Author Archives: Tamara Miller

Tamara Miller

About Tamara Miller

Rabbi Tamara Miller is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City. She is currently the Spiritual Director at the Center for Integrative Medicine in Washington, D.C. A CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow, Rabbi Miller also has an independent practice as a Judaics teacher, spiritual counselor and life ritualist.

A Spiritual Approach to Jewish Education

“Who is the self that teaches?” asks the Quaker educator Parker J.Palmer in his book, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.

As a rabbi and teacher, I teach many different subjects with students from preschool toddlers to lifelong learning adults. Admittedly, I am concerned with what I know and what I need to learn to present a coherent and well-formed lesson. I focus on curriculum and on values clarification. I am committed to sharpening my skills and techniques, my presentations and my mode of communication. I convey joy and passion. Yet, according to our ultimate educator, Dr. Palmer, I have only just begun the teacher’s journey.

The public discourse about Jewish education reform has given birth to many innovative and often highly creative solutions to the Hebrew afternoon school of the twenty first century. We have been rewriting curriculum, revising textbooks, and restructuring the very foundation of synagogue learning.

However, the Jewish community of educators and administrators have paid little attention to the heart and soul of good teaching: the teacher!

A teacher needs the support of educational institutions who can provide the environment
for spiritual growth that teachers need to develop the self that teaches.

Teachers need mentors who are dedicated to that teacher’s soul and spiritual development. Teachers need partners in the dance of teaching who will not only lead but will guide the young dancer in the movement towards their authentic self.

We in the Jewish community have been focused on “performance” and how we look
in the classroom, rather than creating a living classroom of integrity where teacher and
student are connected to the truth of their Jewish identity, where the personal and the
public come together and a new role model is revealed.

Are we creating the kind of community that is centered on the capacity for connectedness
among the students and the teachers and their parents? Are we creating relationships
that are truthful and whole, caring and candid?

“All real living is meeting,” said Martin Buber, and teaching is an endless meeting of the self
in every classroom we enter.

Perhaps it is time we had the courage to create communities of learning with teachers who are themselves creating an inner landscape of hope, heart and wholeness.

Posted on January 4, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Maccabeats Miracle

Actress Mayim Bialik appears in this year's Maccabeats Chanukah video, "Miracles."

Last Chanukah the world was introduced to the Maccabeats with their runaway hit “Candlelight.” This year another song, “Miracles,” has entered the YouTube universe.

But it wasn’t the song or their new video that drew me in, but their fundraising efforts on behalf of the Gift of Life Foundation through the website www.MakeSomeMiracles.com.

The Maccabeats are inviting donations of ten thousand dollars a day for each day of Chanukah in the hope of securing much needed funds for Gift of Life, a bone marrow registry organization.

With a personal video narrated by Mayim Bialik and each of the members of the Maccabeats, their call is honest and sincere. As of this writing they have already raised $22,000!

I clicked on the donation button. Suddenly, I was involved in making a miracle for Chanukah — not just receiving an ancient one. The miracle that the Maccabeats are giving light to is a miracle that keeps on giving life and hope to people with cancer beyond this holiday season.

So can we make some miracles?

Many interpretations suggest that the miracle of Chanukah was that we didn’t give up even when we had no chance of winning against the Greek/Syrians. In spite of the powerful forces that encourage our continued assimilation or disappearance we have survived and adapted to the modern world in which we live in as Jews. We live precariously on the edge while we persevere through a revolving door of constant change. The miracle of the Maccabeats is the miracle of our people.

We have come a long way from the Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song from “Saturday Night Live” in 1994 which centered on the theme of Jewish children feeling alienated during the Christmas season, and Sandler’s listing of Jewish celebrities as a way of sympathizing with their situation.

With the Maccabeats, the traditional and the contemporary merge to create a blend of Judaism and Jewish music that continues to define our communal confidence with viral velocity.

We revel in religious freedom in America. A Yeshiva University a cappella group has reached beyond their ivory tower borders to educate and entertain. We all received the instant messaging. Again, history has shown us, that we are the miracle of Chanukah!

Yes, we can make modern miracles. Click and contribute to a new miracle this Chanukah 5772!

Posted on December 21, 2011

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Who Needs This Bar Mitzvah Anyway?

It was dry inside the Avalon Theatre in Washington, D.C.’s Chevy Chase neighborhood. The audience for the 22nd Washington Jewish Film Festival sat mesmerized as they watched the opening night Israeli film, “Mabul” (“The Flood”).

Israeli film "Mabul" tells the story of a family in crisis.

“Mabul” tells the difficult story of an Israeli family whose eldest son is severely autistic. After 12 years of living in an institution, Tomer is abruptly sent home and arrives just before his younger brother’s bar mitzvah. Tomer’s presence creates havoc within the family and challenges the tolerance of the residents of the village where Yoni, the younger brother, lives with his parents.

Throughout this heart-wrenching drama — overflowing with scenes of  bullying, infidelity and a near-death drowning experience — you see Yoni practicing his trope. His Torah portion is Noach, from Genesis 6. We experience the metaphorical emotional flood that comes in waves during the course of the film.

“These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted. Noach walked with God.”

Several months ago, Adam, an autistic 21-year-old had his bar mitzvah in our synagogue. Adam also sings in our temple choir; during rehearsal, he sometimes mimics other members. However, he is always in tune and on pitch. During his bar mitzvah ceremony, the cantor stood next to Adam for support as he chanted his entire portion without hesitation. The young man simply sang back the trope exactly the way his teacher had chanted it. Exactly. With the same intonation, the same rhythmic cadences, the same beautiful phrases. As a community, we experienced a miracle!

In “Mabul,” the bar mitzvah creates expectations and tensions for this family in crisis. As I watched the film, I pondered whether it was necessary to pursue this once-in-a-lifetime ritual given the family’s challenging situation. Who needs this bar mitzvah anyway?

We, the audience, need this bar mitzvah in order to celebrate. Yoni and Tomer’s family needs this bar mitzvah in order to function as a family again. The community needs this bar mitzvah in order to validate its traditions.

And as in every good film, in “Mabul” everyone is transformed and redemption takes place inside the house of worship. In spite of all the evil that surrounds these characters, just like in the story of Noach the good dominates.

“And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations.”

Yoni begins to chant his Torah portion and the sounds of his older brother, Tomer, follow his lead. Together, as brothers, they share this long-awaited bar mitzvah. Two by two. Heart to heart. Trope by trope.

Posted on December 7, 2011

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The Study of Torah Encompasses Them All

Babylonian Talmud

The front page of the Brachot section of the Babylonian Talmud.

A young man adorned with a black hat, a prayer shawl and phylacteries offers up his morning prayers in the same library where I study with my erudite Talmud teacher.

On Mondays, I infuse my mind and spirit with the insights of the Babylonian Talmud. Three Modern Orthodox male lawyers and I (a post-denominational female rabbi) find delight in analyzing the legal codes associated with voluminous pages of the detailed conversations and arguments of the rabbis.

Today I am the teacher’s only pupil. I concentrate on reading the Rashi script.

The man with the black hat paces back and forth in front of the room as he choreographs his prayer dance before God. He moves with quiet determination while he places his black and white tallis over his shoulders. He wraps the tefillin around his arm and on his forehead. He adjusts his black hat often and deliberately. I see him focusing on his paperback prayer book, but I cannot detect any sound.

My teacher, oblivious to the young man’s presence, continues to expound on the first sugya (passage). The man with the black hat is my distraction. Is he offended that a woman and a man are studying holy texts together? If so, why doesn’t he take his prayers to another place? Is he eavesdropping on our learning while concentrating on his blessings? Does he find it interesting? Or amusing? Is he surprised at my agility with the Hebrew text, or has he succumbed to the beauty of my teacher’s Talmudic treatises?

yentl

Barbra Streisand in the 1983 movie "Yentl."

I longed to tell him my “Yentl” story.

My father, an Orthodox rabbi, had no sons to transmit his passion for Torah learning. Instead, when I entered rabbinical school at the age of forty and took my first Talmud class, I realized a dream. Every night after class, my father and I studied Talmud. The intimacy of our reflections opened up more than the secrets revealed on the written page. I immersed myself in the wisdom of my father, the greatest gift of my life.

The thrill of those intimate discussions flashed like lightning into my heart space as I held the Talmud in my hands and ingested the instruction of my tutor.

We have many teachers in life. Some remind us of other teachers, not by what they know,
but how they transmit what they know.

The attendance of the man with the black hat solidified the devotion and the dedication
the three of us sustained in the room filled with the books of our people. How could he not have stayed? He soaked up the deliberations of the Talmud just as I had done decades before with my father at my parents’ kitchen table in the Bronx.

Is it permissible to begin your morning prayers while the study of Talmud between a man and a woman is already in motion? According to the man with the black hat, it is permissible and precious.

Posted on November 23, 2011

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Ten Hours in the Life of a Rabbi Without Borders

Bhagavan Nityananda

Indian guru Bhagavan Nityananda

Twenty early morning souls relax into the padded cushions that line the basement of the Washington Center for Consciousness Studies. I place myself in the back right corner and lean back into the plump fabric-covered pillows.

My gaze catches the glow that emanates from the room’s interior cavity. A life-sized picture of the host couple’s Indian guru greets me. We engage. His eyes follow me like Michaelangelo’s Mona Lisa and encourage my contemplation.

The dharma is presented by a visiting Hindu teacher. He reflects on the life of his beloved guru, Bhagavan Nityananda, with stories, humor and pathos. He recalls and recites the miracles created by his spiritual mentor. His tales enhance our way of modeling a superior spiritual life.

“The spiritual,” he says, “is about connections and coincidences, the relationship to the One and the flow of the mysterious.”

The chanting occurs in Sanskrit. Several people sing along, while I relax into the rhythmic tones and nest my face into my white pashmina scarf. My breathing is nonexistent to myself. God takes my inhalation and sets my heartbeat into a peaceful pace.

In time, the chanting changes and completes its round. The dimmer radiates more light. The 90-minute meditation session ends with a smooth finish. No one speaks; everyone moves.

Ten hours later, I stand before the Shabbat candles in the corner hallway at the Chabad House in Herndon, Virginia. I hear and embrace the giggling sounds of my four grandchildren and the rabbi’s five children as they relay race down the corridors. I quiet my mind for reflection.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Amidst the joy, I linger in the entryway in front of the gold-framed picture of the Rebbe and a portrait of the late young Chabad rabbi, Levi Deitsch, who died of cancer the year before. The Rebbe, the late Chabad rabbi and the nameless guru follow me into the Friday evening prayers of Kabbalat Shabbat.

Rabbi Leibel Fajnland faces the Holy Ark. The echo of his continuous Hebrew davening wafts through the many rooms of this sparsely furnished one-story school and learning center.
I receive his concentric prayers and whisper the mantra of my silent evening Amidah by heart. I enter into dialogue with the God of my ancestors.

I soften my eyelids. I close my eyes. I see into the light of my early morning soul again.

Posted on November 9, 2011

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy