For Whom Do You Stand?
Posted on 03/14/2014 @ 06:04 PM
וַיֹּאמֶר מָרְדֳּכַי, לְהָשִׁיב אֶל-אֶסְתֵּר:
אַל-תְּדַמִּי בְנַפְשֵׁךְ, לְהִמָּלֵט בֵּית-הַמֶּלֶךְ מִכָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים
Then Mordecai bade them to return answer unto Esther: 'Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king's house, more than all the Jews. Megillat Esther, 4:13
When Esther was selected as the new queen to King Achashverosh, she never imagined the critical role she would play in securing the future of the Jewish people. As the story goes, she was selected to entertain the king and be available at his whim. Shortly thereafter Haman, a trusted advisor to the king and no friend to the Jews, convinced the king to set a decree allowing him to kill all the Jews in the land. Soon Esther found herself at the center of the plan to save the Jews. No one had as much access to the king as she, but even at her position, approaching the king without invitation could result in death. She was taking her life in her hands for the sake of others.
It is unlikely that many of us find ourselves in a situation as dire as Esther’s – risking our own lives for the sake of others. But what if we did? Have you ever reflected on the things that would propel you so far forward as to risk your life for them? Perhaps we need to bring this further into the realm of reality. We ask our teens, “for whom do you stand?” but we rarely elevate that to the level of “for whom do you take risks?” It’s likely we can all contemplate the idea of being an upstander, but what if that act came with significant personal risk? When do you put personal safety aside, like the Righteous Among the Nations, or those in the military, and when do you stand down because the risk is too great? Some may say they’d prefer to live for a cause than die for a cause, but how many actually contemplate the latter?
I don’t have a clear answer. I know the things that are important enough to warrant a change in my life. I also know that when I listen to the reading of Megillat Esther and hear of heroes like her I am encouraged to push my own boundaries, but am I really strong enough to go much beyond that? This weekend, if you choose to participate in the Purim mitzvah of hearing the reading of the megillah, ask yourself these same questions. Perhaps this holiday can help us all push the boundaries of being an upstander, and maybe even answer the question, for whom would we take risks?
This Shabbat message was prepared by Aleeza Lubin, DJE for the Midwest Hub
Posted on 03/07/2014 @ 11:17 AM
As a modern Orthodox rabbi, I am sometimes the ‘first contact’ many of our teens have with an observant Jew. Some part of the following conversation happens about three-quarters of the time when a teen asks me about being shomer Shabbos:
Teen: So what does that mean? You don’t use your phone for 24 hours?
Me: That’s right.
Teen: But what about your computer?
Me: No, not my computer either. I also don’t use money.
Teen: Then how do you pay for things???
I completely identify with their shocked reaction to living one’s life according to Jewish law, as I did not grow up religious either. For my teenaged self, learning about and taking on halakhic observance—especially keeping Shabbat—felt like watching ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, and ‘The Matrix’, all at the same time. Yet, I don’t think their unfamiliarity with Jewish observance is the hardest thing for them to understand. More likely, they wonder why someone would voluntarily disconnect themselves from their devices (thus from all of their friends, if not all of Western civilization) for an entire day.
With regard to technology, Millennials are sometimes referred to ‘digital natives’, having been born and grown up in a world where there was no Internet revolution, no time where you “just got the Internet in your house” and where you waited until the next day if you wanted to talk to your friends from school. We ‘digital immigrants’ are like any other immigrant generation: describing what life was like in the old country is rarely as romantic or sentimental to younger people as it is to us.
How much more so for something like Shabbat? When everything in our teens’ lives is telling them to stay connected by staying online, how can an eternal message of a day, an evening, even an hour of rest be considered a live option? For more than a decade, the folks at Reboot have held their ‘National Day of Unplugging’ (this year, March 7th-8th) promoting commitment to momentarily disconnecting from electronic devices and reconnecting with our immediate families, our communities, and ourselves.
But why ask digital natives to take a break from who they are and how they connect in the first place? Because it gives an experience we simply cannot have otherwise. We have knowledge about prolonged exposure to technology and its effects on the human body and psyche. Respecting teenagers and their autonomy does not mean letting their choices going unchallenged, it means showing them different ways to live and enabling them to experience just a little bit of what life was life pre-digitization. If only for a few hours.
The 2014 National Day of Unplugging will begin this Friday night. I’ll be unplugging – will you?
This Shabbat message was prepared by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE for the Western Hub
Take it in Three
Posted on 02/28/2014 @ 11:40 AM
This article, about our Educational Framework, was recently featured in a new journal published by the Jewish Theological Seminary: Gleanings.
Judaism has a lot of threes: three moments of daily prayer, three things on which the world rests (al haTorah, al haAvodah, v'al Gemilut Hasidim[Pirkei Avot 1:2]), and three historical divisions (Cohen, Levi, and Israelite)—three parts that together form the whole people of Israel.
Threes are poetic and easy to remember, and it's unsurprising that they show up regularly in traditional and modern thought. They also provide ample opportunity for interpretation and extrapolation: What do two have in common that the third does not? Are they legs of a stool—equal in importance and priority, or do they grow on each other like concentric circles?
It is in this vein that a new triad for youth is suggested: Identify, Connect, and Improve—three core educational outcomes that BBYO calls the "educational framework." Together, the three words describe the intended impact of youth participation. In other words, this is how we want our teens to be on their own when they leave our youth programs: we want our young alumni to be confident about their Jewish identity, connected to Israel and their local and global Jewish community, and committed to leading others and improving the world. But what does that really mean? And once we understand the words and the meaning, how do we break these big concepts down so that a Shabbat service, a Saturday night social, and a weekday meeting can all be aligned to meet these big goals?
One way to explore this tripartite outcome is to see its parts as concentric circles, where growth occurs as we shift from one stage to the next. Even within each circle there are stages of growth, first internal, then local, then communal. We begin with the individual: in our central circle we focus on the experience a teen has within herself—her identification with Judaism. Then in the second phase, we push this individual to grow beyond herself and create community with other emerging individuals. Once within that second circle, having created a safe and supportive community, we require movement to the third level: looking outward and making the world better.
One of the differences between the concentric circles model and the stool is that the stool requires all three of its legs. With a concentric circle you could succeed at the two inner circles but not the outer—and that would not diminish the achievement for the first two. Would we feel we have succeeded if a teen excels at only two of these three? Can you truly connect to others and form meaningful communities without recognizing your own self and identity? Do we, as a Jewish community, think that it's "good enough" if someone is proudly Jewish but doesn't work toward making the world a better place? Can you be a Jew in isolation, without finding a community that shares and supports your values? Just like the metaphoric three-legged stool, the three parts of our "ideal" teen can only really be recognized in partnership with others—yet we also see the components as concentric circles with progression that takes place as teens grow from an inward to an outward focus.
As the parts work together in this model, so these three outcomes come together and shape how programming is created. To play this idea out, let's take Shabbat, something that directly falls into the first circle of an individual's own connection to Judaism. However, Shabbat programming can reach its fullest potential when we recognize not only the individual experience but that of the community, the opportunity to strengthen relationships beyond just sitting together in a room. We can look for ways that Shabbat can model the ideal world, and that personal introspection can spur community action. When teens are ready to tackle their community's largest issues, we can help them focus on issues that align most closely with their understanding of Judaism's commitment to social justice. We can make explicit to teens the increased power that their individual selves have when they come together, in community, to serve and support each other.
Rachel Meytin is the director of Panim and Jewish Enrichment
To the Jewish Enrichment Promised Land!
Posted on 02/21/2014 @ 12:21 PM
“Jewish programming isn’t boring. Boring Jewish programming is boring.” --Rabbi Zac Johnson
For many teens, advisors, and staff members in BBYO, and in the larger North American Jewish community, Jewish programming has long been viewed as the least compelling and least fun option. But we will no longer allow this idea to stand unchallenged.
Ladies and gentlemen, let the eXodus Games begin!
Last week at BBYO’s first ever Jewish Enrichment Institute (JEI), our intention was to show over 50 teen leaders from over 20 regions/councils and over 45 chapters what fun, relevant, and meaningful Jewish programming could look like. Dividing into 12 tribes (teams of 4), we held a color war that had a flavor of The X Games, The Hunger Games, the Olympics, and the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt. The tribes competed for points by completing up to 40 tribe challenges, one challenge for every year that Israel spent in the desert. We had tribes singing the 4 Questions of Passover, performing their own Jewish slam poetry, Tweeting and FB status updating Jewish values, and learning the Hebrew months. We had sessions with Stand with Us on Israel programming, with Ask Big Questions on facilitating meaningful conversations, and with Eric Hunker and Happie Hoffman on leading services and being intentional about mood setting. We also played the Educational Framework games (introduced at Staff Conference) for even more organized chaos!
At JEI 2014: The eXodus Games, our intention was not only to help the teen participants reach the Jewish Enrichment Promised Land. These eXodus Games move us not from slavery in Egypt, but from the confines of the “same old” Jewish program that is no longer compelling or relevant. We are asking all of the JEI participants to take what they learned at JEI to help enhance a Jewish program in their chapter, council, or region. One staff member was assigned to each tribe, and our intention is that the tribes will stay in touch for the rest of the programming year (and beyond) to help each other develop enhanced Jewish programming with deeper Jewish content. Here is the JEI 2014 teen participant and staff roster – we hope you’ll support teens in your region as they work to implement what they learned!
As we set our sights on Atlanta 2015, let’s embark with a renewed commitment to developing even more creative and even more meaningful Jewish programming with deep Jewish content. And by the time that we celebrate our extraordinary Jewish teen movement again next year, may we be able to say that we are even closer to reaching the Jewish Enrichment Promised Land.
(This Shabbat Message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment, Northeast Hub)
The Eternal Torch, Olympic and Otherwise
Posted on 02/07/2014 @ 04:00 PM
I'll be honest and admit that I was pretty upset when I heard that International Convention was smack in the middle of the Winter Olympics. I live for the Olympics, looking forward to those two weeks every other year where nothing else matters. I love it all, from the opening ceremonies to fierce competition; feeling the surge of patriotic feelings and experiencing the triumph of the human spirit.
The Olympics actually never end; they just die down for a while, as the flame continues to travel around the world. Sound familiar? We have our own Olympic flame in Judaism, the Ner Tamid or Eternal Light (or perhaps more literally, the 'continual lamp.'). In this week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, we learn about the details of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, God’s portable dwelling place while the Israelites traveled to Eretz Yisrael, and all the intricacies which make it Holy. The Ner Tamid described in our parsha outlasted the Mishkan and now resides atop the Bimah (ark) in almost all synagogues around the world.
Parshat Tetzaveh continues to describe the minute details of the wardrobe of the high priest, including how he would wear a robe in the color of tekhelet, a blue dye that is also found in the threads of tzitzit (fringes). Fittingly, we as BBYO staff will all be donning blue fleece vests during International Convention, doing the Holy work of leading 2000 Jewish teenagers through a week of transformative experiences. There’s a tendency to think that only Rabbis can do Holy work, but this is not the case at all. Every time I see a ninth grader find a new home in a chapter of Alephs or BBGs, I know we are doing Holy work. And every time I watch a senior plan an entire convention for their peers and take steps to become the Jewish leader they want to be, this too is sacred.
Now I see how perfect it is that IC and the Olympics are happening at the same time. As the Olympic torch is carried through the Stadium to light the "Olympic Ner Tamid" to mark the beginning of the ceremonies, the light of Judaism is going to shine brighter than ever as 2,000 teens from around the world gather to show the world that our movement is alive and well.
The spark of this Shabbat Message comes from Leah Newman, Program Associate in CRW
What Do We Learn?
Posted on 01/31/2014 @ 10:50 AM
This week, Judi Youngman, Amanda Minkoff, Manda Graizel, and Ira Dounn had the opportunity to hear Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, speak at NYU. Below are some of our reflections from his talk.
We consider ourselves privileged to have sat in the audience of former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on Wednesday night. As BBYO professional field staff, we were struck by his idea of leadership. In his view, there is no “one” who leads, but people working together in pursuit of a “collaborative truth.” Rabbi Sacks’ idea of collaborative truth was particularly poignant; he explained that two truths, even if they are contradictory, can simultaneously exist. Judaism is right, and so is Christianity. And Islam. Believing in the tenants of one religion doesn’t have to negate the others. We are all in God’s image, despite apparent and theoretical contradictions.
In BBYO, we see this manifesting itself in our membership: that despite our differences in our religious or nonreligious practices, we embrace all Jews into our chapters and into our regions. Membership is not just increasing TI numbers, but a reflection of how Judaism views humanity and an opportunity to engage one another in an active pursuit of a collaborative truth and leadership.
Amanda Minkoff and Judi Youngman, GJHRR
We’ve all done it. We have that kid who we say: "they’re a great kid, but they just aren't a leader." We pass them off, dismiss them, and figure out ways to work around them. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks talked about leadership as simply service to something bigger than you are. He spoke of Moses as "eved Hashem," a servant of God. He said that’s what kept Moses humble; he was serving something bigger than himself. We all have the ability – and maybe the requirement - to make a commitment to something greater than ourselves.
This has dramatic implications for BBYO. If we let go of the idea that leadership is charisma and accept the belief that leadership can be taught, then we can no longer dismiss the teen we think of as “not a leader. ” We can pinpoint the skills that are lacking in our leaders – accountability, organization, how to think big, how to think small – and then teach them. By shifting our shared definition of leadership, we have the ability to make it possible for any of the teens in BBYO to be leaders, as long as they have the desire and the passion to learn the skills of leadership.
Manda Graizel, BAR
And in closing, just two quick reflections on the reflections: 1. Having different takeaways from the talk exemplifies Rabbi Sacks’ point: We have different approaches and ways of understanding our world, and this diversity ought to be embraced. One of the profound statements that he made was: “The opposite of a minor truth is a falsehood. But it’s often the case that the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” 2. It is important for us, as BBYO professionals, to engage in continual learning and growth. Please consider seeking out opportunities for your own Jewish learning and speak to Rachel Meytin, Rachel Hochheiser Schwartz, or a DJE about this.
This Shabbat Message was written by Judi Youngman, Senior Executive Regional Director of GJHRR; Amanda Minkoff, Program Director of GJHRR; Manda Graizel, Program Director of BAR; and Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Northeast Hub.
Oh the Places You'll Go...
Posted on 01/24/2014 @ 11:38 AM
A friend recently asked me for driving directions to go from New England down to DC. I reminiscently replayed the dozens of times I’ve driven the route from Boston to my hometown in New York. Right away I thought of a little restaurant you can see from the highway that has a very big sign on the roof proclaiming “FOOD AND BOOKS.” The truth is, I only managed to stop there once – once in 5 years of very regular driving back and forth. I could not tell you one thing on the menu – or even if the food was good. Why then do I have such a strong, positive association with the place that I easily recommend it others? Because what it represents aligns with two core things I hold dear in my life – food and books.
I think it’s this same concept that makes some of our places so powerful. Perlman, Beber, the local hotel that you always have convention in… these places are much more than their physical location or the amenities (for some - much more than their amenities, thankfully!). What we latch onto in these places is our personal alignment with what they represent – friendship, brotherhood, shared Jewish community – and the places themselves become emblematic of these ideals. We can translate that emotional connection into concrete associations with some targeted messaging (the 40’ “FOOD AND BOOKS” isn’t exactly subtle!) of core goals and values while our teens are in these spaces.
As we head into the spring convention season – and then into Summer – we have countless opportunities to recognize and capitalize on these associations. I am sending a friend to this restaurant because of the positive association I have with its messaging. We know that the number one reason that teens attend any program is because a peer asked them. Let’s take the opportunity to embed the core values of our programming and our organization into each one of those asks. All it takes is some clear messaging (on billboards if needed!) about what we stand for and represent.
Always dreaming of a road trip is Rachel Meytin, Director of Jewish Enrichment & Panim
I Just Didn't Relate...
Posted on 01/17/2014 @ 01:03 AM
Growing up, Tu B’shevat was always one of those hard holidays for me. I would be handed a tray of dried fruit, none of which I ate, and asked to celebrate something that I didn’t understand, connected to events happening halfway across the world. Tu B’shevat was the epitome of a Jewish practice to which I could not relate. I went to Jewish Day School where I learned about every holiday, and my family celebrated almost all of them. So if someone like me, who had all the knowledge and access possible at that young age, couldn’t connect, how can we expect anyone else to get it?
We spend so much of our time thinking about the masses that sometimes we lose the forest for the trees (Tu B’shevat pun absolutely intended). We busy ourselves with the entirety of our chapters, councils, regions, and hubs. We think about the things that everyone is doing. How often do we allow ourselves to focus on one teen, or understand how an idea applies directly to one person? That was my problem with Tu B’shevat – it never related to me.
Since I don’t eat fruit and I’ve never lived in Israel Tu B’shevat didn’t make any sense. As an adult, the holiday was finally made relevant to me: Tu B’shevat allows me to think about the way we celebrate the land that sustains us. It pushes me to think of my trips to Israel and the amazing image of trees and vegetation that have developed in the middle of the desert. These are personal connections that may only make sense to me. Most of our teens don’t come to us with all the background knowledge so we have to work even harder to help each and every one come to a point of understanding and then find their own connection. But let this idea be our guide – for every Jewish practice there is certainly one (but likely many) teen who doesn’t connect to it at all. Find that teen and help them develop a connection that makes sense.
May we all have a fruitful and abundant Shabbat!
This Shabbat Message was written by Aleeza Lubin, Director of Jewish Enrichment
Posted on 01/03/2014 @ 03:02 PM
By now, everyone is fully aware of the ‘War on Christmas’, whether it is a real thing or not. The public debate about substituting “Happy Holidays” for any greeting which refers to a specific winter-time holiday is one where many American Jews have some skin in the game. Yet, this year, I noticed a much more bizarre and less-widely discussed war waged between Jews themselves—The War on New Year. “Happy Secular New Year!” “Happy 2014!” Why do some Jews I know put extra effort into downplaying the significance of January 1st as THE new year? Does saying “Happy New Year” somehow indicate a detached relationship from the importance and primacy of Rosh HaShanah as the Jewish New Year? These subtle edits to the traditional Gregorian New Year greeting, while innocuous, point to two profound questions of Jewish life in the Diaspora:
· Who am I in relation to the (Gentile) world around me? and
· By whose cycle am I structuring my life?
These are not new questions. This week’s incredibly artful parsha, Bo, describes the last three plagues (locusts, darkness, death of the first born) to cripple Egyptian society, Pharaoh’s submission to Moshe and God, and details of the first Passover—all significant preludes to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. In the midst of all this high drama, an often-overlooked yet central act of Israelite freedom is found in God’s first mitzvah to the entire Jewish people: This month is for you head of months, it is the first for you of the months of the year (Ex. 12:2). Why is the establishment of an annual cycle the first communal mitzvah given? Sforno, the 16th C. Italian commentator elucidates: From here on out, your months will be yours, to do with them as you wish. When you were enslaved, your days were not your own, but were determined by your oppressors. In other words, more than obedience and submission, God’s prerequisites for a covenantal relationship are complete freedom and self-determination.
How does this Torah speak to us now? In a time when our American identities are firmly established and active assimilation is a pillar of liberal Judaism, how do we engender our yearly cycle with the same liberating spirit in small but powerful ways, like carefully choosing our holiday greetings? In 2014, what noticeable ways will you exercise your Jewish identity in the public square, especially during Jewish and secular holidays?
This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western States.
The Art of Inquiry
Posted on 12/20/2013 @ 02:18 PM
What does the Shema mean? So what’s this week’s Torah portion about? What does Judaism have to say about people experiencing homelessness and poverty? Why isn’t chicken parmesan kosher?
So often we are tempted to give an answer to these questions. And while giving teens and colleagues information and guidance is important, helping them work through exploring the question is even more educationally valuable. It’s the educational equivalent of giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish.
Let’s use an example from this week’s parsha, Parshat Shemot, the first Torah portion in the book of Exodus, to explore this idea:
“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. And he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers. He turned this way and that, and saw that there was no man, so he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-13).
What happened? The simple reading of this passage is straightforward enough: Moses began to empathize with the Hebrew slaves, he saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave mercilessly, he checked to make sure nobody would see him, and then he killed the Egyptian to protect the Hebrew slave. OK, Done.
But, if we hold off a bit and not answer the question straight away, but delve a bit deeper, we may learn even more.
“…he turned this way and that, and saw that there was no man…”
What happened? 1. He wasn’t looking because he was afraid somebody would see him – he was looking because he wanted to see if anybody would be doing anything about this injustice. When nobody else did anything, he intervened. A passage in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6) supports this reading: “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” Moses acted because he saw that nobody else was going to act.
2. One might also interpret “that there was no man” literally – the Egyptian’s behavior was so morally reprehensible that he has been degraded in Moses’ eyes to less-than-human. This reading is supported by what happens next – Moses is able to kill the Egyptian. Had Moses regarded the Egyptian as a person, it would have been more difficult for Moses to take his life. We see this illustrated in several examples throughout history when a persecuted people are “dehumanized,” and the persecution becomes easier for the oppressor. Even The Hunger Games references this concept: “’You know how to kill.’ [Says Gail] ‘Not people,’ I say. ‘How different can it be [from killing animals], really?’ says Gail grimly. The awful thing is that if I can forget they’re people, it will be no different at all” (40).
There is so much depth in our tradition, and so much to understand and process – it’s often just easier to jump right to the answers. But when we do so we take away a great opportunity. It’s not just an opportunity to find new learnings, but the important process of learning to understand and create meaning in Judaism for oneself.
It is an authentically Jewish practice to wrestle with the words that we have inherited in our prayer and our Torah, and one of the most valuable roles we as Jewish educators can take is to facilitate our teens’ experience through their own process of inquiry.
This Shabbat Message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of BBYO’s Northeast Hub.
Joseph's Brother Alephs...
Posted on 12/13/2013 @ 11:52 AM
The Torah is filled with examples of complicated sibling relationships. First-born sons were supposed to inherit the bulk of their father’s fortunes - yet there are many examples of younger siblings raising themselves to positions of power. In this week’s parsha, Va-yehi. Joseph, the youngest of the 12 tribes of Israel, brings his two sons to see their grandfather on his death bed. The grandsons are blessed and promised portions the family wealth. Through this action, Jacob gives additional power not only to the grandsons, but to their father as well. No doubt this was a tough pill for Joseph’s 11 brothers to swallow.
Competition is natural between brothers and sisters, and finding yourself in the shadow of a younger sibling can be challenging. But what if we reframed this experience as an opportunity? Instead of feeling relegated to the shadows, what if Joseph’s brothers felt empowered by Joseph’s strength and success? What if they realized, from the beginning, the benefit to their whole family that would come through Joseph?
The BBYO world is filled with sibling relationships: we even use the language of “Brother Alephs and Sister BBGs,” and we capitalize on the fact that many of our teens truly feel a familial relationship with their peers. Our seniors and juniors are often in the forefront – they hold elected positions and they have established relationships and presence. But let us recommit to the potential power and the energy of our Josephs – our 8th graders, our Freshmen – and beginning to harness it now. Seniors, what you teach someone younger than you, that is your success. That is your legacy. The success of our youngest members will be the success of our movement. Let us all recognize the power of our elder members – not only in and of themselves, but for what they can do to amplify and support their younger siblings.
This Shabbat message is written by an ever-appreciative youngest sibling, Aleeza Lubin, DJE Midwest Hub
From Sufganiyot to the Sublime
Posted on 12/06/2013 @ 12:19 PM
It’s Wednesday as I write this, 1:29 PM PST. There are four more hours of the seventh day of Hanukkah and then it has to happen. I won’t be able to light Hanukkah candles for another 377 days, and it’s killing me. Some part of my fondness for lighting my hanukkiah is no doubt a result of operant conditioning, the most primitive human educational method: repeatedly perform the desired action to be internalized (lighting candles) alongside an immediate positive reinforcement (chocolate gelt, jelly donuts, and fried potatoes, all lovingly prepared by my mother). My attachment to this mitzvah doesn’t seem to be unique, however; Maimonides, writing in 12th-century Spain, elaborates on the laws of Hanukkah:
The mitzvah of lighting a Hanukkah candle/lamp is an extremely well-loved mitzvah and so one needs to be very careful to do it in order to proclaim the miracle and to add praise to God and gratitude for the miracles he did for us. Even if one has nothing to eat except from tzedakah (handouts), one should borrow money or sell one’s coat in order to purchase oil and lamps to light. (Laws of Hanukkah 4:12).
Maimonides never refers to any other mitzvah as ‘extremely well-loved’, offers no explanation as to why he feels this way, and is not quoting any other source. What is so compelling about this holiday and its rituals that it holds such a unique status for him, that one should even sell the clothes off their back to ensure they can perform it? There is no way to access what Hanukkah entirely meant to Maimonides, but his enthusiasm for it may have well been the precursor to the holiday’s revival in the 20th century. Hanukkah found new enthusiasm after Zionism restored some sense of Jewish sovereignty and power, only to be reinvented many times over, become a strange contender with Christmas in the minds of Jewish Americans, and have its problematic origins unearthed.
Though I was conditioned to love Hanukkah on its sugary yet shallow trappings, my adult self needed something more to keep me interested, and so just as the holiday has evolved in our modern times, it has become for me a meditation on and a vehicle for my own personal transformation. Our jobs as Jewish educators of emerging adults must be to constantly try to bridge that gap, from the celebratory to the sublime. So although there is no hanukkiah lighting tonight, there are still 377 days of opportunities to bring more light and life into the world.
This Shabbat Message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western Hub
Posted on 11/29/2013 @ 02:20 PM
Every year, it seems that Jews try to extract a Jewish message or make a cultural connection with Thanksgiving. My wife’s extended family celebrates Thanksgiving with matzah ball soup and brisket, alongside the turkey and all the fixings. Last year my six-year old asked what our plans were for the second day of Thanksgiving. Rabbis and Jewish institutions often capitalize on the theme of thankfulness, and tie it to a Jewish teaching or the work of the particular organization. In many ways it’s become the “additional” holiday on the Jewish calendar. Perhaps it’s because after a heavy Jewish holiday period in September and October, Jews are craving another helping by the time November rolls around. And let’s be honest, a holiday that is centered around a big, multi-course, hearty meal is our specialty. Right?
This year is literally a once in a lifetime experience as Thanksgiving and Hanukkah collide on the calendar. So, if you’ve never felt the Jewishness of Thanksgiving in the past, you’ll certainly feel it this time around. It last happened in 1888 and won’t happen again for almost 78,000 years. Therefore, enjoy those latkes dipped in cranberry sauce!
As holidays that celebrate religious freedom, there is no shortage of sermons or articles this week for rabbis and educators to draw that powerful linkage between Hanukkah and Thanksgiving. What many might not know, though, is that Thanksgiving is actually more closely aligned with Passover, not Hanukkah. Through this courageous journey, the Pilgrims and early founders of our nation actually saw themselves as if they were the Israelites leaving Egypt. Yes, the Pilgrims were religious people but the Exodus story is arguably one of the most influential historical events of all time. How do we know for sure that the founders of this nation were so enamored by this story? Here are a few historical examples: 1. The Mayflower Compact was an attempt to establish a temporary, legally-binding form of self-government. Some say that the framework for the document was actually designed after the Ten Commandments. 2. Salem, Massachusetts was named after the city of Jerusalem. America was the Promised Land for the Pilgrims. 3. One of the initial designs of the great seal of our country actually included the Exodus scene. The Atlantic Ocean was like the Red Sea for the Pilgrims.
As we gather with our friends and families this week, let us not only reflect on the pilgrims and demonstrate our gratitude for what we have, but also ponder the greatest freedom tale of all time.
Pondering and connecting is Adam Tennen, Director of Field Operations for the Mid Atlantic Hub
Posted on 11/22/2013 @ 12:13 PM
Say you’re in Starbucks getting a Pumpkin Spice Latte, and the barista notices the Jewish star on your necklace and asks: “So you’re Jewish, huh? What’s Judaism about?” What do you say?
Here is one answer: Judaism is about facing it – facing other human beings, facing G-d, and facing the most serious and pressing social and moral issues in our world. BBYO’s Educational Framework highlights “Improve: Change the World” as one of the three core outcomes of a BBYO experience.
In last week's parsha, Parshat Vayishlach, Jacob is renamed Israel only after he comes face to face with the angel and faces his greatest anxieties. Moses is eulogized at the end of the Torah for being the only person from among the children of Israel to come face to face with G-d. To confront, struggle with, and be meaningfully involved in the important social and moral issues in our world – these are key components of what it means to be Jewish.
Here’s the good news: We’re excelling at this in BBYO. Last week 75 teen leaders from across North America met in Detroit to come face to face with hunger issues. This week, communities across North America are having advanced screenings of The Hunger Games to raise awareness around hunger issues.
Earlier this week, 125 students from 8 different Orthodox and Pluralistic Jewish Day Schools around North America came to Washington DC for BBYO’s Fall Panim el Panim Seminar. Panim el Panim means “face to face” in Hebrew, and the seminar’s main objective is to bring teen leaders face to face with pressing social issues, people experiencing homelessness, the Jewish values that inspire our commitment to improving our world, and their elected officials who they lobby on the issues they care most passionately about.
How can we continue to “face it” in BBYO? 1. Bring a Panim program to your regional convention or chapter meeting. Here are two “values conflicts” that teen leaders can use in programming that highlight difficult decisions and the Jewish values that can inspire intentional and thoughtful decision making. There are also many other great Panim programs – please reach out to Rachel Meytin to explore the possibilities. 2. Attend and encourage your teens and advisors to attend the JEST webinars on Local BBYO Stand UP Campaigns on December 4 (1pm and 9pm EST) and December 5 (6:30pm EST). 3. Suggest that some of your teen leaders attend the Jewish Enrichment Institute (JEI), February 12-13 in Dallas before IC.
Sometimes the social and moral issues of the world can be very difficult to face. In BBYO, as Jacob and Moses did before us, we have the platform to face the world together. Our Jewish heritage asks this of us – and it can be one of the greatest gifts to our teen leaders that we can provide.
(This Shabbat Message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of BBYO’s Northeast Hub)
Jump in, Help out
Posted on 11/15/2013 @ 11:57 AM
There’s a Jewish text that teaches that we should not question those who present themselves as hungry, but to give everyone the benefit of the doubt: if they say they are hungry, then we should feed them (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 34:14). From this, we can understand that hunger is such an important issue – such a core need – that we have to go above and beyond to help those who are hungry.
As I followed the Hunger is Not a Game Summit blog I was inspired to reflect upon this difficult issue and consider the work our teens have taken on. I am so proud of the work our teens do but saddened and frustrated that we live in a world where hunger exists. My older daughter and I recently volunteered to serve food through a local Jewish community food pantry. It was extremely meaningful for both of us, but in different ways. For my daughter, she was proud to be involved, taking action as a young adult on an issue that she cares about. She was proud to be part of a solution to a problem.
For me, the thought of my daughter – and young people everywhere, especially our teens at BBYO – committing to responding to communal challenges by jumping in and helping out fills me with both pride and hope. Pride because it’s a demonstration of how I have tried to raise her – with a commitment to ‘Gimilut Hasadim’ – acts of loving-kindness toward others. And hope, well – I’m hopeful that, with my daughter and other young people’s help, we’ll start turning a corner where fewer and fewer people need to be served in a soup kitchen. I’m hopeful that someday everyone will be as blessed as I am to know where my next meal is coming from.
There’s another Jewish idea, that when a person eats and drinks [as part of celebrating a holiday], they are obligated to feed "the stranger, the orphan, and the widow" (Deuteronomy 16:11). As we grow closer to Thanksgiving and then Hannukah, I hope you will challenge your teens and yourself to commit to making even just one person less hungry. How will you jump in and help out this holiday season?
Committing to this Shabbat Message was Allan Bogan, Director of Field Operations for the Midwest Hub
... But Why??
Posted on 11/08/2013 @ 11:07 AM
This weekend, Alephs and BBGs across the globe will be celebrating Shabbat as one nation and one family. Our attention to detail regarding the who, what, where, when, and how are covered, but if someone ever asked us why we were doing all this, like the simple child at the Passover Seder, would we be able to give them a truly satisfying answer? Why do we invest so much into celebrating Shabbat? Why have the Jewish people kept this day so revered?
When confronted with any big ‘why do we do X’ question, one helpful method is to look for the origin story of the practice or idea. In our case: What was life like for people before Shabbat was created? What human need did the institution of Shabbat address?
Archaeologists and historians have concluded that before the creation of Shabbat, ancient civilizations organized its units of time, holy days, and festivals around natural phenomena: the rhythm of the lunar cycle or the equinoxes and solstices. This structure corresponded with the pagan belief that nature was the vehicle by which the Gods bestowed blessings or punishments—human beings had no choice but to worship lest the natural world consume them. The Jewish invention of the seven-day week concluding with Shabbat, independent from any natural cycle, freed humans from thinking they were trapped by nature, subject to the erratic will of the Gods, instead allowing them to observe the natural world’s ordered and predictable structure.
Shabbat also created another revolution in human civilization. Since the dawn of time, the greatest kingdoms and empires had been built on the backs of grueling slave labor. The human body was a mere commodity, a tool for imperial growth. Shabbat, the first regular, designated day off in history, was unprecedented. A universal prohibition of labor for all people broke the age-old cycle of unceasing work and gave humanity the first glimpse at the possibility of a free and open society.
Let’s try to reclaim some of the wonder of that revolutionary, revelatory Shabbat spirit. We can be perfectly happy continuing to think of Shabbat as a day to have a nice dinner, but why stop there? Why not think of Shabbat as a way/day to think about what cycles we might be stuck in and need freedom from? Or a day to think about the millions of people throughout the world who are still trapped in slave-labor conditions and how to remedy their conditions?
AZA BBG Global Shabbat is a great opportunity to energize and celebrate Shabbat as one family. Recapturing these why’s of Shabbat has the potential to elevate our grape juice and challah, or Shacharit and Shabbat rotations, into moments which could spark the next paradigm shift of human civilization.
Asking why is Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE of the Western States Hub.
Who are you? Who am I?
Posted on 11/01/2013 @ 12:00 PM
Identify: Strengthen Jewish Identity is the first of BBYO’s educational outcomes – our central objectives for how BBYO impacts the lives of our members.
This week’s parsha, Toldot, is full of identity confusion – from mistaken identity to deliberate deception. Isaac pretends Rebecca is his sister instead of his wife and then Jacob, following Rebecca’s instruction, pretends to be Esau to get his father’s blessing. And we’re just a few verses from Jacob trying to marry Rachel but marrying Leah by accident…
So, what can we learn from all this obfuscation?
Each of us takes on new identities from time to time – but hopefully not to the extent in these stories! Part of our life journey – and certainly our Jewish journey – is determining who we are, and who we’re not. Sometimes, outside clues help us figure out who we are (as Jacob referenced his smooth skin as one way his father would know him – an external cue of how he lived and who he was) but quite often it has to come from inside. Many times it’s a matter of trial and error until we come to a comfortable resting place with our core selves.
BBYO reaches teens right at the height of this confusion. The teen years are full of mixed signals, testing out different roles, discarding all sorts of identities, and seeing how the different parts of ourselves – the inside ones and the outside ones – might fit together. As BBYO adults, we get an incredible opportunity to accompany teens through this process. We support them, we give them structure and safety, and hopefully we help ensure that there’s a Jewish component to who they are.
But let’s not exclude our own selves from this process. Whether you are 18 or 88, you are still realizing and refining your own identity. You still need to pull on the wool gloves – as Jacob did to hide his soft skin from giving him away to his father – to see if they fit or if they itch. What new part of yourself can you pull out and test today?
So… who are you? That is the question - - and only you can find the answer.
Writing this, today anyway, is Rachel Meytin, Director of Panim & Jewish Enrichment
Posted on 10/25/2013 @ 12:50 PM
Will our children and our grandchildren identify as Jews?
Jeff Koch and Arielle Weisberg of Liberty Region are challenging their teens at their Spirit Convention to take a stance on the statement: According to the recent Pew Research Center study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” more and more Jewish Americans are identifying as “having no religion” and are choosing not to raise their children Jewish. This should be a cause for concern in the American Jewish community and we need to take action. (Argue for or against this statement).
(If you haven’t read it already, the Pew Study is an important read. If you’d like other opinions, check out EJewishPhilanthropy's series of responses, read this response by Rabbi Arthur Green, or simply google “pew Jewish study responses.”)
Would you take the “pro” or “con” stance on Liberty’s statement above? Are you concerned? Do you think we need to take new action, beyond what we’re already doing?
One of our most central jobs in BBYO is to help our teens and their families develop stronger Jewish identities (Educational Framework: Identify). Regardless of your position on the study, let’s take a moment to be proud of all that we have done. How many teens have come through our programs who would have left their Jewish identity behind, but who have decided – thanks to you and because of BBYO – to choose Judaism!
(This Shabbat message was written by Ira J. Dounn, Director of Jewish Enrichment of the Northeast Hub.)
Is Anything too Wonderous for God?
Posted on 10/18/2013 @ 02:29 PM
In this week’s Torah Portion, Vayera, God tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will have a son. Sarah overhears this and laughs, as she considers her old age. God hears Sarah’s laughter and asks, “Is anything too wondrous for God?”
We challenge our teens to do wondrous work every day. From pushing them to grow their chapters and regions, to helping them gain skills that many adults have yet to acquire. But do we recognize the wonder in our teens work and understand why must we recognize all that they do?
Vayera also includes the story of the destruction of Sodom, a community known for its poor behavior. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that the destruction occurred because the residents of the city were unable to recognize the wonders of the world and act in accordance with them. His interpretation teaches us that it is not only important to recognize the amazing, but also to have our actions reflect that wonder.
On a daily basis teens recruit new members, plan fantastic events and hold chapter meetings, all while taking risks, building confidence and inspiring their peers. We must recognize our teens when they engage in holy and wondrous work, and consider, have we celebrated them lately?
We recognize this wondrous Shabbat message was created by Mike Steklof, City Director, Louisville, KY
Acknowledging Those Who Keep Our Communities Running
Posted on 10/11/2013 @ 05:02 PM
I don’t remember much about the day of my bar mitzvah. Most of these ceremonies in my tiny shul in North Carolina looked exactly alike, and after nineteen years, all I remember of mine is a mental .gif of people ducking out of the way of fast-moving candy. There is one unique moment that I am confident set my day of entering into a life of mitzvot apart from all the rest, but it was one that I was not intended to see.
After two hours of sitting in front of the congregation, during the moment when the woman making announcements says something about you (although you have never actually met her), I decided to grab some water from the entrance to the social hall, right outside the sanctuary. I didn’t expect to see anyone as I walked out—everyone involved in the ceremony was inside. Yet, standing in the wings like an actor waiting for an unscripted entrance, stood Reggie Smith, the temple’s (Gentile) custodian of more than twenty years. In his bright white chef’s coat, Reggie held a kiddush cup and silver-plattered challah, standing by for the signal before making the hand-off to the rabbi and heading back to finish preparing the oneg. The man truly responsible for hachnasat orchim, welcoming in guests, was not thanked or acknowledged that day.
Non-Jews have had a profound and central role in the stewardship of Jewish communities and institutions, and not just in recent history. During his rambling throughout Canaan, Abram is approached by Malki-tzedek, the King of Shalem and also a priest. Offering Abram bread and wine, Malki-tzedek:
gave him blessing and said: Blessed be Avram by El Elyon, God Most-High, Founder of Heaven and Earth! וַיְבָרְכֵהוּ וַיֹּאמַר בָּרוּךְ אַבְרָם לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ And blessed be El Elyon, God Most-High, who has delivered your oppressors into your hand! He gave him a tenth of everything. וּבָרוּךְ אֵל עֶלְיוֹן אֲשֶׁר מִגֵּן צָרֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וַיִּתֶּן לוֹ מַעֲשֵׂר מִכֹּל
So powerful was this encounter with another God-seeker, a man seemingly unconnected to Abram’s own spiritual adventure, that the very next time Abram refers to God, he uses the appellation he learned from Malki-tzedek: El Elyon, God Most-High, the aspect of God which all of humanity shares. As a tribute to this encounter, we even include this divine title in our daily silent Amidah:
Ha’El, ha’Gadol, ha’Gibor, v’ha’Nora El Elyon הָאֵל הַגָּדול הַגִּבּור וְהַנּורָא אֵל עֶלְיון
The Reggies and the Malki-tzedeks of the world, the sideline priests of successful Jewish communities everywhere, are innumerable. When we teach our teens about diversity in the Jewish community and the world, let us not forget those waiting for us with bread and wine—those people who enable us to comfortably move through the Jewish lifecycle.
This Shabbat message was written by Rabbi Zac Johnson, DJE for the Western Hub.