When Chanie and I married, 19 years ago today, the 11th of Shevat, we were committed to living our lives together and raising our future family as Shluchim (emissaries) of the Rebbe. In simpler terms that meant to be wholly dedicated to positively impact the lives of individuals and the world. It also meant to do it on our own and without institutional support. In other words, alongside being fully focused on enriching people’s lives, we’d be fully dependent on the generosity of others to operate, live, and raise our family.
Needing to continuously ask people for financial support has been enlightening as it’s a window into their soul. In the immortal words of the 2nd century Talmudic sage Rabbi Ilai, “A person is recognized by his wallet.” Over the years I’ve seen a lot. I’ve been inspired, moved, as well as disappointed and hurt – though ninety percent the former. But what I observed from my conversation with a young alumnus, recorded in our latest podcast, was a new level of brilliance and inspiration.
Most recent graduates from college begin their career by opening a bank account to deposit their earnings. Noah opened an additional bank account, this one dedicated to depositing what he planned to give away. Ten percent of his after tax earnings, as meager as it was, would be deposited there.
A prudent investor does not simply drop money into an enterprise, instead they also invest their skills and talents ensuring that the enterprise succeeds with the maximum ROI (Return on Investment). This is what Noah has done from his earliest days out of college with his ‘tithing account’. Not only does he give money, but more importantly he devotes his time, skills and talents to causes he supports.
He calls it philanthropy and believes everyone can be a philanthropist regardless of their financial resources. In fact he promises that if you simply begin you will find yourself wanting to do more and more. That’s what happened to him.
Philanthropy is generally associated with individuals who have so much money that giving it away is the most reasonable thing to do, not to mention the honor and influence it provides. Noah has redefined a philanthropist to mean investing of oneself in a cause, which everyone can do.
By giving this topic significant thought and living by its creed at a relatively young age, Noah is a unicorn. He combines humility, confidence, and selflessness; muscles that are built by resisting narcissism through investing in others – making it the perfect antidote to narcissism.
Place eating an exclusively kosher diet – no buttered lamb for instance- alongside giving one’s resources – fiscal or talent – towards a worthwhile cause. Then ask, “What measurable impact and value does each, observing kosher and doing good, have on the world?”
Young people are asking this question and concluding that a kosher diet, just one example of observing Judaism, is insignificant compared to doing good. The typical talking points offered as a response are failing to resonate. “Because G-d said so or it connects you to G-d,” elicits a blank look. More importantly they don’t see how observing Judaism makes a difference to the world at large.
A more relatable answer offered is community. Observing kosher offers the social benefit of being part of a Jewish community by allowing others to eat in one’s home and vice versa. However this response fails to offer a tangible impact on the larger world. And in an increasing universalist environment being pigeon holed to a particular community is becoming less attractive.
The truth though is that committing to a kosher diet does in fact have an impact on the world. Sadly Jewish educators have utterly failed to offer a language that communicates that. A new and relatable language emphasizing the universal transformation that observance of Judaism can achieve must be developed and communicated.
This essay is not an attempt to suggest one, only a call that one needs to be developed.
In my recent podcast with an alumnus this fact was starkly highlighted. He has admirably made the value to impact the world a creed in his life. While his authenticity, thoughtfulness, and spirituality drove him to live this way, it has also driven him away from kashrut and other observances of Judaism.
As Jewish educators we must right this wrong, otherwise we are failing our calling.
I am fortunate to engage with hundreds of students each year, meet many of their families and continue to nurture these relationships in the years following college as the Director of the Chabad House at Brandeis University.
What’s moving to me is experiencing the evolvement of a relationship as the student grows older, develops his or herself, and gets comfortable in their skin. When they maturely interact with life’s responsibilities, commit to a long term relationship, and even have their own children, their understanding of life deepens and our relationship can become more balanced as we share in life’s nuanced and enriching experiences.
When Ariella Morrow ‘06 shared her story of sexual assault on social media she was in my thoughts and heart for a few days. We hadn’t stayed in touch consistently and as someone who hadn’t experienced this trauma I was hesitant to ask her to record a podcast with me. Still I reached out, asking her to share her experiences as I also understood that she isn’t letting this assault define her. Rather now as an older woman, doctor, wife and mother, she would be able to share how she navigated life’s challenges and immersed herself in the wholesomeness of life. Even more, how this made her into a strong woman and enriched her faith.
Life is layered, nuanced, and far from black and white, and this kind of conversation is so critical to engage in. Ariella’s life is not defined by this trauma, it’s part of her story. Our lives are filled with varied experiences and when we have the courage to engage with the most difficult ones, with thoughtfulness and wisdom, we can truly grow and others can be moved to do the same.
Everyone loves a juicy headline. Usually that happens when something unusual occurs and highlighted if someone is squirming in the story. When a Chabad rabbi converses with a young woman preparing to become an Orthodox rabbi — that is unusual. If she asks him on record what his opinion of women becoming Orthodox rabbis, someone is going to squirm — either him, her, or both.
This happened in the recent podcast I had with a young woman studying to become a female Orthodox rabbi. Here is an outline of my response. It’s built on two principles.
The first is that Torah education of girls and women must be on the highest level. Sadly, it’s not. In traditional schools, where girls and boys are educated separately, the girls’ Torah education is softened and intellectually dumbed down, compared to boys their age.
In institutions where girls and boys are taught in the same classroom, the problem is different. While girls are taught in a way that does not degrade their intelligence and ability to learn Torah, the overall level of Torah knowledge in these institutions is subpar. I know this intimately for a variety of reasons, including that many of their graduates are our students in college and become our close friends.
The second principle is the value of tradition in Judaism. Unlike the common understanding of tradition as a euphemism for blindly following the past, protecting it from reason and the changes in society, it is in fact a cornerstone of Judaism.
It’s undeniable that belief in G-d, observing the commandments, and Torah study are key building blocks in the structure of Judaism. Tradition as well falls into that category. But not because it provides the ignorant an answer to every question, as it so famously does for Tevya in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Rather, it breeds within us one of the most critical character traits that Judaism seeks to develop within each Jew, humility. And humility is critical in our relationship towards the other; both the upper-case Other, G-d, and the lowercase other, humans.
Observing tradition develops humility and respect towards what came before us, its contribution to what we have today, and empowers us as we move forward into an evolving future.
The need to educate women on the highest level and the value of tradition are the two elements in my response to her question, “Peretz, what are your thoughts on women becoming Orthodox rabbis?” To understand how these two elements are combined, listen to Part Two of our conversation.
Everyone loves a juicy headline. Usually that happens when something unusual occurs and highlighted if someone is squirming in the story. When a Chabad Rabbi converses with a young woman preparing to become a Rabbi-that is unusual. If she asks him on record what his opinion of women becoming Rabbis, someone is going to squirm, either her, him or both.
You squirmed? This happened in the recent podcast I had with a young woman studying to become a female Orthodox Rabbi. Here is an outline of my response.
It’s built on two principles. The first is that Torah education of young girls and women must be on the highest level. Sadly it’s not. In the traditional schools where the education of boys and girls is separated, the intensity of girls’ Torah education is softened and dumbed down compared to boys their age.
In institutions where girls and boys are taught in the same classroom the problem is a bit different. While girls are taught in a way that does not degrade their intelligence and ability to learn Torah compared to boys, the overall level of Torah knowledge in these institutions are subpar. I know this intimately for a variety of reasons including many of their graduates become our close friends and students while in college.
The second principle I shared with her is the value of tradition in Judaism. Unlike the common superficial understanding of tradition as a euphemism for blindly follow the past and protecting it from reason and the changes of society, it is in fact a cornerstone of Judaism.
It’s undeniable that belief in G-d, observing the commandments, and Torah study are some of the key building blocks in the structure of Judaism. Similarly is tradition but not because it provides the ignorant an answer to every question, as it so famously does for Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof. Rather because it breeds within us one of the most critical features that Judaism seeks to develop within each Jew, humility. The one we are required to display towards the other. This includes the upper-case Other, G-d, and the lower-case other, humans.
Tradition is humility and respect toward what came before us and its contribution to what we have today.
The need to educate women on the highest level and the value of tradition are the two elements in my response to her question, “Peretz, what are your thoughts on women becoming Rabbis?” To understand how these two elements are combined, listen here.
This is certainly not the final word on the subject, far from it, it’s simply a small contribution to an important ongoing conversation.