Monday, March 27, 2023

Portland Talmud Torah (otherwise known as PoTaTo) recently received a generous donation from a local family. Magda and Murray Zerrin had sent their children to PoTaTo when the school was just starting out, and now their oldest grandchild was set to begin at the same school. In honor of the occasion, the Zerrins gave a sizable amount of money. In addition, they helped fund a project called ”Dorot” whose longer, and less fit-on-a-poster-able name was the “Zerrin Center for Generational Jewish Pride.” Dorot’s purpose was to teach Jewish teenagers about the pride in being Jewish. The Zerrins hoped that Dorot would inspire not only the PoTaTo students (the school went through 12th grade), but teenagers from all over.

To get Dorot up and running, the Zerrins brought in Mrs. Golda Green, a world-renowned teacher and lecturer to serve as director. Considering that Mrs. Green had converted to Judaism as a teenager, she seemed like the perfect choice. However (as you can tell by this setup), Mrs. Green had somewhat of a challenging start.

The challenge began to develop at the first Dorot leadership meeting (although you wouldn’t have noticed it at the time). The purpose of the meeting was for Mrs. Green to present her educational vision for Dorot. She began by telling a short version of what inspired her to join the Jewish people, which mainly focused on how amazing it was that such a small nation could last for so long while other seemingly greater nations have disappeared. Mrs. Green then explained that she hoped Dorot would place a large emphasis on national pride. She felt that by focusing on Jewish history, Jewish contributions to the world, and the miracle of the Jewish nation, Jewish teenagers from all kinds of backgrounds would find Dorot inspiring. The meeting concluded with a round of applause from all the attendees, who felt that Mrs. Green was on to something big. (The challenge is coming; you’ll see).

The next evening, the leadership met once again for a short vote. After taking a day to process Mrs. Green’s ideas, the topic of the vote was whether to move ahead with the vision as presented. Thirty-six hours later, the enthusiasm was just as strong, and Mrs. Green’s curricular plan was approved unanimously. Over the next week, the team, under Mrs. Green’s leadership, set a timeline for all the preparation, including a date for Dorot’s grand opening. Things were really rolling now. (Wait for it...)

Despite all the excitement, positivity, and hard work that went into getting Dorot off the ground, the program’s initial results were a mixed bag. Some participants were blown away by what they learned, and were inspired by the amazing presenters. These students took the inspiration and signed up to learn Torah and/or volunteer for the Jewish community in their free time. However, many of the other participants found Dorot to be disappointing and uninspiring, although most could not say why. Mrs. Green and the rest of her team were disappointed and confused. It’s not like they expected every participant to walk away with their hearts on fire for Judaism. However, they were shocked at how extreme the reactions were. Many loved Dorot and many others felt like it was a waste of time. Was there nothing in the middle? Clearly something needed to be fixed.

Fortunately, Mrs. Green knew exactly who to ask. She picked up her phone and called her best friend and former roommate, Racheli Rose. Racheli and Golda were not only best friends and roommates, but they also converted to Judaism around the same time. Mrs. Green figured that Racheli might be able to identify the missing piece. Fortunately, Mrs. Green was right. Racheli reminded Golda that the two of them came to Judaism for different reasons. “Golda, I love how you find Hashem’s support of Bnei Yisrael to be inspiring. I completely get it, as do many of the Dorot participants. But I personally find more inspiration in the way the mitzvot serve as a guide to improve our lives. I know you appreciate that as well; you are a teacher of Torah after all. Try to incorporate a little bit of that into Dorot. Try to reach the teenagers in a different way.”

Of course, Racheli was right (but you knew that would be true, didn’t you). Mrs. Green spent the next few months adding new elements to Dorot’s curriculum, which eventually led to many more participants finding the program inspiring.

In Parshat Va’era, Aharon performs the staff-into-snake trick for Pharaoh. However, as opposed to the trick Moshe used, in which the staff turned into a nachash—snake, Aharon’s staff turns into a tanin, some other sort of reptile. The difference between these two animals goes back to creation. In Ma’aseh Bereishit, we are told that Hashem created the taninim, and there is no mention of the nachash. The snake only appears in Gad Eden, where the story of humankind begins. This teaches us that both elements were needed to properly inspire the Jews to follow Hashem into the midbar. The first is that Hashem created the world, and therefore can control it in a way that ensures Bnei Yisrael’s survival. The second element is the human one. Hashem created us and therefore knows what we need to succeed in this world. This is the element that Racheli introduced to Dorot, the understanding that following Hashem is a means to a better life.

By Yair Daar

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