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My Youth Advisors (Adam and Bobbee Griff) were right…

Hosting a Regional NFTY event wouldn’t just be great for our teens, but it would have the power to transform our youth programs even further towards becoming a Youth Community.

We had 324 Jewish teens in our facility this past weekend. That in and of itself was a miracle. But more than sheer numbers, what was so powerful was my ability to witness some amazing things.

Fall Kallah 2013 TBT KIDSWe had 45 kids from our synagogue alone opt in to try to have an encounter with a Youth Community. For many, this was their first event; for others, they see themselves as seasoned veterans at these retreats. But our newcomers and those from all around the NFTY-SAR Region (NFTY is the North American Federation of Temple Youth — SAR is the Southern Area Region of NFTY), our teens embraced what Ron Wolfston calls the “Spirituality of Welcoming,” reaching out and connecting people to one another. s

Fall Kallah 2013 Family PanelThey focused on teaching about different kinds of families, our commitments towards inclusion and our respect for diversity. The educational programming was thoughtful and our teens walked away with the perspective of how every family is precious and has integrity.

Our prayer experiences were tremendous. I know I like the traditional tones of our service, but I was exhilarated and inspired by their JOY. There were no spectators in that sanctuary. Our kids PRAYED — with songs that brought them closer to one another and (whether they know it or not…) to God!

Fall Kallah 2013 closing circle

But here is the thing. Our youth advisors challenged us to take on almost all of the housing responsibilities ourselves. Most host congregations reach out to their neighboring synagogues for some help. Why not? Who couldn’t use some extra help? The challenge was made and we needed 70 host families. 60 came from our synagogue. That means, more congregants were able to witness some of these peak moments like I did. They saw a ruach-filled sanctuary come to a quiet, soulful moment as the students sang Sh’ma — holding on to each word for an entire breath. These hosts saw our NFTYites laugh and play, learn and teach. It wasn’t just our youth group board that had responsibilities…it was an array of teens from 8th through 12th grades who played a part. They and their parents were so invested in the success of this kallah.

These hosts — not all of whom even have kids in high school or NFTY! — were able to see how lives could be changed by a meaningful, compelling, fun Jewish experience. So I don’t just have a lot of kids going to Jewish events… I have a bunch of teens who want to build a community and parents who are no longer bystanders. They witnessed how great it is for their kids to find other Jewish teens with similar Jewish needs — for community, for prayer, for justice, and for hope.

So here is the unapologetic, unabashed pitch… help us. Temple Beth Tikvah has three ways to help us support our teens. Consider:

  • an act of tzedakah to our Annual Campaign to support everything that is happening in the synagogue — there is no corner that is not touched by these gifts.
  • an act of tzedakah to our Camp/Israel Scholarship Fund — help us get more kids to summer programs in Israel, Jewish summer camps and learning programs.
  • an act of tzedakah to our Youth Group Fund that provides scholarships for our teens to go to NFTY events when there is financial need or to help fund special programs for our teens.

You can select any of these funds by going to:

Make a gift in honor of your teen, of our event, of our Youth Advisors, of our Youth Committee volunteers. The Jewish way of expressing our gratitude is by paying it forward. I am grateful for all who invest in our youth.

Bobbee and Adam — thank you. To our youth group Board and our Kallah Chairpeople — may you all go from strength to strength. To our Youth Committee and parent volunteers — we couldn’t make these things happen without you. To all of our staff, partners, stakeholders, leaders, schleppers, cooks, bottlewashers… it really does take a village.


Debbie Friedman has died this week and I must say that it has shaken me quite a bit. I didn’t know her well at all, unlike so many others. But I have been singing her songs and praying with her melodies since I was a little boy. I didn’t realize that my childhood bedtime lullabies were actually NFTY melodies for shacharit (the evening service), some of which Debbie wrote.

She was an innovator. I remember when she began to sing her Mi Shebeirach to groups and was so moved by the fact that she wanted to sing it to us — without us saying a word. It was such a generous statement. And only once she finished, then we would join in to sing it to her. Even her concerts were filled with prayer!

For lots of kids at Jewish camps over the years, the songleader was the closest thing they could get to meeting a rock star of some sort. That was the part that always made me uncomfortable (being on the receiving end of that). What I wanted to do is to teach text and encourage people to connect to God the way Debbie had taught us. She was a great educator becuase she made classic texts accessible and she helped us learn our tradition more than any rabbi’s sermon. She sang texts many of us would not have ordinarily learned in Hebrew school. She shared these texts with translations and interpretations to make them accessible and inclusive.

So what did I take away from Debbie, a Jewish innovator in music, Jewish learning, and healing — whom I barely knew?

During my college years, I spent my summers songleading at the Reform movement’s Kutz Camp: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens in Warwick, NY. I was blessed with the opportunity to bring some 300 high school students, counselors and faculty together in song every day. My task was not to entertain, but to create an atmosphere where each person who desired could join his or her voice with another’s. It didn’t matter whether they could sing or not; what mattered was that those people felt they were an integral part of a community; that they found a safe place to raise their voices, sing loudly (even off-key) and feel connected. It was in that Kutz Camp dining room where I truly found God Presence through song.

My role as song leader at Kutz Camp was to facilitate and guide the community to create a harmony—a unity—that is hard to find in our “everyday spaces.” This has become the foundation for my rabbinate—creating sacred space for individuals and families. By cultivating meaningful relationships with an outstretched arm and an open heart, we can encourage people to participate in the strengthening of a spiritually, socially, and intellectually stimulating and inclusive congregation.

Debbie’s model, for me, was to say that a Jewish community is more substantial than any association—it is a congregation reaching out to bring the Presence of God into all the corners of life.

As for me, personally, her melody for Mi Shebeirach has been sung for my daughter, Noa, after her diagnosis with congenital heart defects and through her recovery after heart surgery at three weeks old, and for me after my diagnosis with multiple sclerosis earlier this year. We sang Lechi Lach at my girls’ Brit Chaim ceremonies so their journeys will be filled with meaning. Rabbi Jeff Clopper (my co-Kutz songleader one summer) sang her T’filat Haderech–Traveler’s Prayer at our wedding.

Debbie Friedman, z”l, had a tremendous impact on many lives, perhaps without even realizing it. May her memory be an abiding blessing.

Debbie’s obituary was in today’s NY Times.

How many times have you heard the flight attendant in the front of the plane give those same directions:

“… In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop from above. If you are traveling with a child, place your mask on first …”

What great Torah! Who knew it would come from a Delta Flight Attendant!

My friend Ira Wise shared this idea on his blog. What’s the point you may ask? The point to the airplane passenger is clear: you can’t care for your child or the person you are caring for unless you take care for yourself first.

We often see folks in the Jewish community focus a lot of attention on children. It is important — crucial — to insure that the next generation of Jews has a meaningful, worthwhile Jewish education. But the best way to make this guarantee is for us — the adult parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, uncles, siblings — to get enough “oxygen” for ourselves first. It is hard to have our children be inspired by Judaism if we don’t show them that we are. We can’t teach our children to act like a mensch unless they see us doing so. They won’t live generous lives unless they see us be generous ourselves (with time and yes, with tzedakah).

Ayekah is about asking the ultimate question: “Where are you?”

I believe with all my heart that our children will learn how to be Jewish from us. Rabbis, cantors, educators, youth workers, among others can never be a replacement for the parent searching for his/her own relationship with God, Israel and Torah.

So imagine me as your flight attendant for this journey:

Welcome to the 2011! It is a complicated world and sometimes we have overwhelming pressure. To get through it, grab your Torah…take it for yourself and pass it on to your children or the children in your lives (of any age!)….

I wish you a safe and fulfilling journey.

P.S. If you want to start your trip and are a part of Beth Tikvah’s community, be sure to check out our adult learning opportunities. Rabbi Tam is sharing his Jewish response to modern day atheist arguments on Sunday mornings, I am teaching a class on the Arab Israeli Conflict at the JCC-Zaban campus (TBT members get the JCC member rate), and we have a great new program called Ayeka! Ayeka was created in Israel three years ago by Rabbi Aryeh Ben David, who has been teaching adults for 30 years. This program’s goal is not about information, but personal transformation. Ayeka meets in small groups in which people look at Jewish texts as a point of departure for exploring how to bring meaningfulness to our daily lives and actions, enhancing our days and our interactions. I am hoping our TBT friends will be inerested in joining us for this experience. Joan Marks is hosting a “Taste of Ayeka” before the full seminar starts. If you would like to sign up for the “Taste,” it will be at on Sunday, January 23rd at 10 am. We are limited to only 20 people, so if you are interested, contact me or Joan directly.

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