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I spent each of the last two evenings at a  shiva minyan .  The first was sad - a beloved mother and grandmother.  The second, the tragic loss of a young man - a son, grandson, brother, husband and father.

We prayed. And then, people told stories - loving stories, funny stories, healing stories.  I was in a home filled with shattered hearts.  The words of the story-tellers did not mend those broken hearts.  But they surely helped.  Their words were filled with intention, with care, with comfort.  They felt like magic words.  They did not have the power to bring the dead back to life.  Except, in a way, they did.

Words matter.

"Words matter," is what I keep hearing from commentators covering the election campaign on the news programs I can't seem to bring myself to turn off. 

It's a Jewish idea.  That words have power has been a fundamental Jewish concept from the 3 rd sentence of the Torah: "Let there be light."

When the pundits say "words matter," they are not talking about words of consolation; they are reacting to hurtful, hateful words.

Words have the power to create, to connect, to heal, and to destroy.  "Life and death are in the power of the tongue," says Proverbs. 

I wonder what our kids take away from the words they hear in this campaign, and what guidance educators and parents can offer.

Jewish educators can be "cultural critics." Jon Levisohn, an educational philosopher at Brandeis University, suggests that educators help students navigate the world by helping them interpret it through a Jewish lens.  Our task is not to separate ourselves or our students from the wider world.  Rather, to participate fully, how can we apply Jewish wisdom to make sense of it and contribute to it?

Our colleagues at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland developed a curriculum -
Election 2016: Through Jewish Eyes, which educators can download here.  Designed for middle schoolers, the curriculum offers three areas of focus - leadership, governance, and Jewish engagement in politics.  While this campaign is coming to a close, its ripples will be felt for some time.

The strongest ripples may come not from the politics, but from the behaviors that have been on display.  "Words matter" could be the title of a curriculum.  The Jewish wisdom literature on speech is impressive and formidable.  Jewish teaching on speech is among the most precious of inheritances our tradition offers us.  It deserves a more prominent place in our educational agenda.

It includes laws and guidance on:
  • True speech that causes harm or shame to another (lashon harah - bad speech);
  • Gossip (rechilut) wherein we hear something hurtful and pass it along;
  • Spreading harmful falsehoods (motzi shem rah - giving someone a bad name);
  • Innuendo or sideways comments, "the dust of forbidden speech" (avak lashon harah);
  • Words that hurt another in direct conversation (onaat devarim);
  • Rebuke (tochechah) - "Love without criticism is not love," says the Talmud.  When someone's behavior demands criticism, we are not permitted to "mind our own business;" nor are we permitted to publicly shame them.
The main target is language that unintentionally causes harm.  We're not mean, just careless. 

This isn't limited to political candidates - it's in our own community, even among educators.  The distance between Jewish teaching on speech and our behavior is vast. 

Underlying the laws of speech is the idea that each human was created in the image of God ( b'tzelem Elohim ).  Talmudic sage Shimon Ben Azzai held that this is the core principle of Judaism.  One need not believe in God to believe that we are all created in God's image.

Which is why, even when I thought I was beyond shock, this comment, from a candidate for President of the United States, shocked me:

"For the most part you can't respect people, because most people aren't worthy of respect."

This cries out for educational critique.

Some educational resources on these topics can be found here, here, and hereTeaching Jewish Virtues: Sacred Sources and Arts Activities is an excellent resource with many lesson plans for multiple ages.  It can be borrowed from the Jewish Community Library, along with many classic and contemporary sources, including Joseph Telushkin's Words That Hurt, Words That Heal.

You know those old movies, when they develop a powerful weapon and a scientist warns - "if this ever gets into the wrong hands...?"  The powerful weapon is words and the wrong hands can be ours.  At last night's  shiva minyan , I heard the magic words and saw how, in the right hands, they can repair a broken world. 

David Waksberg
CEO Jewish LearningWorks
Embodied Jewish Learning
Joy! A Yoga, Dance and Prayer
Weekend Retreat for Women
with Julie Emden and Friends
Co-sponsored by B'Nai Israel Jewish Center
Friday - Sunday, February 10th-12th, 2017
Westerbeke Ranch, Sonoma CA
Treat yourself to a weekend of movement, yoga, dance, song, rest, play and creative expression in a gorgeous natural setting with delicious and nourishing meals as we embody and explore themes of Tu B'Shvat: earth, trees, grounding and roots.
Discover your own sensing, moving body as a primary resource for presence, joy and calm while gaining a deeper connection to Torah, the Hebrew Calendar and to yourself.
Experience the power of nature, Shabbat, periods of silence, and a consciously created community of women as you are gently guided into the ever deepening well of your own being - mind, body, heart and soul.

REGISTER NOW! Early Bird Rate Available until November 15th
All-inclusive rate:
$750 until November 15th (or $1450 total/$725 each if you bring a friend!)
$850 after November 15th

Payment plans are available

Julie Emden will lead this retreat with assistance from Special Guest Faculty Tracey Green, Mia Miriam Cohen, and Kendra Fried. 
More information here.
Becker Mini-Grants
Jewish LearningWorks is pleased to announce that the deadline for applications for the Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust Mini-Grants has been extended.

These 2-to-1 matching grants of up to $1,000 are designed to support synagogues creating meaningful and relevant learning experiences for adults, with an emphasis on reaching younger adults with children still at home.  The deadline for applications for the next round of grants has been extended to November 21st,  2016 .

Embodied Jewish Learning
Sacred Dance Circles for Women in Foster City
Wednesday, November 2nd
7:15 - 9:30pm
PJCC, Foster City

Presented by Julie Emden

Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Wednesday, November 2nd
7:00pm - 9:00pm
Congregation Sha'ar Zahav

Presented by Yehuda Kurtzer

Jewish Community Library
'Judaisms': A Presentation by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper
Thursday, November 3rd
7:00pm - 8:30pm
Jewish Community Library, SF

Presented by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper

Jewish Community Library
German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic

Sunday, November 6th
1:30 - 3:00pm
Jewish Community Library, SF

Presented by John M. Efron

Embodied Jewish Learning
Sacred Dance Circles for Women in Berkeley
Sunday, November 6th
7:15 - 9:30pm

Presented by Julie Emden and Aliza Rothman

Israel Education Initiative 
On the Map/Off the Map: Why are there so Many Different Maps of Israel?

Sunday, November 6th
10:00 - 11:30am
Congregation Etz Chayim, Palo Alto

Presented by Vavi Toran

Jewish Community Library
The Lion Who Liked Strawberries: Hebrew Puppet Show 

Sunday, November 6th
11:00am - 12:00pm
Jewish Community Library, SF

Presented by Peter Olson and Ilan Vitemberg

Jewish Community Library
Moishe Oysher, Master Singer of His People 

Thursday, November 10th
7:00 - 8:30pm
Jewish Community Library, SF

Presented by Cantor Arik Luck

Jewish Community Library
The Refugee: Fleeing Oppression from the Exodus to Modern Times 

Sunday, November 13th
1:00 - 5:00pm
Jewish Community Library, SF

Presented by John Efron, Mona Rasho Malik, and Fred Rosenbaum

Exploring the World of Judaism
What's "Nu" with Yiddish

Sunday, November 13th
9:30 - 11:40am
Congregation Shir Hadash

Presented by Jon Letivow

For Families with Young Children

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