experiments, instruments & measurement book

If You Really Listen to Teens

By Rena Fraade, Director of Religious School at Larchmont Temple

There was post on the NATE/ARJE list serve a few months ago asking if anyone felt they were doing middle school education “right.” I chuckled when I saw that. And groaned when I saw the responses – because they were all sharing things that I’ve been trying to do – working with my staff to connect our 7th graders who are having a million other struggles in life in addition to “ugh I have Hebrew School today!”

We want it to be meaningful, connecting, engaging – all those words. And when we sat and talked with our 7th graders, we actually got some info – not necessarily enough – but definitely enough to make some immediate changes. While we know our kids are opinionated, we have to frame conversations to get them to talk about what we need them to talk about.Larchmont-Temple

Background:

I adjusted our 7th grade program this year (I have actually honed it every year for seven years) by bringing our 7th graders in the evening to be with our older kids on Tuesdays (they still come in the afternoon Thursdays). They come from 5:45 – 7:45 which includes an elective, dinner, and a “core” program that overlaps with the 8th graders.

We are using a theme of “Jewish Identity” for the 7th graders, everything relates back to them and their own development of this thing they don’t really understand. The first set of electives were chosen by our teachers, things that help us connect to our Jewish identity, such as cooking, comics, and children’s books. But then we wanted the next options to be based on what they wanted to learn. And we needed to check in with the kids anyway.

Hopes & Dreams:

In November, we had our first Hopes and Dreams meeting during their class time in which the kids, in small groups, talked to me and Rabbi Dena Klein, my Jewish Education Project Consultant. We definitely didn’t have enough time to hear as much as we wanted, but we heard SO much.

Here are some of the key pieces of information:

  • They have a lot going on
  • They listen to music/read books/watch movies and are impacted by the themes they are hearing… but don’t necessarily understand the full scope
  • They find that school takes up a lot of their time and feel like it keeps them from doing what they want to be doing; grades and homework get in the way
  • They want to hang out with friends, listen to music, skateboard, play video games, sleep, be artistic
  • They innately know how they are supposed to act in the world (though they know that they don’t always act that way)
  • The traditions of Judaism matter to them
  • They have mixed connections to their families, though they know family is important

23757_lIn January, we were getting concerned about our post Bar and Bat Mitzvah retention while simultaneously wondering how to keep connecting with our kids in the weeks and months post bar/bat mitzvah. And so we had a follow-up Hopes and Dreams Ice Cream Sundae Schmooze – the Assistant Rabbi and I invited the dozen kids to have a conversation with us. We were joined by six (four of whom had been in attendance at the November conversation).

Here are some of the key pieces of information we heard from them:

  • They want to know why/how the learning they are doing “applies” to their lives
  • They are busy, they want to feel like their time is being used well
  • They aren’t really thinking about a Jewish future right now, they are living in the now
  • They are listening to their parents AND their friends as influencers
  • They want the opportunity to make choices about their time
  • Technology is part of who they are, they find it annoying when they are asked to put the phone away
  • Some of them are very compassionate and want to act on it
  • They are both scared and excited for the future… they love learning but on their terms… they love their friends but want to meet new people… they yearn for the freedom to BE.

The Struggle Continues:

After the first Hopes and Dreams conversation, I wrote up a list of electives that I “heard” them “saying” they wanted, I sent a survey to their parents asking them to, together, pick their top 5. I then gave the kids sign-up sheets from the top 5 of those top 5, to create our three electives for this semester – Cooking, Comedy, and Social Action. I am teaching Social Action and we just came to a huge schism in our class… we had been working on finding ways to send packages to soldiers – Americans, Lone soldiers, and Israeli soldiers. They gave me their lists of what they found. And I said, “Ok how are we going to get these supplies?”

And they said to me, “Wait we’re actually doing this?”ques

What exactly, beyond the scientific knowledge, happens in the brain of a pre-teen? What do they want, what do they need… who matters to them, who impresses upon them? And why would they want to “do Jewish?” The brain of the pubescent was/is/will always be our biggest challenge in their Jewish lives.

Parents as Partners

By Laurie Landes, Education Director at Community Synagogue of Rye

“Why is this the first I am hearing about this?”  As a Director of Education, I cringe when I hear these words from parents. Think the sounds of scratching your nails down a chalkboard kind of cringe.  It’s an indication to me that two of our goals, communication and relationship building with parents, had fallen far short.  Teachers for the most part, just don’t feel comfortable contacting parents.  Often they wait until the breaking point to finally reach out to parents about poor behavior.  Why the wait?  Many teachers don’t like telling parents bad news about their child. Or the teacher feels that they can handle the behavior on their own.  Or teachers feel it is a negative reflection on their classroom management ability. Some cannot cope with the possibility of confrontation. “If you could engage my child he wouldn’t be bored and act out.  How come you are picking on him and not another child?  He hates Hebrew school…”    

About ten years ago our school began the RE-Imagine journey to explore what Jewish learning could look like at Community Synagogue. This was a two-year, guided process that included, parents, professional staff and lay leaders.  We went beyond the typical religious school monthly meetings consisting of event planning and policy changes. It was the first time that parents were included in a visioning process for Jewish learning.  Among the many outcomes of the Re-Imagine experience was the recognition that parents play a crucial role in transmitting Jewish learning and connection to their children.  Moving forward, we needed to value and strengthen our partnership with parents.  We launched a robust family learning program to give parents the tools needed to be Jewish role models for their children.  Participation in the Jewish Education Project’s Coalition of Innovating Congregations initiative guided us to the creation of an educational leadership team that included parents as well as a Community Learning Council that was charged with a year-long exploration of one educational cohort.  Our educational leadership moved to a new model that included and valued the voices of our parents. 10897104_779938005425460_8627248664542844683_n

The change process takes many steps.  While we now recognize parents as crucial partners in Jewish learning, our teachers needed to also value this association and then gain the tools needed to form solid relationships with the parents of their learners.  We embarked on a path of change:

  • In-service training to gain an understanding of how and why strengthening relationships with parents can impact learner outcomes in powerful ways.
  • Regular e-mail correspondence from teachers to parents giving highlights of the learning, prompts parents could use for initiating conversations with their children, resources that parents could use to extend the learning and an invitation to respond in any way.
  • Contact with individual parents to let them know about an act of kindness or an exceptional thought or contribution their child may have made. This is like putting money in the bank and watching the relationship interest grow. 
  • Training to deal with parent contact when there is a problem: “I would like to be able to partner with you to create a plan so that David will be successful..”
  • Teachers take leadership roles during family learning, helping to facilitate family discussions. This is an opportunity for in-person relationships development.

talking-to-kids-467x267We are still in the process of changing the culture of the teacher /parent relationships. Sometimes I feel like Moses when he confronted the “Golden Calf” and other times I see evidence of success.  It takes time, mentoring and monitoring, but the outcome is that if we can partner with our parents, their family Jewish journey will be a richer and more meaningful one.

Practicing What You Preach

By Jennifer Stern, Assistant Director, Congregational School at Park Avenue Synagogue

Experiential education is more than a buzzword. It is an amazing way to teach. At the Park Avenue Synagogue Congregational School, we are constantly looking for ways to make a weekday classroom from 4:00 – 6:00 pm an exciting learning experience, one full of movement rather than textbooks. In line with our mission statement, we do Jewish learning.

So, when it came to creating our professional learning sessions for our teachers, we decided to also align these sessions with our Congregational School’s mission. While sessions in the past were interesting, they often involved a frontal presentation. As part of our Reframe project through The Jewish Theological Seminary, we decided to rethink how we delivered these sessions. We wanted to create experiential professional learning for our teachers, in line with the Jewish learning experiences that were happening in our classrooms.10479736_362655890572202_8166552869148709356_n

Earlier this year, we had our first Teacher Retreat. For four and half hours on Super Bowl Sunday, 40 part-time teachers gathered together for an afternoon of experiential learning. With welcoming remarks and Torah study from Rabbi Cosgrove to start our day, we then had a yoga session… yes yoga! We brought in a wonderful yoga teacher who led us in a 45-minute yoga practice. After our yoga session, we had a Q&A session with the yoga teacher to debrief and reflect on the experience.

You may be wondering, what does this have to do with Jewish education and Hebrew School? And my answer would be — EVERYTHING! From thinking about how to create a community of learners, to dealing with individual learners while also addressing the needs of the group, so much can be applied from a yoga session to a Jewish learning environment. The debrief was especially impactful because our teachers articulated connections between the yoga experience and Jewish education for themselves. While we could have just told our teachers about these connections, part of experiential education is reflection.

The next element of our time together took place in the main sanctuary at PAS. We experienced prayer in different ways, movements and positions — from the traditional way of sitting in pews to laying down on the floor and looking up at the stain glass dome in the ceiling. This experience emphasized the importance of space by actually changing locations and positions.

Having an experiential education retreat for our already great teachers helped us create a team of experiential educators. If experiential education is not the mission of your institution, decide what aligns with your goals and the kind of program you are running or building or creating, and train your team accordingly. Bottom line: practice what you preach!

Make a Difference! Who will be Today’s Midwives?

3/31/15

By Susie Tessel

Everyone wants to make a difference!
But how?
But when?
What simple acts of kindness and compassion can we do?

A powerful story about someone who makes a difference took place in the dark days of the Holocaust – in the Netherlands, which was Nazi-occupied, on a Sunday morning, in a Calvinist Church. An unknown man suddenly appeared, riding up on his bicycle. He entered the church. He quickly but quietly ascended the stairs of the pulpit and read aloud the story of the midwives who had defied Pharaoh’s evil decrees and bravely saved the Hebrew male babies.

He paused, looked around the church, and asked,  “Who is today’s Pharaoh?” The congregation answered in unison,
“Hitler”.
“Who are today’s Hebrew babies?”
“The Jews.”
“Who will be today’s midwives?”

Without waiting for a response, the unidentified man pedaled away, presumably to pose that challenge to others. Between the war years, 1941-1945, seven families from this little church alone hid Jews and other resisters from the Nazis.

Both the Biblical midwives and the unknown bicyclist, serve as inspirational stories which embolden us to find a path to make a difference. It urges us to ask ourselves: “How can I make a difference today?” Obviously, it takes an extraordinary person  – who is both courageous and clear-sighted  – to willfully disobey an evil decree of Pharaoh or of the evil Nazi empire. Most people are not able to be that fearless. But that doesn’t mean we should abnegate our responsibility to our values, to our people, and to our religion.

So, Open your eyes  – and think hard.
Who will be today’s midwives?

Every person will come up with a different answer.  But know that every act you do can make a difference to someone as we continue in our roles as God’s helpers.

My In-SITE-ful Journey to Temple Israel Center’s Shorashim Model of Learning

3/20/15

By Suri Jacknis

This past Sunday, I was lucky enough to take advantage of an In-SITE-ful Journey to Temple Israel Center in White Plains where Nancy Parkes is the educational director. This visit was organized Susan Ticker, educational consultant as part of her work with Congregational Learning and the Coalition of Innovating Congregations at The Jewish Education Project.  We came to visit Shorashim, TIC’s innovative model for learners and their families in K-6.

Our visit to Shorashim took place on an ordinary Sunday, when learning was in full swing, but there was no special family learning program or large whole school event (which are frequent).  So it was just an ordinary day that turned out to be extraordinary in so many ways – an extraordinary day of powerful learning that happens each and every week.  How lucky I feel to have been a part of it for this one ordinary day.

nancy couch

What Stood Out for Me?

The atmosphere of intentionality and team.  It is clear that the learning is designed with thought and care, the staff is well-prepared and the environment is set to support the learning that unfolds.  Every educator had multiple colleagues to maximize the support for learning in every space. Each grade featured the presence of a caring lead educator, a co-educator or assistant teacher as well as three mature madrichim (teen leaders) who were invested and empowered to lead. There was a clear plan on the wall of every learning space that signaled what was to be expected.  In one classroom I saw that the wall highlighted the ‘big idea’ for the learning of the day and displayed a student -generated web of concepts related to Pesach that was probably a diagnostic tool to assess what the students knew, what could be built on, and what would be the next steps.  In addition, it was obvious that the learners were used to working in teams, to sharing responsibility, to giving everyone a role, and to listening to each other.

We saw the director as a teacher-facilitator sharing a classroom with a co-teacher who is a community educator, and with three madrichim just as the other educators were part of a teaching team.  The director models the way of being a part of her educational team by putting herself in the middle of the action as an active facilitator and partner on the learning team.IMG_1529

The staffing structure supports Jewish Learning and  in an Extraordinary way.  Community Educators make an extraordinary impact on education at TIC.  Young, dynamic, camp-counselor-type community educators are effective role models and educational leaders that build relationships and are truly present for the learners both during the formal learning times, and also on Shabbat and holidays, as well as at lifecycle and community events.  They are part of the community and live Judaism as part of the daily lives of the families at TIC.  They meet regularly as a team to plan learning that integrates with the whole of the Jewish journey and bring a level of creativity and positive energy to the community that cannot be underestimated.  Nancy explained that moving from having part-time teachers to full-time community educators was a “budget neutral move” that has created a new reality and sense of possibility that is truly amazing.

There was an overwhelming presence of authentic materials of Jewish life and the invitation to explore and discover. The materials and supplies to enhance learning were evident in every space.  The curricular materials, the ritual objects and, the art materials were in evidence everywhere.  Most were authentic Jewish materials –as we were in the pre-Pesach period, there were Seder plates, Seder table items, photos of the 12 steps, Pesach foods and actual parsley, horseradish roots, etc…  There were Humashim to find the story and Haggadot.  There was activity and discovery at every turn.  And there was conversation, and yes, it was not quiet but it was purposeful and it was clear that learners were engaged, that their questions and interpretations were honored and encouraged.  And that the center of learning was most clearly the learner.

The learning was largely experiential and featured opportunities to work in small groups, in pairs as well as in larger groupings or teams. Various groups of learners learned Torah in the Beit Midrash in small groups.  On this day, learning conversations centered on appreciating the importance of numbers in the Jewish tradition as a whole as well as in the Pesach story.  On other days, there is the experience of learning text in pairs or in small groups as our people have done for centuries as Hevruta learning.IMG_1498

We saw learners engaged in a Parasha scavenger hunt in teams and we saw learners have a chance to be up close and personal with a Torah Scroll in the sanctuary, guided by their teacher to appreciate the holiness of Torah. We saw kids who had just finished a unit on Shabbat that culminated in learning all about and making Challah— compare this Challah to Matzah and find as many similarities and differences that they could.  We saw younger students engaged in learning the steps of the Seder by actually “doing the steps” and being photographed doing each step.

We noticed the flexible groupings of learners and noted that the typical ratio for learning was one facilitator for every 5-6 kids.  We saw a lot of learning stations and coaching by facilitators in support of the learning.  We also saw that there were learning materials that were well matched to the learning goals of each learning experience and that the learning experiences were all tied to the larger outcomes and big ideas that were posted on the walls.

There was a big emphasis on community and on spirituality in a Jewish context. The day began with a communal meeting for tefillah.  We were warmly greeted upon entering a prayer space, whose walls were covered with Mishkan fabrics that had been designed by the learners.  We sat in a circle to face each other and be part of the community.  On our chairs were bracha stones that the kids had made to give them kavana. They had words, colors and images which helped the kids get ready to pray… and they were around to touch and hold onto to ground our prayers with meaning and stability.  There was a lot of spirited singing, punctuated by prayers with motions and sign language.  The team of prayer facilitators were the educational director, the full-time community educators, the teachers and the teen madrichm who sat scattered as role models and guides throughout the kahal.  We had a Siddur to follow, but we also had an ashrei prayer supplement that showed a colorful picture/icon under words which were easily visualized.  Davening the Ashrei from this visual tefillah allows the person praying to experience the words in new ways— no translation needed.  The facilitator would offer occasional preview cues to create a framework of meaning for the coming prayer.  There were moments of quiet for individual prayer and many moments of clapping and singing and moving.  It was a prayerful start to our day.

It is obvious that spirituality and developing a relationship with God and prayer are part of this culture.  We could see that by entering a classroom to see a small group of young learners clustered around a computer with the teacher at the keyboard typing learner responses to conversation starters about a time when they prayed and when they felt close to God.

The atmosphere was one of a purposeful and welcoming community. We learned from the director that a big theme of this year is welcoming and inclusion and that many learners with special needs are part of the community.  We were introduced to the learning specialist who seemed so lovely, beloved and integrated into every part of the learning tapestry.  We heard from Nancy Parkes about her building community by using the techniques from The Responsive Classroom, especially the welcoming circle where children learn to listen and tend to each other, to make eye contact, to ask appropriate follow-up questions, and to value and appreciate each other.

The physical environment was inviting and beautiful and supported the learning. We appreciated that the walls of the entire educational space (and this space was the best part of the three floors of the building) were “an educational tableau.”  Nancy explained that the educational council had moved from prohibiting the hanging of things on walls to inviting the beautification of the walls as a rich opportunity to display deep learning and reflection.  Indeed the walls are adorned with magnificent and well placed works of art that are culminating projects, learning benchmarks, and educational resources that are so engaging that they invite further learning and exploration and engender pride in this learning community.IMG_1516

The Day of Learning is bookended by set-induction/connection and reflection. Nancy mentioned to us that the practice of welcoming and beginning learning with a connection and a trigger that sets the learners up for a productive day of learning has become part of the way that all meetings in the synagogue community open.  Similarly, the day of learning closes with multiple opportunities for reflection and processing the learning that happened that day.  I witnessed reflection happening in small groups where the learners drew and wrote a comment about what stood out to them from that day and what they want to think more about.  Learners wrote and drew with crayon on construction paper and the facilitator carefully collected and treasured each reflection.  You could tell that the learners were used to meeting this challenge each time they met.  Everyone sat quietly and wrote and drew something that was meaningful to them.  The teaching team reviews these reflections and builds some mention of them into the next learning session.

I feel lucky to have visited Temple Israel Center’s Shorashim on an ordinary day.  I will treasure my own powerful learning experience as an extraordinary opportunity to see learning that makes a positive difference in learner’s lives in a very Jewish context of everyday life.  Thanks to Nancy Parkes, to Lisa Schwartz, to Michelle Steinhardt, to Amy Rosenbaum, Ilene Bloom Cohen, and Alex Schostak and to the entire staff at Temple Israel Center for their warm hospitality and amazing work!

Jewish Educators: Dust or Angels?

3/17/15

By Cyd Weissman

Educator – who are YOU? Are you just below the angels and (if we could get it right) could you grow the next generation of Jews? Or are you poorly-trained-trapped-in-a-box-folks who are as helpful in growing the next generation of Jews as the dust in your pocket?

The answer depends on who is standing on the soap box.

Beth Cousens’ piece, “Can We Disrupt Religious School” in yesterday’s ejewishphilanthropy seemed to describe Jewish educators as both – a bit above the dust of Philip Roth’s basement and just below the angels, single-handedly able to make seven-year-olds understand the depth and meaning of Judaism.

Points I feel we need to consider:

1. There is no Jewish educational experience that can counter familial and societal norms. Let’s humbly recognize that family values, practices and expectations, not educators, are the prime operating system for the Jewish development of 6-12 year olds. When families check-out and drop-off, there is no Holy Grail of education to counter the family.

2. Religion itself is having a challenging time in 2015 in the USA – ala Pew and the rise of the nons. America at large is not having a religious field day. By overwhelming numbers Jews are still proud, but their knowledge and participation is far less. Again, how could Jewish education counter predominate societal norms?

3. Synagogues, Federations and much of the existing organizational Jewish landscape is still standing for Torah, avodah and gemiliut chasadim, but parents are simply asking: How do I raise a whole child in a seemly broken world?

Jewish education is one component of the larger ecosystem that grows a child. The truth about families, societal norms and reshaping religious ideas that speak to people’s real lives is complicated. It is not as easy as pointing the finger at Hebrew school (the whipping boy of Jewish life).

At our best, using wisdom, rhythm and the comradeship of Jewish life, Jewish Educators are able to connect the questions Jews have when they wake in the morning and when they go to bed at night. When we are at our best, we make possible, each person’s birthright for children and adults to discover their unique path and responsibility of making our challenging world better.

Next month, I’ll have the results of interviews with 100 parents whose children participate in bolder new models of Jewish education emerging across the country. In these interviews, we hear parents who talk Torah with their children, change their hectic schedules to meet Shabbat, and act out Jewish teachings in their lives. I’m glad to add this new body of research to the narrative.

It is not helpful to say in the same breath that Jewish education can make all the difference and makes little difference. Let’s instead talk about addressing the complicated landscape that makes the difference in a child’s life.

Jewish educators are neither dust nor angels. At our best, we are… well what would you say from your soap box?

A Happy Coincidence: My Third Josh Nelson Performance will be at Yachdav

2/26/15

By Jessica Rothbart

“You’re from Toronto? Do you know my friend Jared?”
“ I know you from Boston University’s Hillel!”  
“Don’t I remember you getting bat mitzvahed with my baby cousin?”

Jewish geography is an amazing game. As I have moved through my life, Jewish geography has been a common theme. I was brought up in an involved Jewish home, then I chose Jewish extra-curricular activities and now I work at a non-profit Jewish organization. How do I continue to be surprised when familiar faces pop up?

Lucky for me, one of those familiar faces is Josh Nelson. Heading up the Josh Nelson Project, he is a singer, song-writer musician who is leading the charge of making beautiful, creative music that defies how Jewish music fits into the modern landscape. He will be performing as our “opening act” at this year’s Yachdav Gathering. I was excited to hear that he was chosen to kick off our wonderful day of communal learning. Yachdav is our annual day of learning with member congregations from the Coalition of Innovating Congregations. We welcome education directors, lay leaders, clergy, and teachers to come together to network, learn, celebrate, and grow in a cumulative experience that shares our accomplishments from the year and builds connections to each other. Some people may know Josh from his recent turn as Shlomo Carlebach in the Broadway musical Soul Doctor. Others may recognize him from his shock of jet black, curly hair. josh nelson

Good news, fans. I don’t think the hair is going anywhere. In fact, I remember that hair in two distinct performances from my adolescence (as a curly girl myself, I’m always on the lookout for others in the curl club). The first was at camp. One Sunday at Camp Ramah in New England, we were told there was going to be an evening performance of a band called Yom Hadash. This band featured two brothers who were not trying to make Jewish music cool – they were actually doing it! The rock infused beats got hundreds of campers off their tuchases and had us dancing until what felt like the wee hours (probably 9pm). A fan was born!

The cover of the Yom Hadash album “When We Were Young” featuring the red sun that was featured the band’s shirt.

The cover of the Yom Hadash album “When We Were Young” featuring the red sun that was featured the band’s shirt.

The next time I saw Josh with Yom Hadash, it was at a USY event in Weston, Florida. There was a critical mass of us high school aged, Floridian Ramahniks who piled onto the yellow school bus to get a dose of the excitement that Yom Hadash had brought to camp. We danced in the social hall with other audience members, hearing a mix of original Yom Hadash songs and some fabulous covers. “Mustang Sally” stands out in my mind – it was the first time I had heard it. At the end of the night, I bought a black t-shirt with a glowing red sun, the design from their album over. I’m pretty sure I still have it somewhere.

Now as a professional and mother, it’s so exciting to be able to relive these memories for the first time watching him perform as his solo act. I’m especially excited to hear his piece L’Dor Vador live, which rings especially true now  with two infants at home. Thanks to the good fortune of Jewish Geography I doubt this will be my last run in with the performer.

Hope to see you at Yachdav!

 

All Greek To Me

2/18/15

By Susie Tessel

Have you ever asked yourself why do we pray in Hebrew? Why do we pray in a language different from our native language? I have heard the following answer: We can pray to God in any language, and we know that our heartfelt prayers will be heard voiced in any language. But there is something special about Hebrew that other languages do not have, and Hebrew has a spirituality not found in other tongues. Moreover, many concepts and ideals of Judaism are best expressed in Hebrew, and translations can be inexact. For some, praying in Hebrew allows them to explore the richness and layered meanings that each word conveys. However, many people feel confounded by the different alphabet, and don’t speak Hebrew at all! Is there really a difference in using Hebrew or English in Jewish prayer and ceremony? Does the Hebrew language enable us to relate to God and the Jewish people differently from the way we might in Spanish or French or English that each word conveys? The following story helped clarify some of these questions for me.

download (1)I spent my “Junior Year Abroad” studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Each holiday break, my friends and I tried to explore, a different country or place. Over winter break, we went to Greece. We had been to other countries, but Greece was a completely different experience for us. All of the signs were written in Greek letters. NOT ONE of us spoke Greek, and seemingly none of the locals spoke English. There were no signs in English except for trademark logos like Coca Cola. It was very difficult to get our bearings. We got lost repeatedly! When we finally decoded the intricacies of the subway system, we felt thoroughly triumphant! Athens is a physically beautiful city, and standing in front of the Parthenon, the birthplace of Democracy, was very inspiring. But, all in all, we were foreigners exploring a foreign land, and nothing about that changed. Everything felt different. The people seemed to be warm and friendly, but they spoke so little English and we only spoke the couple of words in Greek our guide book provided. By the end of the week, we felt like we had gleaned about as much as were going to from Greece. The Parthenon at Dusk

We were going to leave early Sunday morning. On Friday night, we went to the large Athens synagogue. It was beautiful. We picked up the siddurim provided and it was, of course, in Hebrew and Greek. Needless to say, the Greek pages were useless to us, but the Hebrew was strangely comforting and familiar. As the Hazan started chanting the Friday Night Service, a spell was cast. We felt like we were surrounded by a warmth we had not felt. Everything looked brighter and felt friendlier. We knew we were finally at home. Most of the tunes were unfamiliar, but we could follow along, and learn the unfamiliar tunes to prayers we said in Atlanta and Chicago and New York and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and sing along together with the locals. The new tunes were fun. The words bound us together.

We exhaled a sigh of relief. This was better already. Then, the Hazan got to the Shema. The entire congregation shouted out the words with such fervor! We knew the Shema! We could participate just as fully as anyone else! And we did! And when we did, the congregants sitting around us moved closer, and smiled wider. We had met new friends. We were all one people and, at that moment, language did not divide us. Instead, language united us!

It was such a wonderful and powerful experience – and one that I would have missed if I had not learned to pray in Hebrew.
The following morning, a family who lived in Athens invited us to join them for lunch. It was the highlight of our trip.

I felt like a member of the global Jewish club, and it was amazing!!!

Tu Bishevat Analogies

2/4/2015

By Susan Tessel

Tu Bishevat, the Jewish New Year for the trees, is here.  Since Biblical times, the Jewish People have been compared, at different moments, to one of a variety of trees.  Such comparisons abound in the book of Psalms and may be found throughout Biblical literature.  The date palm, olive trees and even walnut trees all evidence characteristics which we, as a people, also exhibit.

There are olive trees in Israel that are 1,000 years old and still produce fruit. It is very difficult to destroy an olive tree. The roots of the olive tree go down deep into the soil, anchoring it and preventing erosion. If the branches are cut off, and only the stump remains, that stump will send forth new saplings to grow again. Tu-BShevat

The date palm is also an extraordinary tree.  Every part of the date palm can be used, and every part is needed. That means that no part of the date palm tree need be wasted. The dates are for eating; the lulav branches are for Sukkoth blessings and for thatched roofs, its fibers for ropes, its leaves for sieves and its resilient trunk for building. The date palm is able to bend with the wind without breaking.

Rabbi Tarfon compared the Jewish people to a pile of walnuts in a most singular fashion:  he observed that if even a single walnut is removed or falls, every walnut in the pile is shaken. When a single Jew is in trouble, every Jew is shaken and affected (Avot de Rabbi Natan chapter 18).  Likewise, when a single species is endangered the entire ecosystem is shaken and affected.

What do you think about this analogy?

I have used these analogies successfully in a variety of settings, asking both young and old to select an analogy describing the Jewish People that resonates most.  I have also added the following questions for a gallery walk and follow-up discussion.

The Jewish people have a special relationship with olives and dates – just as olive oil brings light into the world, so do the people of Israel bring light into the world –Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah (1:2).

What are some ways we bring light onto the world? How are you like an olive tree?  How are the Jewish people like the olive tree?

Give an example when you felt like a date palm.  Which do you feel like more –a palm tree or an olive tree – and why?

I ended the discuss with the following bracha:

May we be like a date palm, buffeted by the winds of challenge and change, so that we bend but do not break.   May we know when to accept what cannot be changed and let it go with the wind, and know when to stand firm.

Upcoming!

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