any hope of welcoming them?

To be sure, some behaviors and conditions are more conducive to happiness and success than others. Just as I wear eye glasses so I can see better, attention deficit should be dealt with (if possible) when it stands in the way of a person’s goals. By the same reasoning, life-threatening obesity should be managed. And obsessive-compulsive behavior — normally called obsessive-compulsive disorder, once again making it hard to welcome those with the condition — can be a curious quirk or a debilitating disease, and in the latter case treatment seems like a good idea.

But whatever the nature of the oddity, Judaism expressly forbids negative name calling. We are all strange in our own way, and words like “disorder” have no place in our holy community. We can recognize our differences — and even note that some differences are advantageous or disadvantageous — without stacking people up in a hierarchy of normalcy.

This message is a cornerstone of our school. “No one fails Judaism,” Rabbi Manny Gold teaches, “but if we’re not careful, Judaism can fail them.” Part of my job as Director of Education is to make sure that our school welcomes whoever walks through our doors, even though some students will seem strange. After all, we’re all strange. Some of us just hide it better than others.

Purim arrives this month. It’s a holiday that freely mixes silly masquerading with serious messages. It’s also a time when we all practice being strange and, if we’re really doing things right, practice welcoming those who are strange.

“Do not oppress the stranger,” we are taught. This year, let’s use our Purim partying and seemingly frivolous merrymaking as a mental reminder not to oppress the stranger, the strangest, or even the merely strange.

Categories: education, spirituality

The Saga of Family Life: Vayigash

January 2, 2009 1 comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, opens with the nearly final stages of the drama of the misery and anguish of our ancestors’ family lives. But amid the sorrow we also find the promise of better times.

We read of Judah in Egypt as he begs for life-saving food from a man who will turn out to be his brother Joseph. Joseph, now the second most powerful man in Egypt, looks back at the man he knows to be his long-estranged brother Judah.

Both Judah and Joseph were victims of their father Jacob’s atrocious parenting skills, as evidenced, for example, by Jacob’s decision to give Joseph a fancy coat but to give nothing to any of Joseph’s brothers. (“Here’s a Hanukah experiment you can try at home,” Rabbi Larry Kushner teaches in this regard. “See what happens if you give an expensive present to only one of your children….”) So back in Canaan, Judah had helped sell Joseph to their cousins, the Ishmaelites, as a slave. Jacob was distraught at the loss of his son, Judah seemed not to care, and for a while slavery was too good for Joseph. He spent time in an Egyptian jail.

It is perhaps not Jacob’s fault that he never learned to be a good parent. His mother and father fought over which child they loved more, and Esau was always Daddy’s favorite. Jacob’s mother was conniving and devious. Jacob’s father quickly grew so senile that he couldn’t tell the difference between his son and a sheep.

Isaac, of course, learned from his own father, Abraham, the father who took him on a father-and-son outing where he almost sacrificed him on Mount Moriah.

In addition, Jacob inadvertently married the wrong woman. We can only imagine the sibling rivalry that results when your sister is also your husband’s favorite wife.

Jealousy, pettiness, and sibling rivalry seem to be the only family dynamics Jacob knew. So perhaps we understand why Jacob was unable to keep his family together. If Genesis is about families, it is about dysfunctional families, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob make abundantly clear, along with Ishmael, Hagar, Esau, and so forth. Not one of them lived a particularly happy life.

Still, never one to learn from his mistakes, Jacob gathers all of his remaining children together when the family is faced with famine:

“I want all of you to go down to Egypt to try to get us some food,” he instructs his children. But then he clarifies what he wants: “All of you except Benjamin, that is.”

Why not Benjamin?

“Because I love him,” Jacob tells his children.

The message is clear.

Eventually, Benjamin must join his brothers in Egypt, and that brings us to this week’s installment of “what else can go wrong.” Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, demands that Benjamin stay behind and not return to their father.

But that’s not an option, Judah knows. “If my father sees that Benjamin is gone, he will die,” Judah tells the powerful Egyptian leader.

Judah has understood the situation fully. Daddy will die if Benjamin doesn’t return. But Daddy doesn’t care about him. “Let me stay in his place,” Judah offers. “Daddy won’t even miss me,” he knows.

In offering to stay behind instead of Benjamin, Judah recognizes his father’s failings, and, more importantly, he accepts them. This is the moment he breaks the cycle of family dysfunction that plagued the first four generations of our ancestors’ lives.

Genesis, of course, is about us. For we are Abraham, sometimes angry at our children, and we are Rachel and Leah, jealous of our siblings. We are Judah, still trying to understand why our parents cannot be perfect. We are all of them.

Let us not forget that things turned out very well for Judah, a fact we mark at every wedding when we quote the prophet Jeremiah: “Once again there will be heard among Judah the sounds of joy and happiness, the sounds of the bride and groom.”

Let us pray that God give us the courage to learn from Judah and accept reality. And let us look forward to the joy and happiness that await when we do.

Shabbat Shalom.

Categories: Bible, spirituality