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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ilana Garber ’91 (Tazria/Metzora)

It is so easy – and so tempting – to draw simple conclusions from our Torah text. For instance, the rabbis have always connected tzara’at, the scaly skin disease in this week’s Torah portion, with gossip. They have suggested that the consequence for speaking ill of someone else is to be isolated from the rest of the camp while healing. On the surface, this makes sense: say bad things, get a physical mark that shows you’ve been bad, and then have a “time out” so you will stop saying bad things. We see this happen later in our Torah when Miriam is stricken with a scaly-white skin disease after she speaks ill of her brother, Moses, and his wife. She heals outside the camp and returns only after she is physically, spiritually, and emotionally ready.

But I don’t think we can – or should – accept this concept as it is presented.

While we know that our actions can have consequences, the Torah is not so black and white as to suggest that illness is caused by poor behavior. As someone who, just three years ago, received a diagnosis of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (and thank God, everything is now OK!), I can attest to the fact that when illness befalls a person, the first thing we think is, “what did I do wrong?” This theology is flawed and certainly not the intention of the Torah.

The message of Tazria/Metzora is that it is not the illness we should focus on but the separation, the healing, and the return. When we live in community, we are bound to insult, offend, and worse. Our actions have consequences. But not the consequences of illness per se; our actions impact our community and our place within that community. Sometimes we need to separate ourselves from the community, to heal, and then to return when we are ready.

My Schechter Boston years were a long time ago, but I remember fondly how supportive the community was (and is: now I’m a Schechter Greater Hartford parent!) during times that I made poor choices or that my actions had consequences that impacted my friends. The gift of the holy community we create at Schechter is that we support those who need a “time out,” we encourage their healing, and we welcome them back. We are so privileged to share in this holy, nurturing, and supportive community!

D’var Torah: Cantor Michael McCloskey (Shemini)

Aaron the Peace-maker and the Spirit of Welcoming

At the beginning of S’hmini, this week’s Torah portion, the tent of meeting, the place where G-d reveals Godself to our ancestors has been dedicated, the kohanim/priests (Aaron and his sons) have been ordained to serve the Holy One and the people Israel, and at last, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence is ready to enter the new space fashioned for Her.

After drawing near with sacrificial offerings which represent the people’s desire for repentance, transcendance, and peace among themselves, Aaron steps down from the altar, lifts his hands toward the people Israel, and blesses them.  In fact, I think that this is not just an issue of order of events, but of intent. Aaron descends in order to bless the people. He needs to have proximity, nearness to them, in order to discover their needs, hopes, and prayers! In fact, one of our Torah commentators, Rabbeinu Bahya, suggests that this movement toward the people means working toward their needs and benefit!  Aaron, understood by our oral traditions as being the great peacemaker [Pirkey Avot and Avot D’Rabbi Natan], is one of the earliest practicers of keruv, drawing the members of the congregation nearer to one another and the Holy One. After his movement toward the people, Aaron, now joined by his brother Moses, enters the tent of meeting. Together they reemerge and offering another blessing to the people. It is very significant, I think, that the Shechinah, the Divine Presence only appears after two of the three principal leaders of Israel (Miriam is not mentioned here) affirm the people! In plain terms, the people of Israel can channel G-d only when their leaders have faith in them and they in turn have faith in their leaders and in one another! In fact, once their leaders have blessed them and G-d’s Glory appears, they break into spontaneous song.  Only a community in which the participants feel safe, welcome, and cherished, can make this kind of music!

Like Aaron, we need to step down or forward in order to really see and hear the needs of our friends, classmates, families, and communities.  Furthermore, in order to work toward their benefit, we like “Aaron” need to be able to “love all creatures” [Pirkey Avot 1:12]. In other words, we must not only step toward our fellow human beings, but also be able to love them, to see the good in them, to bless them!

The ohel mo-ed, the tent of meeting, is the perfect metaphor for this diverse and cohesive community.  The flaps of a tent are often open. A tent can be moved where the people are and air flows into it, ever refreshing its purpose and energy.  The shoresh, or root of mo-ed, yod-ayin-dalet, involves not only time, but also gathering and appointment. At the tent of meeting we gather together thoughtfully and inclusively, honoring our differences yet aware and bearing witness to common goals.  What are these goals? If we follow the model of Aaron they are “loving peace, chasing after peace, loving our fellow creatures [human and otherwise], and drawing human beings near to Torah (teaching, enlightened perspectives).”

Cantor Michael McCloskey, Hazzan-M’hanech (Cantor-Educator)

Temple Emeth of Chestnut Hill

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Breaking News: Schechter selected as one of four schools nationwide

Schechter has been selected as one of four schools nationwide to participate in the inaugural cohort of the Pedagogy of Partnership (PoP) Day School Fellowship. PoP is an innovative research-based pedagogy for the design of relationship centered education, led by Dr. Orit Kent and Allison Cook. PoP is a program of Hadar, based in New York City. The other schools in this inaugural fellowship are:

  • Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital
  • Luria Academy (Brooklyn, NY)
  • Oakland Hebrew Day School (Oakland, CA)

Through this program, our faculty will learn how to guide students toward using concrete tools to improve their communication and interpretive skills and be better able to seek understanding, work collaboratively and engage with their studies. Our faculty will teach and model for our students to learn from one another through hevruta learning, in pairs. The root of the word hevruta is haver which means friend. Facilitating learners in this way can inform teaching practices across almost any subject matter or category, offering a powerful Jewish framework from which to educate and learn.

In an article posted by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Cook and Kent write, “Whether it be in text study, in our interactions in Jewish communal life, or beyond to the town square, Jewish education must focus deliberately on building the discrete skills and dispositions necessary for this interpretive engagement. It is not enough for these skills and dispositions to be in the hands of a few; they must be taught and made available to individuals of all ages. In the Pedagogy of Partnership we seek to do just this because we believe that Jews and Judaism thrive in relationship and that how we learn is ultimately what we learn.”

Head of School Rebecca Lurie shares that, “a key element of Schechter’s strategic plan is to embrace aspects of Jewish thinking and learning such as hevruta style collaboration and apply them as scaffolding to our entire academic program. This fellowship is an important step in implementing that vision for our school and we couldn’t be more excited!”

 

photo credit: Heidi Aaronson

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D’var Torah: Arnold Zar-Kessler (Pesach)

This coming Friday night, every Jewish household will become a showcase for the special pedagogy that has enabled our people to persist and flourish.  The Seder itself reflects a central understanding of our people’s survival and triumph – that the home is the greatest Jewish educational institution, and places like Day Schools are but supports for this sacred work.

And the story we have to tell, the lessons we have to share are every bit worthy of this task.  While parents (and grandparents) might be busying themselves this week assembling ‘learning aids’, games and tzchochkes to keep the youngsters around the table engaged, it’s worth remembering what lies at the core of what we have to teach at our Sederim.  To that end, I’d like to suggest two important ideas – possibly directions – to keep in mind as we again take on the sacred roles of our children’s’ primary religious and moral teachers and guides.

First, this is more a night about answers than questions, and we adults should operate from a sense of conviction, as well as we can.  There is a tendency in contemporary parlance to think of Judaism as fundamentally a tradition of questions.   To some degree, this is appropriate, Leon Wieseltier notes, “…for the night of the Four Questions; but those questions, remember, are for the children to ask. The adults are supposed to be less interrogative than instructive—to be unembarrassed by the claim that they are in possession of answers.”

In his 2012 article in the Jewish Review of Books, he goes on to say that “….Contrary to its contemporary reputation, the Haggadah is more about the prestige of answers than the prestige of questions. There is nothing tentative about its account of God, history, and freedom. The tradition that it describes does not shrink from certainties. It is an argumentative tradition, to be sure, but not because certainty is impossible or illegitimate…. The grandeur of the Seder is owed not least to the intellectual confidence of its text. “

For many of us, that level of confidence may require some work in our preparation, and we may make some accommodations to our own ambivalences and antipathies, but it’s worth remembering that children really do look to adults to see what it is they care about, what matters to them and what they feel is important, indeed sacred.  In the years to come, they will remember the joy, the community, and the family of our Sederim. But in their kishkes, they will remember –  above all – what we stood for.

Speaking of that (and my second point),  I am reminded of some remarkable text from Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg, in his timeless book, The Jewish Way.  He gives an overview of the ‘why’ of Passover’ for our times, and each year when I read it, it strikes me anew.  Maybe it will do likewise for you:

“The overwhelming majority of earth’s human beings have always lived in poverty and under oppression, their lives punctuated by sickness and suffering,  …Statistically speaking, human life is of little value.  The downtrodden and the poor accept their fate as destined;  the powerful and successful accept their good fortune as they’re due.  Power, rather than justice, seems to rule.

Jewish religion affirms otherwise.  Judaism insists that history.. will eventually be perfected.

How do we know this?  From an actual event in history – the Exodus…. The freeing of the slaves testified that human beings are meant to be free.  History will not be finished until all are free.  The Exodus shows that God is independent of human control.  Once this is understood by tyrants and their victims then all human power is made relative.

The Exodus further proves that God is concerned.  No, the Exodus did not destroy evil in the world.  What it did was set up an alternate conception of life;  it re-establishes the dream of perfection.”

It is from this framework of Rabbi Greenberg, that we can deliver a message of not only understanding the challenges we confront in our world, and still make the case for a distinctly Jewish purpose in helping heal the fissures that divide us.  As such, it provides every participant in the Seder with a place for hope, which, after all, is perhaps the greatest gift we adults can offer our children.

May you and your loved ones be blessed with a happy – and Kosher – Pesach.

Arnold Zar-Kessler, Executive Director Inspiring Educators, Former Schechter Head of School, Schechter Alumni Parent and Grandparent

Schechter Students Receive High Awards in Writing Contest!

Mazal tov to our Middle Division students on their accomplishments in the Will McDonough Sports Writing Contest:
The Will McDonough Writing Contest, named in honor of the legendary Boston Globe sportswriter, takes place every year. This year, over 900 students from across New England participated in the contest. The winners are chosen by Globe Sports Editor, Joe Sullivan.

Will McDonough Writing Contest Honorable Mention: Ariel Skolnick

Mazal tov to our Middle Division students on their accomplishments in the Will McDonough Sports Writing Contest:
The Will McDonough Writing Contest, named in honor of the legendary Boston Globe sportswriter, takes place every year. This year, over 900 students from across New England participated in the contest. The winners are chosen by Globe Sports Editor, Joe Sullivan.
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Ariel Skolnick, Grade 6
Solomon Schechter Day School, Newton

Gleaming Heart of Gold

(based on the true story of the gold medalist Jacqueline Nytepi Kiplimo)

I can see it, the finish line, that beautiful, pure, and precise white streak across the copper polyurethane track. My beating heart, my pumping arms, and my racing mind push me into the lead of my final lap. I chance a glance behind my shoulder, seeing the man. His face was as red as the setting sun with sweat dripping down his back, and nothing to quench his pleading throat. I don’t know why I did it. I didn’t even know his name.

My name is Faith Lane. Running was my destiny, or so I thought. Five miles and a pressured win was all it took to determine my future. I would either get a full scholarship to college or I would be a high school dropout, like my mother. I didn’t know I would stray from my unwavering path, at the race that changed my life.

As I was jogging outside the stadium, warming up my limbs on a cool Sunday morning in Kenya, with perfect weather for a race, I thought to myself, “just one more gold.” One win, and I would be awarded a spot on the varsity track team. I heard the horn blare, signalling the time to get into position. Taking my mark, I sized up my opponents. Then I shot out onto the track, in the lead, although realizing that one man was matching me stride for stride, I got annoyed. I would not let anyone else triumph before me. This was my race to win.

As I looked behind my shoulder one last time, I realized he was breathing heavily. Then I noticed he never grabbed the cups of water that were distributed to keep us hydrated because he couldn’t, for his arms were amputated at the elbow. At the third mile mark, he looked exhausted, faint, and unable to move on. As he faltered, almost losing his footing, my heart ripped from my body and forced me over to his side. My trembling arm reached out to help him drink just one cup of water, then two, and finally three. With only two miles left, he raced out from behind me, refreshed and ready to win.

He crossed the finish line thirty seconds in front of me. The crowd, shocked, started to clap, but in a matter of seconds thousands of people got on their feet, clapping like they never had before. I just walked out on my unsteady legs, not looking back, because of that single tear running down my silent face. I never looked back; therefore, I never saw the look on his face. The look of pure defeat.

A few days later he came to my home with the gold medal around his neck. With determination, he told me that even though I didn’t receive the gold medal, It didn’t matter because I already had something much more, for I had a gleaming heart of gold. As I stared in shock and admiration, he willingly bent over and dropped the gold medal at my feet, turned around and left. Never looking back.

Will McDonough Writing Contest Honorable Mention: Emma Shay-Tannas

Mazal tov to our Middle Division students on their accomplishments in the Will McDonough Sports Writing Contest:
The Will McDonough Writing Contest, named in honor of the legendary Boston Globe sportswriter, takes place every year. This year, over 900 students from across New England participated in the contest. The winners are chosen by Globe Sports Editor, Joe Sullivan.
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Emma Shay-Tannas, Grade 6
Solomon Schechter Day School, Newton

                                         Behind the Goal

                    (creating a life changing experience from poor sportsmanship)

“The camera cannot lie, but it can be an accessory to untruth.” –Harold Evans

The photographer who takes the photo chooses what side of the story he portrays. Photos can often be misleading. The photographer will not be able to portray all angles of the story in one photo because one photo cannot be shot from all angles. An honest person will try to take the photo from the most truthful angle.

I have never accomplished this. I’ve never even tried. I don’t exactly want to show the truth because I’d rather convince myself of lies than face the facts. The fact is I’ve always dreamt of being a professional soccer goalie, but I knew this was an impossible dream. I was never fast, I have never had good reflexes, and I have bad coordination. No matter how little talent I had in soccer, I always tried out for the school team. Every time I tried out, I would get glares from my classmates who would laugh at the way I kicked the ball and when we ran to warm up,  would make me run alone. The more they isolated me, the more they treated me like I was nothing, the more I wanted to play, and the more I wanted to prove them wrong.

Every game I would ask to be the goalie, but the coach always said no. I went to every game in the season, always ready to play, but sadly I was never in a game for more than a few minutes.  Then, one day I got sick of waiting on the bench, so I brought my Nikon camera to the game. After I played my few minutes, I got up, picked up my camera and started walking along the sidelines of the field. I didn’t stop walking when I saw the players staring at me, some starting to whisper to one another; I didn’t care. They had already drained the joy of playing soccer out of me. I would not let them take the joy of taking pictures from me. I just pretended they weren’t there.  I saw no one but me, my camera, the ball, and the goal. When I got right behind the goal, I had a realization. When placed behind the net, and while facing the camera to the game, the pictures look as if I were the goalie myself. I had finally found a way to pursue soccer without even playing.

The day after, I asked the coach if rather than playing in the game, I could take photos instead,  and he happily agreed. After that, I became the official photographer for the team. I would take pictures of every person on the team during practices and games. Instead of  the team berating me for taking photos, they were amazed at how I captured them. I had turned years of bad sportsmanship from my teammates into mutual friendships. Several of my photos won awards including the first one I took behind the goal.

                  “When God closes a door he opens a window”  Malachi 3:10

Will McDonough Writing Contest Second Place Winner: Abby Goldstein

Mazal tov to our Middle Division students on their accomplishments in the Will McDonough Sports Writing Contest:
The Will McDonough Writing Contest, named in honor of the legendary Boston Globe sportswriter, takes place every year. This year, over 900 students from across New England participated in the contest. The winners are chosen by Globe Sports Editor, Joe Sullivan.
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Abby Goldstein, Grade 6
Solomon Schechter Day School, Newton

Miracle Off the Pitch

“Mili, you can be on our team!  Last June, seven girls from my Natick town soccer team lifted a sign with these words addressing Mili Hernandez, an 8 year old girl from Nebraska.  Mili is a cute, spunky girl with very short dark hair. Her full name is Milagros, which in Spanish means “miracles”.  Mili’s soccer team, Azzurri Cachorros Chicas, was registered to compete in a soccer tournament, but parents on the opposing team questioned why a “boy” was playing on a girls’ team.  Volunteer director Ray Heimes from the Springfield Soccer Invitational checked the roster which mistakenly noted M for male instead of F for female next to Mili’s name.  The organizers didn’t investigate further to confirm their suspicion before deciding to disqualify Mili’s  team, even though her father produced a health identification card showing she was a girl. Probably, if Mili had longer hair and more so-called feminine features, the tournament officials would have realized the error.

Mili’s team could have been angry about their elimination from the competition, but instead,  showed solidarity, by cutting their hair shorter. Word spread quickly through the media, and people voiced their outrage that a girl would be discriminated against because of her appearance.  Soccer teams around the world responded as well. Some teams took pictures showing signs of support like ours. Others, like a woman’s club in Sydney, Australia, The Flying Bats, cut their hair and posted pictures.  Even U.S. Soccer Olympians  Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach supported Mili, by posting, “You’re  inspiring” and “You’re a natural-born leader, honey, and I’m so proud of you.”  They also invited Mili to participate in Hamm’s week long soccer youth camp in Massachusetts.

I play on my town’s travel soccer and youth basketball teams.  I also dance competitively. I’ve learned many moves, can pass, shoot and score, but the most important thing I’ve learned in sports is good sportsmanship.  I know that we all face adversity everyday. Adults have challenges at work, and kids face obstacles at school and with friends. A good sport treats their teammates and opponents with respect and competes fairly even when faced with challenges.    We can’t win every soccer game or dance tournament, just like we can’t always win at business or in school, but it would be more frustrating if people didn’t have the courage to play fair.

The reaction of so many people around the world to Mili’s situation is a great reminder of good sportsmanship.  What happened to Mili’s team was unfair, and incredibly frustrating. It was like losing a close game to a last- second goal after trying your hardest for 40 minutes.  But it would have been harder if people didn’t care, or show their support. The whole game is better when good sports do what’s right for the sport, and not just for their team.  When my team heard about Mili Hernandez, we knew we had to support Azzurri Cachorros Chicas. Now Mili is back on the pitch, playing the game she loves with a full heart thanks to the miracle of support and good sportsmanship that lives in her name.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

Bibliography:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/bobcook/2017/06/11/only-sure-thing-in-mili-hernandez-hair-too-short-soccer-controversy-adults-ruin-everything/#5e1db6b96963

http://www.espn.com/espnw/sports/article/19571063/a-typo-rules-violations-led-dq-nebraska-soccer-team-player-looks-boy-plus-death-threats-tourney-director

 

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D’var Torah: Rabbi Benjamin Samuels (Tzav)

The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3) asserts that when we begin to teach our children Torah, we should begin with Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. This is surprising. The first half of Leviticus presents the sacrificial order of worship and concentrates on purity; the second half introduces many ritual and moral laws and focuses on holiness. This material brings to our awareness sublime, but difficult theological ideas, and legally complex religious and ethical imperatives.  Surely, the stories of Bereshit – Genesis will capture the attention and imagination of children better than the arcana of Leviticus. Furthermore, shouldn’t children’s Jewish education commence with the beginning of the Torah? The aforementioned Midrash explains: “Let those who are pure come and occupy themselves with the acts of the pure.”

I believe we can learn three important pedagogic principles from the approach of the Midrash. One, environment matters. As parents and teachers, we all aim to find the right balance between protecting our children from the brokenness of our world, and exposing them to said brokenness so that we can all become partners in its repair. The Midrash says begin with wholeness, purity, holiness, and goodness, i.e., Leviticus, with its orders and sacred aspirations. Once a baseline is established, our children can better recognize brokenness when it appears, such as in the stories of Bereishit.

Two, cultivate within our children the capacity to hear the Torah’s call to purity and holiness. The book of Leviticus begins with “Vayikrah – And God called.” Children often enter early childhood with spiritual and ethical questions that are quite profound, even if stated simply. Nurture their natural attunement to such questions.

Three, the book of Leviticus taken as a whole emphasizes ritual and ethics, our relationship with God and with other people.  The book which details how to worship and come close to God, also teaches, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”  To be a Jew requires commitment to both law and spirit for Judaism staunchly believes that religious practice externalizes the internal and internalizes the external: we practice what we believe and we believe what we practice.

Whether or not we actually commence our children’s Torah studies with Sefer Vaykira, the Midrash challenges us to think more deeply about our educational goals and their implementation.

Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels, PhD, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Newton Center. 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Charlie Schwartz (Vayikra)

Where is the heart of the Jewish people? Parashat Vayikra answers this question unequivocally with the first installment of what will become an entire Biblical how to manual to sacrificial worship; the heart of the Jewish people is wherever centralized sacrifice takes place. For the Israelites wandering in the desert this was in the tabernacle while for later generations the heart of the Jewish people became the Temple in Jerusalem.

If you take a moment to reflect on modern Jewish practice, the centrality of the sacrifices outlined in Vayikra are integrated in to much of what we do. We pray facing Jerusalem to orient ourselves toward the spiritual capital that once held the Holy Temple. Our synagogues, with their eternal lights and curtained arks, in many ways mirror the physical structure of the Temple. And our prayer services are at least partially and sometimes directly linked to the sacrificial services of our ancestors.

But are the sacrifices of the Temple  really the heart of the Jewish people?

A moving passage from the Babylonian Talmud suggests that the answer might not be as clear as Parashar Vayikra assumes. We learn in Mesekhet Shabbat 119b:

אמר ריש לקיש משום רבי יהודה נשיאה אין העולם מתקיים אלא בשביל הבל תינוקות של בית רבן

 Reish Lakish said in the name of Yehudah haNasi: The world only exists because of the breath of school children.

On it’s own, this is a powerful statement, that the world is sustained by the elementary learning of school children. The surprising emphasis here is not on the masterful give and take of rabbinic tradition, but rather on the basic acquiring and integrating of knowledge done by children. But Reish Laksih goes even further when a few lines later in the sugya he states:

ואמר ריש לקיש משום ר”י נשיאה אין מבטלין תינוקות של בית רבן אפי’ לבנין בית המקדש

And Reish Lakish said in the name of Yehudah haNasi: One may not interrupt the studying of school children, even in order to build the Temple.

So where is the heart of the Jewish people? In this Talmudic passage, Reish Lakish suggests that it is wherever school children are studying Torah. It is where children are surrounded by traditions of their ancestors. Where they seek to master texts in order to engage in the debates and questions that have animated the Jewish mind for thousands of years. Reish Laksih suggests here that while the rebuilding of the Temple is still an integral part of Jewish longing and aspiration, the heart of the Jewish people is what happens in our schools, around our tables, in our synagogues and in our families. The heart of the Jewish people is the education of our children.  

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz is the director of content development for Hillel International’s Center for Jewish and Israel Education. He lives with his family in Cambridge, MA