Friday, August 31, 2012

Temporarily Embarrassed

The purpose of this blog is to provide something inspiring for Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

 Here's a trick pair of questions for your Shabbat table:

1. How would you like to become the greatest philanthropist of all time?
2. What does it take?

It's a trick question because many people will answer, let me win the mega-jackpot and then I'll become the greatest philanthropist of all time.

But it don't work like that, kee-mo-sabee.

Two weeks ago the world lost such a man.

And you probably never heard of him.

Not that he gave anonymously, only that he focused on the success of the project, not wanting an ounce of the spotlight for himself. He never put his name on a building or project.

So what did it take for him to become the greatest philanthropist?

The following story perhaps gives us a clue:

Once upon a time, several years ago, a young Jewish businessman asked the philanthropist if he would be willing to meet with a group of young professionals to advise them on "how to get involved in helping the community".

"I don't believe there is such a group," he retorted.

"No, there really is," said the young man.

"I don't believe it, but if you insist, have them come here tomorrow morning."

"Umm...they have all just begun new jobs, would it be OK if we make it in one week?"


A week later, they show up and Mr. Philanthropist tells them, "When I was asked to meet with a group of young men who want to become activists for the Jewish community, I didn't believe that there were such men. And now that you're all here, I still don't believe it. Do you know what it means to be an activist? I'll tell you what it means. When I was your age, I bought a train ticket to Washington. I knocked on the door of every single senator. I had the door slammed in my face dozens of times. Finally, one was willing to talk to me.

"I didn't wait for someone to help me become an activist. I didn't wait for someone to tell me what to do. I went out and did it. If you're serious, you don't need me or my advice."

The philanthropist's name was Zev Wolfson.

He was Israel's biggest advocate before there was AIPAC. Through tireless effort, he had the ear of senators and congressmen, members of Kenesset and many others.

One of many anecdotes told:

During the first Gulf War, Wolfson invited Senator Inouye out on his boat, which he used almost exclusively for entertaining politicians or officials he felt it important to impress. He asked Senator Inouye if there was not anything in the American arsenal to protect Israel from the Iraqi Scud missiles. The senator told him about the Patriot missile batteries. If so, Wolfson asked, why hadn’t the United States supplied Israel with the Patriots? 

Senator Inouye replied that Israel must not have sought them. Zev immediately got on the yacht’s phone and called then-defense minister Yitzchak Rabin to relay the message. The next day’s New York Times headline read, “US to supply Patriots to Israel.” The last paragraph explained that the decision had been taken after a meeting between “US officials and Jewish leaders.” 
He wielded similar influence in the power centers of Israel and even France. Senator Trent Lott was of the opinion that Wolfson's success at lobbying came from his pure, selfless passion, never seeking anything for himself. While he did help politicians raise funds, he was not a mega-donor to their campaigns. He did phone them up late at night and early in the morning. He shunned honor and chased results.

He built or persuaded others to build Jewish schools all over the world, including North and South America, Israel, France and the FSU.

Yet he despite his yacht and prime real estate in lower Manhattan, he personally lived simply, with a "child-friendly" home for his many children and grandchildren, some of whom learned from friends that their own family was wealthy.

Think of the walk-of-shame past the first class seats boarding an airplane, which the average person endures because we know that one day we'll surely be able to fly first class too. "The poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires" (Steinbeck). Wolfson flew economy because First Class was an unnecessary luxury to him. His wealth was for public service, not for indulgence.

I haven't told you the half of the amazing things Zev Wolfson accomplished for the Jewish People and the world. Yet he always said, "There's nothing special about me. If I could do it, so could you." Something to contemplate approaching Rosh Hashana?

May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

Friday, August 24, 2012

Greatest Teacher

The purpose of this blog is to provide something cool for a heated Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

This week, a question for kids, and a question for adults for the Shabbat table.

The kids' question of the week: What makes a great teacher? How can you tell that someone's a great teacher?

The adults' question: How can parents help their kids' teachers become better?

One way would be to share with them the most important book on teaching that most teachers never read:

The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong.

The greatness of the book is its understanding how setting the right tone on the very first day of school makes all the difference in classroom management. Do your kids/grandkids/nieces/nephews/neighbors a favor and get a copy to each of their teachers.

Another tool that few teachers are aware of but should be is this remarkable new approach to classroom management. You have to see it to get it:

Chris Biffle, the creator:

Middle school science teacher implementing:

HS math teacher using technique:

4th grade reading

1st-grade teacher who is using the technique (modified) to teach math:
(Does the method make her a better teacher?)

And Kindergarten:

Did you know: The Jewish People invented the concept of compulsory public-supported education nearly 2,000 years ago? It had been the responsibility of every parent to teach their own children, but the rabbis observed that orphans were not being educated, so they instituted a new rule - everyone will use and support a new public school system, so that no child will be left behind. Along with this history, the Talmud gives a few rules for how to run a school, including the necessity of evaluating a teacher's effectiveness and making whatever changes needed in order for the children to learn.

Shabbat Shalom

PS - has school supplies and gifts for teachers.

The iPhone app:
Android version:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Wedding or Funeral?

In memory of Gerda Haas, who was laid to rest this week at the age of 98. See below.
The purpose of this email is to provide something meaningful for Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

Wedding or Funeral?

Here's the question of the week for your Shabbat table:

If all factors were equal, would you choose to attend a wedding or a funeral?

For instance, say you had a friend getting married and another friend sitting shiva. Keep the factors equal - they both equally would want you to attend, they both equally would understand if you did not attend, etc. etc.

In other words, the question is what you would prefer to do for you.

King Solomon asked this question some 2,900 years ago.

His answer?

"It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting."

Second question for your table: What was he thinking?

(For a clue, see the source of the quotation, Ecclesiastes 7:2 - I only quoted the first half of the sentence.)

Mrs. Gerda Haas, to whom this week's message is dedicated, made it out of Germany with her husband and infant son just in time to save their lives. Most of their extended family perished, but they survived, via Marseilles, Shanghai and San Francisco.

In her memory, here are two anecdotes to show you the strength of her character.

In her 80s she had the opportunity to visit Jerusalem and of course spent some time at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I saw her that evening and she only had one thing on her mind.

On a bus with other tourists, she overheard a German man behind her say, "Ach. I don't know why they have such a thing. We lost a lot of people in the war too."

She turned around and told him off in impeccable German that his people murdered her entire family because they were Jews and how dare he speak that way. She wasn't shocked that someone should think such a thing, but said it took incredible chuzpa for him to say it aloud.

Another time she had surgery that required a local anesthetic to her leg but she chose to have a general anesthetic as well, but not a deep one.

Evidently the buzzing of the surgeon's saw woke her up and seeing what was going on she exclaimed in her German accent, "Doctor? You call yourself a doctor? You are no doctor! You're a carpenter!"

I cannot do this great life justice - she touched many, many people her her 98 years.

She is survived by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and many friends of all ages whom she inspired. May her memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom has last-minute school supplies and gifts for teachers. The iPhone app:
Android version:

Friday, August 10, 2012

Don't Think Too Much

The purpose of this email is to provide something deep for Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

"Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so." - Bertrand Russell

As you may know, I put that great Russell witticism in Chapter 3 of The Art of Amazement, along with a parallel quote from Thomas Jefferson.

Today's first question for your table is a simple one: Why do we hate thinking?

Here is a short provocative article on the nature of "nothingness" that may get you thinking....or not.

Question #2 - What is fundamentally missing from this article?

(I have tried to write a comment but keep getting a "technical error" - so if you'd like to hear my own critique, send an email.)

Shabbat Shalom

The iPhone app:
Android version:

Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at (a service of JSL).

Friday, August 03, 2012

All You Need Is Love

The purpose of this email is to provide something warm and fuzzy for dinner table conversation. Please print and share.

Here we are. Deep summer.

All that we NHs (Northern Hemispherites) want to do is relax for a few minutes.

Keep your feet up. I'm not going to spoil the moment.

But I'm going to make a radical proposal, first heard in this space a year ago.

It begins with a story.

At my first summer job as a young adult there was a guy who invited everyone in the office to his "Xmas in July" party.

What made it Xmas-y was that everyone brought a present to give to a random person.

So instead of a bunch of people drinking beer together on a summer afternoon, it was a bunch of people drinking beer and exchanging presents on a summer afternoon.

As I grew older and wiser (after all, I did learn to drink wine instead of beer!) I have learned an ancient piece of Jewish wisdom that for some reason has little cachet, even in the most traditional Jewish families and communities.

It's called "Tu B'Av".

No, not Tu Bishvat.

No, not Tisha B'Av.

Tu B'Av.

"Tu" is the number 15. Av is the month of Av, which corresponds to the constellation Leo, the lion.

Today is the full moon of the lion.

Tu is spelled "tet-vav" which are the first two letters of "tov" (good).

Question for your table? What is needed to turn "tu" into "tov"?

A: The letter "bet", which is...

- the number two, i.e., a relationship
- a house or home (bayit), i.e., harmony

I'm not inventing this. In ancient times, Tu B'Av was celebrated as a day of friendship and love, "the most joyous" holiday (Mishna Ta'anit 4:8).

What happened to it?

Well, you know, destruction, exile, a few holocausts....

But is it time we brought it back? (Some communities have begun, e.g., here.)

You know how many people try to make amends with family, friends and adversaries before Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur?

Why wait until then? The most auspicious time to heal our relationships and this troubled world is today.

Here is my 3-part challenge for you -today....

1. Try to make-nice this Tu B'Av with everyone you know. Hug as needed.

2. Choose a Jewish single over 30 who hasn't yet found Mr. or Mrs. Right and make a commitment to help him or her get married in the next 12 months. Commit to making this goal a priority in your life.

3. Share to this blog with 15 ("TU") people. Let's start a viral campaign to renew Tu B'Av as a day of friendship and love and get a head start on the High Holidays.

"May you be inscribed and sealed for love."

Shabbat Shalom

PS - Version 2.5 of my iphone app came out this week. It fixes a bug that was causing crashes for Swedish and Brazilian users and broken links that affected everyone. What better way to show someone you care than sending them the amazing Jewish app? (Android version:

PPS - Our kids' books site has great school supplies! Browse from the comfort of your home and support JSL while you shop.