Archive for the ‘The Things I Learn from My Students’ Category

An Inspirational Moment

Hello!  As you’ve probably noticed, I took a little break from blogging for a few months.  I think I’m back now.  I’ve had a bit of writers block, and I think that one good way to get past it is to have a guest blogger write for me Smile.

At B’nei Mitzvah services at Temple Beth Torah, students deliver a creative prayer.  The Rabbi and I do not see or edit these before the Bar or Bat Mitzvah because we don’t believe that we have a right to edit people’s prayers.   These prayers are often both beautiful and inspirational.  A little while back, a student delivered one that I thought my blog audience would particularly enjoy.  I asked her permission to share it with all of you.  She said yes, but only on condition of anonymity.  So, I can’t tell you who wrote this beautiful piece, but I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Photo Credit: Fotolia via

Creative Prayer

I pray that everyone can have a special connection with God, no matter what your religion. Say you were born into an atheist family and you were raised not to believe in God. This does not mean that you cannot change your view on whether God exists, and if He does what is He like? Is He mean or kind? Is He fair or unfair? Is He even a He? I strongly believe that you can choose for yourself. However, this is usually not the case. Most people are born into a religion that drills into your head that God exists, resulting in blind support for a significant portion of your life. Then, as you experience more trials and become wiser, you might begin to question God’s existence. The idea of some mysterious person you cannot see hear or touch controlling you and the people around you could be hard to accept. You might also ask yourself a commonly asked question: If God exists and is generous and fair, then why are there so many misfortunes in life like hunger, homelessness, sickness, and life changing events like the Holocaust? As a believer in God, I argue that God must show us the worst, in order for us to recognize the best.

I might also add that I personally went through this journey, questioning what I was taught to believe by my parents and in Hebrew school. But after going through some experiences and figuring out my views on God and Judaism, I can proudly say that I believe in God. The way I see it, God works through the people He created. What I mean by that is say you are nervous for a test coming up in school. You do not know if you will do well, even though you studied extra hard because you know this is not your best subject. Then, a friend observes your worries and says, “I know you will do well on the test because you studied a lot, you are a great student, and I have faith in you.” I believe that God was showing Himself through that friend’s words, so that pep talk was really from God. This has definitely happened to me before, and sometimes I wonder if God ever sent a message to someone through me. Because of these beliefs, I have a strong connection with God and I pray that everyone can experience what I did with Him.


In Their Shoes

ShoesA lot of people are talking these days about how “over-programmed” our youth are. Kids come home with backpacks that threaten to tip them over filled with hours worth of homework. Before they can even begin, they are whisked off to dance lessons, baseball games, gymnastics, art classes, and more. And between all of those activities, they keep up with their social lives on the internet and through texting, and grab a minute or two to play with their computers, Xboxes, iPhones, and iPads. They aren’t playing stickball on the street during a pick-up game on a lazy Sunday afternoon; rather they are playing baseball on the field in a game organized months ago with parents screaming from the bleachers. And that homework isn’t going away.

I always feel a little bad to add to their load with their Hebrew school and Bar/Bat Mitzvah studies. Yet, I believe that it is vital that they learn how to prioritize and organize their time. They will need to figure out how to determine which of their activities they will need to skip or skimp on in order to be prepared for the things that really matter in any given moment in time. What makes it most difficult is the sudden disruption of their routine. They have a lot going on, but they know how to fit it all in. Suddenly you add in Bar Mitzvah lessons, and the whole thing just falls apart. How will they manage this new and very time-consuming commitment? How will they find the time to practice – even for just twenty minutes a day? There are NO twenty minute time slots as things stand right now.

Over the past couple of months, I have really had the opportunity to experience what this is like. Cantors have tremendously busy schedules. Without going into detail, I can just tell you that I work all weekend, have one day off a week, and that during weekdays, I am only home for dinner two nights. It’s okay. I’m used to it and I thrive on hard work. I am overscheduled just like those kids. But I have a routine and I know how to make it work in my life. Until you add one more thing.

musicI was invited to perform a recital of classical music for the Soirée Society at Nyack library. The concert was May 8th. I sing concerts all the time, but I haven’t sung a complete classical concert since my days at Oberlin Conservatory and I was little rusty. Not only that, since my appendix surgery, I had been finding that my vocal technique was suffering. I made an appointment with my voice teacher and headed to Hartford for a lesson.

It turns out that I needed to do some physical therapy to help me reconnect to my lower abdominal muscles after surgery. My teacher gave me some exercises and told me to practice them every day. I also needed to relearn the music because although I selected from my favorite music, it had been years since I had sung a lot of it. So I would also need to practice that every day, too. My teacher told me that I should take only one day off per week from practicing. I needed to schedule additional lessons with my teacher and rehearsals with my pianist. All of this in one of the busiest seasons that clergy have (Purim through Shavuot. Crazy. Just crazy). What was I thinking??

Fitting in that practice time proved to be a monumental task. What was I going to give up? My work wasn’t going away. I felt like I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah – even though the music was entirely secular. (Actually, for me, music is never entirely secular because I find singing to be such a deeply spiritual experience, but that’s another blog post…) In the end, the concert went really well, but as with most things in life, there were many things that I could have done better – things that additional practice time would have really helped with.

One of the many lessons that I gained from this experience was a deeper understanding of what it is like for those twelve year old kids, walking into my office, preparing to add another huge commitment to their lives: a dedication to study, to tikkun olam (repairing our world through performing mitzvot), to perfection of keva (the words of prayer) and as much as possible kavannah (the emotional attention behind prayer). I tell them that part of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah is learning how to be a responsible adult – how to make decisions about how they spend their time in order to get things done. But I saw that despite my many years of experience at being a “responsible adult,” it’s not so easy.

SunsetAdults struggle all the time with time-management and that is just in keeping up with the aspects of our lives that are already a part of our routine. How do we expect children and their parents to manage the profound disruption that is the Bar/Bat Mitzvah process? More importantly, how do we help them make it MORE than a profound distraction and disruption from the normal – to make it a new and improved normal? To stop long enough to notice the miracle – the bush burns, but is not consumed. We fit more and more into our lives, and by choosing things of value, we somehow are not consumed by them, but rather find ourselves lit up from within – inspired, growing, alight, reaching up, upwards, beyond.

Raise It Up! Raise It Up!

This weekend is Song leader Boot Camp East.  It is, according to their website, “an intensive leadership training program for Rabbis, Cantors, professional songleaders, and new songleaders offering a profound exploration of the physiology, psychology, strategy, and execution behind explosive Jewish teaching and songleading.”

My Saturday began with a double B’nei Mitzvah.  Two wonderful, dynamic boys were called to the Torah in a lovely service.  Immediately afterwards, I got in my car and sped (and luckily didn’t get a ticket) to Scotch Plains, NJ, to arrive late at the JCC for boot camp.  The day was intense, to say the very least.  Very early on, Rich Recht and Sheldon Low had 40 strangers jumping dancing, and clapping their hands in the air.  Chests were lifted, breathing and heart rates increased, we were pumped and we hadn’t done anything yet.  And that was just the point.  We didn’t even get out our guitars until after dinner.  Almost the entire day was spent on the psychology and physiology of performance.  Much like voice lessons, I discovered that there is a great deal of technique to this and that it is exceedingly difficult to keep all of these things in your head.  It’s like walking, chewing gum, rubbing your belly, and singing in Hebrew all at once!  But, like voice training, I am certain that a lot of it becomes second nature with practice.  At least I hope so.

This morning at Sunday school, I tried to put SOME of what I had learned into action.  We begin our Sunday school with a brief service.  I tried to use praise phrases, encouraging the kids to sing more and louder and then praising them when they did.  The energy in the first session (grades K-3) was fantastic!  The kids were singing.  They were energized.  It was great.  There was only one problem.  If you are singing the Mi Chamocha prayer, and right in the middle of the text you say, “Raise it up!  Awesome!” You have stopped talking to G-d and are now talking to the kids.  In that case, have you, as songleader, removed yourself from the process of prayer and become only a songleader, concerned with the volume and enthusiasm of those being lead, but not so much with the prayer itself?  How can you be both the songleader, inspiring and leading others to sing, and the cantor – really praying and inspiring others to prayer through your example?  I want people to sing with me, but I didn’t like interrupting the prayer to comment on it.

Maybe the answer is that in speaking to the kids, you are calling to the Divine Spark within those kids to be raised up?  Maybe that’s part of the prayer.  It seems to me, though, that that is its own prayer, not the Mi Chamocha.  That is the prayer of a song session, but not the prayer of a regular worship service.  It will be interesting to explore these questions further during  Song Leader Boot Camp Day 2 later today.  I’ll also be curious to see how these techniques play out with our second session of Hebrew school students (4th-6th grade).

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Until then, Raise it up!!

Two Things to Get You in That Rosh Hashanah Mood

Hi all! I wanted to share two things with you to put you in a Rosh Hashanah mood for tonight. The first is in the catagory, “Wisdom of My Students.” I assign my students thirteen mitzvot to do in preparation for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. One of these is to read something Jewish (a book, an article, a website) and write a few paragraphs about what they learned.

My student, Levy Singleton, read the article “Wilderness Awakening” in the Fall 2010 issue of Reform Judaism Magazine. I need to read this article! Here is what she wrote:

Wilderness Awakening

Guest Post by Levy Singleton

“There is a Chasidic story about a boy who left the synagogue each morning during his daily prayers to go into the woods. One day his grandfather followed him and watched his grandson pray amid animals and trees. ‘Why do you go outside to pray,’ he asked. ‘When I am in nature, I feel closer to G-d,’ the boy replied. ‘Don’t you know that G-d is the same everywhere?’ ‘I know,’ said the boy, ‘but I’m not.’ In nature people often realize they’re part of something larger than themselves, the whole web of life.” – Rabbi Kevin Kleinman.

I believe, after reading this article, that when you’re in nature you are in a peaceful atmosphere in which you’re surrounded by G-d’s creations. When you are praying in the wild, you get the opportunity of using all of your senses, you can smell, hear, feel, and see what G-d created and how much power the beauty has on you is enlightening. It allows you time to clear your mind.

“In the city, with the noise of the marketplace, dust from the caravans, and friends saying hello, it’s possible that Moses didn’t notice G-d’s call.” – Rabbi Jamie Korngold. Our belief today is that G-d is everywhere, though for hundreds of years before we had the Torah our ancestors communicated with G-d on top of mountains. Why? Because they believed G-d lived in heaven, so mountain-tops would bring them closer to the realm of G-d. In a way they were right. Being outdoors does bring you closer to G-d, but not physically, spiritually. When you’re outdoors, you have a better relationship with G-d’s creations, making your bond with G-d stronger.


Can you believe that a 12 year old wrote that??

The other thing that I wanted to share with you was a bit of fun. While I was driving to the synagogue this morning, I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show. One of the guest speakers was talking about website called Wordle, which allows you to analyze writing by looking at the frequency of word use visually. The more often you use a word, the bigger it appears in the graphic that the site generates. Curiosity won me over, I had to see what my blog would look like. I think the result is a nice pre-Rosh Hashanah meditation:

Wisdom of my students

Almost immediately after I posted the “perpetual fire” post, I was handed this wonderful mitzvah sheet from my student, Brooklyn.  With her permission, I share it with you:

Mitzvah Category: Iyun Tefillah

Activity: I communicated with G-d 5 minutes every night for 2 weeks

Describe why you performed this mitzvah:  I performed this mitzvah so I could feel closer to G-d.  Also when I was sad or confused, it would help me.

Describe your reactions to doing this mitzvah:  My reactions to doing this mitzvah were surprising.  I felt better after praying, especially if I was sad or frustrated.

Describe this mitzvah’s effect on others:  Even though no one really was effected in an obvious way, I hope the people I wished help for will receive help.  Also it might push me to help them more.

I especially liked that last line.  Regardless of whether we believe in G-d or not, the best prayer is the one that pushes us to be the best people we can be.  We make our prayers come true by allowing them to focus us into action.