You didn’t need to hear this

You can take the man out of Twitter but I suppose it’s not so easy to take the Twitter out of the man.

This morning, I was feeling downright giddy to receive a hot expresso in a little ceramic cup from the Kefa Cafe at the Wheaton Library that I was instinctively inclined to tweet about it! It probably would have sounded something like this:

Hot expresso from @Kefacafe at the Wheaton Branch of @mcpllibraries on my way into a virtual meeting — perfect!

And why would I do that? What is it that prompted me, when I was still on the Twitter, to interrupt my internal experience of an occurrence in order to start composing in my mind the social media microblog to share the experience with the world?

The world – ha! Not even the world, just with my network, my professional learning network, and thanks to the wonders of social media algorithms, just a small portion of my available network.

I suppose it has to do with our natural inclination to connect with others and, whether we like it or not, to garner approval from them. Cal Newport treats this skillfully in A World Without Email. That the modern ubiquity of email hijacks our evolutionary inclination to want to share with others, and be affirmed by them.

Well I’m no slave to social media, I said to myself. Thanks to a recent digital declutter (documented cooly here by Philip Levy), I no longer need such primitive, knee-jerk sharings of my common experiences. I’m certainly not going to share THAT on social media.

I’ll just write a blog post about it. 😉

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If everyone had what I have

I love Bikram yoga, that hot yoga where you grunt and sweat in 100 degrees for 90 minutes of “moving meditation.” Considering the placement of quotes in the previous sentence is quite interesting to me here. The punctuation comes to acknowledge that not everyone experiences the class in quite such a Zen way. But I do, verily.

I go to class, three times a week, somewhat religiously, to transact a very personal type of business. To strive physically, especially to improve my heart and joint functioning. But the greater benefit to me is the mental and spiritual strengthening I get from being in a room with no escape (in both Sartre’s and Pema Chodron’s usages). It is almost exactly like being on the meditation mat; There is simultaneously nothing to accomplish but so much to do. It’s an active practice this doing nothing. Or doing something.

Would that everyone had a rigorous physical practice in their life that they loved to do – that exercises body, mind, spirit! And to have a lovely community like the one at Bikram Yoga Works. Hit me up if you want to come to a class some time.

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Get yourself a group of people

As Philip Levy wrote recently, a bunch of us have started to meet weekly to “book club” (can I use that as a verb?) Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and knew personally that if we constructed layers of meaning and interaction on top of this core “text,” it could make the learning and corresponding action stickier.

And it has! We just had our third weekly gathering today and I can’t say enough about what it brings to me personally. The meeting structure and facilitation approach is pretty lean — by design, so that it’s sustainable for a personal-time activity at lunch – but provides a decent space for member sharing and interactions.

All of this moves me to offer a riff on the oft-quoted but wrongly-attributed statement by Goethe: Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Instead I would offer:

Whatever learning you can do alone, or dream you can, begin it with others.

Kids playing rugby. Source
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I did something last week that I haven’t done in a long time. I wrote a poem. I was motivated by my friend Hannah Braune-Friedman, who wrote a lovely poem to my wife for her birthday a few weeks ago. And was also inspired by the simple power of this dvar Torah by Rabbi Aviva Richman of Hadar. She explored the idea of God’s appearing to us in different ways over the course of our lives, and with different names.

I was made to think of my mother, Sheila Weinraub-Silverman, in this way on her Yahrzeit. She died 12 years ago but our relationship continues to evolve. She appeared to me (Vaera) one way as a child, another way as a parent, and still another way in her death.

Her memory continues to be a blessing. That I know this is a blessing itself.


I appeared to you there

In the light of the doorway when you found your way home

In the dark,

So relieved to see your face.

You called me Mom.

The mother of David, Pam, and Michael.

Then, I was the one who greeted you

In the kitchen

Around the butcher block,

Listening to the stories of your world

Never tiring of them.

I was your biggest fan, and your home. 

I appeared much later

In a weaker form.

Not weary but aged

Before my time you might say

But it was My time.

There I was, Lily and Isaac’s Grandma Madre. 

Now I appear to you in dreams and unexpected moments

And favorite snacks.

I’m still your mother but you cannot see my face.

My back I will show you

A memory of the eyes that watch you

The hands that hold you

The heart that loves you. 

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How a Buddhist and a Rabbi Taught Me Not to Hate Simchas Torah

I went and told Rabbi Uri, my rabbi and spiritual leader at our shul, that I didn’t like Simchas Torah, the last day of a month of Jewish holidays in the fall. I wasn’t bragging, to the contrary, I was seeking insight that might make me hate it less, even (gasp!) enjoy it.

My beef was with the hakafos most of all, the custom of dancing in circles around the Torah. It is potentially fun — it has even been transcendally wonderful at times — sweaty, trippy, and hypnotic. But that is in the best of times. In small shuls like mine, it can feel not so trippy and hypnotic. Instead, it can feel forced, tired, and repetitive.

Rabbi Uri Topolosky said much in a short period of time and it was very compelling. He talked about the symbolic difference between dancing/circling before the Torah on Sukkos and dancing WITH the Torah on Simchas Torah. He talked about the value of rejoicing in “the gift of our portion,” our inheritance which is the Torah. And, since he’s an insightful and personal speaker, hit me where I lived by affirming the value of our children seeing us dance and have fun in the context of Torah Judaism.

Perhaps because I respect him so, his words fell on good soil.

But they interestingly reminded me of another teacher of mine, though I have never met or talked to her personally. I thought of Pema Chodron’s teachings about adopting a kind of openness to whatever happens. And I imagined what transcendental fun hakafos (dancing circles) could be if I did not impose my own preconceived notions on them. Imagine if I were not a somewhat stodgy insider but was visiting a foreign land where the people invited me to their faith community’s celebration. And I heard their new and strange music, and held their sweaty hands as we danced around in a spirit of friendliness and brotherhood. And lifted my children, and other people’s children in the air, and laughed with surprise and glee.

When it’s presented that way, it doesn’t sound half bad. See you in shul!

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The Facilitator Doth Protest Too Much

Last week I compared myself to Moses. Okay, I didn’t really COMPARE myself to Moses, it’s more like I expressed sympathy for him and his situation, and likened it to a particular facet of my life. The whole saving-the-Jewish-people-on-behalf-of-God thing was obviously draining for him, and led him to ask one of the most human things he ever said (at least at is was recorded in the Torah): WHAT IF THEY DON’T LISTEN TO ME?

It’s a question most leaders ask at some point, and most facilitators ask about once every seven minutes. What if the participants don’t want to do what I propose? What if I can tell in advance that the design is just not quite there, that the convening will not be all that it could be, or should be?

Well, this is what I call the Facilitator’s Lament and it’s real. But at the same time, it behooves the sensitive facilitator to step back a little bit and be real in a different way. Facilitation is important because meetings are important. And meetings are important because that is one way that people – often imperfectly and awkwardly – come together to inform and support each other. So yes, we should take our work seriously and endeavor to satisfy the clear and measurable objectives we OBVIOUSLY articulated at the outset of the convening. But at the same time, this is neither grueling in the way that so many jobs are physically demanding, nor draining in the way that so many jobs are deeply hierarchical, or soul-squeezing in the way that many jobs are painfully repetitive.

It is often a privilege to design and lead meetings. As it is a privilege to lead teams in general. And a privilege to lead the Jewish people right out of Egypt. I think of this often on Shabbat when I read the striking verse about Moses’ disposition toward his “work.”

“Moses rejoiced in the gift of his portion” — one giant step above the other biblical exhortation of simply being satisfied with his lot. He rejoiced. It was hard, at times epicly so, but according to the commentators, there was joy in the struggle.

That’s a great reminder to me to not wish away the holy challenges that design and facilitation offers, that the work of aligning activities to real human challenges and aspirations on teams is deeply important. But at the same time, it’s not like fighting for the liberation of a people. Or is it?

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Did Moses Use Liberating Structures?


This past Friday night, as we were talking about Vaera, this week’s Torah portion, I felt a connection to the biblical Moses that I had never experienced before. I saw him through the lens of my current self and I felt a kind of kinship, even pity, for the man who is considered the greatest prophet of the Jewish people. It may seem funny to feel pity for great people, but they felt pain too. I think of Frederick Douglass, whose sweeping biography I just finished. He wrote “My joys have far exceeded my sorrows and my friends have brought me far more than my enemies have taken from me.” Still, I feel for his suffering. 

Anyway, what you need to know here is that the lens through which I view Moses today is that of a facilitator. The biggest piece of my current professional work is designing and facilitating meetings. Meeting of all kinds — step backs, come-togethers, participatory decision-making, retreats, mini-retreats, brainstorms. It is both grueling and glorious work to try to bring people together through meetings. I sometimes feel like a struggling artist. Technique and experience can only get you so far. Sometimes it’s just you and your canvas and you’ve got to produce. I imagine many knowledge workers know how this feels. 

And that is the connection to Moses in this week’s parsha. Before Moses would come to Pharaoh to demand that he release the Jewish people, he came to the Jews themselves, but they would not listen to him (Exodus 6:9). Leaving aside for a moment the reasons they (or a portion of them) would not heed the prophet in their midst, I felt a great connection to Moses in reading that verse. What facilitator among us has not felt the pang of anxiety that their well-intentioned design and facilitative moves were falling flat, that the room was not with them? I feel this worry often, even in anticipation. It is almost as if it is I, instead of Moses, crying out “What if they don’t listen to me?!”

And I sympathize with Moses in this moment, along with every facilitator, teacher, manager, rabbi or any person who is trying to bring people together. Leading groups is sensitive, dynamic, and often complicated work. Which is why when it works, it is sublime. I recall being in middle school classrooms in New York City where the learning was apparent and the sense of community was palpable. It’s indescribable.

I appreciate the Moseses of the world, who are trying to bring people together through challenging circumstances. I want to show appreciation for their effort, and help them to be successful. Fortunately, most of us aren’t sent back to the place of our birth at 80 years old to tell the king, who happens to be our adopted grandfather, that he had better release many thousands of slaves from his kingdom or else. But hey, Moses didn’t have to design and facilitate two half-day retreats of a newly reorganized staff of 30. We’ve all got our struggles.

P.S. Liberating structures have been around for thousands of years, apparently, but Liberating Structures is a wonderful framework and collection of tools to facilitate great meetings. It’s worth a look.

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Don’t smash the TV again!

Playing ball in the basement is something I fully support, but I should have known that it would lead to destruction, at least of the tv we had mounted on the wall.

Basically, the way it works in our home is that when you hit a hacky sack with an elementary school recorder hard enough that the ball (I mean, hacky sack) hits the back wall of the basement, you get a home run. Well, my son hit the tv that was mounted on the back wall, creating a waterfall of colors emanating from the screen when you turn it on. It’s actually pretty cool to look at, if you forget about the fact that your tv will never work again.

Image retrieved 6/11/20 from

Tant pis.

Anyway, my father-in-law generously offered to buy us a new tv, but I wanted to make sure that the same thing didn’t happen again. Since I was not willing to stop playing “Mini baseball” in the basement, I would need to concoct a solution that protected the tv from harm. At first, I thought of making some type of a cabinet around the wall-mounted tv, but then I realized that my basement has a wall that opens up on the back to a storage area, my mind started working.

So I built a shelf in the wall with the idea that the depression in the wall would provide some shelter, and that an additional cover would do the rest.

Voila, here is the result, though I hope to decoupage a vintage poster on the front of the cover eventually. Got to add a little culture to our little baseball stadium, don’t I?

Picture of in-wall tv shelf and cover
Another picture of in-wall tv shelf and cover
Picture of in-wall tv shelf and cover, with the cover closed!
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When the soul is not aflame


I want to dedicate these remarks to the comfort and recovery of Rabbi Uri’s dad, Allan Topolosky. 

At the end of this week’s parsha, Parshas Nasso, we read about the completion of the Tabernacle, and the leaders of the tribes of Israel bring dedication offerings to honor the occasion.  And as you may recall, they all bring the same thing. The same collection of wagons and oxen and silver bowls and flour. No originality! No distinguishing one from the other.

Pure repetition. The act of repeating what came before, with little or no change. Pure repetition. 

Most people don’t like repetition. It seems boring and unnecessary. The word repetitive is almost always used to convey something negative. Yet, the Torah is replete with repetitiveness: the 10 commandments, portions of the Shema, and many many more.

So I’d like to offer two brief observations about repetition: one is liturgical and the other is psychological.

The first case is taken up by Rabbi Avi Weiss in his wonderful book, Holistic Prayer. In Chapter 6 he asks, what is the purpose for repeating the Amidah at the morning and afternoon prayers? Every individual says their own prayer, and then the Shaliyach Tzibbur repeats. Why? Basically, Rabbi Weiss’ answer is that the second amidah is not the same amidah.  Sure, the words are virtually the same, but the second is a communal experience and as such, it can be very different; In the first you’re talking to God, in the second, you’re along with somebody else for the ride. And like being in a car, when you’re along for the ride you can do certain things that you can’t do when you’re the one driving the car. You can look out the window, you can change the radio station, you can talk to the driver. You can take a nap, which hopefully you won’t do during the repetition of the Amidah (save that for the dvar Torah!). But remembering that they’re different can imbue each experience with a feeling of uniqueness. 

The enemy of passion is boredom. And an experience of sameness is an insidious cause of boredom.

In the example of the repetition of the amidah, most of us cannot flip the switch on demand, but it is possible to wake yourself up a little bit to say: Hey, it’s time for the second Amidah now, the people’s Amidah. That along with meditative, focusing practices can be very effective in flipping the switch from being committed but bored to having your soul aflame.

And as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: When the soul is not aflame, no light of speculation will illumine the darkness of indifference.

The good news is that with a little bit of intention, attention, and creativity, we can begin to see repetition not so much as repetitiveness but as a new opportunity and a uniquely different experience. 

And in discerning those differences, we can build curiosity, interest, passion, and gratitude, and be remaining fully awake no matter how many times we’ve done this act before.

Shabbat shalom.

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Taming the Bicycle Madness


It was madness. Bikes, skateboards, and scooters scattered over the yard and driveway. Finally, I repurposed some old lumber from a recent deck project to create this rack. Enough room for tires to fit into the openings, just high enough so that the weight of the bikes holds the tires in place.

And now when I ask the children to put their bikes away, there is actually an “away” to put them in.

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