Thursday, January 30, 2014

What's in a name? (Part I) - Losing and rediscovering my religion

From time to time, I will be writing about my reasons for choosing "Pesach Sheini" as the name for my blog. The more I have thought about the name, the more I have felt that it chose me and not the other way around. What follows is the first installation.

I remember the moment when I felt the first crack in the foundation of my beliefs. We were living in Israel, I was learning in the Aish HaTorah kollel, and I had bought my first Borsalino (ever the outsider, I mistakenly bought the one with a band with the “wrong” height). Although I had already received semicha, I was learning Torah ten hours per day, had seforim I learned on each leg of my bus trip to the old city, and wished I had more time to learn. I had, for the most part, rejected most of my modern orthodox upbringing, and I knew that, more often than not, the good guys wore black hats. I davened with the confidence and seriousness of a believer. My brilliant chavrusa Rafi was from England, where he had studied at Oxford. Rafi's brother was troubled by Rafi's decision to embrace an Orthodox lifestyle, which had happened, he thought, because Rafi had been brainwashed. He would send Rafi long and well researched annotated letters “proving” that the Torah couldn't be true. Rafi and I usually laughed at such a crazy notion. Which rational person could doubt the truth of our religion? Clearly, Rafi's brother was blind to the truth. One day, out of curiosity and amusement, I asked to see the latest letter. I read it and was shocked. I held in my hands excellent arguments against my understanding of one part of the Torah. Of course, I didn't let on that I found the points to be salient . Doubts were for heretics. For the believer, there are no questions, and for the heretic, no answers. Troubled by this question, I kept my thoughts inside my head for many years, until I asked someone who I could trust, and he showed me an answer from Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman. I would later learn that other well known rabbis, shared this understanding as well.

Several years later, we had moved to Baltimore. I was teaching Torah to high school students, and one boy was struggling with some doubts. He would come to me to discuss them. I did my best to answer the questions, and explain why I believed. Several times, my student asked me why I wasn't bothered by some of these questions. I responded, in truth, that they just didn't bother me. I had no way of knowing that, years later, I would be troubled by many of the same questions.

At my last teaching job, I had a close relationship with many of my brighter students, who knew that I would take their questions seriously, admit when I didn't have answers, and stick to a rational approach towards explaining Torah. Having thrown myself into Jewish philosophy and Torah and science, I enjoyed this reputation, and even encouraged it (without belittling other approaches). I don't remember the precise moment it started, but little by little, I started to wonder whether Judaism was true. Had you paid close attention to my words, during my last year of teaching, you would have sensed my struggles as I no longer spoke of my beliefs, speaking instead of what Chazal believed.

At first, I tried to find the answer to the questions which troubled me, certain that some genius from our tradition could set it all straight. I read whatever I could, spoke to roshei yeshiva, rabbis, professors, and learned laymen. Nothing I heard put my mind at rest. I went through a stage where I raged at the brilliant minds of the Modern Orthodox world, such as Rav Soloveitchik ZT”L, Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein (may they quickly have a full recovery). How, I wondered, could they not have dealt with these important issues? I searched far afield for answers, but much of what I came across just led to more questions, struggles and doubts. I knew I could not return to the classroom unless I could resolve my doubts. Outwardly, I kept up my observance, and even started learning daf yomi. Davening, on the other hand, was nothing but painful. We were struggling financially and with some other stresses that come with having a large family, and I was quite unsure whether my prayers had any effect or value. I started learning Torah during davening, not out of piety, but as an attempt to drown out my thoughts.

I figured out which friends I could trust with the secret of my struggles, and tried to keep my wife from finding out. Sadly, in that regard, I failed. I knew that, no matter which conclusion I reached, I would never stop living an outwardly observant lifestyle. I had “signed on the dotted line” by getting married and having children, and I refused to let my struggles send my family into crisis.

I headed into this past Yom Kippur numb, as if in a trance, for the first time ever, feeling nothing as the day approached. How could I do teshuva when I was struggling with so many of the premises on which teshuva is based? My one attempt at not giving up was a commitment to not read every article which raised questions, and to distance myself from some online connections who were helping fan the flames of my doubts.

Little by little, I started to find an approach that worked for me, and here, I get to one of my key conclusions. My answer did not need to be the answer. It didn't have to work for anyone else. As long as I found it convincing, that was all I needed. Brick by brick I examined each of my previous beliefs. Some I held onto and used them to reconstruct my new approach. Others, however painful it was to do so, were cast aside. Thinking back to my student from Baltimore, I understood why his questions did not bother me at the time. For me at least, even the most serious intellectual questions only become earth shattering at times when my life feels out of control, or, at the very least, uncomfortable, leading me to not feel God's presence in my life. Finally, I accepted that as much as I had tried to look for a purely intellectual/rational answer, that many (most? all?) of our beliefs are based on some other things as well, from the emotional, to the experiential, to the personal. All of these things contributed to my reaching an answer that works for me.

Although I sometimes miss the person I was back then, with my certainty that I knew how the world operated, where my davening was less complicated, and my sense of comfort, I have no interest in going back. Indeed, I can not go back. The man who I was, is a stranger to me today. As I hope to get back in the classroom, I believe that I will be a stronger mechanech than before. I will still be the one who students can approach with serious questions, even, as I now know, I can not give them the answer to their questions. I can, however, guide them on their quest to find the answers that will ring true to themselves.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Dignity and Difference- A Jewish Educator's thoughts on (the debate over) women wearing tefillin

"We should know what we see, not see what we know".

-Rabbi AJ Heschel

There is a story that is told (possibly apocryphal, but the lesson to be learned remains) about a Chassidic Rebbe from Eastern Europe who came to Germany to see Rav Shimson Raphael Hirsch's community, which was, in what might be one of the bigger understatements of all time, considerably different from his own. As he was shown the shul, with its structured davening, he remarked on how beautiful it was. When he saw the yeshiva, he again commented on the beauty of what he saw. When he stopped at the girl's school, where the girls were learning Torah, he was once again struck by the beauty of Hirsch's approach. At the end, of the tour, he was asked what he thought. He replied “Very beautiful, but still no shidduch”. As much as he appreciated that Hirsch's approach was beautiful for the kehillah in Frankfurt, he felt quite certain that it was not the right approach for a chassidic community.

As the whole issue of women wearing tefillin came to the fore this week, I was fortunate enough to watch it unfold before offering my opinion. I was thus saved from making pronouncements without full knowledge of what was going on. Even now, after I have read as much as I can, I am not going to say what THE correct approach is. As I frequently tell my students, if someone tells you “The Jewish view of issue X is...” you don't need to hear the end of the sentence to know they are most probably wrong, as there is rarely only one view on any issue. I will leave the halachic analysis for those who are for more erudite than myself. Besides, as has been noted, many of the issues in the debate are meta-halachic and sociological. Instead, I will comment from the perspective of a Jewish educator.

The two sides of the debate are coming from very different perspectives on issues such as a woman's role in Judaism, feminism, how halacha is decided and what makes a view a legitimately Jewish/halchic one. Each side remains convinced that they are reading the sources and the ethos of Judaism correctly, and that the future will vindicate their position. One side insists that the other is stuck in the past, while the other suggests that their opponent lacks appropriate respect for the past. I am not a prognosticator and I am not a prophet. Only time will prove, who is correct, or whether only one approach can work. I'm more confident in discussing how the debate is being carried forth, and the message we give to our children and students as we debate this and other issues.

Rabbi Tully Harcsztark, the principal of SAR was not seeking to decide national communal policy, or even decide on a new policy for his school. In a letter he sent out to parents of his school (which is making the rounds on social media, but has not, to the best of my knowledged been put online), he thoughtfully explained that he was approached by two young women who came from a Conservative background, who had worn tefillin since their bat mitzvah. For various reasons, he decided to allow them to continue do so at school, within a particular framework. He was not the first principal to have allowed girls to wear tefillin at school, as it had already been allowed in various cases some twenty years earlier. This would have, and, more importantly, should have been seen as a decision by a principal for what works for his school, but an article in a high school newspaper, and the internet prevented it from being seen for what it was.

This was now a bigger issue and there was room for discussion, nuance, and respectful passion. Indeed, this was the tone taken by many, including Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton. As a mechanech, I know how much thoughtful discussion could and hopefully did come from discussing the various issues involved. What I find unacceptable are the personal attacks and snarkiness shown to Rabbis Harcsztark, and Goldberg, both of whom, I have no doubt, were speaking lishma. Even more troubling were those who commented on the girls themselves. Without knowing either of them, people felt free to opine on the girl's motives, religious observance and character.

I understand that there is a kulturkampf going on in the Orthodox community and that there are passionate advocates, thank God, on both sides of the debate. Still, it behooves us to recognize that it is more than our opinions that as much as our views are being evaluated by our children and students, they are also seeing how we express them. If we can not engage in debate without making use of ad hominem attacks, perhaps it is best to stay out of the debate. One can believe, as I myself do, that Rabbi Harcsztark made the right decision for his school, or that he did not. It is okay to believe that feminsim has no place in dictating halachic practice, or that it must. Some will feel that certain segments of Orthdoxy are heading for the cliff, while others will believe that they are taking Orthodoxy in the direction which it must go. Let us commit to show, that no matter how passionately we are sure we are right, that we can engage the other side with respect.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An Immodest Proposal- How schools can help students find meaning in tefillah

I recently wrote about the misconception that schools are responsible for teaching students how to daven. I suggested that the real onus falls upon the parents. This does not mean that schools do not play a role in helping to produce Jews who take davening seriously. It just means that schools have a different role. While the parents role is largely mimetic, the schools role is, or at least should be, educational. The problem is that overwhelmingly, tefillah is treated simply as tefillah, with schools copying that which is done in shuls, rather than treating it as an educational endeavor. I do not mean to suggest that nothing educational goes on during tefilla at most schools. Rather I am suggesting that the whole endeavor is not addressed educationally. What follows is an 'immodest proposal' for an educational approach to tefilla.

The challenges

For the average English speaking student, tefillah has many challenges. They include the language, fluency, the poetic style of some of the tefillot, the length of tefillah, a lack of quiet/God centered space, as well as a lack of understanding of what tefillah is about (which is somewhat connected to the challenge of the words being repetitive).

Any educational attempt to help students engage in prayer needs to address these challenges. I will address each one after an introduction of my proposal.


Tefillah needs to be something that is worked on throughout the years of schooling (in this essay, I address Modern Orthodox high schools, although certainly, some of what I write could possibly be adjusted for younger students, or students in other educational settings). It also needs to be dealt with outside of the time of actual tefillah. That way, tefillah is a time when the lessons learned, can be tried and practiced. Additionally, it will not only be addressed in one particular class, but across the curriculum as well.

Addressing the challenges


If I were to give you a beautiful prayer in Chinese, with the words written phonetically in English, you would be unable to pray with much kavanah. You might be able to think of yourself as standing before God (omeid lifeni HaMakom, which is no small thing), but you would certainly be unable to do anything beyond that. For many of our students, that is what davening feels like. They can read the words, but have no idea what they are saying.

The solution is not to merely teach them the meaning of the words. The ideas behind the words, including the pesukim from which they come, and the ideas that Chazal put into them, have to be taught as well. Teachers might make use of the Avudraham or a gemara from Megillah or Brachos.

Let's not fool ourselves. Our students will not learn every word and idea, but by teaching them some of these things, we begin to make it possible to engage in serious tefillah.


For any of us who have heard a chazzan struggle with the words, it is clear that fluency in pronouncing the words needs to be addressed. A simple bu effective way to do so would be to take the Sephardic approach of saying the whole tefillah (except the amidah) out loud. 

Poetic style

Hebrew poetry is already part of the curriculum in many Modern Orthodox schools, as is Tanach. In at least one of those classes, preferably the latter, the pirkei Tehillim which make up davening should be taught, with an emphasis on understanding the ideas and poetry contained therein. While these perakim will be treated as Tanach, in these classes they will also be dealt with from a literary standpoint.

Length of tefilla

The gemara says “Better less said with kavanah, than more said without kavanah” (Rav Hutner humorously changed it to “Better less said without kavanah, than more said without kavanah”). It only makes sense to say all of shacharis, if we are trying to mimic a shul. If, however, tefillah is meant to be educational, than just as we adjust the curriculum for those who struggle, we can do so with tefillah, concentrating on removing the less essential parts of pesukei d'zimra and parts of v'hu rachum. We would of course, make it clear to our students the idea behind this change.

Additionally, we should make clear to the students that the current goal is not kavanah throughout the whole shemoneh esrei. If that is the goal, they will fail each time (as will I). At first the goal should be to have kavanah for one bracha (an idea which comes from this thoughtful essay which includes some ideas of how to work on kavanah from a practical standpoint ). Alternatively, students could focus on one phrase that is meaningful for them, making it their own.

Lack of quiet/God centered space

We are all surrounded by constant background noise and activity. Entering the God focused, or meditative space which helps set the tone is a challenge.

A few moments of silence before tefillah (preferably at least several minutes), breathing exercises, or asking everyone to think of something or someone that they are grateful for, are some possible ways to deal with this issue.

What is tefillah?

In many (most?) Modern Orthodox high schools, Jewish philosophy is not taught. For many reasons, this needs to change. Among the things which our students must know, are the various approaches to why we pray and how it works. As with all areas of Jewish philosophy, various approaches should be taught so that our students have the best chance to find an approach which for them.

Teachers might make use of aggados from the gemara (perhaps with an explanation from Rav Kook's Ain Ayah), Rishomnim such as the Rambam (primarily the Moreh), Rabbeinu Bachya's Chovos Halevavos, Rav Albo's Sefer HaIkarim, and Achronim such as the Mabit, Rav SR Hirsch and chassidic literature, as well as Rav Soloveitchik and Heschel.

Other areas of learning

Tefillah needs to become more than a cerebral exercise (at best). Modern Orthodox educators are often moved by ideas, and teach in a cerebral way. Not all students will respond to this approach. Art, music, dance and creative writing are some of the ways where tefillah can be more experiential.

Practically this might include putting a tefillah to music, painting a scene based on a Mizmor Tehillim, or writing an essay on the struggles of tefillah or writing their own tefillah, an idea which Rav Nachman (the Chassidic Rebbe, not the Amora) suggested.

Possible objections to this proposal

Isn't this a lot of time to spend on tefillah?

In most schools, a minimum of one and a half hours are spent each day on gemara (I have suggested elsewhere that this is not ideal). If our students never pick up a gemara after high school (and lets be honest, some, at least, won't) they can still be serious members of the Jewish community. If our students spend the rest of their lives praying as they currently do, that would be tragic. If triage is needed, it should be clear which one should get more of our attention.

How does this address the most difficult students and those who are struggling with emunah issues?

As educators, we have all dealt with students who refuse to daven. Some of them go beyond this and disrupt tefillah. A few might even enjoy getting their teachers upset.

I know this is radical, but shacharis in school should be optional. Yes, optional. We will not tell the students that davening is not required. We will simply give them a choice between davening at school or at home. While some, no doubt, will not daven at home, that is no different than what they are doing at school. We will also make it clear that schacharis at school is only for those who wish to try and work on what they are learning in class. Those who are repeatedly disruptive will be asked to daven at home.

With all of this, isn't it difficult to daven with kavanah?

I can't speak for you, but I can speak for myself. For me davening with kavanah is a big challenge, even though I do not have most of the challenges I have addressed above. We must make it clear to our students that davening will take a lifetime to master and that we, at times, struggle to make it meaningful. By doing so, we give them permission to struggle and permission to be imperfect. In many ways, this is an important lesson, and one which needs to be emphasized in discussing Avodas HaShem.

Practically, a teacher might get up to tell how they deal with the difficulties of davening with kavanah, a student might tell a story, or discuss a strategy that works for them. Inspiring speakers could be brought in from time to time to connect the dots on some of these issues.

Although my proposal involves many components, I am not suggesting an all or nothing approach. Even if time does not allow for all of them, or you consider some of my ideas to be mistaken or misguided, please consider making use of the rest.

Comments, critiques and suggestions can be made below or by email, which can be sent to

Bart or Lisa- Who's Correct?- Finding the Right School for our Children

I love Plato, but I love the truth more.


Our Country! ... may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!

-Stephen Decatur

Over the years, I have seen a number of episodes of the Simpsons. The shows are almost always funny and clever, and, occasionally, cross the line into brilliance. By far, my favorite episode is “Like Father, Like Clown”. It tells the story of Krusty the Clown, a bitter, somewhat obnoxious host of a TV show for children, who is a favorite of Bart and Lisa. When he comes to their house for dinner, he reveals that he is Jewish, and is estranged from his father who is an Orthodox rabbi. Rabbi Krustofski (brilliantly the voice was that of Jackie Mason), who comes from a long line of rabbis, is horrified that his son has become a clown and has severed all ties with him. The episode centers around Bart and Lisa's attempt to reconcile father and son. After a few failed attempts, they have the following conversation:

Lisa: “Bart, what do rabbis value more than anything?”

Bart: “Those funny looking black hats?”

Lisa: “No Bart. The truth!”

Choosing the right school for our children is very difficult. There are all sorts of pressures, including social ones. Each community has a limited number of schools which are acceptable to its members. What if it's clear either from the start, or after our children have been at one of those schools, that none are giving our children the education that they need? What if the school that seems to be right for my daughter is outside of what my community deems acceptable? What if my son needs a more open-minded yeshiva? At that moment we are put to the Bart-Lisa test. What do we value most: being on the right team, with the right headgear, school, shul and camp choices, or the truth, the needs of our children, and doing what's best for them?

As a child, I was a decent, but unexceptional athlete. I yearned to be on my school basketball team, but was not good enough to make the cut. I decided that when I was a father, I would work with my son from a young age to ensure that he would be a good athlete. As I got older, and more into Torah learning, my plan switched. Now I would push my son in Torah to make up from my late start at serious learning. It was with this desire that I jumped at an offer to meet with Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg ZT”L, when he came to Baltimore in 1999. My oldest son was three years old at the time, and we were on the verge of choosing a school for him. The two choices that we considered were both yeshivish, but one was more “modern” and the other was more intense. I wanted to send our son to the latter, but lacked the guts to make the decision myself. Rabbi Scheinberg, I thought, would make it for me. I was sure he would choose the same yeshiva I had. When I explained my question to him, he looked at my son who I was holding on my lap and asked how old he was. When I told him, he told me “Relax. He's young. Let him play”. He continued by saying that he could not tell me which school was better, but that when I was ready to make the choice, to “choose the one whose principal best understands children's psychology.

“Chanoch l'naar al pi darko” (educate a child according to his way). If Shlomo HaMelech had a dollar for every time that passuk was quoted, he would be, well, a king. On the other hand, if he had a dollar for only the times that passuk was applied, he'd need a second job. Over the years, I've seen students switch schools from “frummer” schools to more “modern” ones. Often, something remarkable happens. The boy, who didn't have such a head for learning, suddenly thrives as the star of the play, or the editor of the school newspaper. The girl who was a rebel for wearing colorful striped socks, is now the rebbetzin, proud of being the most religious one in her class. To be sure, this doesn't always happen, but I am not suggesting that this is the right choice for every child. I am suggesting that parents consider more options when considering schools for their children, particularly when they are looking make a switch. I well understand the social pressure of sending a child to a school outside of the community norm. Peer pressure exists beyond childhood. Still we need to decide whether we are willing to sacrifice our child's welfare for the sake of the “team”, or whether we are truly interested in helping our sons and daughters find their truth.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Book to the Future- The Lesson I Failed to Learn from my Dad

This is about books. It's also about parenting, teaching and a bunch of other things which will not be discussed, either primarily or at all.

I know when my love-affair with books began. I have vivid memories of my father OB'M coming home on a Friday afternoon, with his ubiquitous “lawyer bag” (that's what I called it) in hand. He would put it down in the foyer, and tell me to open it up, as there was something in the bag for me. Whenever this happened, I knew it meant one thing. My father, who loved to read, had stopped off at The Strand, one of his favorite used-bookstores. While there, he had not only picked out a bunch of crime detective novels, or books about some fascinating episode in US history, he had also picked out something for me. As a young child, it also meant that after the family finished Shabbos dinner that night, we would lay on the floor in the living room, as he read to me. The first book I remember him reading to me, was Roald Dahl's “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. There would be other books by Dahl, all of which I would love, a love I continue to feel, despite learning later on that he was a virulent anti-Semite. There were also many other authors and topics. As I got older, I'd read the book by myself, but I never stopped feeling like the excited young child, each time the Friday afternoon scene was repeated.

I recall, that when my sister applied to Yale (she was accepted), one of the essay questions was “Describe the last book you read”. I remember thinking that any student who chose that essay would almost certainly figure out the last book they should have read. I, somewhat pretentiously, decided, that from that moment on, I would only read books which I would be willing to write about on an essay like that (sports book were the one exception, although even there, I tend to favor serious writing). Since that time, I've done a pretty good job of sticking to that decision. I read mostly non-fiction, particularly memoirs, biographies and history, as well as the classics. I never developed a taste for crime novels, despite my father's love for them. More importantly, he never tried to push them on me. That's another one of his lessons that I failed to learn.

My wife and I love to read. We read to our children starting when they are young, and buy them books or take them to the library, whenever possible. All of our children who are old enough to read, are readers, with a few being serious bookworms. I take a lot of pleasure in watching them develop this love of reading. Still, the fact that they enjoy reading books which are fun rather than serious, has been a somewhat tough pill to swallow. As they've grown older, I've tried to push my snobbish, high-brow tastes on them, with little or no success. This past Friday night, this topic came up at the Shabbos table, and one of our guests said his father had done the same thing to him and his siblings, who are all older than my children, when they were young. He also pointed out, that not a single one of them developed a taste for the classics. When I heard those words, it was like a punch to the gut.

Whether we are teachers or parents (or, as in my case, both), our job is not to create clones of ourselves. Giving children wings and the ability to fly is one thing. Choosing the destination where they must go is entirely something else.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Getting Meir to the Super Bowl- Some followup questions

A friend posted my blog about getting Meir to the Super Bowl on his Facebook wall. A friend of my friend responded with some questions. I must admit that ordinarily, I would not appreciate this response about how to raise my son. However, being that I have made this a public appeal, I will address his points, both for him, as well as for those who have the same questions.

If this is a life's dream for a kid, and you want to fulfill it, pony up the cash. If your like the rest of us who can't or won't afford it, then accept that your one of the other 295 million Americans who will never see a Super Bowl, live. “

As I mentioned, the thought of spending that kind of money for a game is obscene. I doubt I'll ever be given the test of wealth, but if I am (test me God, PLEASE test me), I hope I will be the type who will drive an Accura and not a Buggoti, and buy suits off the rack. That said, there will be an awesome workout room in the basement, but I digress. I don't want anyone to buy him a ticket.

I have so little money, I can't even spell the brand properly

Is Meir selling lemonade on the street corner to raise money?? Is he shoveling snow on people's walkways??? R. Sommer is asking for a favor to be called in, for what reason I don't know???? What is Meir (or his father) doing themselves????”

I hinted at it, but yes, he is shoveling to make money. We did tell him that even if he earned enough money, we would not let him use it on this. He worked for 10 hours last Friday. His pants literally (and I mean literally, not the figurative way that people say “literally) froze. The first time he did it, he even met a player from the Giants practice squad who gave him and his friend $100 to split.

He used the money to replace the laptop that got stolen at school so he could continue to take good notes and make Honor Roll.

“I have a better suggestion. Rather than send him alone to a freezing stadium surrounded by 1000000 people with prolonged intermissions, minimal kosher food, and 2 teams Meir doesn't particularly care about, sit him next to you on your couch, and watch it together. In the warmth of your home where you can share in the closeness of each other and experience the game together (as father and son). Talk football strategy. Why is Peyton Manning the best QB??”

For Meir, it's not about which two teams are playing. It's for the experience.

My oldest son, had a great response to this question. He said “Tell him we are too frum to own a TV”. He was a little wrong. We are not too frum for anything, but we don't own a TV.

I did take him to a Super Bowl party last year. I even wore my old Tony Dorsett jersey, which is about as close as the Cowboys are going to get to the game as long as Jerry Jones owns the team.

Peyton Manning?!?! Are you kidding? He's a great REGULAR season QB. Montana and Brady (or should it be Brady and Montana) are the best ever.

“Sports events are special because of the people you share them with as well as what takes place on the field. Sending him alone?? I don't get it. “

The world would be a better place if we learned how to be alone with ourselves, although sitting with 100,000 people is hardly alone.

“Here you're advocating someone to do you a favor by getting Meir (who doesn't own a shovel that I heard about), a ticket to a game he has neither earned, nor should really be going to.”

You are right. He doesn't own a shovel. I do. He uses my shovel to shovel our walk (for free!!!) and to make money.

Meir doesn't own a shovel, but if he did, it would look like this

“Instead make it a nice father son day. If he has a couple of friends, invite them over too. Have a Super Bowl party. Learn Gemara during the halftime show, pick a team and root for them.

I would never allow him to watch the halftime show.

Learn gemara? Do you stop in the middle of a walk with your wife to learn gemara? While hiking in the Grand Canyon?

Why you would think its special to send a young man to an event like this alone in freezing weather.”

Because it's the Super Bowl, it's being played near my home, and some things, like dogsledding, hot cocoa and post-season football, are best experienced in the cold.

“I'd have more respect for the request if say Meir were working and you were asking for funds to match how much he made. And you're right... He (and you) shouldn't spend money on tickets for this game. In fact... If someone did give you a ticket, you should sell it, and give the proceeds to Just One Life.”

I'd have less respect for the request if I did that. I don't want anyone to spend that money.

Did you sell the Shas that your in-laws bought you when you got married so you could give it to tzedaka? What about the airline ticket to California you were given after graduating high school? I mean, my God, there are children starving in Africa.

If I gave a guy a ticket so his son could go to the game and he sold it instead, I'd be pretty mad.

“You want to make a special day for him as good fathers want to. Make him a Super Bowl party. Talk strategy with him. Bring a couple of other kids over and a friend or 2 of yours.....Make it a day for the 2 of you. Believe me...if one is really interested in the game itself, watch it on TV. Anyone I have known who ever went to a Super Bowl went for reasons completely unrelated to the game. Meir would likely sit in a place where the players who he is not truly familiar with look like small dots. Once the initial "shock and awe" ambiance has worn off, I think it would be an underwhelming and potentially dangerous situation for him.

He will love it. He'll never forget it.

Dangerous? What might happen? A CEO could, I suppose, drop his end of year bonus on Meir's head. I doubt a fur coat would do more than cause a mere flesh wound.

I hope their are no large diamonds in the pockets

I'd love to go to the game myself. Heck, I'd like to take my oldest son (although I'd rather go to the Olympics if you happen to know anyone who wants to help a bald teacher who runs). There are several reasons I only asked for one ticket.

  • I don't want to be greedy
  • I want to make sure that this is seen as what it is; a father doing something for his kid.
  • Tickets are given away for all sorts of reason; friends, family, business associates, clients etc. I'm looking for that one person who sees helping a kid at a tough time in his life, as a worthwhile person to give a ticket to. Is that really so bad?

Pray Tell - How to help our children (and ourselves) learn to daven

It's quite ironic that much of what I'm about to write was thought of while I was davening, or supposed to be, at least.

If the Greek gods had really wanted to punish Sisyphus, they should have put him in charge of davening in a middle school or high school minyan. 

I have attended and worked at a number of different types of schools, and without exception, I have never felt that davening was part of an educational experience. A rebbe can tell his talmidim when to stand, when to bow and what to say. A morah can make sure that her class has fluency in the words. Those things are just the technical parts of prayer. Davening is in fact “Avodah She'balev” (service of the heart).

Why are school minyanim so ineffective?

As I suggested in my post on middos, tefillah is not learned at school from teachers, although they can reinforce what has been learned, both good and bad. Parents teach their children how to pray and about prayer, both at home and in shul. Davening at school almost always involves some kids who don't want to daven, out of boredom, anger, lack of connection, or just a simple desire to talk, study or veg out. Efforts by teachers to quiet them and to get them to daven, look inside the siddur, or at least stand and sit at the right times, are often ignored. Some kids even enjoy the experience of getting the teacher frustrated.

Why is davening hard in general?

I'll admit it. I stink at davening. I am fairly careful to attend minyan three times a day, and I say the words, and know what most of them mean, but most of the time my head and heart are not in it. I think about family, work, or what to write about davening, on my blog.

Davening is hard for me because-

  • It's repetitive. While I know I can add my own words, most of davening involves saying the same words.
  • I'm busy, stressed, happy, distracted, bored, tired, hungry etc.
  • Even though I've learned quite a bit about the various philosophical approaches to how it works, I have no clue how it works.
  • I still have the childish view that davening is about getting stuff.

Students have all of those challenges, as well as others such as-

  • They have no clue what many/most of the words mean.
  • Many can not think of things they are lacking.
  • They are still figuring out what they believe.
  • They might come from homes where davening is not taken seriously.

Which brings us to the parents role in their children's chinuch. Kids watch EVERYTHING we do. No matter how I may justify it to myself and God why I am frequently late for shul, I am, in fact, frequently late for shul. On the other hand, I am almost never late to work or a baseball game. There's a message there. I do daf yomi during davening. It's better than talking, or reading a newspaper, but it still sends a message.

I've often wondered about something I've witnessed many times. After many shiurim which are delivered at night, there is a minyan for maariv after the shiur. Almost without exception, the men stay in and pray. Almost without exception, the woman go out to the hallway and talk. Even if you want to suggest that they are not obligated to pray maariv, what message is sent when someone chooses talking over davening?

As Rav Wolbe has pointed out, we teach our children to daven, by how we daven. Conversely, when we “shush” them or say “nu”, or point inside their siddur, we ensure that they will do the same to our grandchildren.

There's more, and here's why I write this today, by parashas B'Shalach, where tefillah plays a role in the story. My wife and I try to involve our children in thoughtful discussions at the Shabbos table. We have no interest in hearing divrei Torah written or printed by their teachers. We want to hear from our children and what they think. My plan for this evening is to talk about tefillah. Ask them how it works, why we have to say words when God knows our thoughts, why we say the same words everyday etc. As always, I don't know where the conversation will go, but I do know one thing. My kids will see that davening matters to us. That davening is hard. That learning to daven is a process. If this doesn't work for you, let your kids see you learn about davening (the inner part, not just halacha). Open up the Avudraham, or an Artscroll book on beiur tefillah. Use an interlinear siddur, or talk to them how frustrated you were after blowing off another tefillah. They are already watching. It's up to you to see what they'll learn.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Getting Meir to the Super Bowl- Why am I Doing This?

Why am I doing this? Am I crazy? Delusional, perhaps? Maybe I'm just being greedy?

Since I started my quest to get Meir to the Super Bowl on February 2nd, these are some of the questions that have been going through my mind. As of two months ago, Meir had never even been to a regular season game. Thanks to a casual friend and a former student, I was able to get him to see his beloved Giants. He had a great time, even if they did lose 24-0. Shouldn't that be enough? Why isn't the smile on his face enough for me to feel satisfied? Is it reasonable to make a ticket to the Super Bowl my next goal?

These too, are good questions. I suppose that I could talk about wanting to give him an experience that he wants so badly, or that the game is being played only five miles away, something that is likely to never happen again. I could tell you about how we worked so hard to earn money to buy a ticket, when he thought they could be had for $600, only to discover that the price was much higher, and that, even if he earned the money, his parents would never let him spend that on a football game. None of these would be enough to get me to call in a big favor. I mean, how many people do you know who have ever been to the 'Big Game'?

I had a lot of thoughts and dreams when I was growing up, about the kind of father I wanted to be. Some came from wanting to be just like my dad, while others were things that I hadn't seen at home. I was never going to be too tired to have a catch with my son. I was going to take him to ballgames. At first, I was going to turn him into the kind of athlete I wish I had been. Then, it was the kind of talmid chacham (Torah scholar) I desired to be. I would be patient, and calm, and...a whole lot more. So far, I've fallen short. Very short, although I'm not giving up. This ticket is not about wanting to makeup for my shortcomings as a father. However much I want to do that, bribery or gifts are not the way to get there.

This is no “Make-A-Wish” situation. Thank God, Meir is not sick. He is going through a tough time though. I won't share the details publicly, but it's hard for me to see him hurting, especially when there is not much that I can do to help. If I can lighten things up for him by doing special, I'd feel so much better. Still, I know, one exciting day, no matter how amazing it will be, will not change things for him.

So I'm back to all the questions. I don't know if this makes sense, but as I sit here fighting back tears, as I hope and pray that a boy around Meir's age, who has disappeared, be found, as I sit and think of his father, having read this , there is hardly a thing in the world I wouldn't try to do to help Meir feel a little happier.

I am looking for help to get Meir to the Super Bowl. I DO NOT want anyone to spend money on it. If you have money to donate, please donate to Just One Life. I'm looking for someone who has a connection with an owner, player, agent, someone who works at NFL Headquarters, someone with a box at Metlife, connection to sponsoring company etc.

He is old enough to go by himself, so we need only one ticket.

If you want to discuss this, please email me at

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Teaching our children middos- Who does it the best?

“The words of a child in the market come from either the father or mother”

Sukkah 56b

I am often asked about which school or type of school does the best job teaching middos. The question is based on fundamental misunderstanding.

The gemara in Bava Basra (21a) teaches that Yehoshua ben Gamla established the first yeshivahs, due to the fact that some fathers could no longer fulfill their obligation of teaching Torah to their sons. He is praised for this action, which is described as preventing Torah from being forgotten from the Jewish people. Essentially, when it came to talmud Torah, the educator became in loco parentis.

This was only true for the teaching of Torah, or teaching of texts. Presumably, this did not cover other areas such as middos and davening (which I will address in my next post), which the father (and mother) could still teach.

The gemara in Sukkah, from which the introductory quote is taken, discusses why a family of Kohanim were punished. It tells the story of a woman from their family who spoke publicly in a disrespectful way about God. The gemara asks why the family was collectively punished for her actions as an individual. The answer is that she would not have said this, had she not heard similar things at home. Any parent of pre-school children is familiar with a child repeating something at school, that the parent wishes was private. The gemara here is not discussing a child. It discusses a married woman. It takes for granted that even years later, the attitude that one sees in their home as a child, is ingrained in the psyche.

Ever wonder why there are so many different middos programs that schools use? It seems to me that there are so many because they are trying to accomplish the impossible. Schools can help teach manners. They can help reinforce proper actions or behaviors. They can not teach middos. You as a parent are the only one who can do it.

The scary thing is, all parents do so, whether or not we intend to. The curriculum is our own middos and our children see them all the time, both good and not so good. They see how we talk about rabbis and teachers, how we treat the strange lady at shul, if we make snide comments about others, whether we pause to help a poor person and we behave when we disagree with our spouse..

Who does the best job teaching middos? You do.