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The Challenges of Teaching about Israel

Wed, 08/20/2014 - 05:00

by Jack Wertheimer

With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world?

These questions are difficult enough, but are especially freighted with anxiety because they hold the potential to revive stereotypes of Israel that North American Jewish schools have been trying to counter. When Israel was forced to wage three major wars during its first quarter century, its image as an embattled enclave overshadowed everything else about its existence.

In recent decades, though, Jewish schools have endeavored to present a more rounded picture of Israeli life. Without denying the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, teachers have drawn attention to the rich tapestry of Israeli culture — its diverse inhabitants, culinary treats and eclectic music, for example — and, of course, its technological wizardry. School trips to Israel have highlighted the country’s natural beauty and its enjoyable recreational scene, even while exploring the strong connections between the land and the Jewish religion. Educators are understandably loath to resurrect the earlier imagery that simplistically portrayed Israel as a country permanently on war footing.

Responses to the Gaza war require North American Jewish schools to address a second topic that had been pushed to the background in recent years — anti-Semitism. Students in all likelihood are not oblivious of the virulent hostility to Israel and Jews surfacing in the media and on the Web. It’s not clear how prepared schools are to address this issue. In reaction to the overemphasis on the Holocaust the 1960s through the 1980s, the pendulum of American Jewish fashion has swung away from discourse about anti-Semitism. Now, with the blatantly negative media coverage of Israel’s prosecution of the war and the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the globe, the subject warrants considerably more attention.

The dilemma facing schools in addressing the new anti-Semitism is how to avoid reviving what historian Salo Baron once described as “the lachrymose [tearful] conception of Jewish history.” The saga of the Jews is about a great deal more than persecution. Yet with the barely concealed animosity toward Jews evident in some quarters here in America and abroad, alas, the need to teach young people about the insidious nature of anti-Semitism has become pertinent again.

As they formulate a school response to the war, educators might consider three important lessons derived from “Hearts and Minds,” a recent report on Israel education in North American Jewish schools:

First, one size does not fit all students. Classrooms this September will contain some students who are largely ignorant about the Gaza war and others who have been exposed to it up close. Students who spent part of the summer in Israel undoubtedly will attest to what it was like to run to bomb shelters or sense the fear aroused in Israel’s populace by Hamas tunnels. Teachers will face the daunting task of bridging differences in what students heard from their parents and absorbed elsewhere about the war. The diversity of students and their families adds a considerable measure of complexity to an already challenging situation. All of this places a great responsibility upon teachers to prepare differentiated responses to a broad range of students.

Second, when teaching about Israel, it is imperative to work with students’ minds as well as their hearts. Jewish schools have focused their attention especially on the latter, an understandable approach with younger children. But by their middle school and high school years, students deserve to be exposed not only to the joyous dimensions of the Jewish state, but also to the complexities within Israeli society and outside of it in the tough neighborhood of the Middle East.

And third, teaching about other Jewish communities — their achievements and challenges — does not detract from a connection to Israel but strengthens the ties of students to the Jewish people and also Israel. In some parts of the world, notably in several European countries, Jewish communities are under siege. American Jewish students should not be shielded from these ugly realities. This is the time to teach students about the interconnectedness of all Jews, a lesson that will also strengthen their engagement with Israel and its people.

The Gaza war presents Jewish schools with a teachable moment, a time to explore with their students (in an age-appropriate manner) the asymmetrical struggle in which Israel is engaged and the surge in hatred confronting  Jews — including children — in many parts of the world.

Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, co-authored “Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools,” published last spring by the AVI CHAI Foundation. This piece and the accompanying photo originally appeared at JTA.org and are reprinted with permission.

Philadelphia Synagogue's Historian Found Beaten to Death in Home

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 18:36

A Philadelphia man who served as his synagogue’s informal historian was found beaten to death in his home.

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Philadelphia synagogue’s historian found dead in home

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 17:25

(JTA) — A Philadelphia man who served as his synagogue’s informal historian was found beaten to death in his home.

The body of Lee Stanley, 65, a longtime member of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, was found on Friday, CBS Philly reported. Homicide detectives are investigating.

Rabbi Jill Maderer of Rodeph Shalom told the radio station that Stanley’s father, Harry, was a “legendary cantor” at the historic congregation in Center City and that Stanley “had a great love for Judaism, for Jewish prayer, for Jewish history and Jewish music.”

Members of the congregation frequently looked after Stanley, visiting him when he was sick because he had few living family members, the rabbi said.

According to Philly.com, fellow congregants said Stanley as the synagogue’s informal historian “could pluck from his mind details most others had long forgotten — or never thought to preserve: the precise date the congregation changed the melody for a particular song or tinkered with the Hebrew phrasing of a prayer.”

Police said there were no obvious signs of a break-in or of anything taken, indicating the possibility that Stanley may have known or even admitted his killer or killers into the home.

A $20,000 reward is being offered by the City of Philadelphia for information in the case.


Anti-Israel Protesters Target Synagogue in Geneva

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 13:27

Anti-Israel protesters demonstrated outside Geneva’s main synagogue.

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Anti-Israel protesters target synagogue in Geneva

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 11:51

(JTA) — Anti-Israel protesters demonstrated outside Geneva’s main synagogue.

A Swiss watchdog group said the weekend protests in front of the Beth Yaakov, or Grande, Synagogue were the first public displays of hostility in Switzerland toward Israel since the conflict with Gaza began in early July.

A veiled woman carried a sign reading “Every synagogue is an Israeli embassy” and waved a Palestinian flag on Saturday morning, according to the Intercommunity Coordination Against Anti-Semitism and Defamation watchdog organization, or CICAD. The same protester returned that night accompanied by three men, the group said.

A second woman wearing a Palestinian flag around her neck tried unsuccessfully to enter the synagogue, according to the watchdog. The protesters told police that they have a right to protest and threatened to return the following Saturday.

“With this first public demonstration of hostility towards the Jewish community in Geneva since the beginning of the conflict in Gaza, an unacceptable step was taken,” CICAD said. “Synagogues should not become the new places of expression of hatred against Israel.”

CICAD called on local politicians, including those who support the Palestinian cause, to denounce this kind of action against the Jewish community and for authorities to take action to protect the Jewish community.


Engage Jewish Youth During the High Holiday Season

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 09:00

With the High Holidays approaching, congregations are considering new ways to effectively connect to more youth at this vital time in the Jewish calendar. If your synagogue is among those looking at new approaches this year, consider the following variables:

  1. Make sure the program content is varied. Teens need spirituality, but are also drawn to the arts, service, current events, and connections to their own passions, hobbies, and commitments.
  2. Consider the program location. It’s important that teens feel comfortable in the synagogue, but by utilizing different locations, we will open programming to a broader group of teens.
  3. Timing, schedule, and duration make a huge impact. It’s essential that what we are offering takes place at different times of the day, and for a variety of durations, in order to connect with the greatest number of young people.
  4. Tap older teens to help plan and recruit their younger peers. We all respond best to personal invitations, and younger teens are always excited when personally invited by an older peer.

In the past, the URJ used email to share different ideas and strategies, and you can still sign up to receive Jewish Holiday Reminder emails from ReformJudaism.org. This year, we are excited to be able to introduce you to an effective collaboration platform, The Tent Yammer Network. Yammer is a great way to share ideas, questions, and thoughts in real-time, and drum up conversation amongst our peers. Want to join the conversation? Visit the Youth Engagement group in The Tent Yammer Network to contribute your examples and see what others are discussing. If you don’t yet have an account or want to learn more about how it works, we’ve put together some helpful information on our website.

The approaching holidays offer us a tremendous opportunity to reflect on all the things we are doing well and the opportunities we have to more deeply connect to even more young people in our communities. Our Reform Jewish youth and their families also look forward to the time when they can acknowledge all they have achieved and their growth while looking forward to the year that lies ahead.

Israeli Students Will Talk About Gaza War at Start of School Year

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 07:35

The first two weeks of the Israeli school year will include discussion of Israel’s operation in Gaza, the education ministry announced.

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Israeli students to talk about Gaza operation at beginning of school year

Tue, 08/19/2014 - 05:57

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The first two weeks of the Israeli school year will include discussion of Israel’s operation in Gaza, the education ministry announced.

The ministry on Monday issued a syllabus to teachers which calls on them to allow students to talk about their personal experiences and to work on special projects in which they express their feelings about the month-long operation, dubbed Protective Edge.

School starts in Israel on Sept. 1.

Teachers also are asked to hold discussions about freedom of speech in a democratic society and how to hold an open dialogue.

Schools also are expected to hold cultural events and talent shows in an effort to help students relax following a summer of running to bomb shelters and hearing news of rocket attacks.

“We dedicate the first week of school as well as the school year to addressing the scourge of racism and talking with students about the aspects of tolerance, acceptance of others and the eradication of racism in society,” Education Minister Shai Piron said in a statement on the Ministry’s website.

Meanwhile, the Home Front Command is considering changing school bus routes in southern Israel to make sure the students have a protected place to disembark in the event of a rocket attack, according to reports.



Remembering Leonard ‘Leibel’ Fein, ‘a great man in Israel’

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 16:25

Leonard Fein receiving an award from Moment Magazine’s editor, Nadine Epstein, 2010. (Courtesy Moment Magazine)

NEW YORK (JTA) — In II Samuel, Chapter 1, when David learns of the death of Abner, he proclaims to his soldiers and all of Israel, “You well know that a prince, a great man in Israel, has died this day.” When I learned of the death of my friend Leonard “Leibel” Fein at the age of 80 last Thursday, I thought immediately of that line — Leibel truly was “a great man in Israel.”

Leibel Fein has been described as a journalist, a writer, an academic and an activist, and he surely was all of these things. However, he was above all, for me, an “echte yid,” a learned and feeling Jew steeped in the values and teachings of the tradition.

The first time I met him in person was in 1978, although I had already read a number of his writings and certainly knew who he was. Leibel addressed an informal conference I attended, and I was fortunate to sit at his table at dinner.  He reminded me immediately of both Arthur Hertzberg and Arnold Jacob Wolf: He shared their politics and their intellect, and I felt with him, as I did with them, that I was in the presence of someone truly extraordinary. He laughed easily and was extremely easygoing and pleasant, speaking in an unaffected manner that belied but did not subvert the important lessons and messages – the challenges — he was sharing.

I found Leibel to be like this not only during that first meeting but on every occasion I was fortunate enough to be in his presence. He provided a model of what it meant to be a mensch — a Jewish human being.  He made me want to do more, to be a better person.

Raised as a Labor Zionist in the home of a Baltimore Hebrew College professor, Leibel had Yiddishkeit emblazoned in his soul. His love for the Jewish people and the State of Israel was unending even as it was often critical. His commitment to a progressive Zionism was a touchstone of his life, leading him in the 1970s to raise his prophetic voice in defense of the group Breira and its left-liberal viewpoints on Israel, and later to become a founding member of Americans for Peace Now.

In his hundreds and hundreds of columns, in his academic books and in both public and private talks, Leibel prodded and provoked Jews to do more. He taught that we could never be satisfied with either the state of the world or the condition of the Jewish people, and he goaded us constantly with his brilliance, his fearlessness, his directness, his ethics and his passion. He took seriously the biblical command to offer rebuke to our people when reproof was needed – which he always felt it was. He taught that tikkun olam, the repair of the world, was always possible and demanded we strive for repair and improvement of ourselves, the Jewish people and the world.

Leibel expressed his talents in so many ways. He was a major intellectual whose books on Israel and Zionism, American Jews and Judaism, American politics and institutions earned him fame and academic posts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University. He helped shape both scholarly and popular discourse and policy directions on these topics throughout his lifetime. The policies of outreach and inclusion that Rabbi Alexander Schindler advanced during his years as president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, as well as the significant expansion of the work of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — an expansion that continues unto this day — were stimulated in no small measure by the aspirational and challenging vision of a dynamic Reform Judaism that Leibel put forth in 1970 in his brilliant book “Reform Is a Verb.”

His activism expressed itself in his service as chairman of the Commission on Social Action of the Reform movement and his founding of Moment Magazine, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the National Coalition for Jewish Literacy.

In a world where divisions and binary thinking abound, when people all too often think in “either-or” categories, Leibel demonstrated that it was possible to be “both-and.” He was a scholar and intellectual, but he also was a man of action who created some of the most vital and humane organizations and projects in modern Jewish life. Leibel insisted that change could come both within and beyond the world of the Jewish establishment, and he walked easily and always provocatively in both countercultural and established institutional realms.

Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 10:12, wrote, “Our sages have commanded us to visit the Gentile sick and to bury their dead along with the dead of the people Israel, and to support those that are impoverished among them along with the poor of the people Israel.”

Leonard “Leibel” Fein internalized this teaching in the depths of his soul and acted upon it with all the powers at his disposal. He embodied the dialectic of both universalism and particularism that Judaism requires, and he realized it in his teachings, his writings and in his many creations. His words came from the heart and therefore entered into ours.

I, along with so many others both within and beyond the bounds of the people Israel, will be eternally indebted to him for the enduring legacy he has bequeathed. “Y’hi zichro baruch” — “his memory and his life are a blessing.”

(Rabbi David Ellenson is the chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and was its president from 2001 to 2013.)



The Porch: It’s Southern, It’s Open, and It’s Jewish

Mon, 08/18/2014 - 09:15

For the past 18 months, the URJ supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.

by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

When I was ordained a cantor in 2011, I never imagined that leading a congregation’s young adult group would fall within my professional portfolio. I’d never taken the much-lauded community organizing class and I didn’t think informal education was my thing. (In retrospect, it would have been great to have developed community organizing and informal education skills in advance.) As a part-time assistant cantor in Charlotte, NC, I expected to teach b’nai mitzvah kids and adult ed, lead services, and attend lots of meetings – all of which I do.

Even a year after moving to Charlotte, however, I didn’t have many local friends, and I missed the ones I’d left behind in New York. Looking to enrich my life, I asked to take on our young adult group and our Tot Shabbat group. Despite regular attendance at events, neither group was creating meaningful community among members and before long, I was experimenting with doing just that.

At the same time, the URJ invited synagogues to join its Communities of Practice (CoP) initiative, bringing together lay and professional leaders from Reform congregations across North America for 18 months of shared learning, networking, and experimenting, all with a specific focus. I was thrilled when our congregation applied and was selected to participate in the Families with Young Children cohort, knowing that I could apply whatever skills and ideas I learned to our young adult population as well.

Our CoP kicked off in January 2013 and my lay partner and I traveled to Chicago for the event, an invaluable experience that provided me with three main takeaways:

  • Don’t be afraid to completely break down what is and start from scratch. Both Rabbi Benay Lappe and Rabbi Rick Jacobs stressed that if that’s the right thing to do, just do it. Do it with all your will, and do not be afraid.
  • We must know the lives of those we serve. To truly help them, we need to be aware and extremely mindful of their needs.
  • It’s never about how many people show up, but rather about how much the people who show up take away.

With the Chicago takeaways fresh in my mind, we convened as many thoughtful, interesting people as we could find – singles, families with kids, those who are deeply committed to Jewish life, and those who swore they’d never join a synagogue. One by one, we asked them to come help build the Jewish world they want to see. Through those first conversations, our dedicated lay leadership team was born, and The Porch, Temple Beth El’s Young Adults and Young Families Community, followed.

Seeking to create an open, accessible community devoted to promoting connections among young singles, young couples, and young families, we carefully constructed “hybrid” events — picnics, bowling, and late afternoon Shabbat activities that conclude with Havdalah – that appeal equally to 20-something singles and 30-something parents with young kids. After all, who isn’t up for an opportunity to relax with a beer and hang-out with friends? We also offer events for specific cohorts within the community: happy hour, Tot Shabbat, and Torah study, among others. In all our community building efforts, we rely on social media and personal outreach to foster relationships, build trust, and encourage participation.

In March 2014, we launched Shabbat Supper Club, the epitome of The Porch and, I believe, what the synagogue of the future can be.

Using social media, email, and personal asks, we convened groups of people – singles, couples, and families with young children – willing to have Shabbat dinner together once a month. Members of each group take turns planning and hosting dinners – mostly in homes, but sometimes in restaurants or parks. Regardless of the setting, all the events are beautiful because they build Jewish lives, Jewish observance, and Jewish community in an ongoing way (and explicitly give people permission to skip services). In fact, Shabbat Supper Club members often ask how they can incorporate more Judaism into their time together. Although I don’t attend the dinners, as the groups’ members connect to each other and to Judaism, I work to maintain their connections to the synagogue. Building on the Shabbat Supper Club’s initial success, this year we will expand it to families with school-aged children.

Thanks to our participation in a URJ Community of Practice cohort, which inspired the Shabbat Supper Club and all of The Porch initiatives, not only are we strengthened by the engaged community we’re building, but we’re empowered to figure out what it means to be a synagogue that nurtures ongoing relationships outside the walls of the building. I am deeply moved by what The Porch has become and eager to watch its continued growth and success.

We aren’t done yet. Big things are coming, and I can’t wait!

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas is the associate cantor at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC. She is grateful to reside in a blue house with her awesome husband Matt and two small, blonde people: Johannah, 3, and Ezra, 1.

Godology: In the Beginning

Sun, 08/17/2014 - 06:00

If I don’t believe that God created everything, does that mean I can’t believe in Him (or Her) at all? Elissa Strauss and Rabbi Scott Perlo discuss the big questions.

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'Unhappy Happiness,' Or What Rabbi Nachman And Pharell Have in Common

Sat, 08/16/2014 - 06:00

Rabbi Nachman taught, ‘It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.’ Despite Pharrell’s preaching, that may seem an unreachable ideal — but Jay Michaelson thinks there’s more to it than you think.

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Leonard “Leibel” Fein: Judaism’s Liberal Lion

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 14:58

We have lost a giant: Leonard “Leibel” Fein, patriarch of American Jewish liberalism, RAC Senior Adviser, and former director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, has died at 80. Our grief can no more be summed up than in the endless tributes to Leibel’s gifts and leadership of Jewish causes.

Leibel Fein at Consultation on Conscience 1997

In an eloquent tribute to his longtime friend and collaborator, Rabbi David Saperstein wrote in Ha’aretz:

“To the degree that “tikkun olam” has become the catchphrase of American Jewish life and that social justice has become, according to most polls, the single most common organizing expression of Jewish identity in America, Leibel Fein is as responsible for that as any other individual. His expansive and powerful writings, from his book “Where Are We: The Inner Life of American Jews,” and his combined 40 years of regular columns for Moment Magazine and the “Forward,” together with over a thousand lectures to Federations, synagogues, and Jewish organizations, provided an intellectual Jewish framework that inspired two generations of Jewish activists, leaders, and thinkers.”

Nadine Epstein, editor and publisher of Moment Magazine (which Leibel founded):

“Leibel was a man of chesed —deep kindness — who dedicated his life to the Jewish community, State of Israel and the world, and never lost that abiding passion. Not only was he a great man of letters, he was a true activist, and that is a rare combination.”

Rabbi Arnie Rachlis, MAZON Board of Directors:

“Leibel was one of the gedolai ha-dor, moral and intellectual giants of American and world Jewry. His loving critiques of contemporary Jewish life gave hope to so many that a better world was possible.

Ruth Messinger, Director, American Jewish World Service:

“Leibel was a brilliant man who was the founder and godfather of Jewish social justice in the 20th and 21st century…”

In 2013, Leibel gifted a nearly-complete collection of his writings to the Berman Jewish Policy Archive (BJPA). You can browse the collection here. The BJPA has also created a reader’s guide to the Leibel Fein Collection featuring an introduction from Rabbi Saperstein, which you can download here.

Atrocities in Myanmar

Fri, 08/15/2014 - 10:03

Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, continues to experience the violent persecution of its minority population of Rohingya Muslims. Muslims are being attacked by mobs of extremist Buddhist factions, despite Buddhist principles of nonviolence. “They refer to the Rohingya as subhuman, but beyond that they actually believe the Rohingya are subhuman,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, an independent organization to protect and defend human rights, “and I think this is one of the things that make them particularly dangerous.”

The post Atrocities in Myanmar appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.


Fri, 08/15/2014 - 10:01
/wnet/religionandethics/files/2008/09/re_thumb_belief_krishna.jpg The major Hindu festival of Janmashtami celebrates the birth of the popular deity Krishna — and with a real baby.

The post Janmashtami appeared first on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.

‘Mad Man’ on the Movie Set

Thu, 08/14/2014 - 06:00

Matthew Weiner, director of the TV hit “Mad Men”, got the inspiration for his first feature film, “Are You Here” from his seven-year-old son — when he bit into a chicken leg.

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Hamptons Synagogue Raises $1 Million For Israel in One Night

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 12:09

Congregants at a synagogue in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island pledged more than $1 million at a fundraiser for Israel.

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Hamptons synagogue raises $1 million for Israel in one night

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 10:27

(JTA) — Congregants at a synagogue in the Hamptons on New York’s Long Island pledged more than $1 million at a fundraiser for Israel.

The money raised at the Aug. 9 gathering following Shabbat at The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach will go to the UJA-Federation of New York’s Israel Emergency Fund, which assists organizations that provide medical treatment and economic support for Israelis in the wake of conflict.

“I am humbled and overwhelmed with gratitude and pride over the show of support by our congregation, that realizes the depths of the trauma — of the pain and suffering of Israelis — and reached deep to help however they could during this tragic and terrible crisis,” the synagogue’s rabbi, Marc Schneier, said in a news release.



Two Lawsuits Target Embattled Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto and Top Aide

Wed, 08/13/2014 - 06:00

Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, one of Israel’s most powerful rabbis, and his senior aide are the target of two separate lawsuits in a New York court.

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Mourner's Car Vandalized At Miami Memorial For Slain Rabbi

Tue, 08/12/2014 - 15:11

A mourner attending a memorial service in North Miami Beach, Fla., for murdered rabbi Joseph Raksin had his car defaced with anti-Semitic symbols.

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