It is always darkest before dawn. As you can imagine, we’ve been busier than ever and the ShalomLearning family has grown tremendously since our last newsletter. We are now helping our 200+ school partners get ready for a new year with 1500 teachers and 10,000 students. However, with the start of a new school season upon us, we’re hearing from many or our partners at religious schools about the challenges they are facing. The most common worry from education directors is this: enrollment is down because so many families are overwhelmed, and kids have too much Zoom fatigue already for yet another online lesson as Hebrew School appears as something “extra” in their schedules.
The other day, I woke at 5:30 am and went for a walk to reflect on this issue. The sun was rising over the lake and the water reflected the pink clouds lighting up the sky. “There’s God, showing off again,” I thought. It made me stop and just take in what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.”
“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the
morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted.
Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life
casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
-Abraham Joshua Heschel
In full disclosure, this is not my typical morning. Raising children and facing life’s endless challenges during a pandemic does not fill me with radical amazement at every waking moment. In fact, I have never known a time of such sorrow, stress, and suffering for the world in my lifetime, as the moment that we are in right now.
Our children miss camps, sports competitions, live theater and in person clubs and yes, being in school with their friends. We are all braced for another wave of COVID-19 with the cold and flu season coming. When will the vaccine come? Some say it could be another 2 years! To which I say “Oy! Come on!”
Many of my peers involved in Jewish communal engagement are deeply cynical about the future of synagogue life. And they have every reason to feel pessimistic. But reason itself has its own limitations. Our mind can only do what our mind can do. What about the heart? What about faith?
Now faith is a different story. Faith in Hebrew is “Emunah.”
We, as Jews, are part of a global community with a close connection to the Jewish people all over the world. And yet, a lot of Jewish religious life is based around home and family activities. If we do not at least try our best to bring some aspect of spirituality into our homes this upcoming Jewish new year, we will continue to feel lost. I know this all too well.
Surely we can find one or two hours a week to make Jewish life relevant for our children. This thrust into remote learning is an opportunity to use education technology in a more meaningful way. It’s ironically, even an opportunity to learn about ways to take advantage of the times you are unplugged. Each of our lessons includes a summary teachers can send to parents that include “Table Talk.” These are questions to be discussed at the next meal. Ideally over Shabbat dinner, but it can really be anywhere. We want to meet families where they are and help them connect to Judaism on whichever level they are most comfortable.
I believe that ShalomLearning is the best option to help synagogues and home schools right now. We train our teachers how to use Edtech seamlessly and we provide the turn-key lessons and support to make Hebrew School into a fun and engaging and relevant educational experience. We also provide “Hands On Activities” that can be used for safe, outdoor, socially distanced learning – including family education for all ages.
Math, reading and science are important. But so is our soul. We need to answer “the spiritual curriculum” (as Mussar puts it) that we face every day. Our children’s secular schools are trying to catch up with Edtech, and everyone is fried with screen time. I get it. But what are we doing as families in respect to educating and nurturing the soul?
Let ShalomLearning help. Open yourself to bring more spiritual Light into your home. Judaism provides so many beautiful and meaningful ways to navigate through the world. If we do not provide these opportunities for our families, we further the risk of the Light going out on our watch. And that would be the saddest day of them all.
The good news is that Shalomlearning can help your families and community learn how to live life in a Jewish way that will help you get through these dark days and help your synagogue get through this crisis.
At some point in the next 3-24 months, this pandemic will end its grip on everything, and we will be free to meet once again in person, go to concerts and restaurants and hug our friends and family. And I believe that people will want to return to synagogues and gather as a Jewish community, perhaps more than ever before.
Our souls need SOMETHING to bring a light into the darkness in the interim. So let us help you get through this period. Our lessons are designed that they can be taught in person, online, at home, or a hybrid. When synagogue life does return, you will not need to miss a beat in the education of your children. It will simply be, “Last week was Gevurah (Unit 3) lesson three at home. Today, welcome back to our building! Let us continue with lesson four.”
I thank God we have the ability to help religious schools. It is my sincere hope that we can all give Emunah (faith) a better try, as I know that ShalomLearning can help educators and families alike. In the end, we all have the same job in this dark period of history, and that is to do what the Jewish people do best: bring in more light.
“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.