Tag: Mishpacha

When Dating Between Married People IS Appropriate

While people join a synagogue for a plethora of reasons. As scholar Ron Wolfson notes in his book Relational Judaism, most place finding a community and friends near the top of our lists. Yet with multiple pressures on synagogues to educate, celebrate, engage, worship, and counsel, relationship building seems to fall through the cracks.

Recently our Congregation Or Ami’s educational leadership made an active decision to integrate more relationship-building and more parenting “How To” opportunities into our Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program. A good decision, it nonetheless led to a complex pedagogical problem: how does one weave content learning, relationship building, and parenting “How To” into one coherent experience? It was a daunting task.

Our solution? Encourage our married (and unmarried) congregants to date.

Speed Dating – Synagogue Style
For this, we turned to Speed Dating, a late 1990’s social phenomenon which spread like wildfire across the country. In classic Speed Dating, two concentric circles of chairs face each other, or sometimes across tables. Assuming heterosexual relationships, one gender sits in the inside circle while the other gender sits in the outer circle. Every two people face one another and “date” for a specified amount of time, usually 5 minutes. Then the outer circle stands up and rotates a few spaces clockwise. Sitting across from a new partners, each pair introduces and dates.

Our modified “Mishpacha Speed Dating” invited pairs to share names, names and grades of children and other basic info, and then to answer a specific question. The questions/prompts, developed from that week’s content – the Joseph narratives of Genesis – explored into issues of parenting. Since Mishpacha program parents began the session reading a detailed summary of the narrative, the context made sense.

Beyond Hobbies and Movies: Questions that Led to Great Conversations
We asked questions designed to spark conversation and sharing:

  • As a group, Jacob and his four wives (Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah) were prolific parents, giving birth to twelve sons and at least one daughter (Dinah). We would like to think that he and they enjoyed parenthood. What have been, for you, the joys of parenthood?
  • Jacob gave his son Joseph a “coat of many colors” as an expression of his love. We give our children many gifts, and there are many intangible “gifts” we often wish to impart to them. What quality or value do you wish to impart to your child but have found it challenging to do so? Invite your partner to offer suggestions about creative ways to share this “gift”.
  • Joseph and his brothers took sibling rivalry and “bad behavior” to the extreme, when the brothers – having contemplated and rejected killing Joseph – threw him instead into a pit and sold him into slavery. Some commentators argue that father Jacob’s silence on the matter allowed these behaviors to fester and grow. What challenge are you facing with your child that you have not been able to resolve? (If you have more than one child, choose one. After presenting, ask your partner for suggestions and advice.)
  • Toward the end of the Joseph narratives, father Jacob blesses each of his sons. Some believe the blessings include two parts: a realistic yet positive assessment of the child’s best qualities, and a hope for how the child will grow in the future. For one child, what are your blessings for him or her. Although Jacob’s blessings include some uncomfortable truths about his children, keep your blessing focused on the most positive qualities only.

Minimal sharing followed each Mishpacha Speed Dating interaction because during each of the 6 iterations, the pairs seemed to have plenty about which to talk.

Let the “Dating” Continue: Connecting through Parenting
The forty adults in the room shared a common bond, finding both incredible joy and at time numbing challenge from parent our children. We recognized that none of our kids came with instruction manuals, and that even second and third children seem at times to defy the instruction manuals we “write” as we raise the first. As such, it was helpful to have other parents – and a group of other parents – with which to share, commiserate and consult when the challenges are most gut wrenching. So the secret was out of the bag: here in Congregation Or Ami, especially amongst the participants in our Mishpacha program, we have compatriots in the lifelong process of raising children. So we invited participants to turn to one another – as we did today – for advice and support.

Making New Friends through Risk Taking
Life can be complicated and exhausting, and few of us easily make new friends in our middle years. So here’s an invitation and challenge we shared with participant adults: you have each spent time with a minimum of 5-6 people today and with others at previous Mishpacha sessions. Surely you found one or two people with whom you felt a commonality. Take a chance; date them. Invite him or her for a cup of coffee, a glass of wine, or perhaps lunch. See if there is a friendship that might grow from this encounter. It is a risk, but when it works, it can be life’s greatest blessings.

They Loved It!
That week’s Mishpacha session seemed to turn a corner, providing participants with a little of each, and whet appetite for even more. Speed dating, like many daily encounters, is an opportunity for learning, friendship and new experiences. While we DISCOURAGE people from actually dating, we encourage them to “Friendship Date.” As congregant parent Talee Sands commented on our Facebook pictures, “This was one of my most favorite activities.” And as congregant couple Kristin and Al Brenner emailed, “Al and I truly enjoyed our session today. It has inspired further thought and perspective, and great conversation.”

When Sarah Laughs, God Rejoices

Adults study Torah commentaries in Mishpacha Family Learning

While studying about Sarah’s laughter in response to God’s announcement of her imminent pregnancy, I came across this gem from Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker. The adults in our Mishpacha Family Alternative Learning program, who explored commentaries from Rashi, Onkelos, and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, agreed that this was by far the best interpretation. Rabbi Dunsker, a 21st Century Rabbi in Washington State, wrote this first for the URJ Ten Minutes of Torah commentary on Vayeira. Rabbi Dunsker teaches:

As I read this though, Sarah’s laughter seems just as joyful and faithful as Abraham’s. What I see in these two moments is that God gave each of them the news in a way that they could each enjoy it alone. This child will be a gift to both Abraham and Sarah, they will conceive and raise him together, yet they still each must process this information personally and privately.

Abraham was alone with God and had the freedom to fall down and laugh out loud, but Sarah’s experience was different. She overheard a conversation (that it seems she was meant to overhear) in which this information was revealed, and so she laughed in her own way. Inwardly, quietly, to herself, or at herself—it doesn’t much matter to me which of these ways she laughed, just that she laughed. She laughed for the joy of receiving the blessing of a child after being denied for so long. She laughed at the miracle this birth would be. She laughed at the idea of the sexual experience she would enjoy with her husband conceiving this child. And she laughed at her poor old body experiencing pregnancy so late in the game. 

As many people do when they are caught doing something, Sarah denies it. I imagine Sarah denying her laughter while at the same time struggling to wipe the smile off her face, perhaps even snorting a little from the effort. But that lie brings her a reward. It brings her a direct communication from God. I imagine God trying to hide a smile as well when calling her on the lie, the way a parent does when he or she catches a young child in a small lie or a moment of absurdity. If God were truly angry with Sarah, this prophecy may have been rescinded or she would have been punished in some way. It seems to me that God rejoices at her laughter and rewards her with more as we read in Genesis 21:6 – Sarah says, “God has brought me laughter; all who hear will laugh with me.” Of course Isaac (Yitzchak) is named for all this joy that he brings.

I just love it when new perspectives bring forth poignant lessons from Torah. As Ben Bag Bag said (I paraphrase), when we keep looking at Torah from different angles and different perspectives, we discover even greater depths of wisdom than we ever imagined.

“You All Are Going to Die,” Said the Rabbi to the 3rd-6th Graders. Appropriate or Not?

You all are going to die!” said the rabbi to his 3rd thru 6th grade students. It was all part of a day of death and dying at Congregation Or Ami’s Mishpacha Learning session.

While Rabbi Julia Weisz walked parents through the Jewish rituals and ideas about death and mourning and Cantor Doug Cotler taught Jewish songs to other students which explored Jewish ideas about life and loss, I – Rabbi Paul Kipnes – had the unenviable task to walking young students thru the realities of life, namely, that we are all going to die.

A Story…
There’s a rabbinic tale about a most powerful king who commanded the community’s rabbi to bless him with Judaism’s best blessing. Began the rabbi, “May you die. May your son die. And may your grandson die.” The king became apoplectic, barking, “How dare you…”, at which the rabbi continued, “…in that order.”

This story articulates three long held truths about death:

  • That everyone will die. 
  • That we hope that the older generation dies before its descendants. 
  • That, while each loss is painful, the death of a child or grandchild is even more painful. 

Accepting (at least for the remainder of the class) that death is inevitable, the students and I shared thoughts about what happens after we die, a theme introduced in Cantor Doug Cotler’s song, Nefesh. We talked about what the nefesh (soul) is or might be. We talked about Jewish ideas about how the soul returns to the Eternal Soul of the universe, what some call “God.” We considered diverse Jewish beliefs, from the belief that the soul dies with the body to the Kabbalist/mystic teaching that the soul is reincarnated (gilgul hanefesh) after death.

Lighting Candles to See into the Soul
We spent much time analyzing Jewish belief that we live on within future generations. I took out a pair of candles. I asked students to watch closely. Using one lit candle to light another candle, I then blew out the first candle and asked, “what happened to the flame?” Most said it disappeared. So I used the lit candle to again light another candle and then blew out the first. “What happened to the first flame,” I again asked?

One student intuited the lesson: “Two things happen at once. The flame disappears, and is gone. But also, the flame lives on in the second candle.” That’s my teaching.

From the flame that disappears, we learn that upon our deaths, part of our soul is gone, returning to the Eternal Soul of the universe. From the flame that continues to burn upon the candle it lit previously, we learn that our soul lives on in the lives of our biological children and our adopted children (Talmud explains that one who teaches a child is as important as his biological parent). Our soul also lives on – in a sense, we gain immortality – through the lives of those whose lives we enriched by our teaching, and those who we help with tzedakah and gemilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness).

Our Soul Lives on After Us
So just as our biology overcomes death when we pass on our DNA to our children, so too our soul passes in part to those who borne to or touched by us.

Heady stuff for kids who can barely contemplate the truth of “you are all gonna die.” We hope these conversations helped the students begin to deal with death, as did the round robin stations created by HUC-JIR interns Lisa Berney and Sarah Lauing, which investigated Jewish mourning customs.

You see, at Congregation Or Ami we strive to teach about all issues, even the most difficult, even when the mere thought of them make us uncomfortable. Because that is what Judaism should be about – helping us face, with courage, strength and holiness, the challenging moments of life.

Video: Kindergarteners Show Us How to Begin Teshuva

Saying “I’m Sorry” is not always easy. It can be uncomfortable or downright embarrassing.  Still, we learn from the Talmud that on Yom Kippur, for the ways we have harmed others, the holy day does not atone until we make peace with that other person.

Kindergarten students from Congregation Or Ami’s Mishpacha Family Alternative program, led by Mishpacha Coordinators (HUC students) Sarah Lauing and Lisa Berney, made this video to begin the work of teshuva (repenting our mistakes).  Teshuva never looked cuter!