Sad Days of Summer

Originally published on

Not having grown up going to a Jewish summer camp, I’ll admit to total ignorance of the summer season of the Jewish calendar until much later in life. However, it turns out you don’t have to wait for Rosh Hashanah to participate in Jewish holidays — the summer is loaded with them!

However, you’ll note I didn’t say “celebrate” holidays. Prior to the camping movement, it seems that summer was not so good for the Jews. In fact, Jewish tradition recounts that nearly all the tragedies that ever befell our people, up to and including the destruction of both Jerusalem Temples, happened over the summer. Jews memorialize these great losses on Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which this year falls on July 20th (beginning, as Jewish days tend to do, on the previous evening).  More on that in a couple of weeks. Watch this space. Continue reading Jewnteenth

Originally published on

Juneteenth image from the Smithsonian InstituteJune 19th is celebrated across the United States and around the world as Juneteenth, the anniversary of African-American emancipation in this country. Although the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in September and went into effect in January, many slaveholders in the south simply ignored it. The date of Juneteenth commemorates the June 18th and 19th taking of the state of Texas by the Union army under General Gordon Granger, who publicly announced the end of slavery, inspiring public celebrations among the newly freed slaves. Three years ago, Massachusetts became the 25th state to recognize Juneteenth as a holiday; 11 more have since followed suit.

I had never really contemplated Juneteenth from a Jewish perspective before this year. A few months ago, my friend Ingrid phoned me excitedly from her home in LA. “Juneteenth falls on Shabbat this year,” she told me, “so I’m going to host a Jewnteenth seder!” As someone who is both Jewish and African-American, Ingrid was thrilled to carve some space into the calendar that spoke to both elements of her identity. Modeling her Shabbat dinner after the Passover seder seemed natural, since both Passover and Juneteenth celebrate freedom from slavery.

As she spread the word among her friends, she found that many had never heard of Juneteenth before, never mind Jewnteenth. Ingrid insisted to me that was because Juneteenth celebrations are more common on the east coast, although the Juneteenth World Wide Celebration web site lists a dozen events in California and only two in Massachusetts. My searches on Google and Twitter today have not uncovered any Boston-area Jewnteenth events at all.

So whether you’re part of an organized celebration or not, this weekend is a great opportunity to reflect on the freedoms we share as well as the work still left to do to ensure equal rights for all. And if you’re not already familiar with the racial diversity within the Jewish community, you can check out the work done by such organizations as The Jewish Multiracial Network and Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue).

Don’t Tell Me I’m Next

On June 6, 2010, Hebrew College celebrated its 85th commencement. I graduated with two masters degrees: one in Jewish Studies, the other in Jewish education. I was incredibly honored to be one of two student speakers at the graduation ceremony. What follows is the speech I delivered at graduation.

My relationship to Hebrew College is somewhat different from many of my fellow graduates, although far from unique in the history of the school. I am a graduate of Prozdor, the high school of Hebrew College – class of 1995; I am now the associate director of Prozdor and the director of Makor, Hebrew College’s middle school collaboration with community congregations; and today I am graduating with both the Masters Degree in Jewish Studies and the Masters in Jewish Education. Hebrew College has been many things to me – the birthplace of many important friendships; a laboratory for testing out Jewish ideas; a supportive environment for professional growth; and most importantly a family.  It is particularly meaningful that my graduation is also a day honoring Dr. Stephen Simons, who was my first supervisor and cheerleader in the world of professional Judaism when I worked at Congregation Mishkan Tefila, as well as Margie Berkowitz, who was my teacher when I was a teenager, and before that my mother’s camp counselor at Camp Yavneh, but most importantly, a dear friend and beloved colleague and mentor. My first week on the job at the college, I attended the brit milah of Margie’s youngest grandchild; yesterday I celebrated with her family the bar mitzvah of one of her eldest; it’s fitting that my time at the college is book-ended by these smachot, these family celebrations, because when we refer to Prozdor as a family, we really mean it.

Earlier this year, when it became clear that I would, in fact, complete my degrees this June, people began asking me about what would come next. I’m sure many of my classmates fielded the same question. Now, I’ve been taking classes part-time for eight years towards these degrees, so to be honest, it hadn’t occurred to me that graduation might necessitate a next step.

In retrospect, this should have been obvious. The Jewish community is in a state of perpetual anticipation. Maybe this is a natural state for a people waiting for the messiah. I came of age in the era of “Jewish Continuity,” when federations around the country feared that the forces of assimilation were laying waste to Judaism at such a rate that Jews might not be around in a couple of generations if we didn’t take action. While researching my masters thesis, I learned that this was not a new communal stance, just a new label.  In my parents’ generation, the call to arms was “Jewish Survivalism.”  Today, we instead talk about strengthening Jewish identity. But whatever you call it, these phrases all tend to mask the same shared anxiety: will there be Jews left on earth after we’re gone. Continue reading