Friday, August 26, 2011
"So what does the Jewish religion think about..."
I get asked this quite a bit. I guess walking around with my beard & skullcap makes me fair game.
Here's a few thoughts on this rather deep subject. Judaism is not really a religion, but more a way of life. First, of course, it goes back all the way to the times of Abraham, more than 3,000 years ago. Abraham lived in a time when people worshipped all sorts of idols. Some prayed to the stars. Others to stone images. Some, the sun & moon. But Abraham taught the notion of one true God, and how this spiritual force permeated & gave life to everything. Furthermore, Abraham taught that absolutely everything in creation is somehow united in a grand & mysterious way.
In my later teenage years, I became interested in Eastern religions. Later, I was mighty surprised to find out that basic Jewish beliefs include such concepts as the soul, reincarnation, revival of the dead, reward & punishment (depending on each individual's conduct throughout his or her life), heaven (Gan Eden), Moshiach (the Messianic Era) etc. I didn't have to look in someone else's backyard for spirituality. Each of these doozy concepts are discussed in amazing detail throughout a variety of Torah sources, such as the Talmud - which is also the basis for practical Jewish law, and Kabbalistic books. In addition, Hassidic philosophy, particularly Chabad, expounds upon these notions. Thus, Judaism is a mixture of the very practical & the very profound.
A very central belief in Judaism is the sanctity of life and how every single person on the planet is unique, special, and part of the "master plan." Like the expression goes, God don't make no junk. According to the Torah, the backbone of Judaism, every person has a special mission to fulfill. All of mankind was given seven special mitzvos, or instructions, through Noah. In effect, by keeping these seven, we can transform planet earth into a worldly heaven. These seven biggees are:
*To know, understand, and honor, to the best of our abilities, the one true God.
*To not commit murder. Life is sacred. We must do our best to honor & maintain life. Obviously, there is a difference between self-defense and murder.
*Not to worship idols. This may include our "modern" idols such as money, power, greed...
*Stealing... a no-no. This includes things like "small" cheating in business, deceiving others...
*To not commit acts of sexual immorality, such as incest. Hey, consult your local rabbinic authority for more details on this one.
*To be kind to animals & other living creatures. This includes not cutting (& eating) a part from a creature while it's still alive, which unfortunately is actually done in some cultures.
*To establish courts of justice. These laws are very intricate, and pertain to specific laws for witnesses, judges, etc. Basically, justice means being fair & honest, not being blinded by bribes, and getting to the real bottom of the matters at hand.
Here's what the US Congress had to say about these seven basic principles of justice & peace. "Without these ethical values & principles, the edifice of civilization stands in peril of returning to chaos."
That was a Joint Resolution of the US Congress on March 20, 1991
These seven principles form the basis of a positive oriented society, one that is committed to justice, kindness & pursuing peace. Imagine what the world would be like if all nations on the planet kept these seven principles! You could ride any subway, live anywhere on the planet without fear, and sleep with your doors open. Remember, these seven are mere guidelines... foundations. The ramifications of each one is endless. According to the Torah, any individual who keeps these seven leads a productive life, fulfilling his or her mission on planet earth, and is, in fact, rewarded with both Olam HaBah & Techiyat HaMatim - Gan Eden & return of the departed. There is also the notion that whatever good deeds are done down here on this world, also benefits and gives great pleasure to the neshama (soul) of a departed family member or friend. For the soul is eternal and death is but a temporary separation of the soul and body. By keeping these special 7, we live a life of meaning, connected to the essence... to our essence.
Chabad philosophy, based on the Kabbalah, teaches that there is spiritual force within everything in creation, including all four "kingdoms:" the inanimate realm, such as rocks & the earth; vegetation kingdom; animals & insects & all "living" things; and the human species, known in Kabbalah as "m'daber" - the "verbalizers." Further, the Torah teaches that our job here is "l'avdah U'l'shamrah," to work with the planet & to protect it! This is a clear directive to protect all species on Mother Earth, for we truly are all connected. Removing one part, no matter how "insignificant" some may perceive it to be, has an effect on the entire web of life. We are to take an active role in life, including this special mitzvah of caring for the world environment.
The concept of Moshiach, a Messianic Era, is also fundamental in the Jewish faith. The era of Moshiach, or what we used to refer to as the "age of Aquarius" back in the 60's, will mark a unique period in the history of humanity. It will be a time when "swords will be beaten into plowshares & men will learn war no more." In other words, peace & mutual respect will prevail. There will be no more wars, no jealousy... the hositlities of this species known as homo-sapian will cease at last. It will also be a time when the miraculous will seem common-place. The Torah tells us that there will be no sickness or suffering. It will usher in a time of tremendous joy and goodness.
The Rambam (Maimonidies) writes that each of us should see the world as if it's balanced on a scale. One good deed, no matter how small it might seem, could tip the entire scale in favor of the good and bring Moshiach. I say, let's get the party on! Your next act of kindness could do the trick.
The land of Israel is mentioned hundreds of times in the Bible, commonly known as the Five Books of Moses. For more than 3,000 years, the Jewish people have lived (& loved) this land. Three times each and every day, we pray towards Israel, specifically towards the holy temple in Jerusalem. These prayers were instituted more than 2,000 years ago by the "people of the great assembly" during the times of the Sanhedrin - the famous Jewish court of law where Solomon's temple stood. But this same prayer formula is used by Jews throughout the world even today. This land is often referred to as the "promised land," or "holy land." It is both, of course, given by God Almighty to the children of Abraham, Isaac, & Jacob... forever.
Throughout this long, crazy, and often troubled history of mankind, various nations have tried to control this land. Nearly all of these civilizations, such as Babylon, the Roman Empire, Persia, etc., have come and gone. Often they forced many of the Jews out of the land. But we always returned. Some have even tried to deny the connection between the Jewish people and this land, going as far as destroying important, historical artifacts - as if trying to rewrite history to serve their own political agendas. Today, more than ever, we need to help & support this tiny (yet amazing) country in any way possible. Though surrounded by more than 20 Muslim countries, many hundreds of times larger (and many openly hostile to both Israel and the "west")... Israel is the only real democracy in the entire Middle East! Remember, in Israel, Arabs can live where they want, go where they want, worship where and how they want, and be elected to seats in the Knesset. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Jews living in Muslim countries. In fact, when Jordan controlled Jerusalem from 1948 - 1967, Jews weren't even allowed into the Old City to pray! It's high time to help out this incredible country, y'all. Don't let the terrorists scare ya away... visit & see it with your own eyes. Furthermore, in my opinion, most of the Arab world is held hostage by a small, loud minority that threatens and coerces them, robbing them of their own freedoms. It's time to back the United States efforts in its vital war against terrorism. We simply cannot allow a few lunatics to hold the world hostage, and send us back to the Middle Ages.
Another fundamental concept in Judaism is the notion of "tikkun Olam," of refining and "fixing" the world. While Godliness & spirituality is found within everything in this physical world, it is often a tough job to find it... to bring it out. The Torah teaches us that by doing good deeds & acts of kindness, we help to perfect the world & help it realize its full awesome potential. Those who engage in the opposite, such as destroying things & acts of murder - even if they are done (according to their misguided religious principles) "killing in the name of," are going against this basic precept of the gift of life. This terrorist behavior, often condoned & encouraged by various groups, is in direct opposition to God's intention and our important mission on planet earth. For these senseless acts of hatred and violence are by their very nature are denial of the Oneness of the Universe. One of the most basic prayers in Judaism is the "Shema." It has been said by the Jewish people for thousands of years - twice each day, at morning and again in the evening. It is an affirmation of this amazing, great mysterious Oneness that prevades all of the universe. Perhaps it is time for more folks to begin saying & meditating this special prayer.
There is another difficult yet quite profound (and beautiful) notion found in the Jewish faith. In a nutshell, it's personal growth & development. Not the kind that gets you advanced degrees & a bonus in your paycheck (though all that is nice indeed), but involves a sort of inner struggle and advancement. In order to truly refine the "outside world," we also have to work on the "inside world"-- ourselves. My rabbi once told me that "keeping kosher is important, but it's just as important to watch what comes out of the mouth as what goes in!" This inner, lifelong effort means refining our own character traits... becoming less self-centered, more tuned into others, more socially conscious, and thus, capable of loving and seeing the spirit (& potential) of every individual. A good time to take stock, is right before hitting the sack. Take a few moments... examine how we were today. How we acted... spoke. What we thought about. What we were involved with. Was it all positive? And how can we improve tomorrow? How can we make our days truly shine? Hassidic philosophy compares life to climbing a mountain. We just gotta keep putting one foot in front of the other. But remember, since we're carrying a sack full of diamonds on our backs (all those good deeds!)... we're hiking uphill with tremendous joy. Like the saying goes...
Life's a holy adventure - enjoy the ride.
As mentioned before, Judaism contains many profound spiritual concepts. But, in truth, they are more than ideas or notions - they are reality. It is only that our limited, physical senses don't usually perceive these phenomenon. Soemtimes we have incredible dreams or experiences that seem to take us out of the ordinary. In light of the recent event in our family, I feel somewhat compelled to "clear the air." People truly mean well when they say things like; "Oh, don't worry, she's at rest now." Or the often heard expression, "may she rest in peace." But the Talmud has a much different outlook at what occurs after death, which is but a temporary seperation between the body and one's essence - the soul. The Talmud tells us that "(even) Torah scholars have no rest, not in this physcial world or in the next world!" It's an amazing statement and, I think, one that shows us to have a much more positive attitude about what occurs during this time.
The soul of every single person is unique, of course, for this is what makes us all individuals - our inner makeup. There is a notion of reward & punishment (temporary) and this depends on what the person's actions were like while he or she roamed planet earth. But it doesn't stop here - like the Romans used to say; eat, drink & be merry for tomorrow you may die. For death is not the end, but, perhaps, a door to a much higher reality. In any case, the person is not laying down up there, stretched out on a lounge chair soaking in the rays. Rather, the soul continues to learn, experience and grow, on a daily basis, although in a much more profound way than what was going on down here. One more dandy of a point. Yes, have fun & enjoy life, of course. But remember, ya can't take the golf clubs with ya. Our sages tell us that the only thing that accompanies the soul into the "Olam HaBah," or the next, higher (& true) reality, are the good deeds that the person accomplished in this world. The Hebrew word for the world is "olam." It comes from the word "helem," which means concealed. The Talmud teaches that this depicts the very nature of this world, where spirituality (& goodness) is concealed and often quite difficult to see & experience. We have to rise above this, my brothers & sisters... work hard to bring out the goodness contained within. The only way to accomplish this is by increasing in acts of kindness. Well, sorry this one was rather long-winded, but I hope it gives you food for thought and more importantly, encourages you to do your part and, like Oprah says, live your best life!
ITP - Increase The Peace, y'all.
Practice Random Acts of Kindness.
Monday, August 22, 2011
Peace Of (My) Mind!
“Now listen up,” Reuven said clearly annoyed. “You’re heading for nothing but trouble. You’d better stop before it’s too late. I wish you’d listen to my advice, Ari! I’m getting tired of always trying to tell ya, but talking to you is like talking to the dang wall!”
Ari, the name deliberately changed here, had probably heard similar words a hundred times before. He was a young man of 16 in my alternative yeshiva high school program, Beit Rafael, in Miami. My program was nicknamed “Laz’s Last Stand.” They either made it in my program or ended up in rehab… or behind bars. Most, thank G-d, graduated from my non-graded school and have moved on to lead positive, productive lives.
Ari was a great athlete, full of life and personality, but he had some rough previous experiences in regular yeshiva. He was close to the record, having been kicked out of more than 10 schools in the past six years. Unsuccessful in his close-knit community, he viewed himself as an outcast and had turned to the streets for acceptance. Reuven, a fellow classmate, was trying to offer some words of advice. Ari, it seems, had once again been out all night long doing who-knows-what. He showed up mid-morning, put on Tefillin, pour himself a cup of hot tea, and laid his weary head upon the table.
“You don’t know how good you got it here,” Reuven continued. “But even this opportunity you’re gonna blow just like all the others! You’re gonna locked up, bro… if you live long enough.”
With that, Reuven slammed his fist on the table but Ari was either fast asleep or simply chose to ignore the commotion.
I put my hand out and motioned for Reuven to lay off.
“Look it, “ I whispered to Reuven. “Talk to him when he wakes up. But I think maybe we should try a different approach.”
He shot me a glance of disbelief and remarked “he’s gonna kill himself the way he’s going! Someone’s gotta do something!”
“Agreed,” I responded. “Wholeheartedly. But has this approach ever worked for him? Has it ever worked for him? That’s what he’s been hearing, probably from everyone who knows him, for the past two, three, four years.”
“So what then? We should sit back, do nothing… and watch him slowly kill himself?”
“No. I’m just saying maybe there’s a better way to reach him.”
“Well, while you’re planning I’m gonna continue to yell and shout and smack him around if necessary to shake him out of this madness. He doesn’t need your love, Dr. Laz. He needs some rebuking. Big time.”
I promised Reuven that we’d discuss things together and try to come up with some strategies that might work. But there was this horrible feeling, something that always bugged me but I never quite verbalized it, as if somehow actually expressing the words, the doubts, out loud would give it more validity. Particularly since Kabbalistic (inner dimensions of Torah) philosophy places so much importance on this incredibly powerful force known as speech! So I kept the thoughts to myself. And yet, every so often, it would come bubbling up to the surface, like it was waiting to be validated, to be dealt with. Still I let it remain in the realm of thought and I tried my best to push it aside.
Then, while doing a recent event for the Chabad House in Weston, Florida, the epiphany came and I realized that all those thoughts of “doubt” were there for a solid reason. I had it all wrong - and to a certain extent, we’ve all missed the boat here. Yes I know that sounds like a mighty bold statement but allow me to explain what’s been bothering me all these years and what sort of flash of lightning bolt insight struck me broadside in Weston.
I refer to that tricky and very sensitive notion of setting the other guy straight, aka - reading someone the good ol’ “riot act.” You know the one, this murky grey area of us knowing what’s really proper (or thinking that we do) and putting our friends, family members, and even the “Joe-Shmoes” we don’t know all that well, in line. It’s the one that some folks have made it their special mission - rebuking your fellow human being. This is a mighty sensitive area that, at best, requires “kid glove” treatment and some real thoughtful, deliberate actions - not rash, emotional responses. I speak from some experience, having raised seven children - now all adults on their own. I’ve also been working with alienated teens and individuals with special needs for more than 30 years. Not that I have any definitive answers per se, except that I know that when it comes to the art of rebuking, I usually keep a very low profile. Others, it seems, have given this equal footing and rank it right up there with the “10 Big Ones.” Chabad Hassidic philosophy stresses the angle that we have to help each other out on all levels. But it also teaches us that when it comes to spiritual growth, the real work, the hard work, starts with the “man in the mirror” - with ourselves first.
What’s bugged me all these years is that the Torah uses a double whammy expression to convey this message of rebuking others. It says rather bluntly, “hocheah tochiach” - which is usually translated in English as “you should surely rebuke;” not just the one word indicating “rebuke” but really get out there and give ‘em the ol’ what-for! Knowing what we do about human nature, I ask you a question. Do we really need a double expression from the "Boss" telling us to rebuke someone? Was G-d Almighty worried that we might not get in there and tell somebody, “hey you’re messing up and I know better - I know what’s best for you!”? Wouldn’t it have been enough for it to say in the Torah just one Hebrew word of “tochiach?” So, in this public confession, it’s been this double whammy expression that’s had me troubled for all these years. There are those who seem to thrive on putting others in line, of telling them what to do and what not do, and getting some sort of holier-than-thou satisfaction of putting them in their place. They’ve become the “rebukers,” the crusaders to save us all… from ourselves!
It did help immensely to study Tanya and listen to the deep words of the Alter Rebbe on this double expression of rebuke. The Alter Rebbe stresses the latter part of that verse where it says you should surely rebuke “es amitecha” - the “one that is with you.” In other words, only those that you are very close with, the Alter Rebbe explains in the 32nd chapter of Tanya, should rebuke. Interesting that the number 32 in Hebrew corresponds to the word “lev” which means heart. Furthermore, he writes, it has to be done with love and compassion. Let’s face it here, folks. No one enjoys being put in his or her place. Nobody relishes the experience of being on the receiving end of a personal “dis.” We usually only accept this sort of stuff from a loved one. A stranger telling us off doesn’t sit too well, and in fact, often leads to the opposite desired effect. We tell the guy to take a long walk off a short pier!
Change doesn’t come easy and changing harmful or negative behaviors is tricky business - and often a long, uphill battle. Here, the Alter Rebbe tells us, it just might work if, in fact, someone who’s close to the guy messing up does it. The rebukee, if you will, knows that the rebuker is a close friend or family member and has his or her best interest at heart.
The Rebbe echoes this notion in one of his profound discourses on the Torah portion of Shmos. He notes that mussar is referred to in the Torah as “musar avicha.” Musar is often regarded as forcing yourself or others to look within and work towards self-improvement. The Rebbe points out that musar works only when it’s connected to “avicha,” - your father. On other words, when a loved one, like our dad, points out our faults, it’s like the medicine going down a lot smoother with the spoonful of sugar. The Rebbe further explains that rebuking was something the prophets did - but only on directives from G-d Almighty. Despite the fair amount of rebuking going on, as far as I can tell, there are not too many holy rebukers out there who can claim with a straight face that G-d told ‘em to do so.
I was comforted by the Rebbe’s profound words, but quite frankly, the question remained. Why the double expression of “rebuke rebuke” in the Torah? Everything is Divine Providence, and my answer to this problem came at that Weston weekend where the theme dealt with increasing in our acts of kindness. Although I was the main speaker, I had the pleasure of hearing Rabbi Spalter give over a powerful Shabbos sermon to his congregation. It was the Torah portion of Chayeh Sara but the Rabbi said he wanted to continue on the theme of the previous Shabbos - how Avraham excelled in the mitzvah of “hanochas orchim” - taking good care of guests. Although Avraham was the epitome of kindness, still he pretty much coerced his guest to “bentch” after the meal - to thank G-d for the food. It was his way of spreading this notion of the one true G-d throughout the world. If the traveler wasn’t exactly too interested in doing this, Arvaham would give him a choice. Give thanks to G-d Almighty or pay up!
“Let’s see now,” we can imagine Avraham tallying up the goodies. “That’ll be $400 for the cactus juice cocktail. $770 for the whole-wheat pitas. And the burger? Forget about it! That’s a special today at $950!”
The travelers would, of course, flip out when hearing the excessive charges. Their mouths probably dropped wide open.
“Hey,” Avraham might add, “this isn’t the Upper West Side or Boro Park. Or South Florida. This is the dessert, amigos, and yes, consider yourselves mighty lucky indeed that you found my humble place - Avraham & Sara’s Tent! Now pray… or pay!”
Rabbi Spalter asked a bomb of a question. If Avraham’s intention was to get people to praise Hashem, to increase this new spiritual awareness of One G-d, why did he wait to put his plan into action after the meal? Why not before the meal? Think about it. Before the meal Avraham had ‘em in the palm of his hand. This was the desert and Avraham’s tent was the only stopover for miles. The guests came in hot, tired, hungry and probably very, very thirsty. Then was the time to set his agenda forward. Before the meal they were completely vulnerable & open to anything. If Avraham wanted them to stand on their heads and sing the aleph-beis in opera style, they would have done it. Anything to get to the drinks and food! So why did Avraham wait until after they were fed and thoroughly enjoyed their equivalent of Dr. Brown’s iced-cold black cherry soda along with a dessert McDovids?
Rabbi Spalter explained that this episode in the Torah teaches us something very deep; we’re simply not allowed to take advantage of others. When they first arrived, the guests had a profound physical need. They were hungry, tired and thirsty. The Torah is teaching us that at that moment, we are required to help - to get the food, drinks and chairs. Once these physical needs were met, once the guests had eaten and felt relaxed, then and only then did Avraham talk about his mission, his agenda.
Kindness must’ve been in the air at the Weston Shabbaton, for the answer to my “dilemma of the double rebuke” came flying through in shining colors. This dramatic insight is in the Torah portion of Chayei Sarah and is, in fact, discussed by the most famous Biblical commentary, Rashi. As a Torah reader, I couldn’t help but notice that this word of “hocheach” is actually mentioned twice in the portion of Vayeira; both times when the parsha talks about the episode of Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, being sent on a mission to find a wife for Yitzchak, Avrahams’ son.
It’s a big mission and Eliezer, with Avraham’s personal instructions and blessing, succeeds big time. Standing near a watering hole in the dessert, Eliezer puts this wheel into play and calls out to the “G-d of Avraham” asking for some tell-tale signs to know who is the right pick, the “beshert” for Yitzchak. He’s basically looking for someone who is a mentch, who shows kindness - even to a stranger in the dessert. In other words, a woman for Yitzchak who follows in Avraham’s footsteps. If she offers me water to drink, Eliezer stipulates, and also offers to give water to my camels, then this is the one that “hochachta” for Yitzchak. Seems like a mighty strange word to use here. It’s the very same letters for the word rebuke. Rashi picks up on this unusual expression here and says that it actually means “b’rerat - to choose.” My cerebral cortex went in high gear. B’reira in Hebrew means to choose, to select, & to clarify. Maybe that double expression of “rebuke rebuke” is mistranslated? Perhaps it also means more to clarify than to simply rebuke? The act of choosing and selecting is part & parcel of the act of clarifying. It’s a matter of shedding some light on the options and selecting the best possible choice.
I continued to follow the Torah reading and then the same word came up again a mere 29 verses later. Here Eliezer is introduced to Rivka’s infamous brother, Lavan. He repeats the whole episode to Lavan, coming to the watering hole in the dessert, meeting Rivka and how she offered drinks to himself and to his camels, and that G-d has “hochiach” this woman (your sister Rivka) for Yitzchak. Again this unusual word pops up and Rashi is quick to point out that it means, “clarify, to inform.” Then Rashi drops the bomb. He adds the following words in his commentary here. “And so too for every expression of hochacha in the Torah - it means to clarify the matter!”
Bingo! My problem resolves itself in a flash. Later on in the Torah we encounter this double smack-down expression of “hocheach tocheach” and yes folks, it has indeed been mistranslated pretty much in every English version I’ve read of the Torah. Whereas all these outdated versions put in print “you shall surely rebuke!” - Rashi is telling us that it really should read, “you shall surely clarify.”
It’s no petty small difference here. It’s a difference of night and day. Both may try to get the person to “see the light” but one does it with a hammer – which has little chance of success, the other does it, with love, compassion and some “seichel” - common sense. Furthermore, it’s not a matter of coming across as holier-than-thou. It’s not even coming from a “religious” perspective of “saving” this lowlife and getting another notch on the belt. It’s simply a matter of shedding some light on the subject and helping the person in need to get things straight - to see with more clarity. Then and only then is he or she in the proper position to decide, to choose which direction to go. Our job then, Rashi so clearly (pardon the expression here) points out is not to rebuke but to illuminate! Not to give ‘em a piece of our minds, but to offer them peace of mind.
Let’s go back to the situation with Ari, and more specifically how Reuven and I decided to handle things. It was a plan taken right out of Rashi’s sage interpretation and advice. First, I gave Reuven the “green light” to speak with Ari. Sometimes, more often than not, teenagers listen to a friend before a teacher. I told Reuven that words of rebuke, the ol’ fire & brimstone routine, always fell on deaf ears, and thus, a new strategy was warranted. “Ari doesn’t respond to that. Why not try a total unemotional vibe. Put out the consequences of his behaviors. Spell it out. Maybe just maybe, he’ll make some better choices. But in any case, I’d wait till he wakes up and has a good meal under his belt first.”
It wasn’t until a few days later that Reuven caught up with Ari. I couldn’t help eavesdrop from the opposite corner of the room as the conversation took a different turn.
“Ari,” he started. “Let’s analyze the situation here. Things are good now cuz business is rolling. But eventually you’re gonna get busted. It’s just a matter of time. If you stop now you’ll make less money – at least for now until things pick up in a kosher way, but you’ll have a clean slate. If you carry on this way, you’re probably looking at 10 years minimum jail time, maybe more.”
Ari tuned in because Reuven wasn’t laying any guilt trip or holier-than-thou number on him. He simply put the cards on the table.
“One path might be tougher at first,” Reuven continued, “but you won’t have to worry about jail time, or messing up your life. The other is great for now, you’re riding high, but sooner or later the bubble’s gonna burst. Think how it’ll be then. For your friends and family. For you!”
I was amazed when Reuven suggested that they write down the choices, the pros & cons with all the consequences on paper. Maybe just maybe, I thought to myself, with the situation all spelled out and clarified, along with the concern & friendship of a loving friend, Ari will make better choices.
Rashi is telling us that words of rebuke do very little to change the situation. Clarification, on the other hand, places the onus of choice on the person involved, without the guilt and free of any rebuker’s ego.
Torah is often compared to light. In this regard, the deeper we look into the Torah the clearer and sweeter things become. Thanks Rashi. I owe you one. And maybe we all do.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Florida Public Education – R.I.P.
By Dr. David Lazerson
Catastrophic. Disaster. Heart-breaking. These terms have been heard all-too-often in the media lately as the world has tried to come to terms with tsunamis, earthquakes, nuclear breakdown in Japan, and the most recent devastating tornadoes in the USA. Unfortunately, these same words can be used to describe the impending cuts - over one billion dollars worth, to our Florida public schools. According to a May 5th article in the Sun-Sentinel, Broward County Public Schools alone is looking at a deficit of close to $80 million from its yearly budget. To alleviate this huge gap, Broward County is planning on laying off all of the one-year contract staff, as well as most first year teachers. Second year teachers are standing on the cliff’s edge.
The news is not any better in Miami Dade County where the school board is talking about laying off hundreds of staff, including teachers, maintenance workers, administrative positions & more. Many schools no longer offer specials, such as music & art. Some physical education programs may be next on the chopping block. All of this spells disaster with a capitol “D” for public education in Florida, and perhaps the nation in general.
Besides the enormous toll on all of the thousands of pending layoffs, the overall effect on the teaching field would be equivalent to an education nuclear meltdown. What person in their right mind would enter a field that they pretty much now guarantees that you won’t have a job? Never mind the low starting salary or the fact that there’s been no cost-of-living increase for years, or the notion that class sizes will now have to be even bigger with little or no teacher support. That’s old news. The fact that the district is now cutting all first year teachers sends a loud and clear message to anyone who’s ever considered a career working with children in education: Keep away! Sorry, no jobs available. I feel mighty sorry for all those eager and optimistic young people who dedicated several years to getting their advanced degrees and teaching certificates, who are now pushed out of the system. Hey, thanks anyways. Goodbye. Good luck. Good riddance. Through this misguided policy, the teaching field losses its greatest asset - new teachers coming in with fresh ideas and enthusiasm.
All, however, is not lost. At least not quite yet. There are several things that should be done to alleviate this “bad moon on the rise.” First, the board of education, along with the superintendent, need to be proactive and not always reactive. Business as usual will not cut it anymore. It’s always been the same ol’ song. Feds turn off the flow to the states. States turn off the flow to the districts. Districts turn off jobs. It’s a sad reality of the times but two solid & very practical suggestions have been placed in front of the board that unfortunately were turned down.
The first is the four-day school week. While it may initially sound outrageous and so out of the norm, desperate situations warrant creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Many districts throughout the country, and even a few in Florida, have gone to a four-day school week. An extra hour of direct instructional time can be added to the four days, so actual on task educational time would not be compromised. What this does is save millions and millions of dollars to the school system’s huge transportation and energy costs. This maneuver alone would save hundreds, and probably close to a thousand teachers and other support staff’s jobs. At various hearings on this topic, some politicians responded by declaring this idea not feasible or practical. In turn we can ask the board members, is putting close to 1,000 people in the unemployment line feasible? Is kicking out new teachers such a wise and practical idea? Perhaps if several board members were under consideration for losing their jobs during this budget crunch they might take more concrete and positive action.
The second small step the board can implement is to simply start the school year later in August or, as most of the country does already, begin after Labor Day. Requiring the school year to begin mid-August, means opening up the buildings and keeping the AC on full blast during what is arguable the hottest time of the year in Florida. Here too, the board can save a full two weeks of energy consumption and transportation costs. I guess it’s like my grandma used to say; the only thing common about common sense is that it’s very uncommon.
A third strategy is to mobilize our professional sports athletes in South Florida to help out the cause. Like the saying goes, charity begins at home. Society has some misplaced values when hard working teachers and other civic employees are low men on the totem pole, while our athletes make millions of dollars because they can run fast, jump high, or throw a ball at 90 mph. I don’t minimize their skills, but it’s high time that our heroes of the court and field got on board to back our teachers and our schools. I am starting a fund, entitles S.O.S. – Save Our Schools. All funds will go to keep our teachers and support staff employed. Imagine if every professional athlete in South Florida gave 10% or even 5% of their incomes to help bridge this terrible budget gap. We’d probably have enough funds right there to overcome this crisis for the next millennium. Even if some of our top paid athletes would contribute, say a mere two or three percent of their astronomical incomes, teachers’ jobs and our very school system can be saved.
It’s time for concrete action. We don’t need another fact-finding committee to report on the previous 10 reports to suggest yet another fact-finding mission. We’re talking about saving thousands of jobs in our school districts and improving the school system. We’re not talking about numbers here. These are real people and real people’s lives at stake. When a primary care provider loses employment it not only taxes society’s resources but also places a horrible strain on the families involved. The board should implement the four-day school week, start the school year after Labor Day, and we need our local athletes to, pardon the expression, step to the plate. Our teachers and staff deserve to be treated with respect and our students need a truly well rounded and great education. The time is now to S.O.S. – Save Our Schools. The R.I.P. stone on Florida’s public schools is too close for comfort.