Tag: Center for Jewish Parenting

Parenting without a Manual OR 5 Pieces of Jewish Guidance (so you don’t kill ’em)

Joseph, the once-favored child of Jacob, rises up from slave and prisoner to become Pharaoh’s right hand. He assumes responsibility for a far-reaching 14-year business plan to ensure that after seven years of plenty, Egypt would be prepared to endure the seven years of famine. Once an egocentric young man who drew the enmity of his brothers, so much so that they almost killed him — literally — Joseph develops expertise necessary to successfully navigate complex managerial responsibilities. Ultimately, Egypt will thrive because of Joseph’s proficiency as a politically connected businessperson. Joseph was truly blessed.

Then more blessing comes Joseph’s way. Joseph and his Egyptian wife, Asenath, bring two sons into the world.

We imagine Joseph being overjoyed as children enter his life. We dream about the nachas (pride) he feels. And, like so many parents back then and now, he also probably felt overwhelmed. Although Joseph was very successful as a businessman, he had little helpful guidance on how to be a good parent.

His father, Jacob, was a poor role model; Torah speaks frankly about Jacob’s lackluster parenting skills. When Joseph brags to his brothers and parents that they will all bow down to him, Jacob is silent in the face of Joseph’s egotism. Does this lead to the subsequent plan to sell Joseph into slavery? Following the rape of Dinah, Jacob’s inability to respond — again he was silent — might have allowed for the brothers’ overkill against the people of Shechem.

Yes, Joseph is extremely underprepared for his new role as a parent. Yet, Proverbs expresses the long-term significance of our actions as parents: “Train up a child in the way she should go and even when she is old she will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Thankfully, later generations find guidance in later Jewish texts.

Talmudic Wisdom on Raising Children

In the Talmud, our Rabbis delineate five (or six) central obligations incumbent upon all parents:

A parent has the following obligations towards a child — brit, to circumcise him [others add: or enter her into the brit/covenant], pidyon ha-ben, to redeem him if he is a firstborn, to teach the child Torah, to find the child a spouse [others add: a partner], and to teach the child a craft or a trade. And there are some who say that a parent must also teach the child how to swim.  (Talmud, Kiddushin 29a)

Contemporary Jewish Wisdom on Parenting

Recently, parents gathered under the auspices of the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting to consider the role and responsibilities of parenthood. With children in nursery school through high school, these parents engaged the Kiddushin text to understand the wisdom of our ancient rabbis’ teachings.

Then, assuming the role of parenting coaches, they listed five essential responsibilities for parents today:

  1. Guiding, not befriending: Parents are guides, not friends or buddies. Eventually, our children will do what they choose, so parents are responsible to help guide our kids toward their own good decision-making. We do this by being loving, intentional, values-based and expansive as we guide our children.
  2. Remembering kids are kids: Children — teens especially — are hormonally driven, peer-pressured, biologically unfinished and emotionally evolving. Our children will face almost every challenge we can imagine and will be constantly seduced to try to follow their urges. We help set limits, because when parents treat their children as fully formed adults who can make their own decisions, we set them up for failure.
  3. Providing strength: Parents set expectations clearly and follow through on consequences because children need and most often (secretly) desire clarity and limits. Consequences should be clear, firm and situationally appropriate. Only then do parents provide the strength and excuse to keep kids from making decisions that are not in their best interests and/or are not what their higher selves really want to do.
  4. Truth-telling: Parents should always tell the truth to their children, because it ensures that they will know they can always trust us. Nonetheless, complete openness is not necessary as it is usually not age- and situationally appropriate. Sharing partial truth without lying, or not answering certain questions because they are private, is preferred to lying. (Think: Mom, did you ever smoke weed?)
  5. Upholding Jewish values: Judaism teaches age-appropriate moderation in most situations. Specific values guide parenting: b’tzelem Elohim (being created in the image of God) expresses the intrinsic value and worthiness of every person, emet (truth-telling), shmirat ha’guf (care of our body, mind and spirit), chesed (kindness), tzedek (do what is just or right), chaim (affirming life) and shalom (seeking wholeness).

So, like Joseph, manager extraordinaire, many of us become new dads and moms. Amid the joy and wonder, may we remember our parental responsibilities so that our children can grow into ethical, resilient, compassionate adults. Then we will truly be blessed.

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.”

8 Tips on How to Be a Positive Jewish Role Model

What does it take to be a positive Jewish role model?

  • Talk Jewish: Jewish talk is filled with kindness, caring, and concern for the poor, the widow, and the stranger. It involves more kvelling (praising) than kvetching (complaining). Talking Jewish is thoughtful and hopeful.
  • Show enthusiasm for learning: As Am haSefer (people of the book), we value the contents of our brains. Jewish role models strive to accumulate wisdom, recognizing that when our minds are open, the world opens up with new possibilities.
  • Read Jewish books and see Jewish-themed movies: Fiction or non-fiction, historical or fanciful, the Jewish arts can nurture a deeper Jewish self-awareness.
  • Involve yourself in social justice causes: Ever since Moses, Aaron and Miriam stood up to Pharaoh to speak up for the downtrodden, Jews have been in the forefront of every significant social justice cause. Jewish role models get involved because we remember the experience of being at the mercy of others.
  • Plan a(nother) trip to Israel: Visiting Israel unites the Jewish past and present. Through the mitzvah (religious deed) of Aliyat haNefesh (spiritual journey of the soul), we seek intellectual, spiritual, and personal transformation.
  • Sing along at services: The act of praying is an active experience. Engage your brain, move your lips, open your mind, and you may be inspired. Of course, first you need to go to services!
  • Give tzedakah to Jewish organizations: Jews believe that we have been given sufficient resources so that we may give generously to help others. Your investment in Jewish organizations and synagogues ensures that there will be a Jewish future.
  • Light Shabbat candles: Once weekly, alone, with family, or with friends enrich or celebrate—YOU CHOOSE your life by marking the holy day. Let the candles adorn your dinner table or light them as you get ready to go out, and then blow them out.

3 Jewish Institutions Collaborate on 1 Amazing Dr. Wendy Mogel Lecture

Walking out of the lecture by Dr. Wendy Mogel on “Raising Resilient Kids”, one couldn’t help but be changed. The author of Blessings of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B- regaled the assembled adults with stories of parenting gone wild and confidently, sometimes sarcastically reminded us to let our kids be kids. Perfection she implied, acceptance into Harvard she instructed is not the measure of healthy, well adjusted children.

Time to Have Another Child!?
I overheard the parent of 2 college students comment, “I learned so much tonight that I almost want to have another kid, just so I can raise one correctly.” Another quipped, “I was laughing so hard that I didn’t even feel guilty as I recognized the all unhelpful (parenting) habits I’ve developed.”

Yes, a standing room only lecture by two-time New York Times best selling author and parenting expert, psychologist Dr. Wendy Mogel engaged 305 adults for an hour plus session of self-reflection.

A Mirror into our Parenting Style

As Mogel held up a big mirror to all the adults, we nonetheless laughed at ourselves. We reflected upon our parenting styles. We realized that we were not alone in the wonderful, frustrating decidedly unscientific process of raising kids. But that wasn’t the only measure of success that evening.

Elements of a Successful Partnership
The other measure of excellence was that this expensive undertaking was the result of a growing partnership between three overlapping Jewish organizations – Calabasas’ Congregation Or Ami, Woodland Hills’ Kadima Jewish Day School and Malibu’s Shalom Institute/JCA Shalom. Three institutions, each dedicated to nurturing healthy, educated, moral Jewish kids, got together to hold what assuredly will be the first if many lectures on Jewish parenting. And the partnership was energizing.

To what do we attribute the success of this emerging partnership?

  • Choosing a timely topic and a well known, accomplished speaker 
  • Sharing the costs, and thus increasing the motivation to turn out greater participation among multiple organizations 
  • An agreement to share equally any revenue 
  • Shared publicity responsibilities – one made the registration website, one made the flyers, another wrote the press release 
  • Checking our egos at the door 
  • Providing each institution and it’s leaders equal one in the spotlight 
  • Increasing the pool of volunteers by bringing together three institutions 
  • Agreeing to leave our educational “silos” for shared successes

A Promising Next Step for Or Ami’s Center for Jewish Parenting
For Congregation Or Ami, this parenting session is one of many over the years sponsored by our Center for Jewish Parenting. Designed to offer well received and well attended lectures, the Center for Jewish Parenrting has hosted New Community Jewish High School’s Dr. Bruce Powell, and by other local parenting experts. This partnership with overlapping institutions offers an exciting next step for educating Jewish adults for the next generation.

Most Parents Monitor Their Kids’ Facebook, and You Should Too!

Most parents (especially of younger children) are on Facebook, monitor their kids’ Facebook pages, and even have their passwords. We insisted that our kids “friend” us and provide us with the widest access to their Facebook feeds. This allowed us to monitor their use during homework (and bedtime), and to ensure they were being “appropriate.”

The following graphic reveals the results of a significant survey of parental use of Facebook. Read the full article here.

Click here to view the graphic.

Suicide, Drinking and Dying: What to Say to Your Children (and yourself)

Suicide, Drinking, and Dying
What To Say to Your Children (and yourself)
Rabbi Paul Kipnes headshotThe news spread quickly, which is to be expected when it involves a pair of suicides of young people and the death of another, allegedly by alcohol poisoning. 
Those who knew the young men and even those who did not, are shocked, scared and anxious. Many are reviewing their interactions with these youth to see if they missed any signs about what the young people were thinking. Others are wondering how someone could be considering such drastic action and they did not know it. 
Some parents are wondering how to help their children deal with this tragedy. Others are wondering if they are missing signs from their own children. Still others are wondering where God is in all of this. 
Our hearts break for their families; we seek to console them, their loved ones, and our loved ones.  What can we say that will be meaningful to our children, to the families of the deceased… to ourselves?
In conjunction with the Or Ami Center for Jewish Parenting, we offer these resources written and/or compiled by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Cantor Doug Cotler and Rabbi Julia Weisz:
5 Initial Thoughts when Dealing with Teens after a Suicide 
  1. Be with them, let them talk, or cry, or just be. Suicide is confusing and it may take time for your child to open up and begin to talk about it.
  2. While most suicidal individuals give off warning signs, many of these signs are missed by even those closest to them. Scrutinizing past interactions for such signs is normal, brought about by feelings of guilt, sadness or remorse. Listen to your child, don’t dismiss his/her sadness, but remind him/her that even those closest to the person who killed himself did not recognize the signs.
  3. Most adolescents have thoughts at one time or another about suicide. It is NORMAL to have such thoughts. Let your child know that he or she can talk to you about anything. Be prepared not to “freak out” if your child shares such thoughts.
  4. If necessary, and if your child needs it, consult with a therapist who works with youth. I would be glad to refer you to such individuals.
  5. Please do not hesitate to contact Congregation Or Ami (818-880-4880) to talk to Rabbi Julia Weisz or with me. When you call, please let them know it is about the suicides and that this is very important.

Read Facing a Suicide: Talking to Your Kids…, for:

  • Some Statistics and Facts Concerning YOUTH Suicide
  • Six Warning Signs
  • Seven Things to Do: When You Suspect Suicidal Feelings: How You Can Help

Read A Letter to our Teens and College Students: About Safe Places and Safe People… Like Your Rabbi and Cantor 

An Excerpt: …Your rabbis and cantor reach out to our teens after the Tyler Clementi suicide: Whether you are gay, straight, bi or transgendered or just plain confused, Judaism teaches that each individual is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  It does not matter what other people think about you as you struggle to figure out what you think about yourself… If you are feeling sad, angry, scared or any of a myriad of confusing emotions, and you need someone to talk to, please be in touch with one of us. And always remember that you have rabbis and a cantor and a community that care about you deeply and accept you for who you are.  No matter what.

  • Resources for Helping Your Child Cope
  • Deciphering what is on a Child’s Mind
  • Guidance for Talking to Childen of Different Ages
  • How to Comfort the Mourner
  • What to Say and Not to Say When a Child Dies
Read Some Jewish Responses
Finally, pass this onto friends, teachers, and others for whom this information might be helpful.  
In the days and weeks ahead, may you find the courage and fortitude to face the realities of life: 

that some live and some die
that sometimes things just don’t make sense 
that we can chose: 

to hold those we love closer
and to count our blessings. 
Your rabbis and cantor are always here to talk to, to consult with, to listen. Because we care for you.  

Pointing the Way Forward

From my Grandpa Eddie, I learned the importance of enjoying life with your family.  Instead of hoarding his money and leaving us a bigger inheritance, he and Grandma Esther decided that they would rather see their grandkids having fun and bonding.  They sent us all to Jewish summer camps and spent regular time with us.

My Dad and Mom do the same, taking the family – especially when the kids were younger – on big family trips such that today all the cousins have strong connections one to the other.

My parents have also passed onto us (and continue to do so) the important of mishpacha (family), tikkun olam (social activism), kehilla (being part of a community), ahavat yisrael (love of Israel), and more.

This Shabbat we read from the first parasha (portion) in the book of Devarim (or Deuteronomy), the final of the 5 Books of Moses.  Taken together, the words of Devarim represents Moses’ final teaching to the children of Israel, before he goes off to die and they continue on under Joshua’s leadership and enter the Promised Land.  Sometimes we see Devarim as one long sermon – filled with stories and retellings of the past, hopes and warnings, songs and poems.  It is as if Moses, aware that he is about to die, wants to point the way forward to ensure that his peeps survive long into the future.

Some years ago I wrote an ethical will to my children, articulating those values and ideals that I wanted them to know I held dear.  My parents continually share their wisdom in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.This wisdom, imparted in big ways and small, form a Torat Horim (the teachings of my parents) that continue to influence me today – in big ways and small.  What is the wisdom that your parents or grandparents bequeathed to you? 

How My Dad Stopped Being Stupid: Insights of Father of 3 Teenagers

The older teens become, the stupider parents sometimes feel.

There’s something about having teenagers that is the great equalizer. Teenagers, halfway between childhood and adulthood, have more knowledge and sometimes less wisdom.  As they struggle to with their newfound knowledge and relatively greater life experience, they sometimes overreach and appear to “know it all.” In the process, their expansive knowledge pushes back against their parents’ life experience. Parents, it appears, are stupider and stupider.

I have come to realize that if parents are increasingly “stupid” – which they’re not – then my father, who sometimes seemed to know less and less, must not have been as clueless as I sometimes thought!  I have new appreciation for my father, and the havoc raising teens must have brought into his life. In retrospect, I see that for most of those times that I once thought my dad was clueless, he probably wasn’t.

  • Parenting is about raising kids to healthy maturity in spite of our lack of knowledge and their growing sense that they know more or better.
  • Letting teens fully run their own lives would be like letting a day-old deer run free in the forest. She may be beautiful and look competent. She might have great fun in the forest. But, with hunters and predators around, she might just end up endangering herself.
  • Sleep, for the parents of teenagers, comes in fits and starts. Either parents are awake or dozing fitfully until their teen comes home safely from a night out with the car, or they are woken up as these night owls move noisily around the house.
  • Increasingly trying to do it on their own or their own way, teenagers push back against their parents and trumpet their newfound knowledge. The message: teen is smart; parent is stupid.
  • It is very frustrating for parents to be thought of as stupid when they are not. It is even harder for parents to push through being thought of as stupid and still raise these wonderful yet indignant children toward adulthood.
  • Parents love their teens, but may not always like them.
  • As I once overheard parents of teens whisper to each other, “This part of parenthood isn’t so much fun!”

On this Father’s day, with this newfound understanding, I write my dad:

Dear Daddy, 

Thank you for not killing me when I was a teenager. Thank you for not giving up on me even when I was a royal pain in the butt. Thank you for loving me even through those times when I probably was very hard to like. Sometimes it amazes me that humans just don’t eat their young. I apologize for any times I called you a mean name, thought you were clueless, or projected a sense that I was way smarter than you. I now know that you weren’t really stupid. 

Happy Fathers Day. I love you.

A Letter to My College Bound Daughter

Click here to download a PDF of this sermon.

Who has seen the movie Toy Story 3? My wife Michelle and I saw it with the kids on the day it came out. There we sat, watching Pixar’s animated film about a bunch of talking toys, when I noticed the tears running down my wife’s face. I squeezed her hand tightly; I too was crying. Now just so you know, we didn’t get choked up in the original Toy Story, nor in Toy Story 2. We were crying because just like our eldest child Rachel, the owner and friend of the toys, a character named Andy was going off to college. When we later saw the movie The Kids are All Right, we again found ourselves sobbing during the off-to-college scene.

Michelle and I are experiencing a wonderful yet tear-inducing reality that our little redhead has flown the coop, venturing off as a freshman to Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. We long dreamt about and planned for our child to go to college. Yet now that she actually has the gall to go, we find ourselves on a rollercoaster of emotions.

Who has sent children or grandchildren off to college? Who remembers your own parents’ reactions when you first left home? (Who would like to schedule some time in my office to work through the memories of your parent’s joy when you left home?) How many are already emotional at the thought of your own children leaving, even though your own kids won’t go to college for many more years?

As Rachel prepared to leave, I sat down and wrote her a letter. Rereading it a few days later, I realized that the message I had tailored to my eldest child was applicable to so many transitions beyond leaving for college. Essentially, we can all use words of encouragement to go out and “seize the day,” to make the most of our lives while remain true to our core Jewish values.

So whether you have a child or grandchild going off to college, or are that student yourself; whether you have recently started a new job or find yourself searching for one anew, or are beginning or enjoying a recent retirement; if you have recently said goodbye to dear friends who moved away or had to move yourself; if you are reencountering the world after illness or loss or are struggling with the jumble of emotions in the midst of a loved one’s illness or death; if you are welcoming a new member into the family – the birth or adoption of a baby, a fiancé, spouse or partner, a new son- or daughter-in-law, step-parent, or…; if you are about to make a decision to change the path of your life or if you just feel yourself getting stuck in a routine and want to consider a return to a vibrant life path; or whatever transition you find yourself in… I hope these words will inspire you.

Of course, whenever I mention Rachel and her transition of going to college, please substitute in your mind your name and your own transition, since this is for you too.

Dearest Rachel:

You are about to embark on the next leg of the journey called “your life.” For all of us, this leg is bittersweet: Sweet, because as you go off to college, exciting new worlds will open up to you, worlds that you didn’t even imagine existed. They will inspire you and challenge you; you will grow in incredible ways.

Of course, this is a moment of sadness too. Your departure to college makes it undeniably clear that you are no longer a little girl, my little redhead, who lived in a protective bubble of family and community, as safe as possible under the watchful eyes of mom and dad.

No, although Mom and I fantasized about it, they don’t seem to allow parents to be your college roommates. You are off on your own. Although we will undoubtedly connect regularly – texting, BBM, Facebook, iChat and maybe even that old standby, the telephone – Mom and I will no longer have front row seats on your journey; from this day forward, we learn about you from you.

This all happened way too quickly. I miss the days when you could just curl up into my arms and my hugs and kisses were all you seemed to need, yet I know that you and I will be fine. We have worked hard to create a close, trusting relationship, which will grow and deepen as you and I change and grow. More than anything, I cherish our closeness. It gives me the strength to allow to you go off to the college of your choice, instead of my preferred choice: URTC – University of Right around The Corner.

As you leave, there is so much I want to remind you about, values to reaffirm, lessons to repeat. Now I know college is filled with really smart professors and really handsome T.A.’s. However, I want to share with you 18 bits of my chochma, one piece of wisdom for each of your 18 years of life.

  1. First, last, and in between, remember always that you are compassionate, intelligent, and beautiful. Every time we talk to you, you take our breath away with your insightfulness, the depth of your kindness, your “you.” This essence animates you. Our Creator, the Holy One, endowed you with these gifts. Embrace them, honor them, hone them. Especially because…
  2. The world is about to open up for you. Embrace the excitement and the challenge. Reb Nachman of Bratslav, wrote kol ha-olam kulo, gesher tsar me-od, v’ha-ikkar lo l’fached klal – that the whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid. So step up, step out – be it with people, experiences, or opportunities. Don’t be afraid to fall or fail. Where we can, Mom and I will be there to support you, but we trust your strength and resilience to pick yourself up and redirect. (Of course, be thoughtful. Just because a bridge presents itself, doesn’t mean you have to cross it.)
  3. Every new experience allows you to reflect upon the ideas you take for granted and ideas you have never before encountered. Absorb the knowledge; be challenged by the ideas of others. Listen carefully to their perspectives on the world, their philosophies, and even their theologies. As the Talmudic sage Ben Zoma taught: V’eizeh hu chacham? Who is wise? Ha-lomed mikol adam – the one who learns from every person.
  4. Remember that we were all created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. So seek out the diverse people who populate your college. As the Passover Seder reminds us, ger hayiti b’eretz mitzrayim, that we Jews were once strangers, shunned, to the edges of society by people with narrow minds. Move out of the Egypt of narrow-mindedness and into the promised land of pluralism.
  5. Remember that you are beautiful. So make sure you fall in love with someone who treats you beautifully. And try to fall in love with someone who shares your love and appreciation of Judaism and wants to create a Jewish home. Not because Judaism is the only truth. Not because you cannot find happiness with someone who is not Jewish (you can). Do it because it is who you are.
  6. Mom and I pride ourselves in getting you to this point in your life, healthy, whole and in one piece. Now your safety and future is up to you. Remember the four questions that Dr. Bruce Powell, founder of New Community Jewish High School, asks ourselves to consider before we do something: 1. Is it safe?  2. Is it legal?  3. Is it moral? And, because what you do today in your dorm room or at a party is apt to show up that night on someone’s Facebook page: 4. Would you want your mother, father, grandparents, teacher, or rabbi to know about it? If you cannot say “yes” to all four, perhaps you should not walk down that path.
  7. You see, the world will present you with a plethora of opportunities to indulge your wildest urges – intellectually, physically, spiritually, with artificial stimulants, with artificial people. College is a time of experimentation. But heed the wisdom of the wise Ben Zoma who said, V’eizeh hu gibor? Who is mighty? HaKovesh et yitzro. The one who controls her passions. So just remember: ultimately you are responsible for who you will become and what you make of your life.
  8. You are now the guide of your own learning. Make wise choices. Sign up each semester for classes that are thought-provoking and inspiring. Ask questions, and respectfully challenge pat answers so that you can advance from collecting knowledge to developing wisdom.
  9. Remember also that Judaism is a multifaceted, multi-vocal, intellectually compelling religion. There is so much you – and I – still don’t know about it. So choose a Jewish studies class each year to learn more about Judaism as an adult.
  10. At your school, the Religious Students Union provides a golden opportunity to broaden your horizons. Naturally, Jewish life on campus is not the same as at Or Ami. Just as you are growing intellectually, socially and independently, so too allow yourself to grow Jewishly. Do not feel self-conscious at what you don’t know. Seek out the Hillel director to explore together what your college Jewish life could look like. You might be surprised at the opportunities that appeal to you.
  11. Make sure to get to Israel. Apply for a Birthright trip early – with the Reform movement. Consider taking a semester abroad in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
  12. And speaking of Israel, you may soon discover that the University world is not always supportive of her. Many people use the open intellectual environment as a cover to bash Israel. You know that I love Israel, her people, and her land… You also know that I believe there is much to criticize the government of Israel about. As an Oheiv Yisrael, a lover of Israel, we must separate the critique of policies from our support of the fundamental right of the Jewish people to a Jewish pluralistic, democratic state. So align yourself with AIPAC, or StandWithUs, or Shalom Achshav/Peace Now. Wherever you stand, be sure to differentiate your response from those that just seek to harm Israel or our people.
  13. By the way, your religious/spiritual foundations are about to be shaken in exciting and scary ways. As you learn about the plethora of perspectives out there, you might find yourself considering ideas and beliefs beyond the Jewish ideas with which you have been raised.
  14. Don’t be afraid to find out that some of our most cherished beliefs have parallels or antecedents in other cultures or religions. I believe that God shares wisdom in many ways with many peoples, and that there are many paths to that Truth. Buddhism has informed the Jewish spirituality I have embraced; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism share compelling ideas about justice and compassion.
  15. I encourage all Or Ami students to call or email your rabbi – me – or Cantor Doug, when you are feeling shaken to your core. A lot of life happens in four years. We will help you remain grounded and process complex issues.
  16. About grades. Do your very best. You do not need to be an A+ student. But as you learned at “New Jew” (your high school), always strive to be an A+ human being. Living a life of kindness and compassion, integrity and honesty, of tzedakah and justice – this is non-negotiable.
  17. Rachel, you amaze and inspire me. Your journey excites me, as I get to watch you in the process of becoming. Know that your parents will be all right too, because we believe in you.
  18. May the Holy One bless you on your journey. B’tzeitecha u’voecha – in your going away and in your coming home too. Mei-atah v’ad olam. From this day forth and forever.

I love you.

Friends, those are words of wisdom I shared with my baby as she ventured off – ideas about values and openness, about safety and Jewish involvement. These are the same words I could share with all our Or Ami college students as they step into the next phase of their lives.

Over the past year, Or Ami has begun to refocused and strengthen on our youth. We now have reinvigorated programs: Mitzvah Club for families with children in 2nd-6th grades; Temple Kef Night, evenings of fun for 6th-8th graders; and an active LoMPTY senior youth group for high schoolers. Today, we are proud to announce four new initiatives to reach out to our Or Ami college students:

  • If you send me your child’s or grandchild’s email and snail mail address, I will be in touch regularly. First, I will share a version of this letter, advice for the college student, addressed specifically to your child. Then we at Or Ami will be in touch with them over holidays and before semester break.
  • As soon as I reach our goal of raising $2,500, the first 25 college student children of Or Ami members who take an approved (by me) Jewish studies, Israel studies or Hebrew class will receive a $100 gift card for iTunes, Amazon or Starbucks. This will begin spring semester. The idea is to incentivize Jewish learning; it’s an investment in the Jewish future.
  • We are beginning to webcast our Shabbat Services, primarily to ensure that our congregants who are ill or homebound will be able to enjoy the Cantor’s music and our prayers. In fact, we are experimenting today by webcasting these High Holy Day services. We will make sure that our college students know that when they are missing home, feeling lost or alone, they can log in to sing Listen and Shema with Cantor Doug, light candles with the congregation, or be inspired by their rabbi.
  • Or Ami’s First Annual Thanksgiving Weekend College Reunion is happening this year. On the Saturday evening of Thanksgiving weekend, I am inviting all Or Ami college students of current and former members to join me as my guest for an early sushi dinner. Come reconnect with each other and with your rabbi, and there still will be plenty of time to go out later with your other friends.

As our children go off, we pray that they go to a place where they will be safe. Where they will be wise in times when we won’t know. And that they will find God’s light, when the stars come out each night. Our babies are precious; we needn’t give them up when they go to college. We can guide them differently, more subtly, but with the same love and inspiration. Or Ami’s Henaynu caring and support does not end when our kids graduate high school. Let’s shine the light of Or Ami brightly as they make their way into the world.

May we as individuals, as parents and grandparents, as children, as a community, continue to recognize the beauty in our relationships with one another, continue to reach out, to inspire each other, to evolve, and to embrace change.

Kid Tzedakah: A Plastic Bag Filled with Coins

Three children walk up to a rabbi after services, requesting to speak with him.  The oldest, almost eleven, speaks for the other two nine year olds.  With maturity and poise, she explains that each Shabbat and during other holy days and regular days, the three of them put tzedakah into their tzedakah box.  It is part of their regular ritual welcoming Shabbat and it is very meaningful to them.  When the box became too full, they opened it, counted it, and with a small donation from their parents to make it even, they have $54.00. (Actually, they actually collected $55 but used one dollar to “seed” their next tzedakah collection drive, ensuring that this donation was a multiple of chai (18=life).  So pictured above is the gallon-sized ziploc bag filled with pennies, nickles, quarters and dimes, plus a few bills.  Kid tzedakah, I call it. 

Kid tzedakah may be the most important kind of tzedakah of all.  Although Kid Tzedakah is not listed on Maimonides’ Ladder of Tzedakah (8 Rungs of Tzedakah) which weights the different ways of giving, I believe that we should place Kid Tzedakah somewhere in the top three.  Kid tzedakah is the ziploc bag or piggie bank or tzedakah box filled with coins which young children bring into their synagogues and give to the rabbi, or bring to other organizations and donate to support other causes.  Kid Tzedakah usually amounts to a multiple of 18, never over $72 or $90.  It never is listed on donor boards or donor honor rolls.  But it is the most precious of all. 

Kid tzedakah is the way that one generation ensures that the other understands the importance of giving. It is the process, set up by parents, to make giving tzedakah a regular practice of the next generation.  For a certain generation, Kid tzedakah was given to Keren Ami (the fund for Israel, usually through the Jewish National Fund) whose blue and white tzedakah boxes once sat in every Jewish home.  Today, sometimes Kid tzedakah is synagogue-based, when our children donate regularly at the beginning of the Religious and Hebrew School classes.  Other times, it is the ritual of placing a few coins into the tzedakah box before lighting Shabbat candles.  Some people allow the children to collect the coins that come out of parents’ pockets and place them weekly into the tzedakah box. 

Kid tzedakah may be the lifeblood of the Jewish people, ensuring that our children understand that giving of our resources – money, and yes, time and energy – is central to being a Jew.  That when we sing in our prayerbook – L’takein olam b’malchut Shaddai – that we fix the world, returning it to the idea envisioned by God – this is the essence of Judaism.   That the ritual of giving must continue into their adult lives. 

So thank you, Gross family children, for giving your $54 of Kid Tzedakah.  We will use it to help families in our community who are struggling through this difficult economy.  We will ensure they have food on their tables and a roof over their heads. 

5 Questions to Ask Your Teens Before School Vacation

As his New Jewish Community High School students go off for winter and summer breaks, master educator Dr. Bruce Powell – founder and head of school for “New Jew” – asks his students to ask themselves these five questions:

-Is it safe?
-Is it legal?
-Does it make sense?
-Does it comport with our Jewish values?
-Can I proudly tell my parents, my grandparents, my Head of School what I did?

Writes Dr. Powell: “These are the questions I ask our students before we break for winter and summer vacation. I want them to think carefully before they do anything that can and most likely will affect their lives in a positive or negative way. Whether at a party, on a trip, visiting colleges, at camp, or just “hanging out,” if our children can answer “Yes” to all five questions before they act, and wherever they are in life, then we will certainly fulfill our school’s mission of “raising up Jewish leaders” for the future of our community and nation.”

Why do I send my kids to New Jew and strongly urge all parents of our synagogue teens to consider the school also? Yes, it is because it’s academics are very strong. Yes, it is because our students get into the top colleges and universities around the country (and New Jew has an excellent college admissions department). But mostly, because headed up by a talented educator who gets it, New Jew provides my kids – both my biological and synagogual kids – with the best advice on how to live healthy, valued Jewish lives.
Ask your teens to ask themselves these five questions when they go out for the evening or off for the weekend.
And check out www.ncjhs.org to discover one of Los Angeles’ best kept secrets.

How to Guide Your Teen (or pre-teen) Toward Good Decision Making

Somehow our three children have become three teenagers. They are amazing, loveable but totally exhausting. Having successfully navigated our children’s early years, we – like most parents of teenagers – find ourselves facing new challenges: their intense emotions, hormonal changes, extreme academic demands, and opposing instincts to separate from and connect with parents. To whom do we turn for advice and inspiration, to nurture these precious children toward living lives with good values?

Dr. Bruce Powell with teensAllow me to introduce national award-winning educator Dr. Bruce Powell, founder of New Community Jewish High School and two other Jewish High Schools. As a parent, a rabbi and a community leader, I have witnessed up close how this educators’ educator guides parents (and grandparents) through the stressful, yet immensely rewarding process of guiding our teens (and pre-teens) toward making good decisions.

While preparing to attend, read the article below, Parenting Jewish Teens, for Jewish values which inform the process of parenting teens.

Parenting Jewish Teens

By Joanne Doades

Author of Parenting Jewish Teens: A Guide for the Perplexed (Jewish Lights Publishing) and the Director of Curriculum Development for the Union for Reform Judaism Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning.

In the Book of Genesis, we encounter many stories of individuals who leave their parents’ homes under difficult circumstances. For today’s Jewish teens, the struggle for leave-taking begins long before the actual physical event. This is an emotional and often conflict-filled process of separation generally beginning around the time of bar/bat mitzvah, peaking between the ages of 15 to 19, and usually subsiding by the early to mid-twenties.

Peace in the Home
How well Jewish parents handle this natural but challenging process can have a significant impact on shalom bayit (peace in the home), and set the stage for relationships with the soon-to-be-adult children for many years to come. Since the teenage years are such a time of change, experimentation, and identity redefinition, it can be hard for parents to sort out which issues require their attention and which can be ignored. And given the fact that many teens enact the separation process around matters of Jewish observance, it is not surprising that parents of Jewish teens may find themselves asking the question: “What happened to the child I thought I had raised?!”

Fortunately, Jewish tradition offers parents helpful guidance during this important and challenging family transition:

Model Desired Behavior
Though it may not be apparent, teens are keen observers of their parents’ behavior, and are quick to notice contradictions and inconsistencies, so sending clear messages–in words and in deeds–is essential. A tale is told about the Zhitomer rabbi who was once walking with his son when they noticed a drunken father and his drunken son stumbling along. The rabbi said to his son, “I envy that father. He has accomplished his goal of having a son like himself…I can only hope that the drunkard is not more successful in training his son than I am with you.” (Voices of Wisdom: Jewish Ideals and Ethics for Everyday Living, Jonathan David Publishers)

Continue to Build Mutual Trust
The importance of parental honesty with children is clearly delineated in the Talmud (Sukkah 46b). Parents are instructed to refrain from promising their child something they might not be able to deliver, lest they cause feelings of disappointment in the child and teach dishonesty, however inadvertently. In relationships with teens, parents may feel the teen cannot be trusted because the teen secretly behaved in a way that violated family rules and norms. However, it can sometimes be the case that the parents have created a situation in which the teen might be strongly tempted to violate rules that are no longer realistic or appropriate. While a parent is responsible for preventing a (post bar/bat mitvah) teen from committing a wrong if it is within the parent’s ability to do so (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 54b, Sukkah 56b), unrealistic restrictions could sometimes cause a teen to commit a wrong. In this case, the parents are unwittingly putting a stumbling block before their child (Leviticus 19:14). Mutually respectful dialogue is essential to producing guidelines with which both parent and teen can live.

Chastise When Necessary, But Do So Carefully
The Torah clearly states the obligation to let another person know when he or she is doing something wrong (Leviticus 19:17). It is equally important, though, that this be done with great sensitivity. Notes commentator Avnei Azel: ” ‘You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall surely rebuke your neighbor’…What is the link between these two parts of the verse? The explanation is that one can only truly rebuke a person that one loves and whom one wishes to see mend his ways, such as the way a father rebukes his son. The closer a person is to another person, the greater the love and the more earnest the rebuke. A rebuke which is the product of love is more effective.” (Torah Gems Volume 2, Yavneh Publishing House)

Manage Your Anger
Teenager behavior can be quite vexing and even downright infuriating. An enraged response on the part of the parent, however, should be avoided. According to Maimonides: “Anger is…an exceptionally bad quality. It is fitting and proper that one move away from it and adopt the opposite extreme. [A parent] should school himself not to become angry even when it is fitting to be angry. If he [or she] should wish to arouse fear in his children and household…to motivate them to return to the proper path, he should present an angry front to them to punish them, but he should be inwardly calm. He should be like one who acts out the part of an angry man in his wrath, but is not himself angry.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Deot 2:3) Parents can apply this advice by taking a few minutes, if need be, to collect their thoughts, put the situation in perspective, and respond appropriately to the problem at hand. This approach stands a far better chance of getting the desired results.

Positive Interactions Should Outweigh Negative Ones
If parents are always chastising their teens about the more annoying aspects of teen behavior (messy room, inattention to schoolwork, issues about money, laziness, loud music, to name a few), there will be little opportunity to normalize the relationship. The Torah warns against being vengeful or bearing a grudge (Leviticus 19:18), because such behavior can cause us to continuously view another through an overly negative lens. The advice of the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107b) is to discipline with the left (weaker) hand and to reach out with the right (stronger), so that reconciliation is possible. Relationships between today’s parents and teens can deteriorate quite quickly unless parents deal with difficult issues and move forward in a constructive way.

Respect Differences in the Area of Jewish Observance
It is often quite difficult to accept the fact that a teenager may not want to participate in the family’s Jewish observances in the way he or she did when younger, and this can feel like a rejection of a parent’s core values. However, the Talmud teaches us not to impose restrictions that cannot be adhered to (Bava Batra 60b), so it is wise to make accommodations during this time, where possible, in order to facilitate an eventual return to parental teachings. A wonderful model for this can be found in a tale that is told about the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), the founder of Hasidism. When a distraught Hasid came to see him, the rebbe gently asked: “What is the problem?” “It is my son,” the Hasid bemoaned. “He no longer follows our religion,” “Do you love your son?” the Baal Shem Tov inquired. “Of course I do!” the man cried. “Then love him even more,” was the rebbe’s response.

Move from Control to Consultation
Our forefather Abraham is instructed by God to leave his native land and his father’s house and to go to a land that God will show him (Genesis 12:1). Why the redundancy [saying leave your “land”, your “father’s house”]? If you are leaving your native land, are you not by definition leaving your father’s house as well? Perhaps the message is that in order to grow to become the person you are meant to be, you must step out into the world in a decisive way, leaving behind the rules, regulations, and practices of the home in which you were raised.

At some point children need to separate from their parents, both emotionally as well as physically. Despite the legitimate and real feelings of loss that Jewish parents may experience during this transitional period, it is important to facilitate this process in a constructive way so that teens can grow into emotionally healthy adulthood. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the University of Judaism puts it this way: “While casting a giant shadow over our children’s perceptions and actions, their maturation entails a retreat of the parents’ ability to impose their own preferences. Ultimately, children learn to become responsible for themselves and their own behavior. Can we, as parents, learn to let our children take charge?” Knowing when to hold them close and when to nudge them toward independence is one of the most difficult–and important–trials of parenting Jewish teens.

Encourage Teens to Stay Involved in the Jewish Community
Pirkei Avot (2:4) urges us to not separate from the community, and this is great advice for Jewish teens and their parents. Recent studies indicate the strong influence of parents in teen decision-making about continued involvement in Jewish activities such as Hebrew high school, youth groups, summer camps, and Israel trips. These are positive experiences in which teens continue to learn, grow, and socialize in settings defined by Jewish values, a wonderful antidote to many of the objectionable images and messages so antithetical to Jewish beliefs and practices that can be found in the popular media. Jewish parents, too, can benefit from remaining affiliated with Jewish institutions such as the synagogue and community center during their children’s teenage years, and parents can help create Parenting Jewish Teens groups when pre-bar and bat mitzvah family education programs are no longer available.

In the Torah, when God calls out to individuals for whom God has a special job, the response that indicates commitment in every sense of the word is, “Hineini–here I am!” Perhaps the job of parenting Jewish teens today is to say to our teens, “Hineini,” and to live its message in our parenting each day.


Since it takes a village to raise a child, we at Or Ami your insights about how to raise good, valued Jewish teenagers. Please take a moment to share your nuggets of wisdom on Parenting Jewish Teens. Author of the best piece of advice will receive a Tefillat HaDerech (Traveler’s Prayer) keychain from Israel.