Rosh Hodesh, Mother’s Day and Me

 

 

I am a mommy-in-the-middle: I have a mother and I am a mother. I get a lot of pleasure from both roles, but every year, Mother’s Day falls flat for me. I’m so busy being either mother or daughter that I never feel a personally meaningful or satisfying connection.

 

Yet, I certainly connect to being a mother. I just don’t connect to Mother’s Day.

 

So I decided that this year, rather than accepting and ignoring the hollowness of Mother’s Day, I would dig deeper until I discovered something that resonated with me in the way traditional Mother’s Day was supposed to, but didn’t.

 

Before discarding it out of hand, however, I thought I should learn more about Mother’s Day. It all started in the 1800’s when Ann Reeves Jarvis, an Appalachian social activist and women’s event planner, created “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to help educate women about how to care for their children and keep them healthy. After the war, she organized “Mother’s Friendship Picnics” to encourage Confederate and Union loyalists to ignore their differences and remember their common bond of motherhood.

 

When Ann died, her daughter Anna wanted to celebrate her beloved mother. She organized an honorary event in West Virginia on May 10, which soon spread to a number of states. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, declaring that the holiday offered a chance to “[publicly express] our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

 

Anna’s idea was that children would spend the day with their mothers in appreciation of all they had sacrificed for them. When the day quickly turned into a retail gold mine, she was so disappointed that she spent the rest of her life fighting to have its holiday status revoked. She failed, and by 2014 Americans spent almost $20 billion on Mother’s Day goods and services.

 

While building personal bonds among mothers was a terrific legacy worth preserving, Anna Jarvis had correctly recognized that her original Mother’s Day had morphed into something commercial and trivial.

 

Many cultures and religions — including Judaism — have other ways for women to gather and pay homage to their unique feminine qualities.

 

We Jewish mothers are lucky to have Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish lunar month, which coincides with the new moon. It is a minor festival that has long been associated with, and sacred to, women. Midrash (biblical legend) holds the holiday was given to women as a reward for their refusal to give up their jewelry to help create the Golden Calf.

 

Women’s Rosh Hodesh groups started springing up in the 1980s as a way to revive its observance in a modern, more meaningful way.

 

My own introduction to Rosh Hodesh took place soon after moving to Swampscott in 2001 when I was invited to join a Hadassah evening of study and community. The focus was Rosh Hodesh. We each received a copy of “Moonbeams”, Hadassah’s guide to Rosh Hodesh modern practices. It still calls to me, the enchantment of its watercolor cover and thoughtful readings undiminished.

 

The next year, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, which happened to fall on Mother’s Day. Rosh Hodesh and I had some sort of special bond, but the connection wasn’t yet clear.

 

Then, about five years ago, I learned to chant the Rosh Hodesh Torah parsha, which I have done almost every month since, always using my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah yad. Last week, at Rosh Hodesh Iyar, something felt different.

 

I felt a spark of kinship with the spirits of all women who ever stood where I stood, especially my daughter and my mother when the three of us shared the bimah in celebration of her Mother’s Day Bat Mitzvah 15 years ago. How had I forgotten?

 

That personal, spiritual way to connect with Mother’s Day I longed for was right in front of my eyes all along. All I had to do was to open them and notice.

 

This year, when I send that Hallmark card and buy that Mother’s Day gift, it will be with a full and grateful heart. Mother’s Day is my holiday too.

 

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Rosh Hodesh, Mother’s Day and Me

 

 

I am a mommy-in-the-middle: I have a mother and I am a mother. I get a lot of pleasure from both roles, but every year, Mother’s Day falls flat for me. I’m so busy being either mother or daughter that I never feel a personally meaningful or satisfying connection.

 

Yet, I certainly connect to being a mother. I just don’t connect to Mother’s Day.

 

So I decided that this year, rather than accepting and ignoring the hollowness of Mother’s Day, I would dig deeper until I discovered something that resonated with me in the way traditional Mother’s Day was supposed to, but didn’t.

 

Before discarding it out of hand, however, I thought I should learn more about Mother’s Day. It all started in the 1800’s when Ann Reeves Jarvis, an Appalachian social activist and women’s event planner, created “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” to help educate women about how to care for their children and keep them healthy. After the war, she organized “Mother’s Friendship Picnics” to encourage Confederate and Union loyalists to ignore their differences and remember their common bond of motherhood.

 

When Ann died, her daughter Anna wanted to celebrate her beloved mother. She organized an honorary event in West Virginia on May 10, which soon spread to a number of states. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as Mother’s Day, declaring that the holiday offered a chance to “[publicly express] our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.”

 

Anna’s idea was that children would spend the day with their mothers in appreciation of all they had sacrificed for them. When the day quickly turned into a retail gold mine, she was so disappointed that she spent the rest of her life fighting to have its holiday status revoked. She failed, and by 2014 Americans spent almost $20 billion on Mother’s Day goods and services.

 

While building personal bonds among mothers was a terrific legacy worth preserving, Anna Jarvis had correctly recognized that her original Mother’s Day had morphed into something commercial and trivial.

 

Many cultures and religions — including Judaism — have other ways for women to gather and pay homage to their unique feminine qualities.

 

We Jewish mothers are lucky to have Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the Jewish lunar month, which coincides with the new moon. It is a minor festival that has long been associated with, and sacred to, women. Midrash (biblical legend) holds the holiday was given to women as a reward for their refusal to give up their jewelry to help create the Golden Calf.

 

Women’s Rosh Hodesh groups started springing up in the 1980s as a way to revive its observance in a modern, more meaningful way.

 

My own introduction to Rosh Hodesh took place soon after moving to Swampscott in 2001 when I was invited to join a Hadassah evening of study and community. The focus was Rosh Hodesh. We each received a copy of “Moonbeams”, Hadassah’s guide to Rosh Hodesh modern practices. It still calls to me, the enchantment of its watercolor cover and thoughtful readings undiminished.

 

The next year, my daughter celebrated her Bat Mitzvah on Rosh Hodesh Sivan, which happened to fall on Mother’s Day. Rosh Hodesh and I had some sort of special bond, but the connection wasn’t yet clear.

 

Then, about five years ago, I learned to chant the Rosh Hodesh Torah parsha, which I have done almost every month since, always using my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah yad. Last week, at Rosh Hodesh Iyar, something felt different.

 

I felt a spark of kinship with the spirits of all women who ever stood where I stood, especially my daughter and my mother when the three of us shared the bimah in celebration of her Mother’s Day Bat Mitzvah 15 years ago. How had I forgotten?

 

That personal, spiritual way to connect with Mother’s Day I longed for was right in front of my eyes all along. All I had to do was to open them and notice.

 

This year, when I send that Hallmark card and buy that Mother’s Day gift, it will be with a full and grateful heart. Mother’s Day is my holiday too.

 

One Handful of Mud at a Time

Pictured above: Professor Mohammed Khallouk

When is the last time you read the same two articles in a Jewish newspaper and an Islamic e-magazine?

This is a story about a Muslim professor and e-magazine publisher and a Jewish writer and editor who saw in each other’s writing an opportunity to broaden the horizons of their readerships. It is a story about hope and possibility. It does not dwell on the challenges that politics, culture and religion pose. Instead, it focuses on common human ground and the way each of us can build a better future, one relationship at a time.

As editor of the bi-weekly Jewish Journal, I received scores of unsolicited articles and opinion pieces. A small percentage of the ones I actually read were appropriate for our publication and of those, I only had room for a handful in every issue.

Every now and then, however, an article would reach out and grab me in a way that I knew I had to publish it. Professor Mohammed Khallouk’s “Can Sworn Enemies Ever Become Friends?” was one.

This is how it began:

“In my youth in Morocco I was taught to hate Jews, and especially Israelis. I was convinced that Jews and Muslims could never become friends and that the relationship between Israelis and Arabs was based on hostility. The reality of cultural and religious pluralism in my new home country of Germany and an examination of Moroccan history, which shows that Jews and Muslims have lived in harmony for centuries, have convinced me that differences in religion cannot be the true reason for the animosity between them in the Middle East today.

I recently traveled to Jerusalem and wrote a travelogue about the experience. My meeting with one Jewish shopkeeper in the Western part of Jerusalem was especially unforgettable. My experience with this friendly and open-minded man named Abraham motivated me to write him a letter, which I included at the end of my book. This letter is a mirror of my experiences in the Holy City on the whole and my experiences meeting Abraham in particular.”

In his letter to Abraham, Professor Khallouk’s describes his revelations while in Israel, the gist of which are reprinted here:

“Even more than at the Holy Sites, I experienced this sense of brotherhood in Jerusalem’s everyday life. There were Jews like you who approached me as a fellow human with neither awkwardness nor fear. Appearance, origin and religious belief were unimportant. You saw me as a person who needed your assistance, and you spontaneously offered your help.

This human interaction has shaped my view of Jerusalem ever since. Jews are henceforth in my consciousness no longer my sworn enemies. I was able to experience them as my friends, soul-mates and spiritual brothers. While I continue to disagree in many key points with the State of Israel’s political stand on the Middle East conflict, Jews in West Jerusalem now matter to me as much as do Arabs and Muslims in the east of the Holy City. You have shown that you understand the importance of humanity essential to both Islam and Judaism.

The experience of seeing people of different cultures and religions coexisting so closely makes me long to return one day to the Holy City. The warmth with which we dealt with each other makes me hopeful that it might also inspire the political and social leaders. This is how political conflict can be overcome. Brotherhood and solidarity need to be the dominant image that Jews and Muslims have of each other.

I recognize your human kindness as a model for the rest of the world as well. This applies not least to German society, in which despite its cultural and political pluralism sometimes indifference and self-centeredness prevail. In Jerusalem I met a Judaism that reaches out to others. The guiding principle can be expressed thus: Only in dealing with the You, can the I find its identity.”

I emailed Professor Khallouk, telling him how much his message moved me and that, while I would have to edit it due to print space constraints, I wanted to publish it. I wanted our Jewish readers to hear a reasoned and reasonable Muslim voice, one that advocated human kindness and empathy, one that, these days and especially recently in the Journal’s pages, is too often ignored.

We exchanged several increasingly friendly emails. His article appeared at the top of the Jewish Journal May 28 Opinion page. Mine appeared at the bottom, an article entitled “Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony” that praised the interfaith Tufts University Baccalaureate ceremony for being a powerful reminder that we are members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, the differences of our separate identities.

When I sent Professor Khallouk the pdf of the Opinion page, he replied with this email:

Dear Shelley,

Thank you very much for the publishing of my  article. It was a great pleasure for me to find it on the same page with your nice literary report about diversity and the baccalaureate service.

If you do not mind I would like to translate  your piece into German and publish the translation on the website of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany

I also wish you a beautiful day and would be happy for another opportunity to work together with you.

Mohammed

The article appeared recently at http://islam.de/26575.php.

The point of the story is quite simple. We can recognize and seize opportunities to shape the future with a foundation of coexistence and compromise, or we can construct it from a place of separation, hostility and stereotyping. Either is possible and both require the same action: human hands, building together, one handful of mud at a time.

Prof. Mohammed Khallouk is a political and Islamic scientist with German and Moroccan roots. He is an expert in Islamic Thought and Politics, Political Islam and is skilled in intercultural dialogue between the West and the Islamic World.

Prof. Khallouk received his Ph.D. in 2007 in Political Science at the Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. His doctoral thesis dealt with Political Islam in his country of origin, Morocco. His M.A. degree in Political Science at Marburg University in 2003, based on his thesis about the possibility of peace between Israelis and Palestinians, was honored with the German Academic Exchange Prize. He also received a M.A. degree in Arab and Islamic Thought at Mohammed V – University of Rabat, Morocco, in 1997.

Khallouk served as a lecturer in Political Science from 2008 to 2012 at Philipps-University of Marburg and from 2010 to 2012 at the University of German Federal Armed Forces Munich. Since 2014 he has served as Professor for Islamic Studies at Qatar University, Doha.

To read Professor Khallouk’s complete article, go to  http://boston.forward.com/articles/187449/can-sworn-enemies-ever-become-friends/#ixzz3fGMBw3Yy

Baccalaureate: Not Your Average Graduation Ceremony

My youngest recently graduated from Tufts University, marking a rite de passage and the turning of a page for both us. The day before Commencement, we attended his Baccalaureate Service. In the sea of caps and gowns, he was nearly indistinguishable from his 1,250 colleagues. In the audience, among the dewy-eyed adults, so was I. It was hard work to catch each other’s eye as the processional sped past. This was not a personal, private setting to mark a journey from one stage of life to the next. This was the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center, and it was overflowing at its seams.

Yet, unlike the Commencement ceremony the next day, the Baccalaureate Service somehow spun a magic web that connected every individual in the building to each other. Despite the cavernous, detached environment, the substance of the service touched me in a way that was unexpectedly intimate, spiritual and bonding. This was no small feat for an arcane Christian tradition from medieval times.

The original purpose of the Baccalaureate was literally to honor graduates with “laurels of oration” as they cross the threshold into their lives beyond their college years. The ceremony, a religious graduation custom that originated in 1432 at the University of Oxford, was a religious service of worship in celebration of, and thanksgiving for, lives dedicated to learning and wisdom.

At Tufts, the Baccalaureate was coordinated by the University Chaplaincy and the Interfaith Student Council. It marked the last time for the senior class to be alone together as a class. As a parent focused on trying to figure out where 21 years went, it was a helpful reminder that this day was bittersweet for my son too.

It was also a multi-faith celebration that spotlighted the students’ (and their parents’) shared heritage of diversity and common values of learning, service and teamwork. The program emphasized prayer, meditation and contemplation. And live music: jazz, a traditional Gaelic song and a traditional African American spiritual.

Even the brochure felt more like a global prayer book than a graduation agenda. Instead of pages listing individual winners of competitive awards and prizes, the program was chockfull of readings and blessings. The title page pictured the 15 religious and philosophical symbols of the traditions practiced by the Tufts community.

Five “Lessons of Inspiration” illustrated the different ways students from 37 nations and 47 states acknowledged what is sacred to them. The selections came from Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Humanist sacred texts. Reading the English translations, it was impossible not to admit and admire their similarities.

Hearing the Upanishad (Sanskrit), the Bible (Hebrew) and the Qu’an (Arabic) in their original tongues was even richer. The languages “felt” holy, both melodious and hymnal. Each prayer spoke of peace, the beauty of life and the dignity of endurance. It was a powerful reminder that, while we are a diverse people that honor and take fierce pride in our separate identities, we are also members of a common community that embraces, rather than fears, those differences.

Anthropologists define rite de passage as marking the passage of a person through the life cycle, from one stage to another over time. What a persuasive and nurturing capstone the Baccalaureate was for these fledgling adults. And for their parents, too.

Celebrating the Miracle of Israel

The emergence of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust is no less miraculous than the parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus.


Starting today, we celebrate a week of holidays that, like Passover, afford an opportunity to reflect, remember and reconnect to our Judaism. They also link that Judaism to the land of Israel. With Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers) and Yom Haatzmaut (Israel Independence Day), we commemorate how and why Israel came to be, and recommit to ensuring the survival of our homeland.

Yom Hashoah (April 16) reminds us that people are capable of unimaginable evil and cruelty. The lessons of the Holocaust and the dangers of passivity are unfortunately still relevant today. A global wave of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment has spilled over into dangerous acts of violence and intimidation against Jews. Life in the Diaspora remains difficult for Jews. What is different today is that we now have a safety net and its name is Israel.

Yom Hazikaron (April 22) acknowledges and laments the many who died to create and maintain the Jewish state. In Israel, where military conscription is mandatory, many families have suffered losses. For them, the holiday is neither abstract nor remote. They have paid, and continue to pay, the price to keep Israel free so that the world’s Jews have a place they can call home.

Yom Haatzmaut (April 23) commemorates the birth of Israel, the one place that unconditionally welcomes all Jews. On this day, we rejoice that we survived as a people and remember those who sacrificed and perished on our behalf. We forget the contemporary political and religious differences of opinion that may divide us and collectively marvel at the week’s journey from Holocaust to sacrifice to homeland.

What will we take away from this week? Perhaps a sense of responsibility and duty to safeguard Israel’s existence will inspire us to take action to contribute to her legacy. Perhaps awareness that we are all survivors will rekindle an image of a global Jewish family that can cherish Israel’s existence while acknowledging her faults. At the very least, we are reminded that Israel’s existence is nothing less than a miracle that should never be taken for granted.

Last week we ended our Seders with the words, “next year in Jerusalem.” This week we give thanks that, for us, that is a real option.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on April 16, 2015.

It’s a Good Friday for a Seder

Passover and Easter are highly charged religious holidays. This year, the first Seder falls on Good Friday and it’s a perfect opportunity to reflect on some surprising similarities between the Jewish and Christian springtime commemorations.


Both memorialize important historical events central to the identity and belief systems of Judaism and Christianity. For Jews, the Passover tradition is a powerful link that defines us and binds us as a people to each other and to God. We share the retelling of our Exodus from bondage in Egypt when God promised to save us and we were delivered from slavery to freedom. For Christians, the week of important historical events leading to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection is the backbone of their narrative as a people. Both stories are full of pain; both stories transform that pain into salvation.

Like Passover, Easter centers on the family and food. The Seder and Easter dinner are sacred times for families to gather, share a meal and renew their connection to their heritage through ceremony. Both holidays transform bread into ritual symbols. We eat unleavened bread, or matzah, to remember our ancestors who fled so quickly they did not have time to let their bread rise. Matzah is both the bread of our affliction and the sustenance of our freedom. For Christians, too, bread is both sacrament and sacrifice in the form of the Holy Eucharist, a wafer that represents Christ’s body.

Finally, both holidays acknowledge reverence for springtime, the season of renewal and rebirth. The egg, symbol of fertility and new life, plays a prominent role at the Seder as we dip a hardboiled egg in salt water to symbolize both new life and sacrifice. After the meatless (and eggless) Lenten fast, eggs became a staple of the Easter meal to celebrate the end of the privation of Lent. Today, dyeing Easter eggs celebrates rebirth through rededication of faith.

While we are certainly aware of the stark religious differences between Jews and Christians that Easter crystallizes, perhaps this year when we sit down to our Seder on Good Friday, maybe even as an interfaith family, we might focus as well on the commonalities that transcend those distinctions. We all cherish freedom, we all love God and, especially this year, we all revere spring.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on April 2, 2015.

Too Many Unanswered Questions in Marblehead

The Jewish and Catholic communities of Marblehead dodged a bullet at the March 19 School Committee meeting. The Marblehead School Committee did not fare as well.


The state mandates 180 days of school, and teacher contracts dictate that school end by June 30. Traditionally, a calendar that plans for five snow days satisfies these terms.

This February, after a sixth snow day, the School Committee decided to revisit the 2015-2016 calendar it had just approved at its January meeting. Its goal was to trim days off to create a bigger cushion in case next winter turns out to be as harsh as this year’s.

The Superintendent emailed a survey to parents to find out if certain days off really “mattered” to them. The only days the School Committee put on the potential chopping block were the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday.

When the committee posted the March 19 meeting agenda, it included discussion about the 2015-2016 calendar, presumably based on the results of the survey. After 150 people showed up to express their dismay and displeasure, the School Committee apologized and took no action, leaving both the High Holidays and Good Friday intact as days off by default.

Not only does this end not justify the means the committee used to gather its data, but there also remain too many unanswered questions.

Who drafted the survey and who approved it?

Why were Jewish and Catholic holidays the only days off considered?

Why wasn’t consolidation of February and April vacations an option?

Why wasn’t the Friday before Labor Day an option?

Why were all restrictions on the calendar that are based on teacher collective bargaining contracts not listed and addressed?

Why was a longer school day or shorter summer vacation not an option?

Most importantly, what might have happened had the Jewish community not rallied and showed up in force to protest?

The School Committee members apologized for the survey’s poor drafting and stated that their intent was not malicious and their action not based on religion. We want to believe them.

We hope they will prove that by reopening the calendar discussion and putting everything on the table, including February and April vacations (despite the inconvenience some student athletes might suffer) and that last Friday before Labor Day (when Marblehead Harbor is a sea of sailboats). Until that happens, the only real result of the March 19 meeting is the bad taste left in everyone’s mouth.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on March 26, 2015.

Civil Discourse Needed About an Uncivil Matter

The upcoming nationwide general release of “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Ansalem” (see review on page 14), a 2014 niche film festival movie about an Israeli woman trying to get a divorce (“gett”), has shone a spotlight on the division between religious and civil law in Israel when it comes to domestic issues. We think this attention is positive for many reasons.

Facts always aid discourse. The film illustrates how the Israeli legal system separates marital status issues (i.e. whether one is legally married or divorced) from the rest of civil law for Jews. Special religious courts, under the control of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, have exclusive jurisdiction. Civil family courts exist for non-Jewish citizens and to handle other domestic matters, such as alimony and property division.

These religious courts use biblical law (“halacha”) as guidelines. Under this law, divorce cannot happen without the husband’s consent. The rabbinic judges have very narrow conditions under which they can impose a divorce against the husband’s will. All conditions hinge upon the wife’s ability to prove fault on the part of her husband. Many Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, Brunei, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) also impose religious domestic law on their citizens. These laws, or Sharia, are based on the Koran, the Islamic bible. Civil domestic law does not exist.

In the United States, by contrast, all marrying couples must file a document with a civil court to be considered married, even if they have chosen, in addition, to have a religious ceremony. Since 2010, every state is a “no fault” divorce state, meaning that “irreconcilable differences” are adequate grounds for dissolution and that a judge can grant a divorce even if one party does not agree.

This fundamental right does not exist in Israel, where Jewish couples cannot choose whether they want a secular or religious marriage or divorce, and therein lies the core of the matter, both for the couple and for Israel’s global image as a true democracy.

While Israel rightly prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East, it more closely resembles its Arab neighbors than the United States when it comes to imposing religious law on its Jewish citizens.

It is time to have a civil conversation about the uncivil way Israel treats marriage and divorce.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on March 12, 2015.

In Praise of Active Listening

We have grown used to the fact that there are many opinions in America about Israel’s actions, both from within our community and without. The settlements, possible peace negotiations and the country’s upcoming elections are a few hot button topics. Whether Israel’s future should be as a one- or two-state entity is a hotter one still.


These are complex political issues that deserve enthusiastic debate. All sides have a right to state their points of view, to argue, to express disagreement, to give reasons, to provide evidence and ultimately to try to persuade. Few disputes are black and white; it is the fleshing out of the gray area that is at the heart of our democratic freedom of speech.

All sides also have the obligation to listen to the other’s point of view. It is as important to understand why people hold different opinions as it is to hear them. After all, how can we truly grasp the issues and discuss them in a constructive and civil manner if we do not expose ourselves to thoughtful people with whom we disagree?

No side, however, has a right to vilify, belittle or marginalize the other. When Jews turn against Jews under the guise of the “pro-Israel/anti-Israel” litmus test, we do to ourselves what we would not let others do to us. We become a people divided.

That division is exacerbated when we add American politics into the mix. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak to the U.S. Republican-majority Congress at Speaker Boehner’s invitation has created yet another opportunity for Jews to draw lines of separation. The media is rife with strident pieces equating Republicans with pro-Israelis and Democrats with anti-Israelis. These impassioned attacks leave no room for reasoned and reasonable discussion.

With media available in so many formats, it has never been easier to access information. While we may gravitate towards sources that philosophically agree with us, it behooves us to broaden our horizons and listen to people on all sides of the political spectrum. Not only does this bolster our own arguments, it also trains us in the crucial skill of active listening.

Rather than listening in order to react and argue back, the active listener makes a conscious effort to hear and understand what people are saying. A communication skill that can be learned and must be practiced, active listening is a key component to civil discourse and productive conversation.

We have deliberately offered two opposite opinions about Netanyahu’s March 3 visit on the facing page. We invite you to open your mind, open your ears, actively listen and then let us know what you think.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 26, 2015

Every Month Should Be Inclusion Month

There is nothing inherently Jewish nor unique about disabilities. Nor is February a month when inclusion is more important than any other month. Nonetheless, setting aside a specific time each year to draw awareness to those who live with all kinds of challenges has a fundamental place in Judaism.


Started by a cadre of Jewish special education colleagues who promoted inclusion of people with disabilities in Jewish life, Jewish Disabilities Month is observed nationally.

Some of our greatest Torah figures lived with disabilities. Isaac was blind. Jacob was lame, and Moses had such a severe speaking impediment that he argued with God about whether he was the right choice to lead the Israelites.

Despite, or perhaps because of, their limitations, these leaders rose above their physical restrictions and achieved their great goals for the Jewish people. Imagine if they had been excluded from their communities because they were considered “disabled.”

Twenty-first century Jewish individuals with disabilities and their families are often not as fortunate as our Biblical heroes. Many describe feeling left out of their Jewish communities, where pejorative attitudes and inadequate physical accommodations still exist. Some describe uncomfortable situations where they end up leaving a synagogue service after their children behaved in a way deemed unacceptable.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, inclusion is “the act or practice of including students with disabilities in regular classes” so that each student has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

Jewish inclusion, by extension, may mean removing barriers that contribute to others feeling isolated, unwelcome and unaccepted. After all, who among us (especially as we age) doesn’t have a “disability” of some sort? How many of us wear glasses, walk with assistance or hear with the help of a device?

Our Torah commands, “You shall not insult the deaf, nor place a stumbling block before the blind.” (Leviticus 19:14). Jewish tradition also teaches us that tikkun olam (repair the world) is one of our greatest virtues and most important duties.

Removing stumbling blocks that keep some from participating in a full Jewish life is a good place to start. Our Jewish community should strive to prevent anyone from feeling separated or left out. Jewish Disabilities Month offers the platform to do so.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on February 12, 2015.