Monday, March 18, 2013

What Inspires your to Engage with this World?

One of my favorite Jewish thinkers today is soon-to-be-former Chief Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, as I often find that he eloquently captures the passion, relevance, and richness of living a Jewish life.  Last month in Jerusalem, Rabbi Sacks spoke at a book launch for his 24th book and I think his remarks again captures the importance and drive we need to pass on to our students.

The video, found here, gets super intense in the 23rd minute, but I think the full 31:27 is well worth the watch.   We indeed must engage with the world - and I pray that we succeed in spreading positive Jewish arithmetic.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Watching you Daven

I have been travelling for the past two weeks which has led to a decline in posts/tweets and increase in variety of davening experiences.

One thing that struck me along my travels was how affected I was by my self-awareness that people were staring at me while I was davening.  I am hesitant to lead tefillot partially because of this discomfort, and partially because I have a terrible voice (I inherited that!).  Knowing that someone is watching you I think highlights the performance aspect of the ritual to the detriment of the spiritual pursuit, and thus I think it is an under-taught skill is how to focus to the extent that you lose an awareness of your environment and audience. Sometimes the spotlight forces you to do it right, to have proper kavanah; I presume different people react differently.  In many schools, educators are often watching kids daven instead of davening themselves which leads to a more fundamental questions, do kids like being observed as they pray?  

A further refection that I had while away was regarding the "Siddur Party" - a seminal event in all Jewish educational institutions hold to mark a coming of age moment in which a child gets their very own prayer book.  I still have mine!  I was there when my son got his in first grade (the head rabbi of the school and a internationally well known scholar encouraged the parents to be personal examples and take out their siddurim). What happens between the siddur party and the departure from school system?  The central goal of this blog is to pursue a greater awareness of how to the evaluate the teaching of tefilla.  The educational message that is delivered with the siddur - it is a guidebook to the Jewish library, it opens one up to spiritual pursuit of Torah learning, it posses the fundamental search of human beings and their relationship to God - but what is sticking with students as they get older?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Guest Post: The Power to Bless

The following is an article by Jen Maidenberg originally published in the Times of Israel on January 18th.  I think it captures a modern sense of blessing and prayers.

They may butt in front of you in line without a thought.

They may scream epithets at you as they zoom past your car on the one-lane highway.

They may be brisk and brash and too aggressive for your liking, but…

Israelis sure know how to bless you.

Not just when you sneeze.

But for every birthday, milestone, and reason for celebration.

Israelis, religious and non-religious alike, are really good at giving you one heck of a good blessing.

I’ve learned, the hard way, that I’m not so good at it.

The first time I was asked to give a public bracha (blessing), I was caught off-guard.

It was my son’s 5th birthday at his preschool. I had been in Israel 9 months already, but never to a child’s birthday in the classroom. This was my first.

There I was, sitting in the place of honor at the front of my room with my son, in front of 30 smiling expectant children, and the teacher asked me for a bracha for my son.

What?     Here?     Now?     In front of everyone?     In Hebrew?!?

My heart raced.      Bless my son?      Bless him?

What were they looking for? What were they expecting?

Baruch atah adonai …something or other?

How do you bless your kid on his birthday?

I fumbled through the bracha with broken Hebrew and a nervous smile. Said something about how I hope his year is filled with fun and laughter.

Not bad for a first-timer, but I realized soon after how common this practice is…and how there are certain expected phrases.

Much health.

Much happiness.

Much health and happiness.

Kids are actually trained in brachot.

Not  formal training, really, but from a very early age children are asked to prepare brachot for their friends’ birthdays. It’s part of the birthday experience at school.

You don’t just color a beautiful card for your friend.

You write them a blessing.

And, I imagine at first, the teacher helps them with common nice phrases to say or write.

By first grade, the phrases become a little more sophisticated, but nonetheless still practiced and recognizable.

May you get many presents.

May you continue to be exactly as you are.

After years and years, and decades and decades of blessing your friends and classmates and neighbors, eventually it must be something you get really good at.

So that when it comes time to say something nice at a bris, or a baby naming, coworker goodbye party, or a wedding, Israelis are pros.

I envy their blessing ability.

Even when I am in a position to bless someone I really like and want to bless, I fumble.

And it’s not just the Hebrew.

Even in English, I fumble.

Growing up in America — despite our reputation in Israel for excessive, unnecessary niceness — we had a lot less practice in how to offer our blessings.

It’s something I really had to learn on my own.

And it’s something I am still learning,

How to meaningfully, and sincerely offer my true, authentic blessings to someone else.

And even more challenging — how to accept blessings and good wishes offered to me.

With a smile.

And a gracious thank you.

Not a shy, “Oh stop it…it was nothing.”

Or a sarcastic, “Oh, do go on…”

Just a true, authentic acceptance of a someone else’s blessing.

It might sound weird, but perhaps “formal training” in blessing is a good training to get.

Israelis don’t realize it, probably, and would be shocked to hear it — but when it comes to giving and receiving blessings, they’re actually nicer than Americans.

They've perfected a lesson in niceness worth exporting.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Staying in the Tefilla Spot

I had the tremendous honor and pleasure to hear Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv Yisrael Meir Lau speak a few weeks ago in my shul.  For those of you who who do not know Rav Lau's story, I strongly encourage you to read his auto-biography, Out of the Depths; it was the best book that I read last year and you will not regret it.

One point that sincerely struck me from his Dvar Torah, directed to the bar-mitzvah boy, his older brother's youngest grand-son, was as on the following pasuk (Tehilim 24):

 מִי-יַעֲלֶה בְהַר-יְהוָה; וּמִי-יָקוּם, בִּמְקוֹם קָדְשׁוֹ.
Who shall ascend into the mountain of the LORD? 
and who shall stand in His holy place?
The challenge for teaching a child is not just to push them into a spiritual lifestyle, to accept the mission of being Jewish - this is the emphasis of the question of "who will ascend the mountain if Gd?".  Rather it should be to teach children how to reside in a spiritual forum, to exist in a world of struggle for balance between the material and spiritual, the modern and the ancient, and the have the tradition and tools present to be an active agent for Hashem.

Some educators today, or more factualy educational institutions, are focused on the tactics to be religions, to be affiliated, to be passionate, or to be able to daven in the main minyan.  Rav Lau's message was to realize that we must have the greater goal ever present.

Reading the rest of the perek of tehillim only strengthens this point:

  נְקִי כַפַּיִם,    וּבַר-לֵבָב:  אֲשֶׁר לֹא-נָשָׂא לַשָּׁוְא נַפְשִׁי;    וְלֹא נִשְׁבַּע לְמִרְמָה.
  יִשָּׂא בְרָכָה, מֵאֵת יְהוָה;    וּצְדָקָה, מֵאֱלֹהֵי יִשְׁעוֹ.
 זֶה, דּוֹר דֹּרְשָׁו;    מְבַקְשֵׁי פָנֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב סֶלָה.
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not taken My name in vain
and hath not sworn deceitfully
He shall receive a blessing from Hashem, and righteousness from the God of his salvation
Such is the generation of them that seek after Him, that seek Thy face, even Jacob. Selah
May we be worthy to raise such a generation.