experiments, instruments & measurement book

New Beginnings: Familiarity and Freshness


By Suri Jacknis, Co-Director, Congregational Learning

It is Hodesh Elul.  Time to prepare for the High Holidays emotionally, spiritually and physically.  It is a time for reflection on our lives and taking stock, for reconnecting with our personal vision for how we want to live.  It is also a time for connecting with and sending holiday greetings to family and friends, preparing for setting or joining a holiday table and doing some cleaning so we feel like we are making a clean and fresh start.  Doing these preparations connects us with the cycle of Jewish time as we remember with familiarity doing these things in other years.   This gives us comfort and continuity. At the same time, engaging in these pre-holiday activities is exciting and energizing as we anticipate the new start ahead.

As an educator, I feel like my Jewish self and my professional self are in sync as I also prepare for the start of the new school year.  I reflect on the past school year and the lessons learned and focus on the things I have decided to revise for the future.   I also think about my vision for myself as an educator and resolve to do certain things that will bring me closer to my aspirations. There are elements of familiarity and comfort with my rituals in leading up to the opening days of school.  At the same time, I can feel the adrenaline flowing and the anticipation growing.  I am a little nervous, but mostly joyful as I am lucky to be doing what I love.

This New Year in particular also brings the excitement of being able to build on Cyd Weissman’s amazing legacy for our Coalition of Innovating Congregations.  Cyd gave us the courage to work on new models for 21st century families, to attend to the whole person, to pay attention to outcomes and assessment and to embed the design principles for powerful learning. For many of us, these concepts are familiar and comfortable, as we have worked with and on them in past years.  Yet, they are also alive and exciting as there are new goals to set and new ways that we can deepen our work aligned to these important foundational ideas.

This year, I am excited to partner with my wonderful colleague, Rabbi Jennifer Goldsmith to lead the work in congregational learning as we continue some of our successful initiatives such as I*Express, Coalition Peer Networks, and Congregational Consulting as well as begin to imagine new possibilities.  Collaborating with Jennifer is helping me to grow, to hear new perspectives and to appreciate the great talents and strengths that she brings to this work.

I am also very happy to continue working with our congregational learning team of wonderful professionals including core staff members, Ellen Rank and Susie Tessel, our project manager, Catherine Schwartz, and our consultants Jo Kay, Mike Mellen, Susan Ticker and some other talented educational leaders that will be contributing to our work.  Our main goal remains to offer thought leadership and skilled consultancy to our congregations.

In honor of this New Year, I want to share something inspirational that has both familiar and new elements.  I read an interesting article on Edutopia about the work of Bernajean Porter, a teacher interested in digital storytelling.    Bernajean has a project called I-Imagine:  Taking My Place in the world.  She asks learners to produce “vision videos” in which they star as protagonists of the lives they are living, 20 years into the future.  This process includes asking learners about their hopes and dreams and what gives them joy and energy and “fires up their engines.”  Porter adds, “We ask students to tell the story of how they will shine their light for good in the world.”  Students reflect on what is special about them and what their gifts are.  http://www.edutopia.org/blog/start-school-year-awakening-your-dreamers-suzie-boss?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=081915%20enews%20ibl%20ngm%20remainder&utm_content=&utm_term=fea1hed&spMailingID=12173425&spUserID=NDYxNTY5OTMzODAS1&spJobID=601358453&spReportId=NjAxMzU4NDUzS0

This kind of a project captured my imagination as a wonderful way to start the year by building relationships with learners.  At its heart, it is about listening to learners share their hopes and dreams and what they are passionate about.  It gives us a chance to learn about each learner’s special gifts.  It gives us educators the opportunity to encourage each learner to embrace his/her own uniqueness and value in this world.

This kind of project is also about putting learners at the center, empowering learners to take charge of their own learning and their own lives. It is a way to develop the idea of having a personal vision for the way that you live your life, of having long-term goals and aspirations for yourself that can be about careers but can also be about Mitzvot, doing acts of Kindness and showing responsibility for others and for this planet.  And it can be about Midot, developing desired character traits/virtues and being the type of person that you want to be.  What a great way to start the school year both with reflection and aspiration.  How very fitting for this Rosh Hashana season in which we both rejoice in the familiar and welcome in fresh ideas and possibilities.

May this New Year Ahead, 5776, be one of good health and many blessings for each of you!  My best wishes for a Shana Tova U’metukah, a Good and Sweet Year!


Suri Jacknis

August 2015

Elul 5775

Tu Bishevat Analogies

Tu Bishevat Analogies
Posted by Ben Alpert in Holidays


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.

Register your Events with NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation

Register your Events with NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation
Posted by Ben Alpert in Holidays


5775 is right around the corner, and Birthright Israel alumni and young adults in your community will be looking for a way to celebrate. Make sure they can find your High Holiday events and services by entering your event information on NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation’s interactive map.
NEXT will launch the map in September to thousands of Birthright Israel alumni and young adults, enabling them to locate holiday services, learning opportunities, meals, and more in their local communities. The map will also include increased social functionality, more user-friendly event filters, and more ways for young adults to indicate interest in events. Many Birthrighters—particularly those who have traveled to Israel this summer—are eager to continue the conversations from their trips, learn more about Israel and their heritage, and take action. This holiday season is an opportunity to introduce them and their friends to your community, and provide the space for reflection, discussion, and learning that they are seeking.


If you have any questions or thoughts, please reach out to NEXT: map@birthrightisraelnext.org.

Click HERE to register your events today!


Who Will be our Modern Day Midwives?

Who Will be our Modern Day Midwives?
Posted by Ben Alpert in Holidays


By Susie Tessel

The Jewish People are charged with the task to be a light onto the nations. Our actions proclaim our values. We are also The People of the Book. One of my favorite examples of the marriage of those two identities is the example below of someone impacting countless lives with action propelled by inspirational words.

Two unsung heroes of the Passover story are the Midwives. In A Different Night by Noam Zion, he poses the question “Who will be today’s Midwives?

One Sunday morning in 1941 in Nazi occupied Netherlands, a mysterious character rode up on his bicycle and entered the Calvinist church. He ascended the podium and read aloud the story of the midwives who saved the Hebrew babies and defied Pharaoh’s policy of genocide. “Who is today’s Pharaoh?” he asked. “Hitler”, the congregation replied. “Who are today’s Hebrew babies?” “The Jews.” “Who will be today’s midwives?” He left the church, leaving his question hanging in the air.

But, he did not stop there. This man traveled throughout the Netherlands tirelessly encouraging people to take action. During the war (1941-1945) seven families from this little church alone hid Jews and other resisters from the Nazis. The number of lives saved is reputed to be in the hundreds.

We are not living during those tumultuous times, but the question remains, who will be today’s Midwives?

For me, this inspirational true story is a call to action!! Who will be our modern day midwives? Share this story, and ask your students, their families, and other congregants to look for opportunities to act and make a difference.


Looking Out for One Another

Looking Out for One Another
Posted by Ben Alpert in Holidays, In the News


By Susie Tessel

the barrel

Click to read The Barrel


Lot of things have been coming to mind recently about the importance of looking after each other. One core value of Judaism and a tenant of the Purim story is:  “Everyone is responsible for one another. ” This value is illustrated in The Barrel story by Rabbi Steven Z. Leder from Three Times Chai: 54 Rabbis Tell Their Favorite Stories. In the story each member of the village assumed they could get away with filling the barrel with water instead of wine. Plenty of examples have been seen throughout history of one’s tendency to turn a blind eye, not take action, or not do their part – assuming someone else will – especially when they are just one of many. We were reminded of one such event this week on the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese, a case made infamous for no one responding to her cries for help. Psychologists studied this tragic event and dubbed it, “The Genovese phenomenon,” or the Bystander Effect, when everyone assumes someone else will take action so they do nothing. In her case, as in many others, no one was prepared to assume responsibility. Judaism has plenty of its own stories to demonstrate this necessity of assuming responsibility. In the Purim story, Esther puts the needs of her people before her own safety. She is not sure whether King Achoshverosh will kill her when she tells him that she is Jewish, but after she decides the needs of the whole are greater than protecting herself, she is rewarded with safety for herself, her people, and the destruction of her enemy, Haman. What opportunities do you see as an educator to instill these values?


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