Who is wise? Who is mighty?

by David Waksberg

My father’s father grew up in a small city in western Poland. Inspired by Theodor Herzl, he was frustrated by his yeshiva’s unwillingness to embrace Zionism and its inability to address his deepest concerns. Expelled for reading Spinoza (hidden under his Talmud tractate), he joined the Zionists and never looked back.

My mother’s father grew up on a remote farm near the Polish-Ukrainian frontier.  Which side of the border depended on the year. Far from Jewish population centers, his early Jewish education relied upon a “circuit rabbi,” who made the rounds, visiting his farm once or twice a week.

Later in life, he shared some of the wisdom he’d gleaned from that circuit rabbi, so many decades earlier. It was my grandfather who introduced me to teachings of Ben Zoma from Pirke Avot: “Who is wise? One who learns from everyone. Who is mighty? One who subdues one’s urges. Who is rich? One who rejoices in one’s portion.  Who is honored? One who honors one’s fellows.”

More than a century after he visited my grandfather’s farm, that circuit rabbi’s teaching endures - passed down, from his student to his student’s grandchildren.

How and why did the circuit rabbi make such an impact on my grandfather?

That rabbi forged what social scientists call a “trusting relationship.” He lovingly shared nuggets of Torah along with pieces of his soul. He inspired my grandfather to be a person whose life was informed and guided by Jewish wisdom.

Researchers have found that “trusting relationships” (between teacher and student and among teachers and other educational stakeholders) are a core factor in effective learning. As Parker Palmer has written: “ can throw the best methods, the latest equipment, and a lot of money at people who do not trust each other and still get miserable results... [while] people who trust each other and work well together can do exceptional work…”

We live in an age of massive scalability. Our @Home holiday guides are published online and thousands of families with young children download them, here in Northern California and all over the world. Our reach is tremendous, and the benefits and blessings of technology are to be used and appreciated. And yet, if we forget the importance and value of building trusting relationships, our reach will be vast but shallow.

Thus, we pursue a “high tech/high touch” strategy. The Internet helps us connect, helps overcome distance, traffic, and much of the “friction” of post-industrial life.  But woe to us if we become distracted or dazzled by the lure of its scalability and neglect the critical importance of relationships. Otherwise, our frantic efforts to increase numbers could be reduced to a “turnstile” approach to education, privileging volume over substance. But when we reflect upon our most memorable and enduring learning experiences - they tend to involve relationships and deep engagement.

Our Kesher concierges could interact with more parents of young children – once.  But we (and the parents we serve) see more value in deeper, truly meaningful connections.

Similarly, in our work with educators, we are digging deeper, with coaching, mentorships, fellowships, and other relationship-based professional learning programs.  

These interactions provide concrete knowledge, skills, and tools for educators to up their game. AND – we believe that professional development is most effective when it travels on the tracks of deep and trusting relationships.

This approach takes time, energy, focus and resources. Research, history and our experience has shown that it is the ONLY approach to education that is worthwhile, because it’s the only approach that works.

Learning is relational – this is among the educational principles that guide us, emerging from last year’s strategic plan. In the months to come, I will share with you some concrete examples of how we put this and other principles into practice.

Around the time that circuit rabbi visited my grandfather, the Jewish Educational Society (now Jewish LearningWorks) was founded. With your support, we continue to build on that tradition, advancing Jewish learning that enriches lives.

Thank you for taking the time to dig deeper into our work. I would love to hear from you if you have thoughts or questions about our educational approach. As always, if you are interested in connecting (or connecting more deeply) with our family learning efforts, our professional learning programs or our Jewish Community Library - please be in touch.

Beyond Silence Closing Keynote

By David Waksberg

Many years ago, I was in an area in the Soviet Union that had been a Nazi killing field during the Holocaust.  Thousands of Jews had been murdered there.  But there was no plaque there, no stone, nothing to mark the graves of the victims or even to acknowledge what had happened there.  The fact that Jews had been exterminated there – this was covered up for years.  In fact, the government built a housing project on the site.

I was there 45 years after the end of the war.  And what had happened at that place was still shrouded in silence and denial.  But, around that time, some of the buildings were falling apart.  It turned out the bones of the victims were coming up from beneath the earth and destabilizing what had been built on top of them.

The lie that had been constructed was literally crumbling.

I guess that was the first time I truly saw and understood the cost of silence and denial.

Here is a story from Rachel Lev’s Shine a Light:

“I had no place to run,” writes a survivor of sexual abuse, “no place to hide, no place to find someone I could count on – not my rabbi, not my religious school-teachers, not even my Jewish neighbors.  I had no choice but to submit and muddle through.”

Survivors’ stories are about trust and the betrayal of trust.  And who is the betrayer?  The betrayer is the one in whom trust is placed, and who violates that trust.  First and foremost it’s the abuser, of course – so often someone in a position of trust, power, authority.

But consider –

“No place to find someone I could count on – not my rabbi, not my religious school-teachers, not even my Jewish neighbors”

She placed her trust first in her family – but that’s where the abuse was; and then, in the community (her neighbors), her teachers, and her rabbi. 

That’s what I would do.  If I needed help, where would I turn?  Who would I count on?  My family, my community, my teachers, my rabbi. 

Her experience (and her experience is all we have and, let’s face it, all that’s truly relevant) is that she is let down.  She’s seeking people she can count on.  She finds none.

Is not this too a betrayal of trust?

Now, we don’t really know what happened with her neighbors and her teachers and her rabbi.  We don’t know if she reached out to them and was let down or if she simply perceived that she would be let down and was too frightened to try. 

Does it really matter? 

Do I ever want someone – someone who is in a vulnerable position, someone who needs help – to feel that they can’t count on me?     Because – even if they could count on me – if they didn’t know that they could, then what difference did it make?

It’s not enough to be rock solid.  The person in need must really know that we are rock solid. 

Most of us here – clergy, educators, counselors, Jewish professionals –consider what we do important and even noble and sacred. All of us serve people, serve our communities.  And all of us have people who count on us.  Have we done what we need to do to let them know that they can count on us?  What steps can we take to make that so? 

Survivors’ stories are about trust and the betrayal of trust.  And, like so much of Jewish history and experience, they are about power and powerlessness.

In this story – we are the powerful ones.  We are the ones with the opportunity to come through; we have the power to protect, to heal.  Or not.  But let’s not fool ourselves – there is no middle ground.  There is no such thing as neutrality here.   We either continue and compound the betrayal of trust or we are the ones who interrupt it. 

Alice Walker wrote:  “What is painful is that what I am writing, someone right now is living.”

We learned that 1 in 5 children in this country is sexually assaulted before the age of 18.  Research tells us that patterns among Jews don’t differ that much from the general population – certainly, we are less exceptional than we wish to believe.  Which means that – while we’ve been meeting today, a Jewish child somewhere has experienced incredible pain and horror.

Actually – when I first wrote that, I wrote – “unspeakable pain and horror.”  But I’m not going to say that.  “Unspeakable” is the word I’m not going to say any more.  The fact that this issue has felt unspeakable for so long is such a big part of the problem.  We must end that and the only way to end it is to speak the unspeakable and make visible that which has been hidden.

The single most powerful factor contributing to child sexual abuse is the ability to get away with it.  And the ability to get away with it depends on its unspeakability; and on our collusion, our denial, our silence, our fear.  Silence is the enemy.

We are all here because we know we have the capacity to make a difference.    Let’s be honest, we can leave here feeling a little better about ourselves or we can leave here with an intention and a plan to actually make change – to break the cycle of betrayal, to use our power to heal.  We are leaders.  We can and must be the change we seek.


No single individual can provide the answers.    I don’t believe that is how collective impact works.  But I do have some questions, that I hope will help us to develop those answers together.

We’ve learned an enormous amount today – thanks to our wonderful presenters.  The question now is what we do with what we learned.

Those of us who work in and represent institutions –

-       What did we learn today that is actionable in our professional capacities?

-       Do we have a set of protocols in our congregation, school, or agency?  Did we learn enough to create one?  If not, do we know who to reach out to for help?

-       Do we have a plan to share what we learned with others?  And how will we do that?

-       Are our staffs educated?  Do they know how to identify signs of abuse?  Are they equipped to respond appropriately?  Do they understand reporting requirements?  Do they know how to report? 

-       Do those most vulnerable understand how and where to get help?  Are our stakeholders aware of this issue and aware of our policies?

-       Have we created a culture and an environment that make is as clear as possible that we CAN be counted on?  A culture in which children (and anyone really) feel safe coming to us?  And what would it take to make it so? 

-       Are we equipped to provide the spiritual and emotional support needed for healing?   Are we equipped to provide this support to ourselves?  Are we ready to receive it?

For each of us as individuals – are we prepared to deal with survivors with open ears, open minds, and open hearts?  Are we prepared to be their advocates?  Do we understand how this issue relates with Jewish values around teshuva/repentance, and around the power of words?  What personal and professional learning must we still do and do we know where and how to get that learning?

And what if the accused is a colleague, a friend, a respected mentor?  What then?  Can we be counted on then?  That’s where the rubber hits the road, doesn’t it?  Will we have the courage to still listen with open minds and hearts to something so hard and so painful to hear?  Or will we take the easy road of denial and join the long line of rabbis, teachers, leaders, and neighbors who, when push came to shove, couldn’t be counted on.  This is where leadership of strength, courage, and compassion is needed.

And then there is the communal level.  How do we ripple beyond our own institutions?  So many of us participate in collegial networks.  We have an educators’ council.  Our Day School Heads have their own network.  Our synagogue executives have BATA.  We have networks of teen educators, of early childhood educators.  The Board of Rabbis.  How can we use these networks to share information, learn from one another and help our community get beyond silence?  And how can we use these networks to multiply and magnify our impact?  And how might we build on this network – the 150 of us who came together today – to build on what we learned and shared together, to create collective impact for our community?

And what about those i who don’t belong to our shuls, who don’t go to our schools?  We who are leaders in our community – do our responsibilities end at the edge of our real estate?  And is there no correlation between the experience from the survivor I quoted – that she could find no one in our community she could count on – and an individual’s decision not to affiliate?  If that were your experience – would you?

How can we take what we learned today to make our community a safe haven?   Or, at the very least – a safer haven.

This is a story of power and powerlessness.  And we are the powerful ones.

Many of us think of our institution as a kehillah kedoshah – a place where holiness resides; a place where we are in the continual state of striving for and creating holiness.  And we should, because – whether they are searching for God or knowledge or for community – our stakeholders are looking for holiness.  They seek it in our institutions and they seek it in our community. 

Holiness is what our tradition is after.  It is about understanding what it means to be holy, and then – doing it. 

There are many ways we can be holy and many ways to make our institutions holy.  The rabbis might say that holiness has 70 faces.  But this we know - holiness cannot coexist with violence and abuse.  It just can’t.  And trying to create a community of holiness in a place of silence and denial of abuse, is, l’havdil, kind of like trying to build a housing project and pretending that the housing project is not sitting on a killing field.  It’s bound to crumble.

I think that’s why we are all here, why we all took a whole day out of our busy schedules – because we understand that this work is not a “nice to have.”  It is essential to who we are – as individuals, as institutions, and as a community.

Which is why we can’t let this end here. 

I am grateful to my colleagues on the organizing committee for their leadership and we are all grateful to you for your leadership – in being here, and for your leadership going forward.

Remember that silence is our enemy.  Silence is denial.  Silence is pain.  Silence is betrayal.

Beyond silence means we leave silence behind – as individuals, as institutions, and as a community.  It’s the path – and the only path – of hope and of holiness.

Chazak v’amatz, v’rachmanut.  May we possess the strength, courage, and compassion, and may we give to one another and to our colleagues, our congregants, our students, the strength, courage, and compassion to make it so.


Resources To Address Race and Social Justice

By Rabbi Yoshi Fenton

These have been trying times for our community, our country, and our world.  The lights of the hannukiot in our homes, the blasts of the fireworks at new year's celebrations, and the expressions of hope for a better year, have all been muted by the violence of recent weeks.

In this post you’ll find resources on teaching about protest, bigotry, terrorism, violence, the unrest in Ferguson, and our responsibilities to further civil rights.  We hope they are a help to you in your classes, with your students, and in your personal and professional lives as we all grapple to make sense of the brokenness of our world. 

With Tu b’Shevat and springtime around the corner, I am reminded of the light which always follows the darkness of winter and so I’d like to share two additional teaching with you, as a blessing for us all. The first from the sage of the Mishna, Rabbi Tarfon, and the second from the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Shneerson. 

Rabbi Tarfon teaches, "It is not our job to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it." The Lubavitcher Rebbe would often conclude a letter or article with the blessing “Immediately to Teshuva (repentance), Immediately to Redemption.” 

It is our prayer for this New Year that we commit ourselves to creating a better, kinder and more loving place for our students and the world around us.  We offer this guide of educational resources as a support to you, Jewish educators, in your work to make our prayer a reality. 

Websites for Resources on Teaching about Social Justice

On1Foot is a project of AJWS and a wonderful website and resource for sources and texts on a variety of social justice topics.  You can both use already created materials or make your own. is a project of Panim, The Institute of Jewish Leadership and Values, and is another wonderful website that offers a variety of resources relating to teaching about and for social justice and change. 

Uri l’Tzedek is another organization committed to both working for and teaching about social justice and responsibility, and is the first Orthodox organization committed to social justice work.  The website is a great resource.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a wonderful resource to learn about what’s happening around the country regarding race and class.  Lots of articles and thought pieces. 

In Response to Ferguson was created to help support those who celebrate Hanukah, connect the holiday and its observances to the events in Ferguson and conversations related to race, justice, violence, and social responsibility.  The resources and tools section is a wonderful collection of materials from a variety of sources. 

The following Jweekly article highlights many of the ways in which the Bay Area Jewish community has come together to support calls for an end to police brutality and demand a new perspective on equality and justice for all. 

This Kveller article exploring what if anything to say to our children about race in our country is an interesting and thought provoking read. 

A rabbi's response

Articles and Resources on Teaching about Race and Violence

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton is an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Are We Born Racist?: New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology. 

The Atlantic Monthly asked teachers, academics, community leaders, and parents to recommend resources they’ve used and/or would recommend to support adults as they teach children about race. 

The PBS program The Teachers’ Lounge gathered a number of teaching strategies for how to talk about Ferguson in school.  Here’s a link to the google doc

Also check out this blog from The Teachers’ Lounge on grade specific strategies. 

Reuven Firestone wrote a wonderful article examining the major Jewish sources which speak to violence and reconciliation.  For those of you interested in diving into the sources, this should be just what you’re looking for

Text Studies, Lesson Plans, and Curricular Resources

Ask Big Questions, a project of Hillel International, has put together some wonderful collections of texts and study guides geared towards young adults and teens. 

When Do You Take a Stand?

For Whom are We Responsible?

What Advantages Do You Have?

The Rabbinical Assembly has also made available a few really great source sheets below.

On Gun Violence

On Our Obligation to Remember We Were Once Slaves

Embracing the Stranger

Baruch Dayan Emet - Processing the Tragic Events in Paris

By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks

Processing last week's tragic events in Paris will continue in the days and weeks ahead.  First, we remember and honor the victims and send comfort to their families.  Our tradition offers us some guidance:

The traditional Jewish response to death is “Baruch Dayan Emet “ (blessed is the true judge).  There are many explanations for this blessing, which derives from the Mishnah.  We’ll share one, from Bay Area Rabbi Ruth Adar:

“The moment of death is a time when no words suffice, but we are relentless with our words…Baruch Dayan emet” – ultimately it says, I have no words for this. We stand with the mourner in the presence of the greatest mystery of life...”

The Jewish way is to tell mourners – May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.   At the heart of these words:  You are not alone.

When we engage in study, it is traditional to begin with a blessing.  It is also the custom of some to dedicate our study to another’s memory.  Those who murder patrons of a kosher market seek to kill Jews and Judaism.  One response can be to embrace Jewish life all the more so.  And embracing Jewish life involves learning.  As we engage in Jewish study we might dedicate our learning to Yohan Cohen, Yoav Hattab, Phillippe Braham, and Francois-Michel Saad – the four victims of Friday’s attack.

Yohan Cohen, 20, was of North African descent.  When the attacker threatened to kill a 3 year old, Yohan tried to grab his gun and was shot in the head.  On Facebook, one mourner wrote:  “Yohan, you were an example of kindness and goodness, you were the pride of your family and all your friends!”

Phillippe Braham, 45, was a father of four.  "He loved Israel...He was an observant man who never harmed anyone,”  said his brother, a French rabbi.

Yoav Hattab, 21, had just returned to Paris from a Taglit-Birthright project in Israel.  The son of a Tunisian rabbi, Yoav was studying in Paris.  “It’s better to live in peace, there are no other options,” Yoav wrote during the Gaza War last summer.

Francois-Michel Saada, a father of two, was 63.  Born in Tunis, Francois-Michel was a pension fund manager.  “He led his life for the happiness of his family.  A husband and an exemplary father,” one of his friends said.

May their memories live on as a blessing.  May their families and friends be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.  

7 Lessons on Family Engagement

by: Rabbi Joshua Fenton, Associate Director, Jewish LearningWorks

For the last three years, we at Jewish LearningWorks have taken a close look at families with young children in the Bay Area. What we’ve seen are a growing number of families looking for opportunities to connect to Judaism and Jewish community, but in non-traditional ways.  

This might not sound like news. The Jewish community has been hearing for years about the emergence of alternative, non-traditional, post-denominational Jewish communities and congregations. What’s news is who these alternatives are attracting; simply put, everyone. Even though traditional institutions (shuls, day schools, JCC’s, and so on) strive to remain interesting and attractive to families, the trend is clear. People are connecting in entirely new ways and we need to understand what motivates 21st century families if we hope, as a community, to remain relevant to them.  

Recognizing this change in the way families engage with and connect to community, we began asking ourselves, “how can we support these families in the creation of Jewish lives that work for them?” Initially our work focused on two new initiatives, Shalom Explorers – an alternative parent-led learning program for young children, and Kesher – a community concierge and outreach program. As part of these two initiatives, we spent time speaking with parents, professionals, and community leaders. We surveyed the field of Jewish family engagement and education initiatives nationally, and in the process learned some valuable lessons about how 21st century families think and feel about Judaism, and how our communities can be a lot more effective at reaching them and playing more meaningful roles in their lives.  

Lesson 1
Program for real people. We are professional educators, rabbis, and academics, and the truth is, when you get us around a table we seem to know just about everything. Don’t believe it. We continue to find that the best informants and partners in program creation are the end users, and we apply that to all of our work. That means before you create any program or class, first speak with potential program participants to make sure that what you’re designing is what people are looking for. 

And then go back to those very same people and talk to them some more. Engage them in the creative process and through them, your programs will grow stronger and more relevant. Never stop asking yourself and your students/families/customers, “Is this really meeting your needs and wants, and how can we do better?”  

Last year we piloted an at-home learning program for children, designed to be taught by parents. Our pilot groups were active participants in the evaluation process and after the three-month pilot, their feedback allowed us to make significant tweaks, which are now resulting in a much stronger, more resonant, and more meaningful program. We were able to do this because we listened.    

Lesson 2
The affiliated/unaffiliated dichotomy is unhelpful at best. Synagogue membership is not the single most important marker of connectivity, and a donation to Federation might say more about your age than it does your Jewishness. Synagogue membership is also no longer the only reasonable option for families who wish to create Jewish lives or connect with community. Think of the growing number of educational organizations offering content to families outside of an institution. Take Godcast, Hazon,, and Kveller; these organizations are all becoming hubs of activity from which new kinds of Jewish communities are emerging.  

As the number of alternative engagement opportunities and ways to connect grow, opting out of traditional modes of affiliation tells us less and less. Nowadays, opting out of synagogue life might simply mean you want something deeper and more meaningful than a one size fits all shul. As we try to better understand families in our communities, we need to revise the assumptions we make about synagogue membership, and what it implies about families who do and don’t join. In a DIY world, people are looking for experiences that uniquely speak to their specific interests and they’re more likely than ever to build something new for themselves rather than settling.   

Lesson 3
To build on the previous point, membership is an old model. More and more people are limiting their memberships to fitness centers and Netflix. For JCC’s that run gyms, this is no big deal. They’re Jewish organizations invested in businesses and revenue streams that meet needs beyond the spiritual/social/communal. I’ve always believed that a Jewish person who joins the JCC does so as a Jew, making a Jewish choice.  

But for the rest of us, families want to know why they need to be invested in a synagogue when all they want is a Jewish education for their children. People are looking for community and connection without the burden of dues, the building fund, and so on. More and more families are doing Jewish stuff, less and less as members of Jewish institutions. It’s time for us to rethink, as a community, how membership does and doesn’t work, to investigate new models, and most importantly, to engage our constituencies in this conversation about investment and financial sustainability.  

Lesson 4
Identities are complicated. If the Pew study did nothing else, it showed us how our understandings of Jewishness and the labels that go along with it are pretty much completely off the mark. For example, the Pew study found that 4% of Jews with no religion attend synagogue services monthly. As we continue to get to know this new and different American Jewish community, we must embrace the many new ways of expressing identity. Judaism is a facet of people’s lives and the ways they see themselves. The question is no longer whether “Jewish” or “American” comes first. The question is, “what else is in there?” 

I don’t have to choose between environmentalism and Judaism, between a hike and Shabbat services; I can be a part of the eco-Jewish movement or hang out at Urban Adamah. Or perhaps I’m a foodie, or an athlete, an amateur gardener, or even a Phish fan. Rather than competing, innovators are looking for more and more ways to integrate, celebrating the amalgams that make us who we are. With this comes a growing disinterest in distinguishing between interfaith or patrilinealism, a desire to claim “post-denominationalism,” and a growing discomfort with older definitions of Judaism. As we work to better understand these 21st century families, we need to be much more nuanced in our understandings of what they are all about, what moves them, and what language and terminology best reflects who they are.  

Lesson 5
There is a huge marketing issue. Families can’t figure out what and who is really out there, what programs, events, and institutions might work for them, and they often shy away for fear of ending up in the wrong place.  There is too much noise coming from the Jewish world. How many websites can a person check? How many Facebook groups can someone be a member of? 

Families with young children are more open to and interested in engagement than just about any other demographic group. These new families are looking for opportunities to try out different experiences. They’re actively looking for us. And unlike other demographic groups that might require some careful PR and messaging, the parents we’re talking about are waiting for an invitation – an effective communication plan that is comprehensive and clear is the way to go.  

Lesson 6
Community, community, community! Families long for community above everything else. Let’s be honest, that’s what everyone is looking for and it’s really one of the most compelling things we Jews have to offer. Everyone knows we do community well, and families want in. Across all of our family engagement programs, after hearing from hundreds of families, community is the common denominator. They might sign up for a Family Ed program or something for their kids, but in the end parents almost always say they are looking for other families to be friends with.  

Families want to be part of a group they can call their own. Parents want friends for their children and for themselves; they want to socialize with other families with young kids. These groups or communities aren’t synagogue communities, though they may be found in them. They aren’t affinity groups connecting people with common interests. These are small groups of like-minded friends who parent similarly, share similar values, and appreciate the ways in which their kids play together. This is the Holy Grail for families, a small social network to grow up with. 

Lesson 7
Parents and their children are sophisticated consumers. Organizations have to put their best feet forward if they want to compete in the crowded Jewish education and engagement marketplace. That means not only having great products, programs and initiatives that deliver on promises, but also savvy marketing materials that send the right messages. To continue to keep families engaged we need to be as particular about our marketing, branding, and communication as we are about the content.  

Parents and kids look for signs of excellence. Whether we like it or not, our website design and the ad in the local Jewish newspaper has to look good and be on trend or folks will simply pass it by. Without high quality marketing and messaging, we risk folks making the same judgment they’ve always made about Jewish education and engagement, that it isn’t serious, doesn’t take itself seriously, and is therefore, likely of low quality.  


Jewish families are ready to take American Judaism into an entirely new and exciting place. They bring new ideas to the table, they value Judaism and Jewish identity in mature and interesting ways, and they’re looking for opportunities to realize Jewish lives that work for them. We just have to meet them where they are, in the 21st century.

This Tisha b'Av Felt Different

By Rabbi Joshua Fenton

This Tisha b’Av felt different. On the saddest day of the year; that cursed day on which just about every evil perpetrated against Jews throughout history is remembered, this year in light of the fighting and dying it felt even worse. 

I didn’t go to the synagogue this year on Tisha b’Av. I stayed home, preferring to work over joining the community in what felt like another day of mourning. The thing is, it’s felt like Tisha b’Av for a while now. Watching videos of riots in Europe, reading stories of Jews around the world attacked, hearing the news report how the Jewish state was killing Palestinian civilians, it’s been feeling like Tisha b’Av for a while. 

And it’s not just me. Yesterday afternoon and evening I began to read post after post on social media reflecting people’s deep sense of mourning this year. So much so, some even expressed the desire to stay in mourning a bit longer. Tweets I read suggested folks weren’t ready to let the day go while others spoke of how the day was holding on to them, #stilltishabav. This year Tisha b’Av didn’t begin with the three weeks. We didn’t slip deeper into despair during the nine days. We were already there, since the beginning of this most recent fighting in Gaza, we’ve been there. I’ve been there.

And I think that’s a problem. There is a reason that Tisha b’Av happens only once a year. That same reason is why we don’t have additional days of mourning to commemorate the crusades, Spanish expulsion, Kmelnitzky massacre, and all of the other atrocities remembered on Tisha b’Av. It’s enough. How many sad days should there be? 

This was an argument made in the Knesset when first discussing whether or not there should even be a Yom Hashoah. There is already a Tisha b’Av, some said, and how many sad days should there be? How many days of mourning do we want to freckle our calendar? 

My favorite halakha of the Shulchan Aruch, my favorite piece of Jewish law, speaks about Tisha b’Av. It pertains to the fast of Tisha b’Av when it falls on a Sunday and answers the question, what one’s last meal before the fast should be. 

Traditionally, the last meal before we fast is the meal of mourners, a seuda mafseket or interrupting meal. It’s a meal that gets us ready for the sorrow of the following day. The meal consists of hard boiled eggs rolled in ash, eaten while seated on the floor. The imagery is powerful. When one first hears of a loss, before the period of mourning technically begins, the mourner has a meal. Something to get food into his or her stomach before the sorrow descends. A last ditch effort to build up our reserves for what is sure to be an exhausting experience. The law speaks about that meal when it comes on Shabbat. If the fast of Tisha b’Av is on a Sunday, how can we eat a mourners meal, a meal of sadness while it is still Shabbat? 

The answer the Shulchan Aruch gives is marvelous and instructive. The instruction is to “set a table fit for King Solomon.” If you were to ask my children what that means, they’d tell you it would have to be a meat meal with parve ice cream afterwards. What else could a king ask for? What this law highlights is that the joy of Shabbat cannot be limited by the mourning of Tisha b’Av. The most sorrowful day of the year needs to be contained. It can be radioactive in it’s ability to affect and infect all those around it and we must therefore resist the urge to let it. It’s also a halakha/law that if the fast of Tisha b’Av falls on Shabbat, we push it to Sunday. The day must be contained.  

Just as it is a mitzvah to mourn on that terrible day, and just as it is a mitzvah to join your community and your people in mourning, it is also a mitzvah to move on. When the mourner completes her seven days of mourning, shiva, she is commanded to get up. 

Of course as I write these words, sitting in my office in San Francisco, I have my family, friends, colleagues, and fellow Jews living in Israel speaking to me from inside my heart and soul. They ask me how to let it go. They ask “how can we move on when it feels like the evil and terror that continues to chase us may have only quieted for a moment?” I share that fear and I share that doubt, as does every mourner as they see the end of shiva fast approach. 

My response is to have hope, none the less, that today’s tomorrow will be better than yesterday’s, and that the quiet may build and grow. And to all of us in the states, to my friends who felt a longing to stay just a little longer in mourning and to those who didn’t feel drawn to stay in Tisha b’Av but felt stuck, I say it’s time to move on. It’s time to again celebrate life and possibility, and even if it only lasts for 72 hours, it’s time to get up and walk around the block and hope and believe that these past weeks of war have come to an end and we are all ready to move on. 

Is that a shofar I hear? 

Is There Such a Thing as Causeless Hatred?

By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks

For years we did not fast on Tisha b'Av.  The 9th of Av, a Jewish day of mourning, commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temple, along with other calamities through history.

We didn't fast because, well, it's complicated.  In my youth, I'd learned that we fast on Tisha b'Av to mourn the destruction of the Temple.  In the long run, I didn't think the destruction of the Temple was such a bad thing - Judaism adapted and evolved.  We were again, as Hatikvah notes, a free people in our land.   I'd moved on and I was not interested in a third Temple.

But my purpose is not to explain why I stopped fasting; rather, about why I started again.  This year.

The rabbis attributed the destruction of the Temples to sinat chinam (causeless hatred).  That phrase - causeless hatred - always struck me.  Is there such a thing as causeful hatred?  I get it, causeless hatred referred to hatred without reason (among ourselves).  But when is there a good reason to hate?

But again, I digress.  I came to realize that my Jewish education failed me.  Because the thing to mourn on Tisha b'Av is not the Temple, but the sinat chinam - the hatred that caused its destruction.  The hatred among Jews.  The hatred of the Babylonians toward the Jews.  The hatred of the Romans.  The hatred of England toward its Jews, who were expelled on the 9th of Av, 1290.  The hatred of the Spanish Inquisition that led to, on the 9th of Av in 1492, the expulsion of every Jew after centuries of life in Spain.  The hatred of the Nazis, who began to deport the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto  to the death camps on the 9th of Av, 1942. 

My Jewish education failed me because what I learned about Tisha b'Av was the most basic and least interesting aspects.  I felt scant connection to the Temple and its rituals.  But hatred, pettiness and dehumanization - these were and are all around me.

When has "causeless hatred" been more alive than today?  It was among those Palestinians who kidnapped and murdered Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yiftach, and Gilad Shaar.  Among those Jews who abducted and burned alive Mohammed Khdeir.  It is alive in Nigeria, where school girls "disappear" and Boko Haram has killed more than 3,000 people this year.  And it is thriving in Syria - where the death toll is nearing 200,000 (most of them non-combatants) and in Iraq, where Sunni ISIS fighters are targeting Shia, Christians and other non-Sunni groups - the death toll there is nearing 10,000 civilians during the last 12 months and Christians are being singled out for forced conversion, expulsion, or death. 

Will my fasting today end hatred tomorrow?  Not likely.  But why do we fast in the first place?  To focus our attention and look inward.  So I'm starting with myself - reflecting on the dark corners of my own heart.  I'll see where that takes me.


 Tisha b'Av and Non-Violence 
by Vavi Toran

Your Kids Are Ready To Talk About Israel. Are You?
from Kveller

Discussing crisis with civility
Leaving Baggage and Blame at the Door

A Simple Guide to talking to your friends 
from Stories Without Borders

Useful questions for educators to pursue 
From the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education 
Seeking new insights into difficult questions
Peoplehood questions and the crisis in Israel
Family Feelings

Opinions, Opinions, Opinions

Shalom Educators,
Many of us get most of our news and form our opinions from our preferred press sources. Some of us read the newspaper in the morning, some listen to the radio on their way to work and some watch the evening news. Recently we heard on Israel's TV channel 10 (preferred press source), that most young Americans get their news and form their opinions based on watching Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, from their friends' posts on social media sites and from tweets by celebrities rather than news commentators. 

Here are a few resources that have to do with opinions rather than news. They are a testament to the complicated issues we face, and explain in a way the heated arguments that happen daily here and in Israel.

We are sorry if this only adds to the confusion rather than solves it. Unfortunately, this is the nature of this very long and painful conflict. 
What's your opinion??
All the best and let's continue to hope...

David Grossman's "End the Grindstone of Israeli-Palestinian Violence". published in Yediot Ahronot.

Jon Stewart The Daily Show, We Need to Talk About Israel 

Extended Interview with Hillary Clinton

Ha'aretz Opinion Pages

Ynet (Yediot Ahronot) Opinion Pages

Amos Biderman
Daily caricature
The caption reads: Failure of Humanitarian Cease Fire 
The comic depicts opposing sides in Israel (on the right activists against continuing the Gaza operation and on the left for continuing the operation)
Web page for Ha'aretz Daily caricatures: 

Shalom from Tel Aviv, where life seems to run at 50%

Shalom to all of you from Tel Aviv where life seems to run at 50%. 

Last night we had to rush home in a cab from La La Land, our favorite beachfront cafe, in time to brace the promised barrage of missiles from Gaza. 

They arrived as promised  and the whole experience was very disconcerting. 

It is not that we are scared for our lives, but it takes constant planning of where we'll be and where is the Secure Area (where you need to be in about a minute after the air raid sirens wail). We even have to decide which PJ to wear in order to be presentable if we have to join a bunch of strange neighbors in the stairway in the middle of the night...

We received many concerned emails, Skype and some phone calls from family, friends, colleagues and we thank each and every one of you.

We are definitely OK and doing what all other Israelis do - continue as normal as possible. We are combining work and play, which in my case are sometimes one and the same. 

Today we went to Jaffa's flea market in search of old maps and had lunch at Pua - Chopped liver with horseradish and Challah and lentil salad with Tehini. Delicious!

Our short rest at home was interrupted by another air raid, but we refuse to stay put and are going to a play at the Cameri Theatre tonight. 

Later this week... A graffiti tour of florentine neighborhood, cartoon art museum meeting with the archivist, tour of story gardens in Holon (Classic Israeli tales as playgrounds for kids!), and more!

We miss you and will be happy to come home soon...

An Update from Israel by Vavi Toran



Tisha B’av

By Vavi Toran

In the past few weeks I argued with almost everyone I know. I also agreed with almost everyone I know. In the morning I am right-leaning and at night I am a leftist. In the morning I see no other way than continuing with all our might until the job is done (what job? When do we know it’s done?) and at night I mourn for victims of both sides. Most of all I wish this was over. I wish for an end to violence and suffering. When I talk or argue or try to get my point across I don’t always remain calm or listen attentively to my adversary. Many times we find out a few minutes into the heated argument that we have very similar beliefs after all. We argue because we care!

But not everywhere and every time there is a clash of ideas they remains civil and non-violent. On the streets of Jerusalem, in public places where people are demonstrating for this or that side, in written and broadcasted commentaries, and in social media, the discourse is far from civil and hatreds ancient and new come out in their ugliest manifestations.

Today is erev Tisha B'av, the commemoration of the destruction of both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem.

“Why were the Temples destroyed? The ancient rabbis explain that the First Temple was destroyed because of three things that occurred in it: idolatry, unseemly sexual behavior, and bloodshed. And then they give what to me is a provocative answer as to why the Second Temple was destroyed: "Because there was sinat chinam, baseless hatred." The Talmud goes on to say: "This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, unseemly sexual behavior and bloodshed." (Talmud Yoma 9B)

What is sinat chinam? It includes gratuitous internecine backbiting, malicious hurtful speech and the inability to discuss differences in a civil way. These behaviors are seen as being as bad as idolatry, adultery and murder.

The astonishing claim is that how we talk to and about each other around issues that matter can destroy a city or maybe even a country. Words matter. Innuendo can kill." (From an article by Rabbi Laura Geller)

On this Tisha b’Av let us remember to listen to one another, honor each other’s opinions, and respond with civility and compassion. 

This  poem by Yehuda Amichai “From the Place Where We Are Right” - is especially poignant on this day.

The Place Where We Are Right

by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.


Read more about Tisha B'av.

Honoring Their Memories & Moving Forward

Dear Friends,

Yesterday we received the tragic news that Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar, and Eyal Yifrach will not be returning to their families alive. For the last two weeks we have felt these boys to be our own. We were unified in solidarity with them and their families, and we are unified in our grief.


As educators and as parents, these events pose challenges to us - how do we address such tragedies in our teaching? What do our students need from us? 

We've compiled a few resources that may be helpful to teachers, camp counselors, youth group leaders, and parents. Some of these address helping young people cope with loss and terror, and some of them help to address some of the toughest questions this tragedy raises. Many of these are not explicitly labeled for specific ages - so we must use our judgment as to what is age appropriate.

I'm sharing this with a wider list than only our educators for a couple of reasons. Many of us are parents and these resources could be helpful to parents as well as educators. And, I suspect that young people are not the only ones who may have some difficulty in sorting out their thoughts and feelings. In my experience, we often feel frustrated and powerless in the aftermath of such events, and those feelings of powerlessness can take us in many directions. Not all of those directions are healthy or useful. Some of these resources may be of help to all of us.

And, there is one other reason.

That all of us are in some state of shock or mourning for three boys we never met says something about us, and about our relationship with one another. We all feel this loss; we all feel, in some way, that we lost family. Because, in some way, we did.

We don't have a shiva service to attend and we are not in direct relationship with the Frenkel, Shaar, and Yifrach families. And yet, most of us feel the need to do something, to reach out to someone. I've been struck by all the emails I've received from Jewish organizations mourning the loss of these three boys; and all the Facebook posts of friends. I think, in some way, we all have a need to grieve together, to give and to receive strength and comfort from each other. That is what happens with families who experience loss. That is part of what peoplehood is about.

Location: Israeli soldiers stand near the area where the three Israeli teenagers' bodies were found yesterday.   The rural track is just outside the village of Halhul, a few miles north of the West Bank city of Hebron               Photo Credit: DailyMail

Location: Israeli soldiers stand near the area where the three Israeli teenagers' bodies were found yesterday.
The rural track is just outside the village of Halhul, a few miles north of the West Bank city of Hebron             Photo Credit: DailyMail

So, here's our expression of condolence. Because we are educators, we honor their memory by remembering them and by sharing what knowledge and wisdom we can gather. If you can use these resources - please do so, and, in your teaching or parenting - honor the memory of Naftali, Gilad and Eyal. For those of us who are parents, we might use this opportunity to embrace our children and remind them that they are loved and that they are safe. And for those of us who whose hearts have been broken yet again, may we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion, may we comfort one another, and may the memories of Naftali, Gilad, and Eyal be as a blessing.



From our colleagues at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland, this excellent compendium for Responding to Crisis.

From our friends at the iCenter, this guide with resources for discussing tragedy in Israel.

From the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education at Bar Ilan University in Israel, this Islands of Resiliency site focuses on dealing assisting children in dealing with crisis and tragedy.

From Yeshiva University - this article on helping children and adolescents cope with loss and terror.

We hope some of these may help. If you know other other good resources, please let us know so we can share them with other educators.


David Waksberg

Jewish LearningWorks | Chief Executive Officer

Passover Resources - Slavery in Our World

From David Waksberg,  CEO Jewish LearningWorks

We had not even left Egypt before Moses passes along the commandment to "Remember this day, on which you went from Egypt, the house of enslavement..."

Passover bombards our senses to remind us of this seminal moment of liberation. The maror, the haroset, even the matzah evoke the bitterness, the harsh labor, the affliction of slavery. The Torah instructs us to explain to our children - "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt." The Haggadah calls upon us to see ourselves as having personally gone out from Egypt.

With this heightened awareness - we are instructed not to oppress the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt. And Passover helps us REMEMBER WHAT THAT FEELS LIKE.

How strange then, to be at a Seder, celebrating our freedom, and realize we are eating chocolate, drinking coffee, and wearing clothing produced by slaves.

Slavery remains very much alive in our world and in our lives. In fact, abolitionists assert that there are more than 20 million people in some form of slavery today - more than at the peak of the slave trade two centuries ago. In collaboration with our partners at Fair Trade Judaica, we began to learn how to make our Passover Seders slave-free. And then we realized - as educators, we strive to empower our students to apply the wisdom of our tradition to the reality of their lives. Passover offers a wonderful opportunity to shine a light on contemporary slavery. Just as Passover calls upon us to feel as if we ourselves were slaves, it calls upon us to not avert our eyes to the trafficking and bondage that surround us.

Therefore, we have compiled some slavery-free resources to help us learn and teach. They include:

  • Curricular materials for educators about contemporary slavery through a Jewish lens;
  • Texts/source material related to slavery/trafficking/unfair & exploitive labor practices
  • Supplementary material for Seders dealing with contemporary slavery/trafficking;
  • Information on Fair Trade products
  • Background information on contemporary slavery and trafficking in our world, our products, our community, and our lives, and what we can do about it.

We are indebted to our friends at Fair Trade Judaica for their partnership in preparing these materials. We hope you find them useful.

Through a Different Lens

We are excited to offer a new approach to professional development for Bay Area Jewish Educators:

Through a Different Lens

A Three-Session Series led by Rabbi Joshua Fenton, Vavi Toran, and Ilan Vitemberg

Through a Different Lens explores big ideas in Jewish education through a variety of lenses.  Each exploration includes three perspectives on a specific topic presented over three sessions.  Each session is led by a different master educator, connecting participants to the best of Bay Area Jewish educators. The foci include Israel, Hebrew language, pedagogy, philosophy, the arts, movement, tradition, text and more. Jewish LearningWorks partners with a host of Bay Area organizations to connect teachers to the larger Jewish educational community.   

This year we are excited to announce that our pilot initiative will focus on Tefillah/ prayer.

Embodying Tefillah with Ilan Vitemberg, Thursday March 13, 6:30PM - 8:00PM
Tefillah and Space with Rabbi Joshua Fenton, Thursday March 27, 6:30PM - 8:00P
The Art of Tefillah with Vavi Toran, Thursday April 10, 6:30PM - 8:00PM


Jewish LearningWorks exists to improve and extend Jewish learning throughout the Bay Area. Our greatest partners in that venture are Bay Area Jewish Educators.  We hope this new initiative meets the needs of our educational community and we welcome any and all feedback regarding logistics, topics, or form.

Attend all three sessions and receive a prize!

For more information, contact Rabbi Fenton at 

To RSVP, contact Robin Smith at 

A Message of Gratitude

From David Waksberg,  CEO Jewish LearningWorks

Late one night last month, my wife was sharing three things for which she was grateful  - a daily practice we'd begun together. I didn't respond - not entirely unusual; my distractedness is not something for which she is grateful.

I was distracted by an electrical short in an extension cord, shooting sparks onto the carpet. In a moment, we had a full-blown fire in our bedroom.

Three fire engines later, the fire was contained, no one was hurt and aside from the insurance deductible and the inconvenience of living at a hotel for the last month, we emerged unscathed. When we finally arrived at a motel in the wee hours of that first night, we picked up where we had left off: we were grateful that the fire was not worse, that we were awake when it happened, and that no one was hurt.

The fire was the latest in a string of "unfortunate incidents" that have filled a year of near misses. Among them - a bicycle accident in which I broke my hip, leading to surgery and a lengthy convalescence.

As I was recovering, I was struck by how grateful I was - that it was not worse, that I received excellent medical care, that I had good health insurance, that so many family and friends helped out. Though my life was arguably better the day before my accident, I had not been filled with gratitude then - far from it. Noting how each calamity during this year only increased my sense of gratitude, I wondered why it was that my gratefulness increased when things were "bad." Perhaps it was the near-miss quality of these events. Like the man in the story, "It Can Always Be Worse" - who complains that his house is too small until the rabbi advises him to bring a goat, a chicken and a cow into his house - these events highlighted how much worse it could have been and helped me to appreciate what we have, and what had not been lost. Mykavanah (intention) became - to feel gratitude EVEN WHEN THINGS ARE GOING WELL.

Gratitude is a core Jewish value. Our very name (Jew) is derived from the Hebrew word for thanks - we, the Jewish people, are the people of gratitude. But what does this mean?

"Who is wealthy?" asks Pirke Avot. "HaSameach b'chelko - One who is happy with their portion." But is that it? Is contentment with our lot the key to happiness?

In his story Bontsha the Silent, the Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz lampoons the extreme humility of diaspora Jewry embodied by the title character whose deepest desire is for nothing more than a hot roll with butter each morning. Observing our gratitude in the face of a series of calamities, some of my friends questioned its authenticity. "It's ok to feel anger about all this," they counseled. Which led me to wonder - can gratitude be a form of denial? Or surrender, accepting what should not be accepted?

Historically, the Jews have not been known for being happy with our portion. From Jacob, wrestling with angels to so many modern Jews in the vanguard of so many social justice and revolutionary movements - acceptance of the status quo is not the dominant image of the Jewish people. We are, as Moses continually reminds us over 40 years of wandering, a troublesome and cranky people.

Robert Emmons, a UC Davis professor who has devoted his career to the subject, defines gratitude as the acknowledgement of having received a gift, recognition of the goodness of the gift and of the fact that the source of the gift is from outside of ourselves. In other words, not a blind acceptance or settling for what is, but the ability to take note of goodness and to understand that it is not an entitlement.

This is consistent with the Jewish definition of gratitude -hakarat hatov(recognizing the good). In the last century, Abraham Joshua Heschel elevated this notion to a sense of wonder or, as he called it, radical amazement. " get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted...To be spiritual," Heschel asserted, "is to be amazed." Gratitude is about being present in order to appreciate the gifts we receive.

In this sense, gratitude becomes not simply the attitude of gratefulness, but a cognitive process - a way of perceiving the world. There is a midrash, a story of two men among the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea. They are amidst the entire nation - hundreds of thousands of people - crossing from Egypt to Sinai. In this sea of humanity, they could not see Moses, they could not see the parting of the waters. Their heads down, they only notice that they are traipsing through mud. "We had mud in Egypt, and here we have more mud. What's the difference?" they kvetch. Surrounded by a miracle, they only see mud. "Wonder," Heschel suggests, "is a state of mind in which...nothing is taken for granted."

Who is wealthy? Asks Pirke Avot. Perhaps a richer translation of HaSameach b'chelko would be - one who rejoices in their blessings. If we learn this lesson well, we will indeed be "the people of gratitude."

Lech Lecha

From Rachel Dorsey, Lead Marketing Consultant Jewish LearningWorks

In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, God commands Abraham to leave his home and head for “a place that I will show you”.  Without too much hesitation, Abraham does it.

He uproots himself and follows the direction of his higher power without a clear understanding of the end point or the goal, but with the knowledge and comfort that he is in good hands.

We all encounter moments in our lives when we know we have to make a move.  We don’t always have clear directions or an articulated goal in mind, but we know that our current state no longer serves us.

While we may not hear the booming voice of God urge us to make our move, if we sit still and listen carefully, we can often hear a tiny voice inside of us urging us to make some change.

Human beings are creatures of habit, we have a routine for almost everything, but as we enter fall, we have a wonderful opportunity to make a move, to leave behind a routine or a habit with the knowledge and comfort that we’re in good hands, and that whether we know it or not, our next move will reveal itself in due time, just like it did for Abraham.

Transform with Teshuvah

From David Waksberg,  CEO Jewish LearningWorks

An airplane plunges into the ocean, killing all onboard.  The ensuing investigation pits safety experts investigating what went wrong against officials trying to deflect blame.  “One of the world’s important divides,” observed a writer, “lies between nations that react well to accidents and nations that do not…The first requirement…the intention to get the story right, wherever the blame may lie.”

Denial is a powerful impulse – for governments, organizations, and people.  We’ve evolved to protect ourselves from threats and we often perceive information as threatening.     

No one enjoys coming to grips with their flaws; we construct narratives that cast ourselves in a positive light.  We judge others by their actions, because it is their actions we experience.  We judge ourselves by our intentions, which are often more noble than our actions.  However things turned out, we know we meant well.  Cognitively, we are set up to give ourselves a pass.  Getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie is a tall order.

Getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie, is at the heart of the six-week process that began on Rosh Hodesh Ellul in early August and ends with the Neilah (concluding) service on Yom Kippur. That process is often referred to as teshuvah (repentance) and cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul).  In a sense, the tradition sets us up to conduct our own personal investigation.  For sure there has been a mishap or two over the past year, if not a full-blown crash.  Teshuvah is about getting the story right, wherever the blame may lie.

Teshuvah is a brilliant invention.  It’s better to know what caused a crash, than to protect someone’s job or national pride. In the long run, it’s better for our relationships and our souls to understand how we have caused hurt and pain than to protect our egos.  This is difficult and counter-intuitive.  Teshuvah offers a guide for conducting this investigation.

Ethicist Louis Newman, in his book, Teshuvah, outlines seven steps: culpabilityremorseconfessionapologyrestitutionsoul reckoning and transformation

These seven steps contribute to what eminent 20th century Orthodox rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik referred to as the double purpose of Yom Kippur.  The first is kapparah, acquittal or atonement.  This is  transactional between us and the person we’ve harmed, between us and God).  The second purpose istaharah, purification .   Soloveitchik held that sin pollutes our souls, and the process of teshuvah helps us “get the story right” so we might learn from our past errors in order to transform ourselves.  This is why “soul reckoning” and “transformation” are the final steps in the teshuvah process.  Tellingly, Soloveitchik also translated taharah as catharsis – a clue that something substantial is required.

Most of us avoid the catharsis Soloveitchik recommends.  Non-specific and conditional, the common phrase “I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you during the past year” may be well-intended, but it approaches forgiveness as an entitlement.  Newman points out the difference between “I’m sorry you took offense at what I did” (insincere) and “I’m sorry for having acted in a way that offended you” (sincere).  Forgiveness is available, but if it is meaningful, it can’t be obtained on the cheap.

Teshuvah is, firstly, a learning process with common, yet profound learning outcomes:

  • Cognitive (knowing) – we become aware of our transgressions.  The weeks leading up to the Day of Atonement are intended for this purpose, as is the High Holy Day liturgy – all that breast beating is intended to help us reflect on how we ourselves have engaged in these specific behaviors. 
  • Affective (feeling) – we feel responsibility and remorse.
  • Behavioral (doing) – we act – apologize, make restitution, and behave differently going forward.

Soloveitchik and Newman add a fourth outcome – spiritual transformation.  By the process of atonement, our souls are purified and our spirits are transformed through KNOWING, FEELING, AND DOING, as demanded by the teshuvah process. 

Teshuvah, a sophisticated learning system, developed over thousands of years, takes work, study, and practice.  As with any serious subject of study (and the subject here is our lives, our relationships, our souls) – there are no shortcuts.  So often, our attention, our teaching, our learning, involves the trappings of these holidays, at the expense of the essence.  It is the season of soul renewal.

We can’t do accounting of our souls all the time – we’d never get anything done.  The tradition sets aside time for serious reflection, accountability, and atonement.  Now is that time. Holiness may be the end goal, but there are many other benefits, including healing and forgiveness.  Real teshuvah is not trivial, but neither is it impossible.  As Moses says in the Torah portion for the week of August 31, “it is not distant, it is not in heaven…rather it is very near you, in your mouth and your heart.”

We at Jewish LearningWorks wish you a happy, healthy, and sweet new year, a year of learning, growing, and healing.

L’Shanah Tova