AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

A Letter from Rabbi Fred Elias: Grateful that Thorns Have Roses

Posted by: Guest

September 20, 2018

AVI CHAI invests heavily in developing day school leaders, to strengthen their ability to improve the experience of their students. Sometimes that work happens outside the normal school framework, as the case of our guest blogger, Rabbi Fred Elias, middle school principal and school rabbi at the Solomon Schechter of Bergen County, shows. In a message to his school community, Rabbi Elias exhibits the resilience – and vulnerability – we know to be among the core skills leaders must possess to effectively lead their schools. Rabbi Elias is not at Schechter this school year as he works to regain his strength from an illness. Still, his words inspire us, his school community, and the Jewish day school field.
Dear Schechter Faculty and Staff:
One of the most difficult yet empowering moments this year is the fact that I really had the opportunity to take the aseret y’mei teshuvah (10 days of repentance) personally. Normally at this time of year, I have been busily making sure the Schechter students learned about doing kapparot with coins. Even more likely, I am already thinking about Sukkot and working with all of you, my treasured colleagues, on thinking about how each student will participate in Hoshanot, Hallel, and the Sukkah party and experience the feeling of Hoshanah Rabbah, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah (as they get ready to go to shul) and everything else that just comes up. Or in my pulpit days, I was reflecting and refining sermons for the holiday season. Somewhere in between, I built my Sukkah.
I took the task of building my Sukkah very seriously, and it brought out a quality of mine that this year I have been really thinking about: the ability to ask for help. When I built my Sukkah, I never asked for help. The building of the Sukkah generally was not very difficult (by the third year, I finally decided to look at the directions and save myself hours of time). The difficult or the fun part for the observer was to watch me by myself put up an 8×12 piece of skach (bamboo mat) on top of the Sukkah. Minute after minute would pass as the bamboo fell through the Sukkah as I would attempt to throw it from one side of Sukkah to the other. By the time the experience was over (and yes, eventually I would accomplish it), I was covered by acorns, previous year’s decorations that managed to survive, and dirt. Even still, I had that pride of “I put up the Sukkah!” Much like the Chevy Chase character in National Lampoon, I would eagerly await my children’s expression to see the Sukkah up when they came home.
This year, it was a different story. Though I am feeling stronger and stronger, building a Sukkah on my own was not going to happen. I needed to ask for help. This wasn’t easy for me. After all, this Sukkah was “my baby.” Yet, this time that I have gained for self-reflection taught me that asking for help even if it is “my baby” not only is OK, but it actually makes you feel more accomplished. Imagine this group of five boys, including two from Schechter, who (in their words) would likely have been playing Fortnite on just another Sunday morning instead, decided to help their community member build a Sukkah. Given the directions, it was a little shaky at first (literally) but five minutes in, they had a plan and in the shortest time ever (by far), my Sukkah was put up. As for the rolling of the skach (bamboo mat that goes on top), it turns out when more than one person does it, it can be done in 30 seconds. Who knew?!?! And additionally, as it turns out, my children had the same expression of awe and excitement when it was done with help in 30 minutes instead of 300 minutes.
A second lesson I explored over the aseret y’mei teshuvah (which may seem to be a contradiction to the above but it is really not) is also seizing the opportunity to be a risk-taker. This past Shabbat, they were looking for a prayer leader for Musaf (additional prayer service that is special for the Sabbath and other holidays). They tapped my friend in the next seat over (who also happens to be my across-the-street neighbor) and he turned to me and said, “Why don’t you do it?” At first, I said nothing and then after a moment, I said, “Sure, I will do it.” When I walked toward the bimah, I could see the look of shock on many people’s faces. “Will I be able to carry the Torah?” “Will I be able to lead a 200-person filled sanctuary in prayer?” I wasn’t so sure myself, but the answer as it turned out is yes! I got all the special insertions right for the special readings of the day (Shabbat Shuvah) and then in a heart-warming moment I will never forget, my son joined me on the bimah to lead the final prayers together. As I stood there with him, I reflected on 45 days earlier when I barely could walk into my house and now here I was (having walked to synagogue) leading the congregation in prayer. After services, several people wished me well; one particular person made it a point to thank me for leading her in prayer, modeling perseverance, and being so brave to take the risk.
So as I reflected over these last 10 days, I realized I have made a career of helping students feel like the most important things that they can do are to ask for help and be a risk-taker, and yet I myself am one of the most hesitant to do either when it comes to my own needs. I have spent the last 10 days, but really the last two months, learning the incredible value of these two ideas: asking for help and simultaneously being a risk taker. I am not fully there yet as there is more work to be done, but I am getting closer. It turns out that asking for help and being a risk-taker are not contradictions; in fact, they can work hand in hand. Even while either can be a thorn in your side, it turns out that you can rise above the thorns and, as the expression goes, experiences can come up smelling like roses.
Nineteenth century French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr wrote in his A Tour Around My Garden, “some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”
May this year be a year that comes up roses for us, but may the thorns we experience lift us to greater growth in smelling the roses that we want for ourselves, our family and friends, our community, and the greater community.
Gmar Hatima Tovah, May we all be inscribed for Good.
Rabbi Fred Elias

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