Author Archives: Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

About Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses

Dianne Cohler-Esses is the first Syrian Jewish woman to be ordained as a rabbi. She was ordained in 1995 at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently a freelance educator and writer, teaching and writing about a wide range of Jewish subjects. She lives in New York City with her journalist husband and their three children.

Bullying and Name Calling

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

Often children label entire groups as “weird” or “bad” or “uncool.” Sometimes they join cliques or engage in a kind of social warfare at school, with one group pitted against another. The worst example of social warfare becomes violent, such as bullying or joining gangs. Even if their children don’t engage in the worst examples of social warfare, many parents wish their children wouldn’t be so judgmental and would be more socially open to others.

In this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, the Children of Israel are traveling through the desert when their beloved leader, Miriam, dies. Then there is no water for the community. They complain to Moses, saying “Why did you take us from Egypt in order to bring us to this evil place?” God tells Moses to speak to the rock to draw forth water from it. Instead, Moses angrily hits the rock saying: “Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” In his anger, Moses uses a destructive label for his people in public.

How can parents teach their children to be more open to others? Showing tolerance and respect for others, despite their shortcomings, can teach children to do the same. Rejecting others, on the other hand, for how they dress, or how they raise their children, to name two examples, can be internalized by children as the way to behave with their friends. Parents can discourage labeling others at home. In this way, children can learn, over time to have a healthy respect for others who are different from them, rather than putting others down in order to raise up their own self-worth.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about social groups and cliques in school and how they can be hurtful.


· How is social life at school organized? Do some kids publicly reject others?

· Is there ever name-calling at school? Bullying?

· How should one respond to such behavior?

· Does picking on others make the doer feel better or worse about himself?

Igniting Curiosity’s Flame

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

A child’s face lighting up can light up the world. It most certainly will light up his or her parents’ hearts. Children are naturally curious, and their faces light up with understanding and delight. It’s up to us as parents and teachers to keep encouraging and nurturing that curiosity. When children ask a question and you don’t know the answer, look it up with them, or encourage them to look for the answer themselves. That is the beginning of education and using resources to follow one’s own curiosity into deeper understanding.

This week’s Torah portion describes the seven lamps that light up the sanctuary. The lamps can be seen as education, the way we light up the minds and hearts of our children. Education is not only a matter of school and academic learning. Children explore the world in all kinds of ways, with their bodies, their souls, their minds. It’s important to encourage a child’s natural ability and his or her own way of discovering the world.

We need to support the kind of education that nurtures a child’s curiosity. Education is not only a matter of mastering bodies of information. It’s about questioning and exploring, lifelong habits that will serve your child well. Our own Jewish sources illustrate traditions of questioning and responding to those questions over generations. Invite your children to join the Jewish conversation with their own questions and thoughts about things like God, the Jewish people, and what we practice ritually.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about what questions they wish they could answer.


· What are you most curious about?

· How do you go about finding out things? 

· What other ways might you find the answers you are looking for? 

· How does it feel to learn new interesting information?

Parents as Models

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

When you live with someone, it’s difficult to become a model.  People who live together see one another’s flaws and weaknesses and all their inconsistencies. Still, even with that reality, parents must be models for their children. For better or worse, children learn how to be in the world from their parents. Parents learn that it’s not what we instruct verbally, but what we do ourselves that is the most powerful teacher of all. 

In this week’s Torah portion, the laws of a Nazarite are enumerated for someone who voluntarily takes on stringent rules for a defined period of time. No wine, no cutting of one’s hair, no contact with the dead. Samson was an example of a Nazarite whose goal was to achieve a higher-than-required level of holiness.

The example of the Nazarite discipline can lead us to reflect on what we can take on voluntarily to become a better model to our children, ethically and spiritually. For example, we might think of refraining from speaking ill of our neighbors, friends and family, to commit to a greater level of honesty, or volunteer to do social justice work. It’s important to choose a few specific areas and set achievable goals. We don’t want to create the illusion that we are perfect. That can only lead to

 disappointment and disillusionment.  It’s important to be honest with our children about our weaknesses even as we try to model our strengths. If we aren’t open about our vulnerabilities, they are sure to notice!

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about areas of ethical behavior they can improve. 


· Who do you learn from?

· Who are your heroes and models?

· What do you learn from them?

· What areas of your life would you like to improve?

Learning from Adversity

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

A mother hovers over her young son climbing on monkey bars. A thirteen year-old girl’s parents won’t let her walk alone to the school bus stop two blocks away. Another parent decides what her children wear to school each day. Parents of course have the job of protecting their kids, but the question is how much should they protect. Should parents always step in when the homework is rough? Should parents call another child’s parent when their son or daughter is having a conflict with that child? Keeping children in a hothouse for all of childhood, not allowing them to venture out on their own and face challenges, stunts emotional growth.

This week’s Torah portion begins the fourth book of the Bible, B’midbar. While the English name for the book is Numbers, the Hebrew name is translated as “wilderness.” The children of Israel wander around the wilderness for 40 years, a journey to the promised land which should have taken them several weeks. But the children of Israel had been slaves for 400 years, and they needed to grow out of their slave consciousness in order to have the maturity to create an ethical society in the land of Canaan. They needed to face the obstacles and challenges of the desert. At times they had no food or water. They lost confidence in their leader. They faced battles. They didn’t believe they would survive in the promised land. They were terrified. They often yearned to go back to Egypt where they had the security of knowing what came next. But before they were ready to fulfill their dreams, they needed to face themselves in the wilderness and grow up as a people.

Parents too need to let their children face themselves. We are not responsible to fill up every minute of our child’s day. At times they should be left alone to fend for themselves. We can help, but in the end we need to make clear that children can and should make decisions about how to spend their free time. We can talk to them about conflicts at school and friends, but unless the situation is dangerous or abusive, it’s optimal if we let them figure out how to respond to their issues. Of course we should listen and encourage. But for the sake of their own development, we need to let them venture out on their own, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about what they are ready to do more independently.


· What do you think you can do for yourself and when do you need a parent’s help?

· How have you dealt with obstacles or failures in the past?  What might help you in the future?

· What makes you feel stronger inside?

Not Misrepresenting

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

Judaism is concerned with the ethics of our everyday actions, even those seemingly harmless.  For example, a woman walks into a store to get information about buying an air conditioner that she has NO intention of buying in that store. She asks the proprietor of the store all kinds of questions regarding the best air conditioner to buy.  Afterwards she goes home and buys her preferred air conditioner online for a better price.  She’s done nothing wrong.  She has just made sure she was an educated consumerright?  Wrong!  According to Jewish law she misrepresented herself, acting as if she would make a purchase at the store and falsely getting the salesman’s hopes up.  There is nothing wrong with shopping for the best price as long as one has the possible intention to make a purchase.

According to our Torah portion this week, Behar, we should not “misrepresent” ourselves and create an impression that is false. It’s not exactly lying; it’s more subtle than that. There are many ways to create a false impression, sometimes through commission and sometimes through omission. To take a seemingly benign example, someone assumes you are kosher and you are not. You do not contradict him or her because you feel that puts you in a better light with that particular person. However, your lack of speaking up has created a false impression. You have deceived them by not correcting their impression.

This is a very demanding standard when it comes to honesty. What’s behind it is acting according to the truth of your intentions and identity, a powerfully important lesson to impart to children. How many times do they wish to pretend they are other than they are? Teaching them that it is essential to behave authentically in the world is a basic lesson in honesty. Except in play, don’t pretend actively or passively to be who you’re not. Your relationships with others can only be real if they rest on honest assumptions. Being truthful about yourself is a habit of personality that begins in childhood.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about exaggerating their accomplishments with others.


· Do you ever pretend to be something you’re not with your friends?

· Do you ever allow others to believe something about you that isn’t true?

· How do you think your friends would describe the real you? Is that really who you are?

· Is it correct behavior intentionally to waste another person’s time and effort solely for your own advantage?

When Should Patience Trump Passion?

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

Children, naturally, don’t have patience. In fact, the younger they are, the less they have. When they are pre-schoolers, they can sometimes behave like a roiling bundle of impulses and passions. “It’s not fair,” they cry out—or they throw a tantrum over something they want and can’t have or, even worse, hit another child. It is our job as parents to take those impulses and passions, and channel them. Some of those impulses are positive—they may have an early sense of justice—but they can’t express that sense of justice through hitting. Though children may be demanding their rights, a temper tantrum won’t help them to get what they want. We parents, the adults in their lives with the long view, need to teach our children how to wait, how to take a stand appropriately, and how to ask for what they want.

When Moses first sees the suffering of his brothers and sisters, he responds with a primal sense of justice. When he sees an Egyptian striking an Israelite, he kills the Egyptian and hides his body. Was there another way Moses could have handled the situation, other than killing? Maybe so but perhaps his ability to be patient had not evolved. Later Moses has an encounter with God at the burning bush, and God bestows upon him a mission to save his people. Now Moses’ individual sense of justice and murderous outrage is transformed into a sense of national mission. He goes to Pharaoh again and again, undeterred, uttering the words “Let my People Go” instead of lashing out aggressively by killing slave masters.

Our children, like Moses, need to transform their natural impulses into something higher. We as parents can help them do that by guiding them to use other behavior. Instead of hitting, they can use their words to speak out—forcefully, but peacefully. Instead of a temper tantrum over their demands, they can learn to ask for what they want civilly. From the midst of their passions and impulses, children can learn to behave constructively and wisely, learning habits that will serve them well throughout their lives. In addition, as they see adults around them model restraint, they will internalize that as well.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about what makes them fly off the handle.  Discuss with them other ways they might be able to handle their feelings. 


· What makes you angry?

· What do you do when you get angry?  How else could you respond?

· What do you think is unfair?

· What are the best ways to deal with unfair situations?

What’s the Use of Complaining?

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

“This is boring!” “When are we going to get there?” “He has more toys than I do!” Children can get into the habit of complaining and whining again and again.  They often seem not to notice their many gifts and blessings and simply complain as if they live a life of hardship and deprivation, despite how much they have.

In this week’s Torah portion, the children of Israel do likewise. After passing through the Red Sea and arriving safely in the wilderness, the first thing they do is whine. “We don’t have any food or water!” “We’re going to die in the desert!” Though they are granted sweet water to drink and manna falls down from the sky, they continue to complain throughout their time in the wilderness. Their life in Egypt was a period of terrible hardship and enslavement, yet once in the wilderness, they recall it as a time when they had everything they needed.

How can parents help their children feel gratitude for the blessings in their lives, rather than focusing on what they don’t have or what is difficult? Perhaps parents can do a favor for their children by not responding to each complaint. Parents can also shift their own mindset to a sense of gratitude for all the good in their lives when there is an impulse to complain. Doing something as prosaic as keeping a gratitude journal or list makes us more attuned to what we do have than to what may be missing or in short supply. Even if hardship or illness has visited us or those we love, we can still be grateful for the many blessings we have. Stressing the positive aspects of our lives for our children, rather than reinforcing perceived negatives, can be a powerful role model.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about the importance of focusing on their many blessings in life and not on what may be missing.


· For what things in your life are you grateful?

· What do you wish was different in your life and why?

· Does complaining get results or just release tension?

Do you admire people in ill health or in difficult situations who rarely complain?

Family Stories

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

There are certain stories we tell our children again and again — stories of our own growing up and how we came to be who we are and do what we do. Stories that our parents taught us, stories that often include immigration and making it in America, as well as how life used to be in the “olden” days, feed our children’s imagination, giving them a sense of who they are in the world as well as resources with which to face their own daily struggles.  Those stories are telling (so to speak!) what we want to transmit to our children, and through them, to the following generations.

In our Torah portion this week, the plagues start, and it is a story that is to be told to our children and grandchildren. The story of our liberation from Egypt is our story of origin; it is how we came to be who we are as a people. In fact there are many Jewish rituals performed in the name of remembering that we were slaves in Egypt and were freed by God, including observing the Sabbath and the Passover Seder.

Storytelling is vital in any family, but it is important to be aware that there are different genres of storytelling, all vital in their own way. There are fairytales and myths and stories of what children face as they grow up. There are family stories, and then there are the stories of our people, the foundational stories that make up who we are collectively and are transmitted from generation to generation. Stories, for example, about what the Israelites experienced as slaves in Egypt and how they were delivered from slavery can promote moral development and create a sense that we belong to something larger. These stories remind us that we are an ancient people who have pto this day to tell the tale.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about some of the foundational stories of your family and of the Jewish people.


· What are your favorite stories?

· What do you like best about your favorite?

· Which stories do you like to tell?

· Who are some of your favorite heroes?

· Why is it important that we continue to tell stories?

Women As Heroes

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

Heroes inspire us.They move us to action when otherwise we might remain stagnant. They are especially important for children, who need role models as they figure out how they want to live in the world. Heroes can be found everywhere, not only in the usual places like history and storybooks, but even in your own extended family or neighborhood. It’s possible to find heroes just by opening one’s eyes and ears to those who are standing up for what’s right wherever they happen to be.

Our Torah portion is filled with heroes.All the heroes who sprinkle the beginning of the portion are women, mostly ordinary, but who display extraordinary courage. Pharaoh, the evil Egyptian king, orders the midwives to kill every male child when they deliver Israelite babies. The midwives disobey Pharaoh. Pharaoh then orders every male Israelite baby to be thrown into the Nile. Moses’ mother, Yocheved, hides Moses, and then his sister Miriam and the daughter of Pharoah save his life. The daughter of Pharaoh adopts him as her very own son and raises him in the Egyptian palace.

The midwives, Yocheved, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter all have the strength to disobey an evil decree and therefore sustain life. As far as we know, they were not encouraged to do what they did from an outside source, and they did not consult a morals manual. Rather they had a strong sense of right and wrong and acted from that internal compass. 

The more we expose our children to those who act from an internal sense of right and wrong, the more our children will develop their own internal moral compasses.

TALK TO YOUR KIDS about heroes in our Torah portion or local heroes, who had courage and a strong moral compass.


· Who are your heroes? Why?

· What did they do that inspires you?

· What would you like to do in your life to inspire others?

Speak Softly

Reprinted with permission from Torah Topics for Today.

Young children are impulsive. They can’t really help it. They feel so intensely they blurt out whatever is on their minds, sometimes with love and sometimes in rage. It’s our job as parents to help them translate the intensity of their feelings into appropriate behavior. They might be angry, but they can’t mistreat their brother or sister, friend or parent. They need to find the right words to express what they are going through. They might want something belonging to a friend or sibling, but they can’t just grab it; they must ask for it respectfully.

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Joseph, unrecognizable to his brothers dressed as Egyptian royalty, tests his brothers for having thrown him into a pit and selling him into slavery. He plants his silver goblet in his beloved younger brother Benjamin’s sack, and once it’s discovered declares that Benjamin will be his slave. Judah, an older brother, approaches Joseph with gentleness and softly speaks: “Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself,” Doing so, Judah diffuses the tension in the situation. In response, Joseph breaks down and reveals his real identity to his brothers.

By speaking softly at home we can teach children that shouting is not the most effective way. Gentleness can often be more productive than harsh yelling. The more we curb our own compulsions, the more we can show our children that kindness can be more effective in the world.

TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN about what it means to treat someone with loving kindness.


· How do you like to be treated?

· How do you feel when you are treated with less than kindness?

· How do you feel inside when you are mean to others?

· What are the results of raising your voice and increasing tensions?

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