OyChicago blog

Appropriate attire at synagogue?

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Appropriate attire at synagogue? photo

I was going to write about my Top 10 list for fall clothes and accessories and discuss some of the amazing, plush leather handbags, etc., that are on my radar. But, after attending High Holiday services, I thought it appropriate to switch gears. For both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, I couldn’t help but notice the completely inappropriate attire of the tween females in attendance.

When I was in middle school and high school attending services with my parents, it was understood that although I could still be fashionable, I must be appropriate. (After all, I’m sure all of us ladies have noticed that the aisle between the pews can turn into quite the little catwalk before the Rabbi approaches the bimah.) When I was a pre-teen, I wore dresses or skirts that hit at the knee with flats or low heels and an appropriate blouse or sweater. I always wanted to look my best, and I stayed on trend, but my mother taught me the importance of respecting the synagogue as a place of worship and sophistication and I respected this concept and dressed with that in mind.

Now, I shouldn’t make a blanket statement about every tween female, as I’m sure many of them were dressed just fine at synagogue, but I have to say, I didn’t notice the appropriately dressed ones because I was utterly distracted by the spandex micro miniskirts, slouchy off the shoulder sweaters, distressed leather ankle booties, and tangled waves of hair. These girls literally looked like they walked out of an Urban Outfitters or Free People catalogue and were about to go to an indie concert in a bar (I know, ironic because they are not even old enough to go into a bar). If I was their mother, I don’t know if I would feel comfortable with my 12, 13, 14 or 15 year old wearing an outfit like this to the mall, let alone synagogue.

I have noticed this issue in years past, and never approved, but this fashion epidemic was particularly bad this year. I’m pretty sure that a black miniskirt with red sequins down each side is not meant for synagogue, or really most places, minus the club or the street corner. I am a huge advocate for girls learning at an early age the importance of empowerment through fashion and developing a personal sense of style, but I also believe this should be filtered and modified depending on the occasion. I also understand that middle school and high school are places where being “cool” and “fitting in” are major priorities, and these girls knew they would probably see a few classmates at synagogue, so they wanted to make sure they’re wearing whatever is “in,” but can’t this happen in a way that is tasteful and appropriate?

What are your thoughts? Did you notice this at services this year too? I like to think I’m hip, although I usually lean conservative in my attire, but am I completely out of touch or overreacting?


Is shul shopping like dating?

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Cheryl Jacobs photo 2x

Other than during college, I’ve only ever gone to synagogue with my parents, aunt and uncle and cousins on the High Holidays. When the holidays appeared early on the calendar, and the weather was nice, we’d drive to my aunt and uncle’s house and walk the rest of the way to services. There’s something about walking to synagogue for the High Holidays with family that makes for great conversation, bonding and reflection on the past year. More often than not, these walks were the best part of my holiday celebration.

But for the past few years, these walks just weren’t enough. While my family has stayed loyal to the Conservative temple I grew up at, I’ve begun shifting and identifying closer to Reform. Instead of leaving synagogue feeling spiritually rejuvenated each year, I left feeling unfulfilled and truth-be-told, unhappy.

So this year, I decided to do something about it and bought tickets to a Reform synagogue in the city with a friend.

Now this might not sound like a big deal to you, but in a close-knit family of very like-minded thinkers (when we argue about politics, we argue about who likes the same candidate more) who enjoy being with each other constantly, this was a very rebellious act. Probably, the most rebellious act I’ve ever committed in my life.

Side note: This is probably a bit of an exaggeration as I don’t really have that many rebellious acts to compare it too. Probably the only other act of rebellion I’ve ever committed was spending a summer in Europe and refusing to call my parents while I was there—of course, I did let them know I’d landed safely.

So for the first time ever, I visited a Reform synagogue for High Holiday services. I’d already been warned to expect some major differences: organ music, more English, a heavier focus on tikkun olam, shorter services where people show up from start to finish (this part I was most looking forward to) and a less participatory congregation. While I was ready for these, there were other changes I wasn’t prepared for: a soloist performing a song from a musical, a haftorah portion read in English and a prayer book that opened left to right.

This might seem obvious to most, but I also found that whether you are at a Reform or Conservative synagogue, some things remain the same: in the end all the same prayers were said (even if some were in English), Jews will always congregate and chat in the aisles while the Torah makes the rounds and you will always be standing more than you are sitting.

What I liked about my experiences at a Reform synagogue (and what I had been seeking out), was that feeling of inclusiveness that had been lacking at my childhood synagogue. From the wonderful female rabbi on the bimah, to the presence of the female matriarchs in the prayers, to a surprise sermon from the new Israeli consul general to the Midwest, and the frequent mentions of support for the Jewish LGBTQ and interfaith communities, this was a place of welcoming. I felt proud to be Jewish.

Not to say that everything was just peachy. I definitely missed the feeling of hundreds of Jewish people praying together out loud in Hebrew, but mostly I missed the feeling of my family sitting next to me praying.

I’m not sure if this particular Reform synagogue is the right fit for me or if I even truly fit under the Reform umbrella. But I plan to keep trying to find my place. I’ve been told by others who faced similar Jewish soul searching moments that I’ll never find the perfect fit for me and that’s ok. At least I’m trying. And I’m still holding out that I can get my family on board with the switch.

In the meantime, I’m going to continue shul shopping.


Letting Go

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Letting Go photo

I like to think of myself as having a laid back, easy going approach to parenthood. But my oldest – my 5th grader - says it ain’t so. This is my kid who has had a mohawk since kindergarten. My kid who had his mohawk dyed orange. And yet when I respond with a, “no” to some of his notions, (riding his bike without a helmet; walking a mile to school alone in the wee hours of the morning; seeing the movie “The Dark Knight Rises”; ordering beer…) I am “…THE most overprotective mom – EVER!!!” On the outside, I shake it off. “This is just the way it is. I want you safe. It’s my job.” But inside, I fret. Am I overprotective? Am I setting myself up for a massive rebellion? Should I be saving up my “nos” for the big stuff like, “Mom- I-want-to-backpack-all-over-Europe-specifically-Amsterdam-and-ditch-on-the-whole-college-deal-because-education-is-overrated?”

My kid has said more than once, “we live in the suburbs for G-d sakes! Geeze!” implying that my fear of him being thrown into a windowless white van by a menacing, hulking stranger is baseless. And this is most probably true. When we looked for a house to buy, we considered three things: Jewish community, my husband’s ability to bike to work, and safety. We are grateful that things like a lawn Gnome being stolen makes the local paper because that’s about the most eventful thing that happens here. But still.

Myself, I was a rebellious child. I got into trouble. I snuck out of the house after I checked-in. I stole money from my parent’s piggybank. I practiced driving without a permit. I had a mouth on me. I got picked up by the cops for curfew violation. I hung with the bad boys and numerous other unmentionables. I recently had to admit to my kids that at a (few) point(s) and time(s) in my youth, I smoked. Since then my middle son likes to occasionally exclaim, “You were a smoker!?” “Experimented,” I say. “I was never a smoker.” He doesn’t buy it. And the questions (and the answering of them) become a slippery slope. “Ever been drunk?” he asked while on a grocery run during our vacation in Michigan. “Yes.” I answer. “When?” “Um…” I stammer. “In college?” he presses. “Yes.” I answer while over-analyzing a wheat-free cracker box. “Since we’ve been born?” he asks with his big blue eyes boring into the side of my head. Oy.

So how long do we keep this proverabal leash on our kids? Do we do a yank, pull. yank, pull and finally release? Do we white-knuckle grip it all the way? As a mother of four and having 10+ years under my belt in parenting, (and having had the privilege and honor of practicing on many borrowed kids in my professional life prior to parenthood) my conclusion is this: I really don’t know. I think I probably have to contemplate my own demons first – the worry that too much freedom will lead him to the trouble I found. Needing to sort through the fear about not knowing what’s going to happen to him and the anxiety about what he is ultimately going to decide to do for himself. And then, I need to take a long look at him. Really see him. View him for who he is separate from me. I need to give him (and myself) the courage to be brave. And to fail. And to not be perfect and to develop the confidence to be out in the world choosing vanilla or chocolate, looking both ways, saying no when it’s wrong and saying yes when it’s right.


Shabbat brings familiarity in France

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The Frashley Chronicles, Part 4


Ashley Kolpak photo 

Here's a little background about me, I spent the 2010-2011 school year teaching English in Grenoble, France. Before that, I spent a year working in the heart of Chicago in the Jewish non-profit community. When I was abroad, my eyes were opened to the everyday experience of the Jewish community in my town and in the country at large. I experienced what it meant to me to be not only Jewish in France, but a Jewish, young, female, American in France. It was a ridiculously fun, thought-provoking and thrilling seven months and I'm excited to share these stories. By the way, all thoughts and opinions are purely my own…I take full responsibility for any sweeping generalizations. With that out of the way, let's start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

Looking in the mirror, I almost didn’t recognize myself. Dressed in black skirt down to my ankles and a long-sleeve black shirt, just a little light blush on my cheeks, I was definitely sporting a new look. I felt subdued, perhaps even a little out of uniform without my usual skinny jeans and fall sweater. I don’t often go to synagogue, but today I was making my first-ever outing to a Modern Orthodox shul with my French hosts. Looking into the mirror once again, I tried on my most devout expression.

“You look beautiful!” Mrs B. exclaimed as I gingerly walked down the stairwell. I was wearing her outfit, of course, and it didn’t fit badly at all. I put on my coat and off we went. The streets were quiet on a Saturday morning, most of the people in town taking it easy. I trailed behind Mr. and Mrs. B and their two sons. It was a very rainy morning and I walked carefully as we wandered down one of the main drags in the city. I felt strangely self-conscious. During my time in France, I’d very rarely, if ever, seen religious Jews walking to shul on a Saturday morning. But there I was, part of this fray, feeling even more foreign in this already foreign land. We approached a heavy wooden door, Mr. B. entered a code and we all slowly slipped inside.

Where we entered was a small building, moderately lit, and already filled with chatter and prayer. Mr. and Mrs. B. greeted all of their friends with the “bisou,” the customary French greeting. Wisely, I kept to myself, waiting to be introduced to the others at shul. I folded my hands in my lap as Mrs. B. and I took our place at the back of the synagogue, behind the small partition dividing the men and the women.

I wondered if the service would be led in French, but the elderly rabbi led his congregation entirely in Hebrew. We arrived near the end of the service. As I stood up to say the “Aleinu,” reciting from memory words I’d spoken many times before at services in the Chicago burbs, I felt a comforting wave of familiarity. In my day-to-day life in France, I’d been working so hard to make friends, make myself understandable to the French, to navigate tasks that took no thought in English, but now required immense concentration in French. There were times I questioned if I would ever feel welcome, if I would ever feel truly understood. As I recited the prayers with the same fluency of the women sitting around me, I felt competent and I felt, for that brief moment, completely un-foreign.

The members of the shul filtered into a little room filled with tables for a Shabbat feast. I dutifully took my seat next to my host mother. I gleefully played the role of “American Girl,” answering everyone’s questions, smiling brightly, gesturing wildly, my apple cheeks turning rosy when I wasn’t sure if I’d heard so-and-so correctly. There were many girls joining their parents, but not nearly as many boys. I turned to Malka, the girl sitting next to me, I told her she shared a name with my grandmother and that quickly got us chatting. I asked where all the boys were, to which she replied, “oh, they’re all away at yeshiva at the next big town over.”

After a robust afternoon of chatting and eating, or in my case, being told to “eat more!” the B. family gathered themselves and headed toward the door. “Yalla!” I called, as I saw my host brother dawdling. My host father looked at me and laughed. On the walk home, my host mother asked what I thought. “I liked it,” I remarked. I was tired, I didn’t have much more to say. Compared to my everyday life in Chicago, going to a modern Orthodox shul was one of the most different experiences I’ve encountered living abroad. It took me outside of my comfort zone and showed me a world I know about, but very rarely see and experience. I was never once pressed about my “sort” of Judaism, whether I was reform or conservative; I was never asked how I practice or how often I pray. They extended an invite simply because I am a Jew, and it was Shabbat. And that small gesture made me feel quite at home.


Your guide to a sweeter new year in 5773

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Cindy Sher photo 2

You ready for a clean slate? We Jews are lucky to get a chance to start over every fall as the shofar sounds a wake up call in each of our lives. With the changing leaves, the crispness in the air, and new Justin Bieber Trapper Keepers in the back-to-school aisle comes a promise for a fresh start in 5773.

Since the sum of 5, 7, 7, and 3 equals 22, I offer you 22 tips for a sweeter new year. L'shana tovah tikatevu!

1) Give thanks. No matter what you're doing, take at least a moment every day to stop and say thank you to God, to your parents, to the love of your life, to your kids, and to that barista at your local coffee joint who greets you with a smile and a "half-caff-skim-latte-easy whip" every morning. We get so wrapped up in the chaos of our days that we forget to give thanks for all the blessings, big and small, in our lives.

2) Make Shabbat special. Whether you keep Shabbat or not, it's a nice time to be in the present with a good meal, good people—and a good nap.

3) Get inspired. Go online and click on one of those TED talks, listen to an uplifting sermon by your rabbi, take in a sunset, watch a Spielberg flick—whatever moves you.

4) Learn about your roots. Ask an older member of your family to tell you a story stemming from your family tree. My grandparents just recently told me how they met. Long story short, I might not be here if it weren't for my grandma's Canasta game with my great aunts, Faye and Gertie, who put the shidduch together. How'd your grandparents meet?

5) Spend time with people who you really like and love. And spend less time with people you don't. Life's short. `Nuf said.

6) Raise your heart rate. They say sitting at your desk all day can shave years off your life. It's a pity I write these words as I sit at my desk. So whenever you can, get up and move. Walk, don't drive, the mile to the store. Take the stairs, not the elevator. Do yoga. Shoot hoops. Just move.

7) Never text and drive—capiche? And while we're on the subject, texting and walking is dangerous too.

8) Laugh more. In the book The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin says that a small child typically laughs more than 400 times each day, while an adult laughs only 17 times. Raise that average.

9) Look up at the sky and down at the earth. Pay attention to the sun, the moon, and the stars, and plant something in the ground.

10) Take up space in the room. Last year, I attended a Jewish women's empowerment seminar, where we talked about this concept, but it applies to both men and women: Who you are and what you have to say matter. Own it.

11) Commit gemilut hasadim—deeds of loving kindness. Mentor a kid who needs a friend, volunteer at a senior home, or sign up for volunteer opportunities with TOV.

12) Devour a book—for fun. Read it on your Kindle or the real kind made of actual paper.

13) Give yourself a break. So many people, especially amongst us MOTs, are taught to excel and to make everyone around them happy all the time whether that means making the honor roll, getting that promotion, or saying yes to a project you know you don't have time for. But you know what? Sometimes it's okay to take a day off from perfection. I give you permission.

14) Eat broccoli, beans, and blueberries. Incorporate superfoods like these into your diet to improve your overall health.

15) …But eat ice cream too. I know these last two tips sound contradictory, but it's not like you're training for the Olympics. Yes, eat your vegetables, but every once in a while, go for those two scoops of peanut butter and chocolate ice cream.

16) Visit somewhere you've never been. That may be Israel, India, or Indiana, or it could be your local gym or the Chicago Botanic Garden. Visit uncharted territory next year.

17) Talk about real stuff. Again, we get bogged down in the details of life, logistics, and work, but take some time to really talk to the people in your lives about what really matters.

18) Dance more. So you're not exactly Mikhail Baryshnikov or J. Lo. Well, chances are neither is that guy next to you on the dance floor at the club or dancing the hora alongside you.

19) Find joy in every season—even winter. Despite our infamously cruddy weather, Chicago offers us four varied seasons, so revel in each of them—whether you're seven-years-old or seven at heart. In the fall, jump in a pile of leaves. When it's cold, make a snow angel. Meander through the rain without an umbrella in the spring. And, next July, jump into the lake-when the E. coli levels are low.

20) Be more Zen. I'm a work in progress on this one. Your friend is 11 minutes late for your coffee date. The forecast calls for storms on your wedding day. Your daughter just drew a picture of the dog with a brown Sharpie on the coffee table—rather than on her plentiful construction paper. Don't freak out about things beyond your control. Okay, maybe freak out a little about the Sharpie stain.

21) Do something a little scary. No, not necessarily bungee jumping. My mom would kill me—and she'd probably kill you too. But get out of your comfort zone and do something new that seems easier not to do.

22) Turn your phone off every once in a while. Wouldn't it be nice, every so often—maybe on Shabbat—to not text, not email, not status update, and not tweet—to just be?

Got advice for the new year? E-mail me at CindySher@juf.org and I'll run your tips online.


Booked and bound

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Blair Chavis photo

From a young age, our parents teach us to be joiners.

When I had scarcely learned to walk, my mom enrolled me in a group ice skating class—complete with ice show participation (I recall wearing a sequined frog costume). Along with that, came piano lessons, art classes, swimming classes, summer camp, carpool groups and more. Before I graduated from elementary school, I knew it was time to leave my mark on society and run for student council. I blew the elementary school gymnasium away with my candidate speech for secretary.

That desire to be grouped continues through our school years, but I think it’s sometimes forgotten after we graduate college—a period in our lives when we are most disenfranchised and posse-less. We remember to join a gym and to network to find a job. When it comes to other social experiences, sometimes we’re on our own unless we seek out new opportunities. That said, I think JUF really steps up when it comes to providing social outlets for people in their 20s and 30s.

My first couple years after college were sometimes a social struggle. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, many of my friends scattered all over the country. Thankfully, when I returned home to Chicago, I reconnected with childhood friends. However, some childhood friends also had moved or our relationships had changed from time apart. Those of us who were around were busy trying to figure out our careers via internships and first jobs. We also found ourselves dumbfounded by a Chicago bar scene where everyone didn’t already “know our name.”

College is perhaps the most socially enriching environment one can have, particularly if you attend a university that nearly engulfs the city in which it resides. In college, I was surrounded by thousands of people my own age, engaging in local activities geared toward the majority population. During my senior year at college, most of my closest friends lived within a 3 block radius of me. We could have performed the old movie cliché with the cans and string from our windows (quaint, yet unnecessary in a cell phone era).

After a few years of life as “an adult” and forging new and different friendship groups, I’ve become more of a joiner. Ironically, the joining came after the friends. I’m of the belief that you can never have enough new people in your life. I also am a big fan of introducing friends to each other, because then I can hang out with people from various facets of my life at one time and not worry about them having nothing to say to each other.

About a year ago, I found myself reunited with a childhood friend who’d moved back to the city after nearly a decade away. This friend reunion put me in such a giddy state, that I wanted to spread the love. Around that same time, I decided to form a book club and include reunited friends, work friends, old friends and all of their friends. To say the group was a “mish-mosh” is an understatement.

Our book club is preparing to celebrate its one-year anniversary this month. The group is larger than ever, and its members are very dedicated to reading and to each other. Book clubs are often stereotyped for consisting of chatty, catty ladies who discuss the book for five minutes a meeting and then drink wine and gossip. My group legitimately breaks down each book in heated discussion (while stuffing our faces with potluck food). In fact, we’ve had two authors join our discussions, including Oy!Chicago’s Rachel Bertsche.

I love the group for its diversity, for the ladies’ outspokenness and for their tolerance. It has become an unexpected community of intelligent women I never knew I needed and wanted in my post-college life. Many of the members have found the book club has also re-ignited their passion for reading. Not to mention, friendships forged in the club have led to other social outings and even joining workout classes together.

My advice to newbies in the city and those who are mulling through those early 20s is to continue to put yourself out there and meet new people. Start a group or club based on an interest, and invite people you might not know well to join.

Groucho Marx once said, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

However, I recommend surrounding yourself with unlikely company. You’ll be amazed at who you meet along the way.  


Embracing Uncertainty in the New Year

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Lauren Schmidt photo

A few weeks ago, my mom was discussing our Rosh Hashanah plans with my nana. Somehow, in their conversation, my nana made a comment when referring to services that was something along the lines of, “it’s the same thing every year.” Although this comment grew to be something we teased her about, it led me to really think about the statement. Are the High Holidays truly the same every year?

In one sense, of course they are. Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish holidays, offers some form of consistency in our ever-so-quickly changing lives. In periods of uncertainty or chaos, the values, traditions, prayers, and even cuisine present during Rosh Hashanah are always a constant. However, part of this experience can be exceedingly different. As we enter the Days of Awe, I can assure you that my Rosh Hashanah was slightly different enough to teach me a lesson or two.

I grew up at a Conservative synagogue in Wilmette and eventually over the years, my family joined a new Reform synagogue in Northfield. Due to a variety of experiences, I became more conservative at school and definitely found my place in the Jewish community of the Hillel at the George Washington University. There were times that I came home for one of the holidays so that I could spend time with my family, but I always was at school for at least one of the Holy Days.

Needless to say, it was a bit of a transition and change to know that I will be home for both holidays this September. After a few years of jumping back and forth between a reform service with my immediate family, the services I was accustomed to at school, and traditional services with my grandparents, my mother and I compromised on trying out a new conservative service this year. It is challenging to simply find a new synagogue for the holidays when tickets to services are costly and in high demand. We were lucky enough to receive complementary tickets from one of our close family friends.

The experience started off a bit odd. We weren’t aware that people brought their own prayer books, probably because it was in a theater in the community, rather than a sanctuary. As we strolled in like lost puppies, we shuffled our way up to the top of the theater and sat down for a few hours. After seeing a few familiar faces, which due to the vastness of Jewish geography, was inevitable, we both found ourselves surprisingly enjoying the same service.

As I thought about how the experience was in some ways identical to years past and in other ways, a brand new experience, I pulled myself away from my mid-service daydreams to listen to the rabbi’s sermon. I usually only love the sermons from my rabbi at Hillel and tend to space out during others, but this rabbi really caught my attention with her personality, humor, and various important messages. Although this was far from the point of her sermon, one smaller detail she focused on was uncertainty. Although she was talking about our immigrant ancestors and the Jewish people, the idea of thinking you know what is going on when nothing is 100 percent certain, no matter the situation, really resonated with me.

I think I spend most of my life with a plan, being sure of what’s next or at least confident of what I want to happen next. With that being said, it is truly strange to feel as though nothing is certain. I sat in the service thinking of the uncertainty present in my life and the anxiety that this has been causing for the past few months. The sermon made me realize that no matter why someone’s life possesses uncertainty, whether it’s due to a large-scale change like coming to America, or a smaller but still vital change of transitioning into the real world, uncertainty is something that you cannot escape. Every year in December before we watch the ball drop and ring in the New Year, we make resolutions of what we will do better in the upcoming year. Although this isn’t necessarily the same custom present in our Jewish new year, casting off your sins in order to start the year afresh can closely be related to pledging to do better in this year than in years past.

With that being said, I think that there is one resolution that everyone could benefit from making and that is to embrace uncertainty. As hard as it is for me to admit, the unknown can be a good thing filled with excitement, possibilities, and the potential for something better than you can ever expect. This 5773, I hope to start off the year with a little more optimism and wherewithal to step out of my comfort zone of having everything planned, organized, and calculated, and enter a new year with a little more spontaneity, perplexity, and willingness to realize that life doesn’t need to be the same thing every year. With that, I wish everyone reading a sweet new year with some great surprises.


Cheers! Chicago: Raise a glass to our teachers

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Cheers! Chicago: Raise a glass to our teachers photo

In case you have been living under a rock or not watching the news, schools have been closed amidst a debate between the Chicago Public School system and the Chicago Teacher’s Union, displacing thousands of students across the city and affecting all types of students, families—and teachers.

As a recent Elementary Education Masters recipient and newly minted educator, I feel that I might have a few insights to offer about this situation, especially since I am a Jewish teacher in a private day school and unaffected by the strike. But I won’t try to sound too political.

From my perspective, education is not a choice. It is a lifestyle. Let’s not forget that we are inundated with learning from the moment we come into existence, our curiosity and our desire for self-exploration and self-discovery lead us eventually toward interacting with the world around us. It is unavoidable that we are constantly processing and analyzing everything and anyone we come into contact with. In primary school, students are always evolving, constantly growing and adapting. Whether they are in school learning about atoms or practicing taking good notes and learning how to organize a busy schedule and juggle multiple responsibilities—much like an adult—life is their lesson. School is just another setting for learning.

Life does not always choose us, but we must learn to prepare for life regardless; that is the ultimate aim of education, for all people and not just students.

Education is not information, it is inquiry. Education is not about high scores, it is about high personal achievement and growth. Education is not about getting the highest paid job, it is about finding out who you are and what you are capable of doing, and then using that knowledge to live life to its fullest. Education is a means, not an end. Education is a journey, not a destination.

How does the strike affect students? They are always learning, in every environment. When the school environment goes, much more than academic knowledge leaves the school grounds. With technology playing a monopolizing role in current academic and personal environments—constantly flooding students with multiple forms of stimuli and excluding them from real-life interactions—it is very easy to lose the value of adult role models and mastering interpersonal communication between students takes a lifetime to learn. There are no classes for teaching these life lessons to students, yet they are indeed learning them while in school.

Yes, children are losing out on their academic education and falling behind in many subjects as a result of the strike, making it more difficult for teachers and students to not only understand what is going on (and why), but how to move forward from this, because there will be an end at some point. My fear is that students will not learn how to get along in life. Has anyone stopped to think that perhaps students are benefitting from their education at school in more ways than academic?

It really is a tough situation for both sides, and I do hope and believe that a resolution will be made and that schools will reopen and life will go back to its routine. Will we have learned anything from it? Will students have found the ‘time off’ a welcome vacation or an annoying disturbance of their growth and maturity?

Regardless, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who stand on the front line of education, helping to mold the next generations into strong, capable citizens of the world. We all owe a lot to our teachers, whether we liked them all or not. So, let’s raise a glass and acknowledge all the teachers we know: our unspoken role models, our ever-faithful supporters and nurturers, our fans and our companions.



Fun Fitness

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Fun Fitness slide

My eight-year-old nephew slept over a few weeks ago. Like most eight-year-olds, he loves to just run around. He doesn't need to play baseball or shoot hoops, but whatever he does is fun. As adults we somehow lose the fun factor. People walk by my office with this look of dread on their face and whimper, "tell me I should work out today." And of course, I oblige.

Working out does not have to suck! You can have fun. People like my boot camps and training sessions because they laugh while they sweat. The clients training for a particular event, probably have a little less fun but that's by choice. Some sadists just enjoy a good old-fashioned butt kicking in the gym and I love them for it. If you can make your workout fun, you will be more likely to keep doing it.

People love Zumba because they like to dance. If you do not like to dance, maybe you would like to hike, kayak, play basketball… Those might not have the same benefits of weight training, but you can even make weight training enjoyable.

I make weight training fun by throwing a medicine ball against the floor (slam) and getting out some aggression. I enlist a friend to throw around a medicine ball with me. I try new equipment like the RIP Trainer, sand bags, VIPR… I also love a good agility course. And I've learned a lot of my clients like that too, so did my nephew.

I took my nephew to a park and let him help me put cones, loops, tennis balls, an agility ladder and other equipment in random order. I picked two pieces of equipment to arrange my way, and he picked two pieces to arrange. We then hopped, kicked, ran, jumped, and crawled around the equipment. Check out the short below. We alternated showing each other how to do the course. He LOVED it, and so did I. It was fun. He had no idea he was working on speed, jumping ability, and coordination. When we came home from the park, he guzzled two cups of water and my wife took one look at me and said, "I've never seen you so sweaty." All it took was 30 minutes in an open field, check it out.

The obvious moral to this story, make fitness fun. A subtle sub plot, make exercise part of your lifestyle and include your friends, spouse, coworkers, children…


Camp Firefly

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Camp Firefly logo

I had my first real camp experience two years ago, as a counselor for Camp Firefly. At Camp Firefly, you spend your days swimming, doing arts and crafts projects, horseback riding, rock climbing, and enjoying gooey s’mores by the campfire. Sounds like your typical summer camp, right? Well, not exactly. Camp Firefly is so much more. Camp Firefly, a program of Jewish Child & Family Services, is a unique, overnight camp experience for children ages 9-16, who have been diagnosed with social disorders such as Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, Social Anxiety, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Non-Verbal Learning Disorder. Camp Firefly is a once in a lifetime experience that enables children with such disabilities to develop social skills, learn independent living skills, build friendships, and leave camp with a greater overall sense of confidence.

Therapeutic services for children with such disabilities are expensive and sending your child to summer camp is often not an option. Financial difficulties should not be the reason children are unable to experience such a magical place like Camp Firefly. That is why Friends of Camp Firefly and myself have put hours upon hours of hard work into making Camp Firefly’s Third Annual Fundraiser, Give for the Glow a success. On Sept. 29, 2012, Friends of Camp Firefly will be hosting our third annual fundraiser at Slugger’s World Class Sports Bar in Chicago, to raise funds so that children are able to attend summer camp.

Proceeds from last year’s fundraiser enabled camp enrollment to increase by 50%. It is my hope that this year’s fundraiser will allow even more children to experience what the words “Summer Camp” means. I encourage you to visit www.campfireflyjcfs.com to see photos of campers and learn more about what makes Camp Firefly so special. To make a donation or purchase tickets to Give for the Glow, please visit www.formstack.com/forms/?1102596-xbRDklqirk.

I’m touched and left in awe each summer when children are able to tackle their fears, encourage one another, and just be themselves because of Camp Firefly’s carefree, supportive, loving environment. I can’t thank you enough for helping make summer camp a possibility for our children!


“Moichel me?”

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Reviving a High School High-Holiday Tradition


Paul Wieder photo2

First, let me clarify that the word in the title is not “mohel” or some version thereof. A “mohel” is a person who performs a brit milah (circumcision). No, the word in question comes from a different Hebrew root altogether, “mochel,” and means “forgive.”

In the week before Rosh Hashannah, the halls of my Orthodox Jewish high school rang with the voices of students repeating these words: “Moichel me?” Several times a day, I would be approached by one student or other, some of whom I hadn’t interacted with in months, who asked me, “Moichel me?”

He (it was an all-boys school) was asking me— in a combination of English and Yiddish accent and grammar— if I would forgive him for any affront or hurt he had caused me since the previous Rosh Hashannah. Of course I said yes, and asked if he were “moichel me,” in return.

Jewish tradition holds that God can only forgive us for sins we have committed against, well, God. If we have sinned against our fellow human, only that person can forgive us. (Some restrictions apply; please see your local rabbi for further details.)

Now, I may have hurt someone without knowing I was doing so. Or I may have knowingly hurt someone, but that person never knew it was me. It is even possible that neither of us knew, and yet damage had been done.

In order to cover all possible bases, then, the only thing to do was to approach, individually, each and every person we had encountered over the year and ask for forgiveness. Given the enormity of that task and the shortness of time, the question “Are you moichel me?”— roughly, “Are you forgiving of me?”— was condensed to just the last two words.

Around this time of year, I miss this process. It is nice to have a tradition that encourages you to get back in touch with everyone in your life, once a year, and say, “Hey, sorry if I did anything to upset you last year. If I did, I’m really sorry. Are we cool?” And then have them ask you the same. It’s more than just a note saying, “Happy Rosh Hashanah”; it’s “And if it’s not happy, and if I am the reason why, let’s talk about that.”

A blog is a forum for spouting opinions, often in reaction to something recent, without the benefit of having chewed the matter over for a week or so. A blog post (let alone a Facebook post or Tweet), with its insistence on immediacy, almost demands this unblinking, unthinking response.

In the past year, I may have said something (or some things) that upset people, and if I did, I sincerely apologize. I never mean to offend, and I’m sorry if I have.

So... moichel me?


Just another week or so before we return

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Andy Kirschner 2

I was in synagogue recently and inserted into the service was the special blessing for the Hebrew month of ElulElul is the last month of the Hebrew calendar which means it's only a matter of another lunar cycle before we kick off the Jewish New Year with Rosh Hashanah and deny ourselves 25 hours' worth of food and drink on Yom Kippur.  It is the Jewish New Year 5773, which means there is a new hope for the days ahead.  It's a time of teshuvah which means repentance, but it also means a return

As I wander through my day to day life over the course of the year, I constantly feel like I am pulled in so many different directions.  Everyone and everything demands my attention.  Someone on Facebook, wants me to friend them.  Someone on Twitter needs me to follow them.  My email box is littered with requests for my time, energy and resources.  Yet during the High Holidays I can tap into my moral compass and return to a truer path for me.   It's a comforting feeling to know that every year I can designate this time of year to really find my way in the world again. 

Repentance could happen any time, but the idea of teshuvah during Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur always happening at the same time on the calendar each year is all the more meaningful to me.  This is the time of year where I get to take stock about how I have spent my time.  It's also where I get to explore and hopefully make some decisions about how I want to spend my time in the year to come. 

This year I hope to spend the most time on that one thing that will keep me grounded throughout the year.  You know when you look at the end of a pen really intensely, so much so that the pen comes into focus extra clearly and the rest of the world gets blurry all around it.  I want to be able to focus in on that one thing just like that.  I can't say exactly what that thing is going to be, but I've got a week and 10 days of repentance to figure it out.   

Teshuvah is tough stuff.  The return is never easy.  If it was supposed to be easy, God would have tweeted the 10 Commandments and called it a religion.  We all know that the Judaism that calls millions of Jews to return to services every year at this time brings far more meaning than anything that can be expressed in 140 characters or less.

Shana Tova U'metukah - May you have a wonderful and sweet New Year! 


Ki Tavo

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21 Elul 5772 / September 7-8, 2012


Dan Horwitz photo

In this week's portion, Ki Tavo, Moses continues his speech to the Israelites by highlighting a pretty horrific list of curses that the Israelites will be subject to if they don’t follow the proper path (read: the Torah’s laws) once they enter the Promised Land. Juxtaposed with the curses are a number of blessings that they will receive if they do remain true to the Torah’s teachings. As we’ll find later on in the Prophets and Writings sections of the Bible, (*SPOILER ALERT*) the Israelites don’t do a particularly great job of adhering to the Torah’s laws, despite Moses’s warning, and pretty frequently end up worshipping idols and being punished for their actions.

What is it to be blessed? What is it to be cursed?

What power do words really have?

Words have a unique ability to express warmth, love and compassion. So too, do they have the ability to spew hate, encourage divisiveness, and to make others feel less than human. Our ability to speak provides us with an unbelievable amount of power, and as we’re only human, we have all used words for bad, when the opportunity existed to use them for good.

We’re now well into the month of Elul: the month of the Hebrew calendar that immediately precedes the High Holidays (and the Jewish new year), and traditionally, a month full of introspection, given its lead up to Yom Kippur where we stand together as a community accounting for our personal and collective shortcomings as human beings. From last Yom Kippur until now, we have all used words in hurtful ways – essentially turning our words into weapons with which we curse others. And now, with the High Holidays nearly upon us, it’s time to reflect on such situations, to apologize wholeheartedly to those whom we’ve hurt and to resolve to take steps to better ourselves as human beings.

We do not exist in order to be stagnant beings. Rather, we exist in order to continually strive to improve… to constantly work at becoming better people.

We have the power to be the ones offering up blessings and curses, and we have the ability to ourselves be blessings or curses unto the world.

Be a blessing.


I’m sorry for this blog: an apology for being apologetic

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Adam Daniel Miller photo

That’s a bad title. I’m sorry. I mean, I apologize. I mean…I have to stop that. I say something along these lines more than I rightfully should. Maybe it’s the stereotypical Jewish guilt. I don’t know. Sorry I brought it up. Whoops. There I go again. See? My apologizing is getting superfluous. For example, if someone needs to get by me or I myself need to get by, I say it. It can’t be right that I am always the one at fault. In a sense, saying sorry or apologizing is a form of regret. I wish not to have regrets and am therefore looking for an alternative to the abundance of sorries I hand out. It is a negative word and I like to live in the positive. For example, I don’t call it a lazy eye. I look at it as one overly enthusiastic eye. So from here on out, I want to make sure any regrets, even on a minute level, remain as minimal as possible.

The first thing I need to do is stop apologizing when unnecessary. I’m sorry will be no more. I don’t want to become arrogant or pompous, just less apologetic. I need to stuff my sorries in a sack mister. Based on this entire apology and saying I’m sorry talk, I bet you can easily guess what my favorite board game is.

Go on, take a guess.

If you guessed Sorry, that’s a good guess. It’s actually Monopoly. Monopoly.

Didn’t mean to mislead you there. Okay, maybe I did. Not going to apologize though.

This idea of saying sorry too much, at least for me, somewhat stems from my conscious yet unconscious need of approval from others. By the way, I really hope you are liking this. I’m someone who never wants to anger or annoy anyone as I am very non-confrontational. In the rare times that I am, my body tenses up, a wave a heat spreads over me and I become someone I don’t entirely like. In a word, it’s unpleasant. In two words, very unpleasant. My mother always told me if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing. Hence why you often hear me in these confrontational situations repeatedly yelling “Nothing!”

That’s a bad joke. Still can’t say I’m sorry.

Saying I’m sorry is a way for me to take the blame and prevent any drama from happening. I’m not a fan of drama. Ironic considering I have a theater minor. But I feel that drama is so…I want to say dramatic, so I will. Dramatic. Life has enough drama as it is, which is why I enjoy making people laugh. I sure do hope you are laughing while reading this. When appropriate of course. What’s fascinating to me is that I do all of this to avoid certain situations. I have self-proclaimed avoidance issues and apologizing to neutralize the situation is a form of that. Isn’t it nice how all of these things are bundled together in one nice package for me? By apologizing I’m effectively avoiding drama. See how well that works?

What I really need is a new phrase. A more specific way to say I’m sorry but not be avoiding the issue while still keeping the drama to a minimum. Maybe I should start saying, “I am completely responsible for my actions and I put the blame entirely on myself at this juncture”. That might be a little too longwinded. In fact it is a little too longwinded. Especially when just passing by someone at the grocery store.

The only person I should be apologizing to is myself. Well, unless I actually did something wrong to you in which case I very much should apologize. Like if I stepped on your favorite rubber duckie and now the squeaker is all screwy, an apology would be acceptable. But simply and honestly, I want to always have confidence in my actions. Again, no regrets. I’m young enough and yet old enough to have already accumulated a multitude of them and adding to the list would be preferably avoided. At my current age of 25, as I see it, I’ve barely started real life. I was in school for almost two decades. My brain didn’t finish developing until this year. I at least have that one excuse.

What I want to get across, to put it succinctly, is that I need to be more proactive than saying a simple I’m sorry. Saying it can get you past some of the small issues, but it usually doesn’t solve the big ones. When I stopped going to class during my first semester of college and was subsequently put on probation, saying I’m sorry didn’t do much. (True story. I said I’m sorry at least a dozen times and remained on probation despite the apologies) I want to take my actions along with my words and do some good. Maybe make someone’s day. I should go ahead and do that. Instead of adding another regret, I should add another good deed. Hence maybe looking at these small opportunities to provide a mitzvah. Like when I’m asked for tzedakah, a much better answer is a small donation than saying I’m sorry. I suppose that sums up my whole point right there. So that’s enough out of me.

Sorry for ending this so abruptly.

I mean, I am completely responsible for my actions and I put the blame entirely on myself at this juncture.



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Rachel Friedman photo

Birthdays are a funny thing. As a kid, you count down the days. You obsess over who is and isn't invited to your birthday party. You boast to be eight and three quarters, because it's cooler to be a teeny bit older than your friend who is eight and a half.

When you talked about the future with your friends, the middle schoolers seemed old and wise, and talking about getting married and having babies in your twenties seemed like a lifetime away— you’d be old by then!

As you get older, birthdays come with more significance. Driving at 16. Lottery tickets at 18. Throwing out your fake ID at 21.

Celebrating 23 means you finally have some kind of legit income and can afford to buy drinks at the bar. At 25, you’re a quarter century and can rent a car. Twenty-six and 27 are okay— they don't feel all that different, but slowly you lose interest in throwing that wild pub crawl birthday extravaganza. Maybe an intimate dinner with 10 of your best girlfriends? A weekend getaway with your significant other?

This weekend I turned 28. Officially reached my late twenties. I celebrated at one of the greatest parties I’d ever been to— my best friend’s wedding. The best birthday message I got was a photo of my son, sent from my parents— the world's best babysitters, with a caption that said, “Happy Birthday Mommy!” Instead of birthday parties and cake, I got Facebook messages from old friends, a handful of text messages, and a few phone calls.

Having a birthday that falls on a holiday weekend means your birthday weekend is often overshadowed by barbecues, trips out of town and other commitments. As a kid, I remember hating that my birthday often overlapped with the first day of school. As a grown-up, this year, despite knowing that all my friends were scattered at weddings across the country, I hoped that my closest friends wouldn’t forget about me. Some did, some didn’t.

But somehow as I get a little bit older, it mattered a little bit less. Gone are the days of planning trolley bar crawls and blow-out parties for my birthday— instead, I’ll be planning Colin’s first birthday party before you know it and hoping that no one realizes that I’m one year closer to 30!


Behind the breath

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Behind the breath photo

I began doing yoga, recently, after resisting it for years. Initially, it felt so boring. As one of those obsessed-with-running runners, it certainly didn't allow for that type of animal pleasure of digging into the earth, ripping through the world, passing people by, grimacing through the snow and the heat and the rain, pushing myself to my limits.

No, yoga was too calm, I had decided, after a dismal, brief attempt. There was no one to fight, not even myself. How aggravating.

Years, months later, housebound with energy begging to be burned, I tried it again. This time, something happened.

I was struck by the (YouTube) yoga instructor when she said "Regardless of what is going on outside of you, how far you are/aren’t stretching, etc., the most important thing is what is going on inside of you. Concentrate on the breath."

I stopped, struck by this simple, novel statement, feeling a rush of exhilaration within me as I realized that accomplishment was, quite literally, within my reach.

The point, l soon learned, wasn't to be somewhere else, to get somewhere else. To become fit, or limber. I was, already there. I was, already doing it. There was nowhere to go. All I had to do was breathe. This euphoric cloud of bliss entered the interior walls of my skin, as each breathe was an accomplishment, delicious, relaxing. I had arrived.

For a few weeks, I was obsessed with yoga, convinced it had solved all of my problems. I was shocked when, after the initial stages of yoga-infatuation faded, life was still a trial. There were still things that bothered my mind, entered into my psyche, clenched and strained my muscles. I was still tense.

Life happens. Stress happens. There are always more challenges and tests in this earthly existence. Such is the nature of things. But I have kept up with my yoga routine, and sometimes, I reach that state again, and I remember.

I remember that it is not the external things that will give me a sense of calm and completion.

That no matter how efficient I am, how many things I cross off of my to-do list, how much my baby conforms to her sleeping and eating schedule, how clean and ordered the house is, or how much money is in the bank, none of these things guarantees a sense of "wellbeing". A sense of "quality of life" that we crave.

I forget this constantly, every day, as I groggily wake up and, feeling the anxiety and the pressures of the day before me, I try to Get Things Done. Moving as quickly as I can, I scan my to-do list. My day seems so short, so little time for life.

As I sit down for yoga, and I start to breathe, slowly, I remember. Something. It starts off as a trickle, as the anxiety and intensity of my former thoughts resume their positions on the sidelines, watching as I cautiously return my attention to my breath. And that memory returns, reminding me that there's nowhere to go. It's all here. It's all good. I'm all good. I do not have to accomplish in order to feel whole, I am whole already.

There's a Jewish prayer, the Modeh Ani, which carries that simplistic message. Meant to be said the instant that we wake up and regain consciousness, the liturgy recalls with our groggy minds that we are indebted to G-d for returning our souls to us, though we cannot say His name yet because of our physical impurity, our contact with death as we slept (Jewish thought says that sleep is 1/60 of death, and your soul "leaves" the body during slumber, sojourning up to the heavens). A deeper explanation of the prayer teaches that, in the midst of this impurity, there is that part of us, that soul, that is completely pure, untouched, regardless. It is that realization of wholeness and perfection we aim to carry with us throughout our day as we tackle the unfinished world.

And that is what I return to, that is what I remember, when I breathe, as I stop. And through the stopping, I am. I am pure, I am grand, I am living, I am there,already.

We do not exist because we think that we do. We do not exist because we get things done. We exist because we are. And what we are is a lot of chaotic, potential energy swirling around a center of calm, beautiful perfection.

Now that's good stuff.

With this thought, the world also loosens up and slowly exhales alongside me.

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