Tag: College

A Letter to My College Bound Son

To My Son,

So now you are going off to college, spreading your wings, moving forward into your future. I am excited and saddened for the experiences yet to come.

There is so much I want to tell you and to remind you about, including things I have said before. About what it means to be a man. Some of this is relevant today; some you should can file away for the future.

Watching You Grow Up
I have been watching you closely, realizing how quickly you are growing up. I cannot believe how fast the time has flown by since you last were my little boys, kids who I could toss around the pool or wrestle with without worrying that someone (me) might get hurt. Then you began to drive. Then you began to shave. Sooner than I will be ready, you will be on your own – living, learning, working, and loving.

I remember the day that Mom and I named each of you. You were so little, so cute, so vulnerable. We chose names which connected you to our family and our Jewish tradition. We picked names that reflected compassion, confidence, and strength. We aimed to teach each of you to be a mensch, a kindhearted, caring man. Yet ultimately we knew that you alone would determine the name by which you are known in the world.

Being a man is about character. Men, real men, know that manhood is not about size; it’s about quality. The quality of your character ultimately means more than the size of your portfolio. We Americans admire character – like the people who blow the whistle, and the FBI agent who pointed out deficiencies in the agency before 9/11. We admire people who risk life and liberty for a cause, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Oskar Schindler, and the 9/11 firefighters. But character is also born in a thousand bit parts that never get written up. What you choose to do when the clerk gives you the incorrect change. Whether you give up your seat on the bus for an older person. How calmly you react to someone who is being rude. The best index to a person’s character is (a) how you treat people who can’t do you any good, and (b) how you treat people who can’t fight back.

Be a Gentleman
Judaism teaches that we all were born with a yetzer hatov, an inclination to do good. Insulate your soul for good by following that conscience. Because being a male may be a matter of birth, and being a man is a matter of age, but being a gentleman – a mensch, a good person – is a matter of choice. Strive always to be a gentleman.

Anthropologists suggest that because men cannot birth children, men strive instead to create things and conquer things – in business, in court, or with smart bombs and battleships. That drive in both men and woman is called the yetzer hara, the inclination toward chaos and egotism. The yetzer hara can easily overwhelm our yetzer hatov, the inclination to do good. Especially when we add testosterone into the mix.

How many times do we read about sport players who have temper tantrums on the court or who use steroids? Who can count the number of celebrities who break marriage vows with a string of affairs? In a culture that counsels us to be the best, the most powerful, wealthy, and hyper-sexed, we must empower our yetzer hatov, the inclination toward good, to set us straight. My sons, be honest, be thoughtful, and be monogamous. Treat women and other men as equals and never discriminate against people of a different background, religion, race, or orientation than your own.

About Being a Father
My son, one day I hope you will bless Mom and me with many grandchildren. Kids are wonderful and frustrating, inspiring and exhausting. From the moment they are conceived, children become your blessing. Both parents, whether married or not, have the lifelong responsibility of helping to raise them. So be an involved dad or granddad. There will be no deadbeat dads in our family. And if you don’t have children, be involved in the mentoring of others. We all have responsibility for the next generation.

Your children will carry on your influence long after you are gone. Fathers can model for their kids how to be mensches. So be a positive Jewish role model for your children. Let them see you at your best – with your friends, with your family, in the Jewish community and within your career. Help them with homework, play with them in the park, and listen non-judgmentally to their problems. As a parent, you will – necessarily – develop new skills. I got to learn how to hit 250 baseballs in a row and how to throw a Frisbee forehand, because these activities make you happy, and give us time together. Do the same for your own kids.

Be Honest in Your Work
Being a man is also about working. Many men get a lot of their self-esteem from their work. So seek out a career that you find meaningful. Jewish tradition takes seriously our behavior in our work. According to one tradition, when we die and arrive at the gates of heaven, the very first question we will be asked is Nasata v’natata b’emunah? Did you deal honestly in your business? This question is not just about buying and selling. It’s about integrity. Did you act with honesty in your business relationships? Did you treat your co-workers and subordinates with respect? The question presupposes that we all harbor within the ability to cheat, lie and steal and that our business ethics will be tested every day. So resist the temptation to take advantage of people. Be someone in whom others can put their trust. Own up to your mistakes.

Remember that time when we drove around for an hour looking for a restaurant? While men tend not to want to ask for directions, nevertheless seek help when you are confused, lost or in pain. And delve deeply beneath your anger to find the sadness hidden beneath. That will help you heal more quickly.

Remember that money is just a tool, not an end in itself. Money opens up opportunities but working around the clock will not quell the longings of your heart. Don’t fall into a lifestyle that makes you a slave to your work. Do spend time with your loved ones – including your siblings and especially your parents. Devote ample time to raise up your community and set aside plenty of money to give as tzedakah (charitable donations).

Its Guy-Love: Friendships to Sustain You
You known that my friendships have nourished me throughout my life. A fifteenth century Talmudic scholar, Menorat ha-Maor, counseled: “…Invite [your friend] to your joyous occasions; … never give away his secrets; help him when he is in trouble; … overlook his shortcomings and forgive him promptly; criticize him when he has done wrong; do not deceive him; … and attend to his [family] if he dies.” On the TV show Scrubs, JD and Turk had a name for such cherished friendships. They call it guy love. What’s guy love?

Do you remember that time five years ago when the water pipe burst, flooding our entire house? My friend Ron took the initiative to drive over to help us deal with the flood. My college roommate Jerome sent a check to ease the repair expenses. I never cashed that check, but both of their acts of compassion remind me that “guy love” involves stepping up and helping out.

Being Involved in Your Jewish Community
Being a man involves a relationship with your Jewish community. Next time you are in services, notice all the men and women who sit down, close their lips, and patiently wait for the service to end. Perhaps they don’t know the prayers, or don’t see their value, or don’t understand how to reconcile religion with science. If this is you, don’t just sit back. Speak up. Ask your rabbi to help you discover its meaning. Spirituality and religiosity are a lifelong journey that can nourish your soul when your heart is burdened, broken, or uplifted. And being a Jew means taking the risk that significant meaning may be hidden within our ancient rituals and modern teaching.

Sex and Love
Now, about sex. Although television and movies suggest otherwise, in reality, sex is about so much more than the mechanics of where you put what. (We already had that talk.) Sex can be great, but it should be within a mature, loving relationship. Sex is also about intimacy and love, commitment and responsibility. Trust me, making love is so much better. (I hope I didn’t just scar you for life…) Regarding sex, try being counter-cultural and focus first on finding love.

I may not know everything about love, but I do know this: that the love I share with your mother is the most fulfilling, complex, nuanced and wonderful thing I have ever experienced in my life. Love is not always easy, but it has always been worth it. I hope you are so blessed. Because mature love will bring you strength, contentment, and wholeness. Yes, there will be heartbreak – we all experience it along the way. Know that time will help heal most wounds; and that therapy, exercise and prayer can assist the process.

What’s Mature Love? 
In our youth, we often fall for people who live up to a certain definition of outward beauty. But over time, as we try to get over the inevitable hurdles of life, we see that over the long term the partnerships that remain strong are characterized by trust, a mutuality of values, and the recognition that marriage takes much effort and time. So enter into love relationships with your eyes wide open. First get to know and love yourself. Then consider seriously the person’s character and values, concern for others, family, friends, education, and short and long-term goals. Don’t let your craving for acceptance lead you to simply choose the first option available.

Know that whomever you bring home – female or male, Jew or not – we will open our hearts to your choice of partner. In today’s world, the odds are just barely in your favor that any marriage you have will work out. (Of course, if it doesn’t, know that some of the most blessed relationships are second marriages.) I sincerely hope your marriage works out, and if so, that will be in part because you put as much effort into your marriage as you do to your work or your sports. How? Date your beloved well after you are married. Get dressed up; go out. Romance each other. That will be a lifetime gift you give to your partner and yourself, and, because it will help your relationship remain healthy, it will be a gift to your children also.

My son, I am your #1 fan. I am here to guide you, to support you, to nurture you, and to celebrate you. I am grateful for you each and everyday! I love and cherish you dearly.



NFTY Convention: Where Complete Acceptance Trumps “Mean Girls”

The most amazing things happen when we bring together 1000 teens for five days for the convention of the North American Federation of Temple Youth, one of the largest gatherings of Jewish teens anywhere. It is the way that these teens open up about the pressures, worries, fear and self-doubt that bubble just beneath the surface of their smiling faces.

So the NFTY convention organizers, and their Union for Reform Judaism partners, interspersed – between the fun, food, inspiring prayer, motivating speakers, meaningful social justice activism, and Jewish learning – a series of serious workshops which allowed the teens to bear their souls within the supportive security of a loving groups of teens, and the guidance of nurturing, trained adult youth workers.

Talking Truth about Leaving Home
“Take two post-it notes, and write on them your top two concerns, anxieties or agitations about leaving home and family as you go off to college. Stick them on the wall. Now without talking, read through all the answers and as a group collect together similar responses until we have a small number of categories.”

These instructions guided 34 Jewish teenagers, who chose to grapple with the myriad of issues surrounding “Leaving Home and Family … on the path to college.” With openness and honesty, they wrote about, and later talked about, their concerns:

  • What do I do to maintain my good relationship with my younger sibling?
  • Finding balance in communication with parents – How often is too often? How much should we talk/text/skype?
  • Money, money, no free money
  • How do I ensure I’m making the most of my parents’ investment in me?
  • Moving toward increased independence
  • Who will take care of me when I get sick?

Then in triads, each shared his/her concerns as the others listened nonjudgmentally and brainstormed supportively.

Convening the Conversation, Then Getting out of the Way
Between us, my wife Michelle November and I have plenty of experience working with youth. The former director of the North American College Department for the then Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 16-year synagogue Program Director, and active Camp Swig/Newman alumna, Michelle now works intensively with teens and their parents as the Associate Director of Admission for Los Angeles’ New Community Jewish High School (in West Hills, CA). A former Jewish summer camp director, NFTY regional advisor (CRaFTY), and chair of the Camp Newman rabbinical camp committee, I serve as rabbi of Congregation Or Ami (in Calabasas, CA), whose leadership heard and responded to the call of the URJ’s visionary Campaign for Youth Engagement. Together we have two college kids and a third in high school.

Michelle and I have made it our life’s work to support and guide Jewish young adults through the highs and lows of their exciting existence. Still, for the conversation, like so many other talks with teens, our task at convemtiom was to gently guide, slide in the Jewish and the compassionate, but mostly to get out of the way.

Crowdsourcing Confidence and Kindness
Sitting on the floor, back in one circle, the students took turns revealing what they feared. Then crowdsourcing took over as the group offered ideas from their collective experiences:

  • Connect regularly; a short text on the way to class assures your parents that you are alright (and can keep overly involved parents connent but at bay).
  • Remember that when you go off, things at home change. When you come back, don’t expect everything to just go back to how it was.
  • Skype with younger siblings; text them asking questions about what they are doing.
  • As the intensity picks up in the months before you leave, be quick to be apologetic after the inevitable outbursts that occur at home.
  • Rabbis, youth advisors, Hillel directors and teachers are still and always there for an unbiased supportive, non-judgmental conversation.
  • Go out with siblings within the first 24 hours back at home; individual time to reconnect is crucial.
  • Reach out to the relatives and family friends in your new city; connect with classmates of your parents friends; you never know who might become a good friend or major support.

The workshop concluded with a group hug /slash/ prayer circle in which we asked the Holy One for courage, patience, and perspective as we walked these uncharted path to our future. We sought strength and sechel (smarts) to remember that we are precious now, and we will be equally precious later as we traverse the paths. And we offered thanks for the loving support of a Jewish community that cares.

Why NFTY and Jewish Camping Really Matter
Michelle and I spend significant time, energy and money placing our own and our synagogue’s young people into NFTY events and Jewish summer camps. We evangelize about the incomparable benefits of sending or pushing teens in this direction. Why?  Because NFTY and Jewish summer camps are the antithesis and antidote to the “Mean Girls” syndrome.

Where else, outside of home, do teens find unconditional love and complete acceptance? Where else do Jewish teens receive positive messages about who they are and nurturing guidance of Jewishly motivated adults? Most importantly, where else in their pressure cooker, anxiety-filled existence do they have a place where they can share their innermost thoughts and worries, and we adults know that they will find support, openness and loving direction to put them on a path toward healing and inner peace?

This is why NFTY and Jewish summer camps matter. This is why parents – and grandparents, rabbis, cantors, educators and temple leadership – should be inviting, cajoling, begging, bribing, pushing and financing their teens to attend NFTY events and Jewish summer camps.

What Happens in Vegas…
They say that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. We say that what happens in NFTY stays within our teens long after they graduate into college and beyond. In a world where the pressures and anxieties of young adulthood easily overwhelm, NFTY and Jewish camping help adults hedge our bets for our kids’ future.

So get your kids into NFTY and Jewish camping. Support your synagogue efforts to expand and fund their youth engagement activities. The future we secure will be our own.

When AIPAC’s Jonathan Kessler Took a Collect Call from This College Student

Michelle and I joined Patti Jo Wolfson and Dennis Bernstein, Rabbi Julia and David Weisz, President Helayne and Randy Sharon and at least 15 other Or Ami congregants** at the annual AIPAC Valley Dinner. AIPAC is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a lobbying organization dedicated to the American-Israel relationship. Around 1,000 Israel activists gathered at the dinner to discuss and strategize how to support and continually strengthen the American-Israel relationship.

Prior to the dinner, AIPAC’s media crew sat me down to film my AIPAC story (Patti Jo was also interviewed). They asked about my earliest memory of AIPAC. So I told them:

Meeting AIPAC’s Jonathan Kessler
Between high school and college, I spent a gap year in Israel on the Reform Movement Leadership Machon. While in Israel, we met with a young Jonathan Kessler, then a 20-something year old Israel activist, who taught us about the history of the American-Israel relationship. I remember being inspired by his passion and convinced by his teaching. To this day, I recall with clarity his offer to us: that if and when any of us needed help in our pro-Israel activism, we could call Jonathan, collect, and he would respond. I wrote down his phone number (being before cell phones, it was the main AIPAC number), and filed it away.

Calling Collect
Six months later, a freshman on an East Coast liberal arts college, I found myself standing before a banner calling people to gather for a rally against the “Illegal Israeli and American Occupation of Palestine.” Simultaneously I was incensed that such a mean-spirited, exceedingly biased event could happen on our campus and energized by the possibility that I could now make a difference as a pro-Israel activist. And then I realized I had no idea where to start… until I remembered Jonathan Kessler’s offer.

Back in the dorm, I stood in line for an hour awaiting my chance to use the hall pay phone. Unbelievably, AIPAC took a collect call from me, then a young college kid. When Jonathan and I talked, he walked me through some steps I should take: finding out who would be speaking, making contact with the local head of the Federation and Jewish Community Relations Council, and speaking to the small Hillel group. With Jonathan’s help, I researched through the background of the main speaker. He taught me how to partner with the directors of the Federation and JCRC to coordinate our responses during the session. Jonathan then provided me with the encouragement to ask questions – respectfully but with confidence – to illuminate the biases and prejudice of the speakers.

31 Years Later
I am now the parent of two college students (and one high school student) and rabbi to many dozens of other college kids. (Jonathan is Leadership Development Director of AIPAC.) I want to ensure that when anti-Israel activists (especially of the BDS movement) speak on their campuses, and they need to reach out for guidance on how to respond, there will always be someone on the other end of the phone to answer the call.

Yes, 31 years have passed since I made that collect call to Jonathan. I may not remember who spoke at that rally, or what happened during or after that terrible gathering. But I will never forget this: that in in the person of Jonathan Kessler (then a young activist; now unbelievably even more effective), AIPAC helped a young Jewish college student respond to anti-Israel lies and delegitimization.

That, among other reasons, is why I am a proud member of AIPAC.

Thank you AIPAC, and thank you Jonathan Kessler.

** Filling out the Or Ami delegation were Board Member Jon and Stephanie Wolfson and their (law school student) daughter Sarah Wolfson, Shirley Wolfson, Mark and Linda Wolfson, Jeff and Julie Glaser, David and Teresa Litt, Steve and Alison Martini, Faculty member Jodi Wilson, Andrea Jacobs and Richard Slavett, and Steve and Laura Gubner.

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.

Our Redhead Looks at Colleges: Tears, Smiles and a Blessing

It all started with Consecration.  In celebration of the beginning of their formal Jewish education, these cute kindergartners ascend to the bimah to stand before the aron kodesh (holy ark) to receive a mini-Torah from the hands of their parents.  Nervousness surrounds us as children wonder where to stand, as parents step forward unsure of how to guide them.  Still, smiles mingle with tears as we watch our babies continue to grow up.  And we bless, shehecheyanu, thanking God for getting us to this special day. 

Then we stand again on the bimah as the child, now thirteen, becomes a Bat or Bar Mitzvah.  Having spent years learning about Judaism and practicing Hebrew, she now leads the service, chant from Torah, and gets to stand before parents, relatives and friends who sit quietly and attentively as she expounds eloquently on some lesson derived from Torah.  Nervousness surrounds us as the teens, so worried about what others will think, now are anxious about whether they will mess up the words or the tune.  Some will now call them “men” or “women” but we know better.  They are just taking the first steps on the road toward being an adult.  Still we pass down Torah midor lador, from generation to generation, hoping that their shoulders are now broad enough to carry on the burden (and joy) of our tradition and values.   Smiles mingle with tears as we realize our children are no longer babies.  And we bless, shehecheyanu, thanking God for getting us to this special day. 

Then we stand again, on the bimah leading up to the airplane, as we accompany our babies on their journeys to visit potential colleges.  Having spent years learning about everything and nothing, they now travel up and down the coast, and sometimes across the country, seeking out the right match – a college to propel them forward toward chochma (wisdom) and talmud Torah (learning).  Nervousness surrounds us as they spend months struggling to capture in college essays the essence of their lives, souls and dreams, worried that if they do not put their best face forward they will be rejected by the schools of their choice.  Some will call them “adults,” as they soon can vote, make their own decisions, and, in time, drink legally.  But we know that they are still just older kids, merely taking the next set of steps on the path toward adulthood (and besides, a vast majority will come back home after graduation for the free room and board).  Smiles mingle with tears as we realize our babies are simultaneously our children in need of guidance and not. 

Yes, consecration is a liminal moment, a time of transition into study.

Yes, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is a liminal moment, a transition onto the path toward adulthood.

And choosing a college, now that is really a liminal moment, a transition, heartwrenchingly wonderful, which propels our children forward. 

Philosophical?  Yes.  But deeply personal.  Because the little redheaded girl who moments ago could not stand still on the bimah during her consecration, who seconds ago could not make me prouder as she chanted her Torah and gave her d’var Torah (speech) is now looking at colleges. 

So, as I reflect upon these few days of our father-daughter college visiting trip – tours, interviews and visits to Hillel houses – I quietly intone, with a smile mingled with tears, the bracha (blessing) we Jews say whenever we arrive at one of these firsts:

…shehecheyanu v’kee’manu v’higee-anu lazman hazeh.

Holy One of Blessing, who has guided me on my journey through this universe, thank you for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for bringing us – with smiles and tears – to this incredible moment.