I’ve had some requests to post my remarks from the 2015 Covenant Awards. Here they are, in their entirety. (Three minutes and ten seconds.)


Trying to look professional.

All I really needed to know about teaching, I learned in Kindergarten.

In kindergarten, there’s never any ambiguity about whether you are engaging your students. They let you know. Right away and in no uncertain terms. This makes kindergarten a spectacular place to learn to teach.

You learn not to expect kids to sit still and listen. You learn not to confuse telling with teaching. You learn to create a classroom rich in creative expression and imaginative play. You learn to nurture caring relationships. And that learning can, and sometimes should, be noisy and messy.

A good kindergarten is an incredibly joyful place. By this, I don’t mean that everyone happens to be having a good time (although we usually are.) I’m talking about the deep, almost kinetic joy, that accompanies inspired learning. What the writer Alfie Kohn calls “exuberant discovery.”

I teach at Lander Grinspoon Academy, a very small day school in Western Massachusetts. There are many reasons parents choose to send their children to our little school, but it’s rarely because of the Jewish education. In fact, many come in spite of it. But a transformation often takes place when their children start kindergarten. Judaism becomes a source of great joy.

Because it turns out that joyful, engaging Jewish education creates joyful, engaged Jews.

There is a growing trend to make kindergarten look more like the rest of school. Instead, the rest of school should look more like kindergarten. Am I suggesting that learners of every age should create midrash out of toilet paper rolls and pipe cleaners? No. Not necessarily. But let’s be clear – no one ever fell in love with learning, or with Judaism, from workbooks, cookie-cutter art projects, or flashcards. Even digital flashcards. It’s so crucial that all our learners, from youngest to oldest, have the opportunity to create, to design, to take risks, and even to play, on a regular basis.

We read in T’hillim – “Ivdu et hasehm b’simcha” serve God with joy. All of us in this room understand that both learning and teaching are forms of avodat hashem, of doing God’s work in the world. The question we need to ask is how to make this work deeply joyful for both students and educators.

I am so grateful to the Covenant Foundation for their unwavering commitment to creativity and passion in Jewish education, and to Nili Simhai and my letter writers for bringing my work to their attention. Thank you to Lander Grinspoon Academy for allowing kindergarten to be kindergarten, and especially to my co-teacher, Andrea Olkin, whose patience and attention to detail enable the Gan to soar. Generous grants from The Harold Grinspoon Foundation have supported my professional development and family education initiatives, and made it possible for my own children to attend day school. At the very start of my career, both Devora Steinmetz and Rabbi David Silber welcomed me to their institutions when I probably didn’t belong there. Beit Rabban and Drisha have been the two greatest influences in my professional life. I’m blessed with a family that has convinced me from birth that I could accomplish anything I set my mind to, and has given me the education, the resources, the love and the time to try. Lastly, to everyone here, thank you for supporting me and our shared dream.

My first post on beliefnet.com will be up tomorrow morning. By Monday the archives will be transferred and visitors to this site will automatically be redirected to the new site. If you currently subscribe to my website through an RSS feed or Feedburner (or are they the same thing? I have no idea) you will no longer receive updates until you re-subscribe at the new site. And please do!

So why am I moving? Beliefnet blogs typically get about 10 times as much traffic per month than I currently receive. So, I’m hoping that with the move, more people looking to participate in a conversation about Jewish parenting will find me, and we can all learn from each other.

See you there!


PS – The only real drawback to the new site is the ads. I don’t pick them, I don’t make money from them, and I don’t like them. Maybe now and then we can make fun of them together.

We’ve been counting down the weeks and days to Shavuot and it’s finally here – we know, because we are out of jelly beans. Apparently seven weeks wasn’t quite enough time for me to think of anything really creative to do to celebrate. Or, even anything uncreative to do. I haven’t planned anything at all, actually.

There was a time in my life when Shavuot was my favorite holiday. I would stay up all night at Torah study sessions at the minyan I attended in New York, and usually taught a session as well. Sadly, there isn’t a vibrant, adult learning community where I live, and I haven’t yet figured out what a family/kid oriented Shavuot could look like. It’s really too early to celebrate the first fruits of the harvest, at least here in New England, and I can’t talk about the Ten Commandments with my kids until I come up with a way to explain adultery.

In a moment of inspiration (that came to me about five minutes ago), I decided to make a mountain of nachos for dinner. Get it? A mountain? You know, like Har Sinai? (And yes, I know nachos are not really dinner, but they are serving pizza and cheesecake at shul tonight. Which, come to think of it, isn’t much better.)

But, in my defense, I do want to show off the beautiful mural my first graders made of Har Sinai. Can you tell that it’s about 10 feet high?

There was thunder and lightning, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of a shofar was exceedingly loud; so that all the people who were in the camp trembled… And Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled greatly.

By the way, after Shavuot I’ll be moving to my fancy new digs at beliefnet.com. I apologize in advance for the weight loss ads.


every garden needs a little pink

Right after Passover we planted sugar snap pea and lettuce seeds in the chilly soil of the backyard. About seven weeks later (we know, because we’ve been counting!) we have what must look to the (many, many) ants like a tropical rainforest – a plot of earth thick with bright green and red-tinged leaves and long, curly vines grasping on to the trellises and one other for dear life. I look back at my seed packets and am reminded that it’s time to thin. I need to pull some of these beautiful little plants to make space for some of the other beautiful little plants.

Staring at my garden deliberating – no, make that, agonizing – over the decision of who stays and who goes, I realize that I don’t have the emotional fortitude for thinning. My girls and I have watched this garden almost daily, looking for those nearly imperceptible signs that something had happened. We celebrated each and every inch, rejoiced with every new leaf. How can we kill half of them? And yet, if we don’t, none of these plants will thrive.

I knew there was a metaphor in here somewhere, but it took my friend Sarah’s wonderful blog post about giving kids space to grow to crystallize the inherent and terribly important lesson to be learned. Hovering, and all the awe that comes with new life, may have its place in our gardens and our nurseries (the baby kind) and our homes, especially the first time around. But in the end, all living things need space to grow. I’d say more, but really, you should just read what she wrote. And me, I’m going to go kill some lettuce and peas.

Moving on

My brothers and I in front of our house. Can you guess the decade?

My mother sold her house a few weeks ago, during those last frenzied days of the $8,000 tax credit. I moved into the house when I was three months old (born in Fort Knox, can you believe that?) and it’s the only house I grew up in.

If everything goes as planned, she will have moved out before I have a chance to go back to Baltimore and say goodbye. I thought I would be very sad about this. In fact, not so much.

It’s not that I don’t have a lot of warm, wonderful memories of the home. But, I’ve learned that I’m simply not that attached to places. After leaving my Baltimore home, I moved at least once a year, every year, until I turned 30. While I’m terribly nostalgic, that nostalgia is not really rooted to a particular address.

It occurs to me that this is, in part, because of my Jew-iness. So much of my childhood home is right here, in Western Massachusetts, in the rituals, melodies and foods that filled my young life. When I light shabbat candles with my daughters, or grant their pleads for seconds of noodle kugel, or listen to Zoe waltz through the house singing Dayenu, I’m here, I’m there, I’m at my great grandmother’s house in Boro Park, and I’m across the ocean in Poland.

In a week we celebrate our people’s origins as travelers. Whether wandering through the wilderness to receive the Torah, or hiking up to Jerusalem to offer baskets of fruit, we have always been on the move, and only sometimes because someone kicked us out. So, Mazal Tov, mom, for carrying on the tradition. We can’t wait to try out the new pool in the apartment complex!

Stamp Out Hunger

Last night at dinner, Ella, my six year old, asked “Do grown ups ever lie?”

“Yes,” I said. “There are grown ups who do all kinds of bad things.”

“Do they steal?”

“Sometimes,” I answered. “But it’s wrong.”

Zoe, newly 5, piped in. “Well, sometimes it’s not wrong to steal.”

“When is that?” I asked.

“If you’re poor, and you don’t have any money, then it’s ok to steal.”

“Is that true, Mama?” asked Ella, who prefers her lines neatly drawn, whether on coloring pages or ethical debates.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t really know the answer to that question.”

“Papa?” she implored.

“It’s never right to steal,” answered Keith. “But sometimes, if your kids are hungry and you don’t have any food, you might have to do it anyway.”

“So they aren’t bad, right?” persisted Zoe.

None of us knew quite what to say.

Coincidentally, right after dinner, we set out on the Extracycle to distribute bags for the annual Stamp Out Hunger food drive. I pedaled us around the neighborhood, while they ran up to each doorstep leaving a bright orange bag with a list of foods most needed by our local food pantry. This is an annual tradition for us, and one they really look forward to.

On the bike, I thought to say to my kids “We do this to make sure no one ever has to make a hard decision like whether to steal or feed their children. ”

From my mouth to God’s ears.

Last year, in honor of Lag B’Omer, I held a backyard picnic/campfire for Ella’s class and lots of other friends. We roasted marshmallows, sang songs, kicked around the soccer ball, and played with toy bows and arrows. Everyone hung around for hours because it was so much fun; it was one of my favorite gatherings I’ve ever hosted.

lag b'omer

Zoe did not wait for the marshmallows to get roasted

Did anyone learn anything about Lag B’Omer? Nothing more than it’s a special, fun day.

This year, I was delighted to see that our shul was hosting a bonfire. I was excited to have something to do on Lag B’Omer without having to plan and host it myself (there were no organized events at all last year.) People were invited to bring lawn chairs and drums, and it really sounded like a lot of fun. Enough fun to allow my daughters to attend something that didn’t even start until an hour after their bedtime.

The idea was great. And it was, indeed, fun to sit around a fire under the stars with people of all generations, some familiar faces, and some new faces. It was fun to have someone else be in charge of making sure no kids got burned by flaming balls of Passover marshmallows, and it was fun to have Zoe fall sound asleep on my lap.

But, I guess because it was a shul-shuling event (and yes, it’s not lost on me how much this sounds like the hebrew word for diarrhea) there was a larger agenda of turning this fun event into a “learn a lot about Lag B’Omer event.” There was a lot more talking at us than singing, or just shmoozing, with us. Most people never even got a chance to use their instruments. Despite a lot of talented folks contributing to the event (my friend Aharon in particular!) I found myself bored. At a bonfire. Who thought that was possible?

To be clear, I’m really, really glad my shul is starting to do more for families. I hope, and I’m nearly sure, that these programs will get better and better. As we move forward, I think it’s helpful to remember that sometimes demonstrating that Jewish holidays are fun is educational enough.


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