Thursday, June 13, 2019

Grasshoppers to Giants

From June 2017

In a few weeks, we'll read about Moses sending twelve spies into the land of Israel to do a reconnaissance mission. They come back talking about a land flowing with milk and honey, but also inhabitants the size of giants. The scouts had felt like grasshoppers in their presence. Upon hearing this report, the Israelites are terrified.
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I imagine that some of our students entering kindergarten next year might feel like grasshoppers when they walk through the doors of a school much bigger than the one they've just left. 

It's hard to do something for the first time. And going to kindergarten -- all by yourself, without mommy or daddy or a caregiver to walk you to your classroom door -- is a big first. But it's also one you'll never forget. 

I hope that your child's first day of kindergarten, whether it'll be this September or a fews years from now, is beautiful and meaningful. Your child might go in feeling like a tiny little grasshopper, but on the way out, full of pride and accomplishment, they'll feel like a giant.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Looking Back, Looking Ahead


As the end of my third year as preschool director approaches, I’ve been thinking about how much we’ve accomplished together.
736x489 Image Children Playing Clip Art 2 

The preschool has a STEAM Lab, where the children explore concepts related to science, technology, engineering, art, and math; where they create and problem solve; where they collaborate and experiment with their peers; where they find new solutions to old problems; and where they prepare themselves for the challenges of the future.

Every December, the children shop at our Chanukah Bazaar to find gifts for their families, learning about giving as well as receiving in the process. We celebrate Purim every year with an increasingly hilarious Purimspiel, put on by the teachers. Every March, we spend a week focused on literacy, which culminates in a Storybook Day celebration when everyone is encouraged to dress up as their favorite character from children’s literature. It warms my heart when a child comes to school dressed as Frida Kahlo or the fictional Miss Viola Swamp.

We’ve found a way to bring Israel to the children (or the children to Israel, depending on your point of view) every year on Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Just last month, after flying El Al and getting our passports stamped and currency exchanged in Tel Aviv, we went shopping at the shuk in Jerusalem, ate snack in a Bedouin tent in Beersheva, went fishing in Eilat, collaged doors blue in Tzfat, and undertook an engineering challenge in Haifa. Next year, Jerusalem!

As I’ve been fortunate to say many times in this space over the past three years, our playground, gross motor play space, and classrooms have been able to acquire more high-quality toys, games, and equipment, thanks in whole part to this community’s generosity.

Finally, all our teachers have been able to participate in professional development by attending the Federation’s annual Jewish Early Childhood Education Conference along with hundreds of their colleagues from around the Beltway. We’ve also brought in presenters to learn more about STEAM, early literacy, room design, and serving children with special needs.

Looking ahead, I’m excited about bringing more Hebrew into our classrooms, offering more parent education sessions and family programming, digging deeper into the importance of social-emotional development and play-based learning, and continuing to improve and update our facility. It is no understatement to say that having age-appropriate bathrooms in the preschool wing will be a game-changer. It will greatly reduce the amount of time we spend walking the children to -- and physically supporting them once inside -- our adult-size bathrooms; better yet, it will increase the amount of time we can spend with the children engaged in more meaningful activities.

The next few years may also bring other kinds of changes to our program. As more and more families require full-time care for their children, we may have to re-evaluate what kinds of services we are able to provide, and when and where we can provide them.

We also need to re-think the ways in which we advertise and promote our program to better account for the transient nature of our community, and that’s where we’d ask for your help. Families, and members of the synagogue community, are our single best resource when it comes to advertising, and positive word-of-mouth is what often brings prospective families in for a tour. I often hear from families who have just moved into the area and are just beginning to look for a preschool: I was at the playground (or my older child’s school) and I asked around and everyone said we should check out Agudas Achim Preschool.

Please continue to spread the word about our program, and let families know that we do have openings next year. Interested families can call or email me with questions. Thank you for all you have done and will continue to do for our preschool in the years to come.


Friday, May 24, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- B'har

Originally published May 19, 2017

On Shabbat, the seventh day, we rest. We refrain from work, work often being understood as the act of creating something, or changing or altering something in a fundamental way. We refrain from creating in order to give our minds and our bodies an opportunity to rest, relax, and rejuvenate.  Let's not forget that even God needed a day of rest after creating the world.

Image result for overgrown garden
In this week's parshaB'har, we learn about shmitah. We learn that even the earth needs a rest. Millennia before scientific research confirmed the importance of crop rotation, ancient Israelites were giving their fields a rest from planting and harvesting every seven years. Their fields would lie fallow for an entire year during shmitah. This is both a simple act and a profound sacrifice, especially when you think about the practical implications in an early agrarian society. 

This is a beautiful idea to teach children, and one easily done by marking off a spot in the yard or garden and saying, "This part of the earth gets a rest this year. We won't plant anything; we won't pull any weeds. It can just do it's own thing. The earth works hard for us, and it deserves a break every now and then just like we do."

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- The Shabbes Queen


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Originally published May 12, 2017

In this week's parsha -- Emor -- God gives Moses the laws pertaining to our most important holidays: Rosh HaShanaYom KippurSukkot, Passover, Shavuot, and SHABBAT! In my opinion, the best thing about Shabbat is that it happens every week!

God tells us not to work on Shabbat, and the Temple service is described. But what you won't find in this parsha are commands to light candles or say kiddush over wine. Those are traditions that evolved later. 

Every now and then, my family stumbles across a custom that we love so much that we then incorporate it into our own traditional Shabbat dinner. One of those is the poem by Chayim Nachman Bialik called Shabbat Ha-Malkah, or The Shabbat Queen. Bialik lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is considered a pioneer of Hebrew poetry. Not only do I think this is a beautifully descriptive poem, but I appreciate the feminine language. In my family, I recite it as the only woman at the table. I hope you like it, too.

Shabbat Ha-Malkah
The sun on the treetops no longer is seen.
Come, let us welcome Shabbat, the true Queen.
Behold her descending, the holy, the blessed,
and with her God's angles of peace and of rest.
Come now, dear Queen, with us abide.
Come now, come now, Shabbat, our Bride.
Shalom aleikhem, angels of peace.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Kedoshim

Originally published April 27, 2018
Image result for standing on one foot hillel
A story is told of the Roman soldier who wanted to play a trick on some Jews. He first went to Shammai, one of the great sages of the time. He said, "I hear you're a good teacher. Can you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot?" 

Shammai became angry. He said it would be an impossible task; there are just too many laws to learn. Knowing this was a joke, he turned the soldier away and told him never to return.

The soldier next went to Hillel, another great sage. The Roman soldier asked the same question, "Can you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot?"


Hillel answered: "Yes. What is hurtful to you, don't do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. No go and learn."

The soldier was so taken with Hillel's answer that he went and learned, and eventually converted to Judaism. 

Hillel's answer stems from what is probably the most relevant teaching in this week's parsha: Love your neighbor as yourself. Beautifully simple, beautifully complex, it's the perfect place to start when beginning to teach children right from wrong.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Acharei Mot

The bimah and Aron HaKodesh at the historic
6th&I synagogue in Washington, DC.

This week's parsha, Acharei Mot, describes a lot of things Jews shouldn't do, such as going into the Holy of Holies, the most sacred inner room within the Temple,    . . . unless it's Yom Kippur, you're the High Priest, and you've undergone all the necessary physical and spiritual preparations. Because the Temple no longer exists, this prohibition is really just a reminder of a long-ago time and place.

The closest we have to the Holy of Holies in a modern synagogue is the Holy Ark (Aron HaKodesh), where the Torah scrolls are kept. The Ark is usually the central focal point of any sanctuary, whether it's in the front of the room or the center. It's often decorative and can be very elaborate with all sorts of thematic motifs woven into the design. Click here to read about all the symbols located within and around Agudas Achim's Ark.

The Torah scrolls are placed on a shelf inside the Ark behind both a set of doors and a curtain. It is an honor to be called up to the bimah (the best translation is probably "stage") to open the doors and/or curtains before certain prayers are said. The congregation stands when the Ark is opened and waits until the curtain is closed before sitting. Certain prayers also call for bowing in front of the open Ark. 

Finally, on Yom Kippur, the rabbi and chazzan prostrate themselves before the Ark at one powerful point in the service. This custom is just a echo of what the High Priest would have done thousands of years ago at the Temple in Jerusalem, but it connects us to our ancestors and our history nonetheless.


Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Hunt for Chametz


B'dikat chametz is a Passover tradition perfectly designed for young children. The night before Passover, after the whole house has been emptied of leavened food, parents hide 10 pieces of leaven, or chametz, for their children to find. Guided by the light of a candle, the children use a feather to sweep the chametz onto a wooden spoon and then deposit the chametz into a paper bag. It takes a lot of dexterity and patience, but it's also a lot of fun. The chametz is then burned the next morning.
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It's important to hide the chametz strategically and carefully so that you don't miss any pieces! Cheerios are perfect for this activity. For more information about the custom, including the blessings, click here, and for an interesting article about the origin and philosophy behind the custom, click here. You can purchase b'dikat chametz kits or create your own. However you plan on celebrating the holiday, have a joyous Passover!

Friday, April 5, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Mikvah

I find this week's parsha, Tazria, the most challenging one to write about year after year. It focuses primarily on the laws of ritual purity and impurity as well as the mysterious biblical disease tzaraat, which has been incorrectly associated with leprosy.

The most relatable part of the parsha for me is the part that talks about mikvah. Mikvah means "gathering of waters," and a mikvah is any naturally occurring flowing body of water. But since immersing in a mikvah is commanded for certain situations (such as conversion to Judaism), it was important to bring the mikvah indoors. Immersing in an ocean or a river isn't always convenient or safe.
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I serve as a mikvah guide at the Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Washington, DC. It's the only one of its kind between Baltimore and Richmond. It serves the whole community and encourages immersion to mark all kinds of transitions, including ones the Ancient Israelites never could have imagined. Milestone birthdays, overcoming personal loss, coming out, fertility journeys, and becoming a bar or bat mitzvah are all transitions honored at our mikvah.

To learn more about the ritual of immersion, check out this short video.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Shabbat Around the Table -- Shemini and Kashrut

In this week's parsha, Shemini, the people receive the laws of kashrut. What is outlined in the Torah is fairly simple; what's evolved out of those simple rules over the past two millennia is a little more complex. There are now hundreds (if not thousands) or rules for food preparation and food consumption (though none require "blessed by the rabbi," a common misconception). But I have found that the laws of kashrut can actually be summed up quite succinctly.

1) There are animals we don't eat.
2) The animals we do eat must be slaughtered in a way that causes them the least amount of pain and suffering and demonstrates our respect and gratitude for their sacrifice.
3) We do not mix meat (the food of death) with milk (the food of life).

I know it's not always easy (or convenient) to find kosher treats to send to school for birthday celebrations. Therefore I'm happy to announce that there's a new kosher bakery in town! Pastries by Randolph in Arlington is a kosher bakery with all kinds of delicious cakes, cookies, and pastries, some of which can be made to order. Please consider giving them a call the next time you're looking for something special. They were one of our sponsors for the B'nai Mitzvah celebration (they provided the rye bread and macaroons).

B'tayavon! (Good eating!)

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Widely used kosher symbols, or heckshers.
If you find these symbols on the package, the food is kosher!


Friday, March 15, 2019

Purim's Big Idea

Originally published March 10, 2017

The celebration of Purim seems to have been designed with young children in mind: cookies, costumes, parades, carnivals, goody bags, songs, and silliness. Yet, the story of Purim itself is decidedly child un-friendly. We read about gluttony, greed, misogyny, xenophobia, and attempted genocide. And don't forget the execution at the end. So what should we focus on when teaching this story to our children?

Image result for purimI used to ask my fourth and fifth graders to identify the 'big idea' in a story, and I used to think the 'big idea' in Megillat Esther is that one person really can make a difference. But this year I see a new 'big idea.'
King Achashverosh was willing to follow the suggestion of his evil adviser Haman and kill all the Jews in Persia, until he learned that his beloved wife was Jewish.  In that moment, the Jews in his kingdom became less amorphous; they became real people. At least one Jew in his kingdom had a face, a mind, a personality. If Esther, a Jew, was a real person, then all the other nameless, faceless Jews must be real people, too, none of whom deserved to die because ONE Jew had refused to bow down to Haman.

In today's world, where increasingly it seems as if different groups, for different reasons, are trying to identify an 'us' and a 'them,' and to pit 'us' against 'them,' I think it's important to remember who 'them' are. They are all Esthers.




Friday, March 8, 2019

Good Deeds Day in Our Area

Originally published on March 9, 2018


Good deeds dayIn this week's parshaPekudei, the Israelites are commanded to build the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary. They donate such quantities of precious metals, precious stones, fabrics, animal skins, wood, herbs, and oils that Moses has to tell them to "stop doing work for the offering of the Holy." The people are described as "wise hearted" and "generous hearted." They are people whose "hearts uplifted and inspired" them. Such was their desire to contribute to the building of a sacred space that they gave more than what was strictly needed.



What a good problem to have. And what a valuable lesson to impart. We can give for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes we give because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Whether we're donating resources or our time, giving provides us with the opportunity to build stronger connections with our community. Working together to do good brings us together in more ways the one.

Click here to learn more about Good Deeds Day, a day dedicated to giving and participating across the world, and how you and your family can give to your community. Agudas Achim Congregation will be participating; stay tuned for more information!

Friday, March 1, 2019

Remarks Given at Preschool's B'nai Mitzvah Celebration


Welcome to Agudas Achim Preschool’s thirteenth anniversary celebration! Some of you are here because your children attend our preschool, or they did a few years ago. Many of you are here simply because you believe in our mission and support us.



Some of you are here because you heard we were serving deli, or because you thought the idea of a mitzvah DJ party without all the teenagers sounded like a brilliant idea. Whatever your reason, thank you for being here tonight.

So, what’s it mean that Agudas Achim Preschool is entering its adolescent phase?

Most people probably don’t remember their teen years fondly. In so many ways, it really was the toughest, most confusing time in our lives. It was a time that came with so many changes, so many doubts. But what we might have forgotten is that it was also a time that came with so many possibilities.

Our adolescence was the first time in our lives when we realized what we were capable of. When we discovered our passions. When we realized that the path ahead was full of limitless opportunities. When we first began to figure out just who and what we wanted to be when we grew up.

So, for the preschool, our adolescence will mean finding new ways to grow and learn as a community. We’ll find new ways to challenge ourselves, all the while striving to be the best preschool we can be, to serve the children in our synagogue community and the children in our neighborhood the best way we know how: with joy and laughter, patience and gratitude, passion and creativity, and with the knowledge that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It is our purpose and our privilege to respect and nuture the divine spark in each and every child who walks through our doors every single day.

There are scores of people to thank for the past thirteen years. I’m going to forget someone, and for that I apologize.

First, Elliot Stein, of blessed memory: Your early financial commitment to the preschool was a testament to your belief, a belief based on your life experience, that it is our responsibility as a community to nurture and educate the next generation of Jewish children as well as build strong and lasting relationships with our neighbors.

Jack Moline, Bob Myers, David Sattler, of blessed memory, and so many other truly dedicated moms and dads: This, all of this, was your idea. Thank you.

Barbara Fiedler: You stepped up, more than once, when the preschool needed a steady hand. The preschool simply could not have survived without you.

Mirza Lopez: You never once wavered in your commitment to the preschool and you always, always made it a priority in our community.

Bob, Beth Robbins, Neal Kramer, and others: I’m not sure whose idea the playground was, but I do know it could not have been built without your vision, dedication, and hard work.

To all the directors who preceded me, Galeet Westreich, Barbara, Sue Finger, Sue Keitelman, and Debbie Howard: Your commitment to early childhood education and to this job in particular is evident in ways that cannot be measured.

On a personal note, to the professional staff I’ve had the privilege of working with, Steven Rein, Elisheva Dienstfrey, Chaya Silver, Miri Bernovsky, and Barry Nove: Your counsel, your understanding, and your friendship has sustained me in more ways than you know.

To the synagogue staff who regularly put in more hours every week that most everyone realizes, Jack and Diana and Cheryl in the kitchen, Kat and Erica and Marya in the office, Elmer and Pat and KB everywhere else in the building: In ways large and small, you make it so we can open every single day.

To every member of the congregation, preschool VP and board president and board member: Thank you for believing in our mission and for supporting us in our endeavors.

To every preschool parent volunteer: The countless hours you have dedicated to this preschool are evident in every classroom and in the faces of every child.

To anyone who has ever donated any money to the preschool ever: Thank you. Just thank you.

To every teacher: The best teachers make the best schools. We wouldn’t be where we are today without each of you and the love you bring to your job.

To all of our families: Thank you for sharing your most precious gifts with us each and every day. We are humbled by the trust you place in us.
And to all of the preschool’s children: This is all for you.

Finally, there are scores of people to thank for this evening as well.

To my friends at Gesher, the only Jewish day school in Northern Virginia: I can’t thank you enough for being here. I’m looking forward to celebrating with you at your 36th anniversary celebration in just a few weeks.

To all of our event sponsors, Pastries by Randolph, Everything Entertainment, and Clay-smile Entertainment: We so appreciate your support and generosity, and your connection to our community.

To the dozens and dozens of raffle donors: Your generosity has been overwhelming. Please note that every single raffle item in our truly amazing raffle has been donated. I know I’m excited for the drawings at 9 pm because I can’t wait to see who wins!

Finally, there are no words to express my deepest thanks to Stefanie Byrne, parent volunteer and event planner extraordinaire. No one but your husband Paul and I will ever truly know the hours you put into this event, as well as the hours you put into the Fall Festival back in November. To say you’ve gone above and beyond is a bit of an understatement. Please join me in giving Stefanie a round of applause, since she won’t let me honor her any other way. And, help me in wishing Stefanie and Paul a Happy 11th Anniversary, which is today!

One last thing: as with any milestone celebration, it’s appropriate to express gratitude for the milestone itself. There’s a Jewish blessing that means, “Thank you, God, who has granted us life, who has sustained us, and who has enabled us to reach this moment in time.” Please join me if you can: Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.

Thank you!































Grasshoppers to Giants

From June 2017 In a few weeks, we'll read about Moses sending twelve spies into the land of Israel to do a reconnaissance mission. Th...