Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Going to a Minyan at a Shelter

This is perhaps one of the more bizarre stories that I have read about the superstorm Sandy, and in none other than Bloomberg Business Week.  I'd personally like to interview Moshe Najjar about his "swinging" tefilla philosophy.

Storm Keeps Long Island Jewish Shelter Short of Men for Prayers
By Peter S. Green on October 29, 2012

Moshe Najjar is having a lonely wait as the South Shore of New York’s Long Island prepares for Hurricane Sandy to arrive. The only Orthodox Jewish man at a specially created Kosher shelter, he is a minyan of one, lacking the rest of the 10-man minimum required for many important prayers.

Evacuated from his home in Cedarhurst, one of the largely Orthodox Five Towns on Long Island’s southern Atlantic coast, Najjar, 47, said today he was pleasantly surprised by the religiously appropriate shelter in the West Hempstead High School, where men and women can bunk separately and Kosher meals are served on paper table cloths.

“I was going to go to a hotel, but right now, the financials are not doing it for me,” Najjar said, wearing a black trench coat and the traditional yarmulke, or skull cap of observant Jews.

“I’m looking for a job; I have some leads,” he said. “Today, tomorrow might not be a good time to be having interviews.”

Officials have ordered a mandatory evacuation of Long Island’s Nassau County coast as Sandy’s winds, combining with a nearly full moon and high tides, are expected to send water surging up to 8 feet deep across the Atlantic Coast and 11 feet or more on the North Shore, from the normally placid Long Island Sound. With 230,000 Jews, the fourth largest Jewish population in the U.S. according to the North American Jewish Data Bank, Nassau County opened the Kosher shelter to encourage people who might not otherwise have a place to stay.

‘Accommodate’ Customs
By midmorning, only 21 people had registered at the center, and Najjar was the only Jewish man. A clutch of elderly women sat chatting in a corner. Several dozen green cots, each with a white Red Cross blanket, stretched across the floor of the school gym.

“We’re trying to accommodate their customs, and the shelter is open to all,” said Susan Dubourg, a Red Cross volunteer managing the shelter.

Not everyone who had come so far appeared to be an observant Jew, she said. With separate sleeping quarters, the shelter can house up to 100 people, and in a crunch could sleep 300 if needed, Dubourg said.
“They are definitely well-prepared here,” said John Rocchetti, 66, an Italian Catholic who grew up in Brooklyn’s predominantly Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, and was evacuated from his top-floor apartment in the seaside district of Far Rockaway.

Kosher Food
“I live in a Jewish neighborhood, and some of my best friends are Jewish,” he said with a laugh. As a vegetarian, the retired school-bus driver says he likes the Kosher food at the shelter.

The lack of arrivals didn't surprise Chaim Shapiro, a West Hempstead resident who popped in to the shelter to see how he and his nearby synagogue could help.

“The community tends to rally around itself; people open their spare bedrooms to neighbors and family, so I’d guess there will be less than 100 people here,” he said.

“If they get 10 men here, I’ll tell them to bring over the siddurim and the Torah,” he added, referring to prayer books and the scroll of the Old Testament.

When Hurricane Irene hit Long Island last August, Najjar and his then-wife and children didn’t seek out a shelter. “She said, ’Let’s go hide in the basement.’ She did it, but, Baruch Hashem, nothing happened,” he said intoning a Hebrew phrase praising the name of God.

While he follows the Yemenite rite, Najjar welcomed word from Alan Cabelly, a West Hempstead resident who invited him to worship at Young Israel of West Hempstead, an Orthodox synagogue which follows the Ashkenazi traditions of Eastern Europe.

Najjar smiled broadly when he heard there would be enough men for full prayer at the synagogue, a short walk through the wind and rain.

Monday, October 29, 2012

How To Teach Davening So Kids Will Daven

The following is a passage from the national bestseller How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk:

Most of the books on child-rearing tell us that one of our important goals as parents is to help our children separate from us, to help them become independent individuals who will one day be able to function on their own without us. We're urged not to think of our children as little carbon copies of us or extensions of ourselves, but as unique human beings with different temperaments, different tastes, different feelings, different desires, different dreams.   
Yet how are we to help them become separate, independent persons?  By allowing them to do things for themselves, by permitting them to wrestle with their own problems, by letting them learn from their own mistakes.   
Easier said than done.  (p.136)
Are you happy with how your students are davening on their own?  Have you observed them in shul on Shabbat or a holiday?  Perhaps the problem is that they have been encouraging them to daven politely in public and not necessarily prepared them for their separation from an adult led environment?

I know that teachers are not to blame for the lack of davening happening outside of school hours (parents do have a role - at my son's first grade siddur party at his religious school the head rabbi not so subtly encouraged even the parents to take more of an opportunity to use their siddurim as well), but I fear that one of the big problems of the prevalent tefilla pedagogy is that students are not being engaged to do so on their own terms and time. It is indeed easier said than done - but I think that the current model is doing just that - modeling behavior and norms and trying to create carbon copies.  Schools need to be laboratories for children to trained to tackle their present and future spiritual challenges, in their own unique way but within a broad and strong tradition and semi-public atmosphere.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

A Manifesto

I love a manifesto - the word itself sounds awesome but more so the idea of penning out your ideology and nailing it to a virtual wall, a la Martin Luther as a distinct charm.  The following was posted on the Lookjed Digest and is generating some constructive conversation.   I certainly don't agree with everything here but encourage you read this and join the dialogue.


We’ve hit a wall in our delivery of Jewish Education. We have made great strides in teaching basic Jewish literacy – in explaining Jewish texts, educating the mind, and disseminating information. Jewish educators have excelled at this during the last 25 years.

But preserving the past will not get us to a better future.

The time has come for the next phase of Jewish Education: Personalizing Jewish wisdom. Bringing Jewish wisdom into our hearts and into our lives. We need to allow Jewish wisdom to make us better Jews and transform us into our best selves. We need to allow it to be the force for hearing the unique calling each of us have – in our daily behavior and in the big issues in our lives. This is the key to our future.

25 years ago Jewish knowledge was restricted to a tiny fraternity of rabbis and scholars. The role of Rabbis and educators was to create a literate people. Today, we have witnessed an explosion of access to Jewish information and texts: Israel study programs, Limmud programs, vast online resources, Melton Mini-Schools and adult education classes. People joke about consulting Rabbi Google. Just about everything has been translated. The battle for disseminating and acquiring information about Judaism is over. We have won. We know how to preserve the wisdom of our past. We have succeeded in teaching people to hear other people’s voices: the voices of tradition, the rabbis, and the commentators. The voices of the past.

Educators have become so expert in delivering the voices of the past that they often never discover their own voice. They are a megaphone for what was, and are often afraid to move out of this comfort zone. We’ve become stuck in the success of our scholarship and pedagogy and the question is often – “who knows more voices of the past?”

But today we need more.

Today – it’s not about information – it’s about transformation. 
Today – it’s not about knowledge – it’s about wisdom.  
Today – our educational goal should be not only to preserve our voices of the past, but to enable and encourage our own authentic voices to be heard and to enable personal and spiritual growth. 
Today – most importantly, it’s about the future.

Today, we must ask:

How can we use the explosion of information to teach for transformation? 
How can we bring this mass of Jewish wisdom into our hearts and lives?
How can Jewish education enable us to become better, kinder, more compassionate, idealistic, and authentic Jews? 
How can we use the voices from the past to create a different and better future?

We need not forego our past successes, but we must wake up to the need for a different model of Jewish education. The Jewish world, like the general world, has evolved drastically over the last 25 years.

We must understand that education for transformation is a wholly different paradigm than education for information.

I contend that the goal of religious education should not only be to know how to continue the tradition, but essentially -    in light of the tradition, how can we help our children find and clarify the unique voice of their souls?

A Rabbi recently told me that this approach is completely treif. He said: “Personal authenticity is just the code word for the yetzer hara and self-indulgence.”

I beg to disagree. This is not a narcissistic indulgence. We did not create our uniqueness – God did. We did not create the singular mandate our soul was given to better this world – God did. God gave us particular qualities and a unique life-mission in this world.

It is heresy to not listen to the voice of the soul that God gave us. It is heresy not to clarify our God-given unique purpose in this world. 

And while we – parents, teachers, rabbis, professionals – try to educate our children with the wisdom of our tradition and experience, there is only one voice which can truly help them achieve this goal of fulfilling their God-given uniqueness and purpose in this world. There is only one voice which truly knows them – and it is the voice of their own soul.

I recently visited four elite high schools in the US. Devoted teachers and talented students. I asked the students: “Where in high school do you have an opportunity to personally explore your own unique spiritual path? When do you have the opportunity to listen to your own voice?” The vast majority of them answered clearly and emphatically: “Nowhere. Zero opportunity. We always have to listen. No one is listening to us. No one gives us the opportunity to listen to ourselves. It’s as if they are afraid of it.”

Our past improvements in Jewish education were necessary to preserve Jewish continuity. Now, we must move ahead and make the improvements necessary to create a vibrant Jewish future.

If we want to become a Holy nation, a light unto other nations, then continuity is not enough. Information alone will not transform us into our better selves. To fulfill our destiny and centuries of dreams, we must find the resolve and courage to open the door to the next level of Jewish education…and then walk boldly in.

Aryeh Ben David is the Founder and Director of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education. Ayeka developed a unique educational approach and curriculum to enable adults to personalize Jewish wisdom and enhance their lives.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Orientation During Prayer

Here is an awesomely long article by Rabbi Michael J. Broyde posted on about the history and meaning behind the direction we daven.  The article is long but is quality reading.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What Not to Do on Your Way To Pray

My grandmother used to suffer from high blood pressure - it runs in the family.  There is a old family legend that one time, she went to see her doctor for a routine check up and the doctor was shocked by the normal, regular read on he BP and was rather puzzled as to what caused the significant drop in tension.  After asking a list of questions about her diet and exercise, the doctor isolated that the only significant change in her routine was that her copy of the New York Times did not arrive at her house that morning.

One of the hardest parts of teaching davening is helping to guide students on how to focus their mind when the room is quiet. When there is a song, it is easy to make noise or hum the tune to feel the moment or the meaning. But when the atmosphere is still, and you have only the thoughts in your head, it can be awfully difficult to quiet the mind. 

One suggestion that I just read about was to be reorient oneself as you prepare to go daven and gain more kavanah.  It is easy to see that before physical exercise you need to stretch and warm up, then is this not also the case for a spiritual workout?  The Rambam in his Laws of Prayer (4:16) asks, "How does one concentrate, and what constitutes proper intentions?  One should empty his heart of all (foreign) thoughts and view himself as if standing in front on of the Shechinah (divine presence).  Therefore, one must settle in a little before the tefilla in order to enable his heart to concentrate, and thereafter pray in peace and supplication."

This follows on the previous post of pausing - the need to really be ready to connect to something on a different level than you normally operate.  There is a minyan at my office for mincha and sometimes I have a hard time joining because I cannot immediately breakaway from the work activity I was doing just previously.  Perhaps this is like having high blood pressure, but you need to remember that there is always a natural way to control one's tension - you just need isolate the primary cause.

Monday, October 22, 2012


In trying to share the best practices for teaching kids how to daven I find that the my constant davening is a great way to experiment.

While in shul this past Shabbat, I wandered across a small Artscroll book Praying with Joy 2.  Now I felt guilty for scanning this book during davening as well as having skipped volume 1.  Nonetheless, this work by Rabbi Daniel Yakov Travis offers daily does of inspiration, midrashim, and laws to help one improve their tefilla.  Interesting enough that the first chapters dealt with pausing and mediation.  I think the idea of pausing really can make in impact in one's tefilla for isn't the entire enterprise of davening a way of pausing life to consider one's needs, wants, and blessings?  By advocating that one pauses before a bracha or the recitation of Gd's name, it pushes the davener to get off the automatic replaying of words and adds a level of forced concentration.  It is harder than you think.  I am having trouble getting a perfect 19 out 19 when I daven!

While on the topic of mediation and training the mind to focus while davening, I wanted to let readers know that I have begun to participate in the Open Heart Project.  I am not usually "into" these kind of things but I thought I would try out this twice weekly email newsletter of content and resources that help share mediation practices.  Let's see how it goes and I am likely to share the best and worst of it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Celebrating Without Shortcuts

There is an interesting halacha (Mishne Torah 8that prohibits using a shul as a shortcut to get to another place - I never really understood why except for kavod hamakom (honor of a place).  However, I think this post by Seth Godin captures a more modern perspective of why this is so.  Although unrelated to tefilla, it reminds me why I daven and teachers, why you teach!


Given how essential it is to every aspect of our life, we spend very little time talking about or celebrating the civilized society we live in.

If civilization is stability, kindness, safety, the arts and a culture that cherishes more than merely winning whatever game is being played, we live in a very special time. There are certainly more people living a civilized life today than ever before in history. (And we still have a long way to go).

Given the opportunity, people almost always move from a place that's less civilized to one that's more civilized. Given the resources, we invest them creating an environment where we can be around people and events that we admire and enjoy. We move to places and cultures where we are trusted and where we are expected to do our share in return.

And yet...

There are always shortcuts available. Sometimes it seems like we should spend less money taking care of others, less time producing beauty, less effort doing the right thing--so we can have more stuff. Sometimes we're encouraged that every man should look out for himself, and that selfishness is at the heart of a productive culture. In the short run, it's tempting indeed to trade in a part of civilized humanity to get a little more for ourselves at the end of the day. And it doesn't work.

We don't need more stuff. We need more civilization. More respect and more dignity. We give up a little and get a lot.

The people who create innovations, jobs, culture and art of all forms have a choice about where and how they do these things. And over and over, they choose to do it in a society that's civilized, surrounded by people who provide them both safety and encouragement. I'm having trouble thinking of a nation (or even a city) that failed because it invested too much in taking care of its people and in creating a educated, civil society.

Your customers and your co-workers might be attracted to a Black Thursday rush for bargains and a dog-eat-dog approach to winning whatever game it is you're offering. But they come back because you respect them and give them a platform to be their best selves.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Which Way to Pray

A great post was published yesterday on by Gil Student titled Pray This Way - I not only encourage you to read this short musing on the direction of our synagogues but to check out the 34 (so far) comments that are 'trending' on the article.

The easy way out for someone unsure about the proper direction is to "direct one's heart" towards the Creator and/or Jerusalem - but what I think the author raises are greater questions about design, tradition, and meaningfulness that cannot be taken for granted upon entering any synagogue.  Now with compass apps for your phones, it is easier than ever to be certain.  What is the cost for questioning assumptions and traditions?  In my humble opinion, it is the method of not making your tefilla 'keva' - regular or fixed.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Were Humans Created to Daven?

There is a fascinating verse in chapter 2 of Genesis 

ה וְכֹל שִׂיחַ הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, וְכָל-עֵשֶׂב הַשָּׂדֶה, טֶרֶם יִצְמָח:
כִּי לֹא הִמְטִיר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאָדָם אַיִן, לַעֲבֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה
No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground;
No the verse highlights the fact that there is a need for humankind to realize the need to work the land and be partners in the creative nature of the planet.  One friend pointed be to a commentator  Rabbi David Kimhi (the Radak), who noticed a similar piece of language (as do others – Rashbam and the Hizkuni) in chapter 24 where we find Isaac wandering near Beier-lahai-roi on the cusp of meeting his wife for the first time:

סג וַיֵּצֵא יִצְחָק לָשׂוּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶה, לִפְנוֹת עָרֶב; וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה גְמַלִּים בָּאִים.
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming.

Rashi jumps on this verse on Genesis 24:63 to say it is the language of tefilla - and was the perhaps first recorded instance of someone davening mincha.  

I am rather blown away by the idea that in chapter 2, Hashem not only wants man to till the ground, but that the underlying method is for tefilla to move people to act and thus our dependence of rain.  There have been many discussions about why the Torah begins with creation – aside from the obvious, I think it offers the readers a relationship with nature that could be lost otherwise if it was based solely on a covenant of experience or genetics.  Nature is truly what surrounds us and while the Torah and Judaism present a matrix for which we can comprehend the world, tefilla is our language which we can really experience it.  For me, this may be even what we were created to do – to daven for rain and make sure that the cycles of nature are working. 

One final point, now that we have begun to ask for rain please bear in mind that for all that the meteorologist and weather can predict the weather – they still can’t really tell us why it rains and when.  I wish I could be as wrong in my job as the local weather people and still get a paycheck!  Let me stick to the davening.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Direct Method for 5773

Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk, author of The World of Prayer, states the following in his preface:
Vague philosophizing about the nature and idea, origin and form of expression of the prayers is of little help.  A more direct method of approach is required.  Whoever has succeeded in penetrating the external shell of the formal prayer to its innermost core will comprehend the world of thought and feeling hidden deep in its central sphere. 
As we begin a new year, may this be the focus of our efforts, research and prayers - to find clear, direct pedagogical techniques that will create greater access to the innermost core of tefilla.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Magnet to the Torah?

A reader of the blog pointed out an interesting shul phenomenon, one that I think I was narrowly not paying much attention to before.

Whenever the Torah is taken out of the ark- have you noticed that some people move forward to the front of the shul to kiss the Torah?  In some shuls the children swarm the front.  In other shuls people wait for the Torah to pass by their aisle and might extend a fringe or a hand.  All of these are gestures to show how much we cherish the written Torah and that it is a central in our lives.

But have noticed that sometimes, people are just busy talking or to tired to move down the aisle or out of their way to acknowledge the Torah?  Isn't this part of the element of neilla on Yom Kippur, that the ark is opened and that we try to stand at attention at this most holy and propitious time?  Perhaps I am feeling frustrated by the gentleman who I shared a minyan with last week and sat through neilla reading Primo Levi's Survival in Aushwitz but I have since noticed many other shuls were there is a malaise about the removal or returning of the scrolls and I think this is sad.  Further I think there is a certain correlation between shuls with less active physical movement at the opening of the ark sequence to the shul's overall tefilla satisfaction level.  As a parent and educator I very much feel that the small actions and  messages we send are expressions of core values - and one of the core values of Judaism (debate however you may on how to interpret it) is the Torah.  "It is a a Tree of Life for those hold fast to it and all who cling to it find happiness"  - so, what can we do to motivate our fellow congregants to start holding fast and magnetizing their tefilla?

I can tell you this, the shuls that I do visit where davners are moving to the Torah have been places that I would rank as some of my best tefilla experiences.