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September 27, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

Sukkot is the first day

A colleague and I were joking together about how crazy it is that these Jewish holy days fall so close together. Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), is followed a quick ten days later by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and then a mere four days later, the seven-day festival of Sukkot (the Feast of Booths), which ends with Simchat Torah, the rejoicing at the finishing – and beginning again – the annual Torah reading cycle.  Were we to have made our own holiday calendar, we might have spread things out a bit more evenly across the year. But, alas, it was God’s decision to make.  So, we live with the mixed blessing of a crazy 3 weeks with family and community to do all the good and hard work of observing and celebrating, praying and repenting, cooking and eating, building and dancing.

One might wonder why these holy days and holidays are timed so close together and what the spiritual message might be behind that.  This is not a new question. In fact, at least one ancient rabbi asked this question and addressed it in his Sukkot sermon.  This sermon is saved in a medieval collection of homiletical midrashim called Peskita Rabbati.

This rabbi begins his sermon with a question:

A comment on the verse, On the first day you shall take (Leviticus 23:40). Can the words the first day mean the first day of the month? No, for scripture has fixed the day as the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:39).

If you look to Leviticus 23:39, and read that verses in full, you will see that this rabbi is asking a question about what day is referred to when it says “on the first day you shall take the fruit of the tree…”. Is it the first day of the month – the month of Tishrei – which would be Rosh Hashanah? Or is it another day?  (Why the new year is in the seventh month is another blog post…)  The rabbi answers his own question by reading the next verse, Leviticus 23:40, where the day is clarified to be the 15th day of the 7th month, which is the 15th of Tishrei.  So, then, what does “first day” refer to in verse 39?  The first day of what? It refers to the first day of the Festival – the first day of Sukkot.

He continues his sermon:

But why should Scripture have shifted over from counting the days in the month  to counting the days in the festival? Rabbi Mani of Shaab and Rabbi Joshua of Siknin citing Rabbi Levi replied as follows: The matter can be explained by a parable – the parable of a city which owed the king its tax.  The king sent collectors to take up the money, but the people of the city would not pay what they owed the king.  Thereupon the king said, “I will go myself and collect it.”


When the people of the city heard that the king was on his way to collect the tax, the notables of the city went out to meet him a distance of ten parasangs and said to him, “Oh king, our lord, we acknowledge that we owe you money. But right now we have not the means to pay the entire amount. We entreat you, have pity on us.” The king, seeing that the were seeking a peaceful settlement with him, remitted a third of the sum the citizens owed.

When the king came within five miles of the city, the city councilors came out, prostrated themselves before him and said, “O king, our lord, we do not have the means to pay.” So the king remitted another third of the sum the citizens owed.

Then, when he entered the city, the very moment he entered it, the entire city, everyone in it, men and women, grownups and little ones, came out, prostrated themselves at his feet, and pleaded with him. The king said, “Suppose I ask for no more that one part in four of what you own.” They replied, “Oh lord, we have not the means.”

What did the king do?  He remitted the entire amount and wrote off their debt in full.

What did all the people of the city do then? They went, the grownups and the little ones, and brought myrtles and palm branches and sang praise to the king.

The king said, “Let bygones be bygones; from this moment on we shall commence a new reckoning.”

The application of the parable is as follows:  Throughout the days of the year, Israel sins.  Then on Rosh Hashanah the Holy One goes up on God’s throne and sits in judgment. What do the people of Israel do then? They gather and pray in synagogues and after reciting the ten verses asserting God’s sovereignty, the ten verses asserting God’s remembrance of God’s creatures, and the ten verses alluding to the shofar of revelation, they blow the shofar. Thereupon the Holy One remits one third of the punishment for Israel’s iniquities.

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur those men who are notable for their piety fast as they avow penitence. Thereupon the Holy One remits another third of the punishment for Israel’s iniquities. Then when Yom Kippur comes, all Israel fast as they avow penitence, men, women, and children.  Indeed they avow complete penitence, for they put on white garments, even though they are bare of foot like the dead. They say to God: Ruler of the universe, we are two things at once: in our white garments we are like the angels who are eternal, but bare of foot we are like the dead.

When the Holy One sees Israel resolved upon complete penitence, God forgives all sins and writes off Israel’s debt to God, as is written, For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins (Leviticus 16:30).

When Israel see that the Holy One has made atonement for them and has written off their debt, what do they do? During the four days between Yom Kippur and Sukkot they go and fetch myrtle and willows and palm branches and build booths and sing praises to the Holy One. The Holy One says to them: Let bygones be bygones. From this moment on commences a new reckoning. Today is to be the first day in the new reckoning of iniquities. As Scripture says, On the first day (Leviticus 23:40).


This rabbi’s message is comforting.  He helps us see that God knows the work we do over the High Holy Days is hard and draining. To relieve ourselves of our debt – our sins and wrongdoings – is challenging.  Ultimately, God is compassionate.

This rabbi also offers us charge.  We must still remember the work of atonement we did during the first half of the month.  It is not until Sukkot arrives on the 15th of the month that the slate is really wiped clean.  There is still time to finish our spiritual and interpersonal work.

Sukkot is the first day of the new reckoning… the new accounting begins today.  May this week be one filled with joy and celebration as we sit in our sukkot, enjoying family, friends, and God’s sheltering, divine presence.  May they all be shelters of peace and calm as we look forward to good things in this new year.

September 9, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

It’s Dirty Work But We’ve All Got to Do It.

We have mud!  Still.

This summer my husband and I took a wonderful road trip through Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Washington.  It was all we hoped for; wandering in and out of small towns and across our beautiful country.  Yet, like most road trips, there is always some adventure that, while in the moment cuts the excitement, turns into a funny and warm memory. For us, this adventure involved Moab, Utah and red mud. Lots of mud. And our car stuck in it.


Eight weeks later, we still find bits of mud in the car.  It emerges from tiny crevices. There is still a thin, almost transparent coating of red dust on the floor of the car.  Will a complete car detailing get rid of all of it? How long will it continue to reappear?

Elul, and this period of recounting and reflection, is the time for thinking about all the other types of mud we have in our lives – that stuff that sticks to us, gnaws at us, makes us feel un-whole. That stuff we want to get rid of so we can really start the year off with a clean slate.  That stuff we want to wash away: the wrongs we’ve done, the wrongs done to us that still hurt, the behaviors or attitudes we want to change, the old patterns that don’t serve us well anymore…

This kind of “mud” is even harder to get rid of. It is not necessarily intuitive. Its something we have to learn how to do.  Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi tells a story about teaching a young girl about forgiveness.

The girl asked him, “How do you do it?”

Reb Zalman reflects on her question, thinking, “it was as if nobody had ever shown her how to do forgiving.”

So, he said to her, “Could you imagine that you have a beautiful shiny white dress on, and here comes this big clump of mud and dirties it?  You would want to clean it off, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“Could you imagine then, instead of the mud being on the outside on your dress, the mud is in your heart?”

“Uh huh.”

“And being angry with people and not forgiving them is like mud on your heart.”

“I’d sure want to get rid of that,” she said.

“OK, how are you going to go about doing that?”

Reb Zalman then suggests that “she close her eyes, raise up her hands in her imagination, and draw down some golden light and let it flow over that mud on her heart until it was all washed away. In this way, she really understood forgiving.”

In Moab, as my husband and I finally pulled back onto paved road after 24 hours in the mud the wheels were shaking as we accelerated. The mud, caked on like clay, was effecting the axles.  Just like the young girl in Reb Zalman’s story, we too needed to learn how to get rid of the mud. “Get that car washed, and you’ll be fine,” was the advice we got from some of the locals.


If only it were as easy as getting car wash. Letting go of hurt feelings, changing those comforting-yet-not-healthy behaviors, and recognizing when pride and ego lead to hurting others take more than just meditation and prayer and visualization.  It takes support from loved ones. It takes patience and discipline. It takes faith in one’s own ability to grow and become a better person.  And it takes time.

That thin, almost transparent coating of red dust might remain there for a while.  But eventually, it will wash away.

August 6, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

The Ripple Effects of Peer to Peer Mentorship

Recently, I asked a group of colleagues to help me think about examples from pop-culture in which teens were mentoring other teens. It was surprisingly hard to come up with a genuine example of peer-to-peer mentorship. In the movie Clueless (1995), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) gives herself a project by becoming the self-appointed fashion and social-standing mentor to a new girl at the school in order to help propel that girl up the social ladder. In the Broadway show Wicked, we see a similar dynamic at play, when Glinda and Elphaba overcome their extreme dislike of each other and Glinda attempts to give Elphaba a makeover. And in The Hunger Games series, is any one teen really out there to help another teen for the sake of true and sincere mentorship? No, they build alliances with each other in order to survive, but in the end, there is supposed to be only one tribute left standing. It ultimately requires revolt and revolution to really get the tributes to work together and support each other.

Where are the examples of true mentorship – peers helping each other to learn and grow into their best selves? Are there times when adolescents can be there for each other, not to fight some dystopian revolution, but to create healthy bonds and build relationships with each other for the sake of a positive and worthwhile connection and enrichment? Yes there are! We may not see it happening in pop culture, but look around. It’s happening in our own communities.

peer mentor

The quintessential rabbinic text about mentorship is found in Pirke Avot 1:6, “Provide yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” In reading this text we often imagine a teacher who may be older or have much more life experience than ourselves. We imagine a more traditional mentor/protégé relationship.  Yet, for some congregations and communities thinking about how to revolutionize the b’nai mitzvah experience, the idea of finding a teacher from amongst one’s peers is creating significant impacts in their adolescent communities.

The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution is a network of congregational professionals, lay leaders and educational thought leaders seeking to bring renewed depth and meaning to Jewish learning. In the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution, congregations seek to experiment with and create new models of preparation and engagement for b’nai mitzvah that are meaningful and relevant to young people and their families. In some congregations, that translates into a desire to not only transform the b’nai mitzvah experience but the post b’nai mitzvah experience as well.


Peer b’nai mitzvah tutoring is a more frequent model of mentorship that we see emerging in congregations. The Tzofim program at Temple Adat Elohim in Thousand Oaks, CA, is a peer-tutoring program designed to help the congregation’s newest young adults maintain their connection to Judaism and the synagogue after becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Beginning as soon as the week after their own bar/bat mitzvah ceremony, 7th-10th grade students become tutors, and guide their own students through the process of becoming a bar/bat mitzvah. Post b’nai mitzvah teens experience tangible ways to make an impact on the lives of others, while pre-b’nai mitzvah teens find mentors and role models with whom they can share concerns, ask questions, and gain guidance about the bar/bat mitzvah experience, while learning the prayers required of them to lead.

Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC runs a similar program for B’nai Mitzvah Madrichim in which 9th-12th grade teens experience the responsibility of a “real job”, earn minimum wage and work anywhere from 2-12 hours per month tutoring pre-b’nai mitzvah teens in the prayers, as well as Torah and Haftarah trope. The B’nai Mitzvah Madrichim program at Beth El has created a culture in the congregation in which younger teens often are heard saying, “When I am a madrich…”

Social justice work is another venue in which peer-to-peer mentorship has great potential. In the Detroit areas, families from participating congregations can enroll in the Peer Corps Detroit program as a way of completing their mitzvah project requirement for B’nai Mitzvah. Peer Corps Detroit is a paid mentorship program inviting Jewish teens (10th-12th grade) and pre B’nai Mitzvah students to work together at a service site in metro-Detroit over a 3.5 month long project. Through the mentor relationships, B’nai Mitzvah students participate in meaningful mitzvah projects, while the older teens learn applicable leadership and mentorship skills. Together they create genuine and long-term relationships with each other and with their service sites. The core ideas and structure of Peer Corps Detroit can be easily adapted to a congregational setting, especially: pairing older teens with younger teens in doing social justice work, providing older teens with meaningful and real leadership opportunities, as well as creating long term relationships with service sites.

In each of these instances, the institutions are learning lessons about youth engagement, about the value of peer-to-peer relationships, and about the subsequent impact these programs can have on adolescents, congregations and communities. The positive impacts include:

  • Building a culture in which the younger adolescents are able to connect with older adolescents in order to find guidance, ask questions and share life experiences together.
  • Older teens are finding a niche for themselves in the Jewish community or congregation. Whether it is in teaching or tutoring, social justice work, or a variety of other potential areas, these youth are learning that Jewish connections don’t end at thirteen.
  • Older teens are maintaining and strengthening relationships with adults who guide them. In each of these examples there are adults who support and supervise the older teens, providing them with training and learning necessary, and mentoring them in their own growth as Jewish teachers and leaders.
  • Older teens are continuing their own learning and growth. Whether it is learning additional prayers and trope, learning teaching skills, learning how to mentor, older teens come away with new skills and talents that can serve them well into the future.
  • Older teens are taking responsibility as they hold real leadership roles. They are held accountable for their work. Someone is relying on them to show up, prepared and ready to do their job. Again, this life skill in invaluable at this time in their lives.

The wisdom of our passage from Pirke Avot is that it recognizes the bilateral nature of a mentorship relationship. Both parties learn and grow; both are enriched by the experience and the relationship. Inspired by this notion, these communities are seeing that peer-to-peer mentoring programs that connect pre and post b’nai mitzvah youth to each other in significant ways have ripple effects in adolescents’ lives and in their communities.

I am sure there are other valuable peer-to-peer mentorship programs out there. What have you done in this area? What have you learned?

If you are interested in learning more about the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution and these innovations as well as others included in the BMR Interactive Innovations Guide, please visit You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you find there.

April 26, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

Celebrate Unity without Uniformity

It was an honor today to be the guest speaker at the Jewish Federation of the Central Valley’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.  It was a challenge to speak to an audience of 8-80 year olds, yet it was wonderful to see the generations of the Jewish community come together in support and celebration of Israel.  I am please do share my remarks here since there were some who were unable to be there and I know had wanted to hear them.

Celebrate Unity without Uniformity

As we mark the 67th Anniversary of Israel’s independence, I invite us to consider a challenge facing the Jewish people today: can we celebrate the unity of our support of Israel, without the expectation of uniformity of opinion?

I needn’t repeat the oft-told line about how many opinions a group of 10 Jews will have. It seems an impossible task. How can we celebrate our unified support of Israel when we collectively and individually continuously grapple with our own deep feelings about Israel?

If we consider the figures in our history whose task was to create unity among the Jewish people, one might think of Moses and Joshua, bring the Israelites through slavery into the Promised Land. Or King Solomon, bring the tribes together in shared worship at the Temple. Or Joseph Caro, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, the compilation of all our laws and rituals that are so enthusiastically debated in the Talmud and its commentaries. However, in my opinion, and most relevant to us today, the ultimate unifier of the Jewish people was David Ben Gurion, first prime minister of the State of Israel.

DBG Declaration of Indep

Ben Gurion was born in Duvche Green in Plonsk, Poland, a small shtetl between Warsaw and Gdnask. Plonsk had no paved roads, no running water and no high school. Despite the poverty around him, his father was fairly well off and they were “modern middle class family” for the time. Ben Gurion, taking a brave ideological stand as a young man, never learned Polish – rather he taught himself Hebrew because he always knew he would emigrate to Palestine. He made aliyah in 1906 at the age of 20, as part of what is known as the Second Aliyah.

Anita Shapira, in her recently published biography of Ben Gurion described him in these ways: Ben Gurion was:

  • An autodidact – that mean’s someone who is self taught; he was always surrounded by books
  • A boring writer and speaker
  • An inveterate pragmatist – a real practical person – who learned to generate power from weakness
  • Not a man without faults, he was known to have tantrums, but was at his best in a crisis, and often spiteful and held grudges. (Parenthetically, DBG wouldn’t let Chaim Weitzmann, another leader at the time, sign the Declaration of Independence because of their constant disagreements and differences of opinion)
  • He was a philosopher-king, inspired by Winston Churchill, the prime minister of England, and Vladimir Lenin, the communist leader of Russia who wasn’t known to be such a nice man, and the Zionist thinker and writer Micha Yosef Berdyczeski
  • He was a man of tremendous will power
  • And ultimately the midwife to the delivery of a nation

Consider Ben Gurion’s unfathomable task.

As he grew to positions of leadership in the Yishuv – the early Jewish settlement in Palestine – and eventually as a spokesman for Zionism around the world, he had to build unity amongst Jews of all types, Zionist factions, world politicians and political groups, and the residents of Palestine.  He knew all along that unity – even without uniformity – was the key to success.

For example, by the 1920’s Ben Gurion was taking a lead role is organizing the Jewish workers in Palestine. He knew that in order to build the country he needed an organized workforce; he needed to bring people to Palestine. He focused his efforts on mass immigration, declaring, “Over the next twenty years we must create Jewish majority in Palestine. That is the essence of the new historical situation.” (Shapira, p. 50)

Interestingly, at that time Ben Gurion also knew that the Arabs were central to this process too. He said, “The Arab worker is an organic, integral part of the country, just like one of its mountains and valleys. Therefore the destiny of the Jewish worker is linked to the destiny of the Arab worker. Together we shall rise or fall.” (Shapira, p. 83-84) Ben Gurion knew, according to Shapira, that he needed to address the complex situation of recognizing the “Arabs’ rights to complete national and political equality, but reject their claim to exclusive possession of the country.” (Shapira p.85)

Ben Gurion understood what it meant to build a nation, a state. He “saw himself not only as responsible for defense and foreign policy but also for forming a national identity for Jews who came from all over the world.” (Shapira p. 174) He had to find ways to bring together Jews from around the world who spoke different languages, ate different foods, prayed in different ways, yet were all unified in their desire for a homeland. He had to find ways to bring together Jews who were recent survivors of the Holocaust, those from North African countries who had been victims of different kinds of anti-Semitism, as well as North American Jews who were committed to the Zionist cause. How did he do this? By encouraging the development of a modern, shared, uniquely Israeli culture: by building Hebrew and the arts, literature, poetry, music, theater; by funding the research and academics, by challenging Jewish scientists to put Israel on the scientific map.


I can only imagine the how Ben Gurion felt, recognizing the weight of the task ahead of him in 1948. On that day, all he wrote in his diary was, “at 4 PM Jewish independence was declared and the state was established. Its fate is in the hands of the defense forces.” (Shapira, p. 162)

Today, as we celebrate Israel’s 67th birthday, we rejoice in those successes that Ben Gurion set in motion. The immense contributions Israel has made to science, medicine and technology, the award winning literature, movies and music, delicious wines and foods, the place that Israel holds in humanitarian work around the world. Yet, in the spirit of Rabbi Tarfon, the work is not yet done. We are yet to see complete civil rights for all Jews in Israel. Women are being forced to sit in the backs of buses. Reform rabbis are still not permitted to officiate at weddings in Israel. There are economic disparities between Ashkenazic, Sephardic, North African and Ethiopian Jews. As recently as 2013 Israel had the third highest poverty rate in the world. And we await the formation of a new government – one that will hopefully find appreciation for the unified support for Israel, with respect for differences of opinion and religious practice.

israel poverty

The current events in Israel have the potential to both bind us and divide us. In our 67th year of celebrating our modern homeland, I pray that we will find unity in our support for and commitment to Israel, that we will appreciate our differences in vision for her future and allow us all to engage in the positive work that will bring it to fruition and bring us all together.


February 13, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

Dear Mr. Moore

Dear Mr. Moore,

When I heard the news this week that you want to ban yoga pants in public I was outraged.  I was not outraged because I love my yoga pants and wear them even when I’m not heading off to yoga.  I was not outraged because such a law may single out and discriminate against women, while some rightly think it does.

I was outraged because there are so many other things going on in the world that we all – especially our lawmakers – should be paying attention to. There are many more pressing problems in your state of Montana, in our country and in the world that need resolution.  How about focusing your attention on:

The hate and violence that is racking our country? Example:  Craig Hicks, a North Carolina bully, killing three of his neighbors because of an alleged parking dispute.  Montana too has faced problems with hate and violence.

The fear and racism that is rampant in our cities? Example:  Ferguson, MO. And just after the tragic events in Ferguson this summer the Ku Klux Klan marched in your state spreading hate against Native Americans.

The pervasive intolerance and fundamentalism that is leading to senseless murders?  Example:  the murder of American aid worker Kayla Mueller

The growing numbers of homeless and hungry in our communities?  Example: Just this week, driving up Alvarado St in Los Angeles, I saw this homeless encampment under the 101 Overpass. I am sure you have homeless and hungry families in your state too.



I could go on.

Mr. Moore, I think your priorities are in the wrong place.  Let people wear their exercise clothes in public.  (It might actually encourage people to go out and actually exercise and thus curtail some of the health problems our country faces.) As we say in Yiddish, gey gezunt – may they go in health.  Instead please consider exerting your political capital on making meaningful change in our country. Changes that will save lives and create justice in our world.


This outraged American citizen, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

February 6, 2015 / Rabbi Laura

ARJE Installation remarks

In the future I will look back on February 4, 2015 as one of the highlight days of my life.  Yesterday, in the presence of family, friends and colleagues I was installed as the president of my professional association.  Depending on how you count it, as of July 1 I will either be the 33rd president of the organization formerly known as the National Association of Temple Educators, or I will be the 1st president of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators.  My installation followed a historic plenary meeting of the membership in which we approved a name change of our 60 year old organization.  I am honored to take on this mantle of leadership and humbly share my installation remarks here for those who were not present to hear them.

I am so blessed that several members of my family are here, not only tonight, but all week. I wish my sons could have been here for me to embarrass. Max just began a semester in Israel on NFTY EIE, and Saul is newly employed in his first post-college job in the tech industry. We are hoping that he will someday earn enough money to support his Jewish professional parents in their old age.

Of course, my beloved husband Rabbi Rick Winer is here with me, always faithfully by my side. You may have seen my father, Mark Novak and mother Marsha Novak – a Jewish educator in her own right after a 40 year career in early childhood education – in some of our sessions over the past couple days. And while my brother Richard couldn’t be here, and sadly my twin sister Deborah fell ill, I am very happy that my other twin, my cousin Sara Getzkin is here. You may recognize Sara as one of the professional organizers from TLC’s Hoarders Buried Alive. Admit it, some of you do watch it!

And thank you, the members of our ARJE family, for being here and helping make this gathering an indispensable source of learning, support, collegiality, and friendship. Like many of you, I live in a remote Jewish community. We like to say that Fresno is 3 hours from everywhere. Despite the distances, most of the time I don’t feel so isolated because I begin almost every day of the week with some sort of meeting, conference call, or email exchange with Jewish education colleagues from around the continent. Living in a relatively remote community, far away from a community of Jewish educators, the work I do on behalf of our organization and with many of you fills me. I am personally enriched by these connections and relationships. Professionally, my interactions with Jewish education colleagues keep me abreast of challenges, successes, trends and innovations that are taking place in other communities and inform my work as a Jewish education consultant and doctoral student. The best remedy for feeling lonely or isolated as a Jewish educator is to get involved in the Association of Reform Jewish Educators!

Before sharing with you my vision for ARJE, I’d like us to take a couple of moments to study a piece of Jewish text. While I wish we could take time to go in-depth together, this setting isn’t the most conducive for that. So, I’ll introduce it and then ask you to turn to your neighbor for a very brief hevruta conversation.

Our text is from the Babylonian Talmud, masechet Eruvin. (Thank you to Rabbi Aaron Panken of HUC-JIR for bringing this text to the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis). There we read:


Our Rabbis taught: How was the Mishnah (the Oral Torah) taught? Moses learned it from the mouth of God, then Aaron entered and Moses taught him his portion. Aaron moved and sat to the left of Moses. Aaron’s son’s entered and Moses taught them their portion. His sons moved aside, Eleazar sat to Moses’ right, Itamar to Aaron’s left… Then the elders entered and Moses taught them their portion. The elders then moved aside, and the rest of the people entered and Moses taught them their portion. In this way, Aaron heard each portion four times, his sons three times, the elders twice and all the people once. Then Moses left, and Aaron taught his portion [to those assembled]. Then Aaron left, and his sons taught their portion. Then his sons left, and the elders taught their portion. Thus everyone had heard the portion four times.

Take a few moments – 90 seconds – with a person near you to discuss: what does this text teach us about the educational process?

At this point in my remarks I paused so that people could discuss the question with a neighbor. I then invited a couple of people to share their responses with the group.

As I said, I wish we could spend more time with this. For now, let me share with you some of what I take from this passage. The primary lessons I take are three: shared teaching & learning, shared leadership and shalshelet hakabbalah, the passing on of a chain of tradition.

One could say that every person in our text, including Moses, is both a learner and a teacher in the process of transmitting the Oral Torah. Each person, or group of people, is able to engage in learning, not just once, but four times. And, each person, or group of people, is given the opportunity to be the teacher as well. I would suggest, that even am yisrael (the people of Israel) have the opportunity to teach as they take the lessons they’ve learned v’shinantam l’vanecha – teach them to their children.

The same can be said for us as members of this Association of Reform Jewish Educators. We all have the opportunity to serve as learners and teachers in the work of Jewish education. Over the course of these last four days we have learned from and with each other. Over the course of these last four days we have taught each other as well – about our visions for Jewish education, about the challenges and successes we face in our institutions. We each have Torah to teach. And we do that when we come together for our gatherings and professional learning opportunities, either virtual or in person, when we interact through our Facebook group or twitter or contribute to conversations in the URJ Tent on the Yammer network.

The second lesson our text illustrates is a model of shared leadership. We learn once again that Moses is not the sole leader of the people. He has a cabinet of co-leaders in Aaron, Eleazar, Itamar and the elders. They share the responsibility for teaching Torah to the people. Each does his part in his own way.

This model of shared leadership is one that we conscientiously embrace as an organization. Our work grows out of a foundation that values collaboration and consensus. We work together in teams. No one stands alone. So, while I stand here tonight, being installed as your next president, I know that I do not stand-alone. There are at least 50 other volunteer leaders in our organization who stand alongside me, as together we give our time and passion and energy to ensuring that our professional association serves your needs as Jewish educators in our Movement.

Third, our text is comparable to the opening passages of Pirke Avot, in which we learn that the written Torah is passed down from Moses, to Joshua, to the prophets. Similarly, in this text it is implied that the oral Torah is passed on. Yet, one unique difference is that in this text, the oral Torah is shared in the current community as well as passed on from one generation to the next. Each teacher stands side by side, contributing his own Torah to the conversation. And, each teacher stands on the shoulders on the ones who precede him. The shalshelet hakabbalah extends across not only time but also space.

As we begin this 60th year, we too are recipients of our shalshelet hakabbalah, our own chain of tradition. We too stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Our founders created a home address for Reform Jewish educators. Their vision has carried us to this day. With the ratification of our new name, we now carry that vision forward, reframing it for today in order to meet the needs of our diverse membership.

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Both our new name and mission reflect who we are as an association. We are Jewish educators who are proud of our profession, our expertise and the Torah we have to share. We are an association that is excited and optimistic about the Jewish future and the future of Jewish education. We are an association that takes care of its members when we enter into placement or are renegotiating a contract, or approaching retirement. We celebrate milestones. We are an address for high-level professional learning and networking with fellow educators. People are impressed when they hear that we are members of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators because our reputation is one of unqualified professionalism and excellence.

However, our new name and mission call us to face some real challenges as an organization.

As we know from our Salary and Benefits Survey, our members are not solely temple educators. Sitting in this room tonight we have: youth professionals, camp directors, supplementary school directors from a variety of settings, early childhood educators, consultants and coaches, day school professionals, and leaders in central agencies. For many of our 60 years we defaulted to thinking that our members work in congregations. That remains evident in the language we use and the way we talk about our work. So, while it will take time and work and patience, we have to change our mindset.

Additionally, it is incumbent upon us to revisit who are members are and who our members could be. I believe this to be one of our highest priorities. I am very pleased that we have already begun this work with a task force that is helping us take a first step, by identifying necessary new membership categories and proposing a dues structure that aligns with our new mission. Additionally, we have begun conversations with RYPA, the Reform Youth Professionals Association, to explore potentially merging our two organizations.

Our name and mission intensify who and what we have always been – a professional association. We must continue to support our members to the high level we have become accustomed to – to advance our profession, to advocate for the Jewish educator in the settings in which we find ourselves, to promote our growth as professionals. We are the same professional organization even better!

Our name and mission propel us to take a brave and bold stand as the voice for Reform Jewish Education.   The Jewish landscape has changed significantly in the last five years. Organizations have merged or contracted or closed their doors. Who is going to take a stand on Jewish education in our Movement if we don’t?

So what does this mean for us? Our Defining Our Voice task force is helping us answer this question. We have a voice that is heard only when we speak up. That voice emanates from each of us as we demonstrate our dedication to excellence and our steadfast leadership. That voice emanates for each us when we raise up, celebrate and convene conversations about Jewish education. That voice emanates from us when we increase our profile and presence in conversations in the Movement and the Jewish education community. As individual Jewish educators we should each align ourselves with ARJE in our bios, blog posts and online conversations. As an organization, we will continue to represent the Jewish educator in communal gatherings and conversations. And we must be prepared to invite and welcome other voices to our own table as we take our rightful place as thought leaders in the Reform Movement and in the field of Jewish education.

We have reached a watershed moment as an organization. It is incumbent upon us to live up to our new name and to realize our mission in concrete and meaningful ways. It will require a great deal of work on everyone’s part, tenacity in the face of challenges, and dedication to the tasks that lay ahead.

Our text from Eruvin concludes with a mashal, and example of a teacher and his devotion to his practice. Rabbi Preida had a student who required lessons to be repeated for him not four times, but four hundred times before he understood. One day, the student was distracted. Nonetheless Rabbi Preida persisted and repeated the lesson yet another four hundred times until his student understood. At that moment,

…A heavenly voice came out and asked Rabbi Preida, “do you prefer that four hundred years be added to your life, or that you and your generation merit the world to come?” Rabbi Preida replied, “that I and my generation merit the world to come.” The Holy one, Blessed be God, said to them: give him both this and this.”

May we each be like Rabbi Preida, committed to our work as educators, never giving up on those we teach. And may our Association of Reform Jewish Educators be like Rabbi Preida, meriting the benefits of our devotion to Torah and Jewish learning.


November 12, 2014 / Rabbi Laura

We’re not done!

shave for the brave

This month marks the 1 year anniversary of the #36rabbis campaign.  It was this time last year that my friends and colleagues Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Rabbi Phyllis Sommer dreamed up that crazy idea.  It was this time last year that Phyllis and her husband Rabbi Michael Sommer learned that their 8 year old son Sammy’s bone marrow transplant did not work and his cancer was back.  It was this time last year that they had to tell him there were no more options.  If you haven’t heard the story – you can learn more about it from Rebecca, via her recent TEDxTalk in Lehigh River Valley.

And it was this time last year that I committed to joining the #36rabbis Shave for the Brave campaign in support of the St. Baldricks Foundation. It was the least I could do to support the Sommer family and the thousands of others battling pediatric cancer.


April 1, 2014

As we approach the first yahrtzeit (anniversary) of Sammy’s death in December, somehow Phyllis has found the strength to keep our efforts alive!

Through her efforts, an anonymous family foundation has agreed to a matching donation to the 36 Rabbis’ Campaign for the St Baldrick’s Foundation. They have offered $165,000 in a matched donation to any new and increased gifts to the 36Rabbis campaign. Once we reach our part ($165,000), theirs will kick in and the 36Rabbis’ Campaign will be at ONE MILLION DOLLARS.

While we have almost a full year to complete the match, I’m hopeful that we can complete it by the end of calendar year 2014…can we do it? Will you help me?

Sammy wanted to do something amazing in his life.  He did!  He inspired us all to make a difference.  May his memory continue to be a source of blessing and inspiration for all who are touched by his story. He continues to inspire me.



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