D’var Torah: Rabbi Elan Babchuck (Bamidbar)

Bamidbar: Embracing the Unknown

On more of my childhood nights than not, my father used to retire from the dinner table to the piano bench to play some of the blues songs from his earliest memories. Most of his repertoire consisted of well-known hits by Aretha, Ella, and BB, but there was one Bessie Smith song he truly loved to sing: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. The song is about losing everything you’ve ever had, and dreaming of what it might be like to recover even just one silver dollar. His favorite line, which – if I close my eyes and think back to those vivid memories of evenings by the piano – I can still hear him singing: “If I ever get my hands on a dollar again, I’m gonna hang on to it ‘til the eagle grins.”

The fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar – “in the wilderness” – describes the Israelites’ attempts to regain a sense of comfort and stability amidst the tumultuous conditions of their endless wanderings through the desert. We learn about three such efforts: (1) taking a census of the population, (2) developing systems around the traveling sanctuary called the Mishkan, and (3) better understanding the nature of the Promised Land ahead by sending 12 scouts across the border.

These three methods of seeking security and stability in the midst of the unknown are much more constructive and purposeful than the nostalgic complaints that this generation’s predecessors tended towards in the earliest years of their exodus. We could certainly conclude, then, that the takeaway from their wanderings is that we too must seek out a sense of security during tumultuous times. Like Bessie Smith gripping the silver dollar with all her strength, it’s human nature to seek comfort in the face of change.

But on the other side of the border from our wanderings is the Promised Land, the one flowing generously with milk and honey and the promise of a stable existence for this weary people. It is here that the Israelites will soon take root and build a nation. And while stability has its draws, on the flip side of this silver dollar is the danger of losing our wandering spirit – the sense of adventure, possibility, and curiosity that got us here in the first place.

In fact, our wandering story’s most important lesson is two-fold; two sides of the same coin. All of life is about finding forces of stability in the unknown wilderness, and seeking a wanderer’s spirit even in the midst of stasis. When our life’s wanderings weigh too heavily on our weary souls, we must find ways to anchor ourselves on the journey. And the moment we get too comfortable in place, it’s time for a new adventure – of the mind, body, or spirit. So whether your next step is to plant yourself right where you stand or to broaden your horizons and step forward, I wish you a nesiyah tovah – a safe, fulfilling, and enlightening journey ahead.

 

Rabbi Elan Babchuck ’96, Director of Innovation, Clal; Founding Director, Glean Incubator

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

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

D’var Torah: Henry Goldstein (Va’era)

 

In this week’s parsha, Va’era, G-d told Moses about his promise to let the Israelites have a home in the land of Canaan and his plan to help the Israelites leave Egypt. G-d asked Moses to speak to Pharoah, and Moses responded “וְאֵיךְ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֣נִי פַרְעֹ֔ה וַֽאֲנִ֖י עֲרַ֥ל שְׂפָתָֽיִם” “How then will Pharaoh hearken to me, seeing that I am of closed lips?” Moses admitted to G-d twice that he did not feel comfortable speaking, so G-d told him to have his brother Aaron speak for him. Despite Moses’ imperfections, (including impulsively killing an Egyptian), G-d still chose him to be the leader of a new nation. G-d told Moses that he also made the promise of Canaan to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These men were also not perfect: Jacob took advantage of his brother, Isaac favored one of his sons over the other, and Abraham laughed at G-d when G-d said he and Sarah would have a child. Just as the characters in the Torah are imperfect, none of us is perfect either.

And so Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh to free the Israelites. They threatened to send plagues to the land of Egypt, and Aaron turned his staff into a snake, but Pharaoh was still stubborn. 

וַֽיֶּֽחֱזַק֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה וְלֹ֥א שָׁמַ֖ע

“Pharoah’s heart stiffened” the Torah says many times, to show how Pharoah still felt no sympathy for the Israelites. The plagues kept coming, and still Pharaoh did not let the Israelites leave Egypt and be free.

The plagues occur in order from least damaging to most severe. I think G-d wanted to do the least amount of damage possible to the Egyptians. First, the water of the Nile River turned into blood. Since Pharaoh did not let the Israelites go, the second plague hit. Frogs infested everywhere.

וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֜ה לְמשֶׁ֣ה וּלְאַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ הַעְתִּ֣ירוּ אֶל־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְיָסֵר֙ הַֽצְפַרְדְּעִ֔ים מִמֶּ֖נִּי וּמֵֽעַמִּ֑י וַֽאֲשַׁלְּחָה֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וְיִזְבְּח֖וּ לַֽיהֹוָֽה

Pharoah told Moses and Aaron that if they made the frogs go away, they would be able to pray and sacrifice to their G-d. The frogs went away, but Pharaoh changed his mind, and the Israelites were not allowed to leave Egypt. The same thing repeated itself again in the next plague, the plague of lice. Pharaoh again promised freedom, but then changed his mind.

Pharaoh made a big mistake. Every time he said “No,” the plagues got worse. Although everybody makes mistakes, and nobody is perfect, you can always change. Abraham lost faith only for a short time. Jacob realized trickery was bad, once he ran away, and Moses felt very bad, once he impulsively killed the Egyptian. But Pharaoh did not change. He could have, but he didn’t.

As 2018 starts, we should all recognize when we make a mistake, and always try to do better next time.

Henry Goldstein, Grade 4,  is a current Schechter student.

Grade 6 Students Make the Hanukkah Story Come Alive

In Grade 6 Tanakh class, the students studied the story of Hanukkah and how it is celebrated today. They put together a multi-part movie to present what they learned to their peers. Split into three groups, the students wrote the script, created the visuals, and recorded the narrations. On behalf of the 6th grade, we hope you have a joyous Hanukkah!

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1aCChbNMhfzEt2ftozLgqYsDuO4HhiHCF/view

D’var Torah: Rabbi Jonina Pritzker (Miketz)

Chanukah is a holiday that reminds us of Jewish people-hood. It represents the first recorded struggle for religious freedom, as the Maccabees fought for the national sovereignty and religious freedom in the Land of Israel against an oppressor who denied that freedom and forbade the practice of Judaism.

In the ancient world, Hellenism was spreading; other forms of worship were being banned and outlawed. Jews who refused to conform were massacred. The revolt of Mattathias with Judah Maccabee and his brothers was the first recorded struggle for religious freedom in history.

The first meaning of Chanukah is shown by dividing the name of the holiday: “Chanu” means “they rested” or “made camp,” and the letters “kauf” and “hey” in Hebrew add up to 25. It was on the 25th of Kislev that the Jews re-dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem after liberating it from the forces of the Greco-Syrian emperor Antiochus Epiphanes. The word “Chanukah” reminds us of the battle, and tells us that on the 25th day of Kislev, the Jews rested.

For the second meaning of this holiday, we put together the word and read “Chanukah,” which means “dedication” because, ultimately, this was the purpose of the battle. The unified word shows that the battle was not fought for military glory and achievements. The battle was fought for the purpose of re-dedicating the Temple which had been desecrated by the invaders; the battle was fought to ensure the right to live in freedom in our homeland.

For the third meaning of our Festival of Lights, we look at the Hebrew letters in the word “Chanukah:” “chet” “nun” “kauf,” which, when put together, mean “education.” This reminds us that to understand the ideals around which we have always built our lives, requires education. It reminds us that learning about our history and heritage gives us the spiritual strength and direction to fight the current rendition of these battles, thereby championing the just causes of our day, just as our ancestors did in ancient Israel, BaYamim HaHem BaZman HaZeh, in those days at this time.

Rabbi Jonina Pritzker, Alumni Parent

Dan_Savitt

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!

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. 

 

meirowitz

D’var Torah: Rabbi Sara Meirowitz (Noach)

I still remember the day when I had to face the fact that I was imperfect. I was in fifth grade, a dutiful student in David Wolf’s Language Arts class, memorizing spelling words for weekly quizzes. I was an anxious child and a perfectionist, dreading every possible mistake. And then the unthinkable happened: I misspelled a word. I dug my nails into my hand in self-blame.

Even to recall this level of drama seems absurd now, but I remember so clearly the feeling of frustration and panic which led me to unconsciously scratch at my hand. But more important were the gentle yet firm words of my teacher (who thankfully still instructs Schechter students today!):

Everyone makes mistakes. Be kind to yourself.

                  You will have another chance.

                  I will support you.

I think of this story this week with Parashat Noach, which tells of a world so steeped in imperfection. We see a world in turmoil, sin-ravaged, with just one simple man and his family standing out from the pack. Human wickedness causes God to regret all of creation — the world is too spoiled, too imperfect. Let’s try again with just Noah, God says. Perhaps perfection can then be possible.

And yet, after the flood, the world is no more utopian than before. God utters perhaps the most pessimistic line in the Torah: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). Imperfection – even evil – is part of human nature. And in truth, when I look at the many terrors and troubles in the world around us, it’s hard for me to disagree.

So how do those of us engaged in tikkun olam, perfectionists in our hearts, continue to have courage among this imperfection? I look to the next part of our parashah for inspiration, where God plays the role of teacher and coach to humanity.

Let’s make a covenant together, God says.

                  I’ll support you, and you do your part

                  There will be consequences for mistakes – but I will stand by you, no matter what.

And God gives the rainbow as a sign of the covenant.

May we all be blessed to have teachers and mentors who help us make mistakes, forgive ourselves, and live perfectly well in our imperfect world.

 

Rabbi Sara Meirowitz ’91 is Assistant Chair of Jewish Studies at Gann Academy in Waltham, MA.

 

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.