Rahel Berkovits ’83 and Jackie Schon ’99 as recipients of the school’s Outstanding Alumni Award

Schechter has named Rahel Berkovits ’83  and Jackie Schon ’99 as recipients of the school’s Arnold Zar-Kessler Outstanding Alumni Award. Created in 2014, the alumni award is given in honor of former head of school, Arnold Zar-Kessler, and his 21 years of dedication to and leadership of Solomon Schechter Day School.

rahel-berkovitsRahel Berkovits ’83 was selected for being a trailblazer in bridging the worlds of feminism and halacha in the 21st century.  She is on the Faculty of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where for the past twenty years she has been teaching Mishnah, Talmud, and Halacha.  In 2015, Rahel completed her studies at Beit Midrash Har’el and received rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Herzl Hefter and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, making her one of the first women ever to be ordained as an Orthodox Rav.  She is a founding member of Congregation Shirah Hadasha, a progressive halakhic minyan, which is enriched by both male and female participation in synagogue ritual and has published the book  A Daughter’s Recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. Many of Rahel’s Talmud students at Pardes have gone on to become Jewish Studies teachers at SSDS Boston. Schechter classmate Glen Schwaber writes, “As an outstanding educator, an outspoken and effective community leader, a Zionist, a devoted spouse and parent, and a committed and proud Jew, Rahel’s life exemplifies Schechter’s vision and mission to the fullest.”

JackieJackie Schon ’99  was selected for her innovative business model, community service work and vision-driven leadership. In 2010, Jackie’s artistic background and “no option to fail” attitude positioned her to co-found The Paint Bar, Boston’s first “paint and sip” business (and the first business of its kind in the Northeast) with her mother, Jill Schon. Since its opening, Jackie has led and guided The Paint Bar’s creative team, to inspire more than 50,000 customers with little or no artistic background to discover their inner artist. In addition, The Paint Bar has hosted fundraisers for hundreds of non-profit organizations, contributing thousands of dollars on behalf of their supporters. Jackie’s sister and fellow alumna writes, “My sister, Jackie, applies sensitivity and originality to every task she approaches, whether it is volunteering with Jewish Big Brother Big Sister, painting a still life, or organizing Schechter’s 50th Anniversary event. She is an intuitive and gifted artist and businesswoman; this has served her well as she has the unique ability to channel her inspiration and energy. She sees the world through a colorful lens and inspires those around her to do the same.”

The awards will be presented at the school’s eighth grade graduation on June 20 at 6:30 p.m. at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton, MA. The Arnold Zar-Kessler Outstanding Alumni Award is presented annually to an alumna/us whose life embodies Schechter’s vision and mission. Nominations to the Director of Alumni Relations are due each year by March 15.

D’var Torah: Dan Brosgol (Korach: A Salty Reflection)

In this week’s Torah portion, Korach, God makes the Brit HaKehunah, the Priestly Covenant, with Aaron and his descendants. But this is not a covenant marked by a rainbow or the giving of Torah- it’s a covenant of salt.

A what?

Wait a moment. Let’s back up.

Remember when salt was bad for you? I only slightly exaggerate. When I was growing up, salt was bad and sugar was something (relatively) harmless. Things have certainly changed. Now, sugar is the root of all evil, and salt is getting to be more OK- as long as you’re adding it to what you cook at home. This is a long-winded way of saying that that food trends come and go, and perhaps salt gets a bad reputation.

The same might be argued when it comes to salt and Judaism. Many of you probably think of two associations between salt and our traditions- the salt water we use at our Passover seders to remember the tears of slavery, and the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife was turned into during the destruction of Sodom back in Genesis.

Both of those are, for lack of a better term, not awesome associations.

But the covenant of salt that we see in Korach this week? Well, that’s actually quite awesome.

Three times in the Tanakh we hear about covenants of salt. First in Leviticus, when referring to sacrificial offerings, second here in Korach, and for a third time in II Chronicles, when God is described as giving the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever “by a covenant of salt.”

Why are these moments of importance marked by covenants of salt? There are a few answers to this question, including those which allude to the Hebrew words for “bread” (lechem) and “salt” (melach) sharing the same three letters, but my favorite answer (obviously) relates to food. How? Because salt is a preservative that keeps food from going rotten or spoiling. Salt, in a word, preserves, and Judaism and our traditions I would allege are remarkably well-preserved.

So as you prepare for summer and good times, and a break from the rigors of school and activities, remember to add a little salt to your Judaism between now and September. I think we’d all agree that it is something worth preserving for another few thousand years.

Have a restful Shabbat and a wonderful summer.

Dan Brosgol, Director of Prozdor

D’var Torah: David Bernat (Bamidbar)

 

Parashat Bemidbar (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20) lays out “marching orders” for the Israelites on their desert trek to the Promised Land. The nation is arrayed, by tribe, surrounding the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle building.  The Mishkan is the people’s spiritual and moral center of gravity, housing the Aron (Ark), the Two Tablets, and the very presence of God. However, the same communal arrangement also serves, sadly, to marginalize Israelite women.  The tribal census (Numbers 1:2) only counts the men, relegating females to secondary status, a condition less than palatable to those of us committed to egalitarian principles.   Fast forward through the centuries, when the mobile Mishkan gave way to the 1st and 2nd Temples in Jerusalem as the sacred centers of Judaism, until all traces of those structures were nearly obliterated by Roman, Christian, and Muslim conquerors. Still, one small corner of the Temple complex, its Western Wall, the Kotel, endures as a place of pilgrimage and as a potent symbol of Jewish history and identity.  At sundown on Tuesday, May 23rd, Iyar 28, we celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, now 50 years since Jerusalem was liberated during the Six Day War. Emblematic of that liberation was the moment Israeli forces stood before the Kotel, after so many years of denied access. However, to my mind, the triumph is slightly muted so long as the Israeli Government, and the Rabbanut, can use the Kotel to keep women on the periphery. Torah Scrolls are not allowed in the Ezrat Nashim, Women of the Wall, and their supporters, are harassed, and the authorities seem to be reneging on, or delaying, the promise of a fully egalitarian section at the southern edge of the plaza.  Isaiah proclaimed that God’s House should be “a House of Prayer for all peoples (Isaiah 56:7).”  Yet, the imperative is unrealized.  I urge us to mark Yom Yerushalayim as a moment of collective strength and resilience, hope and optimism.  At the same time, let us endeavor to fulfill the prophetic aspiration for a spiritual center and sacred space that is inclusive and welcoming for the entire community.

 David Bernat, PhD is the  Executive Director, Synagogue Council of Massachusetts  and is a Schechter parent and alumni parent.

 

D’var Torah: Rabbi Jethro Berkman (Behar/Bechukotai)

 

This week we read the double portion Behar/Bechukotai, the last Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus.  The bulk of the portion Bechukotai is comprised of a list of blessings that the Israelites will receive if they follow God’s commandments in the land of Israel (rain, bountiful crops, peace, security etc.) and a list of curses they will receive if they fail to do so (drought, famine, pestilence, war, and ultimately exile).

A cursory glance at these two lists quickly reveals the disheartening news that the list of curses is far longer, more specific and more colorfully narrated than the rather modest list of blessings.  Such is the discrepancy between the two lists that the portion is commonly referred to as the “Tochecha” – the Rebuke.

In her brilliant “New Studies in Leviticus,” the 20th century Israeli Torah commentator Nehama Leibowitz notes that this notion that the curses far outweigh the blessings has sometimes been questioned. A midrash notes that first word of the blessings starts with an aleph (which opens the Hebrew alphabet), while the last word of the blessings ends with a tav (which closes the Hebrew alphabet), suggesting that the blessings include all good things “from A to Z.”  The curses, on the other hand, begin with a vav (6th letter) and end with a heh (5th letter), suggesting that just as there isn’t much between heh and vav, so too there isn’t much to these curses.

The 12th century Spanish Torah commentator Ibn Ezra also argues that the blessings are in fact greater than the curses, noting that the blessings are stated in generalities (leaving the glorious details to the reader’s imagination), while the curses include all of the concrete detail.  Had the details of the blessings been provided, the argument seems to be, they would far outstrip the curses.

While Ibn Ezra’s argument, and the midrashists’ tricks with letters might seem a bit superficial to us now, they could be viewed as pointing toward a profound psychological truth.  How many of us spend more time focusing on the “curses” in our lives than on the blessings?  How many of us analyze and agonize over every detail of our mistakes and our shortcomings, while allowing our successes and our strengths to hover in the background, as vague generalities?

I’m reminded of an article I read last year about a study indicating that people who take a few minutes each morning to write down five things for which they are grateful, grow increasingly happy as they continue the exercise.  Perhaps our natural tendency is to leave our blessings unexamined—to assume that our blessings list is shorter than our curses list.  And perhaps our task (as Ibn Ezra’s reading might imply), at least now and then, is to linger on our blessings, to recount them to ourselves in all their beautifully.

Rabbi Jethro Berkman is the Dean of Jewish Education at Gann Academy

Students use Scratch to bring the Purim story to life

Using Scratch, a block-based programming language developed at MIT, Grade 6 students brought the Purim story to life in their Tanakh class with their teacher, Lianne Gross. Some students chose to update the characters to reflect present day sensibilities, imagining, for example, Vashti having Instagram followers. As part of our Purim festivities, the entire Upper School watched a video production of the Scratch projects, with voice-over by the Grade 6 students.

D’var Torah: Rabb Carl Perkins (Yitro)

How important is it to be honest?

It’s VERY important.  It’s so important that not one but TWO out of the Ten Commandments, contained in this week’s parashah, speak explicitly about the importance of honesty.

The third commandment is: Don’t take God’s name in vain. We shouldn’t say, “I swear to God that X is true” — if X isn’t true. When we swear that something is true and it turns out to be false, people learn not to trust us. Let’s say that we boast that we’ve behaved badly. Then, when we’re asked about it, we deny that we ever behaved that way.  We must be lying, right?  Another example:  we shouldn’t ever make a promise that we have no intention of fulfilling.   If we do, others may rely on it, and come to expect its fulfillment, and be disappointed when that doesn’t happen. And they’ll be disappointed in us.

Then there is commandment number nine:  Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor.  This is a terrible thing.  As the Book of Proverbs puts it, God hates “a lying tongue … and a false witness who breathes out lies.” (Proverbs 6:16-19) Again, in addition to harming others, this places our own integrity in jeopardy.

In both cases, one thing is certain: lying can hurt others, and it can hurt us, too.  If we lie, people will come to doubt our word.  They’ll never know whether we’re telling the truth or lying.  Every time we speak, they’ll wonder whether we’re lying.

We can learn the importance of telling the truth from a lovely midrash on a text that appears later in the book of Exodus.  When Moses is told to create the ark of the covenant, he is told to coat it with gold, inside and out.  That puzzles the rabbinic commentators: They can understand why it should be coated on the outside.  After all, people will see the outside. The ark will look special if it’s coated with gold on the outside.  But why bother to coat the inside with gold? No one looks inside! No one will know the difference!

The answer is simple: When the ark is coated inside and out, it serves as a symbol of the kind of people we should strive to be: people of integrity, people who are honest, whose word matches their deed.  In other words, people whose insides match their outsides. (Yoma 72b on Exodus 25:11)

Let’s strive to fulfill these two, very important commandments. Let’s strive to be real, sincere, and honest, and let’s strive to tell the truth.  Let’s try our best to be people about whom others will say, “Their insides match their outsides.”

Shabbat shalom!

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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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“I have always been proud to be a part of Schechter, and it is an honor to know that Schechter is proud of me. “

Heidi (Birnbaum) Aaronson ’96 delivered the following speech at Schechter’s graduation as she accepted the Arnold Zar-Kessler Outstanding Alumni award. Pictured: left – present day; right – fourth grade. 

I knew from a very early age that I wanted to become a dentist, and Schechter helped nurture and encourage that desire from the very beginning.

When I was in first grade, my father was invited to speak to my class about what a dentist does. To this day, I remember being so proud of him and the work he did and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, too.

Three years later, my fourth grade teacher, Susan Bloom, asked my class to write a report about anything that interests us. So, naturally, I wrote about root canals and dental implants. Shortly after my dental school graduation, I received a beautiful letter in the mail from Mrs. Bloom, telling me how proud she was of me and that she remembered how much I loved dentistry, even as a child.

In fifth grade, I won the award for the “most hygienic Purim costume,” when I dressed up as a tube of Haman-fighting toothpaste. Back then, David Wolf referred to me as his “Favorite Heidi,” since he had never had another student named Heidi. Fifteen years later, I was sitting on an airplane, about to head to my very first sports dentistry conference, and I heard a voice say “Is that my favorite Heidi?” I looked up and saw David Wolf standing in the aisle of the plane.

For my fourth and fifth grade teachers to still remember me years after I was in their classroom shows just how much Schechter teachers care about their students. We are not just another face or another name year after year. Teachers care about their students well after graduation. They remember their names, they ask about their families, and they genuinely care about their lives.

In eighth grade, my Hebrew teacher, Ruti Peled, asked every student to write an essay titled “In Twenty Years”. My mother recently found my essay, and I’d like to read it for you today. “I hope that when I am 34, I will have finished college and dental school, and I also wish to work in my dad’s dental practice. I know that I will be a dentist and I will have 3 children. I will have two children by the time I am 34, but I want three children. In our yearbook they wrote that in 20 years I will be a hair stylist. That was a joke because that’s the last thing in the world I’d ever be. I am positive I will be a dentist”.

It has been exactly twenty years since I wrote that essay, and I can honestly say, I nailed it. And part of the reason why I was able to fulfill my dreams, succeed in school and become a dentist, marry an amazing man and raise our two beautiful daughters in a loving, Jewish household is because Schechter instilled in me a love of Judaism, a passion for learning, an understanding of the need for tikkun olam, and most importantly, showing me that no matter what you want to do in life, anything is possible.  My daughter, Abby, just turned 6 this past Saturday, and her kindergarten teacher, Sondra Kaminsky, put together a “birthday book” for her with beautiful pictures and messages from her friends. At the end of the book, Sondra wrote up an interview she did with Abby. One of the questions was “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, and when I saw that Abby’s answer was “a dentist”, I know that in another 20 years, we might discover she’s nailed it, too, because Schechter creates an environment that enables its students to be confident in who they are and prepares them to take on the world, filling them with the knowledge that they can accomplish just about anything.

I have always been proud to be a part of Schechter, and it is an honor to know that Schechter is proud of me. Thank you.