Monday, August 5, 2013

Distance Torah Learning

I'm happy to feature this guest blog post by Laurie Rappeport on the new world of Jewish distance learning:

As a teacher who received her teaching certification in the '80s, the challenge of moving to an online venue was daunting, to say the least. I taught in the States before my aliyah and taught English in Israeli classrooms in the '90s. However,  when I first saw the advertisement for JETS Israel, an educational concern which facilitates teaching North American kids about Judaism and Israel through distance learning, I almost didn't apply.

Sure, I knew how to Google, email and even find friends on Facebook but who was I to run an interactive lesson on iPads?

Turns out that techie-phobics like myself were exactly what JETS was looking for. JETS educators are committed to Judaism, committed to Zionism and committed to bringing these elements of Jewish identity to kids in North American day schools and congregational schools. The technological details are secondary.

After completing an 8-week online JETS PD course called "No Teacher Left Behind," in which I was challenged to do what I would be expected to do with my classes, I was ready to roll. My assignment was an afternoon school in the Midwest, meaning that, in order to teach them at 6:30p.m. their time, I had to wake up at 2:30a.m. my time. Well, if the kids didn't mind seeing me in my jammies, I didn't care.

Our subject for the year was "Tikkun Olam" and we proceeded through the year by connecting various elements of tikkun olam to the seasons and holidays of the year. I began teaching right before Tu B'Shevat so we used videos and online work sheets to examine the Talmudic saying "Man is like the tree of a field." As the students collected their answers about the Jewish view of environmental responsibility they stuck virtual sticky notes on our online blackboard, created google drawings and documents, watched inspirational videos and shared their thoughts about their personal relationship to various textual materials that brought the connection between ancient Judaism and modern environmentalism alive.

Tu B'shevat got us talking about tithing the kids were surprised to hear that many Jews continue to tithe in modern times. We spent a lot of time on that subject. The online framework enabled a much more active discussion than would have been possible otherwise as the kids traded questions, thoughts and impressions using Earthtools, Wikis, social posters and other engaging multimedia.

My favorite Tu B'shevat lesson occurred when I threw  out the question "Why does man, like a tree, need soil? How does a person's deeds root him into the ground?" The kids came up with some great topics for exploration such as "What do we do in our lives that roots us?" and they then shared their thoughts on our online bulletin board.  

I don't think that anyone will ever mistake me for a technology maven but after my first year of distance teaching I became a believer. There are many different options within the world of online education that are simply not available elsewhere. These tools create a learning environment of engaging and interactive excitement. Distance learning isn't an answer to all Jewish educational needs but it definitely has a place in the Jewish classroom of the 21st century.   

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Irena Sendler: Righteous Amongst the Nations

I am delighted to feature this guest post about a remarkable woman who through her thousands of people were rescued from the nightmare of the Nazi plans for Jewish extermination:

Over the years many different accounts have surfaced regarding the actions of gentiles who, at great risk to their own lives, saved Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. One of the most amazing tales to emerge from the era involved Irena Sendler, a Polish woman who is believed to have saved over 3000 Jewish lives. She was honored by Yad Vashem in 1965 but her story was subsequently ignored until a group of amateur historians -- high school girls from rural Kansas -- uncovered the events and publicized the story.

Irena Sendler was a 29-year-old social worker in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. Sendler was employed by the Warsaw municipality's Welfare Department and she took care of the dispossessed Jews in the city after the Germans occupied Warsaw. Historians estimate that Sendler assisted over 500 Jews who went into hiding during those early years of the war.

When the Nazis established the Warsaw ghetto in 1941 Sendler secured documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases, enabling her to enter the ghetto to bring in food and medicines.

Sendler quickly realized that although the supplies that she brought into the ghetto might ease the circumstances of a few people she could better impact more lives if she were to smuggle people out of the ghetto. Sendler felt that the children had the best chance of surviving outside the ghetto walls and she began to smuggle children out, first  street orphans and then, over time, approaching families in the ghetto to ask them to allow her to take their children out of the ghetto and put them into hiding.

In an interview that Sendler conducted over 50 years after the war Sendler described the heartbreak of those events. "I talked the mothers out of their children" Sendler said as she described the events of the war years. "Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn't give me the child. Their first question was, 'What guarantee is there that the child will live?' I said, 'None. I don't even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today."

Sendler and her underground compatriots employed a number of schemes which  enabled her to smuggle the children to safety. Young children were sedated and hidden under tram seats, in toolboxes and luggage and even under piles of garbage in garbage carts or under barking dogs which distracted the German guards. Older children could be guided out of the ghetto through the sewer system that criss-crossed beneath Warsaw.

Once Sendler had removed a child from the ghetto she was obligated to immediately find him a secure hiding place. Sendler and her Zagota comrades forged documents for the children and brought them to safety including to homes of sympathetic Polish families who were prepared to accept the risk of hiding a Jewish child. In addition, as a social worker, Sendler had a network of contacts with many institutions and she was able to secure hiding places for the children in convents and orphanages including at the Rodzina Marii (Family of Mary) Orphanage in Warsaw and in convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice.  

Sendler listed the name and coded address of each child on tissue paper and placed these pieces of paper into glass jars which were buried in her neighbor's yard hoping to reunite them with their community once the war ended.

After the ghetto was deployed Zagota appointed Irena Sendler, whose underground name was Jolanta, the director of the Care of Jewish Children. Historians estimate that Sendler, together with Zagota members, saved over 2500 Jewish children.

On October 20 1943 the Nazis arrested Sendler and tortured her to force her to reveal information about the hidden children but Sendler did not reveal any information about the children's whereabouts or about her Zagota compatriots. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members managed secure her release and she lived out the remainder of the war in hiding.

In 1999 a group of Uniontown Kansas high school students heard a rumor about Sendler's wartime activities and began their own research project. Their research culminated in a wide-ranging series about Sendler's activities. This project attracted the attention of a Jewish businessman whose funding help them create Life in a Jar, which has now developed into a website, a book and a staged performance.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Magnifying Life

For the past several months I have been regularly blogging for on a variety of subjects. Most of the articles are reflections from my work on the Harvard campus. I invite you to visit my author page at the website to explore some of the articles I have posted there.

In particular, my most recent blog post entitled Magnifying Life reflects upon the one year anniversary of the passing of one of our dear students, Ilya Chalik z"l. His loss was a tragedy for the entire university community. Ilya was both an active member of the Harvard Hillel and at our home for Shabbat. I had the solemn responsibility of traveling to Chicago on behalf of the university to attend his funeral and the memory of his family and friends grieving for him will never leave me. I share one small piece here from my article on the one year anniversary of his passing:

Ilya, through his friendships, his life and his deeds, wove threads linking people and magnified life for all who knew him. Students, reflecting on how Ilya impacted their life,commented that because of him they now have come to appreciate how beautiful a tree in fall is or how serene an afternoon in Harvard Yard could be. They have come to see life can mean more than performing well, it can be just as much about living well.

May his memory be forever a blessing for all who had the privilege to know him.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Parshat Chayei Sarah and the Importance of Clarity

Abbott: I say, Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third and then you… 
Costello: You the manager?Abbott: Yes. 
Costello: You know the guys’ names? 
Abbott: I’m telling you their names! 
Costello: Well who’s on first? 
Abbott: Yeah. 
Costello: Go ahead and tell me. 
Abbott: Who. 
Costello: The guy on first. 
Abbott: Who. 
Costello: The guy playin’ first base. 
Abbott: Who. 
Costello: The guy on first. 
Abbott: Who is on first! 

The dialogue I just referenced is of course not my own but rather that of Abbott and Costello from the classic 1930s skit “Who’s On First?” Besides being a hilarious episode between two particularly humorous comedians, it is also a classic tale of miscommunication. Another moment that comes to mind is the scene from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye goes to talk with the butcher about his milk cow and the butcher thinks he is talking about the prospect of marrying his daughter. In both instances what would have tremendously helped was an infusion of clarity. The difference between a moment of understanding and a moment of conflict can rest many times on the precise discourse of those involved.

In this week’s parsha we confront the death of the patriarch and matriarch of our people. The great risk-taking, iconoclasts who began forging a new approach to human conduct and our relationship to the Divine pass away and in so doing leave open the potential for a real void in leadership, succession and continuity. History is full of stories of failed movements after the death of the charismatic founder or founders. Perhaps the most difficult task a leader has before their retirement or passing away is to successfully pass the mantle on to the next generation of leadership. 

It is at the very end of our parsha that we find the moment where Avraham ensured a successful transfer of the covenantal destiny to Yitzchak. In Genesis 25:5 the Torah states: “And Avraham gave all that he possessed to Yitzchak.” The next verse records Avraham giving gifts to his other children and then immediately after we encounter the death of Avraham. That is to say that this bequeathing of his possessions to Yitzchak was his last living act; the future vitality of this ethical monotheistic endeavor hinged on the success of this action. I also believe that if we examine this moment a bit closer we can learn some important lessons for our own lives as well. 

Rashi commenting on this verse quotes the Midrash in Bereshit Rabbah to say that Avraham bestowed an everlasting blessing on Yitzchak. Earlier in the Divine selection process of Avraham, God declares that “and you shall be a blessing,” and the Midrash here understands that to mean that Avraham had the ability to bless whomever he chose and he chose to offer his final and full blessing to his son Yitzchak. Perhaps the most effective way in appointing a successor is by taking them under your wing, mentoring them and guiding them and a bracha from one person to the next is the deepest expression of relationship and connection. 

However, when we turn to the Torah Temimah, the insightful commentary authored by the great early 20th century Lithuanian rabbi, Rav Baruch Epstein zt"l, we find a tremendous teaching with great relevance for our own lives. The Torah Temimah conceives of Avraham’s last act as essentially a way of resolving all doubt before his passing: “For the children of Yishmael come into adjudication with Yisrael and they said, the Land of Israel is ours and theirs as it says, ‘These are the generations of Yishmael the son of Avraham’ and ‘These are the generations of Yitzchak the son of Avraham.'” In other words, we are both the heirs to Avraham – the legacy must be split down the middle; one father, one leader becomes two sons and two competing legacies. 

This scenario though is both anticipated and rejected by Avraham. The act of bequeathing all that he possessed to Yitzchak right before his death was a clear and unequivocal method of eliminating confusion that would subsequently arise after he passed away. The last thing Avraham does with his few remaining breaths of life than is nothing less than guaranteeing and establishing clarity; clarity of vision and clarity of succession. 

The goal the parsha challenges us to work towards is not to live an Abbott and Costello life but rather to strive towards achieving a holistic precision in what we want to do or what we say and what we actually accomplish. We do not need to wait for our last breath to achieve this but rather every transitional period in our lives, from college graduation to retirement, offers us the opportunity to achieve a bit more clarity in our actions with others and in our own inner life.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Light a Candle for Gilad and Remember Our Shared Humanity

This Friday night, the Hebrew date of the 29th of Sivan, will mark five years since the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was abducted by the terrorist organization Hamas. It has been five years since anyone besides Hamas, not his family, government or even international aid organizations such as the Red Cross have seen him. It is a travesty of justice that Hamas has not allowed their prisoner to be examined by, at the very least, competent medical professionals, to assess his health and well being.

To mark the five year anniversary of his capture, Rabbi Avi Weiss has called upon all Jews to light an extra candle for Gilad on Friday afternoon prior to sunset. The hope is that all these candles as Rabbi Weiss describes will help "dispel the darkness of Hamas' terrorism."

My family will be lighting a candle for Gilad this Friday afternoon but before we do it is important to reflect further on what we are doing. In a world where casualties from wars across the globe reach staggering numbers and where close to 4,000 crimes were committed for every 100,000 people in the United States in 2009, what does it mean to raise world consciousness about the fate of a lone individual? The heartbreaking stories of suffering and despair cry out from every corner of our planet, why focus in on the misfortune of one person?

The Shulchan Aruch (Y"D 251:3) lays out an order of prioritization for the giving of charity. The vast majority of us have limited funds to distribute to the needy and therefore it becomes essential to understand where to begin. First one begins with their own needs, if you are not properly taken care of you will not be able to help anyone else then the Shulchan Aruch expands to one's family, moving next to one's neighborhood then one's city and ending with the rest of the world. While this intuitively makes sense, the idea that underlies this halacha is critical in understanding what we will be doing when we light a candle for Gilad this coming Friday.

True love and care for others is possible when I truly love and care for myself. When I have a positive self-image then I can incorporate other people into my orbit of concern and love. Thus a healthy respect for one's self is essential. The people that one is most intimately connected to is one's family. A person is born into their immediate family and later in life many will make the choice to commit themselves to a single person and by doing create an entirely new branch of that family. These are people that you know better than any other people on the planet. Their faces, voices and personalities are etched into your mind in a way that no one else is.

The combination of a healthy self-respect and self-care with a genuine love and concern for one's family creates the foundation for which sustainable and long-lasting giving can be accomplished. The roots need to be firmly grounded before a tall and confident tree can emerge. It is after these roots of self and family are solidly established and continue to be nurtured that one's network of care reaches out beyond to one's community and on from there.

In other words, I can most care for the world when I care for myself and my family. My love and concern needs to be directed and focused so that when the cries of people throughout the globe reach my ears, I can hear it and respond accordingly. When my family lights a candle for Gilad Shalit this Friday we will be reaching out our hearts and souls to a single individual who is suffering and in tremendous pain. We will zoom in on his face, his name and his story out of the thousands and thousands of other stories of misfortune that cry out from all over the world. All of the numbers and the statistics of casualties of war and casualties of crime have names and identities, they have stories and personalities, they are unique lives, people created in the image of God. By lighting a small flame for one of these numbers, transforming him from a statistic to a person, we can begin to feel the humanity of all the others. Lighting a candle for Gilad this Friday is to affirm our shared humanity, which begins at home and reaches out from there.

I hope you will join us in lighting a candle for Gilad.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Marital Commitment and Social Media

By now all the syndicated news outlets are talking about a certain New York Congressman and his online behavior. They are debating his political future, his marriage and all other sorts of sundry details. In my opinion, the most interesting element of this story is the medium by which his actions were committed. As Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker pointed out this scandal is "the first to have been conducted entirely via e-mail, and online social media." 

Is an affair an affair when it is conducted entirely online? Is it cheating when a spouse engages in intimate communications with another person but never meets them in person? If this situation transpired with a Congressman then it is most likely occurring in the lives of other people as well, although their stories do not make the evening news.

It seems to me that while this is one area where traditional Judaism gets criticized, it is also the specific teachings from this aspect of Judaism that can contribute much to the conversation. The Talmudic sages understood that acts of marital indiscretion do not, for the most part, manifest spontaneously but rather are the product of emotional attachment and lustful yearning. The power of these hirhurei aveirah - passing thoughts of indiscretion, to build and gather until a person finds themselves in a scenario they would later regret is tremendous.

In fact, the rabbis argued that these thoughts can be even worse than the act itself (Yoma 29a). The reason being that these thoughts of fantasy and lust can be so utterly overpowering that they end up consuming the life of a person thereby disrupting their marital harmony and could even extend into other areas of their personal and professional life.

It is because of these concerns that Jewish tradition has taken a very cautious stance towards casual relationships between people. One should be thoughtful about the sort of friend one chooses as inevitably friends come to influence and shape each other. This caution is even more strongly adhered to when it comes to relationships between people who have the potential to be attracted to each other. While some in contemporary society may find this caution to be overdoing it, like whether one can shake the hand of a person of the opposite gender (see for example Igrot Moshe Orach Chayim 1:113 and Even HaEzer 1:56) the values that form the foundation for these practices are values that ought to be well heeded in our modern era.

The wisdom from Jewish tradition tells us that a relationship is a relationship regardless of whether or not a physical encounter occurred. Indeed, by the time one meets in person, the relationship is most likely well established and the damage to one's moral life is well under way. It behooves us to inject an element of caution, perhaps even some formality, into our societal norms, even in the arena of Twitter and Facebook.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Life Lessons From My Newborn Son

My newborn son will be two months old soon and on reflecting on the past two months I would like to share some of the things I have learned from him:

  • Remember to take a nap: Most things worth doing will be done better when you are well rested so don't be afraid to take a mid-afternoon nap.
  • Express yourself: Upset about something? Don't feel the need to hide it and keep it in. Let those who care about you know and together you can find a solution.
  • Light fixtures are amazing: Pay attention to the small things in life. Let the ordinary amaze you and feel the wonder of our magnificent world. Even a door knob can be captivating.
  • Go outside: Nothing can be as refreshing as a crisp breeze or as beautiful as the rustling of the leaves. Listen to the birds chirp and watch the ants on their march.
  • Live fully in the world: Grab something. Immerse yourself in the tactile world. Feel the contours of the world around you. Don't live only in the visual and auditory to the exclusion of the tactile.