Month: February 2018

Un-Informed Choice

informed choice
It was a dark and damp Friday evening at SUNY Albany.

Every Friday night I attended the reform services on my campus. It was pretty much the only thing we consistently did, so I took it very seriously.

However, that fateful evening I made an error. There was a poster showing the times for the different prayer services. I scanned quickly, and must have read it wrong.

When I arrived, I watched  as everyone from the reform services were already leaving. It was disheartening, since this meant I was holding at 0% of my obligations to be a part of the community.

What to do?

I decided to make a huge sacrifice. To go way outside my comfort zone.

I would stay for the conservative services!

If you recall from my last post, joining the reform movement was already exceeding my norms by leaps and bounds. And I was scared off a bit by the word “conservative”, not to mention I distinctly recalled a moment from my summer camp when a camper said he was conservative, and the people around me literally hissed at him.

But I was stuck.

I either needed to do something challenging, or risk feeling like a failure in the current path I was on.

So I walked in, and sat down… With about three or four other people.

We uncomfortably stared at one another.

For the uninitiated, Jewish communal prayer requires a minimum of ten adult Jewish males (called a minyan). Some more modern groups require any ten adults, gender is irrelevant. No matter how you did the math, we weren’t doing so hot.

They kept on talking about their backup plan of “walking to Shabbos House“, which meant absolutely nothing to me.

But I had already chosen to go along for the ride, still in a panic at falling short on my one and only responsibility.

Plan C

After the group gave up on getting their requisite numbers, they all got up to start walking toward this mysterious “Shabbos House”.

I recall vividly as we neared the location. There he was. I saw a man in full chassidish getup bowing back and forth in the window, and I felt panicked and jittery. I had heard about the Chassidim before, but I had never met one. All my knowledge of this group was from the media, who did not paint a very likable picture.

But I braved my qualms and concerns, and walked in.

I was very much not dressed the part. Most inside were dressed quite nicely, and it was a pretty conservative looking group. I, on the other hand, had shorts and a t-shirt, sneakers, long hair, an earring, and nothing covering my head.

Yet it seemed like the only one uncomfortable with my presence was me. Everyone in the room was fantastic, almost as if they were preparing for someone like me to show up. They patiently dealt with my complete lack of knowing what was going on, and helped me with everything.

After the services were over, everyone began preparing for a festive meal. There was some singing, a blessing made over wine, and then everyone lined up to wash their hands.

Something Happened

And this was the key moment for me.

Someone explained to me what we were doing. Others explained some of the historical significance. And everyone in the room knew exactly what was going on and what to do.

Except for me.

This was apparently a ritual done all the time, sometimes multiple times a day. It was commonplace and ancient. And yet somehow in all of my inquiries and studies, in all of my time working so hard to be an exceptionally knowledgeable and active Reform Jew, this simple and ubiquitous thing just never came up.

And this, yet again, threw my whole existence into question.

I walked away from “Shabbos House” early. There was just too much to take in, and I was barely ready for what I had already absorbed. I knew, however, that I would be back. I had to return. There was knowledge to be acquired that I had up to that point never been exposed to.

But if I want to be true to myself, more than anything, I felt angry, and more than a little betrayed.

Was I informed?

I spent countless hours with people who were supposed to be teaching me anything and everything about Judaism, so I could make an intelligent and informed decision about what I would practice and what I would leave behind. Could it be they forgot things as simple as a daily hand washing ritual, and my lack of informed choice was just an oversight? Or could it be that knowledge was intentionally withheld from me?

The Catholic Church spent much of its existence withholding knowledge from the masses. The average person was unable to decipher the complex texts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and were left vulnerable to the whims of the clergy, since they were the bearers of all wisdom or the tools to gain or interpret further wisdom. But this can only go on for so long. And when the information became accessible, and the Protestant Reformation stormed its way through Europe, Christianity was changed forever.

Was I about to change forever? Was information intentionally withheld from me? If so, why? Why would something so innocuous never even get a slight mention? What exactly was the fear? What was the danger in my exposure to practices not common among most Reform Jews?

My conclusions did not make me happy.

Informed choice?

Unfortunately, I believe the information (and lots more) was, in fact, intentionally withheld from me and many others. There was an agenda. Judaism’s Reform Movement has principles and has a platform. They have beliefs and practices they wish for their practitioners to adopt, and ones they wish them to steer clear of. And if they are among the latter, it is not uncommon simply not to expose people to them.

I’m not saying I don’t understand or sympathize with the practice. I’m a parent and a former teacher, and to a certain extent I think we need to withhold information. Not forever. Just until the moment is right or until the child or student brings it up on their own. But even then, it is a thoughtful and intelligent process.

But this was different.

What did they have to gain by never telling me of an age-old hand washing ritual? The only answer I can come up with is they were gearing my actions and practices. They wanted me to behave a certain way. They were creating people who behaved within the manner they hoped for. Again, I understand the idea. But to claim this is a process of liberal thought is inaccurate, at best. And to claim that its members are acting based on informed choice is downright dishonest.

To my great regret, up to that point my decisions had not been guided by informed choice, but by uninformed inertia.

And I would never let that be the case again.

It was time for yet another change in my life.


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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, personal story, 0 comments

The Beginning of the Beginning



I spoke in my last post about how the beginning of my Jewish journey: my chance invitation to a youth group meeting followed later by accidentally wandering into a Chabad House.

I want to take the next few posts to take an in depth look into my religious journey, really turning over all the pieces and exploring how they got me to where I am now.

First, a bit about my religious background.

There’s very little to speak about. In my household, we had a pretty simple Jewish upbringing. Judaism was certainly a part of our lives, and we by no means identified by any other religious group.

However, synagogue attendance was not in the mix. Israel never came up. And I don’t believe I had ever even heard the terms “Sabbath” or “Shabbat” as a child.


I can’t say I felt much Jewish pride. But Jewish is all I ever was, and I never had a yearning to be part of any other group, religious or otherwise. But I was definitely searching. There was most certainly a piece of my soul that wanted something different. Something bigger and better.

Unfortunately, children have a painfully hard time searching. Most families inundate their children with ideas they “need” to believe, which goes completely against the concept of belief in general.

One of the greatest gifts my parents ever gave to me was encouraging me to be open-minded and curious. These precious qualities have been there since the beginning. I will take them along wherever life brings me, and I hope I can do half as good a job imparting these treasures upon my own children.

I found myself ravenous for knowledge and spirituality in my teenage years. But young people are notorious for being clueless about how they do… well… everything.

I didn’t look for knowledge in my school books. I didn’t look for wisdom from enlightened or intelligent people. All I wanted from life was happiness, with no clear definition, and a less clear path for how I would seek it.


And then tragedy struck my life and sent me in a whole new direction.

There are many ways to respond to tragedy.

We can crawl into a corner and give up, and we can drink ourselves into oblivion. We can progressively allow things to worsen and worsen, and watch as our live’s tragedies pile up on one another.

Or we brush the dirt off our shoulders, stand up with pride, bandage our wounds, and get back to living life again.

But now it will be better than before.

Why? Because we have learned a powerful lesson. There are errors we refuse to ever make again. We see life from a stronger, more informed perspective. And everything moving forward will be better than it had been before.


So when someone suggested I give a Jewish youth group a try, my new self said that I had nothing to lose. It would be different than anything I’d experienced up to that point. And that was exactly what I needed, since the results of what I was already familiar with were hardly pleasing.

It took no time at all before I immersed myself completely into my new youth group. The people I met were fantastic. The conversations I had were unbelievable. Everyone was deep, passionate, and knowledgeable.

I found my niche.


Attending local youth group meetings led to my trying regional youth group meetings. Even better! And this led to my attendance of NFTY’s Kutz Camp, since now I had to try everything on the national level.

Now I was at the highest point of everything. And loved every moment I got to spend with my newfound passion.

Before I knew it, I was so heavily involved, my childhood dreams of one day being a professional wrestler were pushed aside for my imminent goal of being a rabbi, the peak of learning and influence in Judaism’s reform movement.

There were two guiding principles in reform Judaism’s philosophy that escorted me every stage of the way, but were also my undoing as far as staying on this path.


The first principle was an ultra-powerful intellectual honesty and curiosity, where wisdom could and should be absorbed from any and all sources, Jewish or not Jewish, believing or non-believing. We were at the forefront of liberal thought, which meant all opinions were to be respected and honored.

The second principle is what they called “informed choice”.

This was a bit of a mantra in the Reform Movement, and it’s the movement’s pride and joy. This was the basic explanation given to me at the time:

Judaism was like a large, open menu. We search through this menu, deliberating on the many amazing choices before us. We research and explore and ask questions.

And we try things out, see if we like them.

And ultimately we decide which items on the menu we wish to retain and make parts of our lives, and which are items we will leave behind due to lack of interest or because the item does not match with the outcome of our intellectual rigor.

So in the end, each member will create their own unique version of Judaism, pulling from the same basic group of choices that mainly stem from Judaism throughout its existence.


In lots of ways, “Informed Choice” is a lovely concept that I still believe in to this day, despite the fact that it’s been two decades since I’ve had any connection to Reform Judaism (outside of maintaining some lifelong friends, and a really hefty nostalgia).

These two ideas are very special to me, and took me quite far.

However, I do believe many wield them around inaccurately and dishonestly. If one maintains that all opinions are important, but shuts out certain perspectives and/or prevents access to them, this is the opposite of intellectual honesty, and it’s like taking the aforementioned menu, ripping out a page, and hiding it in the basement.

It’s because of this that major changes would need to occur in my life, which I will be speaking about at length in my next post.


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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, personal story, religion, 0 comments

I Was Attacked… The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me

My faith has been interfered with multiple times in my adult life. However, one thing has never wavered, not even for a moment.

I believe wholeheartedly that all misery, suffering, and hardships I have or will ever endure, will result in a positive outcome. No matter how hard things may seem at the moment, only one thing stands between the troublesome feel of the current misery and the clear outlook that everything was meant to be.


Sometimes you will have the luxury of looking back just a day or two later and knowing why seeming tragedy has entered your life. And sometimes you need to wait many years.

But the end result is always the same. At some point along the spectrum, if asked if you would prefer that the terrible event never happened, seeing everything in retrospect with a more refined perspective, you will understand what would be missing from your life and the world had something “bad” not occurred.

The Blessed Miscarriage

One of my favorite parts of being a teacher was when I would ask open-ended, extremely challenging questions to young students. The brilliance and depth of the answers would amaze me every time.

When teaching this concept, I went straight to the heart of the matter:

“What could possibly be good about a miscarriage?”

Of course the answers were always fascinating. Teachers rarely give students the opportunity to freely think through complex problems. When they do, students seldom disappoint.

When the answers slowed down, I would always say:

My parents planned on having three children. My two brothers were born close together, and over the next six years, my mother had several miscarriages.

And then I was born.

If it weren’t for those miscarriages, I would not be here.

Attacked… the “Worst” Moment of My Life

The single worst moment in my life was saying goodbye to my children, and watching them travel across an ocean to live apart from me indefinitely. The wound is still fresh. I can see bits of positives that have come from the whole experience, such as it ultimately bringing me closer to my son. However, I still have plenty more to process and plenty of time to do so.

But I have had twenty-five years to process the other most obviously traumatic moment in my life.

When I was just fifteen years old, I was at an outdoor gathering. I shouldn’t have been there, for multiple reasons, but alas, I was. I had lied to my parents about my whereabouts, and my company was shady at best.

A large group approached ours, clearly intending to start a fight. Fighting was hardly my thing, and I had a fair amount of alcohol in my system. I walked away hoping to avoid what I thought was inevitable violence.

But people followed me.

A group of six people pursued me down an ally and beat the ever-living hell out of me. While I was attacked, a well-meaning person brought me into their home and contacted my parents. They came and brought me to the emergency room, where I needed to get stitches for a giant gash in my hand.

I needed to spend the next few weeks on pain killers for my injury, and tranquilizers to calm my nerves, since I was still shaking and sleeping poorly. I had months of physical and emotional suffering ahead of me.

The Good in the Bad

But two great things came from this experience.

The first is simple to explain. We parents know that we can tell our kids all day long how we would do anything for them; however, there is no way to prove it outside surprise adversity, which we hardly want.

Parents often give speeches to their kids, things they’ve thought about for years. I would unquestionably put my life on the line to protect you. If you get in trouble for defending yourself against a bully in school and they call me to come pick you up, first stop is to get you ice cream. Even if it’s the middle of the night and you lied to us about how you got to where you are, if you’re only option to get home is to get behind the wheel with someone who has been drinking, you can call 24-7 and we will pick up, no questions asked, no repercussions.

We say these things. We say them often. But do our children really believe us?

I wouldn’t wish upon any parent the opportunity to “prove” themselves to their children; however, when my parents came to get me, and brought me to the emergency room, not only were they angelic from start to finish, but 25 years later I have never been criticized for my lying nor my underage drinking.

I have never forgotten how they handled the situation. I never will. And my love for them increases daily.

The second result of my attack took me many, many years to realize. And I still realize new things about it all the time.

Change is in the Air

Being attacked made me change several aspects of my life. I realized if I wanted these kinds of things to never happen to me again, I needed new friends and different life experiences. Almost immediately upon opening myself to such changes, a friend invited me to a Jewish youth group meeting, and I decided to give it a try (eternal gratitude to Faith Zuckerberg Fisch).

I became insanely active in my youth group. I met some friend who are still my closest to this day. My interest in Israel was first piqued in a brilliant class I attended (eternal gratitude to David Frank). And my newfound love of Judaism had tremendous impact on my college choice, since I needed a place that could accommodate my passion, as well as a possible semester abroad in Israel.

It was at SUNY Albany that an accidental trip to a Chabad House changed everything I knew about Judaism, and set me on a whole new life trajectory (eternal gratitude to Pinchas Schreiber). I eventually took that semester trip to Israel, which became a full year, and magically turned into eight years. There I met my wife, had four precious children, and the rest is history.

I would get attacked a thousand times over if it meant my children would be in my life.

That evening, there was no fight. Only one person was attacked, only one person hurt.


I owe everything in my life to those six, sadistic bastards who followed me down the street that night.

The best thing that ever happened to me.

(Where I went from there)


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Posted by jaffeworld in judaism, opinion, 0 comments

Ten More People in Israel I Could Live Without

difficult Israelis
A while back I wrote about the 15 people in Israel I could do without, a little lighthearted (hopefully) poke at this wacky place and some of the difficult Israelis who reside here. I think it’s more than due time for a few more!

The Reluctant to Acknowledge Crosswalks

I get the feeling every time I walk across a crosswalk that the drivers in the land of Israel are still quite reluctant to acknowledge their existence. So about ten times everyday one or more drivers make me think I’m about to die.

Some drivers are nice enough to stop… in the middle of the crosswalk. However, others like to keep my heart rate pumping by choosing to slow down right at the very last moment.

I actually had a man rapidly pull right in front of me, stop in the crosswalk, roll down his window, and laugh at me.

True story.

The Screamers

Not what you’re thinking. Get your mind out of the gutter!

I find that volume control is not a valued character trait in Israel. Wherever I go, I always hear people shouting. I hear them shouting on their cellphones while sitting in public restrooms. I hear them shouting while walking up my street at 2AM. And I hear them shouting to the person sitting one foot away from them on a bus.

After a complicated and painful history, the Chosen People’s voices must be heard!

The Toilet Seat Urinators

I can’t speak for the women’s room experience, but I can safely say that proper men’s room etiquette is likely not a part of the Israel education system. Another Israel pastime is wandering from stall to stall, searching for the one miraculous seat that has not been tainted with another man’s bodily fluids.

The People in the Grocery Store

All of them.


The grocery store has quickly lodged itself into my psyche as one of the most stressful parts of living in Israel. It’s as if all employees and every customer has come together in a solemn pact that when they enter the grocery store, they leave all semblance of humanity behind.

Just three things I’d like to say about the grocery store experience here in the

Holy Land:

  1. Twice I’ve had the cashier just disappear for 5-10 minutes with no explanation, with a long line of angry and confused customers getting angrier and more confused by the second. So odd, and so not OK.
  2. Parking the grocery cart sideways in an already thin aisle in a crowded grocery store is extremely common… and a really, really bad idea.
  3. I don’t know what they’re called, but there’s an ingenious item out there, a small plastic rectangle utilized by civilized grocery stores, so customers can place them in between other customers’ groceries to distinguish them. I think the time has come for the country that brought us the USB and the PillCam to adopt this cutting edge technology as well.

The Smokers…

Yeah, yeah, I know. The smoking problem is a huge one. It’s not funny. And I and others have been harping on about it for years.

I wanted to speak of a specific type of smoker who irks me. It’s the one who will walk up next to you, pretty much anytime, anywhere, and just nonchalantly light up a cigarette without a concern in the world that they might be bothering someone.

Pardon the crudeness for a moment, but I see no difference between this and someone who sits down next to someone and flatulates loudly, proudly, and with a pungent after effect. Part of me wishes I could do so right on the spot whenever someone lights a cigarette next to me. “Oh, I’m sorry. Was that impolite? Does the smell bother you?”

The Landlords

And speaking of not funny subjects that actually rip apart the fabric of the society…
What do you get when a neighborhood in a city is immensely popular, apartments are in lousy shape, laws pretty much do nothing to protect renters, and owners take no pride in the apartments they own?
Dilapidated, nasty apartments with problems galore and landlords who couldn’t care less that you exist, so long as you pay the overpriced rent.

The Non-Emailers

For questions I’ve sent via email since moving back to Israel, I think the response rate I’ve received is hovering around 4%.

Having email addresses on Israeli websites is as useful as the ‘open’ signs in stores that are never turned around or the posted hours that absolutely no one adheres to.

The Strikers

Strikes make Israel appear like the Keystone Cops. Several mornings this year I had to wait until my child received text messages from friends to find out whether or not he would have school that day, due to a possible teacher strike. I’ve wandered past mounds of trash and dumpsters on fire during garbage strikes. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of who goes on strike here.

I don’t really have very much evidence that strikes are effectual. I do certainly have more than enough evidence that they are annoying.

The Bus Crowders

This is usually a malady of a youth incapable of perceiving the worth of humans over inanimate objects, the slowly swelling crowd, or the unspoken anger of nearby passengers.

A few times I’ve been on a crowded bus with a young person consuming up to three seats. One for their weary tush, one for their hardworking knapsack, and one in front of them for their belabored feet. And for some odd reason they are surrounded by a slew of tired, overworked adults who are uncharacteristically polite and patient in not shaking the youth into realizing his errant ways.


Bicycles, electric bikes, motorcycles. I’m quite unclear as to whether or not they are considered by Israeli law as vehicles or pedestrians. One thing’s for sure though. Those who use them certainly think they are pedestrians when it works for them, and vehicles when it works for them as well.

If you haven’t almost been hit by one of the three as they raced past a red light, weaved between cars to get a better spot in traffic, or while zooming around in pedestrian-only neighborhoods, you’re either extremely lucky, or don’t spend much time outside.

Bonus: Those Who Can’t Move On

Did you every meet one of those people who no matter how long they live in Israel, no matter what type of experience they have here, and no matter how hard times may have occasionally been in their previous residence, they just can’t move on? They just can’t accept that things are different here and will never be like their glorified country of origin?

Oh crap, that’s me!


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Posted by jaffeworld in humor, Israel, 0 comments