Rabbi Clevenger shares her report on a wonderful class with seventh graders

Today I set out to finish our unit on Chanukah with your kids and ended up having an incredible discussion with them about the tragedy in Connecticut and Jewish ideas about life and death.  Rashi has done an excellent job of helping students talk about the Sandy Hook killings and it was not my intention to have further discussions in class, but this is where we went.  I want to share a detailed account with you, mostly because I am proud of what just happened, and also so that you can follow up if you choose.
Class began with my explaining that the ancient Jews believed that when terrible things happened to us, it was God’s way of letting us know that God was angry.  I spoke with them about how the descendants of the Maccabees, the heroes of Chanukah, were the Hasmoneans.  The Hasmoneans were the priests who ran the ancient Temple, and they were largely corrupt.  They sold sacrifices to the highest bidder and made the Temple more a place of business than of religion.  Many Jews were also highly assimilated into Greco-Roman culture by that time.  When the Romans came and destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, it was believed by some Jews that the Romans were the weapon that God sent to punish the Jewish people for their corruption and assimilation.
I shared with students that in modern times, especially since the Holocaust, most people do not believe that suffering is a punishment for sin.  I used as an example that no sane and reasonable person would ever say that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for the sins of the Jewish people.  I informed your kids that there are some people who do say that, but that they are completely wrong.  Then a student drew a connection to the shootings in Connecticut: “It would be like saying that the kids and teachers who died in Connecticut did something wrong and that God sent the shooter.”  Everyone immediately agreed that this idea is completely wrong and disgusting.
A student asked if the idea that people are punished for their sins is like karma.  I explained briefly that karma is a Hindu religious concept based on belief in reincarnation, and that since Jews don’t believe in reincarnation, karma doesn’t work within our theological system.  Instead I shared the text from Pirkei Avot, a text from the Mishnah (200 CE) often called “The Wisdom of our Fathers.”  The text says: “A mitzvah leads to a mitzvah.  A transgression leads to a transgression.  It’s good to be righteous.”  We noted that this text is not about people, just about mitzvahs and transgressions, and that it ends with the very general statement that it’s good to be righteous.  I shared with the students the list of 26 Acts of Kindness that were sent home this morning, and suggested that engaging in this work would be a way to ensure that a mitzvah leads to a mitzvah, but also that a transgression can lead to a mitzvah, that we can respond to tragedy by trying to fill the world with more goodness.
Then we got into a conversation about whether it is sadder when children die versus adults (who may be spouses and parents themselves).  There was respectful dialogue on that question.  One student asked why the principal and school psychologist at Sandy Hook tried to stop the gunman, and others responded with their beliefs, also varied and respectful.  A student asked why Rashi chose not to inform students and teachers of the events in CT during the school day on Friday, and I explained about a desire to keep things calm in school and of a respect for the rights of parents to share this information with their children in a way that each parent felt was appropriate.
We all left the room knowing that something very special and important had happened here.  One student chuckled as he realized that this incredibly deep conversation had come from a simple text study about Chanukah.  It just goes to show that our kids are making connections that we can’t even imagine, and that they are eager and ready to use what they know to make sense of the world in which we live.  None of this surprises me, but I am so grateful to have been part of this moment with your kids.
P.S. I also told the kids that I was willing to bet that the thing that each of their parents wanted to do most after hearing about Friday’s tragedy was to hold their kids.  I described my own teary-eyed drive to pick up my children on Friday afternoon, how even though I knew that they were safe, I just wanted to hold them.  I suggested that they ask you if this was indeed what you were thinking and feeling too.  Be prepared for the question.


26 Acts of Kindness

Rashi 5th Graders write letters of comfort to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School
Rashi 5th Graders write letters of comfort to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary School

Dear Rashi Community,

At a heartbreaking time like this, our core values at Rashi can be a valuable guide and foundation to doing good in the world.  Our tradition teaches that one way to counter-act evil is to outweigh the evil with ma’asim tovim – good deeds. We learn from the rabbis that “the world rests on three things, on Torah, on Avoda (worship) and on Gemilut Chasadim (deeds of loving kindness). Love, compassion, prayer and deeds of loving kindness for all people can help re-align the world.

It is in that spirit that the Rashi community will be joining others from all over the country to commit to doing acts of kindness in memory of those who lost their lives on that tragic day and in honor of those who survived.

When should you start?

You can begin right now! We have included a list of concrete examples of acts of kindness. Our hope is that this list will get you thinking about the range of possibilities and inspire you to create your own expressions of kindness.

How can you start? 

Share your acts of kindness with the Rashi community by going to the Rashi blog and posting them in the comment box. There you also will be able to learn what others are doing in our school community.

Our goal is to “bundle” every 26 acts of kindness that we receive from the Rashi community and share them with the Sandy Hook community.

While the profound sadness remains, turning to our core values and doing ma’asim tovim – good deeds – is a meaningful place to start.


Rabbi Clevenger

Rabbi Ellen

Stephanie Rotsky

Ideas for Acts of Kindness

Walk a neighbor’s dog.

Photograph someone being kind to another.

Transport someone who can’t drive.

Invite a classmate to eat lunch with you.

Treat a friend to the movies.

Make a slide show of favorite photos for a friend or family member.

Make dinner for someone who has just returned from the hospital.

Plant a tree.

Surprise someone and invite him/her for a first-ever sleep over.

Write notes of appreciation at least once a week.

Give up your seat for someone, not just an elderly person.

Make a video for someone with whom you haven’t spoken in awhile.

Smile a lot. Hug a lot.

Donate to a food pantry or homeless shelter.

Tutor a student; be a reading buddy.

Put some coins in someone else’s parking meter.

Make a card at home and send it to a friend.

Help an elderly neighbor carry the garbage out.

Tell all your family members how much you appreciate them.

Bring flowers to someone who is sad.

Read to a child.

Donate 26 pairs of socks to a homeless shelter.

Give another driver your parking spot.

Make a CD mix of your favorite music for a teacher, sibling or a parent.

Donate books to a daycare center or school.

Collect mittens or hats and give to those in need.

Let someone go ahead of you in line at the grocery store.

Surprise construction workers on a cold, rainy day with hot chocolate.

Take your dog and pay a visit to a housebound person.

Visit someone who is sick and cheer her/him up with funny stories.

Talk to a homeless person and have a “normal” conversation.

Send a handwritten note of thanks to a person who has helped you in   the past.

Visit with an elderly person and listen to their stories.

Give a huge tip to someone when s/he least expects it.

Smile a lot. Love a lot.

Chanukah, the Festival of Light, occurs during the darkest and shortest of our days. The Chanukiah is a metaphor for light so how can we make life and the world around us less of a “dark” place? Could we incorporate behaviors and events to “illuminate” darkness through loving-kindness?  Image

Try to incorporate these kavanot along with the traditional Chanukah blessing into your family’s candle lighting each night. Hopefully they will enhance the meaning of your Chanukah celebration and illuminate the many blessings and opportunities in our lives to bring more light and goodness into the world.

Shamash – For Those in Need May the light of these Chanukah candles remind us that no matter how bad our situation might be, there is always someone who can benefit from our help. May the One who brings us light help us to notice those in need and enable us to reach out and support them.

First CandleFor Healing May the light of these Chanukah candles give us the strength, knowledge and creativity to find cures for illness. May the One who brings us light help us provide healing of body and spirit to the sick and support those who care for the sick.

Second CandleFor the Troops May the light of these Chanukah candles bring reason in times of war. May the One who brings us light help us to understand Israel and stand with Her in difficult times. We pray for the safety of the troops defending the State of Israel and our American soldiers, stateside and abroad, and look forward to the day when all will live in peace together.

Third CandleFor the Children and Youth May the light of these Chanukah candles shine on children and youth in our world. May the One who brings us light inspire them with hope, energy, respect for themselves and others and a passion to make the world better.

Fourth Candle – For the Impoverished May the light of these Chanukah candles bring hope and relief to those who experience poverty. May the One who brings us light lift us up and remind us of our responsibility to provide for one another and ensure that everyone has their basic needs met.

Fifth Candle – For Those Who Step Up and Speak Out.  May the light of these Chanukah candles inspire each person to stand up for the rights and freedoms for all people in challenging times and every day. May the One who brings us light give us the courage to stand up and speak out for others who cannot always speak up for themselves.

Sixth Candle – For Those Affected by Hurricane Sandy May the light of these Chanukah candles continue to inspire and motivate others around the world to reach out and provide help and support to those people affected by Hurricane Sandy. May the One who brings us light help bring back hope, spirit and happiness to those who are still suffering.

Seventh Candle – For the State of Israel.  May the light of these Chanukah candles remind us and the global community to cherish Israel and hold Her in our consciousness. May the One who brings us light renew in us an everlasting connection with and love for Israel and Her people.

Eighth Candle – For Those who Share the Light of Knowledge.  May the light of these Chanukah candles continue to inspire everyone who cherishes learning and teaching others. May the One who brings us light give us opportunities every day to use our learning to enrich our lives and better our world.