learning to live and love from a new perspective

Just another day in the USA

We’re now in Day 30 of the government shutdown.  I wake up every day thinking about the 800,000 federal workers who have been reporting to their jobs every day for the last month, but have no idea when they will receive their next paycheck.  Mothers and fathers who work faithfully at jobs, many of whom we rely on for safety and security-  TSA workers, coast guard, people who inspect the food we eat at the FDA.  Their livelihood held hostage while our president and the Republican-controlled Senate continue to block all efforts to return normalcy to these people’s lives.img_1012

Throw on top of that the anti-semitic flyers found tucked in Little Free Libraries across my town last week-  including one in an LFF I can see from my kitchen window. (http://newton.wickedlocal.com/news/20190114/police-anti-semitic-fliers-found-in-five-spots-in-newton)

So much hate in so many forms.  But the image that is haunting me at the moment is the picture of the white teen in the MAGA hat mocking a Native American elder on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  (https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/19/us/teens-mock-native-elder-trnd/index.html)

Happy MLK Day, people.img_1016

So much hate in the world, there are barely enough words to describe.  Sometimes, the weight of all of this hate comes close to immobilizing me.  How is this the world we are living in?  How is this the world I’m raising my children in?

It was that last thought, “How is this the world I’m raising my children in”, that finally began to give me a sense of direction.  When I shift the emphasis from the beginning of the question to the end, I begin to move from helplessness to hopefulness.

When I think of the enormity of the hate in the world, I don’t know where I’d even begin start to address all of it.  But when I think about how I want to raise my children, I know exactly where to start.img_1017

Let me start by telling you exactly what I think about your MAGA hat, young man.  I see your choice to wear that hat as an act of aggression.  Your hat screams to the world that you support an administration that shuts down the government and uses the wages of hard-working men and women as bargaining chits.  Your hat tells me in no uncertain terms that you are aware that children, toddlers and infants are being separated from their parents and held in cages at our southern border.  You are aware of this, and you don’t care.  When you wear your hat, you broadcast to me your support of an administration that sees anyone who is not white, not straight, not Christian, not American-born as less than human.  Your choice to wear that hat is an act of aggression.

So, yes, I watched the extended video.  I saw the insults hurled at you by the “Black Israelites.”   That was awful.  I wish some adult in your group had had the good sense to move you to a different location and diffuse a tense situation.

I don’t believe you deserved to be on the receiving end of the degrading and harsh words thrown at you by the Black Israelites.  I also don’t believe you deserve the hate mail and death threats you’ve received from prominent citizens and anonymous trolls alike after the shortened version of the video went viral.

I don’t believe you deserve that level of hate, but I also don’t think you are the innocent victims you portray yourselves to be.  By wearing your MAGA hat, you associate yourself with a cruel, corrupt and heartless administration.  By wearing your MAGA hat, by aligning yourself with this callous and soulless movement, you broadcast your lack of empathy for all to see.

Which brings me back to my initial question:  How do I choose to exist in this world filled with hate?  How do I choose to raise my children?img_1107

I want to live by example.  I want my kids to look at me-  the choices I make, the actions I take, and the love I give.  I want them to see that I respect all people, and I expect them to respect all people as well.  Not only do we respect all people, but we work our hardest to understand, include and make comfortable.

I know that raising kind and empathic kids is good, but it’s not enough.  We all need to take action.  We need to put our values to work by fighting the injustices in the world.
What feels important to me on this MLK day is recognizing that link between parenting and fighting the hate in the world.  Every day, as a parent, I try to be a good role model.  I try to act with integrity.  I try to use my voice to guide my kids on their journey towards being caring, responsible adults.  I try to help them see the privilege we have in our lives, and how we are especially responsible for helping address the systemic issues that discriminate against people who don’t share in the benefits of society that we enjoy as White, American-born citizens.img_5070

There is a lot of hate in the world, but there is a lot of good, too.  There are many powerful role models for me as an adult to emulate, and for me to introduce to my children.

Happy MLK Day, people.march for our lives

 

Praying with my fingers

As many of you know, my response to tragedy and hatred in the last year and a half has been to text.  Shootings in Parkland, FL?  Send 500 texts. A peaceful protester mowed down by a car while standing up to neo-Nazi’s?  Send 800 texts.  Incident after incident after incident of white people calling the police to report black people going about their daily lives?   Text, text, text.

1rfAd93IQcSVuOWcg0q0xgIt’s ten days until November 6.  Ten days until that hoped-for, prayed-for Blue Wave might possibly wash over our country.  In ten days, it’s possible that some of the amazing candidates I’ve had the privilege to support will be elected to office–  ready to bring a vision of equality, compassion, and civil discourse that is so desperately needed in our country.

And as much as I hope to see that vision of a Blue Wave become a reality….  that is not the only reason I’m texting.  A painful lesson we all learned through the 2016 election, is that we live in a country divided.  Red vs Blue.  Urban vs Rural.  Residents on the coasts vs those in the fly-over states.  Our world views are shaped by our experience, and get reinforced by those who share the same lens as we do.  That’s normal.  What’s troubling is that due to the rise in social media, and the influence of politically-biased news sources, those who don’t share our world views can become “the enemy”–  to be feared, hated and ridiculed.

It’s painful to me that here in my liberal bubble of suburban Boston, I have very little opportunity to connect on an interpersonal level with those outside my world view.  I read about people who operate from a very different belief system than I do, but I don’t have the opportunity to interact with them. And while texting doesn’t give me a huge opportunity, it’s something.

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

In my hours of texting, I’ve encountered a lot of hate.  People swear at me.  People tell me I’m a stupid lib-tard.  One voter sent me a gif of Mr. T calling me a sucka.  One voter introduced me to some new acronyms (I never knew that you could abbreviate “suck my dick” by simply using the letters “smd”.  Maybe that knowledge will come in handy some day.)  All of this in response to a two line text asking if folks would like to learn about a candidate.

When my kids are reading over my shoulder, and I get a hate response, I tell them that the person who sent it thinks they’re writing to a computer. If the person realized they were writing to an actual human being, they would never use that kind of hateful language.

No matter how hateful a text I receive, I send the standard reply in response, “Thanks for letting me know your views. I’m glad we’re both trying to improve our country, even if we don’t always agree about how best to do it. I hope your day goes well.”

Every once in a while, I get a good conversation like the one I had last night.  (I wish I could just cut and paste the whole conversation, but that’s against the rules.).  The voter responded to my initial text with a litany of complaints against the “Demon-crats”.    These complaints included:

  • They want to take our guns
  • They want to take our hard-earned money and give it to illegals
  • They encourage women to kill their own babies
  • They have no problem with Planned Parenthood selling those babies for parts

After taking a deep breath, I responded, “Thanks for letting me know your views. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but there seems to be a little bit of misinformation in there.”

I corresponded six times with this voter, on and off over the course of an hour.  I reassured him that I’m not disputing his right to have an opinion based on his own values, and I didn’t expect his values to match mine (or my candidate’s). Only that some of the statements he made were factually incorrect.

At the end of the conversation, I signed off with:

I suppose it’s time for me to end this conversation. I imagine that you will not support my candidate, and that’s fine. I hope you will continue to find ways to discuss real issues with us “Demon-crats”. I believe our country can be great again if we can find ways to disagree respectfully.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

So now, it’s time to get back to texting.  I hope my efforts will result in some amazing candidates being elected. I also hope that my efforts will result in a handful of people out there taking a moment to reflect on their deeply held beliefs about liberal democrats.

  • They want to take our guns
  • They want to take our hard-earned money and give it to illegals
  • They encourage women to kill their own babies
  • They have no problem with Planned Parenthood selling those babies for parts

I shared my experiences online with another texter in my Text Troop.  Her response resonated deeply with me as well.  “For me, what I also experience is that this process is happening in the other direction too. I have to work to remember that the person writing “smd” is also human with his own complicated story and sometimes, when I dig a little deeper and get the opportunity to keep a conversation going, I get to challenge my own dehumanizing moments, and see that person as a person.”

I hope that a few people will learn, through their interactions with me and my fellow texters that their beliefs about us aren’t true.  That what is presented in the news they watch or in their social media feeds are distortions of what we liberals actually believe. I hope I can continue to learn from the people I am texting.  I hope I can continue to challenge my own assumptions.  And maybe if we can all take a breath, and take a step back for a moment, we can really start to listen to one another.

Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “When I march in Selma, my feet are praying.”  When I sit at my computer, sending out texts, I feel like my fingers are praying.  All of the pain that hits me when I hear about more shootings, more hate crimes, more intolerance…..  it flows from my heart and out through my fingers.   The candidates I support have a vision of a more inclusive, more tolerant, more just society.  I hold that vision in my heart as my fingers pray on my keyboard.

 

Yesterday, I posted the following on Facebook:

Favorite moment(s) of the day: Today I helped coordinate the Understanding Our Differences program on Learning Disabilities for Grade 4 at Gabriel’s school. We do hands-on activities in the classroom first, then move down to the library where the whole grade gets together for a guest speaker. Today’s speakers were two sisters who grew up in Newton. They spoke about how difficult it was when they were kids. They were both bullied and treated very unkindly because of their learning disabilities. During the Q&A, one girl in the front row raised her hand and said, “This is not a question. It’s a comment. I think that no matter what kind of learner a person is, people should not be mean to them. Everybody has stuff that is easy for them, and stuff that is hard for them. That’s just the way people are. And, if you see someone being mean to someone else because of the way that they learn, then you should stick up for them and be a good friend.” I thought that was going to be the best moment, but it just got better. A little later, another girl raised her hand. “This is not a question. It’s an analogy. I have a little sister, and we like to race each other on our bikes. But I have long legs, and she has short legs. So when we race each other, I give her a head start. I don’t think she’s getting an advantage. It’s just that if we both start at the same time, then it would be unfair. And it doesn’t mean that I’m better than her, it’s just that I have long legs and she doesn’t. It’s like that with Learning Disabilities. Everyone is good at different things, and we should all get help with the things that are hard for us.” Some days, I feel sad for the state of the world, and the lack of empathy I sense in the way I see people treat one another. Today was not one of those days.

A few years ago, I was carpooling to a conference with a fellow educator.  She asked me about my career.  I told her that my background was in the field of Social Emotional Learning, and that I had worked for many years for an organization that was focused on changing school climate and culture to be supportive not just of children’s academic development, but of their social and emotional well-being as well.  She asked me to tell her more, so I told her a story, much like the one above.  The story I told was one in which students were engaged in an activity that encouraged them to put themselves in another’s shoes, and take the perspective of someone different from themselves.  The story ended, like the one shared above, with several students expressing thoughtful and inspiring insights prompted by the educational experience they had just participated in.

“And do you think these programs are effective?” my colleague asked in a neutral tone.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well,” she continued, now in a tone that was both condescending and dismissive, “It’s been MY experience that kids say what they know teachers want to hear, then they go on behaving in the way they were before.  It’s been MY experience that these programs take a lot of resources and classroom time, but they don’t have any actual effect on behavior.  They affect what kids say when there are adults around, but they don’t actually affect what kids do when they’re on their own.”

I sat stunned into silence.  I mean what could I say, really?  This “fellow educator” had just torn down my entire career in a single statement.

Over the years, I’ve revisited that moment in my memory many times.  Every time I go back to that moment I try to remind myself that the power of Social Emotional Learning is extremely well-documented in study after study.  I remind myself of the transformations I’ve seen in the schools I’ve worked in.  Transformations of classrooms in which the climate went from chaotic and disconnected, to peaceful and supportive.  Transformations in culture where I’ve seen adults go from talking about “those kids” to talking about “our kids”.   Transformations in which kids were given the tools to understand and communicate about differences, and so were able to come together in ways that they hadn’t been able to do without social emotional learning practices.

And so, when I have an experience like the one I had yesterday in UOD, for a long time, the first voice I hear in my head is that educator from that car ride a long time ago.  “It’s been MY experience that these programs take a lot of resources and classroom time, but they don’t have any actual effect on behavior.  They affect what kids say when there are adults around, but they don’t actually affect what kids DO when they’re on their own.”

To that voice, I say, “You’re right.  Sometimes, kids just say things that they know adults want to hear.  But sometimes, like in that UOD lesson yesterday, kids say things because they’ve had a new and powerful insight.  They’ve thought about a person they know, or an interaction they’ve witnessed, in a new way.  And they want to share with the person that gave them that insight this wonderful new thought that they’ve had.  Will this new insight lead to new behavior?  Maybe, maybe not.”

But one thing I know for sure.  The two young women who spoke at UOD yesterday had been students in that very same school, just fifteen short years ago.  And the bullying and cruelty they experienced at the whim of their classmates does not happen anymore in that building.  Does. Not. Happen.  And that is because there has been intense and focused attention on creating a school culture and climate in which differences are understood and diversity is celebrated.  And it happens one conversation at a time.  One thoughtful comment at a time.  Those comments are uttered for a million reasons (maybe to impress a teacher, maybe not), but they are heard and recognized by everyone in the room.  And when it happens again and again, it changes the culture.

So, in answer to my colleague’s long-ago question….  Yes.  Yes, not only do I think these programs are effective, I know these programs are effective.  I hope in these intervening years, that you have come to know it too.

 

Safe at School

A little over a week ago, on Valentine’s Day, many of us were celebrating a day of love with our sweethearts and our families.  In Parkland, FL, a school community was devastated by a school shooting that left seventeen people dead, and dozens more injured.

And while many elected officials predictably chimed in with their standard “our thoughts and prayers go out to this community”, it is clear that something has changed in our country.

Across this country, it is clear that we have had enough.  Enough needless, avoidable bloodshed.  Enough senseless violence.  Enough cowardly inaction.  Enough pathetic excuses.  Enough.

I didn’t particularly want to talk to my kids about the Parkland shooting, but the news was on in a public place the other day, showing vigils and walkouts across the country.  So I tried to explain in as non-scary a way as I could what was happening.

S is in Middle School now, and had already heard about the shooting.  She had also heard about the student walk-out being planned for March 14.  I asked her if she thought she might want to join.  She replied, “I agree with what they are doing, but I’d be scared to walk out.  What if someone with a gun comes to the walk-out and starts shooting?”

G asked if he is safe at school.  I explained that we are fortunate to live in a state with very strict gun laws.  I feel very safe sending him to school each day, and I don’t feel that something like the Florida shooting will happen where we live.  “Then why are people in our state going to protest?” he asked.  I replied that we want to live in a country where everyone can feel safe, and that gun laws need to change in our whole country in order for that to happen.  I asked if he would like to go to the upcoming March for our Lives Rally in Boston with me.  He replied, “Yes, I would.  And I’m going to make a sign that says ‘I want my cousins to be safe at school.”

Let me be clear.  These are NOT conversations that I want to be having with my children.  These are not conversations I want anyone to have to have with their children.

And speaking of conversations nobody should be having right now….  I am literally shaking with rage over the suggestion that the problem of school shootings can be solved by arming teachers.

There are so many, many, many things wrong with that idea that it’s almost impossible to think where to start.

Let me start with the fact (not opinion, fact) that bringing guns into schools will de facto make schools less safe.  I’m not going to bother looking up statistics on accidental deaths/injuries caused by guns.  But anyone who has worked in an environment with children knows it is just common sense to keep harmful objects out of the reach of children.    (Okay, my stomach is starting to tighten at the sheer stupidity of having to write this last paragraph, and the sheer stupidity of someone who would think that having a loaded gun in a classroom does not raise safety concerns….  so I’m going to move on.)

Let me continue with how demoralizing to the profession of teaching it is to suggest that teachers should carry guns.  Teaching is more than just a job.  It is a vocation.  A calling.  Anyone who has ever had the good fortune to meet a truly spectacular teacher knows that these people were put on this earth to nurture, encourage, mentor and guide our children.  Good teachers invest their hearts and souls into understanding our children, loving our children, and creating classroom environments where our children can thrive.  When I hear someone suggest, all in one breath, that we need to make our schools safer by having metal detectors, locked doors, and armed teachers, it literally makes me feel sick.  Teachers are not inanimate objects like a door that you can place a lock on or an entryway where you can install a metal detector.  Teachers are human beings who have taken on one of the most important and undervalued roles in our society.  Throwing around the idea that teachers should also, in addition to the billion roles they already play, take on the role of armed security guard….  this further devalues the already taken-for-granted things that teachers already do.

And finally, let me talk for a moment about teacher training.  Over the course of my career, I have had access to some amazing professional development experiences that have exponentially expanded my capacity to nurture and educate children.  I’ve had training in child development, psychology, classroom management, diagnosing reading disabilities, hands-on math instruction….  you name it.  One summer, I attended a week-long STEM training on-site at NASA.  I learned to be a better science teacher from actual rocket scientists.   And being a teacher, I know that staff training hours are golden.  For every hour you put into training, you wish you had three or four more hours, because you can never do more than scratch the surface on any given topic.  I think of the hours that are currently going into training for lockdown procedures and active shooter situations, and it haunts me.  From a professional development perspective, it feels like time taken away from things that could actually make me a better teacher.  From a personal perspective, I can tell you that when you are walking through a building, discussing the play-by-play of what you would do in an active shooter situation, you start playing out the situation in your mind.  You start imagining the sound of gunshots.  You start to visualize the looks of panic on your students’ faces.  You feel your pulse quicken as you imagine what it would be like to herd your students into the supply closet and pull the door closed behind you.

Every time I attend one of these teacher trainings, I leave feeling sick to my stomach.  It has to stop.  We are educators.  Our safety matters.  I should feel safe in my work environment.  Our children should feel safe in school.

If you have not yet taken action, please do.  The tide is beginning to turn, and we all need to be part of it.

Thanks for reading.

https://everytown.org

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The Time of Our Joy

Lately, the world has felt like a dark and chaotic place. At night, you fall asleep to images of devastating hurricane damage, and in the morning you wake up to news of a mass murder at a country music concert. All of this with the constant drumbeat of corruption, lies and hard-heartedness coming from our nation’s capital.

It’s been hard to focus lately. It’s been hard to keep up with carpools, homework monitoring, and bedtime routines. In the middle of each of these everyday tasks, my attention keeps slipping away from the mundane jobs in front of me to the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness that keep rising up like storm clouds blocking out the sun.

Given this context, the holiday of Sukkot is resonating deeply with me this year. On Sukkot, we set up a temporary dwelling place out in nature. It needs to be solid enough to withstand the weather, but fragile enough to let in the light from the stars and the moon.IMG_2349

Ever since we first began the tradition of building a Sukkah in our yard, I’ve appreciated many aspects of this holiday. I enjoy the opportunity to be creative. As adults, we don’t often have the opportunity to bring to life something we dream up in our imagination that has no practical purpose. Our Sukkah fits all of the traditional qualifications, but it also expresses the whimsy and creativity of our family. I love it.

I enjoy the opportunity to be in nature. During the time it takes to build and decorate the Sukkah, I appreciate being outside. I drink in the crisp fall days, and look up through leafy branches at the bright blue sky. I savor the dinners eaten outside to the sounds of squirrels scampering up trees and the sight of the sunset illuminating the evening sky.

Most importantly, I enjoy the mandate to BE HAPPY. A nickname for Sukkot is IMG_2394.jpg“Z’man Simchateinu” or “The Time of Our Joy”. In order to truly fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkot, it’s not enough to merely construct a sukkah. You also have to decorate it, and you also have to invite guests. Some years, this feels like a lot of pressure. This year, it feels like the solution to a deep, deep yearning.

Our world feels increasingly confusing and frightening. Lives are cut short every day by things beyond our control– from a car slamming into a crowd of peaceful protestors to catastrophic storms whose effects are magnified by climate change to a madman with access to automated weapons. So many things are outside of our control.

IMG_2392.jpg            This year, in the process of fulfilling the mitzvot of this holiday, I’m reminded of all the things that are WITHIN our control. I can create a beautiful, sacred space right in my own backyard. I can carve out the time to eat slow, relaxing meals with family and friends. I can nurture important relationships in the context of this time and space. I can give myself permission to BE HAPPY.

Last spring, I was deeply moved by the words of the sonnet written by Lin Manuel-Miranda in response to the shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. His words have been echoing in my mind this week:

My wife’s the reason anything gets done

She nudges me towards promise by degrees

She is a perfect symphony of one

Our son is her most beautiful reprise.

We chase the melodies that seem to find us

Until they’re finished songs and start to play

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story

Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

 

I’ve highlighted the lines that feel particularly meaningful at this time. First, on this Sukkot, I remember that nothing here is promised, not one day. Sukkot is a reminder to take time each day to create some happiness. Enjoy our beautiful, natural world. Revel in the gift of each other.  Each day is precious, and the gifts of today might not be here tomorrow. The sukkah itself is a reminder that everything in our lives (both the joy and the tragedy) is temporary.

Second, on this Sukkot, I remember Lin Manuel’s encouragement to create beauty out of tragedy. Fill the world with music, love and pride. I can start by creating a beautiful space in my own backyard, and filling that space with twinkling lights, good food, laughter, friendship and love. Then, I can take all that love, and let it radiate it outward. I can let that love motivate me towards generous and loving acts that help repair our broken world.

Next week, when the holiday is over, we’ll pack up our twinkly little sukkah and store its component parts until next year. I’ll carry the empowering memories of intentionally creating a time and space for joy, light and love during these dark times. Then, I’ll roll up my sleeves and go back to the work of adding my voice and my efforts to fighting the intolerance, inequality and injustice that is so prevalent in our country right now.

This year, the holiday of Sukkot is giving me a welcome reprieve from feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Wishing that by next year, the world is in a better place.

 

Wishing you all a joyous and peace-filled holiday.

PS  Adding to our joy this year is the purchase of a trampoline.  Look at those bouncy, happy children!!!

One of the things I love most about working at Camp Ramah is the impact that it’s had on my own personal spiritual development. I grew up going to a Jewish sleepaway camp, so I remember how profound it is to live in an immersive Jewish community for weeks at a time. I remember how the pace slows on Shabbat, how the spirit lifts during an exciting round of Israeli dance, and how the soul is refreshed during quiet Saturday night singing under the stars. I remember all of these things, but the depth of change in my own spiritual being now that I’m experiencing Jewish camp as an adult has come as a surprise to me.

This year, in particular, I came to camp seeking a particular kind of change. During the off-season, I work in a supplementary Religious School. Part of my job is to teach students to read and chant tefillot. I get a lot of satisfaction when my students can recite all the words of Birchot Hashachar or can chant the Amidah flawlessly after weeks of practice. However, I’m aware that these accomplishments would feel much more rewarding if reciting these prayers felt more personally meaningful to me. And so, I came to camp this summer primed to deepen my own prayer experience.

I had several “Aha!” moments during Staff Training week. The first was during Tefillot on the second morning of training. The leaders of the activity encouraged all of us to brainstorm ideas for getting our campers “physically and spiritually ready” for tefillot each morning. This was a new thought for me. I always just show up at tefillot. I never thought about how the experience would be different if I did some type of preparation. But once I thought about it, it made so much sense. Musicians can’t produce beautiful music without tuning and warming up their instruments. Athletes can’t accomplish amazing physical feats without stretching and warming up their bodies. To what new heights could we lift our campers’ prayer experience if we helped them get physically and spiritually ready for tefillot? To what new heights could I lift my own tefillot? I left the session eager to explore.

The next “Aha!” moment came during a staff learning session about the poetry of Yehuda Amichai. I was deeply moved by Amichai’s simple but elegant imagery, as he explored themes of man’s relationship with G-d, peoplehood, and prayer. The poem that resonated with me the most was titled simply, “A Tallis Poem”. In the poem, Amichai uses beautiful images to explore the experience of wearing a tallis. As soon as I finished reading the poem, the answer to the previous session’s question (how can I make myself physically and spiritually ready for tefillot each morning?) became clear. I wanted to try wearing a tallis.

Sometime in the coming year, I plan to make an excursion with my daughter to buy “real” tallitot for the two of us in honor of her upcoming Bat Mitzvah. But for the purposes of this summer, I felt a sense of urgency. I went on to Amazon (yes, you really can buy anything on Amazon!), and picked out a simple tallis. It was light-weight, with a pretty purple and gold trim, and most importantly, they assured me it would arrive by Shabbat.

Wearing a tallis during tefillot has changed the experience for me. I used to scan the room during tefillot and think that everyone else looked like they were doing “real” prayer. I often felt like I was just saying words, but not really praying. I felt like there was some intrinsic difference between everyone else’s prayers and mine. My brain was always filled with thoughts like, “I didn’t go to Day School, I don’t speak Hebrew, I don’t go to a Conservative Shul. Everyone else knows what they’re doing here, and I don’t.” Making the decision to purchase and wear a tallis, for me, was making the decision to take ownership of my own tefillot experience. While my background in tefillot might not be as robust as other members of the camp community, I can feel good about where I am on my journey. I can take any step I want to deepen my own spirituality and heighten my own prayer experience. This summer, the step I’ve taken is to start wearing a tallis.

Tefillot feel so different to me now. Every morning, I make an effort to arrive a few minutes early. I take a moment to breathe deeply. I kiss the tallis and recite the blessings. I swoop it up over my head, and feel the weight as it rests on my shoulders and envelops me. During those few moments I settle my own mind, and I set my own intentions for tefillot. I feel, for the first time, warmed up. I feel physically and spiritually ready for tefillot, and for the rest of the day.

 

A Tallis Poem

By Yehuda Amichai

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:

taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,

spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered

or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead

like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it

around his head as in Hide-and-Seek, wrapping

his whole body in it, close and slow, snuggling into it like the cocoon

of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.

And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white

like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.

Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go

like airport runways where angels land and take off

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.

When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,

he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again

over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,

still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

 

Open Closed Open: Poems, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York: Harcourt, 2000), p. 44

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We are here at camp for our third summer. It’s been a wonderful first week and a half. S is delighted to be reunited with her camp friends. G has had a great time in the staff kids program (the Gan), rediscovering his favorite routines and activities at camp. I’m enjoying re

IMG_1445turning to the same role for a third time, and discovering that my work becomes more rewarding and enjoyable each summer.

This Sunday, I will say good-bye to my first group of campers, and begin preparing for the next group to arrive on Tuesday.

It’s all part of the routine of camp, except for one major difference. The next group of campers will include my son, G.

Every time I think about G leaving the safety and comfort of the Gan, and becoming a “real camper”, I get emotional.   I feel a deep urge to take a moment, and appreciate the significance of this moment.IMG_3740

I find myself thinking back to when G was first diagnosed with autism. He was two and a half. At that time, we had no idea what G’s life was going to be like. We thought of all the things that are part of a typically developing kid’s childhood– baseball games and play dates, sleepovers and swim classes, piano recitals and bike rides, and on and on and on. We thought of all these things, and we worried that all of them would be out of G’s reach. That because of his challenges, that he would live life on the sidelines.

IMG_1418Over the years, we began to see that our worries about life on the sidelines were unfounded. Slowly but surely, we became connected to wonderful people and amazing programs that suited G’s needs and interests. Challenger League has provided an opportunity to play baseball. iCanBike Camp has provided an opportunity to learn to ride a bike. The Academy of Physical and Social Development has provided an opportunity for G to practice the social skills he needs to interact successfully with his peers.

But of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah.

Shortly after we signed S up for her first summer of camp, we learned about the Tikvah Family Shabbaton. This weekend for parents, siblings and children with a disability has been our lifeline for the last four years. Twice a year during the off-season, we come to Camp Ramah to reconnect with our Tikvah family. For 72 hours, we eat, pray and play together. We celebrate one another’s successes, and help each other through hard times. At Tikvah, both our children are known and loved for who they are.019-L2260635

Then summer rolls around. We come back to camp for the “on-season”. We get to see many of our friends from Tikvah (both kids and staff) at camp during the summer, and deepen those relationships during our time here. S has her buddies in her bunk, and those friendships become closer and more significant each year. For the last two summers, G has been part of the Gan. As far as I know, he is the first child with a disability who has been part of this program. From day one, he has been given the support he needs to succeed, all the while building his confidence and independence.

photoFor the past ten days, G has spent the majority of his waking hours with the Gan. However, he’s also spent a good chunk of time with me and my campers. Morning prayers, evening activity, and most of Shabbat, G has been with my group. I can’t express how deeply it’s touched my heart to see G welcomed into the group by the kids and the staff. When we walk into prayers in the morning, the kids scoot over to make room for G on the bench. At evening activity, a counselor notices G on the edge of the group, and gently guides him into the thick of the activity. Yesterday, I asked the boys in the group to give G a tour of their cabin. They walked him around the bunk, pointing out where they put their toothbrushes, where they hang their jackets, and what they do with their towels after they shower. I could see on G’s face the excitement he’s feeling about moving on to this next level of independence. More importantly, I could see on the boys’ faces that they felt proud and important to be called on as helpers.IMG_2600

I’ve spent the last few days on the phone with parents of my future campers who will be dropped off at camp for the first time on Tuesday. They’ve expressed to me how they are going to drop off quickly, and hope to get out of sight before they start crying over this exciting but heart-wrenching milestone of dropping their baby off at camp. For me, I think I’ll be able to hold it together for the day. But I know the tears will come when I return to my cabin at night- the cabin I’ve shared with G for the past two and a half summers. I’ll be by myself here for the first time. I know I will mourn the passing of time, and how quickly G’s childhood is flying by. However, I will also be celebrating this enormous moment in his life. G will be a real camper, in a real bunk. He’s going to have an experience that we never, ever thought would be possible back when he was first diagnosed with autism. He’s going to share this experience with friends we’ve made through Tikvah over the years, and he’s going to be supported by staff who’ve grown up in Ramah understanding the value of inclusion.
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Of all the wonderful and amazing supports in our lives, the one that rises to the top is Camp Ramah. Thank you, Camp Ramah. We are so very, very grateful.

 

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