Friday, December 23, 2011

Final for Reel Theology class: The Hunger Games!

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, published in 2008, is the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy.  With more than 7.5 million copies of The Hunger Games in print and having spent more than 160 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list, The Hunger Games is arguably one of the most popular books in the genre of young adult science fiction today.[1]  The popularity of the book is reason enough for those of us in positions of leadership, particularly youth leadership, to consider its messages and the questions it leaves the reader pondering.  As a leader in the Reform Jewish community, I believe it is my responsibility to help my community find meaning in popular culture and explore why any particular text, Jewish or secular, speaks to us.  As modern Jews, we not only engage with popular culture, but also think seriously and critically about how the themes and messages of our popular culture align, or come in conflict with, our Jewish identity, values, texts, and traditions.  The themes and messages of The Hunger Games are relevant to a number of themes and messages found in the vast canon of Jewish literature.  An exploration of the cross-section of these themes provides a particularly rich opportunity for a meaningful conversation that can influence the way we think about and live our lives as modern Jews.

It is important to have a grasp of the genre of young adult fiction in order to discover and find meaning in the major themes of this work.   According to James Blasingame, one characteristic of young adult fiction is: “characters and issues young readers can identify with; those issues and characters are treated in a way that does not invalidate, minimize, or devalue them.”[2]  He goes on to say that reading about issues that adolescents can relate to can help them validate their own experience and find meaning in that experience.  I believe that this is not only true for adolescents, but for many adults as well.  We search for ways to identify with characters and issues and search for ways to validate our own experiences through the lens of an outside text.  In this sense, The Hunger Games is a prime example of a text that takes what at first might seem to be completely foreign (and horrifically unimaginable) experiences and finds a way to make them real and relevant through language and emotion.  The themes become that much more powerful because of the inherent desire to reject the possibility that we might ever find ourselves in the shoes of the heroine, or any other character.  And yet, this inherent desire to push away is precisely what draws the reader in and enables us to discover connections to our own lives. 

A number of themes arise that are relevant and meaningful for the lives of adolescents today.  Despite the fact that God and religion are not mentioned in the book, many of the book’s themes have a deeply rooted theological core.  Some of these themes include the feeling that the weight of the world is on my shoulders, identity struggle and formation, friendship, love, alliances and cliques, reality television, life as a game, gap between the rich and the poor, developing a sense of ethics and determining what I live for, and what I am willing to die for.

I am choosing to focus on this last theme for a number of reasons.  First of all, elements of a number of the other themes emerge as integral elements of this theme in different ways.  Second, I think this theme is one of the most compelling topics in Jewish tradition and one that is worth exploring not only for adolescents, but for adults as well.  Determining what we live for and what we are willing to die for also touches on issues of identity formation, love and friendship, and a concern for global ethics, and standing up for a just cause.  I’d like to first explore a number of examples from The Hunger Games that illustrate this theme, and then examine how a number of Jewish voices further the discussion.  Hopefully, this synthesis of study will lead us to a greater understanding of how and why this book is potentially transformative in the lives of young American Jews and Jewish adults. 

Katniss and Peeta, the two main characters in the book, each go through their own internal struggle trying to determine who they are, what they stand for, and why they want to survive.  Peeta is portrayed as the good-hearted character that cares deeply about preserving his sense of identity and being a good person in the face of evil.  Katniss, on the other hand, is portrayed as a fighter with inherent survival instincts, struggling to figure out her own identity.  Both clearly care, live for, and act on behalf of others, but also struggle to maintain and determine their own sense of self.  Their identity struggles show their development in a way that is relatable and applicable any reader, but particularly adolescents who are going through a process of identity formation.  Before the games begin, Katniss and Peeta have a discussion on the roof where Peeta confides in her about his biggest fear entering the Games.  He says,

“I want to die as myself.  Does that make sense?” he asks.  I shake my head.  How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”[3]

This passage shows the fear that so many of us have about losing a sense of who we are in a new environment.  This is a situation where Peeta knows that his character is going to be tested and that he is going to be forced to do things that don’t reflect who he understands himself to be.  We all face situations that test our character, especially as adolescents. Though our tests are not as drastic as his, they are still tests and we often wonder how we will act. As readers, we identity with Peeta because we want to be like him; we want to be somebody who is seen as having a strong moral standard in the face of adversity.

At the same time, however, we are also drawn to Katniss.  In this passage, the idea of maintaining a moral standard is not on Katniss’ mind, and she doesn’t even understand how it could be on Peeta’s.  Her reaction is real.  She is thinking about surviving, not about losing her sense of self.  She doesn’t even know what her sense of self is.  While Peeta represents the character we all want to be, Katniss represents the character who we really are.  Katniss’ major identity struggle comes during the Games, when she realizes she actually has a chance of surviving.  She discovers that up until this point, her entire life centered on the act of surviving and begins to question who she is, besides a survivor.  She says,

“What would my life be like on a daily basis? Most of it has been consumed with the acquisition of food.  Take that away and I’m not really sure who I am, what my identity is.  The idea scares me some.”[4] 

This is a very real moment for Katniss, who suddenly realizes that there might be more to her life than the daily acquisition of food and struggle to stay alive.  This moment is so powerful because so many of us can relate to this sudden and terrifying feeling of wondering, who am I?  When we change schools, stop playing a sport, go to college, quit a job, or end a relationship, we ask ourselves these same questions.  Who am I, if not _________?

Katniss’ internal monologue that follows this passage serves as a beautiful transition to the other aspect of this theme: what, or whom do I live for that I am willing to die for?  Katniss answers her own question by insisting that the one thing she has to live for is her relationships.  For both Katniss and Peeta, relationships are the one thing that keeps them going through the traumas and terrors they face in the Arena.  At times, the power of these relationships is powerful and present in their minds as they act and at other times it serves as a subtle, if not subconscious power that keeps them going.  In addition to being motivated by intimate relationships, Katniss and Peeta both have a strong sense of living for and being willing to die for the greater good of others.  They are both committed to a sense of justice and making things right in a world that is filled with so much wrong.  Two of the most powerful passages in the book show Katniss’ willingness to sacrifice herself both for the power of relationships and also for a greater sense of global justice. 

The first passage is the scene of Rue’s death.  In this scene, all of Katniss’ actions are selfless and defy the logic of a person who only cared about their own personal survival.   Katniss puts herself at risk, both in the arena, and in front of the entire nation, by comforting Rue in her death and mourning her as an act of rebellion against the Capitol.  Katniss employs two modes of culture, singing and art, which are normally absent from day-to-day life in the districts, as a way of expressing both love and justice.  Katniss reflects,

“I can’t stop looking at Rue, smaller than ever, a baby animal curled up in a nest of netting. I can’t bring myself to leave her like this.  Past harm, but seemingly utterly defenseless.  To hate the boy from District 1, who appears so vulnerable in death, seems inadequate.  It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us… I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own.  That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”[5] 

This passage is an expression of true love and a true sense of justice.  At this time, Katniss doesn’t care about herself or her own survival, she cares about honoring a person she loved and also fighting and standing up to the injustice of the Capitol.

The second passage comes at the end of the story, where Katniss and Peeta are willing to make the ultimate self-sacrifice for the sake of love and justice.  Even though one could argue that Katniss was motivated by survival, assuming that the Capitol would not let them go through with the suicide, she was also willing to commit.  She knew that she could not survive if it meant killing Peeta and was willing to take this risk, even if it meant her own death.  Additionally, the thought of this ultimate revenge against the Capitol was enough to motivate Katniss to do whatever it took to again show them that she is more than a piece in their Games. 

We relate to both of these expressions of love and the pursuit of justice on so many levels.  Katniss’ relationship with and feelings toward Rue remind us of our own feelings toward the vulnerable, the sick, and the needy in our midst.  Katniss was originally attracted to Rue because she reminded her of her little sister Prim, somebody who she felt she needed to protect and take care of.  This instinct to care for and protect others is the root of Katniss’ love and something that we can all relate to, whether we feel this way toward a child, younger sibling, friend or neighbor. 

Though we pray that we will never be in a situation like Katniss and Peeta, we also know that there are things in our lives that we would be unwilling to do, even if it meant our own death.  For Katniss and Peeta, that meant surviving while the other person died for us.  It also meant giving in to the Capitol and sacrificing their identity and their sense of ethics in order to survive another day.  For us, this passage is so powerful because it forces us to reflect on what those things are in our lives.  Are they a loved one? A cause we believe in? Both? We know there are times in our lives when we act because of these relationships, or because of these causes, regardless of if we are conscious of it or not.  These moments are indeed moments of transformation, teaching us what we care most about, what we live for, and what we are willing to die for. 

Though many Jewish texts discuss these themes, there are two contemporary Jewish thinkers that truly transform the conversation, Primo Levi and Martin Buber.  Primo Levi writes about issues relating to survival in his book, Survival in Auschwitz, and Martin Buber writes about the power of being in relationships in his book, I and Thou.  An examination of each of these texts can further our discussion of these themes in a Jewish context. 

Primo Levi’s book Survival in Auschwitz could be read as a non-fictional companion to The Hunger Games.  His accounts of suffering, hunger, and a determination to survive are horrifying and inspiring, elevated all the more so given the fact that his story is real and but only one account of millions like his.  Unfortunately, there are many parallels between the setting and plot of the fictional story The Hunger Games and the Holocaust.  Nazi ideology mirrors the evil of the Capitol and the experiences the teenagers face in the arena are chillingly similar to life in the camps.  It is interesting to think about these connections and what it means to be reading a book like this at this time in history.  For young adults today, the Holocaust is part of history.  The number of survivors still alive is getting smaller each year and though young people learn about the Holocaust, there is not a strong personal connection or feeling of immediacy.  The Jewish world today looks different because of the Holocaust, and not just because of how many Jews were lost.  The response of the Jewish community to the Holocaust has changed what it means to be a Jew in the world. 

The same can be said for Katniss and her generation in relation to the rebellion that remains the sole reason behind the Games.  Their generation is directly experiencing the result of something that happened 75 years ago (almost the same exact number of years since the Holocaust).  They have no personal connection to the rebellion, but feel its significance in their lives every day.  Obviously, there are drastic differences between the way the Jewish community and the greater world have responded to the Holocaust, and the way the Capitol responded to the rebellion.  That being said, the impact is still great, especially amongst the younger generations.  Many Jewish adolescents today are extremely interested in learning and reading about the Holocaust, and Jewish educators have spent countless hours developing appropriate curriculum for this age group.   It is interesting to think about how one might include The Hunger Games in any number of discussions about the Holocaust and possibly even consider it part of the genre of post-Holocaust theology.

Primo Levi does a beautiful job of addressing this difficult topic of what I live and die for in Survival in Auschwitz.  Through his narrative, Levi addresses and expands the notion of what it means to survive. He talks about survival on every level that one can imagine.  He provides an account of the harsh reality of what it meant to literally survive in the worst imaginable conditions.  He talks about the brutal realities of what it takes to physically survive hunger, exhaustion, cold, illness, work, and the randomness of unwarranted persecution.   He also, however, talks about what it takes to survive emotionally and spiritually.  He discusses the human elements of survival in this setting and what it brings out in a person’s character.  His presentation suggests that one can only survive on physical instinct for so long and that ultimately, we all need some type of meaning in our lives in order to survive a reality like Auschwitz.  We need something that we are willing to live for and something we are willing to die for.  For Primo Levi, this was a civilian named Lorenzo, who helped him survive physically and spiritually.  Lorenzo, like many others, provided Levi with food and clothing, without which he might not have been able to physically survive.  In this way, Lorenzo served a similar role as the donors, who provided Katniss and the other tributes with medicine, food, or whatever they needed to survive.  Unlike the donors, however, Lorenzo was also Levi’s spiritual hope; he was the reason why Levi decided life was worth living.  Levi writes,

“I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror, something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”[6]

Levi, we learn, lives for the possibility that there is still good in the world.  As long as he sees this example of pure, uncorrupt goodness, he is willing to commit his spiritual being to the act of survival.  The same is true for Peeta and Katniss in The Hunger Games. If survival in The Hunger Games were merely a matter of overcoming hunger and physical challenges, nobody would care about the book because that type of survival is not only barbaric, but it is also unrealistic. We learn that there is so much more to survival than acquiring food and shelter; there is a human element, an emotional and spiritual element that we all need in order to survive, regardless of our physical realities.  Primo Levi is here to tell his story because he was lucky enough to not only overcome the physical challenges, but because he was able to acquire the spiritual capacity to want to live.  We are drawn to Katniss and Peeta because they too embody the spiritual and emotional elements of survival that enable us to connect to them and root for them to survive. 

Martin Buber offers another Jewish perspective on the theme of what we live for and what we are willing to die for.   Buber has had a tremendous influence on modern Jewish thought and a number of his works are treasured both in and outside of the Jewish world.  He has been particularly influential in the area of religious existentialism, which addresses this theme from a broader perspective.  Where Levi addressed what it means for an individual to live when surrounded by death, Buber addresses what it means to live, or exist, in normal times.  As we explore his thoughts and how they relate to The Hunger Games, we must also keep in mind that Martin Buber was alive during the Holocaust and wrote I and Thou after the Holocaust in 1958.  His thinking, like others’ writing at the time, was informed by the Holocaust, even if he doesn’t always explicitly mention it in this particular work.  We know that Buber’s notion of evil and of God changed dramatically after the Holocaust.  Dr Eugene Borowitz tells us, “The unbearable evil of the Holocaust forced Buber to the tragic recognition that God sometimes, somehow withdraws from humankind.”[7] This will become important later, as we reflect on whether God does, or can exist in a scenario like The Hunger Games.

In his book I and Thou, Buber suggests that we exist in this world, and with those around us in two different ways: I-It and I-Thou.  The first, I-It, represents the primary way in which we act in this world.  It involves all of the moments where we think about, analyze, and reflect on the people, things and ideas that surround us.  I-It is an important and inescapable way to be in this world, but it is not the mode of being that enables us to achieve true meaning.  Meaning can only arise through an I-Thou encounter.  Buber describes I-Thou as an encounter that occurs by being in relation to another being.  The moment a person thinks about, or reflects on the encounter, it returns to the realm of I-It.  According to Buber, there are three realms through which the world of relation arises: life with nature, life with other humans, and life with spiritual beings.[8]  An encounter with God occurs in each of these realms so that every time I stand in relation to another human being in the I-Thou, I also stand in relation to God. 

Life in The Hunger Games, like most of life in general, exists primarily in the I-It.  It is interesting, however, to reflect on the possibility that there were a number of I-Thou encounters throughout the book.  This is interesting in that it suggests that meaning, and therefore God, can in fact be present outside the realm of normal life. I want to examine whether the final encounter that Katniss and Peeta have at the end of the arena was an I-Thou encounter. If so, Katniss and Peeta survived due to the fact that they stood in relation to one another at the most critical of times. First, let’s look at the scene:

My fingers fumble with the pouch on my belt, freeing it.  Peeta sees it and his hand clamps on my wrist. “No, I won’t let you.”
“Trust me,” I whisper.  He holds my gaze for a long moment then lets me go.  I loosen the top of the pouch and pour a few spoonfuls of berries into his palm.  Then I fill my own. “On the count of three?”
Peeta leans down and kisses me once, very gently. “The count of three,” he says.[9]

The moment when Katniss and Peeta gaze into each other’s eyes, communicating without words, but only through a knowing of one to the other, is what I think Martin Buber would consider an I-Thou encounter.  One could argue that Katniss was preoccupied with the scheme she developed moments ago to trick the Capitol and thus wasn’t truly present.  I believe, however, that in this moment Katniss knew she had to give her complete self to Peeta. The encounter had to be real, or it wouldn’t have been effective.  She couldn’t fake anything in this moment because Peeta would have seen through this and would have never been able to commit himself fully to what they were about to do.  It took them both being present with one another, knowing the other without the need for words, explanations or thoughts.  This encounter is truly an I-Thou encounter.

What is most interesting about this encounter is that it suggests that God can in fact be present in the direst of conditions.  If an I-Thou encounter can occur in a scenario where children are being forced to kill one another, can it not occur in any moment?  We must also ask what this means for us today as we try to cultivate moments of meaning in our lives.  Though we can contemplate and discuss what we might do if we were Katniss or Peeta, the exercise is ultimately useless.  They were only able to stand in relation to one another because of the particular experiences they had together and because of the evolution of their relationship with one another.  Instead of putting ourselves in their shoes, we should think about the relationships we are building in our own lives.  Who are the people we care about and who are the people who care about us?  What types of moments do we have together, how do we communicate and what can we do to make ourselves fully present each time we meet?

I believe that it is these types of thoughts and discussions that will enable us to find meaning as a result of reading this important book.  The stories and lessons are interesting to discuss and debate in and of themselves, but these discussions will ultimately leave us still in search of meaning.  I believe that The Hunger Games offers us an opportunity to start to figure out what it is we live for, and what it is we are willing to die for.  This is why this book is so compelling for those who read it.  It is more than a fun and quick read, but an opportunity to transform our lives and fill them with meaning.  I hope that those who read The Hunger Games will take this next step and engage in these important discussions with themselves and with their communities.  Hopefully, the wisdom of the Jewish tradition will serve as a guide and enable each of us to grow and contribute to the conversation.   

[3] Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  Scholastic Press. 2008.  Page 141.
[4] Ibid.  Pages 310-311.
[5] Ibid. Pages 236-237.
[6] Levi, Primo.  Survival in Auschwitz.  Touchstone.  New York.  1958.  Page 121. 
[7] Borowitz, Eugene.  Choices in Modern Jewish Thought.  Behrman House, Inc.  West Orange, New Jersey.  1983, 1995.  Page 155. 
[8] Buber, Martin.  I and Thou.  Touchstone.  New York.  1970.  Pages 56-57.
[9] Collins, Suzanne.  The Hunger Games.  Scholastic Press. 2008. Page 344.

Final for Social Responsibility class: Sermon on Education Reform

The start of any new year, Jewish or secular, asks us to think about where we have been and where we are going.  The secular practice of setting new year’s resolutions, a seemingly worthwhile activity, is not in fact a Jewish practice.  A resolution, or statement of intent, sounds similar to making a vow.  As we know from Kol Nidrei, vows are not only discouraged in Jewish tradition, but also strictly forbidden.  The Kol Nidrei prayer annuls us of any vows we might inadvertently make, or be forced to make, in the year to come.  The question is why? Why are vows, even vows with positive outcomes, discouraged?  Jewish tradition teaches that one should not make a vow in God’s name because there is always a possibility that we will not be able to keep the vow.  We cannot predict what the future will bring and any number of outside factors can easily thwart even what seems like the simplest vow.  Judaism is not a religion of outcomes.  We strive to be better people in the world and we learn and teach in order to prepare ourselves for whatever might come our way.  Instead of setting specific goals and working toward particular outcomes, we seek to constantly push ourselves to grow from the experiences and knowledge we have gained.  We strive to change norms and work toward a more just society, but do so knowing that change can take many forms.  More importantly, we know that our work is never done.

Our synagogue community embraces these values on a number of levels, particularly in the realm of education. We are proud that our educational philosophy in this congregation asserts that b’nai mitzvah is not an end to a young person’s education, but one milestone in a larger process of learning.  We work hard to ensure that our religious school curriculum does not focus on preparing students for bar mitzvah, as if it were a culminating exam or performance.  Instead, our curriculum enables students to discover how Judaism is relevant to their lives today.  We push our students to think critically about the role of Torah in their lives and discover for themselves what it means to be Jewish in the world today.  B’nai Mitzvah is only one milestone along the journey, an affirmation of our students’ commitment to continued learning.

These values of discovery, exploration and integration as an educational model must not stop when our students step outside our synagogue walls.  As American Jews, we have a responsibility, not only to educate our youth in Jewish tradition, but also to support and shape the education they receive in the public sphere.  The Jewish community in America has supported public schools since we arrived in this country.  According to historian Stephen Brumberg, Jews were among those most dedicated to public education in New York City in the 1880s and 1890s.  At this time, the Jewish community saw public education as an opportunity to assimilate in society at large so as not to remain segregated from their larger community.[1]  The Jewish immigrant community carried a thirst for knowledge with them from the old country.  In America this thirst for knowledge extended beyond the realm of Torah so that the Jewish community came to see public education as an opportunity for success in America.[2]

Today, our commitment to education remains at the forefront of our Jewish values, not only for the sake of our own success in America, but for the greater good of American society as a whole.  We, as a Jewish community, have a responsibility to support our public education system, regardless of whether our own children are currently enrolled in the system.  The success, or failure, of the public school system directly impacts every other aspect of our lives as Americans.  Not only the knowledge, but also the values that our children take away from their time in school impact and influence the way they function in society.  It is up to us to ensure that the values of this system reflect our own values.

We all know that the current system is stressed and broken in many ways that demand our attention.  One particular stress of the system has to do with the elevation and reliance on test scores as the sole way to assess students, teachers, and schools in general.  Test scores are becoming the single determining factor not only for policy changes within schools, but also for students as they graduate from high school.  A student who scores poorly on a placement test in 8th grade may never have a chance of working his way back toward a path where he will be accepted into a good school, regardless of his skills in other areas, or his capacity to learn.  We judge our teachers by the same criteria, suggesting that teachers serve one purpose: to increase their students’ test scores. 

A recent article in New York Magazine discussed a new principal’s determination to focus primarily on test scores at an elite public school.  Bronx Science, one of three elite public high schools in New York City has always been known for the high profile resumes of its teachers.  These teachers have multiple degrees from various fields and embody the teaching philosophy in which the school was founded by putting student inquiry and discovery at the forefront of teaching.   In 2001, a new principal entered the school who felt that test scores were not high enough for a school of this stature.  She decided to make testing her top priority.  Teachers who did not embrace this philosophy were given unsatisfactory ratings and replaced to the point where in 2010, 25% of teachers had less than three years of experience.  Though test scores have improved since the new principle arrived, the school’s national rating has dropped from 20 to 58 and many of the teachers who left Bronx Science are now teaching at Stuyvesant, the number one public high school in New York City.  There is a great deal of controversy amongst teachers and families associated with the school.  This article shows how the top schools are setting a standard that says testing is the only thing that matters. This is not only unachievable, but it sets an unrealistic standard for the vast majority of struggling schools working with disadvantaged youth.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if it is worth it.  Is this method successful in promoting real learning in any school, elite or struggling? Do test scores really assess teaching and learning? 

A recent article in the Washington Post shares the story of Marion Brady, a school board member who decided to take the 10th grade standardized test.  This man is not only educated, but also incredibly successful as an adult in the real world.  His reaction to the test reflects what educators have been saying for years about the fact that these tests do not assess or promote real-life learning.  He says,

“I won’t beat around the bush, The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%. In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.  He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate. I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities. I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession…  …A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took. If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had. It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning.”[3]

Brady describes what the field of Jewish education embraces and is working hard to enact: life is not about working toward a test, it is about growing and developing skills that will enable you to function in the real world in a meaningful way.  Not only do these tests fail to educate our students how to function in the real world in a meaningful way, they place emotional burdens on students who perform poorly at a very young age.  As Brady says, many students never recover from the stress of being told that you are not good enough.  Not only do the tests fail to educate, they turn young people away from the potential value of education in general.  On top of this, teachers and principals are stuck in a system that forces them to teach to the test and judges their ability to educate according to the ability of their students to score highly on tests that are irrelevant to their lives.  

So, why should we care?  Not only does the current system threaten the potential growth of our country as a whole, it also undermines our Jewish values in regards to the field of education.  It is difficult, if not impossible for us in the Jewish community to convince our students that their religious education is not a preparation for B’nai Mitzvah if this is the only the framework in which they operate during the day.  How can we expect them to understand that Jewish education is not about the test, if this is what education means to them in every other aspect of their life?  If we want to make a change in the norm in our own community, we must seek change in the broader community as well.

At the end of his reflection on the standardized test, Marion Brady offers an opportunity for us to enact change.  He describes how a number of principals in New York are starting to rebel against a system that places too much emphasis on student test scores as a form of evaluation for teachers and principals.[4]  We have a responsibility to support our teachers and our principals in this effort.  The first step is to educate ourselves on the policies and positions of our local community and make our voice heard when we vote for members of our school boards and public officials. 

I want to take this opportunity to invite you all to join us for an event with the principal of the local high school in our community.  At this session we will learn about the issues facing our local school and discuss different ways in which our community can get involved to create change both at the local high school and in the education that occurs in our own synagogue.  Please speak to me if you would like to be involved in the planning of this important program. 

As we each go off and celebrate the arrival of this secular New Year, let us put our efforts not toward an unrealistic resolution, but toward work that furthers our own potential for growth, as well as the potential for growth that we see in the young people of our communities.   

[1] Stephen Bromberg.  ‘Going To America, Going to School: The Immigrant-Public School Encounter In Turn-Of-The-Century New York City.  Page 96.
[2] ibid. Page 97.
[3] Valerie Strauss.  ‘When an Adult took Standardized Tests Forced on Kids. December 5th, 2011.
[4] Valerie Strauss.  ‘Principals Rebel Against Value-Added Evaluation. November 3, 2011  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Senior Sermon ~ Parashat Noach

Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't belong to a synagogue?
Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't care about Israel?
Can I be a Reform Jew if I don't support same sex marriage? 
What does the Reform Movement stand for? 

These are some of the questions that are emerging in conversations about Reform Judaism and the Reform movement.  Leaders of our institutions and members of our congregations are asking: What are we building towards and why? Recently, the Reform Judaism Think Tank has invited others to reflect on this question in an online forum. Here’s a small sample of the responses they received that reflects the wide diversity of opinions currently present in our movement.

(Reader 1): Reform Judaism stands for the right and privilege of the individual to make informed choices about Jewish practice and it should continue to stand for that. Reform Judaism also stands for social activism and involvement in the global community.

(Reader 2): The strength of our Movement is also its weakness.  We have serious Reform Jews within our movement, but we have just as many (even more) who define our movement as the one in which you don't have to do anything.  If you don't have to do anything, what's the point of getting involved? It's meaningless and costly.

(Reader 3): We must stand for: 1) support for Israel; 2) a "Reform Halacha" that can be counted upon as unchangeable.  Tikkun Olam is wonderful but it is not a sufficient theme for ongoing survival of Reform Judaism.  We must develop a Reform Halacha, a Reform notion of spirituality coupled with a strong belief in the Almighty.  God must not be an option.

These diverse opinions reflect a similar story to the one in this week’s parashah. Usually, we read the Tower of Babel narrative as an isolated event, unconnected to the flood story that comprises most of the parashah.  We tend to skip over the genealogy that makes up nearly all of chapter ten in the biblical text. Yet, the transition that occurs between the generation of Noah and the generation of the tower of Babel provides an important backdrop for understanding the story itself.

In addition to listing who begot whom, chapter ten describes how people lived and interacted.  The text uses three words to describe the state of the world during the transition from the generation of Noah to the generation of the tower of Babel: nifr’du, nafotzu, and nifl’gah.  Spread out, scattered, and divided. We learn that different families were nifr’du, spread out across the earth, implying a physical dispersion reaching across
a vast area of land.

We also learn that the families of Canaan were nafotzu, further scattered from the other clans. The third word in chapter ten is nifl’gah, or divided.   The text says a child was named ‘Peleg,’ describing the divided state of the earth when he was born. These three descriptions capture a sense of what happened in the years after Noah’s death. A new generation emerged that was neither united by location nor language.  They were spread out, scattered and divided.

Surprisingly then, chapter 11 begins with a declaration of unity. “Va’yahi kol ha’aretz safah echat… All the earth had the same language and the same words. As they wandered from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there.” 

These opening verses beg us to ask: What in the world happened between the end of chapter ten and the beginning of chapter eleven?How did this generation go from being spread out, scattered, and divided to speaking the same language and dwelling together in the same land?

This contradiction in the biblical text forces us to consider why these texts exist side by side.  Perhaps we can learn something about the relationship between diversity and unity, and what happens as a consequence of shifting back and forth between these two states of being.

There are a number of explanations for why the generation of the Tower of Babel suddenly became united by language and geography. A possible clue is in verse four, which states… ‘Come, let us build a city with a tower that reaches the sky, so that we can make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over all the earth.” 

This verse teaches that the people wanted to make a name for themselves and thought uniting and building was the best way to achieve this goal.  Though this might not seem like such a bad thing, the story soon states that God intervenes.  God stops the building, confuses the peoples’ language and scatters them throughout the earth.  These actions make us wonder: why didn’t God approve of the people’s determination to unite and build?

Rabbi Isaac Arama, a 15th century Spanish commentator, suggests that their sin was trying to achieve unity as an end in itself rather than as a means to a greater end.  He notes that the people could have said, “let us unite and build in order to create a shelter against the cold,” Or they could have said, “let us unite and build in order to create a house of study to serve God.”  Instead, they built for the sake of building, uniting with the hope of advancing their own name.  This teaching suggests that unification requires a worthy purpose and advancing one’s own name is not such a purpose.

Verse four also teaches that the people built to avoid being scattered across the earth. Perhaps they knew they were already scattered and feared what greater scattering could mean. Instead of asking how they might use their diversity for good, they avoided it at all costs.  In this case, the people sinned by making choices out of fear, instead of dreaming about what could be.

Our situation today is not so different than the one in the biblical text. Reform Judaism in America is somewhere between chapter ten and chapter eleven, between diversity and unity. We are certainly nifr’du, nafotzu, and nifl’gah; spread out physically and divided ideologically.  This division is reflected in conversations you hear in our congregations and also by the conversations we have in this building.  Look around you. Chances are you don’t hold the same beliefs or practices as the person sitting beside you.We are just a small representation of the many sub-groups in our movement, each one speaking a different language.

There also remains a desire for unity, both physically and ideologically.  In the physical realm, we see Reform leaders regularly coming together for retreats, conferences and conventions.  Every other year, thousands of people attend the Biennial for the purposes  of uniting as one movement and developing a shared language to spread throughout our individual communities. In addition to these gatherings, we are using technology to virtually unite people who would otherwise remain isolated due to physical limitations.

In the ideological realm, we still operate under a framework of institution-building. We built Unions.  The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, later the Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.  Today, leaders of these institutions still seek to create a shared language, a shared set of values and shared way of thinking about Judaism.

Small numbers of people are producing and distributing materials that carry significant ideological messages about where this movement stands on any given issue. Mishkan T’filah, the Chai Curriculum, Mitkadem.  Though these materials do not always succeed in uniting the greater Reform Jewish world, they reflect the ongoing effort to create a shared language. Similarly, HUC-JIR has standardized educational and experiential expectations for becoming a leader in this movement.  These requirements serve to develop leaders that will speak and share a basic unified voice. 

Given this blended state of dispersion and unity, we must ask ourselves: Do we still have a reason to unite, or are we simply building for the sake of building, uniting to make our name great, to be the biggest, the best movement of Judaism? The mission for the URJ reads: “to provide vision, leadership and programmatic support to Reform Jewish congregations and to perpetuate and advance Reform Judaism.”  The first clause in this statement serves a purpose: To provide vision, leadership and programmatic support to Reform Jewish Congregations. Though one could debate whether this purpose is worthy, it certainly is a purpose.  The second clause though, falls under the category of what Rabbi Arama would call building for the sake of building. 
“To perpetuate and advance Reform Judaism” is building to make a name for one's self. 

There is also a section on the URJ website entitled, “Advancing Reform Judaism”.  The concept “advancing Reform Judaism” stems from fear; a fear of being scattered across the earth, a fear of no longer being united.  We are scared of not having enough members to fill our pews.  We are scared of not having enough students to fill our classrooms.  We are scared of not being able to find a job when we graduate.  If we don’t unite, if we don’t advance our own name, what does that mean for us?  This question could not be more real and relevant for all of us in this room, and yet it is the wrong question.  Instead of asking how we can unite, we should ask why we must unite in the first place.

The builders of the Tower of Babel never asked this question.  Instead, they continued to build until God punished them by scattering them across the earth and confusing their words. They chose not to utilize their differences and discover a shared purpose, and were punished in the worst possible way. They could no longer communicate with one another, share ideas or dreams for the future. The possibility for uniting was destroyed because of their pursuit of fame, recognition, greatness and immortality. 

Today, as we stand at a crossroads in the evolution of Reform Judaism, we are confronted with the task of living in a balance between diversity and unity for some greater good. We are already spread out, already divided.  We are also deeply grounded in a need for unity.We are certainly afraid of being scattered. And yet, we have not yet tipped the scales too far.  We are not yet scattered and our languages are not yet confused. It is up to us to determine what course we take next.

What does the Reform Movement stand for? I believe that if the Reform Movement stands for anything, it stands for changing with the times, reforming Judaism according to the changing needs of society.  American society is moving beyond boundaries and boxes, and embracing diversity.  Identity is fluid and people are searching for meaning through the multiple frameworks that make up their lives.  Today, we do not just struggle with the tension of a dual-identity, trying to figure out how we can be both American and also Jewish.  Instead, we struggle with the tensions of tens, even hundreds of identities pulling at us simultaneously. 

I am not just an American and a Jew.  I am a Wisconsinite with a New York driver’s license.  I root for the Wisconsin Badgers and the Minnesota Gophers. I have a desire to stay at home with my children and I also have a desire to work full time as a congregational rabbi.  I am a Jew and I also celebrate Christmas with my family. I feel at home in Israel and also a bit alienated from it. This list could go on without end. 
My life is just a small reflection of what I think it means to express and yearn for meaning as a Jew in America today. 

I believe that the value of reforming Judaism today means accepting that we are moving toward a Post Denominational Jewish World.  If Reform Judaism wants to remain relevant, we need to find ways to embrace, not run away from, the diversity that makes up our congregants’ lives.  I also believe there are many worthy reasons to unite and hope that Reform Judaism will lead the way in serving a diverse population of individuals
seeking meaning through Jewish tradition.  I believe we should unite because we can learn from those who are different from us. We can share ideas, dreams, and also resources that can enhance our individual and collective Jewish experiences. 

The downfall of the generation of the Tower of Babel was that they kept building and nobody ever stopped to ask why they were building in the first place.  As we stand at the brink of our own Bavel, the brink of confusion, may we learn from their mistakes. May we find ways to celebrate our differences, to bring holiness to this strange new land of Post Denominational Judaism.  May we each stop, think, and ask: What is our purpose for uniting? What do we stand for? And as we do, let us pray that the words of our mouth and the meditations of our heart are acceptable to You, Oh Lord, our God.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Goodbye 5771, Hello 5772

It seems like everything I do in life is last minute, so why should the process of introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah be any different? My final thoughts on 5771 and best wishes for a sweet new year for all.

Blessings of 5771:

I am grateful for the many joys and simchas that filled my life in 5771. Each of these moments have helped transform me into a better person, each in their own unique way. It was truly a year of beautiful, bountiful blessings. My Top 10 of 5771, in chronological, not preferential order:

10. My First Marathon

Shortly after ringing in the new year of 5771, I strapped on my running shoes and completed my first marathon in the Hamptons. The training experience made me a lover of running. I learned that running is perhaps the most challenging, peaceful, and powerful activity I have ever engaged in. I pushed myself to my body's limits and experienced a high I have never felt before. The entire experience not only opened my eyes to a new mode of spirituality, but also  taught me the power of the mind and the body. Thinking about Twin Cities Marathon 5773...Who's in??

9. Marrying the Love of My Life

The 14 of Cheshvan was probably the most memorable and beautiful day of my life. I felt blessed to share this day with so many wonderful friends and family. I love you John, you push me to grow every day.

8. The Packers Win the Superbowl

I am not ashamed to admit that the Packers bring me joy and happiness. So many smiles from the Packers in 5771. Hoping for many more smiles in 5772!

7. Receiving My Masters of Arts in Religious Education

I was very fortunate to be part of the Mandel Fellowship this year. Not only did the Mandel Fellowship bring me to Malibu, Boston, and Israel, but also provided the funding for me to attend the school of Education at HUC-JIR. The entire year was incredible. The program helped me develop a personal and professional vision, and also taught me how to apply everything I learn in rabbinical school in the real world. I'm very grateful for this opportunity and really proud to officially be able to call myself a Jewish Educator.

6. Israel

This was my first time back in Israel since my year in Israel in 5767-5768. It was an amazing trip, personally and professionally. I felt like I really needed this trip to rejuvenate my connection to Israel and reconnect with a place that holds so much meaning to me as a Jew. The program pushed me to think about peoplehood and the role of Israel in my life as an American Jew in so many important ways. Personally, I got to experience everything again for the first time with John and also got to reunite with good friends.

5. Rome

An amazing vacation to an amazing city. Great food and great company. Italy won me over, once again. Ciao bella!

4. Tony Plush and The Milwaukee Brewers

What a year for Wisconsin sports! The last time the Brewers clinched the division was 5742. I was born in 5743, so this is a first in my lifetime, and what a first it has been!! This year, I watched more baseball than I have probably ever in my life and I can say that I loved every single minute. The Brewers are putting the fun back in baseball on and off the field. T. Plush, Braunny, Prince, the Ax Man. How can you not love this team?! So excited for 5772! GO CREW!

(This is a picture of the Brewers participating in a theme day after playing the Houston Astros.  Yee-haw!)

3. Sharing In My Friends and Families Many Simchas.

Many of my loved ones experienced simchas this year. We were lucky enough to participate in some of them in person, and experienced the joy of others in spirit. Congrats to:

Marc & Julia, Evan & Jenny, Allie & Andrew, Nate & Cemre, Simcha & Julie, Jon & Erin, Matt & Breanne, Adina & Steve, Nutan & Manoj

Your joy is my joy. I love you.

2. My jobs.

I know that I am in the minority of people who can say they love their job. And Forbes confirmed my professional happiness!   This year, I started teaching Introduction to Judaism at the URJ in addition to working as the 4th Grade Level Coordinator at Shaaray Tefila. Thanks for the opportunity to engage in meaningful and fulfilling work everyday.

1. The First 20 Weeks of Pregnancy and Finding Out About Baby Girl Crimmings

I love being pregnant. Every day is something new, in an amazing way. I love my growing belly and I love my growing appetite. Thinking about and feeling what is happening inside me is the craziest and most incredible experience. Yesterday we found out we are having a girl and we couldn't be more excited! It is hard to even put words to this blessing, other than that I pray for continued blessing in 5772.

Personal Hardships of 5771:

This year, the world lost two wonderful men, both of whom touched the lives of so many people and will truly be missed.

Scott Croegaert, my uncle.

Nathan Fishbach, my good friend's dad.

Zichrona livracha, may your memories always be for a blessing.

All my thoughts continue to be with all my other loved ones in need of healing.

Final Thoughts

What a year, wow. As I say goodbye to 5771, I can't help but imagine what the world will bring my way in 5772. Wishing all of you a happy, healthy, and sweet new year!

Shanah Tovah U'mtukah world!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Into the Settlements

This is one of my favorite t-shirts of all time. I bought it from and like to sport it in public places. Without needing to say more, I think you can imagine my feelings about spending a day touring a settlement in the West Bank. Though I have driven through the West Bank on numerous occasions (it is the quickest way to get to the Dead Sea and the south), I have never been to a settlement because it makes me feel ideologically uncomfortable on so many levels. But, if I have any hope of connecting to settlers as part of the Jewish people, part of my understanding of people, I need to try and look beyond their ideology and focus on them as people. Also, I had no choice. And so, I went, hoping to meet people, and ended up adding many new layers of complexity to my ideology.

Gush Etzion is one of the oldest and currently one of the most well-established settlements in the West Bank. It is located halfway between Jerusalem and Hebron and served as a significant military battlefield at different periods in the creation of the state of Israel. On the one hand, there is no difference between the story of Gush Etzion and almost every other Israeli city other than that Gush Etzion is over the Green Line, while others sit comfortably inside Israel’s recognized borders. Unlike many of the newer settlements, Gush Etzion holds deep significance in the modern Zionist-Israeli narrative. Today, close to 80,000 Jews live in the different villages that make up Gush Etzion. These residents have relatively peaceful and civil relations with the relatively few Palestinian villages in the vicinity. There is even a new supermarket where Jews and Palestinians work side by side and serve both populations in peace. This is a stark contrast to a settlement like Hebron, where 800 Jews live and flourish while 40,000 Palestinian residents suffer and struggle.

On the other hand, Gush Etzion is still a settlement. The population is relatively new, young, and ideologically driven. They could live in Israel, but are choosing to have nicer, newer homes, surrounded by people who are just like them. The person we met with, a reasonable and nice man, described the community as a homogenous suburb. The yeshiva we visited moved from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion a few years ago, both because the real estate was cheaper and also because they hold an ideological commitment to settle the land. According to our guide, popular consensus, even amongst more liberal leaning Jews in Israel, would include Gush Etzion as part of greater Israel, should a peace process lead to a two state solution with land swaps. So, even if a disengagement process ever happens, Gush Etzion will more than likely remain, or become, part of greater Israel.

The experience was emotionally and intellectually challenging. I learned that not all settlements are the same. Not all settlers are the same. This seems obvious, but its easy to get caught up in ideology and ignore the fact that they are real live people who have complex stories and experiences. Some of them are actually quite nice and are actually not crazy fanatics. I learned that the situation is even more complex than I already knew it was. More than anything else I learned how little I know about the situation. If I want to have a voice, I need to learn more and I need to make a point to open myself to more nice people who are willing to consider me part of their people, in the same way, I must ultimately be able to consider them part of mine.

Jewish Peoplehood?

I have more blessings in my life than I could possibly recount in one sitting. My personal and professional lives are filled with beautiful people and opportunities that consistently push me to learn and grow. In my professional life, I am particularly blessed to be part of the Mandel Fellowship, which is dedicated to developing leaders across the Jewish world. My particular fellowship is designed for rabbinical students seeking to develop a sense of vision as future rabbinic leaders through the lens of Jewish education. The fellowship explores four themes: Education as Growth, Vision, Community and Peoplehood. In order to participate in the fellowship I, along with six of my classmates, took a year off of rabbinical school to receive a Masters in Religious Education. In addition to taking courses in education at HUC, we met together for three seminars in Malibu, Boston, and now Israel. At these seminars we explore the different themes of the fellowship and how they relate to our own experiences, ideas and goals for the future. The Israel seminar serves as a culmination of our work, with a natural focus on the theme of Jewish peoplehood.

Jewish peoplehood is a spanking new concept. Though Jews have been called 'the people of Israel' since the biblical period, the concept of Jewish peoplehood originated as recently as the middle of the 20th century. In many ways, the notion of peoplehood originated out of a feeling that no other concept could accurately describe what it really is that binds Jews to one another. Despite popular opinion in America, Judaism is not a religion in the same way that Christianity is a religion. What I mean by this is that being Christian is fundamentally about belief in a particular faith. It is near impossible to call yourself Christian without some minimal commitment to faith. For many Jews, however, being Jewish has absolutely nothing to do with faith, belief, religious tradition, or God. When we start to define Judaism as only a religion (of course it is a religion!), we fail to acknowledge the multitude of legitimate expressions of Judaism. Before the notion of peoplehood came along, Judaism was described as a race, an ethnicity, a culture, a civilization and a nationality. Some of these notions were more helpful than others, and often illustrative of many individual Jewish experiences. That being said, each of these concepts fails to capture the totality of what it means to be Jewish in the world today.

Jewish peoplehood offers an alternative notion that suggests that Jews across the world (and perhaps across time) are in some way connected. The question becomes: How are Jews connected and what purpose do these connections serve? One of the goals of this seminar is to work toward developing a personal stance to these questions. The challenge and task is great and like everything Jewish, is immensely complex and filled with tension. If you are left wondering what in the world I am talking about, all I can say is that you are not alone, and with the presentation of my personal stance on peoplehood just days away, I hope to find a bit of clarity through my musings.