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Alumni Profile: Joseph Simons ’98

Joseph Simons ’98 holds a Master’s of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, a Bachelor’s from McGill University and is a graduate of Sharon High School. Joseph is also a veteran and a United States Navy Reserve Officer.

Tell us about your job in the State Department.
I am in the Department of State’s civil service, in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. I am an action officer working on Middle East affairs. My job is to do the policy coordination for my
portfolio, which in reality means reading lots of emails, going to meetings and writing memos. It is a challenging position because I need to deal with all branches of our government and work
across different departments with sometimes competing interests. The subjects I need to comprehend range from understanding our domestic budget process to thinking about how to affect what is going on in the Middle East in support of America’s interests. Though it has been quite a learning process, my job is both fun and rewarding as I get to play a direct role, however small, in helping advance U.S. foreign policy goals.

How did you start on this career path?
I started on this career path after attending Seeds of Peace, a camp in Maine that brings together children from warring nations so they can better understand each other. I learned my first words of Arabic there and became interested in the politics of the Middle East. I really became interested in the region, however, because of the classes and discussions we had at Schechter. Throughout and after college I tried to grow my experience in Middle East affairs – living abroad, learning the language and working in different jobs that let me view the region through varying
lenses. I am still learning both professionally and academically about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy in the region. I doubt I will ever stop learning.

Proficiency in foreign languages is essential to your work. How was your capacity for learning and appreciating languages fostered at Schechter?
My ability to learn foreign languages as an adult is a direct result of my time at Schechter. Having classes in a different language for half of the day, as well as the general atmosphere
at school, really fosters not only a love for languages, but an easy learning environment as well. Hebrew and Arabic are also similar in many ways. My father taught me that learning a foreign language is one of the most profound ways to show respect for a culture. We could all use more training and focus on our communication.

In addition to your job, you serve in a volunteer capacity as the coordinator of Guitars for Vets. Can you tell us a little about this organization and what inspires you to make a difference for veterans?
Guitars for Vets is a non-profit that gives guitar lessons to veterans at local VA Hospitals across the country. Music is wonderful therapy for people who have experienced combat or other
related issues such as post-traumatic stress or for people looking to connect with themselves, their families or their communities. It is such a privilege to work with our nation’s veterans and to hear their stories and teach them some rock and roll. My grandfather and great uncle were veterans, and working in foreign affairs, living overseas and getting a bit older and perhaps somewhat wiser, I have really grown to appreciate how lucky I am to live in the United States. A major reason I am able to do so is because our fellow citizens are willing to stand up and to serve. Being a veteran now myself, I feel I owe a special debt to those who have served before me and to set an example for those who will follow.

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Alumna Profile: Vered Metson Strapp ’93

Vered Strapp ’93, a member of Gann Academy’s English faculty, is a graduate of Newton North High School, received a Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and a Master’s degree in English literature from Columbia University. Vered and her husband Michael live in Newton with their three children Sabrina, Eitan and Morielle, all of whom are Schechter students.

Why did you become a teacher?
I became a high school English teacher because I love working with students and I love literature.  My job as a Rosh Edah at Camp Ramah made me realize that there was nothing more rewarding and fulfilling than working with children.  I felt 100% job satisfaction at camp.  I was in pursuit of that same feeling in my professional life.  After college, I asked myself: why was I not feeling the same rewards working behind a desk in my cubicle as an editorial assistant at HarperCollins Publishers? I wanted to work in a literary field and surround myself with books, but the sense of creativity and joyful immersion in literature that I thought I’d find in book publishing proved elusive.  I applied to graduate school in English literature and, at the same time, threw my hat in the ring for teaching jobs.  I had no idea that I would feel so at home in my first teaching job in Manhattan.  The euphoric feeling was there—I was immediately challenged and invigorated by the constant buzz of school life. And I enrolled in graduate school right when I started teaching, which was a true gift.  While thinking about how to make literature resonate with my students, I was able to be a student myself in the university classroom and continue on my own journey of lifelong learning.

We imagine that you think a lot about your former teachers as you do your work. Are there Schechter teachers that stand out for you as teachers to emulate?
My Schechter educators were the most unbelievably devoted adults I could possibly have surrounded myself with during those exciting, fragile, tenuous years of childhood and adolescence.  How lucky I was to have teachers at Schechter interested in knowing my heart, not just informing my mind.  They showed me and my classmates how to think, and every day in their classrooms we felt our intellectual curiosity unfolding a bit more as we grappled with the deepest questions about our identity.  Who would we adolescents become?  How would we live authentically as traditional Jews in the next century?  How would we look outside our insular selves and empathize with those in our greater community? I still have enduring relationships with several of the outstanding educators I was blessed to learn from at Schechter, and their voices are constantly in my ears.  Each day at work, I channel their collective wisdom: How would David Wolf respond in this situation? How would Bonnie Weiss have picked apart this text? How did Alice Lanckton create a student-centered classroom? How did Rabbi Elkin inspire critical Talmudic debate?  How did Mrs. Jacoby, Lisa Micley, Varda Ben-Meir, Rina Cohen, and Rebecca (Kempler) Levitt make me feel so much better with a smile and a hug when I felt the most vulnerable?  It’s hard to think of myself on the same plane as my Schechter teachers.  I revere them.  I owe them so much.  I can’t name them all right here, but their influence upon me is profound.

You are not only an alumna, but also a current Schechter parent! How is it to be back at the school? How do your children’s experiences compare to your own as a Schechter student?
As I walk down the hallway at Schechter, I am overcome by nostalgia.  Strains of Hebrew songs are belted at full volume by earnest third graders standing on risers. Small children, holding siddurim, are clapping and swaying intently in prayer.  Basketballs thud in rhythm in the gym. Whimsical student artwork decorates the walls.  And then, just when I’m feeling most at home, I’m dazzled by images that are so new and fresh and different. Sleek labs are equipped with cutting-edge gear.  Books are open on high-top tables beside iPads and other gadgets as students collaborate.  A sukkah now stands in the front yard as a peaceful retreat, right beside beds of corn stalks planted and cultivated in science class. Something else is also new: Rebecca Lurie, my dear friend and Schechter classmate, is our new Head of School.  David Wolf taught Rebecca and me in fifth grade, and now he is teaching my oldest daughter.  The years go by, the school grows and changes, and yet the heart of our community is still there.  Schechter pulses with a new energy nowadays, an energy that inspires my children and their friends to be their best selves each day.  New families are discovering Schechter, becoming leaders in our burgeoning, diverse community.  As a parent and an alumna, I’m so proud of our school.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Victor Reinstein (Vayeshev)

Making Peace in all the Places where we Dwell

In a world in which violence is so ubiquitous, in a time of bigotry and bluster, of hate and division, one of the most radically hopeful things we can do is to be a wellspring of nonviolence from which ripples flow out into the spheres of our lives and into the great world beyond. Against a backdrop of violence, whether it is the violence of war, of poverty, of greed, of hurting the earth and people in so many ways, the way that each of us lives our own lives is the way of response that is most in our control. So too in our way of reading Torah, choosing to open our eyes and hearts to see more clearly her paths of peace and then to make them our own. On the surface of Torah there is often violence and strife, as in life. Sometimes on the surface itself, shimmering as a crystal fount, and sometimes beneath the surface, there is a river of peace that runs through Torah into whose flow we enter by engaging and wrestling with what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the “harsh passages.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayeshev, we encounter family violence and strife. Through the extreme dynamics of the text the Torah opens a window into the more ordinary dynamics that give rise to inadvertent strife. Unlike portions of Torah in which we encounter violence among peoples and nations, here we encounter violence that is closer to home. Jealousy, anger, misunderstanding, hurt are all inevitable realities of life lived with people. Tragically, strife is too often spawned by a lack of awareness of how one’s actions will affect others.

The first word of the Torah portion, from which its name comes, sets the stage. Vayeshev, meaning “and he dwelled,” referring to Ya’akov, in another verbal form becomes va’y’yashev, meaning “and he made peace.” We can simply dwell, or, aware of our actions and their consequences, we can dwell more deeply, making peace in the place where we dwell. Showing favoritism to Yosef, Ya’akov sowed seeds of jealousy and discord between Yosef and his brothers. Simmering over time, unholy sparks of jealousy were fanned into flames of hatred and violence. Thrown into a pit and reported to his father as dead, Yosef is eventually sold into slavery and comes down into Egypt in chains.

In a fascinating commentary to the Torah in a volume called Chochmat HaMatzpun/The Wisdom of Conscience, we are guided to look honestly at the lives of our ancestors and to learn from negative example as well as positive. Of the brothers’ behavior we are told, “it is a matter both ancient and new.” It is about our world, as well as theirs. Condemning their deed as “horrible, such a sin, such cruelty,” the writer then condemns Ya’akov for fostering such insensitivity in his sons through the favoritism of one. Helping us to see “the Torah of nonviolence,” the commentator bids us look beneath the surface and see Torah as a guide for living in the world beyond the text: A Torah of truth that does not whitewash the deeds of the great and beloved ones…, the Torah of life teaches us that we are to learn from our holy ancestors – even from their perversions and shortcomings. Engaging Torah as a guide for life lived with people, may we learn to make peace in all of the places where we dwell.

Victor Reinstein is the rabbi of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain and is a Schechter alumni parent, former Schechter teacher and school rabbi.

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Ani Ma’amin – Sarah Cohen ’07 Shares Message of Derech Eretz

Alumna Sarah Cohen ’07 spoke to Schechter middle school students as part of our Ani Ma’amin speaker series: a forum for guests to share what they believe in. Sarah’s message was one of derech eretz. She spoke about listening to others who hold different views, and suggested that while we might not agree with everyone, we can try to understand.

Sarah discussed her most recent position as a field operation organizer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Florida. She described the different cultures between southern and northern Florida, and the challenges she faced, including  witnessing homes with Confederate flags. Although she felt that this can be off-putting, it was more important to her to be decent and reach out to people.  

Here is a recent article Sarah published online where she writes more about her experiences on the campaign trail.  

Schechter is always looking for community members who would be interested in sharing their experiences. If you would like to speak to Schechter students about your experiences and beliefs, please contact Shira Lewin at Shira.Lewin@ssdsboston.org.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Vayishlach)

Two weeks ago my family ate lentil soup for Shabbat dinner. Then we played games as a family, and in particular, we encouraged our two boys to play together, in order to foster their sibling bond. As the Shabbat candles flickered, my husband and I shared highlights and challenges from our respective weeks, celebrating each other’s achievements and supporting the growing edges. It was a typical Friday night in our home, and yet, everything was done with great intention.

Last Shabbat, we visited the two playgrounds that are within walking distance of our home, and we raced up the ladders and down the slides. We showed the kids our wedding photos (once again), reviewing the names of our family members and friends and recalling the incredibly special moments of that day. And, as always, we encouraged our boys to love each other, to play nicely, and to be truthful.

And this week, as we read Parashat Vayishlach, we will talk about our personal relationships with God, wrestling just like Jacob did with who we are and what we believe. And we will discuss our Hebrew names, crafting each Hebrew letter, sharing the stories of my sons’ namesakes.

We are living Torah.

It’s easy in these months of Beresheet, where the stories of Genesis shape who we are as husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, children, and siblings, and then as a community, a nation, and ultimately a people. But it’s possible with just about every Torah portion: to live the lessons, to impart the wisdom, and to experience and engage in the meaning.

Consider just the past few weeks. Parashat Toldot: lentil soup that cost Esau his birthright, a lack of sibling bond between Jacob and Esau that led one brother to deceive the other, and poor spousal communication between Isaac and Rebecca. Parashat Vayetzei: Jacob’s dream with angels going up and down the ladder, the weddings of Leah (deceptively) and then Rachel to Jacob, the births of Jacob’s children, and so much more.

And now Parashat Vayishlach: Jacob wrestling with an unknown being (an angel? God? Or maybe his own conscience?), then being renamed Israel, because he has wrestled and prevailed.

In our food, our play, and our interactions, we model and experience what we read in the Torah. In this way, we are living through Torah and the Torah is living through us.

When we live Torah, the text of our tradition, and bring its stories and lessons into our contemporary lives, we encounter the holy sparks of the divine. We encounter God.

So, live Torah this week. From the playground to the kitchen and everywhere in between, experience a life blessed with Torah. It will be a life that is blessed. Shabbat Shalom!

 

Rabbi llana Garber ’91 is the Rabbinic Director of Lifelong Learning & Community Engagement at Beth El Temple in West Hartford, CT.

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Middle Division Students Jump into the ‘Shark Tank’

Students in the Middle Division’s new “Shark Tank – Entrepreneurship” chug (elective) are knee-deep in launching their own businesses and product designs. Under the direction of Grade 6 Science Teacher and STEAM Coordinator Emily St. Germain, the chug is designed to promote leadership, entrepreneurship and service in a real-world setting. The goal is for students to develop and run businesses, while also creating products to help solve a problem they identify. Director of Afterschool and Enrichment Penina Magid offers this image, “It’s 3:30 p.m. on a Thursday and students are on the phone or on Facetime talking through their project designs with their mentors, who are professional engineers, software designers, scientists, entrepreneurs and others from the Schechter community. This chug is an exercise in thinking through a design. Students researched and brainstormed ideas and are now developing a plan to present to a panel of judges for the opportunity to have their project funded. This process is not only about the end result! Students are learning collaborative problem solving as they face challenges and failures and look for solutions.” Students in this chug will be competing in a “Shark Tank” to access seed money for their businesses.

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Fourth Graders Visit Boston Archaeology Lab

by Evie Weinstein-Park, Grade 4 General Studies Teacher

 

This past Tuesday, our fourth graders visited the City of Boston’s Archeology Lab, in West Roxbury, to have a tour with the city’s chief archaeologist. This trip reinforced one of our social studies “big ideas,” that objects tell stories. This trip came about because fourth graders were so interested in an article we had read in class about a recent archaeological find in the North End that we contacted the City Archaeologist. We were lucky that he wrote back to us and that we were able to meet him and visit the lab. During our visit, we were able to see the very artifacts we had read about being sorted and catalogued. The artifacts and history we had read about in the newspaper literally became real for our students. In fact, seeing a variety of objects — an ancient spearhead, a very old piece of the Native American fish weir that used to lie beneath what is now the Back Bay, some cannonballs from the Battle of Bunker Hill, part of a shipwreck from 19th century Boston and even a piece of parchment with Hebrew scripture from the African American Meeting House when it was home to a Jewish congregation, among others – and learning about them from a passionate expert all made history come alive for our students. Our students saw that new chapters of history get told, at least in part, through the discovery and interpretation of newly discovered artifacts.

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ron Fish (Vayetzei)

Human beings naturally seek home. The place where you know where to hang your coat; the place where you can fall asleep and feel safe; the place where familiar voices and smells can fill each of us with the quiet confidence that our world is secure.

For centuries the Jewish people did not have a national home.  We came to know well the dangers that went along with our national homelessness, even as we dreamed of Zion.

But for the most part, we did have individual homes.  Certainly over the course of those centuries there were awful times of expulsion and personal homelessness, but we were not always driven out- without a place to call our own.  Whether in Morocco or Mainz, in Venice or Vienna, in Baghdad or Bialystok, we Jews did lay down roots and we made our homes into sacred spaces.  The riches of our cultures through the generations are a testament to the homes that we constructed and the sense of rootedness we gained throughout the lands of the diaspora.

But we never forgot what it means to be a stranger in a strange land.  What it feels like to be truly afraid. To be on the run from Pharaoh and Emperor; to be a simple parent or child fleeing from armies intent on taking our very lives. Fleeing to survive.

During the nighttime flight of our patriarch Jacob, fleeing from his brother Esau’s intent to murder him, we can imagine the panicked short breaths. We can almost hear the thump-thump of his heartbeat as it races to carry him to safety. We can see the beads of sweat on his brow as Jacob lies down on a vacant hilltop, placing his weary head on a pile of rocks, trying to catch a moment of home in the midst of his homelessness.  And when he wakes, Jacob realizes that this very place, this very sense of vulnerability, is the gateway to heaven.  It is from here that he-and we, his descendants- are to be dedicated to the task of caring for the vulnerable and exposed. To remember the feeling of the outsider. And bring them in from the cold.

I ask all of us to remember this lesson as millions of children and innocents of all ages flee the violence and destruction unfolding in Syria and Iraq. In 2016, the United Nations identified 13.5 million Syrians requiring humanitarian assistance, of which more than 6 million are internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million are refugees outside of Syria. While these people are citizens of states still technically at war with Israel, the children of historic enemies, they are also human beings in danger. They are homeless. And vulnerable. The gates of heaven are open and see their plight.

Do we?