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Time Flies by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

6 Jan

Time flies. You’ve heard that saying a million times. Well, I’m here to tell you that it sure does. I just spent a wonderful week with five of my six children, their spouses and three of my six grandchildren, celebrating my husband’s milestone birthday. Our youngest child is 31 and the family dynamics are so different when your children become adults. And I am here to tell you that it happens in the blink of an eye.

Moments ago and a lifetime ago, I was holding my babies. As any good Jewish mother would do, I had their entire lives mapped out and all I had to do was keep them safe and on the path and we would be fine. What I could never have predicated was how bumpy their paths would be. Each one had many periods of smooth sailing but each hit rough patches, some rougher than others but they all wandered off course many times in their lives. Sometimes it was because of matters that were beyond their control but most often it was because they made some bad decisions or had a period of time when their brains stopped functioning completely. During those periods, I felt like time was standing still and that the blackness would never leave. It was overwhelming to see my children lose control, be in pain, or worse, cause someone else pain. But that is part of parenting, as well.

This week we begin the Book of Exodus or Sh’mot in Hebrew. It begins with the birth of Moses. With the Egyptian Pharaoh commanding the midwives to kill all Hebrew males, his very survival is a miracle. At three months old, Moses’ mother makes the impossible decision to abandon her child in the river to try to save his life. I think about holding a three month old and imagining all the possibilities that lie ahead for that child. Rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses is raised by his own mother who acts as his nurse maid. As Moses is reaching adulthood, she again must abandon him to the Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses’ very first independent act is to kill an Egyptian. Even from a place of concern for his people, he made a decision that would cause him to have to flee and go into hiding. I am sure that act was far from the dreams his mother had for him. The consequences of those actions make it hard to predict that he would become the great leader we celebrate. And that’s the point. Perspective is everything.

I am now at a time in my life where I look at my children and see adults who are responsible, loving, hard working, compassionate people. They are now the ones holding the babies and praying that they will not stray too far from the path of their dreams. They became those adults because of the journey they made through their childhood and teen years. All of those experiences, both good and bad, have brought them to this moment. Some of it was painful and frightening but most was wonderful and went by much too quickly. And now, time flies. We are expecting our seventh grandchild in March and I marvel at our blessings.

It would have been impossible for me to have predicted what kind of adults my kids would become any more than I could have kept them from making the choices they made. What I can tell you is that I lived through it, laughed a lot, shed some tears, stayed awake some nights, beamed with pride, yelled at them, and kissed and loved them. So like Moses’ mother, who can brag that her kid became the leader of the Jewish people and hung out with God, I can tell you that each of my children has become exactly the person they were meant to be.

baby moses

An Attitude of Gratitude! by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

25 Nov

On Thanksgiving in my home, we have a tradition of going around the table to say what we are thankful for. The same thing is happening in many, many homes all over the country. We all have so much to be thankful for and that is the official day to publicly state our list of things and people for whom we are grateful. My kids think it is sappy and would rather start eating but I think it is important to take time surrounded by those most important to me to share our thoughts.

As I think about what I will say this year, I realize how much I have to be grateful for. I wonder if everyone feels this way? My life is filled with so many blessings and I know that so much of what I have to be thankful for is a direct result of the incredible people I am surrounded by on a daily basis, the families at Temple Beth El, the staff and clergy with whom I work, my family and friends. I don’t think I can find the words to express how much you all fill my life with blessings and love.

Every day at Temple Beth El, we share stories of incredible acts of kindness and courage that move us. We see people working tirelessly to make the lives of other congregants and community members better, happier, healthier and safer. We see people reaching out to welcome those who are new to help them find their place. We know that there are congregants passionately trying to change our community for the better. You have all touched our lives and the lives of so many others and I am so grateful.

So on behalf of those who will never be able to say thank you, allow me to tell you on this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for you. I am thankful to be among people who work so hard to make the world a better place. I love the quote by Albert Schweitzer, “At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Thank you for being the spark and I wish each of you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday.ThankYouwithKids


My Grandmother’s Shabbos Soup by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

3 Nov

Ordinarily, I would write Shabbat, but when I talk about my beloved Grandmother, I need to write Shabbos because that is the way she would have said it. I adored my Grandma Berdie, my mom’s mom. Everyone in my family did. She was the center of my maternal family’s world and lived to be 99 years old. When my son was born, her oldest great-grandchild, her name was shortened to G.G., for Great Grandmother. She always said it with a French accent! G.G. was widowed at 56 and worked until she was 70. She was smart, articulate, hard-working, kind and loving. Everyone adored her. She was also deeply religious. Her life centered on Judaism. She kept Shabbat and always walked to shul (temple). She kept a kosher home and was an exceptional cook. Her recipes were all the Jewish dishes you would expect but no one could make them like my G.G. Believe me, I have tried.

There is a story about a King who ends up eating a Shabbat meal at a peasant’s home and he realizes that he has never tasted anything so delicious. He gets the recipe and has his cook try to replicate the dish. To his dismay, no matter what they try, it never tastes as delectable as it did when he ate with the peasant. Finally, he returns to the peasant to ask him to help with the recipe and he discovers that what was missing from the dish was the most important addition, Shabbat. It was the spice and spirit of Shabbat that made the peasant’s food so extraordinary.

That story brings me to my grandmother’s Shabbos soup. Every Friday night dinner in her home, after lighting candles and saying the prayers, started with a steaming bowl of soup. There were many courses and everything was wonderful but I loved her soup. As a young bride, I meticulously wrote down all of her recipes and try as I might, they never tasted quite as good. When she would come to Charlotte to visit, I would have her come over to prepare my favorite things and take copious notes as I watched her taste and adjust her specialties to get them just right. Didn’t matter. When I prepared them, they were good but never quite as good.

And then something changed. I became the grandmother. I don’t know how that happened but somehow time has flown by and I am now the grandmother who cooks the special Jewish foods that makes Shabbat and holidays so special. I now understand that it wasn’t what my grandmother added to the soup that I couldn’t figure out. It was that my whole family was together and that we were sharing Shabbat.

Why am telling you this? For a couple reasons. Whether it is a traditional Jewish Shabbat menu or pizza, nothing tastes as wonderful as a Shabbat meal shared with special people and those special people are right here in our Temple. On November 14, 2014, the Religious School Committee is inviting all of our school families to join us for a Shabbat Pot Luck dinner. Click here for the details. There is no agenda for this evening other than to share the Shabbat experience together. Please RSVP and join us. As an added bonus, I am going to give everyone a copy of my grandmother’s Shabbos soup recipe. The second way to enjoy the sweetness of Shabbat is to join the Shabbat Supper Club program for Religious School families. Contact Cantor Mary for details and she will find the perfect group for your family to enjoy a monthly Shabbat experience. Click here for more information.

I hope to see you all on November 14th. I promise, every dish will taste superb!

A Shelter of Peace by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

15 Oct

Sometimes you don’t know that something important is missing until you get it. That’s what happened to our Religious School students and indeed our entire congregation during this holiday of Sukkot. Temple Beth El has always had a sukkah. The students of our school always decorated it and the clergy lead beautiful holiday services in our snap together sukkah. But we knew something was missing and Rabbi Judy reached out to Dr. Peter Hindel and asked if he would consider designing and building a larger sukkah. Peter had built some other small projects for us in the past and she trusted that he would be able to complete the task. He agreed to do it and went to work.

I have a hard time putting into words how grateful I am for the beautiful sukkah he created. It is so much more than a portable, three sided temporary structure. Our new sukkah has a story. It represents the journey of the Israelites following the cloud through the wilderness. It is a shelter of peace. It is a labor of love.

This past week it was filled with our students’ laughter as they decorated the walls. It was filled with their beautiful voices as we sang the songs of our family Sukkot services. Our clergy told stories and taught our students the proper way to shake the lulav and etrog. Families brought dinners to fulfill the mitzvah of eating in the sukkah. All week long our holiday was elevated by the beauty and symbolism of our new sukkah.

On behalf of all of our students, faculty and staff, I want to thank Dr. Peter Hindel for building a sukkah for us that was more than we could have ever imagined or hoped for. It will serve us well and will continue to be the source of celebration for many, many children celebrating Sukkot for years to come.



Butterflies in my Stomach by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

3 Sep


I am sitting at my desk in a panic because Religious School is only one week away. I can’t believe how quickly the summer has flown by. This is my fifteenth year and you would think that I could put the school back together in my sleep. You would be wrong. Thankfully, Tracey Lederer, my trusty assistant is always on top of registration and many of the other details that are necessary to get us off to a great start. But I feel a deep sense of apprehension and concern because I want to make sure that every year is better than the last one.

What are the new materials available? How can I make sure that we are on top of the latest technology and trends? What do I need to do to support the amazing faculty that we have at TBERS and how can I make sure that the new teachers feel at home and are ready to teach? It is an awesome responsibility and everyone connected with the school feels that pressure.

But what I worry most about is finding the words to convey how much I believe in our school and in the importance of giving Jewish children the best Jewish education we possibly can. I want every family to find community and feel that they are a part of something meaningful. Religious school is so much more than just dropping off your children for class.

We have a Religious School Committee that supports our school initiatives and organizes and implements social events, social justice and action projects, and teacher appreciation. They welcome our families on opening day and spend hours working hard to ensure that the school year ends with a Mitzvah Day that helps our community both in Shalom Park and the city at-large. On November 14, 2014, the committee has planned a Shabbat pot luck dinner that is open to all religious school families. It is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Shabbat with old friends and make new ones. I hope you will join us for dinner and if you would like to find out more information about joining the committee click here.

Throughout the year there are many opportunities for our families to find a connection and a place to belong. There are grade level Shabbat experiences, parent class participation days, Holiday meals and services, Congregational Shabbat brunch and services, and so much more.

I can’t wait to see you all back in school this coming Sunday when classes begin. I also hope that you will take a few minutes to look through the school calendar you receive and find opportunities to come join our religious school family and enrich your experience.

On behalf of the entire Religious School faculty, staff and committee, I want to wish you and your family a healthy and happy New Year. By the way, we have a great Junior Congregation planned for all kindergarten through third graders.

Susan Jacobs
Director of Education

Happiness, On Being a GYPSY, and Managing Expectations

8 Aug

I discovered several months ago that I am a card-carrying GYPSY with flowering lawns and prancing unicorns. [More about GYPSYs – Generation Y Protagonists and Special Yuppies – and our “issues”.]

Apparently, what’s wrong with my generation is that our expectations are out of line with our reality. In short, we were raised by our Baby Boomer parents (who, in turn, were raised by their Greatest-Generation-Survivors-of-The-Great-Depression Parents) to expect that each generation would surpass the previous in terms of career success, wealth, and general happiness. Also, we were raised to believe that we are each unique, special, and that if you just work hard enough, you will be the star in your own success story from a very early age. Then, these GYPSYs meet with the reality of adult life in a post-9/11, post-Economic downturn of 2008 world. Suddenly, many of the things these GYPSYs had as core beliefs about the world, money, and happiness were upended, resulting in a lot of melancholy folks in their early 30s. And then, to put the shining cherry on top, GYPSYs watch one another live their lives on social media where there is a tendency to portray only what is good in your life, making everyone look disproportionately happy.

Forgetting about the sociological nuances of the GYPSYs, this all makes perfect sense. In some ways, Happiness = Expectations – Reality. If you set the expectations bar in a realistic place, chances are, reality will meet your expectations and you might be very content with your lot. Set the bar too high, and you might struggle to find contentment. Set the bar too low and you might grow lazy or complacent. It seems like this formula for happiness is about having the self-knowledge to lay out appropriate challenges for ones’ self, something I think about in terms of Flow.

Sometimes we can set our own bar to maximize our happiness: just high enough for a good challenge, but not too high as to be unattainable. Others of us are constantly pushing that bar higher and higher, and working harder and harder to reach it because whatever that bar is seems to really. just. matter. a lot.

An example of this that I’m working on right now is the program we hope to pilot, The Family Experiential School. I blogged about it in May (Pancakes). On the one hand, I set the bar low beginning with just kindergarteners to pilot our program. On the other hand, the model of the FES really pushes how the synagogue functions very far, very fast. It seems to me that we set a very high bar for a very small group of people, taking the relatively small group of TBE kindergarten families and placing the burden of changing the shape of the synagogue squarely on their shoulders. To me, that sounds very exciting; for many of them, it’s not a leap they can take. Here we are, three weeks before Religious School starts and we have not met our enrollment goals. It seems likely that we will have to tell the enthusiastic families who have registered for the FES that we will not run the pilot this year. Those are a lot of managed expectations: my own, our Board’s, and those families who were excited to embark on a creative, whole-family synagogue program. This is all by way of saying, please register for kindergarten!

What does our Torah portion have to say about bar-setting and expectations this week? Well, Va’etchanan is a hot-bed of expectations. Contained in this week’s portion we have both the second-telling of the Ten Commandments and the Sh’ma and the first paragraph of the V’ahavta. These texts are filled with expectations set for us by our Tradition: Do not Murder; Do not Covet; Love the Lord your God with all your strength; Teach them to your children… As Reform Jews, some the expectations just make sense. The commandments are in line with our own moral compass: Of course I won’t murder, Of course I won’t steal. Others can be harder for us to deal with: What if I do find myself coveting? What if I do take God’s name in vain? What if I don’t really observe Shabbat?

As Reform Jews, I think many of us employ another critical element when we manage the expectations of our Tradition. Compassion. When dealing with areas of Jewish practice and growth, we always have compassion. We know that the bar is set very, very high for Jewish life: observe commandments, study, repair the world, pray, rest, love, eat all in a Jewish way. When we fall a little short of the bar that we and tradition together have set for each of us, we are compassionate and say, “I will do better next time” and “there is always next Shabbat.”

For GYPSYs, an ounce of compassion will go a long way. Maybe the world is very different from what we GenY/Millennials imagined as children and the world we dream will be for ourselves and those who come after us is still so far away, but if we labor with compassion for ourselves and our efforts, we will be OK. Maybe we should add compassion to the equation? Perhaps Happiness = Expectations – Reality + Compassion.

May we all focus on compassion. May we love ourselves for our hard work, knowing that after we recharge and reconnect each week on Shabbat, we can inch that bar just a little bit higher – if we want to – or set the bar lower if we have gone too far. May we be compassionate with our coworkers, whose own equations are often hidden from our view, yet we encounter them every day. May we be compassionate with our family members and friends as they each write their own balanced equation, as we strive for meaning, purpose, and happiness.

Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

Our Students Visit Sinai by Susan Jacobs, Director of Education

5 Jun

This past week, the Jewish world celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the entire nation of Israel assembled at Mount Sinai. At Temple Beth El, our Shavuot service was created, written, and led by our 10th grade Confirmation class. We watched with pride as these teens shared their years of Jewish study, deep sense of spirituality, and love of Judaism with the congregation. How were they able to arrive at this milestone life cycle event in their Jewish lives? We bring all of our students to Sinai. That’s right! Our students are part of the nation of Israel that assembled at the foot of the mountain and received Torah.

In fact, our students visit Sinai every week. From preschool through post-confirmation, our dedicated clergy and teachers help our students receive a living, relevant, meaningful Torah that serves as their guide to a rich and full Jewish life. They learn that they are all B’tzelem Elohim, created in the image of God and that we value and love each of them. We build a foundation that will remain strong throughout their lives and help them become individuals who are proud of their Jewish identity and who contribute to their community.

When you walk through the halls of Temple Beth El Religious School on a typical Sunday morning, it is clear that Torah is alive and vibrant in every class and in every student. You will hear music and the voices of our children in t’filah singing Torah. You will see the beautiful Judaic and ritual art projects that they create to celebrate Torah. You can hear Torah and Jewish history come alive in so many creative ways.

Not only is this the time of year to celebrate Shavuot, it is time to give your children Torah by enrolling them in Temple Beth El Religious School. It is a precious and valuable gift you give them. You are helping them find their way to Sinai.

This past week we could feel the presence of Sinai in every Confirmation student who stood on the bima to lead the congregation. We know that their years of Jewish education have prepared them to bring their future families and the generations that follow to Sinai with them.

For information about Temple Beth El Religious School, click here.