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“No, you may NOT tip, Young Man!” And other things heard and seen in a Canoe in Muskoka

With absolute awkwardness, I got in the canoe, rented from Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville, at the front. I don’t remember canoes being so wobbly, probably because I hadn’t been in one in at least 20 years.

“Are you sure that this canoe isn’t extra narrow?” I called back to my teen son.

My son climbed into the canoe with ease. The one who earned his golden oar after canoeing for five summers straight at camp. I let him take the back.

It was the last morning together with the boys. It had been a blessing in disguise that we couldn’t drop them off for Session II of the summer at Camp Ramah in Canada as early as we planned. That way, we had this one more adventure before we dropped them off for a whole month at camp.

On the first half of our trip, we divided the boys per canoe: My husband and younger son, 8 in one, and myself and my 13-year-old in another. That worked well. My husband and my teen took control, telling the less experienced rowers (my youngest and I) which side to paddle, and actually how to paddle.

Before  that morning’s canoe ride  with my 13-year-old son, I did not know there was such a thing as a C stroke or a J stroke. To me, it was all one thing, put your oar on the left side or the right, put it deep in the water, and pull back. I also did not know that, several times a week at camp, my son would wake up extra early to go canoeing with a small group of campers. Imagine that, a teen getting up extra early, when at home on vacation, I can barely get him out of bed by 10.

He said at camp he also played his guitar in a canoe.

He also told me one of his most spiritual moments at camp was when he and his other campers brought their prayer books and conducted morning services on the canoe.

Prayer books. On a canoe?

Clearly, the campers knew there were times for tipping the canoe, and other times, carrying precious cargo, times to keep the canoe perfectly balanced.

We rowed along a calm lake that had many inlets and narrow passages, so much that it seemed to have a current like a river. We passed quaint houses with well cared for and decorated docks.

We passed under a freight train bridge where a man working on the rails shouted greetings (and advice) to us from above. (You’ll just have to use your imagination here. I didn’t photograph him. Taking pictures, managing an oar,and trying not to tip over proved to be very challenging!) 

“Great day for a canoe ride, Ay? You should steer a little away from the side, Ay? I say, Ay, I think you’re headed for a rock, steer clear, Ay?”

Was my ineptitude that apparent? All those “ays.” I definitely knew I was in Canada.

Things were going well until, exploring the second half of the lake,  my older son insisted we switch. My son wanted to take his little brother under his wing and show him the ropes of rowing. He offered the argument that his edah (Hebrew for group) of campers never socialized with my son’s age group on waterfront activities and this would be his only chance to have some brother bonding on a boat.

Begrudgingly, (but I knew it was a bad idea) we agreed.

First, they got stuck going around a curve in a bramble of branches.

Then, they kept turning in circles as they got stuck in a current.

My older son overestimated my younger’s experience with the  oar. In his mind, he had to be an expert by now. After all, little brother had been canoeing for  an entire hour with dad. It was a lesson in brother bonding, and resisting the urge to throw little brother overboard.

Now that I was in the canoe with my husband, I wasn’t doing much better. Apparently, sitting in the front of the canoe, I pull my oar out of  the water way too fast and was splashing my husband at every stroke. He was clearly the one in charge in this canoe, the backseat rower.

“Stop splashing me, please! ”

“Three more strokes on your left, please!”

When I was in the canoe with my son, his main suggestion to me:

“Mom, just sit there and let me do the rowing. We’ll be better off that way.”

I did do some rowing, at my insistence. I needed the workout. Was it my fault I didnt’ spend five summers learning how to canoe as a child?  Also, my son didn’t complain that I was getting him was wet when I oared in his canoe! Getting wet was half the fun, just as long as we didn’t tip. Actually, in the heat, I wouldn’t have minded getting tipped, except I had a new camera on board.

Finally, at a private cottage dock with a little white dog barking at us the  whole time, we regrouped and switched back to our original rowing arrangements.

Rowing taught  us several things. For one, when you are in a boat with someone, squabbling just makes you go around in circles. To get anywhere, you both have to paddle in perfect harmony.

It’s Heritage Day at my Son’s School. What are we, anyway?

A note came home in my son’s backpack to state that today, this Friday, the school would be celebrating “International Heritage Day.” Third through fifth grade in my town is a time when students study the cultures of many countries. My child this year studied the cultures of Egypt, Japan, Australia. In successive years they will study about China and ancient civilizations from Greece to Rome to the Inca and Mayan Indians in social studies.

As a culmination and celebration of all this international study, third graders in my son’s school were asked to wear a hat that represents the culture of their immigrant ancestry.

Like most self-respecting Ashkenazi Jews, my family has roots in Russia and Poland. And, if you want to find some real exotic roots in my family, I believe my paternal grandmother was from Vienna, Austria.

But the Polish and Russians never looked upon my ancestors as their fellow countrymen. We were just: Jews. Yids. Pretty much second class citizens. That’s why Jews from Poland and Russia came over in droves to the United States – for economic if not religious freedom.

In my house, we don’t have any connection to Russian or Polish culture. How we identify, ethnically, is through Jewish culture.

So, what hat to use? The Moroccans have the Fez. The Mexicans, the Sombrero and the French, the beret, the Italians have the Fedora (acually, my older son has taken up wearing the fedora because he is so very dapper).

So, this brings me back to the question: What country do we identify?

I should have just put a Yankee Doodle style hat on my son’s head. We are Americans. But are we something else as well?    Is Judaism a people? A religion? A Culture?

With what other country do we identify?

I could have chosen an Israeli Kibbutznik style hat, but that would be so … 1950’s.

So outdated. And, as much love as we have for our spiritual homeland, we are not Israeli.

So of course, to show off our heritage, we selected this one.

A kippah, in the Bukharan style, that we purchased this winter in Jerusalem as we made our way to the Western Wall.

This is the hat of our heritage.

What to do when you are the “not-quite-Out-of-Town guests?”

semi-finals at a Bat Mitzvah Hula Hoop Contest. How long can she spin 12 hoops at once?

To anyone reading this who lives in a BIG metro area like Los Angeles, New York City, Toronto…. let me ask you this:

If you are invited to a wedding/Bar Mitzvah/christening/fill-in-the-blank life occasion across town with a religious service in the morning and party at night,do you get a hotel room for the weekend?

I didn’t think so.

If you are the planner of a big life event occasion and invite many out-of-town guests, do you pull out all the stops in providing them with extra special treatment: (reserve a block of hotel rooms, extra dinners and brunches, goodie bags in their hotel rooms)?

Of course you do, they are the out-of-towners!

This past weekend, my whole family was invited to the Bat Mitzvah of a friend my son made in Camp Ramah. My daughter is friends with the girl’s sister, and our two families have developed this great Camp Ramah connection over the years. We were very honored to be invited to this happy occasion as a family. There are too many sad occasions in life that we juggle our lives to attend,so why not do a little schlepping for the happy ones?

As a kid growing up in Staten Island, I remember going to weddings and bar mitzvahs,  and later on youth group dances “out on the Island” – in this case Long Island. My dad had a special name for this stretch of suburbia that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t matter where your destination was on the Island. Any trip from SI to LI was  to a place called “all the way out” on the Island.

I remember the traffic as we traveled and my dads angry muttering at the wheel. There was traffic on the Belt. The BQE. The LIE. And the GCP. (If you don’t know what these stand for, you are not from NYC.) It would take what seemed hours to get anywhere. And still does.

In reality, the distance in miles was only 40 miles or so, but it was the traffic that made the journey take hours.  But never did my parents  think about getting a hotel room or consider staying overnight. Because LI was still considered “in town.”  I remember drowsy drives back to the other island, Staten Island, when my brother and I would fall asleep in the back in our party clothes, my parents singing doo-wop oldies tunes to their heart’s content in the front seat.

Drive over an hour in the New York Metro Area, you are still in the New York Metro area.

Drive over an hour in Rochester, you are in Buffalo

So, at the beginning of the weekend, when we parted with friends at a Friday night dinner and announced to our Rochester friends we were headed to Buffalo for a Bat Mitzvah, they actually said to us “Have a nice trip!”

When you are transplantednorth, traveling an hour to go for a visit is nothing. Staying at a hotel overnight was out of the question.But the question remained, how were we going to pull this day off?

The day came with logistical challenges. We left our house very early Saturday morning to get to the synagogue in Buffalo**. We had to pack two extra sets of clothes for each family member, one casual outfit for hanging around the hotel, and then more formal attire for the evening party. Plus bathing suits because the kids were invited to swim in the hotel pool, so that meant toiletries too, but where to shower?

When we got to Buffalo, we sat through a very nice warm service and at the luncheon reception, known as the kiddush, we made fast friends with several couples who all were from out-of-town to bring their children, also campers, to celebrate their friends’ Bat Mitzvah. I told them we were “from” Rochester, but as conversations went on, our native accents revealed themselves.

As we relaxed that afternoon in the hotel lobby, one of the dads spoke up and asked my husband and I: “You didn’t grow  up in Rochester, did you?  Where are you really from?”

That night, after eating and dancing to the sounds provided by a DJ company called the Bar Mitzvah Boys – who are from Rochester – we didn’t get home until 1 a.m. For my husband and I, it was now our turn to stay awake and sing while the kids slept in the back all the way home.

**Yes, we drive on Shabbat. Conservative Judaism has a decree that allows one to drive if it is to worship at a synagogue. There was some irony to all this, because once we arrived in Buffalo, we had nowhere to go and nothing to do but  read and chat with some real “out-of-town” guests who invited us to spend the afternoon at their hotel. So, we did drive, but in the end had a very relaxing Shabbat.

Where Getting Rained out can be a Blessing

You see that blue sky above the ancient white stones? Beautiful, yes? And not a cloud in the sky. It hardly ever rains here. This is Israel. So, who would imagine our family celebration would be rained out?

Back in July, I went through all the right channels in Israel to reserve my family a time slot at the Davidson Archeological Center (in the above picture) for a second Bar Mitzvah celebration for my son. I pictured a sun-soaked day like the one above. I packed khakis and open toed sandals and cotton button-down shirts for the boys. No ties. Very Israeli. For my daughter and I, flowing thin ankle length skirts. And sandals.

All the while, we’ve been praying for rain each Shabbat. In Judaism, Jews have a special prayer we say between the High Holidays and Passover:

Mashiv Haruach U’Morid Hagashem

Bless you Gd who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.

Of course, praying for rain is good for anyplace, but especially Israel. They don’t have the Nile River. Or the Great Lakes. Their main source of water for crops, for their showers and drinking needs, is rain.

Our prayers were answered. And, yes, we felt very blessed in a country that only receives 19.4 inches of rain all year. The rain drenched Jerusalem the  day of our celebration. When rain falls in Jerusalem, the sidewalks, made of that white limestone, become very slippery. The rain made it impossible to take out a Torah Scroll in an outdoor setting.

So, inside we went to the Fuschberg Center for Conservative Judaism where we worshipped with ironJew Rabbi Matthew Field officiating:

My parents, daughter, Nathan and Rabbi Matthew Field

Before our trip , many asked me if we would have Nate’s Bar Mitzvah at the Kotel.

I said no.

I already had that experience – pretty much a slap in the face – at my own “Bat Mitzvah” at the Kotel. Being that I was a girl, I didn’t have to really do anything. But my dad got an aliyah and I got to wave from him from the women’s section.

I have absolute respect for those who pray at the Kotel. I utter my deepest prayers there too.  But for me, as a woman,  the Kotel is a place for individual reflection and personal prayer.  I’m not asking this place to change. It is the Kotel, after all.

But for my family celebration, I wished to have a completely egalitarian service where our family: us, kids, parents, and grandparents, could stand together to celebrate. I also wanted my daughter and I to have a chance to read Torah in Jerusalem.

And we did.

The next day, we returned to the Davidson Archeological Park to explore an area excavated to show how King Herod built an enormous arch (named Robinson’s Arch for the American Archeologist who discovered this place on the Southern edge of the Western Wall) to create a bridge between the upper part of Jerusalem to the Temple Mount.

If you are looking to have an egalitarian service, this is the place. And, pray for good weather of the sunny variety:

Tunneling Through time under the Western Wall


After years of waiting, finally I got to take a tour of the passageways below the Western retaining Wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem.

In 1967, when Israel reunified Jerusalem after capturing the Old City from the Jordanians, the Jewish Quarter of the Old city lay in ruins.  For nineteen years, Jews had been kept away from their holiest site from the Jordanians. Jordan had destroyed most of the synagogues in the Jewish Quarter. Most of the Western Wall, the remnant of the Holy Temple that stood two thousand years ago and was destroyed in 70 AD, was buried in rubbish.

When Israel recaptured the Old City from Jordanian rule, Israeli authorities pledged that they would restore the Old city and do extensive renovations along the Western Wall, and then continue these restorations to the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. After decades of painstaking excavations, the tunnels were opened to the public in 2002.

For complete details on the history of these excavations, click here.

When most people think of the Western Wall, this image comes to mind:

Actually, this is only a small portion of the enormous Western Wall that King Herod (truly the Donald Trump of his day) had constructed as a retaining wall to expand the Temple Mount to support the Second Temple.

Today, this massive wall is buried and where over the centuries, the Moslem Quarter of the Old City was built over the rubble.

So, we began our journey under the Western Wall at the extreme left corner of the above photo:

 Appropriately, for Chanukkah, our guide was Mattisyahu (no, not that one), originally from Atlanta, who used Toby as a volunteer:

Toby helping out Mattisyahu demonstrate the massive size (40 feet long) each Herodian stone for the foundation of the Temple Mount

Below the surface, there are narrow passageways, but there are also cavernous rooms. The visitor is taken back to the First Century, the heyday of Jerusalem at the time of the Second Temple.

The Western Wall Tunnels provide an odd mixture of tourists

devout women wishing to pray in the quiet subterranean solitude,

As close as they can get: women of the Western Wall Tunnels

and construction workers.  In the distance, down a tunnel not yet open to the public, there are the noises of hammers and drills as further excavations are meticulously conducted as to not disturb the houses in the Moslem Quarter overhead.  There are new discoveries made every day.

 Down here, even construction work is holy.

Am I a Bad Jew? An open letter to Benjamin Netanyahu

Dear Bibi,

I am writing to you somewhere within the American diaspora. In a few weeks, my husband and I will be taking our children and our parents on our first family trip to Israel. When we get there, I hope that the Israelis we meet there don’t think that we are devoid of any Judaism or Jewish life back in evil America.

Let me explain. I just viewed some commercials made by the Israeli government warning them of the risk of assimilation, of losing their Jewish identity if they move to and remain in America. The Jewish Federations of America, along with most American Jews, took offense.

A lot of controversy has been stirred by this  ad campaign trying to lure Israelis living in America to come back home to Israel if they want their own children to remain Jewish.

To those of you not familiar with it, here is an example of such an ad. Basically, an Israeli grandma and Grandpa in Israel are skyping with their family in America. The grandparents, seated in a living room with a lit Chanukkiah (candles for chanukkah, it’s NOT a menorah)  in the background, ask their granddaughter what holiday she is celebrating. She joyfully shouts (to her parents’ dismay) “Christmas!”

(this ad has been removed as I write this post)

Here is what I know, good and bad, about Jewish life in America and Jewish life in Israel.

  • Israel, you have no better friends in the world than the Jews of America.
  • I am involved with the Partnership2Gether program in my city. Each time we are visited by our Israeli counterparts, friendships are forged and dialogues begin about Jewish identity on both sides of the sea.
  • The Israelis making their first visit to America greatly admire how hard American Jews have to work to maintain our Jewish ties. Yes, we are pulled in many directions trying to balance secular commitments with the religious. But yes, we enjoy the freedom we have of making our own choices.
  • The Israelis who came here greatly admire the role of women in synagogue life. Some of them for the first time saw women serving as rabbis. Some of them for the first time had the honor of being called to the Torah for an aliyah.
  • Israelis who visited America expressed their disgust with extremist religious strains that take an “all or nothing” approach to observing mitzvot to the point that rather than trying to observe Judaism to their own comfort level, they have abandoned any Jewish practice at all.
  • Yes, some of my middle-school aged Hebrew school students are from intermarriages. And many of them struggle with their identity, especially in December. But we have to respect that non-Jewish parents who love their children made the hard choice and the sacrifice to raise their child in a religion that is not their own. It is a choice they believe in and many try to learn about Judaism right along with their children.
  • My students ask if they are a “bad Jew” if their family doesn’t light Shabbat candles every Friday night. They ask if they are a bad Jew if they help their non-Jewish parent set up Christmas lights. What can I possibly tell them? I can’t. All I can teach them are the tools and the mechanics of Hebrew language and the religion. It is up to the individual parents and families to apply or not apply, these teachings in the privacy of their homes.
  • Am I a bad Jew if I find myself this time of year humming a Christmas tune? Not really, as Christmas permeates every facet of American culture between October 31 and December 25. For impressionable Jewish American children, it is all the more impossible to ignore. I teach my students and my own children that it is okay to admire the lights and decorations, but know it is not our holiday.

Bibi, I’ll be in Israel all of Chanukkah. Why don’t fly over to the states and spend your Chanukkah  in America and see how hard Jewish Americans work to say “no, Christmas is not our holiday. In spite of being a minority, we choose to worship our God and practice our religion the way we choose.”

Isn’t that after all the message of Chanukkah?

A lesson in hospitality

It’s been a while since I’ve had the time to write a blog post, perhaps because I’ve been a little pre-occupied. Hosting a Bar Mitzvah that includes many out of town guests becomes a four-day affair. My column, teaching and profile pieces also kept me spinning these last few weeks. So instead of my rantings, I’ll offer my son’s Bar Mitzvah speech (otherwise known as a d’var Torah – words of Torah) for this post.  I am thankful that he took direction from me during the writing process. After all, what are writing/blogging moms for?

Shabbat shalom,

It has been an honor reading from the torah today. Actually, I was kind of lucky
that my parasha is Vayera. Unlike other parts in the Torah that deal with leprosy, animal sacrifices, or the appropriate punishment for stealing an ox, Vayera offers a classic narrative of stories we all know: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham casting his handmaiden Hagar and their Child Ishmael into the wilderness;  and finally the long-awaited birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah after they showed hospitality to three visiting angels.

If anything, there was too much to write about in my parasha. But I would like to
focus on two central themes: bargaining with Gd and the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, or hospitality. These themes were repeatedly contrasted in this morning’s reading. Let’s start
withSodom and Gomorrah.

Gd calls out to Abraham on the news that He is about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. This
is one of several instances where Gd calls to Abraham, who then says: Heneini –
here I am.  The inhabitants of these two cities are said to be so evil that a kind act such as hospitality to strangers is decreed a crime. The rabbis capture just how bad
the Sodomites were with this Midrash:  The Sodomites refused to expend any of their
lavish wealth on strangers. In fact, Sodom provided only one bed for strangers;
if an unlucky traveler was too short to fit, he was stretched until he could;
if another was too tall, his legs were chopped off.

Even so, when informed of the news of the impending destruction, Abraham shows
courage and actually bargains with Gd: Finally, Abraham agreed with Gd about
the destruction when not even 10 good people could be found.  Gd was pleased that Abraham bargained for the sake of his fellow human beings, even though Gd knew there were not enough good people to save Sodom andGomorrah.

This part of the parsha taught me that one should work very hard to try finding the
good in any instance or that one can find the good in any person.

But this d’var Torah is not about the evil in the world, it’s about people doing
good for others. The main message I learned from Vayera that I can apply
throughout my life is the mitzvah of hospitality. The Talmud states that
hospitality is such a great mitzvah that it is more important to show
hospitality than it is to attend classes of study or to greet Gd in prayer.

In one point in today’s Torah reading, we find Abraham sick and old, yet he is
still waiting in front of his tent to receive guests.  In the distance, he sees three strangers
walking towards him. Suddenly, he moves into action. The text in the Torah
demonstrates how animated he became for the sake of greeting guests. He BOWS to
his guests, he RUNS into his house and SHOUTS to his wife Sarah,

“maheri shalosh s’eem kamah solet lushi, v’asi oogot.”

This translates into something along the lines of “Quick woman! We have guests, make
some cake!”

The words “run” and “quick” are repeated over and over as Abraham hurries to attend
to the strangers’ every need. He personally gets the whole family into the
catering business as they lavish their guests with an abundant feast.

This teaches me that although Abraham is weak and advanced in age, when he sees the
weary travelers, he suddenly finds energy in the mitzvah of welcoming guests
into his tent. Greeting guests to Abraham is more important than his own

In another reference to hospitality, Lot, who is
living in the town of Sodom, is also greeted by angels. He also makes haste in preparing their meal.
However, he does not involve his family, and where Abraham serves his guests at
the doorway of his tent – in view of the public eye – Lot’s
hospitality is done secretly. Still, the Sodomites show their true nature and
look to punishingLot for his good deed.

Perhaps the reason why Abraham enjoyed having so many guests is because of the things
he learned from them.

Pirkei Avot  asks: “Who is wise? He who learns from many is wise.”

As long as I can remember, my family participates in a chavurah every other Friday
night for Erev Shabbat. Everyone in the chavurah takes turn hosting the other
families, and we all pitch in bringing different parts of the meal. When it is
my family’s turn to host, for us kids, it’s not easy. It’s the end of a long
school week and we are tired. But, we are expected to help get the house ready
for our guests. There’s no time to sit around and watch “That 70’s Show.” We
have to rid the kitchen of any papers or any evidence that three busy children
live in the house. After sterilizing the kitchen, we have to find white
tablecloths, sort the silverware, and set up the glasses for Kiddush. But after
our guests arrive, the beautiful singing of Kabbalat Shabbat, plus the usual
ice cream for dessert makes all that work totally worth it.

Inviting guests into your home makes them feel special and more connected to the
community. In turn, perhaps the hospitality they were shown will inspire them
to extend hospitality to someone else.

Sometimes, guests can be close friends and family. Other times, guests can be complete

I’ve learned a lot about Israelis by having teachers from Modi’in stay with us. This past Sukkot, we
opened our sukkah not only to our guest Inbar, but the other teachers who were
visiting plus their hosts. The house was full of energy and about 30 people had
a chance to eat in our Sukkah before the rain started.

Another form of hospitality is letting someone into a group. A good example of this is when you
are in school and your math teacher asks you to split up into groups of two to
work on a project.  Kids, don’t wait for that fellow student that didn’t get put in a group to go through the humiliation of sitting alone in class. Go over and invite him or her into your group.

Another example of being shown hospitality by being included in a group I learned from my mitzvah
project. Over the past few months, I helped train dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. The tricky thing is, I don’t have a dog.


But one puppy raiser named
Becky showed me hospitality by letting me “borrow” her dog Ben during the
class. If it wasn’t for her, I would not have gotten anything out of my mitzvah
project. She and Ben wouldn’t have progressed at a more rapid pace if I wasn’t tagging
along saying things like like “how do you hold the leash?” or “Ooops, I dropped
all the treats on the floor again.”

Guiding Eyes is an all-volunteer run foundation for people who take dogs into their homes, train
them and prepare the dogs for one day serving as a companion to a blind or
disabled person.  It has been very inspiring to see how much Ben has improved in paying attention in the weeks I have worked with him.

Now that I am a Bar Mitzvah, I am honored that the entire Jewish
community is showing hospitality to me, welcoming me in as a fully participating Jewish adult.  Now, if I’m home, or in Hebrew school one afternoon and there is no minyan for mincha/ma’ariv, I can be called upon to help. This will really make me feel important and part of the community.

Vayera concludes with the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  It’s hard to argue that Abraham was being
very hospitable when he obeyed Gd’s command and brought his son Isaac to Mount
Moriah to be sacrificed.

I find that strange, this is a man who bargains and  with Gd to save two cities full of strangers who
are really bad people but doesn’t open his mouth in defense of his son.

I think about my own life, and situations that might happen that might somehow
relate to this, for instance: if my father ever asks me to hike up a mountain
for no apparent reason, I might buy it, but that will change when I notice a saddled donkey in the driveway.

Can 9/11 ever be just another day? And what will I tell my students?

Making the past relevant: students at a Jewish summer camp learning about one sad event, the destruction of the Holy Temple, through the tragedy of 9/11

What a challenging day to make a first impression. On the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, right around the time when the towers crumbled, I will be standing before my class of newly minted seventh graders. I will have to save face and cheerfully smile at my new students and welcome them to a new year of Jewish learning.

All the while, I know at this time I would usually be crying. All the while, I know, in truth, my students would rather be sleeping in on a Sunday morning.  I’m wondering if any other Jewish educators of middle school aged children and older are feeling the way I do; about how to get through this first day.

Let’s hope I don’t lose it and get all teary-eyed in those first introductory moments about an event that happened when my new students were barely out of diapers. After all, ten years to a 13-year-old is a very long time.

I can hear the conversation in the Hebrew School carpool ride home tomorrow: “… new teacher, like, cried on the first day. Ewww.”

For better or worse, time does go on and obligations do not stop just because of a date. Over the years, the date of 9/11 shifted around the days of the week. There have been weddings and homecomings, meetings and business trips.  Sometimes, the anniversary falls in the middle of the week. Sometimes it happens on a Tuesday, the very day of the attacks.

What do I usually do between 8:45 and 9:00 a.m. on the anniversary of 9/11? I’m usually alone. Everyone else in the family has left for school and work. I feel as I should watch the real-time replay of those horrible moments, as CNN plays it every year. Sometimes, I watch it. Most years, I hide in my laundry room in the basement and have a good cry. Then I get on with my day.

What do I usually do the first day of a new school year with my new kids?  I go over expectations. Together, we make a list of class rules. I review classroom procedures and what we will be learning. Also, we have some ice breaker games to get acquainted. 

Can we ignore the events of a decade ago and go on with business as usual? Talking about something as painful as 9/11 on our very first day will be a very difficult thing to do, but just as difficult to ignore. I don’t think crying in front of them, or showing the slightest tear will be an option. Not while we are still strangers.

It’s not that difficult subjects don’t arise in Hebrew school. In fact, it’s these really sensitive topics that have motivated my past students. They really open up and we have amazing conversations. (That’s what I love about the seventh grade, they never cease to surprise you on what they can handle.)

Kids in the seventh grade are ready to not to be kids anymore. After all, it’s the year of their B’nei Mitzvah, their coming of age. They want to talk and they told me last year that sheltering them does them a disservice anyway.

 I remember last year, sitting on the floor with my seventh graders, discussing the Holocaust with them and how the lessons they learned from the Shoah still mean something to them today. But that discussion happened on one of the last days of school, not the first.

So, come Sunday, I’ll stick to my plan. Unless the plan needs to change. In the Talmud, the rabbis instruct to “go with the way a child wants to learn.”  

So, if the topic comes up, I’ll share. I’ll tell them that a decade ago, I was in the middle of filling out my own Rosh Hashanah cards, wishing friends and family a happy New Year when the planes hit.  I’ll tell them that I wrestled with the choice of sending those cards out at all, but in the end I did. Because that Rosh Hashanah, praying for the New Year seemed more important than ever before.

So if I have to scrap my whole lesson so we can gather on the floor, open up and talk about how to approach the madness and the sadness of this day, so be it.

Then, perhaps the next week, they will derive some meaning during Tefilot, or prayers.

They really will thank G-d for sustaining them and giving them the energy for waking to a new day.

They really will thank G-d for making them free and not a slave.

They really thank G-d for strenghening us with courage.

Do Jews hold a Grudge Against Germany?

edit: To add some more to this sentiment: My parents this summer visited Germany. My mom was hesitant to go but she went. They took a river cruise on the Rhine and had a wonderful time. And, everywhere they went, there was not a single place visited where their tour guide did NOT make a mention of the atrocities that happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. The tourguide was extremely compassionate as he discussed the plight of the German Jews with my parents. They would certainly recommend a trip to Germany now that they visited. 

A few nights ago, I had the pleasure of participating in some intense Jewish study with some very intelligent women in my neighborood. The study session was held in preparation for a nine-day mourning period in Judaism that happens each summer culminating with the fast day of Tish B’Av, or the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av.

During this time,  no meat is consumed. Religious women run lots of clothes through the wash before the nine days because no clothing can be laundered in this time period. Swimming is off limits as well.


This time marks some of the saddest occasions in Jewish history, most notable are the destruction of the two Holy Temples – first in 423 B.C.E. and then 70 C.E. – that once stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The destruction of the Temples also marked the Jewish Exile from Israel, which ended only with the establishment of the modern State of Israel in 1948.

So, why mourn something that happened millenia ago?  The issue of how to make  that feeling of mourning relevant today was the topic of our study session.

I started to write this post a day before our study, but what gave me the chills is how our moderator opened the talk with another time of destruction in recent Jewish history: the Holocaust. Even if you didn’t have a direct loss in your family, it was a loss for the Jewish family as a whole, a loss that is still viscerally ingrained in the Jewish psyche today. We should also strive as Jews to make the loss of the Temples just as palpable.

Getting back to the Holocaust:

A few things I deducted from my Hebrew school education about the Holocaust, as taught by our rabbi, son of Holocaust survivors:

  • After the destruction of Jewish life and Jewish culture under the Third Reich, Jews should Never Forget.  Therefore, Jews should never again set foot in Germany
  • Because of Hitler’s infatuation with composer Richard Wagner, because Wagner’s music was the soundtrack of music played as Jews marched to their deaths in concentration camps, Jews shoud Never listen to or play compositions by Wagner.
  • Jews don’t buy BMWs or Volkswagons
  • Again, Jews don’t visit Germany

I held onto these notions a for a long time, including during the summer of 1989, when I spent a month in Israel volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel’s northern region.  To my surprise, many of the other volunteers were not Jewish kids; most were European. To my further surprise, many of them were German.

I never knew any Germans before this encounter.  As I got to know them, I found them to be gentle and kind. They also had a thirst for learning all they could about Jewish culture, Hebrew, Jewish holidays – anything Jewish they could get their hands on, they wanted to learn about.

I asked them – why?

Their explanation: Germans of their generation felt an enormous sense of guilt as to what happened in their country, and that guilt was unjustified. They wanted to learn about Judaism, because, at the time, there were very few Jews in Germany. Still, I expressed my reluctance to ever visit their country.

Instead of being angry with me, their reaction was one of sadness.

Over 20 years have passed and I still struggle with my feelings about contemporary Germany. But just in the last week, there was media coverage about Jews and Germany that is making me reconsider.

The other evening, I listened on NPR the unthinkable: that the Israeli symphony was in Germany playing Wagner compositions.

Former Soviet Jews and young Israelis are settling in Berlin. There, they enjoy a thriving cosmopolitan culture with nighclubs, art galleries and community centers – all with an Israeli twist.

Another one of my brilliant neighbors, Athene Goldstein, returned from a visit to Germany, where her son-in-law, a professor, was delivering a talk on Jewish history in Germany. There, she also visited a museum in Berlin dedicated to Jewish culture. From her working knowledge of German, she could tell that none of the museum’s visitors were Jewish, but again, just as I experienced on that kibbutz, there was that intense curioustiy of wanting to know about Judaism.

“The museum was filled with basic Jewish artifacts: Sabbath candles, Torah Scrolls, a menorah for Chanukkah,” said Athene. “It was Judaism 101. But that is where they are. Germans are very up front about what happened in their country under the Nazis. Now, they just want to know about who their country tried to completely destroy.”

Is the fact that the Jewish population is growing in Germany a sign that Jews are forgetting their past? Or is it perhaps, maybe the best way to deal with the memory of the six million lives lost is to replace what was lost by renewing life there once again?

The Holocaust in Degrees of Separation


a photo of Jews, including Elie Wiesel and my friend's dad, liberated at Buchenwald

Leon Posen, a congregant from my synagogue, passed last week. He lived to the age of 94, blessed with a long life that could have been cut very short.  His passing is still a sad one.  Leon was a Holocaust survivor.

As the years and decades stretch away from World War II and Hitler’s war against the Jews, there are fewer people to tell first hand accounts of what happened in the ghettos and the concentration camps in Europe.

So  who will bear witness in generations to come? Even if we don’t have a direct personal connection to the Holocaust, it is our turn to hear as many accounts as possible, and then tell them to the next generation. This is the only way to keep the vow of Never Again.

In Rochester, about 300 area Hebrew school kids in grades 6-12 watched their peers put on a play called “What Will You Tell Your Children” written by local playwright Jessie Atkin about her trip as a teen to the concentration camps in Poland. The play focused on the reactions of contemporary teens as they toured Auchwitz and faced anti-semitism and a general lack of understanding of Judaism at home.  

I wonder if this new take on the Holocaust – telling the story second-hand and not directly from survivors’ accounts – actually disturbed,unsettled, and horrified the young audience enough to make them really remember. To make them relate. Was it too much of a softball throw in teaching the Holocaust? Is there – should there ever be — a gentle way to teach the Holocaust?  How can it be unforgettable if we do not teach the inhumanity and the horror?

As the students watched the play, I watched the students. And then, I looked them as a whole – a bunch of healthy, creative, sometimes fidgety, teens and preteens. This was the same age demographic that Hitler selected for his Terezin concentration camp in Prague. A room with this many kids, multiply that number until you reach 15,000 kids. That’s how many died in Terezin, I thought. I shivered.

In my Hebrew school, we were spared nothing.  My teacher, Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz, was born in a displaced person’s camp in Cypress. The one depicted in the historical fiction novel “Exodus” by Leon Uris. He was the child of concentration camp survivors. Because of this, in our Holocaust education, we watched many horrible films shot in grainy black and white of the ghettos and camps filled with emaciated bodies. Some tortured and barely alive, some already dead.

But, still, it happened to someone else’s family, not my family, all those years ago. They were disturbing and yes, the first year I really learned about the horrors, I spent many nights curled up at the foot of my parent’s bed to sleep.

Now, I live in Rochester, a small town with an unofficial, intimate club that no one wants to belong to, yet they are proud members of it.  Rochester has many Holocaust survivors whose families are now second, third and even fourth generation survivors. 

It wasn’t until I had friends in this club, that I began to think: if his mother, if her grandfather didn’t survive, than this friend wouldn’t exist, or certain friends of my children would not be here.

Unlike the Yom Hashoah services of my childhood, when it seemed that everyone in my synagogue attended, it seems that Yom Hashoah services are attended mainly by those directly touched by the Holocaust, survivors and their decendants, leaders of the community, particpants in Rochester’s march of hope or our teen trip to the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. So, going to these events, I still feel, thankfully, disconnected.

But in 2006, I had the privlelege of attending in Los Angeles the United Jewish Community’s General Assembly. That year I was the recipient of my community’s young leadership award, along with my traveling companion, Ron. Ron has the biggest heart of anyone I know, and lots of energy. An entrepreneur, he always seems to have three or four business ventures going on as well as several philanthropic projects. This is the kind of guy he is: we were stuck in an airport on the way home waiting for a delayed flight. It was late and people were crabby. Ron goes to the only remaining open store in the terminal, buys a bag of candy, and walks around, offering candy to the stranded travelers.

One part of the trip, young leadership delegates from around the world were taken to L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance. The museum, chronicles the Holocaust and current genocides in world history.  Sadly, it shows visitors that vows of “Never Again” cannot ring true. In the decades since the Holocaust, there has been genocide in Cambodia, the Balkans, Rawanda, Sudan.  Our docent said that the museum has been a destination of feuding gangs of LA to teach them the consequences of hate.

Further into the emotionally-charged museum, we came to the tail end of the Holocaust exhibit. There, transported from a concentration camp, in the corner of a dark room, was an actual bunk where prisioners slept, stacked three levels deep. Two to three men slept on planks on a bed the width as narrow as a twin bed.  In the background, behind the bunk, was a life-sized photo, a well-known photo of survivors of Barrack 66 in Buchenwald. In this photo,  is an emaciated Elie Weisel. I had seen this photo dozens of time in my life. Then, all of a sudden, Ron grabs me by the arm and points. Impossibly, my friend Ron’s face was peering out from the bunk one level above Weisel.

“Stacy!’ my friend cried, “That’s my DAD!”

And that is my degree of separation from the Holocaust. What is yours?

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