Category Archives: Congregational Life

17th Century Shabbat Service – Hello!!?  I live in the 21st Century!

By Cantor Peter Halpern & Nadine Broude

A Jewish Italian Renaissance composer who worked in the Court? Unlikely, right? Weren’t most composers of the 17th Century associated with and funded by the Church? Who was this guy? What relevance does he have to my Judaism, Temple Shalom, and how we pray today? And why should I attend such an unusual Shabbat service?

Join us on Friday evening, March 27 for a unique music opportunity, as Cantor Louise Treitman and the nine-voice ensemble “Il Concerto di Salamone Rossi Hebreo” transport our congregation to 17th century Italy, with inspiring liturgical settings of the sublime music of Salamone Rossi. This Italian rite synagogue service has been presented to great acclaim in the greater Boston area and as part of the Boston Jewish Music Festival.

We’re not familiar with many Jewish composers from the late Italian Renaissance. If you google Salomone Rossi, you’ll find he is a Renaissance Man, literally and figuratively. At the age of 17, already a singer and accomplished violinist, Salomone Rossi was appointed to Duke Vincenzo I’s court in Mantua, Italy. Rossi was so well respected that he was exempt from wearing the yellow badge, required of all Jews in Mantua. He soon became resident composer and leader of the Duke’s instrumental ensemble, where he created the trio sonata (two upper parts for instruments such as violins or trumpets and a bass part played by viol or cello). He also flourished in the composition of madrigals, setting texts from the great poets of the time to music. His “continuo madrigals” are thought by some to have defined the onset of the Baroque era in music. (For non-music people, read this as he was a trendsetter!)

Rabbi Leon Modena, who also served as cantor of the Italian Synagogue in Venice, felt it was time to move away from the non-instrumental “improvised drones and primitive harmonies” which had been used in synagogues since the Destruction of the Second Temple. Rossi and Modena worked together, addressing potential hostility from Christians who might feel the Jews were “stealing” their music, and from fellow Jews who resisted modernizing the music of the synagogue. Rossi’s collection of Jewish liturgical texts set to his music in the baroque style, השירים אשר לשלמה (Ha-shirim asher li-Shlomo, The Songs of Solomon) was published in 1623. His music was enthusiastically received and gradually led to an enormous Renaissance of Jewish music which continues to this day. When cantors talk about the great Jewish liturgical composers, it is no wonder that Rossi is included with those such as Louis Lewandowski, Salmon Sulzer and Samuel Naumbourg.

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The Struggle for Meaning in Prayer

By Mary Jane Suzman

Temple Shalom Adult Learning recently sponsored a class aimed at members who in one way or another feel disengaged from Judaism and/or Temple Shalom. As one of the moderators of the discussion, I felt very fortunate in the folks who showed up. They one and all offered thoughtful perspectives, and were also respectful of others’ differing views.

While various topics were mentioned, the most common issue was difficulty with the words of the prayers in our prayer book. Many of our ancient prayers speak of a God who listens, answers and intervenes in the world. But in our group were some who held concepts of God that do not fit well with this liturgy, some who were agnostic and some who were atheist. Hence the discomfort.

Participants offered several ways of coping with the disconnect. Some enjoy the melodies and are comfortable singing the Hebrew words (which they don’t understand) and avoid looking at the English translations. Others spoke of the chants and melodies bringing a calm, meditative, peaceful state. Others found that the sense of community at the service helped. And some find that they simply cannot speak the words they do not believe, and remain silent during the problematic prayers.

For Reform Jews, I suspect that the disconnect between our liturgy and our beliefs is a widespread problem. I would like to suggest that we, as a community, share our approaches. What prayers bother us? What perspectives, solutions have we found? I will try to get us started by sharing two perspectives of my own, one to a particular prayer, the other to prayer in general.

I myself am a non-theist. While I have come to feel spiritually connected to our texts and to creation in ways that astonish me, God is not part of my life: no listener in the universe, no comforting presence in the world, no consciousness above or behind or within what exists. As you can imagine, prayer is a problem. How am I to approach the Shema, for example, so central to our tradition:  “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”? The Shema is actually where I will begin.

I learned that the word “Lord” in the Shema is actually a very poor translation of the 4 Hebrew letters YHWH. YHWH can be seen as an impossible contraction of the Hebrew verb “to be”: all that was, is and will be; all of existence; all of creation. With this view in mind, each week, as preparation for Shabbat, I seek out beautiful natural images. The most beautiful of the week will be the one I envision in my mind when I recite the Shema on the Sabbath. Often it is a sunrise or sunset, or trees or flowers in my garden or about Newton, or ice patterns on a window, or light sparkling on water. Once it was a white dove alighting in a niche on the Western wall in Jerusalem; once it was footsteps in the snow of those who came before me into the sanctuary of Temple Shalom. This search for beauty has brought joy to my life; when you seek it, you find it. Not only that, but cognizance of the beauty all around is a constant reminder that it is my job to till and tend, to help care for the earth. Not only that, but sometimes when I say the Shema, holding the vision of the week in mind, visions from all the weeks before shimmer around the edges, and conflate with it in a way that is inexpressibly beyond time, beyond space, beyond meaning.

And now a perspective on prayer in general: it has helped me to view religion not as a search for truth, but as a search for meaning. However it got here, the universe in its fullness is here. But it comes without meaning-in-itself. It is a uniquely human endeavor to overlay upon that universe a web of symbols, myths, rituals, that endow it with meaning and make moral action within it imperative. Our Hebrew ancestors have been doing this for 3500 years. The quest for meaning of my ancestor of 3500 years ago, in a very different time, place, and knowledge context, yielded different results than mine. But it was the same quest. When I recite some of those ancient prayers, I try for a bit to don the robes of our ancestors, for a bit to see the world through their eyes, to merge their quest for meaning with mine. But it is a struggle: sometimes it works, often it doesn’t. Another deep teaching of our tradition is that words have power, and must not be spoken lightly. Sometimes I also remain silent.

I would love to hear from any and all of you who have struggled with the words of prayer and found a helpful perspective, a path to meaning. Such sharing could deepen our spiritual lives and enrich us all.

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Mazel Tov to Leah Sawyer!

Leah Sawyer, Wet Hair Moment

We share in joy with Leah Sawyer as we welcome her officially to the Jewish community! Today, Leah met with a beit din and immersed in the mikveh to complete her conversion process.

At services this evening, Leah will stand before our community as she recites Sh’ma holding onto our sacred Torah for the first time. We will also bestow upon her a Hebrew name.

What a milestone! In preparation for this day, Leah prepared a reflection on her Jewish journey:

Today I am choosing to become Jewish.  This is an important step for me – seven steps, actually, into the mikveh waters as a Gentile and seven steps back out as a new Jew – and a decision I do not take lightly.  After nearly two decades of thinking about the idea, and after 15 months of serious study and reflection, I am ready to become officially what I have come to feel inside, and to what I have been drawn for most of my life.

The question of “why Judaism?” is a hard one to answer – not because of a lack of compelling reasons, but because much of my motivation comes from somewhere deeper than logic.  Judaism just feels like the right fit for me, in an elemental way that defies description.

Growing up in a loving Irish Catholic family, my parents instilled strong values that included doing the right thing even at personal cost, prioritizing family and community, and the importance of kindness and generosity.  As I have grown in my life’s path, many of the specific tenets I believe in have changed, but those core values continue to guide me.  In Judaism, I find deep resonance with those values, and with new ones I have come to hold dear – inclusiveness, healing the world, feminism, and lifelong learning.  I still have many questions and expect I always will — in Judaism, I have found a structure in which I can wrestle with thorny topics and learn from others who are doing the same.  Most importantly, I have found an oasis of peace and calm in my life, a space of time in which I can recharge, and at the same time be challenged to be better and kinder.

My Jewish journey started in middle school, when I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and in short order, all of Potok’s other books) that gave me a window into a new world, and when our Christian Bible teacher Dr. D taught us ancient Israelite history and a smattering of basic Hebrew.  In college, as my once-ardent Catholic faith faltered, Dr. D’s statement that “next to Mandarin, Hebrew is the hardest language” was a spur to find a Hebrew tutor (difficult in deep rural Virginia) who introduced the aleph-bet, and to find a scholarship to study in Israel.

My six months in Israel taught me many things – that there are many kinds of hummus and they’re all delicious, Hebrew really IS incredibly difficult to learn, never to trust that an Israeli-organized “short easy” hike will be either short or easy, and that Israel is a deeply difficult and deeply beguiling country – but not so much about the actual religion of Judaism.  I learned that (at that time) most Israelis were culturally but not spiritually Jewish.

It was not until 2013, after a difficult period caused me to reexamine my life in many ways, that I began to think about Judaism more seriously.  At the time I was living with a roommate who had converted to Catholicism and taught high school theology.  Theological conversations with Andrea over red wine and pad Thai started me thinking again, after a long time of being closed spiritually.  I knew I couldn’t convert to Judaism, even with its lifelong pull, for a number of reasons… though in the end, none of those reasons stood up to debate or research.  I read Anita Diamante’s book Choosing A Jewish Life, my heart racing with excitement, and decided that this sounded right for me – I needed to know more.

After I contacted the Union of Reform Judaism and signed up for an intro to Judaism course, I started attending the local synagogue, Beth El Hebrew in Alexandria Virginia.  People were welcoming, but I struggled with feeling out-of-place, not knowing the melodies, and barely being able to sound out the Hebrew in the prayer book.  I kept coming every week and found a Hebrew tutor, and over several months I learned the melodies and came to feel less out-of-place, although I was still one of the youngest adults in the synagogue by several decades.

Following a sudden move to Boston for a new job, I was referred to Rabbi Neil Hirsch at Temple Shalom of Newton, who enthusiastically volunteered to shepherd me through the conversion process.  My first experience of Temple Shalom was Yom Kippur, which turned out to be hauntingly beautiful and meaningful in a way I hadn’t expected, as I reflected on the ways I wanted to change my life and myself in the coming year.  The evening Yom Kippur service was followed by a 20s and 30s break fast feast, where I met people my age, many of whom I have come to know well in the interim.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind year of growth and learning — I’ve lit Shabbat candles in my home, attended services at Temple Shalom and Temple Beth Elohim of Wellesley, studied Torah on Shabbat mornings (especially savoring the footnotes in the women’s commentary Torah), studied Hebrew prayers (thanks to Liz Piper-Goldberg), burned “Thanksgivvukah” mashed potato latkes, taken the introduction to Judaism course in Wayland (thanks to Rabbis Neal Gold, Jen Gubitz, and Alana Alpert, among others), learned about the conversion process at Mayyim Hayyim (thanks to Rabbi Julie Zupan), and participated in the 10-week young adult Eser study class.  Most importantly, I have met regularly with Rabbi Hirsch, whose calm kindness and insightful analysis of complex issues I came to value, as we discussed my evolving thoughts and questions about Judaism, until I felt that I was ready to be adopted into Judaism.

The Mishkan T’filah prayerbook has many beautiful passages for reflection, including one that brings tears to my eyes every time we read or sing it:

Standing on the parted shore of history

We still believe what we were taught

Before ever we stood at Sinai’s foot;

That wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt

That there is a better place, a promised land;

That the winding way to that promise

Passes through the wilderness.

That there is no way to get from here to there

Except by joining hands, marching together.

Today I join a beautiful 4,000 year old tradition, one with built-in growth and deep complexity.  It’s where I belong, and I am honored to join hands and march together into a new future.

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A Legacy for Your Family

By Loretta Zack 

The best gift you can ever give your family is to arrange your own funeral. …Did I hear a sharp intake of breath?

There are certain things that one should do in life, but somehow funeral planning does not always happen. When you are young, you have no concept of the future and as you get older, it becomes taboo. But when it happens and you have not made plans, it is a nightmare.

In my own life, I have been through many varying stages with family and friends where no planning was done and families tended to argue. In some cases, it caused everyone to totally fall out with one another. This is such an emotional time for everyone concerned and that is why planning ahead is the most sensible answer, however gruesome.  

Truthfully, when I say gruesome, it actually can be very satisfying to know that because of your actions, your children and family will not have too much to worry about, as long as you have everything in writing.  

The actual funeral arrangements can be so simple as long as you know what to do. Working at Temple Shalom for over nine years now, I have learned so much, and feel that with this knowledge, I have been able to guide and help people where they are just not sure what to do. And let’s face it, heartbreak, sadness, emotions, you just cannot think straight. For this reason, it is so important to shop for a funeral home and speak with our clergy. These are the people trained to help you during such a tough time. Since, in the Jewish tradition, burial takes place quickly, even if death was expected, the grief that comes with the loss is so overwhelming that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Over the years, members of our community have asked many questions to help them plan. For example:

  • What do I do, I have never done this before?
  • My children do not want to observe shiva. What do I do?
  • How many days do I have to sit shiva?
  • Who will be there to help me?
  • Where do I get the black ribbon and the large yahrzeit candle?
  • How am I going to cope?
  • My brother will not come to my house to sit shiva, what can we do?
  • What is Sheloshim?
  • None of my family are Jewish, and they will not know what to do? How do I handle that?
  • What is the difference between a burial service and a memorial service?

It is important to know that we at Temple Shalom will always be available to help with any questions you have. Never be afraid to ask. That is why the Temple Shalom family is so important—we are here to support and assist you.

I strongly urge you to take that giant step and make arrangements now. Leave your family the best gift, ever!

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Gaining Jewish Knowledge, Building Community

by Leah Sawyer

When I moved to Boston last fall, I was looking for community in the 20s/30s age range.  I was told by several people to check out Hebrew College’s Eser Program. In Hebrew, eser means ten, for the ten weeks it ranges and the “Top 10” topics discussed.  There were Eser groups meeting in homes located around Boston on different nights, and each was a guided discussion (moderated by a young rabbi in the same age range) on a Jewish topic (like Jews and tattoos, and gender and sexuality) – with the expectation that we would wander into non sequiturs and get to know each other along the way.  Our Thursday Newton group had just under 20 young people with a wide range of life experiences and a similarly wide range of knowledge of Judaism… and some amazing cooking abilities.  As someone with only a little background in Judaism, I learned a lot from both Rabbi Neil Hirsch and from the other folks in our group, and felt comfortable asking questions and sharing my own experiences.  Several times during the ten weeks, we met with other Eser groups in big combined events, so we could make connections outside our group.  Even though Eser is now officially over, we have a Shabbat barbeque planned. I am hoping to continue to make and deepen connections with people from my Eser cohort.  Eser is exactly what I was looking for, in searching for Jewish community in my age range in the Boston area.

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Telling Our Stories

This past Erev Shavuot, as part of our evening service, three members of our community shared their personal narratives with the congregation. The whole event was powerful. Adrienne Frechter, Lynda Schwartz, and Michael Epstein spoke about their lives in the Jewish community.

What the evening proved was that nothing is better than a good story. And, we had three of them.

You’re going to want to listen to these stories. They will move you. Take a listen or download the audio recording by clicking here.

We are grateful to Interfaith Connection, led by Susan Opdyke, for sponsoring and coordinating this program.

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Between Last Year and the Next

The writer Henry Ward Beecher once noted that “We should so live and labor in our time that what came to us as seed may go to the next generation as blossom, and what came to us as blossom may go to them as fruit. This is what we mean by progress.”

As Reform Jews, we know what it means to strive forward. The early Reformers made prayer and religious involvement relevant in the lives of those in their communities by evolving practices to be in line with their times. They introduced prayer in the vernacular, seeing that not everyone in the pews had a grasp of the Hebrew. They included women as members of the minyan. And they introduced the popular instruments of the time, beautifying the sacred music that was a part of the worship experience. As Leonard Fine entitled his study of Reform Judaism several decades ago, “Reform is a Verb…. The process of Reform is an ongoing, dynamic one, not a static process that has reformed and is finished becoming.”

With summer close by and with the anticipation of warm sun on our faces, we are looking back at this past year.  We see all that we have done as a community. This has been a year of evolution and reform for Temple Shalom, and it is quite remarkable.

This year was a year of change for the youth within our congregation. The year began with a celebration and the launch of MINCHA, our new 7th and 8th grade program. Each Tuesday throughout the year, our students have gathered together to build community with one another, and to learn and live the value of G’milut Chasadim, loving-kindness. Throughout the year, our students traveled to various organizations to volunteer and give back. When the students were here at the Temple, under the leadership of our Director of Youth Engagement, Ellie Goldman they were learning what it means to be a part of a sacred congregation, to be responsible to and for one another. With each week in MINCHA, we noticed a remarkable growing in how our young people treated one another. Respect and honor to one another were always present in a MINCHA session.

This coming year, we are looking forward to the launch of SHACHARIT, our new K-6 learning program, and MA’ARIV, our re-visioned High School initiative. Each, we hope, will be a new blossom in bloom for our congregation.

5774 was also a time to expand our horizons, and to better understand Jewish peoplehood and our own spiritual lives. 35 individuals within our congregation traveled to Cuba, to experience the Jewish community there. What they found was not only a beautiful country and fascinating chapter in the story of our Jewish people, but a reflection of our own story and a deeper understanding of our own Jewish journeys. 30 learners gathered this year to continue their studies through the Shalom Hartman Institute to explore the concept of the Tribes of Israel, and how they are still alive and well in Israeli and Diaspora life. 40 people tried out Shira Yoga–a new Shabbat yoga experience we piloted this Spring. With each of these different opportunities to engage in Jewish living, we found that we were enriched as a congregation, and we pray that each individual who participated experienced growth in themselves.

5774 will surely merge smoothly into 5775 with ongoing initiatives. Our Worship Task Force is hard at work examining how we worship and celebrate Shabbat and other sacred times together.  Shalom Y’all – our outreach efforts to 20s-30s has brought a growing number of young adults into relationship in and around Temple Shalom.  Bonim has expanded its Lunch With the Pros series, and our Sisterhood and Brotherhood continue to build community through a diverse range of activities. Our Family With Young Children Task Force has expanded our offerings and begun to reach out more broadly into the community around us.  Our Adult Learning Task Force is exploring new ways to draw more of us into the journey of Life-long Jewish Learning.  The coming year will see another Temple Shalom Trip to Israel in December and come next June, our first –ever Jewish Heritage Trip to Eastern Europe.  Put simply, this year, Temple Shalom has been a hub of activity.

On Kol Nidrei night, our President, Jo-Ann Suna, presented the new vision for our congregation. A team of leaders gathered this year to create and implement a new strategic plan for the congregation. The hope is to be personal, to be welcoming, to find new and different ways to engage in Jewish life.

As we look to 5775, we look forward to the evolutions and growth that is bound to happen on that front. The Jewish tradition has a concept of Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the sacred chain of transmission. We take Torah and pass it on to the next generation. In each generation, we determine how to make Torah for ourselves. We are in that process, and we are seeing that process take root. We have enjoyed seeing what has come from our evolutions and growth, and we cannot wait to see what blossoms next.

We wish you a relaxing and restorative summer.  We look forward to gathering to welcome not only the New Year, but one another as we continue to build on this year’s accomplishments and continue to go “from strength to strength.”


Rabbi Eric Gurvis and Rabbi Neil Hirsch

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Ultimate Artistry

I like to think that God is an artist. The Ultimate Artist. After all, in the beginning, God creates.

For six days, God makes. On the seventh day, God rests. Six days a week, we go about our lives, taking care of the various tasks and duties at hand. On the seventh day, we are gifted a chance to be like God—to rest, as well.

Often, when I’m speaking with someone about being Shabbat observant, I get a response like, “Rabbi, I couldn’t do all that traditional stuff. It seems so restrictive.” Restrictive or freeing?, I always want to reply. We are busy being creative all week long, and Shabbat is an opportunity to stop to appreciate the art we’ve made.

When we look at the traditional prohibitions on Shabbat, we can see a single theme: The restrictions keep us from creating. In Mishnah Shabbat 7:2, our Sages outline 39 categories of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat. They include sifting flour, kneading dough, and dying wool, spinning thread, weaving fabric, and tying sistine-chapel-creation-of-adamup the loose ends. Each of the 39 actions is a creative act. Come sundown on Friday our rest is all about stopping creation for just a bit. We don’t make fire, we don’t write, and we don’t build.

When we stop creating on Shabbat, we do it for ourselves, those within our household, and even for our land. Our tradition takes Shabbat seriously, and places that obligation to break from the workweek even on the land, itself. Our tradition treats the land as a creative being. Out of the soil comes fruit and life that sustains and nurtures us. Gardeners know that overworking the soil will exhaust it. The soil demands a break. The grower is creative, and after hard work, needs rest. And the rest of us, creators in a variety of ways, are no different.

Within Shabbat lies the message of why we create—for the sake of appreciation. When else would we stop to marvel at Creation?

The Ultimate Artist rests on Shabbat to look at the masterpiece that emerges out of a 6-day creative binge. On the seventh day, God takes a step back from the canvas to see what the entire painting looks like. We artists—to be at our best—need to do the same.

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Hiddur Mitzvah — Beauty in what we do

Recently, I found myself in a Judaica shop, picking out a kiddush cup for a family friend’s son who was becoming bar mitzvah. As I searched around, I wanted to find one that both was beautiful and reflected the young man’s personality. Browsing up and down the shelves, there were countless objects, each one artistically designed, speaking out and saying—I am beautiful, and I want to help beautify your rituals!

In reality, one does not need anything more than a paper cup to make kiddush. We only need a stick of cinnamon for havdallah, not a formal spice box. A tallit is constructed out of a four cornered piece of fabric, with tzitzit tied on the corners. I even once used a small branch as a yad for Torah reading, because for my life, I could not find a proper pointer.

Walking around any Judaica store, I am struck by the thoughtfulness, creativity, and beauty that goes into the making of our ritual objects. Judaism is not world-famous for its material culture; yet, our community has constantly created beautiful objects to be used in our most sacred of moments.

The want for this beauty comes out of a concept known as Hiddur Mitzvah, which is the enhancement of a mitzvah (commandment) through aesthetics. We are commanded to affix a mezuzah on the doorpost of our house. Take a small wooden box with the proper small scroll, set it diagonally on the doorpost, and say the blessing—there, we have fulfilled the mitzvah associated with mezuzah. But how does that plain, small box draw our attention to our obligation? Beautify the box, making it interesting and eye-grabbing, and suddenly the mezuzah has transformed into an attention grabber for something that we—as the Jewish community—are supposed to do.

Hiddur Mitzvah, our efforts to beautify the things that we as Jews do, is also made meaningful by memories created around the times those ritual objects are used. My favorite example of this was the tallit that I gave my brother and sister-in-law when they were married. My brother picked it out. It was a large tallit with a blue geometrical pattern that was woven into the stripes along the edges. We incorporated that tallit into their chuppah. It was the canopy under which they were married. And now, my brother wears that tallit each Shabbat. All the more so, we wrapped his daughters up in that tallit when I performed their baby namings, welcoming them into our community as daughters of the Covenant. We have charged that tallit with great power. The mitzvah that is fulfilled each time my brother puts it on is beautified by the memories of these various moments and the anticipation of other meaningful moments.

I am confident that I am not alone in the practice of placing meaning on family heirlooms, along with the want to beautify the rituals that we perform in the contexts of our families and our community. When we embrace and practice Hiddur Mitzvah, we bring light and life further into the commandments and rituals, the meaningful moments of our Jewish experiences.

Bringing light into our community is something that Anita Winer z’’l was dedicated to. She understood the power of aesthetics in our tradition. That is why I am so proud of what our congregation has done to keep Anita’s memory and blessing alive through the Open Your Eyes fund and the Shine a Light initiative.

Beginning last month, and going well into 5775, our congregation will have the opportunity to engage, learn, connect, and create in different ways, all designed to lift up the beauty of our tradition, through the context of visual and performing arts. We hope that this initiative will involve everyone within the congregation in some way or another.

The beauty of our tradition—through the glow of Channukah candles or the light that shines through a stained glass window—has the power to enhance our relationship to Jewish life. Hiddur Mitzvah calls us to consider what we do as Jews, and how we work to make it meaningful and special. I hope you will join in one of the many opportunities over the next months to bring beauty to our tradition.

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Are You Wiser than a Second Grader?

Guest blog post from Ellie Goldman, Director of Youth Engagement

In second grade I sat next to a boy named Jason.  I don’t remember his last name but I know his first name was Jason because it was on the board every day with a bunch of checks next to it.  He was the kid who was in trouble at every turn for one thing or another – he was a bad seed and even though we were only seven – we all knew it.

One day our teacher sat us all down and said we needed to discuss something as a class.  She said that Jason (who was there as well) was really having a hard time, that staying focused was difficult for him and that he was falling behind.  She said we were all going to work together to get things back on track.  As a class we strategized about possible solutions.  One classmate asked Jason if he might have trouble hearing the teacher.  Another thought perhaps he needed a snack in the middle of the day because he was hungry. Ultimately we concluded that it was we who were the distraction.  Sitting near friends was a temptation he struggled to overcome.  We made him want to talk and joke and turning away from the socializing was just harder for him than for other kids.  Image

We brainstormed different options and then that afternoon we constructed a 1-man cubby around his desk. I can picture it like it was yesterday – covered in yellow, waxy butcher paper and extending high above his desk.  We moved his seat so that it was without an immediate neighbor but still part of the larger group.  Someone thought having headphones might help as well to dull the noise of the room so we outfitted his desk with those.  At the end of the day Jason had his own private learning oasis and we had all been a part of the process.  I can still see him sitting there, hunched over a worksheet or a book with his headphones on working away.  That cubby changed his whole existence at school and it changed me as well.

I think about Jason and his yellow cubicle frequently, sometimes daily.  I think about how my brilliant teacher saw a little boy, branded as a bad seed, who had a desire to learn and she asked us to help him succeed.  She crafted a conversation that was not shameful or demeaning but rather powerfully respectful of him and trusting of us.  I think about how beautiful it was to create a space that was separate for him but which ultimately allowed him to be included and to become a learner.

That single day, more than thirty years ago, has completely shaped the way that I understand what it means to be in community and has guided me throughout my career working with young people.  I am constantly aware of Jason, what his needs were, how he encountered school and how we provided for his needs in a spirit of joy and support. In this, the month of Inclusion Awareness I am grateful for that 2nd grade lesson about what it means to be responsible for one another and how important it is to value each individual, even (especially) the ones who struggle the most.

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