Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School Retreat 2013 Part I – The Storify

Martin J. Gottlieb Day School Middle School Retreat 2013 Part I – The Storify

Each year, we take our Middle School for a fall retreat at Camp Ramah Darom. We spend four days playing, praying, learning, adventuring and building community. This year our theme was "derekh eretz" and how to strengthen our Community of Kindness.

  1. It all begins with with a bus ride from Jacksonville, Florida to Clayton, Georgia!
  2. (The days and times for the Flckr images are not accurately labeled.  They are slotted appropriately.)
  3. We leave so early that we always stop on the side of the road for some “roadside davening”!
  4. A meal in a kosher restaurant is always a treat!
  5. We take advantage of driving through Atlanta each year to take educational field trip.  This year?  CNN!
  6. The final stop before Camp…Walmart!  Here are a few girls enjoying a creative “ice cream campfire”!
  7. Our theme was “derekh eretz” and we had three educational activities to explore it.  The first one divided our students into “Hokies” and “Pokies” – two cultures with many differences that had to learn to get along.
  8. Hokies and Pokies had to work together to cross the raging river!
  9. Later that day we hiked to Telulah Falls…there it is!
  10. Martin J Gottlieb DaySchool is on our way to zip-line…we are doing our best to balance visual updates with edited video and pictures…be assured that all is well! #MiddleSchoolRetreat
  11. Our second educational activity required Planet Kreplach, Planet Gefilte Fish and Planet Matzoball to identify which Jewish values they needed to barter from each other to resolve serious issues facing the Council of (Jewish) Planets!
  12. Our second major outing was tubing!  The best part was watching how many pairs of students who never really interacted prior to the retreat, sharing rides and enjoying the beautiful day.
  13. Our third educational activity was trust walks and conversation about how one builds trust and loyalty into our community of kindness.
  14. After a night of #Schnupencup dreams and a morning friendship circle, the Martin J Gottlieb DaySchool #MiddleSchoolRetreat is on the bus and headed home to Jacksonville!
  15. A final campfire, a night of final finding, and a final friendship circle took us onto the bus and back to school…and now the real test will begin.  Will the magic stay at camp?  Or will it come with us to school and help deepen our community of kindness – not just within the Middle School, but throughout the entire school?  We hope so!  But only time well tell.

    Watch this space!

Did you find this story interesting? Be the first to
or comment.


A Pre-Passover Prezi Premiere – Jews in Film!

In my role as head of Galinsky Academy, I had an opportunity to teach an evening of our MAKOM Hebrew High a few weeks back.  I was given free range on topic and format and so I decided to use my 90 minutes to learn a new skill to teach about a personal passion.

The new skill was to learn how to use Prezi.  As it says on their home page,

Prezi is a presentation tool that helps you organize and share your ideas.

It is somewhat like PowerPoint, but has added features and components.  I’ve watched other teachers use it, but never learned how.  So subbing for MAKOM gave me a great opportunity to try to figure it out.  I have a lot more to learn, but I LOVED it!

My personal passion?  Movies.  I love movies.  And although I haven’t had as much occasion to watch them like I did before having children, I do love them so.  I have an eclectic taste and a particular sense of humor…which you will see below.

So, I took my passion for film and my experiment with Prezi and created a Prezi entitled “Jews in Film” – a totally biased survey of great Jewish films from 1927 to 2007.  It is completely arbitrary based on my own tastes.  Almost all the clips are PG and below…and the ones that are not have been edited.  It should be safe watching for high school and up.

Most of the embedded videos are from YouTube and, therefore, don’t always play as intended.  I watched it last this afternoon, so hopefully all the links are still intact.


Every now and again I think it is healthy to be a little more revealing and a little less pedantic.  I have plenty of opportunity to share deep thoughts about important issues of the day…sometimes I just want to play!  Especially on the Friday before Passover Break!

See you at the movies!

A Trip Around the MJGDS Blogosphere

You know what?  Enough about me!  1206712_digital_world

How about this week, we take a trip through the MJGDS Blogosphere and kvell about some of the excellent projects our students and teachers are engaged in. Perhaps it is too much to expect folk to check all the blogs all the time – especially if they are not parents in a particular class. So allow me to serve as your tour guide this week and visit some highlights…

From the Grade Three Classroom Blog (click here):

Champions of Kindness – Documentary

Posted on February 27, 2013

Our community of kindness documentary is all about kindness here at MJGDS. We made it because we decided that we should show everyone examples of kindness. We want to share it so everyone could learn a little more about how we can be kind. We made it by videoing members of our class interviewing, showing kindness, and seeing what natural kindness looks like.

We – the MJGDS 3rd Graders – made this video documentary. It’s called The Champions of Kindness.



From the Kindergarten Classroom Blog (click here):

Posted on February 25, 2013

Our unit about “Let’s Explore: Where will our adventures take us?”  takes us to “a little girl’s adventures” this week.  This week’s book is Goldilocks and the Three Bears by Valeri Gorbachev.

goldilocksWe will be discussing the characters and settings of this book and many others and comparing and contrasting a variety of  versions of Goldilocks and the Three Bears throughout the week.  We will even be skyping with another school in Brazil and listening to their version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  We will also continue to learn about the concepts of  two letters that blend to make an initial and final sound, the short vowel ‘u’, and the blending of sounds to make words, among other phonics skills.

Later on that week from Brazil:photo-3

From the MJGDS Website (click here):

From the Fourth Grade Classroom Blog (click here):

100_3995 100_3996 100_3997 100_3998 100_3999 100_4000 100_4001 100_4002 100_4003 100_4004 100_4005 100_4007

From the Art Blog (click here):

Posted on February 27, 2013

artThird graders are art critics! They looked and discussed, with their classmates, paintings by Romero Britto and…..

These are a few of their comments:

These paintings are about:

“These paintings are about flowers and vases at home.” -Julia

“Pattern and cubism, colors, flowers and vases.”- Sage

“Pop art.” – Gabe

“Cubism, Pop Art and Flowers.”- Jack

“Flowers and vases.”- Benjamin

What do these painting have in common?

“They both have a lot of colors and patterns.”- Allie

“These paintings have patterns and colors and shapes that are the same!”- Nahila

My favorite part of the painting is:

“The detail and color.”- Abigail

These paintings make me feel:

“Happy”- Lial

“Silly”- Samantha

“Happy and joyful”- Isa

“Modern”- Jake

From a Middle School Math Blog (click here):

From a Middle School Student (Brianna G.) Blogfolio (click here):

On Friday the 15th we were invited to the Bolles Auditorium to see the play “Bully.” The invitation was extended by the author, who also was the actor in his one person play. What made this particular invitation unique was that he actually went to our school when he was younger. The play is not based from his experience while attending our school; as they did not have a Middle School then. As a current Middle School student, I could truly relate to the play, as it centered on the author’s personal experiences, feelings, and emotions from his Middle School years.

When he was in Middle School he was made to feel like an outsider, not a part of the ‘in crowd.’ He got bullied a lot. There were 4 kinds of bullies that he referred to: the ring master, the snake, the worm and the boot. Once someone spit in his face and another time a person kicked him. When he got the courage to tell the gym teacher, he didn’t believe him, and he felt worse. He questioned himself and as his insecurity increased he began to believe the words that others said about him.  The ‘ticks’ he started having from being nervous and anxious just added another reason people picked on. He stressed to us that words stick with you and he gave some advice on ways to beat a bully. Like ignoring the bully by not showing on the outside how the bully is making you feel. There are still times now when he feels insecure and wonders if what the bully said is true.

What I liked about the play was it was based off the writer’s personal experience. He was bullied way more than I ever knew was possible. I know what it’s like to be bullied, and what it’s like to be the bully. Neither makes you feel good. After seeing the play, I made a goal with myself to not be the bully. Even though I am making a great effort to be nice, people are not so accepting that I am trying to change. I think it was the best play I ever have seen, because it was very emotional. He did impressions, and they were good. The point is, he was inspiring and I really enjoyed his play.


Wow, right!

And if that isn’t enough awesomeness…check out these links:


We have a lot to be proud of at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School…and I couldn’t be prouder to work here and have my children learn here.  With enrollment steadily coming in, our plans for the future are to go from strength to strength!


Wordle Up – The Sequel

Please click here for my blog post about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish community.

I’m off on Sunday for the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Atlanta!  (Click here for my reflections on last year’s conference.)  I am one of many official live-blogger’s for the conference, so please look for posts next week.  You can also follow the action on Twitter.  You can follow me @Jon_Mitzmacher or the conference @najdsconf.  I will share an overall reflective blog post on the experience afterwards.

My first Wordle appeared as a means to summarize my blog post and appeared about a year ago:

I thought it would be a fun way to see what the “State of the School” is by comparing the above Wordle to the one below, which is based on this year’s collections of blogs:

Interesting hmmmm?  What do you think it reveals (if anything) about our priorities this school year?  Please comment!


The Dreaded Bullet Point Blog Post

Yes, it is time again for another dreaded blog post in which I weave together a variety of bullet points, links, and thoughts representing the torn-in-20-directions this head of school is experiencing in the early dawn of 2012.

What can I do?  I have not blogged since we went into Winter Break and the clock is ticking on a Friday school afternoon!  Having been convinced that a less-than-perfect blog post is better than no post at all, I offer you a sample of what’s on my mind.

Yet another video from Talie Zaifert, our amazing Admissions & Marketing Director, debuted over the break celebrating another wonderful Chanukah Celebration.

Thanks to our friends at AVI CHAI and PEJE for helping us promote!

I may need to reread my own blog post about the value of unplugging in a technologically obsessed era.  We spent one week in Cancun and I overspent my international data plan within the first two days.  How can I possibly deny the world my valuable tweets and status updates?  [Seriously, how could you have not wanted to see this as it was happening?]

Next vacation…no iPhone and no iPad and I mean it!  (Anybody want a peanut?  Click here if you need to know how that is funny.)  Other than my difficulty disconnecting and the fact that my daughter now expects to be serenaded by a Mariachi band at all meals, it was a great opportunity to relax and refresh for this new (secular) year.

I did manage during the break to guest blog on the PEJE Blog on the topic of “Entrepreneurial Educational Leadership: Seeking Excellence Beyond Our Resources”.  Thanks much to Ken Gordon (as always) from PEJE for the editorial work and the opportunity.  You are welcome to read it, comment on it, share it, etc., here.

Next week, Andrea Hernandez, our school’s 21st Century Learning Coordinator, and I will be off to Atlanta to participate and present at this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference.  It will be a great opportunity to network, represent, learn and connect with colleagues from all over.  As soon as we finish our presentation (!), we will be happy to link to it for anyone interested.  And I will hope to follow up my last blog post from a conference (here) with another multimedia presentation describing my attendance experience through a 21st century learning lens.

Closer to home…between now and July 1:

  • Florida Council of Independent Schools (FCIS) Re-Accreditation Visit: March 12th-13th
  • edJEWcon 5772.0: April 29th-May 1st
  • Martin J. Gottlieb Day School 50th Anniversary Weekend: May 4th-6th
  • The launch of the “Academy” model at the Jacksonville Jewish Center: July 1  (Click here for a reminder.  Official press release coming next month!)

Four extraordinarily significant events in the life of our school will take place between now and July 1!  This is in addition to all the ongoing events that make school administration so rewarding.  What an amazing six months this is going to be!

We are right on track with each major item.  I am so grateful to my administrative team, support staff team, synagogue partners, lay leaders and volunteers for all their ongoing contributions to ensuring the success of these endeavors.  Each of them alone could take up a school’s yearly agenda – all four within six months?  (Plus two new ventures not yet ready to announce!  But amazing ones!)  It shall surely be transformational.

Next week?  I’ll be back with singular focus and a single topic: presenting an overdue “State of the School”.


You Can Go Home Again

Forgive the brevity (for me)…

We got back late last night from a week-long vacation in Las Vegas and we are moving rental homes first thing Monday morning.  Between catching up at school and prepping for the move…

It was our first trip back to Las Vegas, our most recent home, after almost an entire full year here in Jacksonville, our new home.  As the plane was descending into Las Vegas, I was reminded of one those “only in Vegas” phenomena that I was finally on the right side of.  Living in Las Vegas and traveling for work was a singularly annoying activity because only in Las Vegas does everyone applaud when the plane lands.  You are simply returning home to your workaday life, but you are surrounded by people filled with desperate longing for the vacation of a lifetime.  Cities like Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Miami are fascinating to work in because people move there to be on permanent vacation – there is a different mindset and a different energy.  Anyhoo, last week, at least, we were happily clapping along with the rest of the vacationers.

I have written a lot (for 11 months of weekly blog posts) about my personal Jewish journey, but very little about my professional Jewish journey.  That hasn’t been for any reason other than I don’t expect there is much interest in my prior stops for my present, primary audience – stakeholders for the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School.  As I have eased my way into the blogosphere, I have felt more comfortable occasionally blurring the lines between the personal and the professional, although always cognizant that this is a professional blog.  I try to write in my own voice and with my own particular sense of humor.  I try to share the things that I am thinking about and, thus, make my private process public.  And sometimes I share something personal when I am so moved because that’s how I understand the meaning of authenticity.  Consider me so moved (and so jet-lagged).

This was, as I have said, my first trip back to Las Vegas since we moved to Jacksonville last summer.  In addition to having an opportunity to visit my parents, it was our first opportunity to return to the school I had the honor of helping create as its founding head. Almost six years ago, with a two-week old daughter in tow, we landed in Las Vegas to begin what turned out to be an extraordinary five-year adventure in almost every sense of the world.  There is little doubt that when, years later, I revisit the twists and turns of my professional career, my five years as founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas will stand out as uniquely fork-turning.


This is not a picture from my Bar Mitzvah – it is from my second year in Las Vegas during Simchat Torah.  Ah…how young we all were once!

It was wonderful to have an opportunity to visit my former school and even though school was already out, we got to see teachers, parents, and many friends on our trip. Maytal, our three year-old, didn’t really recognize her teachers from last year, but Eliana, our almost-six year-old, got to visit with almost all the teachers she had had from eighteen months on.  It was very intense walking through the doors of a place you had spent so much time and energy, but no longer belong to.  Part of me felt like I had never left; part of me felt like I had never been.  A colleague put it in perspective by reminding me that although the past year changed everything for me, for those still there…

By my third year, I used to tell the story of how during my first year, when we gathered as a school we took up less than one row of the Main Sanctuary.  14 First & Second Graders. By my fourth year…

…our first graduating class – almost as many students as we had to begin with.

The full story of that school’s creation is one that I am more than just personally interested in; it is the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  I am heading round the final turn entering my ninth (!) and final year as a doctoral student in the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary.  Trying to write a doctoral dissertation while founding a new school, raising two young daughters, and then relocating cross-country for an amazing job opportunity is probably not the textbook move, but life rarely goes according to plan.  I mention all of this because the story of my time in Las Vegas and the (professional) lessons to be learned from it is nearly written and will be available in one form or another for those interested sooner than later.  I’ll have more to say as publication looms closer.

In the meanwhile, it was good to know that Las Vegas will continue to be a home of sorts for our family.  It was good to see my parents.  It was wonderful to see our old friends.  It was fun to be back in Las Vegas.  It was dangerous to eat so much kosher meat.  It was satisfying to see the school I helped found doing so well under the tried and true stewardship of others.  We will surely be back for future visits.  But as our plane descended last night into Jacksonville, I must say that, in my mind, I quietly applauded.

It is good to be home.


Passover Potpourri!

“Spring Break” definitely meant something different years, children, and lifestyles ago than it does now!  What once were vacations and adventures for the unattached and unfettered have now become repapering the counters three or four times between the bookends of Passover Holidays.  So here’s to Spring Break 2011 – being home with my children while my wife works!  Let the good times roll!

But they do…now that our school’s six model seders, my daughter’s preschool model seder, and two actual seders are behind us, we are enjoying the first day of our true “Spring Break” in style – a little Nick Jr., some matzo brei, an annual visit to mommy’s classroom so our children remember that not everyone’s Jewish, and catching up on odds and ends…

Last week, I pulled the first of what I believe are the two greatest blog copouts – “The Top 10 List” and was rewarded by echoing silence from the world.  No comments, no retweets…and so, since I’m on vacation and celebrating a near-big birthday, I will double down with the other great blog copout – “Bullet Point”.

Yes…all those ideas that you haven’t had a chance to bring to full flower or may not be worthy of exposition…the “Bullet Point” post awaits…so here’s what’s on my mind…

  • After a lot of research, thought and planning we are going to go ahead next year and launch Singapore Math in Grades K-5.  You can read a blurb about it here. Kudos to Talie Zaifert our Marketing & Admissions Director for the cool ad:

  • Now we have a lot of work ahead of us – teacher training, linking to state standards or explaining why not, parent education, etc.  But this is one of those happy confluences where faculty opinion, parent opinion, and research all pointed in the same direction.  We think we have addressed perhaps our most significant academic and perceptual concern in one fail swoop.  I think way back in one of my original blog posts I discussed the powerful idea we learned from Heidi Hayes Jacobs back in our Preplanning Week about how wonderful it would be if we could approach the teaching of each subject like we did teaching ESL (English as a Second Language).  It is a powerful idea on its own, doubly so in a school already committed to teaching Hebrew as a second language.  Now, we plan to learn how to teach Math as a second language and cannot wait to see how this new math fluency impacts our students’ educations.  You can revisit Heidi Hayes Jacob’s message to our faculty this past August here:
  • Theoretically, the links to our school’s Annual Parent Survey are closed, but they really are still open (someone turned one in two hours ago).  So far we have over 50% accounted for – not bad for a survey!  I have taken a cursory glance at the results and there are no tremendous surprises.  I am pleased to see how seriously those who have filled them out have taken the enterprise and how well, overall, the school is grading out.  I will be sending out a report (not via blog) to parents after the break with the details.  Thanks to all who filled out the surveys!
  • Sometimes it is really awesome when nobody is at home to turn up the music really loud.  This is one of those times.
  • In addition to the Annual Parent Survey, I am also being evaluated by my teachers.  It only seems fair – I get to evaluate them; they ought to have a chance to evaluate me as well.  Thereto, I have taken a cursory glance and found both things to take pride in and work to do as well.  I will likely expound on this in a future blog post.  Stay tuned.
  • You may recall I went through a Wordle phase summarized in this blog post?  Well thanks to our amazing Art Teacher, Shana Gutterman, I now have a new toy, which I’ll end with.  She just sent me a link to Tagxedo, which is kind of like Wordle, but it uses a slightly different algorithm and lets you choose images to house the words.  Pretty awesome!  So, I ran this blog through Tagxedo and came up with this:

Yes, I know the colors don’t match the flag and the Star of David is hard to make out in the middle, but gymnastics class is almost over and my blogging time is just about up.  I do think it makes a nice summary of the ideas and topics we have discussed here weekly since we began last summer.

Off to enjoy the rest of my “Spring Break”, my almost-big birthday, and the rest of Passover.  We are back to school next week and I will be out of quick-fix, blog copouts.  A full blog post is forthcoming…

P.S.  If you are on Facebook, be a dear, look to your right, and follow the blog on NetworkedBlogs on Facebook.

A “Top 10 List” Too Good to Passover!

I can’t help it!  It is 5:10 PM on Friday before headed into Passover Break and it has been such a wonderful and exhausting week that I lack all original thought…so, when in doubt…a Top 10 List (borrowed and adapted from sources too numerous to mention):

Top 10 Ways

To Improve Your Seder

The Passover Seder is the most widely observed Jewish ritual throughout the world.  Yet, many sedarim are spent with families sitting around the table with books in front of their faces, until Uncle Henry asks, “When do we eat?”

The Seder is a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The Seder was designed to be an interactive, thought provoking, and enjoyable experience, so now it is up to us to ensure that really happens.  Here are my top ten suggestions on how to make your Seder a more positive and meaningful experience:

1.  Tell the story of the Exodus

The core mitzvah of Passover is telling the story.  Until the 9th century, there was no clear way of telling the story.  In fact, there was tremendous fluidity in how the story was told.  The printing press temporarily put an end to all creativity of how to the story was told.  We need not limit ourselves to the words printed in the Haggadah.  Feel free to be creative in the way in which you tell the story.  This could be done by means of a skit, game, or informally going around the table and sharing each person’s version of the story.  If there are older members at the table, this might be a good time hear their “story,” and perhaps their “exodus” from whichever land they may have come.

2.  Sing Songs

If your family enjoys singing, the Seder is a fantastic time to break out those vocal cords! In addition to the traditional array of Haggadah melodies, new English songs are written each year, often to the tunes of familiar melodies.  Or just spend some time on YouTube! Alternatively, for the creative and adventurous souls, consider writing your own!

3.  Multiple Haggadot

For most families, I would recommend choosing one haggadah to use at the table.  This is helpful in maintaining consistency and ensuring that everyone is “on the same page.”  Nevertheless, it is also nice to have extra haggadot available for different commentaries and fresh interpretations.  Encourage your guests to bring to the seder any unusual haggadot they may have collected over the years.  Consider starting your own haggadah collection, it is never too late!

4.  Karpas of Substance

One solution to the “when are we going to eat” dilemma, is to have a “karpas of substance.”  The karpas (green vegetable) is served towards the beginning of the seder, and in most homes is found in the form of celery or parsley.  In truth, karpas can be eaten over any vegetable over which we say the blessing, “borei pri ha’adamah,” which praises God for “creating the fruit from the ground.”  Therefore, it is often helpful to serve something more substantial to hold your guests over until the meal begins.  Some suggestions for this are: potatoes, salad, and artichokes.

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your guests a little homework!  Ask them to bring something creative to discuss, sing, or read at the table.  You may suggest that your guests come in costume—dressed as their favorite plague!  All you have to do is ask, and you may be pleasantly surprised with the response.

6.  Know your audience

This may seem obvious, but the success of your seder will largely depend on your careful attention to the needs of the seder guests.  If you expect many young children at the seder, you ought to tailor the seder accordingly.  If you have people who have never been to a seder before, be prepared for lots of basic questions and explanations.  Do not underestimate your guests; if you take the seder seriously, they will likely respond positively.

7.  Fun Activities

Everyone wants to have a good time at the seder.  Each year, try something a little different to add some spice to the evening.  Consider creating a Passover game such Pesach Family Feud, Jewpardy, or Who Wants to be an Egyptian Millionaire?!  Go around the table and ask people fun questions with serious or silly answers.

8.  Questions for Discussion

An adult seder ought to raise questions that are pertinent to the themes found in the haggadah.  For example, when we read “ha lachma anya—this is the bread of affliction,” why do we say that “now we are slaves?”  To what aspects of our current lives are we enslaved?  How can we become free?  What does it mean/what are the implications of being enslaved in today’s society?

We read in the haggadah, “in each generation, one is required to see to him/herself as if s/he was personally redeemed from Egypt.”  Why should this be the case? How do we go about doing that?  If we really had such an experience, how would that affect our relationship with God?

As you read through the Haggadah, push yourself to ask these type of questions, and open them up for discussion.

9.  Share Family Traditions

Part of the beauty of Passover, is the number of fascinating traditions from around the world.  Encourage your guests to share the traditions they remember about Passover as a child.  Some families begin their own new traditions as well.  One family I know likes to go around the table and ask everyone to participate in filling the cup of Elijah.  As each person pours from his/her cup into Elijah’s, s/he offers a wish/prayer for the upcoming year.

10.  Preparation!!!!

The more thought and preparation given to the seder, the more successful the seder will be.  Don’t expect to just “wing it,” and hope that everything will fall into place.  A thoughtful, creative, and enjoyable seder takes time to prepare.  We often get caught up preparing for the meal, that it is easy to forget about the content of the seder.  Spend the time, and you won’t regret it!  Don’t forget to have fun.


And for one final quote to get you in the spirit to take action this holiday season…I leave you with:

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “History, Judaism says, cannot move or progress without the individual. God waits for man if there is something to be done.  God does nothing until man initiates action. God waits for man, for a single person, to accept responsibility and initiate the process of redemption.”

The story of Passover is a dramatic example of this.  While there is no question as to the divine authorship of the Israelites’ deliverance, freedom had to wait for Moses – for just one person – to see a burning bush, hear a call to service and answer…

“Hineini – here I am.”

Samson and Delightful

Oh the joys of your dedicated blog-writing time being a Friday afternoon headed into a three-day weekend!

I thought I would do something fun – at least fun for me, something I found fun to write; whether you will find it fun to read is an open question – and share three autobiographical short stories from my personal faith journey.  They aren’t necessarily the most important stops on the trail, but they were three moments I enjoyed writing about.  Beyond indulging my frustrated literary ambitions, I hope you will find them humorous where intended and, thus, provide you a little window into my soul.

I promise next week to stop talking about myself and to return to the more important topics of secular and Jewish education.


A Friendship Bracelet from God

The God of Religious School was an intellectual idea.  The God of Camp was alive.

We moved to California from New Jersey when I was eleven.  Jewish identity took on a new meaning once we found ourselves outnumbered.  Perfunctorily enrolled in Hebrew School on the East Coast became intentionally enrolled in Jewish summer camp on the West.  I had to be sent away to find community.  And find it I did.  I found my people at a Reform Jewish summer camp in the mountains of Santa Cruz.  (I was twenty-three years old before I realized that a guitar-led friendship circle was not one of the commandments.)  Early-adolescent longing became intertwined with spiritual longing.  “Fitting in” at camp meant exactly the opposite as it did back home.  At home, I wished I could be more like that guy or the other one.  At camp, I wished I could be more like me.

The God of Camp was a verb.  The Jon of Camp was its direct object.

Samson and Delightful

The call to a life of Jewish education came on a lake in Maine.  The answer came in a hair salon in Berkeley.

After yet another summer at yet another Jewish summer camp, I realized that one could live a life infused with Judaism for more than three months a year.  That and the fulfillment I had always felt from my forays into Jewish education set me on my future path.  I informed everyone I thought one informs in such a situation – parents, friends, girlfriend, etc.  I was feeling pretty good until I discovered that there was one more person left to tell…my hairdresser.  Should I cut my hair in order to maximize my professional and academic possibilities?

This was no small decision.  It had been four years since my last haircut of consequence and my entire college experience was written in the curls that hung past my shoulders.  During that time I had developed a pronounced Samson complex – all success attributed to the symbolic persona I had so carefully cultivated through my tresses.  (Not to mention being a delicious source of irritation for my father.)

My hairdresser was not so supportive.  After a tumultuous four years together she was more than just the woman who did my hair, she was both advisor and confidant.  When I sat down in the chair I became tongue-tied.  After all we’ve been through, was this really the end of the longest relationship I’d ever had with a woman outside my family?  Who else stood by me during that first year as my hair climbed higher and higher steadfast that what must go up must come down?  Only her.  Who else understood my heroic battles against humidity and convertibles?  Her alone.  But the call was strong and I was resolute.

Our conversation resembled that which I imagine takes place between a rabbi and a potential convert.  That is, she refused me at least three times as a test to my seriousness.  “I have some big news,” I began.

“What is it?” she replied.

“I’m ready to cut it off.”

“No.  I cannot.”

“What do you mean?  I think it’s time to cut it off.”

“This I cannot do.”

“I sort of thought it was my choice, you know.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?  You can’t change your mind later.”

“I know.  I’ve really thought about it.  But, I’m ready.”

Finally she acquiesced.  She gathered all my hair into one last ponytail of biblical proportion and cut it off with a huge pair of shearing scissors.  I went on to graduate school in Jewish education.  My hair went on to become a wig worn by a cancer survivor.

I think we both turned out okay.


There is a picture above my desk at home of the last time I ate a bacon double cheeseburger.  It was at a Carl’s Jr. somewhere off Highway 5 in central California in the summer of 1996.  If I try real hard I can still taste every charcoal-seasoned bacony bite.  When your favorite foods are pork and shellfish, the decision to keep kosher is not trivial.  The decision had been made that spring at another Carl’s Jr. off Highway 5 (I had a thing for Carl’s Jr.) while returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area for Passover.  I was sitting down for lunch and I had the chapter from Danny Gordis’ yet-to-be-published God Was Not in the Fire on keeping kosher in one hand and said cheeseburger in the other – an epiphany waiting to happen.

I had spent the preceding months wrestling with God and losing badly.  I was well into my first year studying at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the indoctrination was beginning to kick in.  I had done my best to resist it.  In fact, the culture shock I had experienced during my first semester was so strong that in response I moved farther to the left than I actually was.  I couldn’t just go and eat my pork off campus because that would have been an admission that eating it was wrong.  No, I had to make a statement by bringing my pork to campus and eating it in full view.  On Shabbat.  While wearing a Walkman.  With my hair fully grown back out and my earrings back in place.

The situation was of my own doing.  I mean it had been my bright idea to pursue my Master’s at an institution whose style of Judaism was completely foreign to me.  The plan was to learn everything I could about, what was to me at the time, “traditional” Judaism and then head back home more fully able to make the autonomous decisions about Jewish practice which was my responsibility as a Reform Jew.  It never crossed my mind for a second that I would actually decide to do any of it myself.  No way.  God certainly had more important things to worry about than what I ate for lunch and did on Saturdays.  I was there as kind of a participant-observer, an anthropologist if you will.  At the time I still felt like I did when I was younger and my synagogue took us to Los Angeles on a trip.  I remembered driving through a Jewish neighborhood and pointing at Jews who wore kippot as if they were animals in a zoo.  I had no intentions of becoming one of them.

Rabbinical students drink beer, watch sports, and go on dates.  That may not come as a surprise to you, but it sure as heck did to me.  I was living on a floor with all rabbinic students and the fact that they were normal guys doing normal guy stuff while at the same time wearing kippot, donning tefillin, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat completely blew my mind.   The decision to live on the campus of the University of Judaism forever changed the path of my life.  The combination of communal study – I’m the kind of guy who falls head over heels for Talmudic hermeneutics – and ritual observance, all in the comforting bosom of camp-like idyllic isolation was just too much for my poor unobservant heart to take.  They got me.

The next few months were spent slipping down the slippery slope of greater and greater observance.  It didn’t take long because I have a black and white personality.  Grey is not my color.  (I’m more of an autumn.)  First I began to wear a kippah during class, but not outside.  Then I started staying in on Friday nights, but going out on Saturdays.  Slowly, but surely, the scope of my practice expanded.  I spent many hours arguing with any rabbi or professor who’d take me on.  I could not escape the logical progression of my belief.  Namely, if I believed in God (I did) and if I believed in the divinity of the Bible (I did in a vague convoluted way) then the logical conclusion would be to do what the Bible said.  Still considering rationality a virtue, I found myself ready to accept almost any of the commandments, except one – kashrut.

“IT MAKES NO SENSE!” I screamed to Danny Gordis on an April afternoon.  “Shabbat makes sense.  I totally get wearing a kippah, putting on tefillin, davening and all that stuff.  But kashrut?!  It’s totally and completely arbitrary.  There is no reason why I can’t perform the values that underlie kashrut with a cheeseburger.”

“That’s true and it is equally true that kashrut makes no sense.  That’s the whole point,” Danny replied.

“Excuse me?”

“Why does everything have to make sense?  Religion is not science.  You take it on faith not proof.  If you want to know the value of kashrut, keep kosher.  You cannot rationalize something that is not rational and you cannot understand the value of a practice you’ve never practiced.  Stop talking and start acting.  Embrace the irrational.”

So three months later I did, with a picture for posterity.