Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Garabaldi is back!

The above statue of the great Italian nationalist (along with about a third of Washington Square Park) has been 'trapped' behind construction fencing for nearly two years now, making the already crowded sidewalks around NYU nearly intolerable (especially when there was snow on the ground this past winter). So, I was really heartened when I went down to NYU today to see this key corridor is finally open, again. The park was at its very best today amid the great weather -- full of energy, music and young people.

Garabaldi, once again you are part of a blow for freedom! :)
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Many rivers to cross -- chaplaincy and bicycling in the Big Apple

Ok, so I only crossed one river (and, ok, that river is really a strait), But, my 35-mile bicycle ride, today included two thrilling passages high above the sparkling East River, as well as many great views of the Manhattan skyline and of the Hudson waterfront. The most exciting part for me, however, was that this was no pleasure ride -- it was a test run for regularly bicycle commuting later this summer from Bushwick, Brooklyn (where I will be subletting an apartment), all the way to the far Upper West Side and the Jewish Theological Seminary where I am running a chaplaincy education unit.

So, the ride you see in the map and link below was a working one: from JTS where I am staying right now to a student's clinical site in Queens this morning where I visited the amazing program the student is placed at this summer -- I rode complete with a tie and sport jacket in my pannier so I could 'clean up' when I got there!

Google map of route.

After my time with my student, I took off the sport jacket and tie and headed for the Williamsburg bridge and then NYU. I went through so many amazing neighborhoods, seeing the incredible ethnic diversity of Queens and Brooklyn's working class neighborhoods and their immigrant inhabitants. Seeing all these people striving to make lives here, I was reminded of the incredible power of the human spirit, a spirit that so often drives humans to acts of love and achievement even when they might have once faced great suffering at the hands of others. I was reminded, as I have been so many times during our chaplaincy program this summer, of Psalm 137, the Psalm that inspired the reggae song Rivers of Babylon. That a song authored by an ancient Hebrew poet could so move modern-day people from a very different culture in the Caribbean speaks to the universal nature of its theme -- the theme of the experience of exile. The pain of exile. And the refusal of the human spirit to just sit there in it.

My hope for my students this summer is they will find the strength to accompany their clients as they visit their places of painful exile. They will not flee from these spaces, I hope. But they will also be there with an outreached hand to help pull their clients up as their powerful human spirits seek new homes, new meanings and new freedoms.


One part of the ride I really enjoyed today was going through Flushing Meadow Park, the site of New York's two world fairs and the place where some of my earliest happy childhood memories (of being in the Space Park!) happened. Here is my bike near Yitzhak Rabin Walk there:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

One day's salad, the next day's compost

A sign of summer and the end of spring: I pulled up the last of our lettuce and arugula (a spring crop), today, to make room for the tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers we hope to have a bounty of come late summer.

We had definitely enjoyed some nice salads from these leafy greens, but they had -- as is their like as the weather warms -- begun to go to seed and become more tough and bitter. So, instead of putting these last of the greens on our dinner plates, I am allowing them to 'compost-in-place' to form a sort of mulch along with the sheets of wet newspaper you can see 'between-the-hills' in the pic above. The hills themselves have been newly planted with cucumber seeds (I am afraid our local groundhog may find the seedlings-to-come to be tasty, but I am hoping he/she will leave at least some of them for us!).

One (non-chemical!) defense against the likes of our furry groundhog friend and the beetles that have already ravaged some of our tomato plants is the upside-down planting method, which we tried out successfully last year. We're experimenting now with some irrigation methods for the upside downers (note the 'upside down' two-liter A&W bottle in the foreground below). This page, taught us how to do this, although, as is our wont, we refused to actually follow the instructions! :)

From Planting Day (6/12/11)

Gardening -- like bicycling -- is an important means of self care for me amid the challenges (and joys!) of being in ministry. Last summer, it was a great gift to me to be able to spend early mornings quietly tending to our little backyard garden before getting ready to head to my busy workday of teaching a chaplaincy summer program. This summer -- while I have the new joy of being able to spend time in New York City, the place of my birth -- I will less often be able to walk out to my garden first thing in the morning. I was glad to be able to be able to be in it for a few hours, today!

For a moving reflection on how your backyard might be a source of spiritual nourishment, see the words of our friend and teacher Natan Margalit on his Organic Torah blog.

Have a great week!

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Sunday, June 05, 2011

Making Israel the curriculum -- receiving (and transmitting!) Torah in a spiritual age

Today, another class at Boston's Hebrew College was ordained as rabbis to take up the mantle of being teachers and exemplars of Torah among the people Israel. They have all come to this day with the help of wonderful teachers and a community of peers -- a nurturing environment that we all must be grateful for as its existence helps form the next generation of inspiring spiritual leaders in the Jewish world.

But this must be a time not only for joy and gratitude, but also for sober reflection. We who care about the future of the Jewish people and the existence of a compelling cadre of spiritual leaders must ask ourselves tough questions about the education of rabbis. What works? What of the huge body of the thousands' years old Jewish tradition needs to be fit into these few years of education, and what is not necessary? How can we best assure that the products of this expensive education will be 'good' rabbis? And, at a time when opinions about the politics of the State of Israel are more contested than ever among the Jews, we most especially must ask about what role we expect the Israel year to play in this five or six year education process.

Once, there was little controversial about the idea that future rabbis should spend a year of their education in Israel. We expected our rabbis to be, without exception, passionate supporters of the State of Israel and its policies. We expected our rabbis to love Israel and its state without exception. And, so, an Israel year was expected to be part of a necessary process of the future rabbi strongly bonding with the State of Israel.

But, as diversity in opinions has grown among American Jews about the State of Israel's policies, many rabbinical students have come to resist this conception. Some have even claimed that being forced to spend a year in Israel would violate their core ethical beliefs. Others have questioned whether contemporary Jewry -- a Jewry that looks to rabbis as a source of spiritual inspiration and comfort as opposed to sources of political opinions -- really needs its rabbis to be experts in the land of Israel. And some have just questioned whether the substantial financial sacrifice of spending a year overseas is justified when any course taught in Israel could be just as well taught here in the States.

Of course -- as Danny Gordis’ recent article in Commentary criticizing Hebrew College makes clear – not everybody is happy with this change and some, like Gordis, appear to wish we could just magically turn the clock back to a time when American Jews had no questions about Israel. I certainly don’t agree with Gordis on many things, but, as a passionate supporter of a State of Israel myself, it is also challenging for me to accept that there will be rabbinical voices critical of Israel. Unlike Gordis, however, I know a vibrant Judaism is only possible if our emerging spiritual leaders have a place to express these kinds of voices as they go about their spiritual journeys.

Unfortunately, most of the discussions about Israel quickly devolve into contentious, unpleasant binary debates where there is no room for exploration and genuine sharing – only for people to be labeled as either pro-Israel or anti-Israel. With this unproductive unpleasantness as seemingly the only conceivable option for discussions about Israel, sometimes people within rabbinical schools become afraid to have discussions about Israel and the reasons for the Israel year. Rabbinic students are given weak, vague explanations for the requirement like it is “very important” and that they should, in effect, just “trust us” that they should do it.

That’s just not good enough in a spiritually focused age. For those of us among rabbinic educators who, like myself, are passionate about the need for rabbinic students to do an Israel year, it is incumbent to come up with justifications, and curricula, that address spiritual needs and growth. Today’s rabbinic students know that contemporary Jews expect more than just deep knowledge from their rabbis -- today's Jews also expect true spiritual leadership and thus rabbinic education needs to be fundamentally a spiritual experience that helps its students grow in their ability to use, and be, spiritual resources for the people they serve. All of our rabbinic schools understand this new importance of bringing spirituality into their curriculums overall.

Thus, I think we need to also reconceive the rabbinic Israel year in spiritual terms. It should not be about acquiring knowledge or even forming an emotional connection. It should be about the student developing his or her ability to employ the land of Israel as a spiritual resource. Below, I will put forth some specifics about how I think Israel year education can be transformed to do this. I will propose a new focus on the experiential aspects of Israel education in a way that allows each student to craft his or her own learning using reflective practices, social media tools and structured spiritual mentorship. But first I want to share a personal experience that may give you a better idea about what I mean by "employing the land of Israel as a spiritual resource."

Shortly after arriving in Jerusalem for my year there as a rabbinic student I found myself walking up a beautiful hill in the early morning darkness amid a huge stream of fellow Jews. We soon passed through the (not-quite-ancient-but-still-very-old) gates of the Old City and traversed narrow pathways of well-worn Jerusalem stone – the same kind of stone that makes up the Western Wall, where we would soon arrive.

In my country of birth, the United States, the holiday of Shavuot – supposedly one of the most important on the Jewish calendar because it, like Passover, is one of three holidays where ancient Jews made a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and because it marks God’s giving of the holy Torah at Mt. Sinai – had never yielded much meaning to me. But here, as the sun started to rise and the small group of non-Orthodox rabbinical students and other liberally-oriented religious Jews I was with started to pray, I felt this holiday’s incredible power – as God, Torah and Israel (both the land and the people) came together in a heady mix sparked by our collective pilgrimage up to the Temple Mount.

Nowhere other than in the land of Israel could I have had such a powerful spiritual experience associated with the Shavuot holiday. As a rabbi, I do not think I have anything spiritual to offer to others that is not rooted in my own spiritual experience with things I find meaningful. Thus, this unique spiritual experience of the holiday – an experience that was in no way connected to any classroom experience or even to an informal experiential curriculum –was an essential part of my rabbinic education. It is a spiritual resource that is mine to call on every Shavuot. It allows me to enter every Shavuot with genuine spiritual excitement – excitement I can share with others of the faithful to help them find paths to personal meaning.

That is, this experience helped me grow spiritually – in particular in my ability to use Israel as a spiritual resource with Jews back in the States. Amazingly, the act of teaching out of my own genuine spirituality makes that teaching experience a support for my own continuing spiritual health and growth – teaching others reminds me of what it was like to experience Shavuot with fresh eyes, and thus renews me.

Art Green, the founder and current rector of the Hebrew College rabbinical school, touched on this in his remarks at the ordination. “The moment of giving will be the moment of receiving,” he said of acts of teaching (as we approach in only a few days Shavuot, itself, the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah to the people Israel). He told his graduating students that it is through such teaching that we retain access to those powerful moments where we felt called to become rabbis in the first place and to teach Torah among the people Israel.

It is this kind of spiritually focused educational vision that an Israel year should be about for rabbinic students. It should be about their developing spiritual resources through learning derived from their own powerful personal moments – even the ‘terrible’ ones – that they can experience in that most amazing of tiny countries that sits on the fault line between West and East and that has inspired so much passion, both love and war, through the ages. (For an example of how the ‘terrible’ can also lead to rich learning, see Minna’s beautiful Yom HaAtzma'ut reflection from 2009, where she talks about how, on the one hand, the experience of Israel could be sweet and inspiring for her, but how it could also steal her voice away and make her feel foreign and strange.)

But how can we make these kind of experiential and spiritual educational experiences more likely to occur for rabbinic students in Israel and how can we leverage these experiences into spiritual growth in these students’ ability to meet spiritual needs of others back in the States?

One way, of course is to have group trips and retreats be a part of an Israel year, and most programs do employ these techniques. But this alone is lacking for two key reasons. One, is that spiritual growth and learning is a fundamentally individualized process -- you can't expect a group oriented activity to "meet the student where they are" on their spiritual learning journey. But, more importantly, group activities alone don't consolidate people's learning. To consolidate learning, there needs to be some form of disciplined reflection on the 'action' that happens in the experience. There are many well-established tools for helping consolidate this learning, including journaling, group-based reflection in a case conference format, spiritual direction and structured mentorship. The application of these tools is strengthened by encouraging a maximum student 'buy-in' -- the student should be encouraged to take charge of his or her own learning by, in consultation with a mentor, drawing up his or her own individualized curriculum, or learning contract, that expresses the student's hopes for how he or she will make "Israel the curriculum" for him or her.

I think I can help make this happen. My training as a pastoral care educator (I am a certified Clinical Pastoral Education supervisor) has shown me how structured and disciplined reflection on powerful experiences – like talking with the dying in hospitals – can be leveraged into dramatic spiritual growth. And my experience with social media and video ethnography has shown me how new technologies can be employed to enrich this reflective learning process.

With Skype, for example, students in Israel could meet with a mentor or spiritual director back in the States to develop learning goals and educational opportunities, as well as reflecting on those experiences. Students could keep video journals of their experiences. The mentor and the student could develop ongoing discussions about those video journals. Alternatively, the student could use blogging or Twitter as a journaling tool.

Minna and I found blogging – including posting many photos – to be a powerful way to find learning in our experiences when she did her own rabbinic Israel year a couple of years back. Check out this blog post for Minna’s own take on why actually being in Israel can be a key part of a rabbinic student’s learning, as well as on how engaging in shared writing or other reflection helps consolidate the fruits of experiential learning. Also, check out this great blog being kept by a JTS rabbinical student for another example of how blogging can be learning – a way of making Israel the curriculum.

A truly deep experience of Israel – the kind of experience we feel in our bones – can be an invaluable part of a rabbinic education, an experience that can only happen in that especially sensitive time for spiritual growth that are the heart of the rabbinic education years. But those experiences cannot happen if we stifle our students with a demand that they can only be either pro- or anti-Israel. Students who are in Israel need the same kind of deep support for their spiritual growth that they have become accustomed to in the States. They need a curriculum that recognizes that the Israel year is a particularly rich time for experiential learning. They need a curriculum that recognizes that each student will have their own individualized path to discovering how their Israel experiences can act as spiritual resources for them and allow them to become more able to give Torah to the people they minister to as rabbis back here in the States – and, in doing this giving, be more able to receive Torah themselves.

Hag Sameach! – may you have a Shavuot rich in Torah, both giving and receiving.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Return to Manhattan -- on two wheels!

The most exciting thing I'm doing this summer is leading a chaplaincy education group at JTS, my old alma mater (and a place that had so much to do with my early days of spiritual formation and growth in my early 30s as I was just starting to consider becoming a rabbi). But that is not the only _return_ I am going through -- it's also a return to living again (albeit only for about three days a week) in Manhattan, where I once lived for over a decade. So much is wonderfully familiar, but there are also great changes. One of those changes is the amazing (I could barely have imagined it would happen!) transformation of New York into a bicycle-friendly city.

I got a taste of the new _friendliness_ today when I chose to ride the 6.5 miles or so from JTS to FEGS Manhattan PROS, an amazing daytime program for people with mental health issues, where two of my students are interning this summer. Almost the entire ride was down the waterfront of the mighty -- and beautiful! -- Hudson River. This was a waterfront that was long almost completely inaccessible to pedestrians and bicycles; now there is a beautiful and generous bike path down its full length in Manhattan. It was so great to partake of it! Cycling is such an important part of how I care for myself amid the strains (and rewards!) of being in chaplaincy and chaplaincy education. Even on a very hot day like this one, the feel of the air quickly brushing past me as I ride through it always makes me feel a sense of freedom (as well as a little bit cooler). I even went on a short ride on my lunch break yesterday; upper Manhattan is such a great place for it -- and I was able to stop at the amazing Fairway supermarket to buy some stuff for lunch, etc.

I am grateful for Minna for helping me see how this summer of working in NYC could be about more than work -- that I could also approach it as a personal "adventure in New York City," one of the two cities (along with Jerusalem) that I love most in the world (as well as the place of my birth!). . . . The personal adventure of this summer is part of a larger personal adventure I've been on in NYC. As I type these words, I am in the basement of the Tisch School of the Arts, NYU's main place for training filmmakers and game-makers and alike. It -- like so much of New York -- is a place where the surrounding buzz of creative energy is powerful and palpable. Being here makes me feel like my creative energies, too, continue to burn strong and have something new and powerful to offer the world -- I feel young, again! And so I am glad to be a doctoral student in NYU's Education and Jewish Studies program as I have for the last two years.


What I'm sure, however, will never be bicycle friendly about NYC is the issue of bike theft. I've tried to defend myself as best I can, first and foremost by using a _junker_ bicycle that I hope will not be so attractive to thieves and vandals. It's an old Schwinn mountain style bike I bought used for $35 about a year ago just for this purpose. I've got three locks on it (one a small cable lock just to keep someone from taking the seat). I put an old rack on it with an old "Around Town" REI basket-style pannier that -- teamed up with a reusable Fairway shopping bag -- gives me pretty significant carrying capacity

In only a few days I will be at the Hebrew College ordination to see some new rabbis take up the mantle of being teachers of Torah in Israel (Minna is going to sing!). And a few days after that we will celebrate Shavuot, the holiday that marks the giving of Torah to Israel at Mt. Sinai. I am reminded -- as I begin these two personal adventures in NYC of leading this summer chaplaincy program and of taking a bicycle to these transformed streets -- that Torah comes in many places, many forms and from many sources, all of which enrich us and lead us towards service of the Holy. My students at this mental health center will be walking the halls of a place that may not seem spiritual at all to many eyes at first. But I know that the Ultimate Questions about spiritual matters like the role of suffering in the world are particularly powerful and present for people coping with mental illness. I am confident my students will bring much Torah to the people they minister to, and, perhaps even more so, that they themselves will learn much Torah from the people so experienced with suffering who they will be caring for. May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that they will all be enriched by this sharing of Torah!