Tag Archives: Holidays

A New Normal

PWP Studio photographers specialize in corporate event photography, decor, details, incentive travel, conventions, and on-location photography in Atlanta, GeorgiaSummer is over and the excitement of my son Jonah’s longest ever stay at sleep-away camp, three weeks, is starting to feel like a distant memory, an anomaly even. In other words, fall is here and things are returning to what feels, for better or worse, like normal for a family with a child with autism.

If summer seemed full of promise, fall feels more precarious. School has started. There are buses to be met, lunches to be prepared. And the leaves are changing. The fickleness of the weatherbalmy one day, freezing the nextis not something I ever paid much attention to as a lifelong Montrealer. But most kids on the autism spectrum don’t like change and Jonah’s no exception. That includes changes in the temperature. Some mornings, he and I end up in drawn-out, complicated debates about the appropriateness, say, of wearing shorts and sandals on a chilly October morning.

This time of year, the Jewish High Holidays, also add to the feeling that we’re back on the same old autumnal schedule. My family remains actively involved with our Reform Temple, often without me, I confess. For the start of Rosh Hashanah, for instance, Cynthia and Jonah showed up along with the rabbi and other members of the congregation at a pond in a neighborhood park to participate in Tashlich or the ritual of casting away our sins. As Cynthia described it to me later, the ceremony began with some songs and prayers and the usual-suspect list of sins: deception, selfishness, arrogance, that kind of thing.

Everyone had also shown up with bread crumbssymbols of their transgressionswhich they were expected to throw into the pond. Before doing this though, each person went off on his or her own. It was an opportunity to meditate on the past year and the year to come. “I liked that part,” Cynthia told me later. “But Jonah really got into throwing the bread into the water.” Apparently, he had used his meditation time to compile a rather extensive list of kids he’d bugged on the school bus. Cynthia did her best to keep pace, but it wasn’t easy. As Tashlich ended, Jonah, with his own typically dramatic flair, threw one final and substantial fistful of bread crumbs into the pond, exclaiming as he did: “I cast away the sin of being a pest.”

Fall, more than any other season, reminds me that I have to be aware of how our son interacts with the world and how the world responds to him. The world, I’m afraid, does not always respond well. Lately, I’ve noticed more jokes about “short buses” – the kind of school bus that picks up Jonah every dayand the kids who ride them than in recent years. I’ve heard these jokes repeated, in one hurtful form or another, on TV shows, spoken by beloved characters, on podcasts from respected cultural and political commentators, even at a speech at a wedding of close friends we recently attended. I know it is easy, sometimes reflexive, to make fun of people who are different. I just wish it weren’t. I wish that this commonplace, everyday kind of intolerance was one transgression we all worked harder to cast off.

People are mostly nice, Cynthia wanted me to add here, but there are still looks and comments she and I deal with or, more likely, ignore every day when we are out in the world with Jonah. They happen everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. Here’s an example of an experience Cynthia and Jonah had the other day at Temple. The story is related in my wife’s words:

“I was looking around at the family service and all the beautiful children, especially a little girl snuggling with a boy and an even littler girl. I thought how nice it was for them to have that cosy time together and to get a good feeling for the service. Then this sweet little girl turned around and told my son, who was singing the prayer (correctly, I might add), to be quiet. Then my son started talking to himself and writing with his finger (a kind of stim he uses to calm himself). The little girl looked at her friends and made the finger sign for ‘crazy’ about my son. I am not sure if he noticed or not.”

Incidentally, Cynthia emailed this story to our rabbi, who included the passage in her recent Rosh Hashanah sermon on tikkun olam. To Cynthia’s story, the rabbi added: “There is so much that needs healing. But our tradition teaches that that is precisely why we are here and why our existence is worthwhile: to be God’s hands in this world.”

Last year, Cynthia started a special needs committee at the Temple. The idea remains a simple one – help make a place already welcoming, by definition, become more so.

“I don’t know how to help these children be more compassionate and be enriched by people who are different,” Cynthia concluded in her email to the rabbi, “but that is the goal.”

Not a bad one for this time or any time of year. Not a bad time, either, to cast off the normal ways of thinking about my son and others like him and get to work on fashioning a new normal.

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Posted on October 13, 2014

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Yom Partisans 2014

5th graders with ruth

5th grade campers with Ruth Bielski Ehrreich

Papers were flying and staples were clamping, stickers were delivered, and DVDs were organized. Another summer, and therefore, another fast day was upon us. It was dinner on the 14th of July in Cleveland, GA, and it was time to frame Yom HaPartisanim, or, as we’ve been calling it, Yom Partisans.

For the past two years at URJ Camp Coleman, we have done a dedicated day of Jewish learning to commemorate the holy, solemn days of Tisha B’Av (9th of Av) and/or Shiva Asar B’Tammuz (17th of Tammuz). Last year our campers learned about a non-Jewish man who wrote visas to allow Jews to escape from Lithuania during the Holocaust. You can read about it on last year’s day of learning blog entry!

This year, as the cheers for Letter Lotto (a beloved write-mail-and-you-might-win-you-a-towel program) quieted down, I spoke to our population of 650, introducing Ruth Bielski Ehrreich, the daughter of Tuvia Bielski (played in the movie by James Bond, Daniel Craig in the movie Defiance):

“Tomorrow is a Jewish holy-day called the 17th of Tammuz, not a holiday, that commemorates bad things that happened to the Jewish people, like the beginning of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. On the 17th of Tammuz, traditionally, we fast and learn about Jewish history. At URJ Camp Coleman, we have a dedicated day of learning.  Tomorrow, we’ll be learning about the Jewish Partisans who fought against the Nazis during the Holocaust, during WWII. We have a visitor here with us who is going to help us learn about her family, the Bielskis, that led a group of 1200 Jewish Partisans during the Holocaust.  There was a movie called Defiance about the Bielskis’ story. Check out the trailer: 


Throughout the day of the 17th of Tammuz (July 15th), there was Partisan learning happening around camp, thanks to Ruth, thanks to our unit programmers and staff, thanks to our faculty, and thanks to the help of the Jewish Partisans Education Foundation. Unit programming that day was about the Partisans and the realities of living in the forest for three years. Younger campers learned about what it was like for the Partisans to live in the woods and how they decoded messages and confused the Germans, our middle school kids learned about leadership, history and ethics of the Partisans, and our oldest campers learned about the women in the Partisans. Every meal featured at least a video, if not a discussion question, about different parts of Defiance or short films about the Partisans. Evening services were leadership and heroism themed, and every group in camp had a chance to listen to Ruth telling her story over the course of the day.

For our oldest 3 units’ evening program, groups were divided with kids in every grade, counselors, faculty and other staff facilitated debates about tough moral choices and leaving ghettos to join the Partisans. As the sun set, our oldest campers were conversing respectfully, and listening carefully as Ruth told her family’s moving story.

Over the course of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz, the Bielski story was shared with 650 people in the Coleman community. Each learned something age-appropriate, and each will walk away from this summer remembering that while bad things happened to the Jews, we always fought back.  Another day of learning has come and gone, but the lessons will remain. We will never forget.

Posted on July 16, 2014

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Camouflaged Education

photo2How could I try to hide in plain sight? Well if I was well camouflaged I might use any combination of materials, coloration or illumination for concealment. In the wild I might do this by making myself hard to see in my environment or by disguising myself as something else. In terms of education I might do a great job by simply not announcing what I am doing as educational. I was thinking about this during a recent conference for the Goodman Camping Initiative for Modern Israel History. Thanks to generous support of the Lillian and Larry Goodman Foundations with contributions from The Marcus Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the iCenter brought together representatives from 27 camps to have their staff explore how they might animate Israel in their camps for their campers.

It was in this context that one of the fellows remarked, “I used to think that there are Jewish camps that taught about Judaism and other camps that were fun. Our camp is a fun camp. And now I get it. You are asking us to make learning about Israel fun.” All of these mostly college aged fellows came together with many Israeli counterparts to enhance the Israel educational programming at their camps. The goal is to get them serious content through activities and materials in a way that they can customize to fit naturally in their camp environment. I am confident that fellows get it. Israel education can happen with rich content and subtle complexity, but at camp it needs to be camouflaged as fun.

Camouflaged education might be the essence of Shavuot, which begins tonight. The premise of our getting the Torah was our promise first to observe the laws of the Torah, and only afterward to study these laws. We received the Torah at Sinai because we said, “na’aseh v’nishma- We will do and we will hear/understand.” (Exodus 24:7) If we needed to study it in a formal setting first we might never have committed ourselves to the venture. There is a lot of anti-Israel rhetoric out there today, especially on our college campuses, and it gives me peace of mind to know that we can create a utopia of Jewish camp in which Israel education can hide in plain sight.

Posted on June 3, 2014

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Teach Your Children Well

Camp_0053“The world we build tomorrow is born in the experiences we give our children today.”

Our Jewish tradition is centered on our children. On the long journey from slavery to freedom, which we symbolically started at Passover culminating soon at Shavuot, it is amazing how many times in the narrative that Moses keeps returning to the subject of raising Jewish kids.

“When your children ask you this, you should answer them that.” “Teach your child on that day.” “Say to your child …” Four times Moses speaks about the duty of parents to educate their children, handing on to them their people’s story until it becomes their own. Giving our kids the gift of identity. Knowing who they are. This is a central and recurring plank in our tradition.

How do we do this in this day and age? I believe the answer is Jewish camp, a fundamental necessity in the journey of our children to find out who they are.

Camp is unique. The world literally stops at camp’s gates. Each and every summer at camp our children get the chance to re-create their universe. Camp is “kidcentric” in a way that the outside world can never be. Camp is a community dedicated to ensuring that our children have the best time that they can. Camp is the antidote to the pressures that our kids are faced with at home. What do I mean by that? We live in the age of instant gratification, immediate convenience. Everything is there for us at the touch of a button and the flicker of a screen. We live in the “Me” age. Everything is there immediately. iPod, iPad,  iPhone (in my family IPay…). Literally, we can’t turn off our phones, and our children are glued to the devices that we have made them hostage to. Even our friendships are instant, making friends at the click of a button and deleting them in the same way. We can’t seem to leave our kids to their own devices anymore. The pull of the tablet is too strong.

At camp our kids get the chance to switch off, and in doing so get switched on to the “We” as opposed to the “Me” world. The friendships made at camp are real not instant, based on sharing and living together. Time spent at camp is like doggy years. 2 weeks at camp is like 3 months in the outside world. And the lessons learned are life lessons. The opportunities for our children to discover their talents, to nurture their skills, to develop friendships and to see the world from a different perspective to the pressurized “Me” world at home. Camp is life changing. Camp is a gift.

The Jewish concept of tikun olam, or healing the world, runs through the Jewish camping experience. I spent over 20 summers at a Jewish camp in the Deep South, working first as a counselor, then as a song leader and then as teen camp leader. I was lucky. I was able to give my wife and kids the Jewish camp experience. It was at camp that the Jewish values of tikun olam, healing the world, were re-enforced for all of us.

Camp is a place where our children learn that their actions can make a difference. A place where we can “say to our children,” to borrow the words of Moses, “that you can make a difference.”

Camp is a place where we can “Teach our children well.”

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Posted on May 29, 2014

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You and I, We Will Change the World

Tomorrow on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, I’ll be thinking about Arik Einstein z”l.  Einstein, who passed away at the end of 2013, was from Israel’s “Greatest Generation” that built the country. His 1971 classic song Ani Ve’ata became the anthem of optimism for a young nation.  I do not recall ever learning the song for the first time, but I am sure it was at camp. It is strange how knowing something by heart means that you hardly ever give it any thought. Inspired by his passing, I decided to take a closer look at this song.

What did Einstein mean when he wrote “You and I, we will change the world”? Why does he need someone else to help him make change in the world? It is popularly understood that we need large groups of people to make change in the world.  About this conception the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In terms of bringing about change, quality is more important than quantity, but we always benefit from partnership and support. In the wake of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, and in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut we take pause to think about the founders of the state. That small group of people jumped in where others had just talked about it and made the modern miracle of the rebirth of a State of Israel a reality. The sacrifices were serious, but it is noteworthy that none of them did it by themselves.

It was at summer camp where I first formed my connection to the Israel. It was also there that I forged a relationship with a small group of people that thought “You and I, we will change the world.” Maybe a meaningful thing to do on Yom Ha’atzmaut would be to reconnect with your bunk age group. It might be time for a check in to see where we can support each other in making the world a better place.

For a longer study of the song Ani Ve’Ata see here.

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Posted on May 5, 2014

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

Freedom from Matzah

shutterstock_164494856In its simplest form, Passover is a holiday that commemorates the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom. During the seder we do things that indicate how we were slaves in the land of Egypt and also how now we are free. For instance, we eat matzah (the bread of affliction) and bitter herbs to signify our slavery, yet we eat them while reclining during a lavish and festive meal that is a privilege of our freedom. From this we can learn that while we should remember our people’s past as if it was our own, we should not become so mired in their despair that we forget our wonderful, thriving lives.

This lesson of experiencing the pain of our ancestors without taking on too much of their pain applies perfectly to how we eat on Passover. Most of us only tolerate matzah, and we make matzah kugel, matzah pizza, and matzah lasagna because that’s what we’ve always made…and we’re supposed to eat a lot of matzah, right? Well, not necessarily.

Although it can be fine to include matzah in some things over the holiday, we don’t necessarily have to overly oppress ourselves with its dry texture and flavorless taste (or the tummy troubles that result in the over-consumption of matzah). We can look at the Passover food guidelines as an opportunity to recognize the oppression of the Israelites (by not using certain items) to come up with new, interesting foods to eat. Instead of matzah meal cookies, try some flourless chocolate and walnut cookies (recipes are everywhere). Instead of matzah kugel, why not try a sweet potato soufflé?  Instead of matzah pizza, try eggplant parmesan (breaded with ground walnuts and almonds). And instead of matzah brie or Passover cereal for breakfast, try the idea below for an amazing hot breakfast quinoa (like steel cut oats, but better!).

If you and your kids need more clarity on how to simultaneously experience freedom and slavery in your Passover food, just look to camp. Counselors and staff members know that one of the most amazing and challenging parts of camp is coming up with creative and interesting programming under the constraints of rules, schedules, resources and space. Often, the most innovative and fun programs at camp are borne under those constraints, and it is in that space that we can learn the most about slavery and freedom and how to dance between the two. Perhaps as you sit over your bowl of hot quinoa with your kids you can discuss the essence of this interesting aspect of both camp and Passover- that often it is in the times of our greatest oppression or constraints that we are able to break through and come up with new, innovative, and freeing (and delicious!) ideas.

Breakfast Quinoa
Serves 4

Ingredients
3 cups 1% milk
1 cup quinoa
¼ teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons honey
4 teaspoons dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ cup mixed dried fruit and nuts

Instructions

  • Bring milk to a boil over medium high heat- be careful not to let it boil over!
  • Add the quinoa the salt, stir once, cover and turn the heat down to very low.
  • Simmer about 15 minutes until most of the liquid is absorbed, then stir in the remaining ingredients and re-cover for 1 minute.
  • Serve hot or put in refrigerator for up to 1 week and reheat.

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Posted on April 17, 2014

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Revealing Passover

Camp_0306We come together for Passover to celebrate our ongoing liberation from slavery. During the seder we will speak at length about the exodus from Egypt, but how did we, the descendants of Jacob, get there? Before we ask how did we end up as slaves we need to ask how did we end up in Egypt?

This story starts with Joseph and his brothers. Annoyed by his being different, they sell him into slavery. Through a turn of events Joseph ends up in a position of power in Egypt. Forced by the famine in the land of Canaan, his brothers unwittingly come before Joseph seeking sustenance. Sitting before them, he is faced with a choice as to whether or not he will keep his identity closeted. The text reads:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, “Cause every man to go out from me.” And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he gave his voice in tears; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2).

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, his voice knows no limits, and everyone in Egypt finds out about his identity. Through Joseph’s coming-out they were all witness to the unfolding of God’s plan.  What started off as a family tragedy was transformed into a divine national comedy.

In modern times we can hear resonance of the Passover cry for justice in the words of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  He wrote that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963). I believe that we can hear a corollary to this in the sound of Joseph’s tears. There is an inextricable connection between personal and national revelation. While Moses led us out of Egypt we were not truly free until we experienced God’s revelation at Sinai. Joseph’s personal revelation to his brothers was a precursor to God’s coming out to the nation at Sinai. While we need to seek justice for everyone, we should rise to the challenge of realizing that we will not understand the collective revelation until we are all free to express all of who we are as individuals.

A few months ago I went to a benefit hosted by Camp Ramah in the Poconos, the camp at which I grew up. There were some people there who I had not seen for 20 years. Stepping into that room it was as if we were all back at camp. One hug later it was as if no time had passed. We were family. For a moment there I had a sense of what Joseph and his brothers must have felt so many years ago. Camp avails us of the opportunity to expand our idea of family. There in the presence of our camp family we can give voice to hidden parts of ourselves. There we can start to articulate what we aspire to become in our lives. How can we provide our children with that safe place to reveal all of who they are and who they might become?

At your seder, as the Jewish world sits as equals sharing food, I hope that more of us find safe space to share ourselves with the collective. May you have a very revealing and meaningful Passover.

 

Posted on April 13, 2014

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

Hidden Ingredient

copy 110707.CampJRF.-207Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education?  In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?

So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on? In experiential education, the deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. We often need to use obfuscation and trickery. Being transparent often destroys that magic. Obviously this manipulation can be misused, but if we maintain that trust, the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning.

It is interesting to think about this aspect of education in the larger context of revelation. When the People of Israel were about to receive the Torah at Sinai, the Torah says, “And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood under the mountain.”(Exodus 19:17) What does it mean “under the Mountain?” On this, in the Talmud Shabbat 88a, Rabbi Avidimi ben Hama ben Hasa said that this teaches us that the Holy One raised the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your burial.” So our experience at Sinai was less an intimate moment under the chupah, and more, a carjacking. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov noted that accepting the Torah under duress presents a strong challenge to the obligatory nature of Jewish law. How can we be held liable for a contract that we were forced into? But Raba said that they accepted it again in the days of Purim, as it says in Megilat Esther, “The Jews fulfilled and they accepted.” (Esther 9:27) Why the doubling of language? This means: they fulfilled what they had already accepted. The fulfillment of the added laws of Purim demonstrated that they accepted the laws of Sinai from thousands of years earlier. The difference being that this time there was no duress. It was not only that there was no God to push them into it, in the entire book of Esther there is no reference to God. God is hidden.

The story, and the holiday of Purim, seems to be a theater in which we are exploring what is hidden and what will be revealed. Esther’s name and identity are hidden. When will they be revealed? We explore this with all of our customs of costumes. The fate of the Jewish people is unknown. When will that be revealed? We explore this with our community gatherings and of course our eating. There would be no story of Purim if all we had was transparency. Purim seems to be a holiday of delayed revelation.

I am not arguing that formal education is bad. I happen to love it and it has a huge role to play in education, but it is clearly not the only way. We need different ingredients to meet the needs of different learners. The delayed revelation of Purim points to a secret ingredient of experiential education. What does the world look like without a judge or judgment? The absence of God made it possible for Esther to be a true heroine. If there was transparency, Esther would have never learned the nature of her commitment to her community. We see many aspects in camping where it is a child centered institution free of judgment because the adults are hidden and there are no grades. The joyous Judaism and the freedom of camp hide the highly organized and intentional program. If we had to be transparent about our intention to make another generation committed to our future we would not be successful. As we read in Megilah, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) It is only at the end of the story of Purim that the hidden became clear, but boy were they glad.

Posted on March 13, 2014

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Celebrating Tu Bishvat

283362_10150273021193254_4222107_nGilad and I welcomed our baby girl into the world on January 1st. Sivan Amali Shwartz arrived just in time to help us celebrate one of my favorite Jewish holidays, Tu Bishvat, which began last night.

Tu Bishvat is known as the New Year of the trees, or Jewish Arbor Day. It is an opportunity to celebrate trees and all their fruits, as well as the beauty and wonder of Nature. There are many different ways to celebrate Tu Bishvat – planting trees, participating in a Tu Bishvat seder, writing prayers for the trees, decorating trees with personal prayers and/or psalms, or simply eating fruit!

During camp each summer, it feels like a 10 week Tu Bishvat celebration in many ways. It is amazing to see campers arrive to camp and become immersed in the natural world around them. Free of their video games, computers, smart phones, and other technology, campers return to picking up natural materials and playing with them. Many of these materials come from the plethora of ponderosa pine trees that are situated on the Ranch Camp property. Sticks, pine cones, and pieces of bark transform from something that campers may not even take notice of at home to exciting toys and building materials here at camp.

Sivan

For the last two summers, one of our most popular chuggim (electives) has been Fort Building. Boys and girls eagerly venture out into the forest, collect tree branches and construct natural structures with the help of staff members. I love to walk out and observe campers doing this activity. It never ceases to amaze me how really little it takes to make kids happy when they are given a mission and are turned loose in nature to use their imaginations and make it happen. The children play with and amongst the branches of our forest and in turn, become reconnected with the natural world around them.

Sivan is a little too young this year to truly celebrate Tu B’Shevat but I’m grateful that she will share her birthday roughly with that of the trees each year. Tu Bishvat is a great opportunity for us to get out in nature with our children and share with them the wonders of Creation.

Chag Sameach! Here are some resources to help you celebrate Tu Bishvat with your family this year:
1. Punk Torah’s Tu Bishvat Ideas
2. Make a Fruit Mandela With Your Kids, From Kveller
3. Creative Jewish Mom’s Tu Bishvat Crafts
4. MyJewishLearning’s Tu Bishvat Recipes

Posted on January 16, 2014

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

My Son, His Autism, and My New Appreciation for Hanukkah

shutterstock_161101661Last August, when my son, Jonah, returned from sleepaway camp with a sunburn, an array of nasty-looking mosquito bites, and a desire to water ski again (though this time for longer than a nanosecond), he also had a deepening connection to ritual. At camp, he’d taken to the morning flag-raising ceremonies, the campfire singalongs, as well as the Friday evening Shabbat dinners. I’m guessing that’s what inspired him to insist, this fall, on fasting on Yom Kippur; it was a carryover from his summer of Jewish education. His effort not to eat was, for a 14-year-old with an enormous appetite, remarkable: he made it until lunch.

But then Jonah, who was diagnosed with autism a little more than a decade ago, has always had an affinity for ritual. In fact, one of the early signs of his autism, for me at least, was his habit of lining up his toys single-file from one end of his bedroom to the other. He would have done this for hours if we let him. He could always tell, too, when I switched one toy’s place with another in the line. And, under no circumstances would he tolerate the chaos of double-file or a semi-circle. Eventually, it became clear that Jonah was a lot less interested in engaging in imaginative play with his tiny trucks and alphabet blocks and stuffed animals than he was in giving them an orderly world in which to exist. Which is, come to think of it, the whole point of ritual.

A point, I confess, I’m missing these days. After all, this was the year I deliberately passed on the apple slices dipped in honey on offer at my mother-in-law’s Rosh Hashanah celebration. It was also the first year, since my Bar Mitzvah, that I did not fast on Yom Kippur. My reasons were simple and admittedly childish: I was angry with God. The reason for that was simple, too. My beloved sister died this past August after contracting a mysterious illness and suffering for an excruciating six weeks in the hospital (Jonah came home from camp the day of her funeral) and I was determined to blame God. Childish, like I said, but once my initial anger subsided I had no need to see the world as an orderly place. I’d experienced this kind of thing before, decades earlier, when my mother and father died within two years of each other. When my sister died, I discovered the instinct to be vindictive was – like riding a bicycle – impossible to forget.

But now, it’s Hanukkah and Jonah is all in for the holiday, for the gifts, the candle-lighting, the dreidel spinning and the latkes; and I am doing my best to play along. Still, Hanukkah may be a good way for me to get back on the ritual bandwagon. As Jewish holidays go, it’s innocuous and undemanding. The emphasis is mainly on fun; the mood mainly lighthearted. No great physical, emotional or intellectual demands are going to be made on me. I also can’t help remembering that my late sister loved Hanukkah. She made mouth-watering latkes and, along with my other sister, devoted herself to finding and meticulously wrapping eight special presents for Jonah. It was just one of the many small ways she demonstrated her love for her nephew and also her acceptance of him, which was, from the moment he was born as well as the moment we learned he had autism, absolute and unconditional. So, for the sake of my son and my sister, I’ll put my holiday boycott on hold. The truth is I’ll be doing it for my own sake, too. And while I recognize it’s a lot to ask of any ritual to make the world seem less random, less cruel, it’s probably not the worst place to start.

Posted on December 2, 2013

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