Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The purpose of prayer

On Thursday 12 July, the Mayanot Women’s Program was treated to a guest lecture by Rabbi Moshe Yusgur on ‘Prayer and Its Relevance’. The topic was a dense one, leading to many interesting tangents and discussions within the lecture, although Rabbi Yusgur was always able to bring the class back to the original question.
Why do we pray, and how do we know that G-d wants us to pray? G-d is unknowable, so how is it that we know He wants us to pray? Rabbi Yusgur stated that G-d is revealed to us in several key ways – through nature, and through the Torah. Within the Torah, there are 10 expressions relating to the word ‘prayer.’ We pray because G-d wants us to do so, because it is our way of becoming closer to our Creator and connecting with G-d
Our job is to pray – to ask G-d for things, to request things and express gratitude – in this way, by remembering G-d and acknowledging G-d, we are serving him. It is a way to be aware of the world we live in, to appreciate and improve it, and in that way become close to Godliness.
It was a great privilege to hear Rabbi Yusgur on the subject. He took the time to answer each and every one of the many questions posted to him with good grace and patience. We explored every avenue and problem associated with notion of prayer, from why we should do it, to how often and in which format. His talk expertly married the intellectual problematic of prayer with the spiritual impulse to prayer. It was certainly a stimulating, challenging and interesting afternoon for our students.

Make yourself a teacher: A class with Professor Susan Handelman

Last week,Professor Susan Handelman, a Chicago native, a professor of English at Bar –Ilan University and the author of several books and articles (as well as being a translator on the Rebbe’s book ‘On the essence of Chassidus’), including her latest work ‘Make yourself a teacher: Rabbinic Tales of Mentors and Disciples’, gave an interesting and invigorating address to students of the Mayanot Women’s Program and members of the community.  In keeping with her latest book, the topic of Professor Handelman’s talk was ‘Talmud and Teachers: New Readings of the Talmud’, in which she examined several stories of Rabbi Eliezer in order to draw conclusions about the teacher/student relationship in Torah learning.

The talk was held in memory of Myra Kraft, on the occasion of her first Yarzheit. Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, Dean of Mayanot, opened the talk with a warm introduction, and welcome, of Professor Handelman before sharing his memories and impressions of Myra. He told of Myra’s visits to the Mayanot Women’s Program, where she would take the time to speak to every individual, asking questions about their life and why they had decided to study at Mayanot.  She did this not as a matter of course, but because she was truly interested. Myra was a woman who cared about people, and who took the time to show that care.

Professor Handelman began her talk with a moving tribute to Myra Kraft, perfectly evoking and encapsulating her character in an anecdote from Myra’s childhood – when at 5, she went door-to-door around her neighbourhood asking for donations for the children placed in Displaced Peoples’ Camps after the Second World War. Here was Myra – forthright, strong, and devoted to philanthropy – all her wonderful characteristics distilled at the age of 5! The point of mourning in Judaism and sitting Shiva, Professor Handelman noted, is to share stories of the deceased and to form a new or fresh relationship with that person. After telling that anecdote, I certainly felt I had some understanding of Myra Kraft as a person, and certainly felt I wished I had known her. Professor Handelman quoted Thornton Wilder in saying that ‘what is essential does not die, but clarifies’. In that anecdote, the essential kernel of Myra Kraft’s character was clarified, and it impacted upon every person in the room.

The crux of Professor Handelman’s talk was the nature of Torah learning and the importance of the relationship between teacher and student.  ‘The Torah is not a text’, Professor Handelman maintains, ‘it is a living relationship between teacher and student’. The Torah cannot be deconstructed and analysed as we would a work of literature, it can be understood only through the symbiotic relationship of teacher and student. ‘We are the people of the mouth’, she says, ‘not the book.’

Using the stories of Rabbi Eliezer, Professor Handelman showed the cycles involved in Torah study. First Rabbi Eliezer has the willingness to study, then he must find a teacher, which is a difficult and often arduous process, and then finally, he must continue to learn without the aid of his teacher and begin to teach others. This is the central nature of Jewish learning, when one has gained knowledge, one has an obligation to share it – as the Rebbe said, if all you know of the alphabet is ‘א’ and ‘ב’, you are obligated to teach someone ‘ב’.

Professor Handelman’s talk certainly mirrored her philosophy of Jewish learning.  Professor Handelman asked the audience for their interpretations of the story of Rabbi Eliezer in which he goes to meet with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, without having eaten. A lively discussion followed, in which all opinions were heard and all points of view considered. As a result there were many different interpretations of the story, illuminating different aspects and ideas to be considered, the possibilities from just that one story seemed truly endless. This perfectly displayed the dynamic of the teacher/student relationship in which learning and understanding comes through discussion, and through the interaction between teacher and student. We could not have asked for a better teacher than Professor Handelman, her talk was warm, often funny, and always interesting. This student came away from it with more knowledge than I had going in, and which I look forward to passing on!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Thank you for being a friend! Tales of the Mayanot-Friendship Circle trip to Israel

Five years ago the Friendship Circle and Mayanot teamed up to begin a one-of-a-kind Taglit- Birthright Israel trip, catered to young Jewish adults with special needs.

The Friendship Circle is a social outreach program for Jewish youth with special needs. It is run by, and within, the Jewish community, and is run on a volunteer-basis. Hindy Finman volunteers at the Philadelphia branch of the Friendship Circle, which is associated with Chabad. It is Hindi’s firm belief that every Jew, no matter their situation in life, deserves a chance to visit Israel. This belief matches that of Birthright Israel and of Mayanot.

Mayanot were eager to get involved and become the trip provider for the Friendship Circle Birthright trip. ‘Mayanot have been really great’, Hindi says, ‘They really work with us every step of the way.’ The Mayanot – Friendship Circle trip happens once a year, to ensure the best planned and organized trip possible.  It is important to Mayanot, and to Friendship Circle, that this trip provides the best Israel experience possible for the participants. Now in its fifth year, the Taglit- Birthright Israel: Mayanot- Friendship Circle trip has grown in popularity. This year, 33 participants are taking part, 27 of whom are young adults with special needs ranging from autism to downs syndrome, and 6 of whom are college students who elected to take part in this trip rather than a mainstream Birthright Israel trip.

Amidst the backdrop of providing an Israel experience and giving them an opportunity to learn about, and engage with, Israel, the Mayanot-Friendship Circle trip has two primary goals – the first goal is to encourage and foster friendships on the trip. The Israel trip is an excellent opportunity for socializing – the participants take part in experiences which bind them together quickly, leading to close friendships which last throughout the trip and beyond.  The format of the trip encourages a relaxed, social atmosphere which makes it easier for the participants to get know each other and form friendships. The second goal of the trip is to encourage independence amongst the participants. At the beginning of the trip, guidance is given to make sure the participants are fully ready for the day ahead, i.e. that they go to bed at a good hour the night before, but as the trip wears on,  the participants are expected to do things like this on their own, encouraging their own sense of independence and capability.

Spending time with the participants on a particularly sunny Jerusalem afternoon, as they browsed the shops on Ben Yehuda Street, it was absolutely clear what a blast they were having and how much they enjoyed their time in Israel. Daniel Cohen, from Chicago, said that his two highlights were Tel Dan because it is ‘amazing’ and visiting the Wailing Wall because he found it very moving. Daniel says he has made ‘excellent, long lasting friendships’ on the trip. Nicholas Benjamin agreed, saying ‘it has been very interesting, especially the variety of activities. I appreciate the opportunity to get to see and experience Israel.’  Likewise, the soldiers who joined this Birthright Israel trip said it was a ‘meaningful experience.’ Like the college students, these soldiers chose to join this particular Birthright Israel trip. They said the experience has been ‘interesting. We understand a lot of things more now than we did before the trip and we have grown to love all the participants.’

The Taglit-Birthright Israel: Mayanot-Friendship Circle Birthright trip has become an important and anticipated part of Mayanot’s Birthright Israel itinerary.  Mayanot and Friendship Circle are proud of the success of the initiative, which is helping to fulfill their goal of ensuring that ever y young Jew has the opportunity to visit Israel. Mayanot and Friendship Circle look forward to many more smiles and successful trips in the future![gallery]




Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Mazel Tov to our Mayanot Girls!

We would like to wish a big mazel tov to the following Mayanot Alumni on their recent engagements:

Devra Nusbaum on her engagement to Shimon Radovsky

Sara Klasner on her engagement to Zev Icyk

and Menucha Howell on her engagement to Adam Saitowitz

We wish you all years and years of health, happiness and many more simchas