“There is nothing more whole than a broken heart,” said Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787–1859), also known as the Kotzker Rebbe. Tonight the Jewish people welcome a lesser known, somewhat mystical, Jewish holiday, Lag B’Omer. MyJewishLearning summarizes it’s key elements in this great article.
As a child, I remember this fun holiday featuring BBQs, bonfires, and whiffle ball games with friends and family. Most of that is not possible right now.
It is fascinating that tonight we are instructed to take a break from this “period of semi-mourning,” as we arrive at the 33rd day of our count off from Passover to Shavuot (Sferat Ha’Omer). A popular notion is that on this day the mysterious plague which killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students suddenly ended. This very well might have been Akiva’s students’ death count in the Bar Kochba rebellion (132 C.E.) against the Romans, and the rabbis needed to choose their language carefully for the political ramifications. But I find it a little strange that of all things, it is a plague that is the chosen description for this massive loss.
Most of us have never experienced a pandemic. It is hard reading the daily news, let alone juggling all of the challenges that this intense disruption of our normal lives has created. But I would like to remind us all that spiritual highs in life are almost always preceded by lows. Perhaps you can think of bending an elastic band back to give it the maximum thrust forward. That might be where we are at right now. If you feel that you are experiencing a low point in your life, this might be a perfect time for you to recognize that you are generating spiritual energy that will bring you to a higher consciousness. Whenever we are going through hard times, there is an opening to your heart. You become more compassionate, more thoughtful, more soft and loving. These spiritual qualities will lead you to a better destiny.
I hope that this newsletter finds you and your loved ones healthy. And I pray that our own mysterious plague will end soon. But in the meantime, happy Lag B’Omer, and I hope that you can recognize when your spiritual energy is building despite any low points you encounter.
In the spirit of our current Jewish value unit: Koach Hadibbur, The Power of Words, I am going to post one good thing a day BECAUSE of this awful pandemic. You heard me- a good thing coming out of this crisis. Is that even possible? Let’s start with today, March 27th. Check back here each day to see the daily positive thought.
March 27 / 2nd of Nissan: Global CO2 emissions are down. Newly learned video conferencing behaviors are probably here to stay. And business travel and office spaces overall will probably permanently diminish after this crisis abides. More time at home with your family and better carbon footprints all around. Great article here https://e360.yale.edu/features/coronavirus-holds-key-lessons-on-how-to-fight-climate-change
Shabbat / 3rd of Nissan
March 29 / 4th of Nissan: Courteousness. Physical Distancing has been so very difficult. And yet, if you’ve been brave enough to go shopping and wait your turn to get in-keeping 6 feet apart has really brought about the “No after you,” culture. Granted everyone is terrified of getting contaminated, but there is something civil going on. People are feeling that everyone is in this together.
March 30 / 5th of Nissan: Household Chores. Some children are learning to do chores and help out around the house for the first time. It’s embarrassing to admit, but too many of us GenX parents have done way, way too much for our children (including the infamous helicopter parenting), depriving their abilities to learn not only self-reliance but the deeply satisfying reward of communal responsibility and the joy of contributing. Parents are drowning in getting their kids started on homeschooling, while learning how to work at home, watching their retirement accounts take a nose dive into an abyss or worse yet, figuring out what to do if they suffered one of the millions of layoffs across the country (if they have not already). This is our World War-ish moment, and parents are finding a newfound toughness. We are not asking our kids to help out with bribes or a “pretty please.” We are demanding help from our children. And the feedback I am getting from our ShalomLearning parents with this newfound authority is that the kids were waiting for these demands and stepping up to help. Honoring your parents is indeed one of our 10 commandments. Doing everything for your kids while they play video games is not! The stakes are too high now, to not see the value in compliance (which is what so many of us parents have been longing for from our children).
March 31 / 6th of Nissan: Appreciation of community and people and checking in on the ones we love. Have you ever felt such a need? How are they feeling? How are they doing? Have you done a zoom hang out with some old friends? If not, give it a try. The preciousness of having the privilege to know someone, whether at work or in play is sacred. We ARE creatures that relate to one another in profound ways. We need each other now more than ever. And compassion and kindness have finally grown as a priority to what was becoming an increasingly distant, self-centered society. There is a course correction happening in attitudes that are filled with positive energy and appreciation for “the other.” We are not alone in this universe. And the longing to clink glasses and share our hearts with a friend or loved one is something that we will not take for granted on the scale that it was occurring before this crisis, ever again.
April 1st, 2020 / 7th of Nissan 5780: Appreciation of physical contact. The ability to touch someone or play with friends. The current reality of keeping things safe is a whole new meaning for “6 feet under.” How we’ve taken our daily physical contact for granted! I am talking about the privilege of being able to shoot hoops with some pals or lay on a high five, or even to sit on a park bench. All is off limits for at least another month in this extended age of quarantine. Social media hasn’t figured how to give a supportive hug to a friend. “There’s an app for that” won’t cut it this time. But this blog is about what’s positive. Our appreciation is growing and that is positive. When we come out of this Corona protective measure to stay 6 feet away from everyone, we will appreciate the magic of physical contact with others so much more. So in the meantime, be grateful for all the people that you have touched in your life. Prepare yourself for a ramped up version of awe and wonder of being on this journey with our fellow humans when this awful virus is cured. Everyone you meet is in this lifetime together, and there will come a day when the masks and gloves are off again and you can shake someone’s hand, look them in the eye and say, “I appreciate you.” And you might even be able to touch your face afterwards without living in fear of contamination.
April 2nd / 8th of Nissan: Social Media is finally actually social. On the opposite side of yesterday’s reflection, I have a newfound appreciation for social media. Quite frankly, I’ve had no patience for social media over the years. And I do remain disgusted how personal data is bought and sold to the detriment of throwing elections and revolutions and tremendous horrors of public humiliation that have even caused deaths (In fact, our rabbis taught us long ago that to shame another in public is a form of murder, and quantifies it to being like 1/60th of death). Very powerful stuff and really a drain on anyone’s time if you just wanted to retrieve a message from an old friend. I joined these platforms to do the bare minimum, but now… things are different. Anything powerful like fire can burn you but…it can also warm you and help you cook and fill your house with light. With so many people in lock down, we need social media more than ever to stay connected. I can’t tell you how many people are sending me facebook live links to so many amazing musicians doing live performances.
Friday, April 3rd / 9th of Nissan: Amazing music creations and followings. We are inside a flood of creativity in the arts and music and writing unlike anything the world has ever seen. I am hoping that musically, there will be a ton of great new albums from great artists and so many people that have wanted to learn instruments but never had the time. Now they can finally be giving it a whirl. I predict that when this pandemic calms down enough to see music in public, everyone will want to get out and have fun and share their amazing new creations and genres. A revival and renaissance in 2021will resemble the Woodstock music festival of 1969 and draw in writers and painters getting together. This upsurge of creativity will approach the artistry of the great impressionist period of the 1870’s. And we shall all marvel in awe and wonder. And all of this will be due to the great “shelter in place” mandates of 2020.
Saturday, April 5th / 12th of Nissan: Shabbat
Sunday, April 5th / 11th of Nissan: A growing desire to change the current reality that the workers we need the most are often the most underpaid and badly treated. This is not just the paramedics, doctors and nurses who are obvious heroes, risking death every day to save lives. But I am referring to the caregivers at nursing homes and workers in the fields and grocery delivery people. The pizza delivery person is now a full on hero! Last week, I saw a news clip of New Yorkers, outside the Emergency rooms, applauding the healthcare staff, police and fire department as well as the essential workers who are keeping the lights on, keeping the supermarkets stocked, and risking their lives to deliver the food. Columnist Sarah O’Connor points out the uncomfortable truth of our labour market: as the workers we need the most are often underpaid and badly treated. It is time to make amends. And once the economy has recovered, these jobs will be made better, with more rights and hire wages.
Monday, April 6th / 12th of Nissan: Attitudes to health may also change for the better. Washing your hands for a full 20 seconds was a habit that was hard to enforce even in hospitals, “may be one of those behaviors that we become so accustomed to in the course of this outbreak that we don’t think about them,” Conis adds.
In New England, the beauty of the changing leaves around are as breathtaking as the spiritual wake up call which buzzes inside us. Can you feel the changes all around you? Can you turn your negative behaviors, relationships, and your mis-steps around to becoming a better you? In Judaism, it is imperative that we participate in making the world a better place and make a stand for our fellow human beings (yes….the doing) while not forgetting it is ultimately nurtured by who we are becoming (ahh…the being).
Thank God we’ve lived another year, and Rosh Hashanah brings a fresh start with a celebration of the birthday of the world. Perhaps it’s because it’s all I’ve ever known, but It always feels fitting in the autumn. What’s that gliding down heading my way? What’s that in the shofar I hear? Oh yeah…Its Teshuvah time!
Now of course, the act of repentance shouldn’t merely be seasonal. In truth, it is a lifelong process that touches every season of the human experience if you’re doing the spiritual work of repentance. There is no reason to wait until Yom Kippur to admit your wrong-doings, apologize to those you’ve wronged, ask forgiveness, and promise never to do it again. (Note: the previous sentence contains the four main steps of teshuvah).
There is something extra special about this time of year, when we come together as a community for collective prayer, delving into where we’ve gone astray, and individually, we work on arduous self-reflection in order to “turn things around” and to be our best selves moving forward.
Jewish tradition refers to archery when searching for the perfect word for our unintentional sins as cheit, which literally means to “miss the mark.” Haven’t we all missed the mark at some point? The good news is that we can try again to get closer to our best destiny. Preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur helps us draw a line in the sand and begin again. We can reset our intention and re-focus our attention.
Teshuvah is also great for looking at your organizational targets. Each of the past 5 years, The ShalomLearning team has set measurable goals and scaled up our programs nationally. From 300 students and 15 teachers at 15 synagogues in 2015 we’ve now grown partnerships with 110 synagogues, working closely with over 800 educators and 6000 students enrolled in 5780 (2019-2020)!
Getting back to your spiritual path, It is not easy to get things “right,” and hit our targets with the things that truly matter – deeds of loving kindness, studying Torah, connecting with our Creator, and performing tzedakah, to name a few essential mitzvot.
So… how do you know when you’ve truly completed teshuvah? You will know when you come across the same situation in life where you made the previous mistake for which you’ve already atoned, but this time, choose the right thing to do. Our beloved 12th century Jewish philosopher, Maimonides (aka Rambam) called this epilog fifth stage “Teshuvah Gemurah,” Complete Teshuvah.
His students would ask, “But Rabbi what if you are not faced with that same situation again?”
“Don’t worry,” Rambam smiled, “You will.” He also knew a thing or two about Karma.
May you all take the lessons of life and turn things around to be your best selves as I wish you a sweet and happy New Year with blessings of strong and vibrant learning communities deeply rooted in Jewish values.
L’Shana Tova U’Metukah!
Summer is just around the corner! As the rhythmic clock of the Hebrew School academic year winds down, ShalomLearning students are concluding with our seventh unit, Shalom. As many people know, the three most popular translations of Shalom are “hello,” “goodbye,” and “peace.” In the ShalomLearning Jewish values lessons, we take a deeper dive into the etymology via the word’s shoresh (root) which is shalem meaning “completeness.”
Our curriculum designers intentionally and brilliantly saved Shalom to be the final value of the year because there is a sense of peace in being complete. And of course, in Judaism we look towards the next question, “are we ever truly complete?” Part of our nature is to continue to grow and learn and strive to become the best authentic selves we can be. What we do in life, our actions (hopefully mitzvot) are of paramount importance, to strive for social justice and contribute to a better world (tikkun olam) but even higher, the zenith, the ultimate destiny is who we become. We grow in order to be. Where are we growing? What are we becoming? As I look back on the years with ShalomLearning, I am constantly amazed by our growth.
In 2011, founders Devin Schain and Andrew Rosenberg created our first cohort of seven students with one teacher (Rabbi Yakov Majeski) at one partner site in Bethesda, MD. We grew our team and resources to include a curriculum for grades 4-6. Incrementally we added on additional features and levels, expanding our Jewish communities of practice and commitment to pluralism and inclusiveness. The 2018-2019 enrollment consisted of 5128 students and 643 teachers at 98 partner schools. Collectively, if we look at our community as one and complete, this is the largest Hebrew School in the world!
This fall, you will notice we’ve expanded our offerings to include:
- Lessons (28 per grade) for eight different grades (K-7),
- More hands on training and mentorship for teachers with seven in person workshops this summer and additional webinars,
- A new iteration of learning prayer through gamification (ShalomLearning Escape Room 2.0), and
- Meaningful partnerships with over 120 synagogues across North America – both large and small of various affiliations.
We are committed to be more than just a provider. Rather we are partners with each congregation, helping every community make their educational independent visions a reality. I am so proud of what our learning community has accomplished. May you all continue to grow to be your best selves and enjoy the journey in striving for Shalom. “Summer lease hath all too short a date,” (Thank you Shakespeare!) and I look forward to starting anew in the fall as we continue to grow together.
Purim is just around the corner! Our 3-7th grade students are currently studying the core Jewish value of Hakarat Hatov, seeking joy and being grateful.
Hakarat Hatov is the quintessential Jewish value; as the name of Yehuda (Judah), is rooted in hodah – to give thanks. It is the essence of a meaningful Jewish experience. While one may have all the blessings of goodness (good health, wonderful family, and friends to name a few), without gratitude, one’s journey through life can’t capture the full meaning of appreciation. Giving thanks and finding ways to conveying gratitude is a profound key to happiness.
I am so grateful to be part of the transformation and growth of Jewish education here at ShalomLearning. We have the distinct joy of working on innovative projects, and kvelling over some recent successes. Working with Bible Raps, we are empowering our students to create their own original Jewish values rap songs at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ, Temple Chaverim in Plainview, NY, and Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood, PA. We have plans to continue this program in the fall at other partner synagogues.
We are also pumped from the success of our first virtual escape room game. I’d like to give a big shout out to Ben, our eight-year old winner, from California, who shares his experience in this interview with Heidi Lovitz, our Director of Educational Programming
To prepare for the fall, we’re currently putting the final touches on the new and updated curriculum. We’re also announcing the six locations for in-person summer training opportunities for our ShalomLearning educators. I look forward to seeing many of you at one of these sites or one of the training webinars.
May your hunger for Jewish Learning continue to grow, and my prayer for us all is to continue cultivating an attitude of gratitude- hakarat hatov!