5 Things the Jewish Community Can Learn From My Mexican Vacation
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
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.
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?
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
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
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
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
I can think about are New Year’s resolutions as we speed into 2015. It’s
probably because I’m so terrible at them.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
the big question is, is Lester really worth it?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
Sites We Like
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