Archive for September, 2010

Sukkot in Yosemite

September 30, 2010

This article was first published as “Day school families celebrate Sukkot in Yosemite” in the September 30 issue of JWeekly. Click here to read it there.

Kiku Shaw with lulav and etrog in Yosemite (photo by Kim Shain)

The lulav and the etrog joined the flora and the fauna at Yosemite last week, as more than 800 members of the Brandeis Hillel Day School community made a pilgrimage to the national park to celebrate Sukkot.

Students and their families built a communal sukkah on the valley floor, eating some meals not only underneath a thatched roof but also in the shadow of Half Dome and El Capitan.

The event began in 2001 and occurs once every three years — so the visit from Sept. 23 through Sept. 25 was the school’s fourth. Tabbed “Sukkat Shalom: A Canopy of Peace,” it was attended by more than half of the 520 families that send their kids to Brandeis Hillel Day School, which has campuses in San Francisco and Marin.

“Coming here to Yosemite just feels like Sukkot for us,” said Jan Reicher, the immediate past president of BHDS. She joined the festivities in Yosemite with her husband, Yossie Alouf, and their daughters, Adi and Alex. “What could be more Sukkot-like than feeling grateful in nature? And there’s also nothing better for building community.”

Adi Alouf attended the event even though she is no longer a BHDS student; she’s now a sophomore at Jewish Community High School of the Bay.

“It’s so fun. I have so many wonderful memories of Sukkot in Yosemite,” said Adi, who helped lead one of three Shabbat prayer services on Friday night. “Every time, I explore something new and make connections with new people.”

Organizing an event for more than 800 people — students, parents and 25 staff members — almost 200 miles away from San Francisco is no simple matter. A planning committee of 17 volunteers worked for an entire year to ensure that things ran smoothly. According to planning committee member Todd Strauss, the biggest challenge was ensuring the success of such a highly decentralized program.

Over half of the school's 520 families celebrated Sukkot in Yosemite. (photo by Sam Lauter)

Some participants stayed for the whole event, and others attended a portion of it. With so many people altogether, it was impossible for everyone to be in the same place at the same time.

Families were given a wide variety of options in terms of both accommodation and activities. Some families stayed at one of the hotels or lodges in the park, while others camped in cabins, tents or RVs. Vanessa Friedman, who made the trek in an RV with her husband, Marty, and daughters, Sofia and Sara, reported that some families even built their own sukkahs at their camping spots.

Communal prayer services for Sukkot, Shabbat and Havdallah were led by students, parents and faculty. Hikes, art classes, Torah study and bicycle rides were also offered. Some hikes were lead by naturalists and professional photographers, but others were led by volunteers from the school community and focused on Jewish content.

Fourth-grader Chloe Tickten, who attends BHDS in San Francisco, enjoyed the hike on which faculty members dressed as ushpizin (guests) showed up along the route. “We had to guess who they were,” she recalled excitedly. “There was Moses, Abraham, Jacob and some other ones.”

There were grade-level dinners and campfires — some planned ahead of time and others put together spontaneously.

Friedman, whose daughters attend BHDS in Marin, said she really enjoyed the opportunity to get to know families from the San Francisco campus. “Being in such a beautiful setting with our community is so spectacular, so spiritual,” she added.

Stephen Tickten, whose three children attend the San Francisco campus, said that his family is now friendly with other families they met at the same event three years ago.

Head of School Chaim Heller (left) and other faculty unfurl a Torah scroll during prayer services. (photo by Kim Shain)

Chaim Heller, the BHDS head of school, was pleased to see the event get off to such a rousing start, as some 200 people gathered the morning of Sept. 23 for Shacharit services.

“This program is a real passion of mine,” said Heller. “We even have students’ grandparents flying in from around the country to be with us.”

The kids had a wide range of favorite experiences — from seeing animals (two male bucks, a baby bear and a coyote) on a bike ride to going on a hike with dad next to a waterfall to doing art projects in the middle of a meadow.

It was “part summer camp, part Israel — and all at the base of the Yosemite Valley floor,” said one dad, Marc Dollinger.

Sam Lauter, a dad with two children on the San Francisco campus, hopes that even more families do the trip in 2013. “It’s too beautiful a place and too great a community to miss it,” he said.

Strauss echoed the sentiment.

“Torah in the morning, a bike ride in the afternoon, and then seeing the moonlight reflected off El Capitan and Half Dome at night,” he said. “What Sukkot experience could be better?”

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Seniors Return to Campus

September 30, 2010

This article was first published as “Seniors take advantage of vibrant campus life” in the September 30 issue of JWeekly. Click here to read it there.

Oct. 24 is “Homecoming Day” at the Moldaw Family Residences on the Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life in Palo Alto. Though there won’t be a football game or harvest moon dance, there will be lots of celebration as the residents mark a year since the first of them moved into the facility.

Residents — seniors ranging in age from 71 to 93 — report that there is much to celebrate at 899 Charleston, as it is also known.

“It’s great here,” says Geraldine Kane, who moved to the Moldaw Residences from Westchester, N.Y., to be closer to her daughter. Since relocating to Palo Alto, Kane says she is “busier than I’ve ever been before.”

Sitting in the Moldaw’s spacious and inviting lobby during an interview, Kane says she has been amazed at how easily she has made new friends, many of whom share her passion for the cultural activities that are offered. Besides events held on campus, there are activities off-campus as well. Recently, for example, “A group of us went on an outing to a performance of the San Jose Rep, organized by the JCC,” she notes.

Moldaw Family Residences executive director Marilyn Israel (left) with Nancy Rossen, president of the residents' association

The Moldaw’s proximity to the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, also located on the campus, is a big draw for many of the residents.

The complex was designed to integrate the senior residence into the campus community, which serves a span of generations and Jewish interests.

The facility has 182 fully-appointed apartments — 12 different models ranging from 700-square-foot one-bedroom units to 1,500-square-foot three-bedroom ones — with a capacity of about 250 residents. Currently, 100 apartments are spoken for; they are either occupied, or their owners are in various stages of taking ownership and moving in.

There is no question that the economy has played a major role in the Moldaw’s slower-than-anticipated start. “Although houses in Palo Alto are still selling, people are staying in their home, waiting to see if prices will go up,” says Marilyn Israel, executive director of the Moldaw Family Residences. “Our biggest competition is our potential residents’ own homes.”

Entrance fees for Moldaw Family Residences apartments start at $489,000 (with a $2,805 monthly fee) and go up to $1,171,000  (with a $5,800 monthly fee).  Twenty-four units are available for below-market rates, starting at $270,000, in accordance with Palo Alto’s Below Market Rate Housing Purchase Program.

When prospective residents come for a tour, they are met by any one of 40 current residents who have eagerly volunteered to be ambassadors for their new home.

Although most of the residents hail from the South Peninsula and South Bay, some — like Kane — are transplants from as far away as New York and Florida. In fact, Israel has received several inquiries from prospective residents who have no personal or family connections to the Palo Alto area, but who are intrigued by the campus’ concept of intergenerational living.

The eight-building Moldaw facility includes 11 memory-support units, some of which are already occupied. There are also 12 assisted-living units, none of which are yet open. Living assistance by skilled nursing is already available, however, through partnerships with the Jewish Home and other institutions.

Ultimately, the Residences will encompass independent living, assisted living, skilled nursing care and memory-support care.

“As residents age in place, it’s all about focusing on health and wellness, so as to extend the period of independent living for as long as possible,” Israel explains.

Residents enjoy two outdoor areas, a spacious library, a dining room (kosher and non-kosher meals are available), and 11 shared activity and media spaces. Many of the activity rooms have kitchens.

While a few of the residents are still working full time, most are retired and taking advantage of the packed schedule of events and activities offered to them both on campus and off.  They can partake in yoga, tai chi, knitting, gardening, film screenings, mah jongg, museum and concert outings, to name just a few of the options. And with JCC membership included in the price of their apartment, many residents head over to the adjacent fitness center on a regular basis.

People are also attracted by the “maintenance-free lifestyle,” as Israel puts it — amenities such as a 24-hour concierge and on-site nurse, door-to-door transportation, and tight security.

Nancy Rossen, president of the residents’ association, says the sense of community is quite strong. Rossen is an active, 45-year resident of Palo Alto and member of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

“We have an active group that wants to get out into the broader community,” Rossen says. To that end, there are six standing committees of the association that support the staff in improving life within the Residences, as well as connections residents have with local organizations and institutions in the Palo Alto area.

In particular, “We are working on more alliances with the JCC,” Rossen says. Currently, the Residences runs its own program calendar, and the JCC’s seniors department runs its own. Rossen’s group is working toward a closer relationship and more integration between the two.

Children from the JCC’s T’enna Preschool, who deliver challah to Moldaw every Friday, have gotten to know residents. And several residents have been volunteering at the school.

Rossen looks forward to the residents “continuing to mature as a community. Our job is to service the community’s needs and to bring more people into active participation.”

Says Israel, “We are well on our way to making the vision of a fully integrated Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life a reality.”

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.

Too Much Beauty

September 29, 2010

This post first appeared as “Why the Tefillin Barbie Minyan Gives Me the Creeps” in The Sisterhood blog of the Forward. Click here to read it there.

The first time I saw Tefillin Barbie, — the brainchild of Torah scribe Jen Taylor Friedman — she was on the back of the stub of an entrance ticket to the Jewish Museum Berlin. She wasn’t on my ticket stub, but rather on that of my companion. But seeing that I just had to have her, I arranged for a quick exchange. My colleague didn’t seem to mind — he wasn’t as taken by the photo of Tefillin Barbie as I was.

It’s a bit hard to say why exactly it was love at first sight for me. It couldn’t have been nostalgia; I was not exactly a big Barbie fan when I was a girl.

I think in large part, it probably had something to do with my having recently seen Tiffany Shlain’s film, “The Tribe,” which uses Barbie (based on the German “Lilli” doll) as a symbol for 20th century Jewish American identity and acculturation. Perhaps, when I laid eyes on Tefillin Barbie, while standing there in the once-Nazi capital, I heard her proudly say, “Look at me! I survived! I am a beautiful woman, a beautiful Jewish woman. And I have gone on to do great things, such as changing ways in which we Jewish women see ourselves and our roles in the Jewish community.”

Barbie Minyan by Jen Taylor Friedman

However, this love fest with Tefillin Barbie was relatively short-lived. It ended when I realized that Tefillin Barbie was not unique. Indeed, there is actually a whole minyan of impossibly proportioned plastic dolls. A photo of a group of the davening darlings appeared on the Facebook page for Women of the Wall, posted there by one of the organization’s supporters who surely thought it made a positive statement.

I, on the other hand, was immediately turned off by this scene of 11 Barbies gathered around an unfurled miniature Torah scroll. Sure, Barbie was still wearing her tallit and tefillin, which was why I liked her so much in the first place. But now I saw that she was also wearing an ankle-length, long denim skirt. Only the top half of her artificial body could be viewed in the photo on the back of my museum ticket stub.

An ankle-length denim skirt screams “frum!”; and “frum” is not me. I suppose I would not have been bothered by the skirt had only one or two of the dolls been wearing these skirts. After all, I am a strong proponent of religious pluralism and have found myself many a time in the company of Jewish women is modest dress. The problem was that all the dolls were dressed this way. Tefillin Barbie no longer represented Jewish women to me, but rather only the religiously observant kind.

It is precisely the pluralism and diversity of Jewish women that make us so interesting and strong. In fact, Women of the Wall is a perfect example of how Jewish women of all stripes can come together to change the Jewish world. And not only all stripes, but all shapes and sizes, too.

minyan of perfect, blond Barbies sends the opposite message. While the dolls give off a creepy Stepford Wives vibe, the life-size and variously proportioned Jewish women, fighting for the right for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, pack a real punch that lives up to their organization’s expressive acronym.

So, it turns out — at least for me — that there can be such a thing as too much beauty.

© 2010 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.