Monthly Archives: December 2013

Jewish Outreach: The Endangered Species

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I’ve spent considerable time defending why Jewish Outreach should have a presence on campus and elsewhere. I’d like to now discuss an issue I consider to be legitimate (joking!). There are learning centers in Israel that are dedicated to grooming young men and women to go out and help make the world a better place by teaching Torah and inspiring Jewish young people. The worthiness of such institutions are invaluable given the sharp incline in Jewish assimilation and intermarriage in  America. So far, so good.

Since adulthood, I knew I wanted to devote my life to sharing Judaism’s beauty with other Jews. I was fortunate enough to meet a guy who was passionate about the same cause and wanted to build a home filled with Torah and loving-kindness. We immediately moved to Israel and found the cheapest, smallest apartment we could find. We were thrilled.

We spent over four years in Jerusalem and were fortunate enough to carve that time out to infuse our home with spirituality. We talked and dreamed together about the outreach we would eventually move on to do. We also took classes and soaked up lessons from the wonderful role models Israel boasts so we could leave as prepared as possible to enrich Jewish communities and campuses.

We were job hunting in a post-2008 world where every organization and business was downsizing. There were very few choices and we felt incredibly fortunate when we landed in Southern California working for (arguably) one of the most successful campus outreach organizations in North America. We worked long and hard but loved every moment. We made incredible relationships with people I now call family – and for some- I call their families family too (Hi Sorrells!).

We left USC and I can tell you about that later. Point is, Rabbi Daniel and I decided to move on although we weren’t sure where we were going. The job options in kiruv (Jewish outreach) are so few and far between – I can’t tell you how many charismatic, dynamic, upstanding rabbis I’ve come across who are now real estate brokers, lawyers, and IT people. I’m not knocking these professions AT ALL- just commenting that what may be the real estate market’s gain is the Jewish community’s loss. To some, this is a fact of life. To me, this is a tragedy.

The crazy thing is that it boils down to the money (doesn’t it?). What’s driving expansion of non-profits that creates new jobs? Philanthropists and their willingness to invest in Jewish outreach. The National Study of American Jewish Giving put out a publication called Connected to Give: Key Findings. Here are the the five key findings:

  1. Most American Jews are charitable givers (76%- the same percent that are intermarrying according to Pew. Random but interesting.)
  2. 92% of Jewish contributions go to non-Jewish organizations. 79% go to Jewish organizations.
  3. The biggest factor influencing American Jews to make a charitable contribution is an individual’s connection to and engagement with the Jewish community.
  4. As income increases, the incidence of giving increases.
  5. Younger Jews are less likely to give to Jewish organizations (although not surprisingly more likely to give through new methods like texting, giving circles, and crowdfunding sites)

Let’s focus  on #3 and #5: The younger Jews are less likely to give to Jewish causes and the biggest factor influencing American Jews’ contribution is individual connection and engagement with the Jewish community. My conclusion is that younger Jews are, as individuals, feeling less engaged and connected to the Jewish community (otherwise they’d donate more to it). But it’s not all doom and gloom because Jewish Outreach is a wonderful counter-attack to the disconnection all these young Jews are experiencing.

Problem is, in order to provide quality Jewish programming to engage young people, funding is a critical necessity.

I hate to leave you with this conundrum but that’s exactly what I’m doing. Hopefully no one closes their laptops feeling depressed- my goal is to be solution-oriented and empowering. There certainly are some wonderful efforts being made to combat the low engagement and charity that is a reality for Jewish non-profits (nod to Moishe House for innovation). Clearly, however, there is more to be done. If we’re just focused on fundraising and old-fashioned programming, Jewish outreach will become irrelevant quickly. We need to think about the needs of our generation and the best way to reach out- fast. Your Bold Ideas and comments are most welcome.

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I’m A Loser (Soy un Perdedor)

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I’m just gonna put this out there: I have entitled and plan to continue entitling my articles unusually. Here’s why:

  1. It’s Funny (Sometimes. To me!)
  2. It’s Ironic (See above)
  3. It’s Eye-catching (Hey, I’m allowed to market my articles to up my readership!)

It is for these reasons that I used an early 90’s alternative rock song title by Beck. (Get it? I’m debating with Bec, who thinks what I have devoted my adult life to is for losers? Well, those are my words but I think a fair analysis.)

The title “Haterz Gonna Hate” was not to be taken too seriously (can we not joke, people??). There are seven definitions for “Hater” in the Urban Dictionary (click here) and I’m sure we can make one of them fit. Let’s get over the titles. Moving on….

Point One: Willfully Misled

Rebecca used the term “willfully misled” and I took it to mean that the students were willful in the Jewish outreach leader’s mission to allegedly mislead. I see now from Rebecca’s most recent article that she’s claiming  Kiruv professionals deliberately mislead students. Ten-Four. Point Taken. Let’s chalk this one up to a misunderstanding. (By the way, I think describing Jewish outreach efforts this way is not true and destructive)

Point Two: Would you let your children….?

I’ve gotten a lot of “Would you let your children…” questions as of late. Here are two of Bec’s:

  1. Would you let your child marry a person who keeps shabbattaharat hamishpacha (family purity laws,) and kosher?
  2. What if they’re actually Conservative but keep these things?

My Answers:

  1. I won’t be controlling my children’s choices in marriage. It’s an orthodox Jewish thing. We aren’t allowed to tell our kids who to marry. They decide. That said, if my child chooses a person who keeps the Big Three (Shabbos, Family Purity, and Kosher), that would be good. A dream boat? Not for me. I like the passionate Jews who are super proud of their Judaism and want to continually work on their character traits, love learning Torah, develop their relationships with God, and embrace (or aspire to embrace) all the mitzvot that pertain to them. But, again, it’s up the my kid. I married my dream boat.
  2. I don’t get it. Conservative Jews don’t (according to this) observe the laws of Shabbos. Are there individuals who do? You betcha. I won’t make a carte blanche statement about those individuals. I’d like to understand more about why they’re labeling themselves “Conservative Jew” but not practicing the ideology.

Point Three: Love with Expectations

Bec wrote: “I hope that if Ms. Eden’s children ever go off the derech (off the path of orthodox Judaism,) that she doesn’t toss them to the curb like yesterday’s trash. And I sincerely hope that she will respect their life choices and love them unconditionally. ”

I recently told a student’s mother in front of him that I was so proud of his progress in a certain area. She responded that she is always proud of him. Here’s why that’s dangerous. I believe in a parent’s unconditional love – 100%. Pride, however, requires accomplishment. If a child thinks that zero effort is required to invoke a parent’s pride, we will end up with a bunch of kids who aren’t confident in their own capabilities because no one asked them to succeed so perhaps they are incapable of success. Love and expectations go hand in hand. They in no way contradict.

This also addresses her “Just Be You” beef. She writes: “Ms. Eden says that “Just Be You” is facetious? So she doesn’t want people to be themselves?” Rebecca, I don’t want to just be me if that means living life according to my base instincts. We’d live in a violent, twisted world if everyone conducted themselves this way.

Point Four: Marketing

Rebecca writes: “This isn’t about a Torah-observant life being healthy or unhealthy…It’s sad to see this in print because I’ve had this “argument” tossed at me too many times to count and I really thought that Ms. Eden was above this cheap shot. ”

Here’s why this argument IS about a Torah-observant life. Remember those “this is your brain on drugs” commercials from the 80’s? I don’t see Rebecca creating blogs blasting anti-drug campaigns. Why not? Because she thinks they’re selling a good product. But Torah observant Judaism? That shouldn’t be marketed to anyone according to Rebecca. Any Questions? 😉

Point Five: Hiding Rebecca

Rebecca writes: “She (Rachel Eden) doesn’t like anonymity, yet insists on keeping me anonymous. I am not anonymous. In fact, I have my name on my blog (as well as my bio with some of my other writing.) This lack of proper attribution is both hypocritical and academically dishonest.”

I’ve already addressed this- more than once. I have approved several posts that quote Rebecca with a link to her original post but I won’t help her share her blog with more people. I feel her message is very negative and bitter. I’d like for people who are objective to not have to read this. I don’t see how this is dishonest or hypocritical.

As for my distaste towards anonymous commentators, I am going out on a limb as the lone wolf to defend an entire movement. This isn’t easy but I think it’s important. To defend writers who don’t want to come out makes my job harder and their writing less credible.

Point Six: Deception

Last thing. We’ve been here before. She thinks Jewish outreach is deceptive. I don’t. We may be running in circles but I’d like to point out that I’ve conducted numerous intellectual debates with students who don’t agree with me and I don’t hunt them down, drug them, or kill them. True story! Jewish outreach is affording young people a chance to embrace their Judaism in a way they never considered before. Generally, it works out really well according to all parties involved. But it’s not perfect- there are times it doesn’t work well for a person. Should we stop reaching out? I don’t think so. And if that makes me a loser, then all I have to say is: I’m a loser, baby; but uh…don’t kill me.

Haterz Gonna Hate

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Not how I would have phrased it but I’ll embrace the message nonetheless. There is an over-representation of an anti-outreach, anti-orthodox population that didn’t exist in my mind last month and are now my nearest and dearest. They’re like a cute grumpy old man that you just want to hug. I’ll dub them “Uncle Leo” (if you missed that reference- no biggie). In my last post I took all their complaints and questions and boiled them down to two “core issues”. Here’s my post if you missed that:

https://thiswaytoeden.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/playing-defense-in-a-war-that-need-not-exist/

Any-who, apparently this was not what they wanted at all. I want to summarize some points of theirs and responses of mine for posterity.

Let’s break it down. Here are Bec’s points (I call her ‘Bec’ now because we’re just tight like that):

She Asks:  I have no problem with people coming to orthodoxy by their own volition. The problem I have is when people are willfully misled by kiruv workers who teach that the all-encompassing cozy blanket is “just Judaism.” It is not “just Judaism.” It is specifically an Ashkenazi brand of orthodox Judaism.””

I Answer: Rebecca makes an interesting point. The Torah – written and oral law was given thousands of years ago. In the early 19th century, the reform movement was created and as a reaction to that, in around 1850, the conservative movement began. Most non-orthodox practicing Jews are practicing a relatively new form of Judaism that doesn’t match up with the authentic tradition given over in 2448. That original version of Judaism is “just Judaism”. I am absolutely pointing Sephardi Jews towards experts in Sephardi customs and Sephardi groups. I have no intention of dictating customs. There is, however, a basic list of expectations Jews observe and then beyond that minimal set of laws- it’s up to the person how they want to practice. I always tell my students to be true to themselves (they should also be true to Judaism). Side-note: “Willfully misled”? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

She Asks: If Ms. Eden’s children were to decide that they no longer believed that orthodox Judaism was the way to go, and instead, opted to live as Humanist Jews, would Ms. Eden be as accommodating to their needs as she expects non-orthodox parents should be to the needs of their BT children? Let’s assume that her children are simply following their own path in Judaism. Would she “commend [her] own parenting efforts because, after all, [she] taught them the importance of being Jewish which led to this self-discovery?

I Answer: Another nice point, Bec. The above image “Just Be You” is me being facetious. I’m not typically one of those facebook posters who paste a cliche into their status bar. If you are, no judgement- sometimes I even enjoy reading them. If my children, God forbid, decided to live as “humanist Jews” that wouldn’t be self-expression. Let me explain. I believe God created the Torah as a guide to living for all Jews in every generation. Just like when my husband and I married, we created an understood exchange of expectations (ex/ we come home every evening, know for the most part each other’s whereabouts, pool our money together, are faithful to one another, etc). My children also know I have expectations of them (speak respectfully, eat health food usually, clean up after playtime). God created expectations for our benefit – and our benefit alone. Hashem doesn’t need us to do this stuff- this stuff is how we keep spiritually healthy. After we do everything we need to do to keep spiritually healthy, we can start to consider self-discovery, creativity, more spiritual outlets. But there’s a minimum standard as I said before. I’m happy to accommodate my children as long as they’re being healthy. If there are parents who think practicing a Torah-observant life is unhealthy, I’d like to hear why please.

She Asks: Within the last post, I also posted claims made by another (anonymous) person in kiruv which seem to contradict your claims. “AM” (“Anonymous Mekarev”) states that:

1. It is the firm position of Halachic Judaism that all Jews have a responsibility to influence others to the realization that there is a creator of the world and that there is a correct code of conduct for human beings in general and Jews (as His reps to the world) in particular.

2. We are to do this by any peaceful means including persuasion because we are held responsible for others’ actions and welfare to the amount that we can influence them for the better. We have a moral obligation to educate people about this code of conduct who – through no fault of their own – do not yet understand what is incumbent upon them being born as Jews.

I Answer: Firstly, I’m one of those annoying people that don’t enjoy reading anonymous posts. I just don’t see why a person gets to state an opinion and not stand behind it proudly. That said, I’ll oblige since Bec and I now go way back.

  1. I never considered kiruv a responsibility though maybe that’s bad. I feel really fortunate to have investigated Judaism at a time in my life when I could create a home and family on the basis of my conclusions. I feel fortunate to be born into a religious with a built in infrastructure for how to live life to its fullest and grow every day. I feel so fortunate that it seems wrong not to share what I benefit so much from with others.
  2. I don’t agree with Anonymous’ point here at all. “We are to do this by any peaceful means”? “We are held responsible for others’ actions”? No and no. There are boundaries. There are lines. There are no-nos. Anonymous needs to back up what s/he is accusing – a dangerous accusation- with some evidence and there’s not a shred of it. My husband and I would never manipulate anyone or pressure someone to be a frum Jew. Before our desire to educate people about Judaism is our obligation to be upright people. Anonymous sounds like a rabble rouser and I’m suspicious of this person’s credibility.

She Comments: While yes, there are key issues within the blog as a whole, it was my understanding that we were actually discussing specific points we were each making within the body of discussion.

I React: If there are specific points to address, I’m game. However, my guess is there are a couple underlying themes that once we identify we can cut right to the chase. For example, now that I’ve had so many interactions with your readership I now have the hunch that these anti-kiruv people are actually anti-orthodox.

She Comments: I’m also really curious to know about these “outrageous comments and points that are too ridiculous and off-the-wall to address.”

I React: One example is when you paralleled my work in Jewish outreach with rape. For starters.

She Comments: I’ve also asked a lot of other questions within the latest post.

I React: Can you please re-post in case I’ve answered them here?

tumblr (2185) Animated Gif on Giphy

If they have anything else to add, I am still here and honored to play poster-child for the kiruv world. Ask away. Angry messages in my inbox? Fill ‘er up. I gotta be me. And Haterz Gonna Hate.

Sunny San Diego and Education World-Over to Ensure Jewish Continuity

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I was just at the Shabbos table of a wonderful family who lives in La Jolla, CA and have been thinking about the experience ever since. While their home is very beautiful (and big!), what hit me most was the passion and warmth that filled up their home. These people are the types of proud Jews who live to build up Jewish education and improve the Jewish community in all areas. There are several other families who are defined by the same beautiful dedication in this community and I’m always inspired by it.

The conversation at our table covered many topics but one that I’d like to mention here is the importance of Jewish education. There’s an orthodox Jewish girls’ and boys’ high school that is relatively new (less than 10 years old- someone can maybe help me with this?). We discussed how to increase enrollment and the importance of a Jewish education. We wondered why more parents aren’t opting to enroll their teens in the local Jewish high school (a novelty for me since when I grew up here one just didn’t exist). We discussed some possible reasons as well as reasons parents shared and it all made for a very thought-provoking discussion.

Having been through the decision process of continuing a Jewish education (or not), there’s really no better way to strengthen Jews or promote Jewish continuity (in my opinion). I recently heard a speech from Lori Palatnik who took one point from the Pew Survey- the 74% intermarriage rate among non-religious Jews. She described this statistic as “3 out of 4 kids per family will not marry Jews” and her mother-in-law said that the new question for Jewish baby boomers isn’t whether to go to the wedding but whether to go to the christening of grandchildren. Heavy stuff. 

Having spoken to leaders of non-denominational Jewish organizations, I’m familiar with their new question as well: How can we engage these interfaith families so they hold on to some semblance of Judaism? It’s a fair question and very difficult to answer if you expect participants will run away if Judaism takes any other form except social or cultural. I’m not saying this is true all the time- I am very close to two reform families with intermarried children who are proud Jews and promote both Jewish values and Jewish education. My assertion is just that the questions and possible answers are getting tricky while still holding an un-watered down version of Judaism together.

I think the only proposition for any Jew who cares about being a Jew is to go BIG or go home in promoting Judaism, sharing Torah ideas, and uniting Jews of all types together. Whatever our strengths are, we need to capitalize on them and quickly. Jewish education ensures a future generation of proud, committed Jews. The quality of said Jewish education is paramount. We cannot leave students’ questions unanswered and if they sadly have no questions, we need to give them a reason to question. There can’t be a feeling that it’s shverr tzu zein a yid (difficult to be a Jew)- all expressions of Judaism must be done with happiness and an understanding that the Torah’s relevance and truth supersedes generations and nations. I’m fortunate (as I was reminded over Shabbos) to teach young impressionable Jews about Judaism and how they feel when they leave my classroom could possibly help build or destroy their relationship with Judaism. 

Playing Defense in a War that Need Not Exist

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Why, oh why, do I insist on reading Rebecca’s blog before bedtime?!? It must be my alter ego, a sixteen year old girl who knows not of consequence and insists on pulling all-nighters at whim. She doesn’t know my children who have the habit since birth to wake me at the crack of dawn. Anyway, I did look at Rebecca’s blog. And I did look at Rebecca’s comments. Then I fixed myself a strong drink (peppermint tea from Trader Joes- what did you think??) Then I reread the comments. While I realize the conversation could end here, I am eager  to counter some of the arguments I just read. So here we go.

Firstly, kiruv is the organized attempt to connect Jews to Judaism by Jews. Rebecca started a blog with one singular purpose: to foil such attempts. A very naive part of myself is flabbergasted that such a blog exists. Rebecca is a nice lady. I have private messaged her and public messaged her. While I don’t know her, I’d genuinely love to hang with her because she seems personable and kind. Maybe over a couple nice hot mochas, we could talk about the destructive words published on her blog. In a world filled with so many bad guys, I like when the good guys work to build up the good. Sadly, this isn’t happening on her blog. The very existence of this blog is upsetting to me which is why I have chosen not to publicize it.

Reading cynicism and bitterness at this level is destructive to everyone and I wouldn’t even let myself read it if it weren’t for the purpose of representing a silent group of people who don’t know this exists. She does have  a steady stream of devout followers and one of them submitted her blog link in the comments bar of my blog which I approved. I’m not one to censor even when censorship might be appropriate (gasp!). I’m not afraid of what will happen if someone I know and care for reads her blog. I just truly feel sorry to spread it. Her blog takes a beautifully intended model- with room for improvement (like all things)- and twists it beyond recognition.

Her (and her followers’) core issues, as I see it, are the following:

  1.  Jewish outreach professionals want those around them to observe Judaism in the same way.
  2. To accomplish this, people in Jewish outreach mislead other Jews

Rebecca makes a couple outrageous comments and points that are too ridiculous and off-the-wall to address but the above two essential themes keep coming up again and again. Generally in debate, people react in a knee-jerk fashion. We are very ready to defend our or our team’s actions and attitudes. In order to not fall into that trap, I decided to let these two ideas just sit in my mind and I really considered them. Is there a part of me that wants other Jews to act just like me? That wants other Jews to be the same? And then: Have I created false relationships to achieve that? Let’s Pause and really THINK. Click if you please:

30 seconds to THINK

Ok. Now that I’ve put myself under a microscope for a minute, here’s what I’ve come up with.

YES, I do hope that students who’ve joined me for a cup of coffee at the Starbucks near campus will observe Shabbat more wholly, invest time into their relationship with God, identify more strongly as a Jew, be a more dignified and modest person, feel more connected to other Jews, honor their parents, opt to raise a Jewish family, celebrate Jewish holidays, the list goes on and on and on. I too hope to change for the better from these experiences and there’s no question in my mind that the list I just wrote above would enhance any Jew’s life. But let’s get a few things straight:

  1. I don’t care about the color of your yarmulke.
  2. I don’t mind if you like classical music or jazz or Jewish.
  3. I do think Jews shouldn’t eat pig or lobster but if you want to be a vegetarian-  go for it- I’ll happily accommodate you at dinner.
  4. How you choose to express your creativity is totally up to you within the confines of the Torah (obviously).

Be YOU. And YES> Be Jewish.

As for the second point (misleading students) – I agree to a point. I would not approach Jewish students and say “I’m hoping that after hanging out with me you won’t marry the non-Jewish person you’re dating.”  I would say, “I’m a religious director  here at USC. Can I do coffee with you and get to know you?” I guarantee you that every single Jewish student I end up befriending knows that the point of my presence is to create a Jewish student community and enhance their observance of Mitzvot. I didn’t move to South Central LA for the frat parties.

Now to address the deluge of comments. Like this one by “Tuvia” on Rebecca’s blog:

“They (people in kiruv) are all to be treated as the enemy for not permitting open inquiry and frank discussions with those who have diametrically different approaches.”

(Mouth agape, speechless) Uh…..  What in the world am I doing behind this computer screen if not engaging in a frank and open discussion in real time? Seriously though, a girl goes out on a limb to speak for an unrepresented movement and then encounters that accusation? Oy.

Rebecca’s response? While she doesn’t comment on his whole dissertation. she does write in regards to his feelings that we (in Jewish outreach) are dishonest: “I actually agree with you, Tuvia.” At least I’m finally not surprised.

Here’s a goody from “DK”:

“Remember, the Kriuvnik does not want to defend their behavior, so they prefer to defend that which they do not believe they do. Focus on that which we can prove they do. “

DK- please be specific! It’s difficult to know what you’re super angry about and in case you have a valid point, I’d love the chance to defend what you can prove I do.

Another favorite from “Tuvia”:

“Stop them. Keep writing. They are terrible people … Terrible manipulators. Horrible horrible middos (character traits) at the root of this. Keep up the pressure.”

One person named “Jewish Rebel” commented on “Tuvia”‘s post:

“Tuvia: That was awesome.”

Well said, Jewish Rebel. Listen, Tuvia, my middos are a far cry from perfect but “horrible”??? Geez. I humbly agree to disagree.

I definitely wouldn’t want to cross some of Rebecca’s fans’ avatars in a dark virtual alley late at night.

Now let’s turn the magnifying glass on the accusers for a moment. And not in a bad way. But let’s be honest. I really tried to put myself in each person’s shoes as I read the comments and Rebecca’s article. There is only one rational explanation for this level of anger and bitterness. These people have been burned. In case it was a Jewish person who hurt them under the guise of orthodoxy or kiruv I want to apologize- truly and sincerely- for any pain that was caused. In case you were dealt a blow that wasn’t caused by a person but impacted your life tremendously, I can certainly empathize and understand that. I’m no stranger to challenge. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Torah is good and Judaism is great but more to the point it is ours. It doesn’t belong more to me than you. It is for us to enjoy and share. There are 70 legitimate faces of Torah and I aim to connect and learn from the other 69 no matter who they are, what they think, or how they act.

Going to Mass on Christmas Eve with the Kids

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It’s the source of jokes and marketing campaigns. From theaters to amusement parks and many venues in between, the age-old question that haunts many devoted Jews this time of year: What should we do Christmas Day? Many plan to eat “Moo Shu Jew”- that is, eat at the best local kosher Chinese restaurant. One thing is for sure, Chanukah is over so there’s no chance we can piggyback on the commercial blow-out that shadows Christmas to exploit Chanukah. A good thing. Well, I haven’t quite figured where I’ll be on December 25 but the good news is I know where I’ll be Christmas Eve- where every good rebbetzin should be- church!

It started with a phone call from a local church asking for help from the rebbetzin of my shul. Christmas eve is the one time of year when everyone wants to go to Mass which makes finding group leaders for children’s groups very difficult. Would the rebbetzin of my shul come and help supervise the church’s youth group? To be clear, there would be no religious overtones with the kids- only games and toys but still, this all takes place on the church’s property and facilitates the members to attend Mass without disruption. This poses at least a couple interesting questions. First, is going to church permissible according to halacha (Torah law)? Second, is this something a Jewish person should do or want to do? The rabbi (her husband) agreed that as long as she doesn’t enter the sanctuary, there would be no problem with going inside the building that hosts youth programs. As for question two? The rebbetzin empathized with a fellow community leader’s struggle to locate reliable people to help with childcare and wanted to help. Additionally, she felt that it was appropriate from the standpoint of derech eretz (acting with consideration for others). Obviously this is an out-of-the-box perspective….which I admire.

I don’t know if I would have stepped up had I received that phone call myself, but last Thursday the rebbetzin told me she had an unusual request. She had just heard the good news that her daughter-in-law gave birth to her second baby and she wanted to book her ticket to Arizona when she realized she had a scheduling conflict. She was supposed to go to church on Christmas Eve here in San Diego. Would I fill in for her? This is a woman who serves the Jewish community of San Diego in a myriad of ways so there’s no way I’m not going to oblige if I’m able. So yes, I said yes. But what came so naturally to her, to help out the church doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve been turning it over and over in my mind since I was asked. I’m bringing my children with me which adds another layer of complexity as I try to delicately explain Christmas, church, and Jesus to my very young boys who seem to be taking this all rather well. It’s going to feel strange walking into that church tomorrow evening but despite my uneasiness I’m really proud of representing the Jewish people to the Christian community 

What I Learned from Giggling with My Sister

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I drove my sister to the airport today with my children in the back of the car.  Generally speaking, the sound of crying or kvetching drives me crazy but with my sister in the car- all we could do was giggle. Probably because we were once young children ourselves, crying behind our parents in the car. Somehow the lightness of our mood was infectious and everyone was happy (or sleeping) by the time we arrived at the airport. When my sister left, my son commented that he wished she could have stayed in the car a little longer because it was just more fun with her in it. And then it occurred to me. While I can’t always carry my sister around in my pocket (as much as I’d love to!), I can try to carry that lightness no matter what chaos is coming down all around me.

That realization inspired me to let me children finger-paint today. I like a clean house and I like clean kids so this was a novel project for us.  The revelation to “lighten up” despite inconvenience or aggravation prompted a series of fun activities and spirits that added up to a great day. It’s common sense to not let petty things bother us. Day-to-day traffic, outrageous lines, overwhelming bills, toddler tantrums, the list goes on and on of annoying grievances that can ruin our days and ultimately our lives. But then there are those moments– the beautiful ones and the tragic too- that force us to remember what life is really all about and give us opportunities to pull ourselves out of the ruts we create.

Easy dinner recipes for busy weeknights.I’m so looking forward to this week of winter break. The chance to break the cycle of rushing out to a job and rushing home to go through a routine – my pace alone is stressing me out. For workaholics, community activists, mothers with jobs outside of the home, or anyone who just feels spread too thin- the temptation to get really intense about the details is powerful because we depend so heavily on schedules and around-the-clock productivity to get it all done. But we miss out on really living our lives. I had such a great day today because I could let go of the schedule and the concerns over chores, groceries, and laundry since I know I have the week to do them at my convenience. My prayer is I’ll take this lesson with me even after winter break is done, when I’m rushing out the door in the morning, going about my day at work, preparing lunches, cleaning the house, and helping with homework. If I’m struggling, I’ll just pick up the phone and call my sister to exhale…and giggle.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Profundity (circa 1992)

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Jerry Seinfeld has a great bit about how the #2 fear in America is death and the #1 fear is public speaking. I watched it when Seinfeld was on NBC every Thursday night and my parents and sister sat around the television together with me- a family tradition. This particular 30 second bit was good enough to search youtube and dredge up.

I verified Jerry’s statistic with this webmd article– and if I was willing to spend more time on this, I’m sure I’d come up with more evidence that people do, in fact, fear public speaking over death. What’s so awesome about this observation is that death makes perfect sense as a top fear. After all, no matter what your belief system, the element of the unknown and the foreign make one’s own death a topic that can minimally create anxiety! The knowledge that death is an absolute does have a silver lining of sorts. (Am I being morbid?) When we know we’re only here for a finite amount of time, we’re more compelled to maximize and appreciate that time. If I was told (by a credible source) that I’d live forever, I think I’d go about my life with a much more laissez-faire attitude. On some level, I’d understand that I have an infinite amount of time to correct any wrongdoings and the concept of “wasting” time would also cease to exist. Death lights a fire under those of us that consider it.  We know, if we’re gonna act, it better be now.

That leads me to the#2 fear: public speaking. It’s not that I don’t get it. I’ve certainly been nervous when getting up to speak in front of a large crowd. I’m comfortable if the audience is somewhat familiar to me but a group of new people can definitely make me unsettled. But fearing the spotlight to the point that death sounds more appealing? My best guess of this fear’s roots is our obsession with what our peers think of us- we know how powerful peer pressure can be. Our peers can make us or break us and we need to be really careful with who we choose to spend time and call a friend. The fear of being judged is also fair. Who of us can confidently state that we truly do not care what a single person has to say about us? I don’t know about you, but I like being told I’m doing a good job at work. There are many things I do that are tinged with the motivation to gain approval.

This desire to be approved or judged favorably makes thinking and acting unusually all the more difficult. When choosing the “right” thing despite others condemning us or misunderstanding, I believe we make ourselves different. Being different is either a source of pride or of shame. I heard that from Rabbi Noach Orlowek, a parenting/education expert, who describes how Jewish kids will feel either proud or ashamed of their heritage. My husband and I experienced this phenomenon first-hand at USC when we were told by a Jewish person (not a USC staff member) to refrain from asking students if they’re Jewish out of concern that they may be embarrassed in front of their non-Jewish friends.

Why should a young Jewish person be ashamed of their religion, though? What about Judaism is so unpalatable? This question spills into many issues that plague the modern Jew living in the Western world. I’d love to hear what you think, but my theory is ignorance. Jewish people today are simply unaware of what it means to be Jewish to the point that we’ve stripped down to bagels with lox and Temple once a year. Jews are these nerdy chubby guys with glasses, curly hair, and a schnoz. Who’d want to be in that club?

There are those that propose we need to make Judaism edgier to be more relevant which, to me, is even worse. There are plenty of “cool” celebrities with shiny outsides and twisted insides. Judaism will lose the war if we’re fighting to be the coolest. Fa sho’ (see?). The goal for me is to shatter the misconceptions of Judaism that exist for us all – religious and not. Is there a God? Who is God? If we’re expecting Santa, we’ll be sorely disappointed and disillusioned. If we ask questions, though, and never stop searching for answers that appeal because they’re authentic and make sense, Judaism will get richer and richer and our pride will grow accordingly. No wonder so many want to change Judaism or leave it altogether. Why walk into Baskin Robbins if we don’t even understand ice cream?

When we choose to be different, we walk into the spotlight with confidence. When we’re born being different and don’t begin to understand what we’ve been born into, we reject the spotlight thrust upon us. Jerry Seinfeld had it right. Public speaking can be far worse. Being center stage with no idea why we’re there or what to say is more tragic – perhaps- than death.

Cha Cha Cha Changes

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Change is a funny, funny thing. On the one hand, it’s inevitable. For example, infants develop before our eyes in their first year of life changing their sleep patterns, vision and focus, cognition and understanding, and more. It’s easy to use a baby as an example since babies change dramatically and quickly unlike the rest of us who change gradually (sometimes kicking and screaming) once adolescence hits. On the other hand, change is impossible. Routine is innate. We wake up, do what we do, go to sleep, and replay. Changing from our practiced reactions, our crystallized attitudes and perspectives- this is the most difficult thing to accomplish.

But enough theory. What am I talking about already? I woke up this morning and realized I’m 30 1/2 years old in just two days. Perhaps half-birthdays are no big deal for some people well into their double digits but for this almost 30.5 year old woman- I’m pretty excited. Why? Because I relish any opportunity to take a step back and pause for reflection. In the space of that pause, I get to evaluate my life, praise some aspects, criticize the parts that need work or maybe just sit back and watch. There are moments I feel 5, 15, 35, 55, 75, and even 95 all at one time and a birthday (or half birthday) calls for one of those moments.

As it turns out, I just discovered that I’ve been doing the High Holidays all wrong. I only found  this out last week after sifting through 24 students’ participation, decorum, homework assignments, quiz and test grades, evaluations, and projects in order to present my findings to a range of parents during the 48 hour Parent-Teacher Conference Fall Term Extravaganza. During these meetings I showed parents several assignments and work my students prepared over the past few months along with scores and comments. Some kids who scored high on paper weren’t giving their best efforts, some kids were trying their best but their scores weren’t so high. Some kids had great grades and were thriving all-round but their parents weren’t happy. Some kids were doing poorly on all counts but their parents were satisfied. The thing that dawned on me was this: If I can take inventory of 24 students accurately and thoroughly, diagnose weaknesses and strengths, and come up with proposed steps for improvement…. Why in the world can’t I do that for myself?

Looking in the mirror is generally less accurate than looking at a picture and I think the same is true when taking stock of ourselves. We are biased and we’ve been stuck practicing the same good and bad habits for so long that objectivity often eludes us. But the combination of surviving PT Conferences with my upcoming Big 3-0-and-a-half has lit a fire under me. Big time. It doesn’t hurt that we’re in our “transition year” where my husband is trying to find himself in the work world. So I created my desired “skill set” list and started scoring myself. Everyday.

It hasn’t gone very well. Turns out, I make a lot more mistakes than I realized and, being totally honest, it was depressing. But I really want to change. I really want to break free from my 30.5 year old norms to be a better friend, employee, sister, in-law, daughter, citizen, parent, driver (!), and wife. But my psyche can’t seem to take the same analysis and dissection that my students have to endure so I’m trying something new and I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m going to try to do something really small but different each day for the next 10 days. No matter what, if I only just make an attempt, I will count that day as successful. I have written out a few choices within the categories of relationship (other people, God), self-discipline/restraint, and action/zeal/productivity. I’m also going to write 2 areas I’m pleased about and 1 area that needs work each day. The whole project can take no longer than 5 minutes per day.

I’d really like to hear your suggestions if you have any and if you’d like to struggle along with me than please let me know too! The purpose is to change for the better in pretty much any arena and we’ll call it our own personal Chanukah miracle if we see any fruits from our labors. Lastly, I leave you with the David Bowie classic that started it all. Happy Half Birthday Everybody.