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Bring Back Shame and Judgement: It’s a good thing.

Have you seen it?

The video of foul mouthed-middle schoolers speaking foul things not to each other, but to an elderly bus monitor?

Cursing at her? Calling her fat? Touching *touching* her stomach and calling her fat — while she sat helpless, perhaps terrified? This painful video was ten minutes long. This went on for ten minutes.

All the anti-bullying talk. All the anti-bullying this and that. And NO ONE stood up and stopped the bullies!!

And how could the bus driver allow this to go on?

I interviewed a teacher here who is a historian, the keeper and cuurator of a one-roomed school house in Penfield.

Back in those days, kids who were bad, got the switch. At the very least, they were sent to the corner with a dunce cap. There really wasn’t much wiggle room or putting up with bullshit from students.

I’m really fed up with the assinine actions of some of the “minors” in my town:

A year ago, a kid named Luke Buckett and a few of his friends burned a swastika in my town, and they got off because “they didn’t know what it was and didn’t know it was hurtful to people. They were 17.

In Rochester, about four high schools have been severely vandalized by seniors as a “prank.”


Now, we can no longer harshly punish kids. We can’t shame them publicly or make them feel badly about their actions. It might damage their psyche.

It’s hard-working teachers who get disciplined for trying to dicipline kids. But what do you do when kids act so abhorrently, knowing they would be filmed, like this:

So, what should be the proper punishment for these kids? Here are some of my recommendations:

Riding the bus is a privelege. Make these kids walk to school from now on. And it gets cold in Rochester.

Give this poor woman and all expenses paid vacation to wherever she wants. And make the parents of these entitled brats pay for it.

I just can’t hold back on this one. Call me judgemental and harsh. Go ahead.

Another Good Reason to Keep Kosher – “Slime” Free Meat

Yes, Kosher meat is more expensive.

And, unless you live in an area with a good-sized Jewish population, kosher meat and kosher butchers are hard to come by.

But with this “pink slime” trending in the news, it’s reassuring to know that absolutely NO pink slime is permitted in kosher meat, according to KosherEye,  a blog for  foodies who also keep Kosher.

According to the blog:

Statement from OU Kosher: Kosher ground beef is made out of the kosher pieces of meat, trimmed by hand. No mechanically separated beef or pink slime is used in any OU-certified production.

The other night, I picked up a pound of kosher ground round and a pound of kosher ground lean turkey and treated my family to a slow-cooked meatloaf that I have to say was absolutely delish.

So, if you don’t want pink slime in your beef, or mechanically separated parts in your lunch or dinner, if you want chickens that are fed a grain-only diet and that are not fed any dead chicken parts, if you want a sustainable meat supply that by law must treat and slaughter its animals in the most humane way possible, you don’t have to be Jewish to buy kosher meat.

With that, I hope that there will be kosher burger joints popping up all over the nation. Then again, my cholesterol levels would be sky high if that were the case.

The email in the Wall

I’ve been making final arrangements for my son to have his Bar Mitzvah at the “Masorti Kotel,” a part of the Kotel off to the side of the main Kotel Plaza that is known as Robinson’s Arch. This is the designated spot in the Kotel Plaza that allows for a mixed prayer group of men and women.

How do I know the final arrangements are official? The rabbi of whom I am in correspondence with in Jerusalem cc’ed his email to “hakotel.” Yes, the Holiest spot to Judaism in the world was kept in the loop that my son will be called to the Torah in Jerusalem. Now it’s really official.

There is no way of documenting in words what emotions my family will be experiencing when my son, his brother and sister, parents and both sets of grandparents along with friends and a few surprise guests will come to Robinson’s arch to pray in honor of Nathan’s Bar Mitzvah. We’ve been planning this moment since around his birth.

But this story goes back perhaps even farther, it’s a story of the power of prayer and placing a note in the Western Wall, and how Gd answers these notes in Gd’s own time.

Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met one summer  at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. They met through mutual friends on a cracked tennis court. The girl kept missing every shot, and the boy didn’t seem to mind chasing all these balls and retrieving them for her.

The boy really liked the girl. Loved the girl. But the girl just wanted to be friends.

That winter, the boy visited Israel with his family. They visited the Kotel, or the Western Wall. The holiest place in all of Judaism where Jews for centuries pour out their hearts in prayer for a united Jerusalem, for a rebuilt Jerusalem. The boy wrote a note to Gd asking that the girl would one day fall in love with him, his family would be blessed with health, and (a bit of a more material and earthly ask), that he would make it into the Engineering program at MIT.

Within a month of writing that note, the girl  (who would be me) turned him down when asked to prom. Within a month, the boy’s sister became seriously ill with meningitis and lapsed into a coma. And, the rejection letter from MIT showed up soon after that.

That boy felt like he was truly being punished by the Divine.

Not to worry. Gd answers prayers. Just not in the instant we would like them to be granted.

The sister of the boy recovered and thrived,  went to MIT and went on to finish an MBA at Columbia University, has a tri-athlete husband and four beautiful children, and a thriving cupcake business!

Nine years later the girl that turned down the boy for prom came around and they were married before 247 guests!

The boy in the story is my husband. Whenever we are having an argument, or whenever my husband is getting on my nerves like when he doesn’t like the way I load the dishwasher, I think back to his note in the Kotel, realize that our  marriage is meant to be by Gd, so I let it slide.

Now, I’m going back to the Kotel again, the fourth time in my life. No two trips to Israel or the Kotel are ever the same. Each time you go there, you are a different person perhaps at a different phase in your life. So, I’m going not only with my family, but I will also be going as a messenger taking along the notes my students wrote to place in the Kotel.

Most of them.

As my students started their note writing, they had many questions: How will Gd know it’s me? What should I write? How long does it have to be? Can I ask for anything…. anything? Is this a wish, or is this a prayer? And, will it come true, what I ask? How do they keep all the notes from falling out of the cracks?” …. and so on.

I guess this is a lesson to myself that it is hard for a child to know exactly how to compose a prayer of one’s own to be placed in such a holy place when one has only an abstract concept of the place itself. These students have only the most fledgling connections with Israel, let alone an understanding of the emotional impact that a united Jerusalem, and access to Judaism’s holiest site, has on the Jewish psyche. But they did their best, and I answered their questions as best as I could.

A note in the Kotel can express thanks to Gd for the health of family and friends. A note to the Kotel can ask to heal broken friendships or relationships. A note  to the Kotel can ask to be provided for, and to never know hunger but one should not ask for “Lots of Money and an iPhone.” A note to the Kotel can ask for world peace and haters of peace, for their plans to be destroyed. But a note should never ask for the death of your enemies, let alone a family member. Gd is not your hitman. These notes will not be placed, nor do they deserve a place in such a holy place.

If we knew you were coming… the art of the R.S.V.P.

A friend of mine recently took on a community outreach job where she has to arrange free events for a local non-profit organization.

The carefully targeted invitees are sent invitations both by snail mail and e-mail. The invitations are sent in a timely manner and indicate the event is free but space is limited and one must RSVP to attend.

There is a handy email address to send a response, a mailer to mail back, and a website to also let the event organizer of ones decision of attending or not attending.

At such a recent family friendly event, I watched my friend fly around the event venue in a panic.  Around 25 families responded that they would be coming.  Double that amount had lined up outside the door, waiting to come in. She feared she did not have enough forks or plates, or food ordered for the unexpected who showed up. Would she run out of craft supplies and disappoint some unsuspecting children. After all, it wasn’t their fault if their parents failed to R.S.V.P. And, in an event with a purpose to create inclusiveness, it would be wrong and off-putting to turn people away.

Do you R.S.V.P. yes  or no to every invite you receive?

To an event planner, that yes or no response makes the difference between having enough pre-cut craft pieces or not having enough. It is the difference between having enough juice boxes for the kids whose parents responded or having to turn people away with kids who may have wanted to do a craft project and a juice box but didn’t respond and feeling badly about it. And, if you don’t RSVP to an event like a wedding that requires head counts by the caterer or table seating arrangements, you may quickly fall off invitee lists of the future.

This problem seems systematic in my community, I wonder if this goes on everywhere. Are the e-vites that appear in our overloaded e-mail and social networking in boxes not as significant as the invitations that are mailed to us the old-fashioned way?

Now, am I innocent of the crime of not RSVPing to something, and then showing up? Absolutely not.

A few months ago, I had plans to attend what I thought was an informal learning session after Saturday morning services at my synagogue. What I, in my hurry in reading the email, failed to see that it was a LUNCH and learn, and one had to RSVP.

I didn’t RSVP

As a result, I felt like a heel. An idiot.

I had  no premade name tag. No table tent had been carefully prepared by an administrative assistant who made ones for  those who made it their business to RSVP in a timely manner.

There was food. None of it was ordered for me. Because they didn’t think I was coming.

So, I took no food. Not until after all the people who had the decency to respond had theirs first. Even though people said no worries, I should go up and help myself. No, I thought. I didnt’ RSVP properly. It served me right.

So, if you get in your email or social networking inbox an event, remember there are people behind that invite who have a lot of details to take care of, budgets to stay within, name tags to print and a finite number of  sandwiches to order.

Even if you have to say ‘no,’ a regret is far more appreciated than no response at all.

Is one life worth it?

I usually don’t like when Israel is in the news. That is because US media coverage of Israel is rarely about the medical advances of Israeli doctors, or technological breakthroughs that happen in this tiny country with the world’s most high-tech startups per capita.

Coverage is usually about Occupation. Conflict. Tit-for-tat attacks and “disproportionate acts of aggression” by Israel to her neighbors, most who are hell-bent on the destruction of the only country on the planet with a Jewish majority.

So last week, when news first surfaced about Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped in 2006 by Hamas, I immediately thought it was bad news. The person who was telling me the potentially good news was sitting in the passenger seat of my car. She was a teacher. And she had vested interest in the outcome of one of the most unprecedented prisoner exchanges in Israeli history. Because she was Israeli.

My guest was Inbar, one person in an eight-member Israeli delegation visiting Rochester area schools, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as part of the Partnership 2Gether Education Bridge program, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Rochester.

Israeli teachers and community leaders visited both religious and secular public schools such
as Scribner Elementary School in Penfield, Webster High School; and Twelve
Corners Middle School and French Road Elementary School in Brighton. Questions
from children in younger grades included what types of sports are played and
what kids wear in Israel. High school students posed more ethical questions
about religious diversity and the current prisoner swap that unfolded each day
of the Israeli’s visit.

They stayed with hosts, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

Does it shock you that Israeli Jews, like many Americans, struggle with their own Jewish identity? Is living in Israel enough for them?

The Israelis left Rochester with an enormous appreciation of the degree at which Americans tolerate one another’s different customs, religions and different levels of observance. They hopped around in our sukkahs. They attended services in our synagogues and many of them saw women participating in religious congregational life for the first time. Women here can be rabbis. Women here in America can read from and be called to the Torah for an aliyah. Then, they went shopping.

From what our Israeli guests told me, many have chosen a purely secular life, though in Israel, all Jewish holidays are national ones. Most Israelis are tired of being dictated by the religious right, which have a very strong hold on government. But, after visiting American Jews, who try to mix traditions with modernism, they want to welcome back Jewish traditions into their lives, but on their terms. As secular as they are, the lives of Israelis, including decisions made by the Israel Defense Forces, are governed by Jewish values. One of these values is the commandment of Pidyon Shvuyim, the redemption of captives.

As the week went on, the pending release of Gilad Shalit in exchange for Arabs with known blood on their hands, weighed heavily on our guest’s minds. Was it really true? Was Gilad coming home at last? And would he be released alive?

Gilad was kept in our hearts, prayers, and classrooms all week. We read from a story that Gilad wrote when he was only 11 years old. It had been illustrated and published into a book. It has been read by children the world over as a message of peace.

In the very early hours of Oct. 18, I climbed the stairs to the guest bedroom in my attic to wake Inbar with some very good news. Gilad Shalit, 25, was home and free.

Many have questioned the logic of this lopsided swap. As TV coverage streamed the news later that day at a gym where I was working out, a fitness instructor apologized if her question sounded crass, but she asked if he was worth it.

What do you think? Is one life worth saving?

Curbing Anger, Switching to Decaf: Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and the holiest day on the Jewish Calendar, begins tonight at sundown. It is a day of deep self-reflection and examination. Included in the liturgy of the day is a prayer we say over and over again throughout the 25-hour fast. The Al Cheyt prayer is a laundry list of sins and transgressions that we may have committed during the year. Most of them are not against Gd. The big sins listed are not: I played golf on Saturday instead of attending synagogue; or I ate a bacon double cheeseburger at McDonald’s ……

Most of the transgressions that are found within the prayers in Yom Kippur involve what fellow human beings do and think about one another. Most of the sins involve our ill behaviour. Most of the sins involve crimes of ill speech.

I asked my Hebrew school students what wrongdoings they see in their immediate lives. And from what they told me, we live in an angry society.

  • One student, while waiting in line at Wegmans, overheard a customer yelling at a cashier that she had charged her too much for an item.
  • Another student, again at Wegmans, witnessed one customer chasing another customer claiming that he had hit her shopping cart with his and had not apologized.
  • One kid said his dad yelled way too much
  • Another hand went up and a seventh grader confessed that his mom got mad because a food server at a Bruggers Bagels informed her that they did not have the exact flavor of bagel she had requested.

Road rage. Rage against stewardesses on airplanes. Angry Birds. Let’s face it, there is way too much anger in our society.

I am no innocent in this department.

This week my family experienced an onslaught of technical difficulties. My bottom freezer would not seal properly and there was a snowstorrm of frost accumulating. I quickly blamed this in my youngest son, who often puts all his weight (well, he is only in the fifth percentile of his age group for weight) on the freezer door when looking for an ice cream treat. The frostier my freezer became, the angrier I got at my son.

My computer, a Lenovo, which really turned out to be a Lemono, had to go back in the shop,for a third time. I was getting very angry at the business that sold me this computer.

As I spent the entire Monday morning waiting for the Sears repairman to come for my freezing freezer, I could feel my anger swelling. Where was he? Why did  I have to reschedule my day and wait around from 8 a.m to 12 p.m. and here it was 12 and he still had not yet arrived?

When he did come, I did not greet him as warmly as I should.   But he did to me. Mike the Sears repair guy shook my hand as he humbly apologized for being stuck at another call all morning fixing a tricky washing machine. He put on plastic booties over his shoes so he would not bring extra dirt into my already messy house.

He quickly pulled all the shelving out of my freezer. Got to the bottom of the problem: too much build-up of frost around the door. My son was off the hook. Mike also remarked that he had been here before and asked how my oven was doing.

He had been to my house to repair an oven I had long replaced. He remembered me.

After cleaning out my freezer, he apologized for getting melted ice on my floor as he replaced the freezer shelving. My anger melted.
“Really, it’s all okay.” I said.

God sends signs in funny ways to help us put life in perspective. Sometimes, it’s in the form of Mike the repairman.

This year, I will pray to try once again to stop myself from jumping to angry conclusions.

Maybe curbing my caffeine habit will help. At the very least, it will prevent a caffeine withdrawal headache that is bound to hit most of us fasters by 2 p.m. tomorrow.

May your Yom Kippur Fast be one that is meaningful and anger-free.

Training the Trainer – Guiding Eyes for the Blind

I think I have wanted a dog as long as I can remember. I wanted one as a child but my parents said no because it would be too much of a burden to care for a dog and kennel a dog when we traveled. I couldn’t get a dog when I lived on my own during my single apartment dwelling life, but I would borrow my landlord’s dog to get my doggie fix. Then, I vowed I would get a dog once I had a house. Then, we had kids, and that put having a dog way low down on our priority list.

But now….

My kids are getting bigger. The desire for dog ownership has transcended into the next generation. My children ask us for a dog  almost on a daily basis. The answer is usually “no” and sometimes “maybe someday.”

One day, my youngest son bounded off the schoolbus and said: “Guess What?!”

I replied with great interest: “What!!”

My son’s reply: “Can we get a dog?” Poor thing, he was only answered by my sigh of refusal.

But now….

My oldest son Nathan will become a Bar Mitzvah in November. In addition to the studying and the party planning comes the obligatory fulfillment of a mitzvah project, one thing to do to make this world a better place. Nathan’s proposed mitzvah project: to raise a Guiding Eyes dog for the Blind.

Now —  now we’re onto something.

I know. I know if we do decide to train a guiding eye dog, it will not be the way you train an ordinary mutt.   It will need to be more than obedient. It will not even be our pet forever. But truly, what a mitzvah it will be to train one of these beautiful creatures that may one day be a companion for the blind.

“These dogs are not your typical dog pets,” I explain to Nathan, not to discourage him but to make him understand these are not dogs put on Earth for our amusement or enjoyment. They have a job. And it would be our job not to just love and cuddle it but to train it for its intended job.

 And he knows.  For the last two weeks, puppyless though we are, my son and I have tagged along to GEB puppy kindergarten classes to see how the training is done. As I watch the volunteer trainers patiently and lovingly working with their dogs, I am not only humbled at the dedication these volunteers show to their temporary canine companions, but the fact that they have taken Nathan under their wing to train him how to train a guiding eye dog. If we do one day adopt a dog, I will be in their debt.

The Monroe County region of GEB has approximately 25 puppy raisers.  Each year along the Eastern seaboard, Guiding Eyes pairs and trains 170 teams of dogs with blind handlers who receive these dogs at no expense. Puppy trainers are at the heart of this process that in the end enables the blind to live more independent lives.

Being a volunteer puppy raiser is no small commitment. There is a rigorous application process. A regional coordinator visits a potential volunteer to make sure their home is suitable for puppies, and then visits every three months to check the progress of training.

Nathan and I went to two classes: the first was in the community room of a church in Henrietta. The second, on the University of Rochester campus during the carillon bells concert held every Monday evening in the summer.

We’ve learned  few things so far:

  • Guiding eye dogs cannot be distracted: by other dogs, by blowing leaves. They must have their attention at all times on their master. And puppies, like children, are easily distracted. Nathan spent one solid hour working with a puppy named Ben to keep his focus.
  • Once a dog regains its focus on the master, praise it like crazy. Puppies, like children, love positive praise.
  • Nathan learned the difference of luring a dog – using a treat to get them into a position like “down” or “sit” and rewarding it – giving the dog the treat only after it has performed the command with no handling.
  • The dogs must restrain their urges to play with other dogs and people.
  • The potential puppy trainer – and the potential puppy trainer’s mother – must restrain with all their might their urges to squeal “PUPPIEEEEEEEESSS!!!!” and play and joust with every yellow lab in the class.

Classes are held in parks, busses, shopping malls, and even classrooms. The goal is to get these puppies accustomed to as many different situations as possible.

It takes immense dedication, love and patience to train a guide dog.  The process begins at birth and they receive constant human contact from volunteers at the Guiding Eyes Canine Development Center in Patterson, NY.  At nine weeks of age, the best pups already know the commands for “sit,” “stay,” and “down.”  Over the next year, the dogs learn commands such as “come close” – necessary for riding a bus or eating in a restaurant, “load up” – get in the car, and “get busy.”

Yes– if well-trained, these dogs will even do their business on command.

If this blog post has tugged at your puppy-loving heartstrings and you would like to learn more about volunteering, contact

Please don’t Bend the Truth – aka LIE – To Reporters

In the town where I live, I come across many active, vibrant senior citizens. We work out on the treadmill or the elliptical machines side by side. I peek in on their senior exercise classes and think, that’s how I want to be when – if – I reach that age.  I want to be able to still walk on my own, lift a medicine ball over my head on my own.

Many of the seniors that I met at a local senior center were indeed very active. They take classes like Zumba Gold.  Line Dancing.  I wrote a column about senior programming that was long overdue.  I stand guilty of concentrating a lot of my column on more youthful topics, like short-sided soccer and children’s theatre.

The seniors at this center who had just sat down for lunch were thrilled I was there and made me feel very welcome. Okay, they made me feel like a movie star. They were charming and friendly and had some interesting stories to share. One woman told me all about the trips she went on in Elderhostel and all the art she has seen the world over. Intrigued, I asked her more about her life. She said before she had children, she was a professor of fine arts at a local college.

Really? A lover of art, a former student of many art history classes, I was intrigued. I wanted to know more about this woman’s career. She had to be in her late seventies, so having such a profession in her time must have been ground breaking.  I sat and chatted a bit more with her friends at this one table, and parted happy and satisfied that I had my story.

A day later,  there was a message on my voice mail. It was the woman who I interviewed.  The fine arts professor. She said that she may have bent the truth a bit about being a fine arts professor, and she was up at night worrying that I may have printed it, and please don’t print it.

Honestly, at that point I had not even started to write the piece, but I was planning on making this woman a prominent part of my story. I may have even called her to do a separate profile. So, I went through my notes and put a red line through what were untruths.  I didn’t call her back.

Days later, she left another message. She was so sorry she had lied and was “worried to death” that I had printed what she said. Poor woman, I called her back to give her peace of mind.

Turns out she was a very sweet woman, she just lied. She said she had applied for an academic position at this college but was not given one. I guess that her feelings of resentment and rejection were long-lived.  I told her no worries, I had not quoted her in my story after her initial message.

There are many temptations in our lives to lie, especially if we look back on our lives and wish that it had been a bit more exciting, more successful.  How many times have we seen celebrities and politicians apologize for bending the truth to the media? How many times have we seen an author of a successful memoir later stand up and admit that they lied?

There has been much coverage about journalists losing sight of their ethical responsibility to report the truth.  As traditional journalism disintegrates into the blogosphere, the truth becomes even more muddled.  Last November, Arianna Huffington spoke at Ithaca College about the emerging crisis in mainstream media, about how the media does not cover what really happens in our communities but instead focuses on bogus stories to get ratings. She specifically referenced last fall’s “Balloon Boy” fiasco.

So here I am, writing for a traditional print newspaper, focusing my column about everyday people doing good in their towns. But if sweet little old ladies can lie to a lowly freelance reporter like me for a story about a senior citizen center, really, what hope is there for truth in journalism?

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