Monday, July 28, 2008

Holy War: Alive and Strong

Maven of Parshat Matot for BBYO Project NYC on Saturday, July 26th

By Deanna Neil

Storah On The Road

Do you know anyone who has ever served in the military? This is what Avi Fox-Rosen and I asked of 70 high school students from around the country, who were participating in our Maven show at HUC in New York this past Saturday for BBYO’s Project NYC. In answer to our question, about 55 of the 70 kids came up for an aliyah. So, yes, many knew someone who had served in the military either in the U.S. or abroad. Given that the U.S. and Israel are currently engaged in seemingly unending conflicts, this should not have been a surprise. And yet, it still was.

We raised this question because Saturday was Parshat Matot. War, revenge, and religious solidarity are prevalent in Parshat Matot, when the Israelites go to war against the Midianites. The war was prompted by the worshipping of false idols and consorting with Midiante women. The result was a holy war done to exact "God's revenge" and "God's jealousy." The Israelites slaughter all of the Midanite men and their 5 kings, and take in the women and children to be absorbed into Israelite culture. Cities were burned and plundered. It was a dark day for humanity but a bright day for God and the Israelites. Reconciling these two truths is and was difficult.

The kids also had a difficult time reconciling a Jewish military success against the idea of a Jewish holy war. I watched their faces strain. Just moments before they had said a prayer: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
 neither shall they learn war any more." And then we introduced them to the violent biblical hero Pinchas, who blew the trumpets as the 12,000 Israelites attacked Midian. It was dissonant to them. It was also difficult for them to reconcile the idea of a Jewish holy war. To them, holy wars were only supposed to come from terrorists.

Though we read an ancient text, Holy war seems to be alive and strong and thoroughly ingrained in the minds of American teens. Although it is painful to me to read articles like this one, I found by Rev. Jerry Falwell—who uses these biblical examples to prove that God is "Pro-War" or that George Bush believes God told him to end the "tyranny" in Iraq --in some ways holy war makes sense to me. Much of human morality is derived from an idea of God. If moralities conflict, meaning people understand the purpose for existence on earth in different ways, that is a logical cause for war. I don't endorse it, but one can understand why zealotry exists. (But let's not blame only religion for war—one of the most oppressive and zealous regimes came under the name of atheism: Russia under Stalin.)

But the biggest issue is whether or not the idea of "God" is covering up a greater political scheme. Like attacking Iraq for its oil or annihilating Native American populations for their land or blowing up the World Trade Centers because you crave political power. Whether Matot falls into this category or not remains unclear. This was the start of the Israelite entrance into the "promised land." The Midianite women weren't killed, but were rather taken in by the Israelites. Wealth, livestock were taken. So the question remains, are these "holy wars" about resources or about God? In the face of Moses' marriage to a Midianite women, the "foreigners" were destroyed. If we eliminated "God" from the equation entirely, would it just look like a bald political move and a power struggle? Genocide?

In the face of the destruction against Midian, for our final aliyah we called up those who were looking to end the cycles of vengeance and violence. A war of revenge and tit for tat is particularly apt given Israel's current relationship to its Palestinian neighbors, and the Palestinian neighbors back to Israel. Not to mention the actions the United States has against Iraq and Afghanistan post 9-11. Is it retribution or revenge? While a lot of kids came up to break the cycles of violence, it wasn't as many as those who came up because they knew someone in the military. Given our violent history, we have our work cut out for us in how to teach these ancient stories to our future generations. While I do believe that some of the kids walked away with a greater understanding of the Jewish place in holy war and a sense of some of its heroes, I am personally happy to close this chapter.

July 24 - A new day for Storahtelling.

By Naomi Less

Storah On The Road

Today 15 educators, including classroom teachers, assistant and associate rabbis, tutors, both veteran and new, representing three different Reform synagogues on the east side of Manhattan joined together with their colleagues to share in learning and skill-building with Storahtelling's Director of Education and Training, Naomi Less. Today was part one of a three-part intensive training seminar, built off of the StorahLAB educational training model.

Central Synagogue's Education Director, Yonni Wattenmaker, invited participation from Temple Shaarey Tefila and Temple Emanuel to join in the first of three intensives. Storahtelling aims to equip these institutions to utilize Storahtelling's Cool Tool for School.

This training marks the third group of educators that are interested in building local cohorts to learn together with Storahtelling tools and staffing support. Metrowest JCC's Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, led by Bob Lichtman and Suzi Wainer sent a group of 5 educators from NJ to the StorahLAB Training Institute this past week, as did the Boston BJE with four educators from the Boston area.

Storahtelling's philosophy in our training programs is to embody the Talmudic concept of teaching others how to "fish" - equipping communities with the skills to bring the ancient art of translation and interpretation to synagogue schools and Jewish life in general.

Pictured, Naomi Less, Director of Education and Training leads the NY group through the Cool Tool for School curriculum first lesson, "Listen Up" - which enables participants to decode and translate the Shma for themselves.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Storahtelling Summer Institute at Brandeis University

By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Storah On The Road

Dear Storah Friend,

I am thrilled and proud to share with you a few highlights from last week’s Storahtelling’s Summer Institute on Brandeis University Campus in Boston.

Please also scroll down for Peter Pitzele’s reflections on the training – we were lucky to have him present to us and be with us over the weekend.

Summer Institute 2008 - Highlights

After years of planning, we launched a two track training institute on July 14th 2008 – one track for Jewish Educators within the Hebrew School system, and the second track for Mavens who will use the Storahtelling skills either as our NY company members or as independent mavens in their home communities. This was the third summer we’ve had the StorahLab educators training and the first year we had a public Maven training. The overall feedback is very positive and the success of both tracks is a big thumbs up towards our focus on training change agents in the wider community.

Participants: We had 18 educators as part of StorahLab, and 16 Maven trainees. In both groups we had great diversity – ages spanning 20’s- 60’s, good gender mix, representatives of all denominations including Modern Orthodox and Chabad (!), a professor of Biblical Studies, several school principals, a very talented cadre of actors and musicians, and a sizable group of Gay and Lesbian trainees. Spotted among the trainees were quite a few interesting tattoos in Hebrew, each with a fascinating story.. I tell you – it’s a new generation…

People came from 11 states and three countries - Oregon, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas, Missouri and Florida – as well as England and Canada.

Faculty Our faculty and team, headed by Naomi Less, our director of Training and Education, were fantastic. Sarah Sokolic led the StorahLab Educators Training accompanied by Rosana Berdichevsky of Portland, Oregon – a former Storahtelling trainee and Hebrew School teacher, now stepping up as faculty member, demonstrating ‘hands on’ translation of our curriculum in action. Jake Goodman and I led the Maven training, supported by Storah Mavens Shoshana Jedwab and Deanna Neil.

Peter Pitzele led all tracks in bibliodrama training over the weekend, and as always, provided mentorship and feedback to all of us.

A great logistics team - both in the office in NY and on site on campus made sure all complex details for a two track institute with over 40 participants and staff members ran smoothly – no small achievement! A big BRAVA goes out to Sam Hirsch – logistics and operations diva, AKA ‘smooth operator’.

Big Picture - 18 Jewish Educators are out there now, fully trained and motivated, joining the 45 schools already using our Cool Tool for School in classrooms all over the country. 16 new mavens – 9 of them joining us here in NYC and others are starting Maven teams in London, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Riverdale. We’ve got some amazing new talented people on board!

Our ‘COOL TOOL FOR SCHOOL’ - the curriculum for the educators, now in its fourth edition with six lesson plans is stellar and keeps proving itself as a very useful tool for a wide variety of students of all ages.

The Maven Training Curriculum with a total of 12 steps and a comprehensive template structure also proved itself quite successful and will probably go though some more edits and fixing before next usages. The bottom line – IT WORKS!

Thus, the big picture is a rosy one. The two track institute works, the trainees' evaluation forms are very encouraging and our work, impact and reach in the world is expanding organically and with vigor.

Stay tuned for more specifics, pictures and reports, and please see Peter’s notes below.


From Peter Pitzele:

To fellow Storah-board members: July 20, 2008

In a word: Wow!

I am writing you on my return from Brandeis University in Boston where I have spent the last three days involved in and observing the 2008 Storahtelling Summer Institute.

I was here last year when Amichai piloted an in-house version of the Maven training and was plotting the bigger dream of a summer institute with two tracks –for Mavens and Educators. This week it happened – the third StorahLab training for Jewish educators had about 20 passionate participants from all over the country, and the first formal Maven training program had 16 amazing new mavens in the making from as far as London, UK and Cleveland, Ohio. In the course of this past year, Amichai and the Storah Team – especially Naomi and Jake - have created '12/24: a twelve-step Maven training manual' - a progression of 12 exercises that takes twenty four hours to implement, and that brings the participant to the point where he or she can demonstrate a level of competency over the essentials of the Maven skill-set. Think Actor's Studio meets Yeshiva.

I was present for those demonstrations and I can say that the level of performance wedded to a mastery of the demands of translation, the quality of collaboration, and the flood of theatrical inventiveness informing the Torah service was nothing short of astonishing. It was way beyond my expectations and I believe beyond Amichai's as well.

What is additionally significant and heartening to me is the fact that Amichai arrived on Monday from Israel and began teaching almost as soon as his feet hit the ground. He was able in effect to move, even in a jet-lagged state, into the 12/24 program as master-trainer. The delegation of responsibility---challenge offered and accepted--- was one of the biggest success stories of the week. From an organizational standpoint it appeared the week brought about a new sense of empowerment, excitement, and mutual respect among a senior staff. Amichai leaves for Israel in a few months and I believe he leaves behind a program that has proven itself, a staff that has gained a new level of confidence, and an infusion of new talent---the Maven artist-ambassadors---who will take this work to their home communities. Some of these Mavens may return next year to be staff and associates, and some will, I predict, become master teachers themselves.

This is good news indeed. The prototype is on line. Here comes a brilliant piece of the next ten years.

Peter Pitzele Ph.D.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Becoming Israel in LA, California

By Jonathan Riddleberger

Storah On The Road

The sun in LA was beautiful for our 30 hour stint in the City of Angels. A fitting nickname seeing as we were there to perform, Becoming Israel, Storahtelling's examination of the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious Angel. We were hired by Hadassah to perform the show for their 94th annual convention taking place this year at the Westin Bonaventure in LA. We arrived at the hotel and were welcomed by fountains shooting water arches over walkways, free lemonade, and beds that I swear were made of clouds. The night was spent seeing old friends. We had close interactions with the homeless of LA and wiled the night away watching two uplifting hours of Intervention.

The morning snuck up on us and we were rudely awakened by alarm clocks and wake up calls. Reluctantly we left our clouds and headed down to our theater, essentially three conference rooms set up with a stage at one end. After a smooth set up and a run through we were ready.

The shows went extremely well. I know for me the presence of an audience added an enormous amount of energy to the stories I was hired to tell. Yet this wasn't just any normal audience. This was an audience, as we found out at the talkbacks, full of Leahs and Rachels, and women who are all interested in the connection that exists between Jewish people around the world. As the gentile of the group it is really important and moving to watch how this material really connects with the Jewish community. Not being Jewish, I've had to do what an actor does for any part, find what parts of this character and his journey I can relate to and uncover how I can connect to that. However, for this audience it seemed that the story unto itself spoke worlds to them, and there seemed to be genuine excitement to see what different ages, communities, and types of people could find meaningful in this play.

And so we left the sunshine of LA and the women of Hadassah to continue their convention with the hope that our play might make its way into their conversations over the next couple of days.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Crossing Jordan

By Amichai Lau-Lavie
Storah on the Road

6am today, Thursday morning, and only a few steps away from the hotel room in the Upper Galilee is the Jordan River, quietly winding its way through lush grasses and trees. My brother, Rabbi Benny Lau (read about his revolutionary politics in this week's Jewish Week:) takes a group of about 50 people across the river for an early morning walk and a teaching on donkeys - in honor of this week's Torah portion, featuring Balaam's famous talking donkey. We are at Kfar Blum - a kibbutz guest house hosting the annual conference on Jewish Israeli culture, attended by a few hundreds people - mostly religious - modern orthodox, and a few secular Kibbutznicks. Yesterday afternoon Ii was on a panel discussing the dialogue between Israel and the Diaspora and trying to pinpoint the enormous problems of Jewish illiteracy and lack of engagement that are troubling Jewish leaders worldwide. As an Israeli working largely in the US, I was representing the voice of the frustrated Israelis who are seeking their Jewish voice, pluralistic opportunities and creative outlets - outside 'home'. I am reminded of the terrible night, eleven years ago, on the eve of the Tisha B'av fast, when I was forcibly removed from the Western Wall by police for having participated in an egalitarian prayer service – women and men together. That night was one of the reasons I decided to go abroad and explore Judaism elsewhere. The good news – shared by some of t he panelists who are involved in innovative work here, dealing with learning, ritual and inclusive Jewish education – is that the scene is changing, and the Orthodox Monopoly on Jewihs life is being seriously challenged. The panel got heated, was interesting and led into conversations that lasted into the night. Many people were fascinated to hear about the Storahtelling concept and eager to see it 'translated' into the local scene. I was delighted to let them know that it's HOT AND HAPPENING!

Earlier this week, in Jerusalem's Kol HaNeshama Congregation (one of Israel's leading Reform communities) I kicked off the Israel Maven Training Program! This was an introductory evening for a year long training that will start in the fall, intending to equip select trainees with the Storahtelling skill set. 15 people showed up, ranging in ages from 20's to 60's, mostly native Israelis, and others who have moved here from the US, UK, Brazil and New Zealand. Some of them hope to take the Storahtelling Maven skills to their congregations - Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist - and even Orthodox. Others are interested in developing other venues - street theater (!) Birthright groups on location in Israel, nursing homes, and high schools. It's very different to do Storahtelling from Biblical Hebrew into Israeli Hebrew - much more of an interpretation -midrash than an actual translation. For all present at the open evening (including several rabbis, actors adn educators) the process was the highlight - leading to what will certainly become an exciting product, hopefully helping to provide real access to Jewish content for the largely secular, and seeking, Israeli society. I'm thrilled to bringing this back home.

Stay tuned for more - next week in Boston!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A note from Amichai


By Amichai Lau-Lavie

Dear Storah Friend,

Today, July 1, 2008, Storahtelling is thrilled to start off a new fiscal year – celebrating nine years of success and getting ready for our second decade of transformative Jewish programming.

Our growth and impact in recent years has as much to do with our important and timely mission of promoting accessible Judaic literacy and social awareness as it does with the support and encouragement of friends like you. THANK YOU for the continued faith and investment in the future of Storahtelling.

As “STORAHTEN” kicks in I’d like to share with you three important news bulletins:

Click here for our Year End Report – full of highlights, achievements, good news and reports from the front lines of the Jewish world.

From September 2008 through June 2009 I will be taking a Sabbatical! I am honored to have been accepted by the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem for their newly redesigned year-long Mandel Fellows in Jewish Education Program. During my fellowship I am looking forward to focusing on lessons learned from the experience of the Storahtelling start-up phase, and future broadcast of the Storahtelling technique and methodology to even wider audiences worldwide. One of my key goals is the completion of the Storahtelling book – the literary, political, cultural, and liturgical history of the Torah Service and its accompanying oral translation mode. I am excited about the prospects of thinking big, outside the realm of my daily responsibilities, enabling me to plan ahead with wise mentorship and support. I will be back periodically, though – starting off with leading the High Holidays Services with Storahtelling and Tribeba Hebrew this coming fall.

Read more about the Mandel Program here.

I am able to leave Storahtelling for the year with the knowledge that fantastic people are on board taking care of business. Sarah Sokolic, in her role as Associate Executive Director, is stepping up to a full time position and will continue her admirable leadership of the company. I am thrilled to announce that two new staff members are joining us this coming month: Maggie Richter, our new Director of Development, and Tehilah Eisenstadt, Program Director for Raising the Bar – our B’nai Mitzvah program. The rest of our team stays on – Naomi Less, Jake Goodman, Franny Silverman, Mabel Bermejo and Daliya Karnovsky - aided by our great interns Jonathan Tarlin, Sam Hirsch, and Taylor Ross - all are doing an amazing job, supported by the generous and tireless work of our Board of Directors, supporters and investors.

I look forward to celebrating with you during Storahtelling’s tenth year, and beyond – stay tuned for details about our forthcoming programs.

Wishing you a great summer,