Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's been a Goodyear- My review of my year in running


I start off the year with a goal of 2184 miles for the year. It's my age multiplied by the weeks of the year. If I live to be 90, I'm in BIG trouble. I call it the "Year of the Trail". Whoops.


I am chosen to be a brand ambassador for Reckless Running, an awesome company run by Olympian Anthony Famiglietti and his wife. 

My running is going really well and I'm even running with the fast guys on Sunday. One tells me I could go sub 3:!0 for the marathon. Not wanting to "waste" a BQ, I don't take his advice. Looking back, I wish I had.


First race for the charity team I've started Team Just One Life, a team that raises money for Just One Life. JOL helps women in Israel who are going through a crisis pregnancy. Appropriately, our first race is in Jerusalem. Much needed funds are raised, we meet the staff and some mothers, and take part in an awesome race, The Jerusalem Marathon.

As an added bonus, Knesset member, Rabbi Dov Lipman speaks at the pasta party.

I have the pleasure of running the race with my brother, Eric.


I run my first and, perhaps, last ultra. I love the trails, the challenge and the views, but I like running, not hiking.

Yes, that's blood running down my leg


I meet Eliud Ngeitch, who is in America from Kenya. Very sweet guy. I get to run with him. For him it's an easy run the day before a race. For me it's hold on for my dear life. While in the States, he goes on to win a a few races including a marathon.


Just One Life has it's second race, this one in San Diego. Great team, great city, great time.

As an added bonus, I run a PR in the half-marathon without real training.

I get to meet US Olympians Meb Keflezighi and Alan Culpepper.

Meb might run to win, I run to finish

I start my training for the Steamtown Marathon in Scranton, PA, which will take place in October. I'm shooting for another BQ and hoping to finish in around 3:12. I hate the heat and humidity, but you got to be in it to win it.


See July.


I get to run with Eric again.

Red Sock Friday- The Red Socks on which we agree

With a month to go and my training going well, I get injured. At first, I hope to recover in time for the race, but it's not to be. 2013 is my year without a regular marathon since I ran my first one.


Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I cross train, avoid putting on weight and do core work. I don't know if I'll BQ in 2014, but if I do, I laid the groundwork for it while injured. On the plus side, I get advice from my hero, Dick Beardsley.


I get back to running with a few of my favorite runners.

Ashi, in his first race (a 5K) and Maayan win age group medals, presented by Mayor Alex Blanco.

Rochie and I run a turkey trot. It's the Ashenfelter 8K, one of my favorite races. She finishes with  a pace of under 10 minutes per mile, which is pretty amazing considering she did no training. I get a PR, going under 7 minutes per mile, the longest distance at which I've run this pace.

A few days later, our club, Passaic and Clifton Running Club (PCRC) puts on men's women's and kid's races for Chaunka. Maayan comes in second among the girls, after which, she is the youngest to run the 5K.


A bunch of the PCRCers get me a new Garmin. I am beyond touched.

Yearly total

For the year, I run 2145.57 miles. For fun, I decide to figure out where I'd end up if I ran that distance from Passaic. Wouldn't you know it? I end up in

Goodyear, AZ

Couldn't have picked a more perfect place 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Gemara, God and Goals

“If you want to know the One who spoke and the world came into being, study aggada”.

Sifrei Devarim 49

“Where can God be found? Wherever we let Him in”.

Kotzker Rebbe

I remember the day well. I was teaching gemara to one of the strongest classes I had ever taught. It was going extremely well. One student, of whom I was very fond, who was not always involved, was really into it. Still, I was dissatisfied. Braking the page (to borrow a term from theater), I turned to him and asked “Does this feel at all like a religious experience?”. He said that it did not, and we went back to learning. It is one thing to be unhappy when a class is not going well, but here I was suddenly unhappy with one that was quite good.

For a long time, it has seemed to me that rabbeim mistake successful learning of gemara, as a sign that the student has been motivated religiously. If we think about it, learning gemara well and religious motivation are two totally separate things. The possibly apocryphal tales of the maskil who sat learning gemara on Shabbos, while smoking a cigarette, highlights this idea. For those with an analytical bent, learning gemara is very engaging. A judge once told my father OB”M that the best preparation he had for a career in law, was learning gemara. One can get lost in the brilliance of the page without thinking of God even once. She can be so engaged in the details of the mitzvah, that she never thinks of the Metzaveh.

So what is the solution?

Strangely, it's right there in the very text of the gemara. Sifrei, a halachic work, tells us that if one wants to encounter God (interestingly, described as “the One who spoke and the world came into being”), should study the non-halachic, philosophical teachings of the gemara called “aggada”. This is not to deny that for some God is in the halachic details. It is saying that there is a second side that must be learned to encounter the Divine.

Of course, as anyone who has ever been in a gemara shiur from beginners level to the highest beit midrash knows, aggada is either skipped, or read through perfunctorally, without any attempt at a deeper understanding. Even if one would seek to justify this approach, by an appeal to tradition, it is not a very satisfying answer. Historically, those who learned gemara were highly motivated religiously, and often lived in a world that challenged their beliefs much less than ours does today.

It seems to me that a big reason for the lack of systematic study of aggada is a lack of knowledge and thus, comfort. Most teachers of gemara have never learned aggada in a sophisticated manner. As such, it's hard to imagine them teaching it to their students. Fortunately, there are many great resources available. Rav Kook has a peirush on the aggadot of Masechtos Berachos and Shabbos called “Ain Ayah”. It is deep and beautiful, and unlike some of his other writings, it is not flowery and is thus, more easily understood. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau has written deeply, in English, about many aggadot, some of which can be found online.

We can not bemoan the lack of religious motivation among our students and children (or ourselves ), if we do not work to change the situation. There are those who bemoan the lack of God's presence in public school. We must be sure that the same can not be said about our yeshivahs. It is time to learn aggada.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Gemara II- Is Gemara ONLY right for anyone?

Let's pretend for a moment that we know how to teach gemara; both in terms of reading and analytical skills. Let's further pretend we have the right people in our classes and the right rabbeim teaching them. Even if that was the case, would it be proper to have a gemara only Torah curriculum?

“All Torah that does not have with it (include within itself?) derch eretz, in the end will come to nothing.”

Pirkei Avos

“If he merits it, the Torah he learns is an elixir of life, if he does not merit it, it is poison”.

Yoma 72b

At first the second half of this statement seems strange. Can the Torah one learns ever be poison? I can understand if the implication is that not following the laws of the Torah can be deadly, but Torah itself? Somehow, it seems that Torah learning can lead to a negative outcome. Let us try and discover how this might be so.

When I was looking for a yeshiva high school for my oldest son, I was troubled to discover that all of the yeshivahs I considered, more or less, had no other limmudei kodesh other than gemara. Sure there was a smattering of halacha in a few, while others had weekly parsha quizzes based on the boys going through parsha at home, but the strong majority of the time involved learning gemara. No real Tanach, no machshava, and, perhaps most disappointingly of all, no mussar (I do not, of course, refer to mussar schmoozen about why “goyish music” is bad, and the like. Sadly, there's plenty of that. I refer to the uplifting mussar of Slabodka). Could anyone but the most committed Brisker really believe that there is no need for mussar? Post-high school the situation is even more bleak as yeshivahs essentially become gemara factories.

I would be scared to make my next point if it it was not based on an idea of the Vilna Gaon. The GRA famously compares Torah not learned lishma (however one defines that loaded term) to rain. Just as rain makes everything grow, flower and weed alike, Torah, when not learned lishma, makes good people better, and bad people worse.

I have met many products of the best yeshivahs. Some, are among the most decent, mentschlich and kind people I know. Sadly, others are just the opposite. Can anyone who has seen the almost weekly barrage of negative headlines over the past year involving men who learned in yeshiva, claim that Gemara only is transformative? I have seen two many examples where a “gemara kup” not tempered by mussar, has led to justification of abhorrent behavior.

It pains me to write these words, but I feel that I have no choice. Even if Rav Chaim was correct in his assertion that mussar is like medicine and only the sick require it (said to explain his rejection of mussar for his yeshiva), are we as healthy as we think we are?

On the teaching of Gemara- Where we've gone wrong and should girls learn gemara

The way of the world is that 1000 enter for mikra (Tanach). From these, only 100 go forth and study mishnah. Of these 100, only 10 go forth for gemara, and of those 10 who enter gemara, only one goes forth for hora'ah."

Vayikra Rabbah 2:1

The question is often asked whether girls should be learning Gemara. Let's be honest, as with other issues in Judaism, this question is essentially a Rorschach Test. The answers run the gamut from categorically forbidden, to permitted, to required. Modern rabbinical leaders including Rav Yaakov Weinberg, Rav Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik and the Lubavicher Rebbe ZT”L have, to one degree or another, ruled permissively. To me, this is not the proper question. I am more bothered by the question of whether boys should learn gemara.

Anecdotal evidence, as well as questionnaires, have shown that for students, both in the US and Israel, gemara is often the least popular “subject”. While there are many ways one can explain this fact, one thing is clear from Chazal, our history and common sense; gemara learning is not for everyone.

While the above mentioned quote has been (mis)used by Rabbi Dessler to justify the curent yeshiva system, it does anything but that. While it suggests that everyone has Torah which they can (and should) learn, only 1% of those who who start are cut out for gemara learning. While Tanach is for everyone, and mishna is still for a small but significant minority, gemara is not.

Historically, even in the so- called glory days in Europe, there were few men who went on to study gemara. It was recognized as being for an elite.

Finally, just as we recognize that higher level math is not for everyone, gemara which involves the need to think analytically about complicated topics, while making a sense of an unpunctuated text, which contains two non-native languages (one for those in Israel) is not for everyone.

So why do we keep pushing gemara for all boys in yeshiva?

  • Fear- Since everybody does it, we don't want our yeshiva to be different.
  • That's the the way it was always done- Except, it wasn't.
  • The American public school system pushes the idea that all subjects are for all kids. - As much as we might pretend that we are not influenced by the “outside world”, we are.
  • When the current yeshiva system emerged, it was thought that gemara learning would help hold onto kids who might be led astray from Judaism if they didn't see that Torah study is rigorous and demanding. - Even if we assume this was correct, the exact opposite is true. Gemara for everyone is pushing many boys away from observance.

So should girls learn gemara? The answer is the same as to the question “should boys learn gemara?” If they want to and are capable of doing so.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

But does it matter? Part II- Girls education

There are a number of reasons that I am uncomfortable with yeshivish women teaching in Modern Orthodox high schools. To be sure, what follows is based on generalizations, but they will hopefully serve as the basis for discussion and thoughtful debate.

Level of learning

It is possible to appreciate the Bais Yaakov movement and all that it has accomplished, while taking a critical and honest look at its shortcomings. While the curriculum is much broader than in boy's yeshivahs, the depth of learning at many Bais Yaakovs, is worse. Often, the girls in these schools are taught to memorize facts, as opposed to developing skills and critical thinking.

While one might argue that girls who graduate from Modern Orthodox schools, sometimes have the opposite issue ( a lack of knowledge in many important areas), critical thinking and textual analysis are an essential part of their Torah education. Not only that, these skills must be part of their education. Can one imagine a girl analyzing Shakespeare and doing complicated experiments in AP Chemistry, while being given spit back tests in their Torah classes?

Can anyone imagine hiring a “doctor” who went to high school, and studied biology for a year or two post-HS? Of course not. Why is it acceptable for a 19 year old woman, one year out of high school to be teaching Torah to our daughters?

To be sure, there are some wonderful girls high schools and post-HS seminaries. In these schools, as with girl's schools in general, the curriculum is more varied, and creativity and extra-curriculars are encouraged, with the added benefit of a high level education.

Folk Religion

It should of great concern to all parents when instead of Jewish philosophy or thought, their daughters (and sons) come home with what I charitably call “folk religion”. Included in this are statements about why the Tsunami struck Japan, one-sided statements about the Jewish view of hashgacha pratis, and how dressing the wrong way or wearing the wrong head covering causes cancer. Not only are these views not true, and not backed up by sources, they are very harmful. When our daughters reject these false views, what else will they reject?


I have known situations where girls were told not to ask questions, and, at best, to “ask their father” when they get home. Girls have admitted to holding back on questions for fear of seeming to have philosophical struggles, or the fear of “learning like a boy”. Even a cursory glance through the gemara shows how important questions are to learning.

Often, the morah's discomfort comes from not knowing other views. Thus, she might bridle when asked how Rivkah could have been three years old when she married Yitzchak, unaware that there are other views in chazal, which are peshat.

Role Models

Our daughters benefit from having role models who live in the same world they do. There is value in learning that the valedictorian does not need to be a doctor or lawyer, and might choose to teach Torah on a sophisticated level instead. It is important for them to see women who are makpid on halacha, while espousing the same values they hear at home.


Many of us are uncomfortable with what currently passes as the current view of Jewish modesty. Instead of being a value which both men and women are to live in many areas of life, it has become about clothes and women.

Chazal say “tafasta m'ruba lo tafasta” (one who tries to grab too much, does not grab anything0. At first glance, this seems odd. Why did they think that grabbing too much leads to getting nothing, instead of reaching the conclusion that it leads to getting less?

When our daughters hear extreme views of “tzniyus” that are beyond what halacha demands, and beyond anything they might end up considering, they often don't end up simply rejecting these views. Instead, they might conclude that since they are not “tzniyus” anyway, they may as well fully embrace it. Alternatively, they might reject other things the morah has taught them, assuming it all to be false.


Here I come closer to the suggestion that the only yeshivishe women who should teach in MO high schools are ones who have the proper approach. I do fear that such an approach would be another brick in the wall of division that already exists between the MO and yeshivish community. Still, if we are to create a community where women can learn at the same level in Torah as they do in chol, where women are knowledgeable and “passionately moderate” (to quote Rabbi Lamm), we need the right women teaching them in the classroom.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Charedi teachers in Modern Orthodox Schools- Does it matter?

So there are many Modern Orthodox schools which are primarily staffed by charedi rabbeim and morahs (mainly 'yeshivish ones), and we've explored some of the reasons why this is so, but does it really matter? Shouldn't we just be able to get past labels?

Over the next two posts, I am going to discuss this from two different perspectives; boy's education and girl's education. As we shall see, as much as it does matter on the boy's side, it matters even more on the girl's side. Although I will focus on high school education, much of what I say can be extrapolated to elementary and post HS education, as well.

Approach to Midrashim and Chazal in general

Many students are deeply disturbed by literalist teaching of midrashim. In their general studies classes, they approach things from a rational standpoint, and are asked to suspend that view when it comes to Torah. Whether it is the height of Og, or Esther growing a tail, it is difficult if not impossible to accept these ideas as literal. While it must be admitted that not all MO rabbeim depart from the literalist approach, most do.

Of course it's not just on midrashim that the two approaches are distinct. The charedi approach attempts to make Chazal almost super-human, with borderline ruach hakodesh and scientific knowledge that far advances the level of the secular world at the time. While it is a a big challenge to get students to have an appreciation for Chazal and for why their word s authoritative, putting them on an impossibly high pedestal, is not the way to do it.

Jewish philosophy and 'Hashkafa'

The current state of knowledge of Jewish philosophy in general, is to be bemoaned. One can learn in yeshiva for many years, or even get semicha, and lack familiarity with the words of Rav Saadyah Gaon, Rambam, Ramban etc. Sadly, most yeshivahs seem to emphasize gemara and halacha over all other forms of Torah learning.

When philosophy or 'hashkafa' are taught in the charedi world, it often starts no earlier than the Maharal, and often even later. Often, things assumed to be part of Jewish hashkafa are anything but. I know of one young man, whose teacher explained a bird that kept flying into the window as a gilgul in need of forgiveness. This man was no fool, having learned high level gemara at serious yeshivas. Still, he asserted the idea of reincarnation as an animal, as fact.

While Yeshiva University could do a better job of teaching philosophy to its students, they are already offering classes where future teachers come out knowing at least the basics. In Israel, Gush and some other hesder yeshivot also learn the relevant texts.


Even when a yeshivish rebbe is an excellent educator, as is often the case, there is often a great dissonance between what the students hear in class, versus how they live at home. Now, to be sure, this dissonance also exists in some communities which have MO rabbeim, it is often greater when even rebbbe's approach is different from even the professed approach of the community.

Rabbi Payasach Krohn tells a story of choosing between two yeshivahs for his son for high school. In one yeshiva all of the rabbeim had beards, and in the other, only some did. When Rabbi Krohn, who does not have a beard asked Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky ZT”L which yeshiva he should choose, Rav Yaakov told him to choose the latter, explaining that if he chose the former, his son would lose respect for him. Now if this was the case with something as minor as facial hair, in a situation where each school was yeshivish, how much more might it be an issue when the differences are far greater and less superficial?

Role models

There is much to be admired in the yeshivish world. The talmud Torah in that community is far more serious than in other communities. I am not alone in my hope that the MO community will learn from and embrace a greater ethos of 'learning'. Still, the gap in dress, attitude and approach between students in these schools and their more yeshivish rabbeim is often difficult to bridge.


I am not, God forbid, calling for yeshivish rabbeim to be purged from MO schools. Such a move would be counter to encouraging our students to be sophisticated thinkers who can learn from various approaches, as well as counter to basic Ahavas Yisrael. Not only that, I think our students need to hear different perspectives. Nor am I suggesting that one's hashkafa is the deciding factor in being a good teacher. I am suggesting that MO schools make an effort to ensure that there is a majority of rabbeim who represent the school's approach (to be sure, a rebbe's approach should not be decided superficially based on what he wears). If we are to create a community where one can not only love Eretz Yisrael but also Medinat Yisrael (with all of its imperfections), a school where there is not a contradiction between what our children study in the morning and what they study in the afternoon, we need the right rabbeim to do so.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Where have all the Modern Orthodox teachers gone?

I am often asked why MO schools have charedim as rabbeim and not MO rabbis. To put it another way, as Rabbi Riskin and Rabbi Lamm asked, why aren't there more MO mechanchim.

I'll answer with the story of my closest friend. Ari is a doctor. He is a ben-Torah in the best sense of the term. He's honest, modest and caring. He's serious about learning. So much so that he took off time from med school to learn. He's a talmid chacham, and a better thinker in Torah than I am. Like myself, Ari was an advisor in NCSY. He was well liked by the kids, and liked them. He's funny and personable. In short, he would have been an amazing mechanech.

So why did he not take that path? I can't say for sure, but I can offer some possibilities. Despite coming from a frum MO family, I doubt his parents ever encouraged him to take that route. Knowing the challenges that such a choice would entail, they might even have discouraged him had he asked.

Though Ari did not grow up rich, he was comfortable enough. Someone who grows up that way does not easily embrace a lifestyle that involves financial hardship.

Unlike his charedi peers, Ari's secular education left him with many choices professionally.

He grew up in a world where frum bal habos, is not only not an oxymoron, but a respected l'chatchila choice.

Or maybe he just wanted to be a doctor.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Fear - part II

The reaction to “Fear” which I wrote yesterday was extremely heartening. It was overwhelmingly positive. Nearly 100 people “liked” it on Facebook, there were hundreds of comments and five “share”s. I received a number of thoughtful emails as well. I gained a lot of new ideas and even made a few edits to what I wrote.

Even the criticism, with one unfortunate exception, was helpful and correct. The biggest “critique” was that I was vague. Although I was deliberately vague, as I sought to test the waters to see whether my words hit home and to “rally the troops”, so to speak, if I stopped there, much of what could be accomplished would not happen.

So here's where I inevitably lose at least some of you. I say inevitable because what I write is now more specific to me and my life, and there will be some who will say something like “That's all he was saying?”, or something of the kind. Others will think that I don't go far enough, or that my ideas are not practical or realistic. I can not prevent that, nor do I want to. I consider this follow up to be the beginning of a conversation, rather than the final word on the matter.

I'll start with what I am not saying. I am not saying that anything goes in Orthodoxy and that you can strip away what you'd like. I believe that Torah and mitzvot are obligatory. I, like everyone, often fail to live up to these expectations, but I see that as personal weakness, not a new philosophy. I'm also not saying that you should do something foolish like tell your boss what you really think of her, or wear a mini-skirt if you live in New Square. As I often tell my children, there is a difference between realistic and unrealistic fear. While the latter is best eliminated, one should hold onto the former. I'm not suggesting that you move or change communities. I recognize that such advice is useless and a non-starter for most people. I'm not even saying that all such fears shouldn't effect your actions. We all make choices and sometimes the best choice, is far from perfect.

Finally, and this might be the most disappointing thing to many of you, I'm not suggesting we can change the world, or even fix all of our schools, shuls and communities.

So, what am I suggesting?

I'm suggesting that each of us start with ourselves, in a small, doable and realistic way. Don't try and eliminate all of your fears.

Look for one thing you'd like to do differently and work on it.

Seek out like-minded individuals, and rely on each other for support.

Discuss this topic with your children. Explain why it's important to not live in fear.

If necessary and possible, vote with your feet, by changing shuls and/or schools, and vote with your money, by supporting institutions that represent your ideals.

Read something, write something or share something that is outside of your comfort zone. As much as possible avoid writing or posting under a pseudonym or annonymously.

Learn and take the good from other approaches, and apply it to your life, and reject the rest.

When your rabbi or your child's teacher says something that you think is wrong, speak with them about it, and do so respectfully. Even if this is not practical, speak to your family, again respectfully, so they know that you disagree and why you disagree.

If you are single, don't let your fears drive your every decision. The less you live in fear, the happier you'll be. That is an end to itself.

Choose your kid's school carefully. If you send them to a school which does not match your approach, you will have a lot of work to do to keep them balanced. I recognize that there are reasons to send to these type of schools, but understand the risk you are taking.

Choose the school that is best for your child. Not for you, not for your community, but for your child. This might not be the same school for all of your children.

Before making a religious change that involves the external, ask yourself, why you are doing it. If you don't have a good reason, don't do it.

Before accepting religious claims or popular“philosophies”, which make you uncomfortable, do your homework and make sure these beliefs are authentic or are the only acceptable view. Hint- they almost never are. Education makes you brave.

Be very careful with the message you give your daughter about her role in Judaism. Be very careful with the message she is told at school.

More is not always better. Tafasta meruba, lo tafasta.



To me, it is the biggest problem facing my part of the Orthdox world.

Fear of being different, of standing out, of being one of them.

It keeps us from being the kind of Jews we want to be, the kind of parents we know we can be, the person we must try and become.

It keeps our kids in broken schools, black hats on heads that no longer buy into the system, friendships from being developed.

Thoughts and ideas are kept inside, or expressed anonymously, or by people using pseudonyms.

We worry about getting our kids into the right schools, about shidduchim, about standing out.

We are the moral majority within the community, or at least I hope we are, but we remain powerless due to remaining silent, failing to join together, failing to bring the needed changes to our damaged system.

I can't play this game any longer. I can no longer be a coward, trying to please those who will not be satisfied with anything less than being exactly like them.

I can't change things by myself, but we can. We can start advocating for the types of shuls and schools and rabbis and institutions we and our families, and our communities want. No, not want. Need.

We can refuse to play along, to remain silent with what exists, to keep our hearts and minds and dreams silenced.

I am afraid of what will happen, how I will be seen, of failing.

I am more afraid of keeping silent, of constantly thinking "what if", of being complicit in being part of the smallness that has become our community.

I am afraid, but I will not let that fear hold me back. Courage is not the absence of fear. It is acting despite the fear.