OyChicago blog

5 Things the Jewish Community Can Learn From My Mexican Vacation

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12/18/2014

5 Things the Jewish Community Can Learn From My Mexican Vacation photo 1

A few weeks ago, my fiancé, Adam, and I went on a vacation to our first all-inclusive Mexican resort – a place called Secrets Capri in Riviera Maya. With five days and nothing to do but relax and enjoy the sun (and, sadly, some rain), we came back feeling refreshed, reinvigorated, and tan – or, let’s be honest, slightly less ghost-colored.

As a Jewish professional, though, you can never really take a vacation. Every aspect of our resort made me think of my job as a Jewish communal professional. This time, I was a guest at a resort in a new country feeling very welcomed; most of the time, I’m busy welcoming guests to our community and folding all the towel art.

So, dear friends, I present you with the list of what we can learn from my Mexican vacation.

1. Don’t make me feel lost

We booked our transfer from the Cancun airport to our resort through the same company as our overnight stay, and they told us to look for the people in the bright floral shirts. They greeted us as we walked out of the terminal, and sent us to exactly the right place. We never felt lost and we didn’t have to ask directions from someone selling homemade jewelry – though that sure would have been interesting!

When a newcomer comes to a Jewish event, would he know where to go? Is there a greeter at the door? Someone with a name tag who makes sure he’s not lost?

2. Create an over-the-top first impression

When our van pulled into the resort, we were greeted with friendly faces, cold towels, water bottles and champagne. And if you walked in a few more feet, there were apples and chocolate chip cookies. Wow! I would have never thought to ask for a cold towel, but I guess after a long flight and a long van ride, it was nice to be able to wash my hands in the humid weather. Instead of beginning our vacation dirty, hungry and thirsty, the resort showed us right away that they care about us and want us to be comfortable.

In the Jewish community, what would someone see when they first walk in to your event? Is there a pitcher of water and maybe even a bowl of apples near the entrance? Some congregations offer an oneg (reception) before worship services – it sure puts people in a good mood and gets them ready to focus on prayer and song when they have a full belly.

5 Things the Jewish Community Can Learn From My Mexican Vacation photo 2

3. Offer something for everyone

The list of activities offered at our resorted was extensive – water aerobics, a bags / cornhole competition, Pilates, dance lessons, Spanish lessons, towel art, watching Monday Night Football, different kinds of movies, and even a daily feeding of the lobby turtles. There seemed to be something for everyone.

Do our Jewish organizations offer a wide range of activities, or are we catering too much to one group or another? Do we assess our clientele and build programs based on their needs – or do we just offer what WE think they need?

4. Personal invitations

I probably would not have gone to water aerobics on my own. The water was cold, it seemed silly, I didn’t know anyone, I was scared, and somehow I couldn’t convince Adam to go with me. But Hector, one of the entertainment staff members and the leader of the class, went around to every person lounging around the pool and asked if they would be coming to the class. With a personal invitation, these people – myself included – felt a bit more comfortable throwing a bookmark in their book and dipping their toes in the water.

Just because we offer a spectacular, meaningful, artsy, delicious, Jewish-tastic program, it doesn’t mean people will come. We have to ask people to come. Make them feel welcome. Invite them, help them out of their chair, and walk with them to the event. And chances are, these potential Jewish communal newcomers, like silly-looking Lia in water aerobics, will actually enjoy the event and maybe even come back the next time.

5. Remember details.

My mom likes to tell this story of the one time our family went on a cruise – a Disney cruise when I was in kindergarten. As soon as we walked in the dining room, our waiter would immediately bring me chocolate milk and get me plain buttered noodles with no parsley. My tastes have evolved a bit since then, so my food desires in Mexico weren’t as complicated, but it’s nice to know that people remember things about you. We started recognizing the resort staff and they recognized us; and one particular hostess at the breakfast cafe knew that when Adam walked into brunch, he’d probably ask for a waffle.

How many times do I hear Jewish communal professionals – myself included – say that they have bad memories and have a hard time remembering names? It’s just unacceptable. We need to go out of our way to train our brains to be able to remember names and facts. Who in your community is gluten-free? Whose mother just had surgery? Who just gained a new grandson? If your Jewish organization is anything like my workplace, most of this information is readily available. Read the emails, read the newsletters, ask questions, and even eavesdrop a bit on the hallway conversations. Show that you remember who your constituents are and they will notice.

We can’t spend our whole lives as guests in an all-inclusive resort in the warm, humid air, but maybe we can take these experiences – and the ones you witness in your own life at the grocery store, the movie theater, and your client’s office building – to make our community stronger, warmer, and more welcoming.

Let's get to work – we’ve got lots of chocolate chip cookies to bake!

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The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions

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12/17/2014

The Problem with New Year’s Resolutions photo

All I can think about are New Year’s resolutions as we speed into 2015. It’s probably because I’m so terrible at them.

I find rules, restrictions and absolutes to be difficult to manage. When I hear the word resolution, all I can think about is what I’m not going to be able to do. Then, like clockwork, I obsess about what I can’t have while stress eating everything in my apartment. All of these feelings can only lead to one thing: doing exactly what I resolved I would definitely not do. It’s a vicious cycle, and I repeat it every year.

I know I’m not the only person who gets into this trap. I start out with high hopes. I do a little inventory of myself and then decide that real changes must take place. Then comes my list. I will train for a marathon. I will read Moby Dick. I will not have ice cream for dinner. These resolutions aren’t so bad, but in all honesty, I’m not likely to do any of those things very well.

That’s the problem with resolutions. It’s not that the bar is set too high, it’s that the resolutions, it least in my mind, are too absolute. What if instead of giving yourself strict edicts for the coming year, you cut yourself a little slack? I’m not sure that I have the time it takes to train for a marathon, but what if I try anyway? Reading Moby Dick sounds awful, but I don’t have to complete the whole book in one afternoon. Not eating ice cream for dinner doesn’t mean that I can’t have ice cream, it means that I try to remain mindful of what I’m eating.

Isn’t it better to work at something? Perhaps failing at a New Year’s resolution is part of the process. Maybe it’s better to be a bad marathoner who tries than to be someone who gives up and isn’t running at all. Could it be that all of those past resolution failures were just part of the deal?

This year, I’m going to give myself a few New Year’s resolutions and I’m going to try to give myself the space to achieve them. Whatever that means. Just don’t laugh in my face when I’m running around calling myself a vegan. I’m never going to be a vegan, but maybe I can be a bad vegan? It’s better than nothing.

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Cubs introduce Lester, new era

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12/16/2014

Cubs introduce Lester, new era photo

The Chicago Cubs introduced their new big money ace Jon Lester yesterday, and while the press conference itself wasn't particularly entertaining – especially compared to the quirk and quotability of the Joe Maddon presser just a few weeks ago – its significance is apparent. The signing of Lester, along with the hiring of new manager Maddon, is a clear message to Cubs fans that the era of bottoming out is over and the era of winning is ready to begin.

In fact, Lester's contract quieted any speculation that the Cubs either didn't have the money Theo Epstein needed, or were hesitant to spend. His contract, $155 million over six years, is the largest multi-year contract in the history of Chicago sports.

So the big question is, is Lester really worth it?

Yes. He's a proven ace who can be the head of a championship pitching rotation. He’s a lefty with the mechanics built for a long career and just the kind of experience a young Cubs team needs. He has won two World Series, both with the Red Sox, and is a three-time all-star. He provides the kind of stability on the mound the Cubs have so badly needed, which will also take some of the pressure off their young bats every fifth game while they continue to grow.

But to me, more than what Lester brings to the field, this signing is the Cubs brass sending a loud message to the fan base that this Cubs team is ready to win – now. Both Lester and Maddon discussed it at both of their press conferences, as did Epstein. Lester is by no means young. Entering his tenth season, this signing was much more about the present than it was about the future.

Some have compared this deal to the one the Cubs gave Alfonso Soriano in 2006, an eight-year, $136 million contract. But the biggest difference to me is that when they signed Soriano, the Cubs were not focusing any energy on their farm system. There wasn't a young bat waiting in the wings preparing to take over once Soriano began his decline, which also started way sooner than the Cubs predicted. But this is a new era, and while Lester is helping the Cubs win now, he is also allowing youngsters like Kyle Hendricks and CJ Edwards develop at their own pace.

This is the first time in almost a decade that I've been truly excited for baseball season. Regular season baseball games on the North Side will actually matter in 2015. Since Theo Epstein was hired back in 2011, the Cubs have preached patience. And I don't care what Back to the Future II says, I am not expecting a World Series next year. But now we can finally start to see the fruits of our collected suffering over the last seven years.

As long as we remember to continue tempering our expectations and understand that the growing pains are still far from over, we are in store for an extremely entertaining baseball season - words that I'm hoping to become more and more comfortable using in reference to the Cubs for many years to come.

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The Accidental Jewish Spy

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12/15/2014

The Accidental Jewish Spy photo

Have you ever been an accidental spy? There you were, just minding your own business when suddenly, people around you start talking about you – your people – without knowing you are “one of them?”

I had been invited to a fundraising luncheon through a friend, who had been invited by a friend of hers. Neither of us knew much about the organization we were breaking bread with, but we went in the good Jewish spirit of “either way, we’ll get to eat.”

We arrived to an explosion of elaborate decorations and live music. This was quite the shindig for the middle of the afternoon. The people were friendly, the check-in folks were very organized and we easily found our assigned seats boasting fancy tableware. I was immediately offered wine and I started to feel a little bit special having such an unexpected, swanky experience.

As the room filled with folks dressed in their Sunday best, a young man approached the microphone and began singing “Amazing Grace.” He was a very handsome kid and his voice was absolutely beautiful. While others around me teared up with sentiment, I was thinking to myself, “he must get all the girls,” while furiously texting my husband under the table that along with bagpipes, someone must sing “Amazing Grace” at my funeral.

When I looked up our singer had been replaced by a man of the cloth. Suddenly, we were saying Grace. The entire room was a sea of bowed heads. We were the only Jews! I looked nervously at my friend and then at my hands that were clenching my telephone. I took a deep breath. Realistically, no one was looking at me and no flashing “she’s a Jew” arrow was pointing at my head. So I waited it out, head bent respectfully toward my lap.

The main speaker followed – a plucky, well-spoken and clearly passionate person. In the speech, however, when giving examples of the hurdles that had been jumped for the mission of the organization to be realized, there were references to Jewish people and Jewish practices – and they were not positive. We were portrayed as a sexist people who don’t take women in business seriously without a man’s hand and that when the rent is due with a Jew, you better pay it or end up on the street. We were also perceived as self-congratulatory, proclaiming, “no one will outdo the Jews!” in our generosity.

I became lightheaded. My lunch began to bubble up in my throat. What was this person talking about? Why was this a part of the story? If the speaker knew there were Jews in the mix, would the speech have been different? In a lucky coincidence, we had already planned to leave early. I was sweating as I pulled on my coat.

I felt faint in the parking lot. When I got into the car I collapsed into the seat, my heart heavy with a combination of shock and sadness. How? How could someone say these things? When I got home my hands were a blur on the keyboard. I wrote what I considered to be a very impassioned email that concluded with:

“…You have hurt, offended and saddened me. In a world that has so many hurts to heal, it is beyond disappointing that you used your time with a captive audience to fan the flames of division and anti-Semitism.”

I received an almost immediate response. It was a combination of authentic shock and remorse. The speaker genuinely seemed to have no idea that what had been said could have been heard or interpreted the way it had been in my ears. I received a sincere and authentic apology, and the speaker said they would never, ever, use those words again as the intention was never to hurt or offend anyone. They concluded by saying the Jewish people are their brothers and sisters and thanked me for my courage in coming forward with my experience.

Call it courage, but I could not be silent on this one, nor do I believe we should we ever be silent.

We have the luxury of hiding our Jewishness – being able to conveniently tuck in our Chai necklaces, not reveal our last names, or be vague around what kind of G-d we believe in. But the times when we feel most inclined to hide, those are exactly the times that we should proclaim our presence. We cannot take the easy road as a minority and camouflage ourselves amongst other white folk. We ARE a minority. We need to take courage in our Judaism and the responsibility to educate those who for whatever reason don’t know the power of their words to hurt, however unintentional they may be. We must stand with other minorities that are unable to “hide” in a crowd. No one should suffer in silence. We should thrive in our collective humanity to ensure “never again” for us and for all people.

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Food in Technicolor

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12/12/2014

Food in Technicolor photo

Parshat Vayeshev is the story of Joseph, and whenever I think of Joseph, I think of his amazing technicolor coat given to him by his father, Jacob. This very special coat was a sign of greatness.

This concept of technicolor equaling greatness isn’t something that we should just strive for in our wardrobe, but also on our plates. Food comes in all forms of colors, and each color has a specific benefit that can help prevent disease, keep us strong, and assist us in staying healthy.

According to Chinese medicine, red foods such as goji berries help build blood. Tomatoes, which are rich in lycopene, are good for our heart and blood. Also, red foods contain a phytochemical called anthocyanins, which is an antioxidant that helps control blood pressure and protects against diabetes. Other red foods such as cranberries help fight urinary tract infections, and as you already know “an apple a day can keep the doctor away.”

Eating a diet rich in orange and yellow foods is good for the whole body. Oranges, lemons, and other citrus fruits have vitamin C. Vitamin C is said to prevent colds, flus, and scurvy. Other orange foods such as carrots, and yellow foods such as squash, contain beta-carotene which may prevent cancer and protect our eyes.

However, there are other nutrients in yellow foods, for example bananas are packed with potassium, which helps eliminate cramping. In general, yellow foods are also a good source of antioxidants and help maintain healthy skin and teeth.

From a young age we were all told to eat our greens, and in reality, everyone should. Foods like broccoli may reduce the risk of cancer, arthritis, and aging. Leafy green vegetables are actually a much better source of calcium than any dairy product. Kale, chard and other leafy greens are chock full of folate, fiber, and antioxidants. If we eat more green foods, we might not have to fortify our food anymore, because green vegetables have all the vitamins we need.

The blue and purple colors in foods are formed by anthocyanins, an antioxidant that fights inflammation and even cancer.  Blue and purple foods also help prevent age related memory loss, are good for the heart, protect the gums, eyes, and urinary tract. Blue foods such as blueberries can help fight the “blues” because they give your brain the boost it needs for the week.

Purple foods such as cabbage are loaded with vitamins A, C, and K. Also, elderberries can be applied to the skin to help cure wounds, or can be eaten for respiratory health (please do not eat any uncooked or unripe elderberries). Eating foods that are blue and purple will not only make your plate pretty, but they can also make it more nutritious and delicious.

 Jacob gave Joseph a technicolor coat because Joseph was truly special and destined for greatness. Let’s try to keep this in mind the next time you are thinking about what to eat. Try to imagine the greatness of Joseph’s technicolor coat, and make sure your plate is as colorful as his coat, because remember, what is on your plate is destined for your stomach and body. The more colorful your meals are the better; just make sure it is from natural colors and not dyes or preservatives. 

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‘Tis the Season for Giving … But How?

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12/11/2014

‘Tis the Season for Giving … But How? photo

If you’re like me, you probably get a ton of emails and countless mailed letters asking you to donate or to give to an organization. Many of them come around this time of the year, when the holiday spirit and the spirit of giving seem to collide in a frenzy of toys, appliances, gadgets and monetary donations. We hear the high-pitched jingles of the Salvation Army’s bell as we walk past our nearest grocer or pharmacist, or encounter people on street corners asking for spare change for organizations such as Misericordia or the Boys and Girls Club. Most of us do not ask for these seasonal solicitations, and probably do not give many of these a second thought.

Personally, I’ve collected close to 60 separate pieces of mail since Thanksgiving, and they still keep coming and probably won’t stop until the New Year. How do you not feel overwhelmed or lost among all the choices and solicitations for your donations? How do you choose which organizations to donate to or volunteer time?

The topic of tzedakah and its connection to the holiday shopping and gift-giving season really make me think more carefully about what it means to me. More particularly, it makes me wonder about how I can give as a Jewish person and how I can better understand how my decisions for tzedakah help shape the world around me and impact other people’s lives. I didn’t just want to give to a popular charity or organization, and I didn’t want to just write checks and click “Donate Now” on a website. I wanted to search for something a little more, and what I found surprised even myself.

Believe it or not, it all started with a group of sixth graders ...

Last year, my sixth grade religious school class had a special lesson on tzedakah organized and run by the American Jewish World Service. It was part of a series of lectures preparing the students for their bar or bat mitzvah. Included in the morning’s activities was a very interesting exercise that involved a little Torah study. The students and their parents were asked to look at eight different charity scenarios and decide how high or low that act of charity ranks on Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Tzedakah.

The students were given eight slips of paper, one corresponding to each degree of tzedakah, and then asked to rank them to see how it matches up with Maimonides’ own list. Most of the groups were able to get the highest and lowest degrees, but there was some disagreement over the middle degrees. This was the first time that many of the students saw this list and didn’t even know that one could rank charity into different degrees. Isn’t all charity the same? Why does one type of giving get a higher rank than others? Isn’t all charity and giving a good thing? Why should we compare how we choose to give?

I was wondering the same questions myself. Personally, I hadn’t really given much thought to my own feelings and decisions on tzedakah. Up until I graduated college, my parents would donate around this time each year and make donations on behalf of me and my siblings. Since then, we have all been responsible and accountable for our own charitable actions: my brother found UJA-Jewish Federation and AIPAC in New York and discovered his passion for Jewish volunteer work and philanthropy. My sister, through her medical school program, worked at a facility that assisted abuse victims and their children, and would spend her summer days playing with the children instead of opting to go to the beach or on a road trip. For me, I’ve been involved with JUF attending Israel Solidarity Day and YLD events and engaging in opportunities for tikkun olam.

I learned above all that giving tzedakah needs to come from the heart. As long as it’s sincere and meaningful, and as long as it’s helping others to live and survive, it counts. Some years, I’d set aside clothes that wouldn’t fit and drop them off at a resale shop. A couple of years ago, rather than giving gift cards or writing checks to friends and family, I began to plant trees in Israel and give them as gifts.

While I shared these experiences with my students, I couldn’t help but think to myself that, while these were thoughtful and meaningful ways to give to charity and to help out those in need, was I being complacent? Was I, according to Maimonides, taking the easy way out and choosing a lesser degree of tzedakah than I was capable of doing? Was I capable of doing more?

According to Maimonides, the highest degree “is that of a person who assists a poor person...by putting him where he can dispense with other people’s aid ... [to] strengthen him in such a manner that his falling into want is prevented.”

This was difficult for many of the students to understand, so I told them a true story that another teacher recently shared with me so they could understand, and even imagine and visualize themselves performing this act of kindness themselves.

A man was wrongfully jailed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, hanging out with some shady people one moment and charged with murder the next (get the full story on WBEZ). Eventually, after three years of legal battles and pro bono work from generous lawyers, a jury found him not guilty and he was acquitted. I explained to the students that they lawyers saw through the financial expense they were poised to endure and decided that helping a wrongfully accused stranger get out of prison – a place this man never imagined he’d go or even belong in – was the right thing to do. They saw an opportunity to give without expecting anything in return, to free an innocent man so he could go on living his life.

After I finished the story, the students barraged me with questions. Of course, many of us don’t get the experience or opportunity to perform this very high degree of tzedakah, so it generated lots of inquiry. What came over these lawyers that motivated them to provide this ultimate act of kindness? Did they have any expectations that he would pay them back in some way? Did the man have to promise to be good and stay away from bad people or bad things? Did they ever catch the real bad guys, and were they punished?

It turns out that this innocent man is now enrolled in college and fixing computers for a living, and the lawyers who sacrificed their time and energy to help a complete stranger for 10 long years still keep in touch with him on a regular basis.

So this season, and for the future, I encourage everyone to find their own path of tzedakah, to embrace the culture of giving freely and selflessly, and to pay it forward in whatever way works for you. The sixth graders taught me that it’s never too soon or too late to start giving, and to give thoughtfully and meaningfully.    

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Ingredients of a Healthy Relationship

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12/09/2014

Ingredients of a Healthy Relationship photo

Anyone else out there a foodie? Food is a great metaphor for relationships. If a person gets in the habit of eating cakes, cookies, and candy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it will be very difficult for that person to create a new reality of healthy eating.

Relationships are no different. If a person is dating in an unhealthy way, having “fast-food relationships,” then when it comes time to be in a healthy relationship, they will have created deeply entrenched negative patterns that are difficult to break. Just like eating healthfully requires knowing the rules of nutrition, so too, we need some guidelines for developing “healthy” relationships.

Dr. Sue Johnson, world-renowned relationships expert (and one of my personal mentors), ascribes three pillars to a healthy relationship. Let’s examine those three factors and then look at how Judaism approaches the establishment of a healthy relationship.

Factor #1 – Accessibility

This refers to the ability to connect emotionally with one’s partner even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when I feel insecure in this relationship, I will stay open and accessible to work through it together with you. Guess what? There will be times when the marriage feels uncomfortable. And you will have to apply good ol’ stick-to-it-ism and be there for your partner through the tough and challenging times too. But in the online dating world of several dates with several different people already set up for the week, if the date goes sour for a minute, the relationship is dropped. Hey, wait a minute! Where are you going? Don’t click off this blog yet! Hey … wait … Exactly.

Factor #2 – Responsiveness

This means that a partner is able to hear, understand, and respond on an emotional level to the needs of their significant other. Deep within all of us, we carry fears, loneliness, insecurity, and a need to be loved and cared for. Can you give me what I need? Can you enter my world, different from your world, see my needs, and provide them for me? Our generation struggles in the realm of relating to another person. One of the number one challenges of today’s technologically advanced communications world is the lack of eye contact. I do not really see you. Through emails, messaging, and texting, we dull the muscles needed to reach out and see what’s really going on inside of another person. Those skills are needed to create and deepen a healthy relationship.

Factor #3 – Engagement

A relationship that is engaged is a relationship in which both partners feel special to the other. It is where both share a special place in their heart for each other, willing and wanting to give a unique place in their lives for time, space, and attention to the other. It’s kind of like going to the movies with someone, but there’s no movie. Instead, all the anticipation and attention is given specially to your partner. Painful to many, this means turning off one’s phone figuratively, or sometimes when unable to fight that “gotta-answer-it’ reflex,” – literally. This will allow a couple to feel important to one another – a key ingredient in a successful relationship.

Sue Johnson created an acronym to remember these three relationship pillars: ARE. “ARE you there for me? ARE you with me?” Accessiblility, Responsiveness, and Engagement are the three factors that support a healthy thriving relationship.

The first step in establishing an ARE relationship is to see the other. You have to be able to see outside of yourself. There has to be the ability to acknowledge another person with potentially a completely different paradigm and experience of life. Second comes listening. This means listening intently to what’s going on inside the world of the other and caring. It means focusing intently and earnestly to each other’s deep vulnerable feelings. The third step is to connect. In this deep vulnerable place of sharing and understanding each other, connecting means to feel safe and secure, understood, and accepted. Finally, the goal is to reach a place of profound appreciation of each other and the precious relationship you share together.

These four steps: Seeing, Hearing, Connecting, and then Appreciating are actually alluded to in the first four names of the tribes of Israel: Reuben, Simon, Levi, and Judah. Reuben comes from the Hebrew word reiyah to see. Simon, or Shimon in Hebrew, comes from the word shemiya, to hear. Levi comes from the word leviya, to attach or connect. And Judah comes from the Hebrew word hoda’ah, to give thanks or appreciate.

When a husband can see what his wife is experiencing and listen to her share her feelings about it, he’s being Accessible. If he can then take that in and connect with her in that deep vulnerable place, he’s being Responsive. And when he then shows her how much he appreciates her for who she is at the core, how much he enjoys her sharing and being a part of his life, that is true Engagement. And it’s the same from her to him. These four steps: Seeing, Hearing, Connecting, and Appreciating are what construct an A.R.E. relationship of Accessibility, Responsiveness, and Engagement.

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