D’var Torah: Stephanie Maroun (Vayetze)

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Shakespeare’s quip asserts that monikers are superficial window dressing, detached from the very thing or person they identify. In contrast, Biblical names unquestionably signify traits and even responsibility.

Parashat Vayetze recounts the stirring story of Jacob and Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, Jacob’s beloved. A tug of war for attention is naturally produced by this triangle, fraught with open favoritism. In a reversal of fortune, Leah and handmaids Bilhah and Zilpah bear the majority of Jacob’s children and only finally does Rachel deliver two sons. Examining the veritable roll call of names in Parashat Vayetze offers a fascinating, unexpected glimpse into the sisters’ jockeying.

The theory of nominative determinism contends that people gravitate towards areas of work that fit their names. Leah must have believed this instinctively. Her offsprings’ names are deliberately engineered to do the work of elevating her standing in Jacob’s eyes as she brandishes a series of auspicious choices: Reuben (“behold, a son”), Simeon (“obedient”), Levi (“joined”), Judah (“praised”), Issachar (“there is reward”), Zebulun (“to dwell or gift”), Dinah (“justice”) and through Zilpah, Gad (“good fortune”) and Asher (“happiness”).

In Rachel’s barren stead, Bilhah produces Dan (“God is my judge”) and Naftali (“my struggle”). Rachel bestows names that reveal the sharp surprise that she cannot best Leah’s fruitfulness. Perhaps these soul-baring names are ploys to provoke sympathy in Jacob. The names of Rachel’s eventual sons, Joseph (“God increases”) and Benjamin (“son of my right hand”), clearly reveal Jacob’s immutable preference for Rachel and her sons despite Leah’s efforts.

Our names represent an amalgam of desirous traits, family history and our parents’ wishes for us. Do our names predispose us to careers or personalities? Can another’s emotional response to us be affected or influenced subliminally by how we are called? Leah must have harbored hope in this idea. Yet, if we look at Rachel’s enduring predominance, birth names did not take root and establish a new landscape for this family. They were just roses, full of passion, but powerless.


Meet Judi Rapaport!

Judi is thrilled to be back at Schechter for her 35th years as a Kindergarten teacher! She is also the proud parent of two Schechter alumni! Judi studied at both Boston State College and Hunter College in New York before becoming a teacher. Aside from Schechter, she served as a camp director at sleep away camp and as an assistant director at day camps. Each year, she looks forward to meeting new students and their families, while also reconnecting with staff members.

In her free time, Judi loves to spend time with her family, travel, read, attend theatre and do lots of walking!

Judi feels #SchechterPride when she sees the spark in the eyes of her students as they become excited about something we are doing. She is so appreciative of the beautiful notes the children and their families send throughout the year. Everyday is a different day with excitement and enthusiasm, which makes each day so special and unique!


Meet Dan Savitt!

Dan is excited to be at Schechter for his 14th year teaching 7th grade Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and Toshba (Rabbinic Literature) and serving as the Tefillah Coordinator. He holds a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and studied for two years at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Dan is the father of two Schechter students: Eliyah in 3rd grade and Adiv in pre-K. Every year, Dan looks forward to engaging with the unique dynamic of each class. He is especially excited to continue to help develop the Judaics and z’man kodesh (tefillah) program this year with his colleagues and students.

In his free time, Dan juggles!

Dan feels #SchechterPride when he hears from students after they’ve graduated from Schechter!


Meet Rinat Noy!

Rinat is excited to be at Schechter for her 23rd year as a Hebrew Support Specialist. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in Special Education and Counseling from Haifa University. Additionally, she is certified in reading, writing and math for children with learning disabilities and holds a Certificate in Hebrew proficiency. Prior to joining the Schechter team, Rinat worked as a learning disability specialist with children ages 5 to 14 years old. Every year, Rinat hopes to help her students fully integrate into their classrooms

In her free time, Rinat likes to be active. She does pilates and gym activities.

Rinat feels #SchechterPride when she watches her students graduate. She also feels #SchechterPride during Schechter’s Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebration!


D’var Torah: Rabbi Hamilton (Toldot)

Influence can be more forceful than power

How can we tell the difference between a leader who is self-promoting and one who stands for something larger than her or himself? The former pursues power, the latter generates influence. The former self-inflates, the latter stirs others by example.

In this week’s portion of Torah we learn that Isaac specializes in digging wells. After restoring Abraham’s wells, he sets out to dig his own. Initially he runs into trouble with the local population and aptly names the first two wells esek (argumentation) and sitna (hatred). Each of these wells is dug by Isaac’s servants vayachp’ru (they dug). The third time, however, when Isaac takes personal responsibility by digging himself vayachpor (he dug) (Gen. 26:19, 21, 22), the outcome is dramatically different. And he moved on from there and dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it, and he called its name rehovot (spacious) and said, Because now God has widened for us, and we’ve been fruitful in the land (Gen. 26:22). Isaac’s personal involvement and perseverance engendered spaciousness.

But if the story were simply about not delegating or living vicariously we might miss the point. This is especially true in today’s world that champions self-reliance, the individual, and independence. Isaac’s personal involvement is understood not as an isolated act but rather as leading by example whereby others followed and dug in a similar manner (Netziv). His ever-widening influence was generative and replenishing.

“Empowerment” – despite the word’s etymology – is not optimized in a power-framework as much as in an influence-framework. May we seek and meet influential leaders who stir and liberate blessed potential in others for good.

A sweet Shabbat to you.

Rabbi William Hamilton is the rabbi at Congregation Kehillath Israel, Brookline, and a Schechter alumni parent.

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Meet Lianne Gross!

Lianne is excited to be at Schechter for her 2nd year as a 6th- and 8th-grade Judaic Studies teacher. She holds a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Brandeis University and a Massachusetts License in Secondary History with an SEI Endorsement. Every year, Lianne enjoys reconnecting with former students and getting to know new ones. In addition, she looks forward to bringing projects and ideas into the classroom that she has worked on throughout the summer.

In her free time, Lianne teaches and performs Israeli dance.

Lianne feels #SchechterPride when her 8th-grade students present research projects from their Judaics classes. The presentations are attended by parents and 7th graders and it is always a successful celebration of learning!


Meet Jill Grasfield!

Jill is in her 7th year at Gan Shelanu, currently as the school’s Auxiliary Services Coordinator. Jill holds a B.S. and CDA certification. Prior to joining the Schechter community, she worked at Hertz Nursery School for eight years and Cole Harrington for two and a half years. This year, Jill is particularly excited for this new role and looks forward to a new challenge!

In her free time, Jill enjoys walking the beach for sea glass.

Jill feels #SchechterPride when her students come back on a Monday morning and say they missed her, and parents share they have been singing song basket songs all weekend!

D’var Torah: Dan Brosgol (Chayeh Sarah)

Chayyei Sarah- Love is in the Water

In this week’s parasha (Chayei Sarah), Abraham’s servant is sent on a very important errand – to go back to the Land of Haran to find a suitable wife for Isaac. After some clarifying questions, his (nameless) servant leaves, and find his way back to Abraham’s ancestral homeland. Stopping at a well at the outskirts of Nahor, he prays to God that the wife-to-be reveal herself to him in a very specific way:

“Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’- let her be the one whom You have decreed for your servant Isaac” (Genesis, 24:13-14)

As luck, or divine intervention would have it, Rebekah shows up immediately and that precise conversation happens. In the language of Staples…. that was easy. Isaac marries Rebekah, and the rest is (Jewish) history.

This story of a meeting at a well preceding an important marriage occurs, famously, two other times early in the Torah: when Jacob meets Rachel, and when Moses meets Tzipporah. That the Tanakh repeats familiar scenes, words, or language, is not a new idea. Neither is the idea that ancient wells, where commerce took place, where people gathered, or where travelers exchanged news, were a hub of activity and Biblical matchmaking.

Fast forward 3900 or so years from the events of this story, though and you might be asking yourself what the modern-day equivalent of a well would be. Where might you go after a long journey to feel refreshed, or to perk up a little bit? If you’re like me, the first thing I do is get coffee.

Imagine sending your friend to help find you a husband or wife at not a well, but at Starbucks, and praying to God saying “Here I stand in line at Starbucks, waiting for my app to load, and the next person who orders a Pumpkin Spice Latte and offers to buy my drink – let her/him be the one You have decreed for my best friend.”

In truth, stranger things have happened. My parents met over the last bagel at a Hillel breakfast, I met my wife in line at a party at Brandeis, so it’s not rare at all, actually, to have food, or beverages, involved in love stories, both Biblical and modern.

Shabbat Shalom, and for those of you looking for love, keep your eyes open at Starbucks or Whole Foods this week. You never know who you might meet.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Michael Swarttz (Vayerah)

The Good and the Bad of Vayerah

Vayerah is a very rich parashah. It moves swiftly from one narrative to the next. There are elements that are consistent with our modern sensibilities, but there are others that are troubling, to say the least.

Among the positives: Abraham and Sarah are the paradigms for hachnasat orchim (hospitality) when they welcome the three strangers/messengers to their tent. Abraham, the very first “Jew,” as it were, bargains, or argues, with God to spare the innocent when God wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In this he is the model for the rich Jewish tradition of arguing with God. The birth of Isaac, a fulfillment of God’s promise to Sarah that she would have a child.

On the other hand, Vayerah is filled with violence, and not just the obvious violence of the aforementioned destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the implicit violence of Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac. Additionally, as Judith Plaskow highlights in her commentary in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, there are numerous incidents of violence against women:

  • Lot’s offering his daughters to the people of Sodom in an effort to spare the men —“Do with them as you please.”
  • Abraham’s seeking to pass off Sarah as his sister in order to protect himself. Sarah’s potential rape by Avimelech, king of Gerar, is averted by a divinely sent dream. This is the second “wife-sister” incident with Abraham; it occurs once again with Isaac and Rebecca.
  • Violence against Hagar in expelling her and Ishmael from the household in order to assure Isaacs inheritance. Sadly in this case Sarah is the initiator here, with Abraham being the willing enforcer.

We always need to be careful in judging and evaluating biblical texts in light of our contemporary values and sensibilities. Obviously it was a very different world, and the status of women was radically different than today, at least in our Western world. Still, these narratives are extremely troubling to us, and it is striking to see so many examples chronicled in one parashah.

Plaskow asserts, “This Torah portion makes clear that our ancestors are by no means always models of ethical behavior that edify and inspire us. On the contrary, often the Torah holds up a mirror to the ugliest aspects of human nature and society. It provides us with opportunities to look honestly at ourselves…, to reflect on destructive patterns of human relating, and to ask how we might address and change them.”

Speaking of progressive change, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “[T]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” [King was apparently quoting Reverend Theodor Parker.] Sadly, in our supposedly enlightened era, violence against women, particularly by powerful men abusing their power, continues unabated.   Famous examples abound, notably Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump, as do countless #MeToo’s.

From Vayerah to our own time. King’s moral arc moves excruciatingly slowly. We cannot complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from the work of bringing justice and dignity to women and to all of the vulnerable in our midst. May each of us do our part to move that moral arc in the right direction.

Michael Swarttz, alumni parent, is the rabbi of Beth Tikvah Synagogue of Westborough, the Jewish Chaplain at the Phillips Academy in Andover, and the Coordinator of the Harold Cotton Leadership Center of the Jewish Federation of Central Mass. 


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D’var Torah: Rabbi Ravid Tilles (Lech Lecha)

I still remember the first verse I was ever expected to memorize in my 3rd grade Tanach class at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, MD:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.

“And God said to Avram, go out from your land, the place that you were born, from your father’s house to a Land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

These are the opening words of Parshat Lech Lecha, the first portion that focuses on the life and times of Abraham and his family. This verse marks the beginning of the relationship between Abraham and God, a relationship that we consider to be the catalyst for the creation of the Jewish people. When read at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, this verse highlights the great sacrifice that Abraham (still Avram here) had to make in order to establish a Great Nation. But when we broaden the scope of the Abraham story, to include the end of last week’s portion (Parshat Noach), we understand this verse differently.

Verse 1 of Genesis Chapter 12 relays God’s command to Avram to leave his land and the place that he was born, but many of our Ancient Sages note that Avram had already left his birthplace. Avram was born in Ur Kasdim, and we learn in verse 31 of chapter 11 that Avram’s father, Terach, had already brought Avram and Sarai and their family out of Ur Kasdim on their way to Canaan but that they stopped in Haran and never left. So the command from God to Avram to leave his birthplace and to leave his father’s home are actually different commands since his homeland was Ur Kasdim and his father’s home was newly settled in Haran. The Ramban posits that Avram actually received two separate prophecies that were combined into one in Lech Lecha’s opening verse. That Avram was told to leave his birthplace and his land while he was in Ur Kasdim and that he was then told to leave his father’s house while they were settled in Canaan. The Ramban explains that God is commanding Avram that he has more work to do and that he needs to continue to go further. That the Promised Land of Canaan awaits and that Avram has more work to do.

During this time of year, with the High Holy Day season still very fresh in our minds, we find ourselves on the never-ending journey toward self-improvement and discovery. We can envision our Promised Land of self-actualization, or if we struggle to articulate our goals then we go forward with the faith that our vision will be shown to us along the way (Asher Ar’eka). Throughout the course of our journeys we need encouragement or reminders that will motivate us to go further. We made resolutions and set goals while we were in Ur Kasdim, our origin at the start of the year, and it will inevitably be a long journey that will require patience and commitment. So we may find ourselves stopping our journey, like in a Haran. Ramban’s message to us and the lesson of the first verse of Parshat Lech Lecha is that we need to go further. That we should not be so complaisant to say, Haran is good enough. We must resist the temptation to say that less than my goal was good enough because at least it is closer than I had been. Instead we need to continue to find motivation from within and from our family and friends. We must continuously go forward, on our journey toward self-improvement to turn the vision for this coming year into a reality. Shanah Tovah and Shabbat Shalom.