Monday, November 17, 2014

It's Going to be a Very Chicago Weekend

Chicago from the Lake
I love that we live close enough to Chicago to enjoy the best that the city has to offer. On a weekend morning, we can hop on the expressway and be downtown int he blink of an eye (not so much during rush hour, though). We can also take the train in when we don't want to deal with driving.

This weekend I'll be in the city for two fun events.

First up, Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Auditorium Theatre.

I've heard about this racially diverse dance troupe for years through a social media friend who's on their board and I'm excited to see them perform. It's been more tan 15 years since this troupe performed at the Auditorium Theatre. Like many shows there, it's only in town for a few days, so don't miss it!

Performance dates and times:
11/21 at 7:30 pm
11/22 at 2:00 PM and again at 7:30
11/23 at 3:00 PM

Tickets range from $30 -95
Learn more about Dance Theatre of Harlem

I'll also be attending..

ChiTAG, the Chicago Toy And Game Fair takes place this weekend, November 22 and 23, at Navy Pier. We attended the first (or second) one when the boys were little and it was a smallish event in Schaumburg. It's been fun to see this event move to the city and grow over the years. Not only are there more exhibitors, but there's more to do. Check out the events at the Fair.

I'll be there early Saturday for a media preview. Let me know if you're planning on going. And if you are planning to attend, don't miss this coupon for $2.00 off admission.

Want to attend for free? My friend Angie is giving away a family pass, but hurry over and click. The giveaway ends 11/18 at 11:59 PM.

Telestrations is one of my family's favorite ChiTAG finds!

Speaking of toys, games and Chicago, I'm going to be on WGN Morning News on Black Friday sharing my picks for this year's top STEM gifts! The time is still TBA, but I'l be sure to post when I have the details.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Family Dinner: Throwback Thursday

This post was originally published at The Chicago Moms almost four years ago to the day.

The family dinner is both a uniter and a protector. Sitting down to shared meal not only provides an opportunity for family members to talk about their day, it creates a point of connection and support after a busy or stressful day. Family dinners impact children.  Recently, yet another study indicated that the the benefits of the shared meal stretch far beyond the kitchen table, helping keep kids off of drugs.

So why aren't more families gathering around the table to eat and (hopefully) share a few laughs?

I wondered this myself when my boys were younger. For most of our married life my husband has held jobs that get him home at a decent hour with plenty of time for family meal. We always ate together.

But that changed when my boys entered elementary school and started sports. First it was a dinnertime soccer practice for one that made us miss a meal, then it was soccer for both. At one point we added baseball and karate practices, both of which have since fallen by the wayside.

But here I am with boys 10 and 12, at ages where staying connected is increasingly important and challenging and I can barely coordinate the logistics of a family meal.

Mondays my younger son has a theater class from 4:45 – 5:45, AKA dinner time.

Tuesday are good for now, but our week falls apart on Wednesday, when both boys have an after-school practice (Science Olympiad, rather than sports this time). In addition, next week my older son begins bar mitzvah tutoring after dinner. Assuming we have a mild winter and the roads are clear, we’ll have about 30 minutes for family dinner.

Thursdays the boys come home from school and grab a quick snack before they are whisked off at 4:00 to Hebrew School. By the time they return around 6:30, they usually eat a rushed dinner before diving into (or whining about) homework.

Fridays used to be the most important family dinner of the week until soccer took over back in 2007. In 2010, it’s especially dicey as both boys have an after school practice (Science Olympiad again). I get the boys home around 4:45 and then my older son has an in-home piano lesson from 5:00 – 5:30. As soon as that’s done, we’re off to the soccer fields for my younger guy until it’s too dark to see the ball.

By the time we make it home around 7:00, we’re ready to call it a week. At least I am.

When my boys were younger, family dinners just happened. Now all this running around means I need to be more mindful in my approach to a dinner (and maybe break out the crock pot). It’s going to take a bit of planning and maybe a few convenience foods to get us through this school year, but the good times and shared experiences will make it all worthwhile. Right?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

How We Talk about Israel

Jewish Dialogue about Israel
Yeah, I doodled. Don't judge.
Around the time of Brant Rosen' resignation, I read several articles about rabbis who are allegedly unable to criticize Israel for fear of alienating or angering their congregants. I have no doubt this is true in some congregations, but this can't be true everywhere. It certainly isn't true in mine despite what played out in the media. But still, it's been a while since we've had a large-scale community conversation about Israel.

Roughly 100 members of our synagogue recently gathered to discuss Israel. Thanks to JRC's Israel Program Committee with assistance from the Jewish Dialogue Group (JDG), it was a calm and reasonable affair.

I want to share more about the event because I think it's a great model for other congregations. That said, I am aware that in within the confines of some Jewish organizations any criticism of Israel is considered heresy. This, in my opinion, is unfortunate. Just as we Americans criticize our government when it falls short, we can be critical of the Israeli government.

Of course, that's one of the questions that came out of an evening filled with many more questions than answers. What role can Americans take in Israeli politics? To what degree is it our place to do so? And yet, can we ethically turn a blind eye to some of what is happening over there regarding things like human rights violations?

Back to the program, JDG, whose acronym ironically looks a lot like "judge" is all about listening and not judging, especially in the context of Israeli-Palestinian relations. They seek to get Jews talking across political lines to build relationships, clarify concerns, and hash out feelings, though the program wasn't as touchy-feely as it may sound. JDG mainly works in synagogues and college campuses in the US and Canada, but their work also takes them across the pond.

Basic ground rules for the evening included a reminder to keep the event focused on Israel and not about our rabbi's recent resignation, which, for many, is tied in to the topic because he influenced people's feelings about Israel.

We were asked to think about our relationship to Israel, our stories about Israel and the values expressed in or behind such stories.

We were reminded the evening was not about right or wrong or coming to consensus, but simply listening to one another with the stated goal being to understand others and deepen our own thinking. As Stephen Covey would say, "Seek to understand before you seek to be understood." It's not always comfortable to withhold judgement and listen, but that was our charge.

By the way, I feel comfortable writing this post because the stated confidentiality rules noted that it's okay to share our experiences from the dialogue as long as we don't identify specific individuals.

Before we broke into small discussion groups (a necessity given the large crowd), three congregants shared their stories of Israel. Each speaker spoke of an evolution in their feelings about Israel leading, often, from a deep sense of pride in, love of, or admiration for the Jewish state to a sense of concern or discomfort with the current state of the state's affairs.

For one speaker this meant a lot of questions without answers. For another, it led to involvement in the boycott and divestment movement based on the idea that until Israel is in pain, it won't make the changes needed to end the current political situation. (P.S. I plan to buy gifts form Israel for Hanuka this year. Soda Stream, anybody?)

Overall, it was an encouraging evening, but even at 2+ hours, it felt too brief.

Here are a few of my take-aways:
  • I'm proud that my congregation held this an event and that it was so well attended
  • This was an overdue dialogue (though worth noting that it was being organized prior to the rabbi's resignation)
  • Many of us have a special relationship with Israel, but are struggling with the political realities and what they mean for the country's future
  • Our community is strong despite unpleasant fallout from Brant's surprise resignation
I heard a comment at the dialogue that I've heard a few times in recent weeks, "Brant did the thinking/acting for me." Whether the issue was Israeli-Palestinian conflict, immigrant rights, or labor issues (I think those were his Big 3), Brant took the lead and congregants could follow along if they chose. Now many people seem to be feeling more accountable for educating and acting on the social or political issues that matter most to them.

The Israel Program Committee is hard at work on another program for next month. It's not a continuation of this one, but it's certainly related. One of the ground rules of the JDG event was not too assume that the dialogue would continue or that a given participant would choose to continue it. I'd like to see it continue, though.

I want to thank the committee for a job well-done. I also want to thank the 14 or so small group facilitators who, in their commitment to serving as neutral sounding boards, willingly passed on their chances to share their own thoughts and feelings that evening.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Cipora Katz: May Her Memory Be for a Blessing

Cipora Katz, Holocaust survivor
Cipora Katz, Holocaust Surivor
In a progressive religious environment, it can be a challenge to get kids to continue their education after they become bar or bat mitzvah. One way our synagogue meets that challenge is to offer the post b'nai mitzvah kids an exciting and unusual curriculum, The Jewish Lens.

I don't know if we use that exact curriculum or one inspired by it, but I do know the program is a hit. And thanks to the leadership of Liz and Rich, it's a dynamic program that changes from year to year. Each new class of students picks a theme for the end-of-year gallery display. My older son's class did "10 Modern Plagues" my younger son's class did something entirely different.


Heavy, huh? They had, of course, learned about the Holocaust and knew something of the Rwandan genocide, they also learned about the Cambodian genocide that started in 1975 and was immortalized in the movie, The Killing Fields.

They decided their final exhibit would be a portrait gallery featuring survivors of genocide. They would pay tribute to those people by listening to and sharing their stories, along with photos.

The class took a field trip to the Cambodian American Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial. It's a very small museum on Chicago's north side that is worth a visit. They don't seem to have a website, but you can learn more in this piece from Chicago Public Radio. Some of the students did their interview and photo sessions on site after meeting a handful of survivors.

My son was hoping to meet with a Holocaust survivor, but the one woman who came to mind was too ill to talk with him and then fortuitously, I found myself seated across from a man at a random community event who promised to introduce me to Cipora Katz.

Cipora Katz Holocaust survivor

A few phone calls later and my son and I were off to meet her for an interview. Cipora was a tiny woman, even I felt tall next to her, but her presence was grand.

In my son's words, "She was a really nice person who had gone through a lot in life and was still strong. I think she wanted to spread her story to help stop anything like the Holocaust from happening again,"

She shared her story of survival. Her family had avoided the camps, but spent years, I think from when she was 4 until she was 7, living in a potato cellar with a handful of relatives. She was the only one who could stand up in the space.

When they first fled her village, her mother stayed behind waiting for Cipora's older sister to return home from a playdate. The pair was never heard from again.

Can you imagine?

Cipora talked about not understanding the war and wondering what horrible thing she could have done as a child that people hated her and her family so much that they had to live underground for years.

She showed us a mint tin loaded with sugar cubes like the one her uncle had packed for each member of their party when they ran from home. She told us how they eventually found shelter and what she could recall from those cold dark years (including the death of her father) in that same small, dark, dank space.

Cipora made it to Israel after the war and eventually came to the United States in her late teens. She received a nursing degree, married, and had a family of her own as well as a successful career.

It was not until she had reached midlife, that she began speaking up about her past. Her daughter encouraged her and, like my son, I think Cipora ultimately felt a responsibility to educate others.

She traveled around the Midwest sharing her story at schools, libraries and houses of worship. She was so full of energy at the gallery opening in May, I was shocked to learn of her passing.

May her memory be for a blessing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pet Costumes: It's sad because it's true

dog costumes

I used to be the kind of person who scoffed at pet owners who dressed their animals up for Halloween. And then I became that person twice over. Yes, I not only bought my dog a costume, I bought him two costumes.

How many Pet Halloween Costumes (affiliate link) will you buy this year? Or how many will I? He might have outgrown them.

Some days I can barely look myself in the mirror. Who have I become? And then I see how much we've spent at the vet over the last 1.5 years and I know exactly who I am. Tesla's mommy.

Some friends apparently think I'm a paranoid pet owner because we've been to the vet so often. While I'm not immune to being labelled with Munchausen's by Puppy, he has had
  • eye infections
  • ear infections
  • injured limbs
  • hot spots
  • skin conditions 
  • allergies
  • papilloma virus (doggy kind)
I'd post pictures of his various diagnosis defying bumps and spots, but they're gross. Which is not to say I don't have pics of them; I do. But I'd rather leave you with this.

Now that he's trained to look at me, I should get better shots this year! Stay tuned

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Flips HD Headphones go from Solo2Social

Flips Audio headphones go from solo to social with a quick flip!Please note this item was sent to me for review and this post contains affiliate links. With two teens in the house it seems we can never have too many sets of headphones or earbuds. Therefore, when I was offered the chance to try a new kind of headphone, Flips HD, I readily accepted. 

The Flips concept is that the headphones have ear cups that flip outward. As their "solo2social" tagline implies, these headphones allow a user to easily transition from individual listening to providing a soundtrack for a group.

Having tried a few different (free, cheap conference swaggy-type) speakers for smartphones, you know like a little plastic cup you rest your phone in so the sound can fill a room?, I wasn't expecting much from Flips. But it's not that kind of thing at all.

I was prepared for something muffled or tinny, but the sound quality in speaker mode is good. And while Flips aren't going to replace anyone's high end sound system, they're great for a dorm room, study room or small gathering of friends for which you just want some background music. They plug into phones, tablets and computers. They also have pretty good sound-dampening qualities, which comes in handy when your roommate (or brother) won't turn his music down.

The Flips came in a sleek package that contained another sleek package and another. I eventually found the headphones in their hardshell carrying case. I don't know if my boys would take the time to put the headphones into the case before stuffing the headphones in their backpack, but as a mom, I try to teach them to take care of things and store things away properly, so I appreciate when brands make that easy to do. The storage pod comes with a carabiner, so it's also easy to just attach to a backpack strap or hang.

Flips headphones hard shell carrying case with carabiner

The headphones are adjustable and comfy with padding in all the right places--meaning every contact surface. I was worried that my boys would flip the ear cups from social mode to personal mode and blow their eardrums, but there's a brief interruption of service when you switch modes and the headphones adjust the volume accordingly.

The unit must be charged in order to operate in speaker mode. I've only had to charge them once (via USB) and it was just for a matter of minutes. A single charge allows for hours of playtime. A blinking blue light in speaker mode indicates the battery is running low.

So what do I think? The photo below says it all. I shot this while my younger son and I were working to make our DIY virtual reality headset, Google Cardboard (it's awesome!). I didn't pose him or tell him to wear the headphones. He just sort of made them his own (as my boys are wont to do with my stuff).

making the Google Cardboard VR headset

It's fine though. The Flips are ideal for kids his age as well as tweens. I think these are especially suited for college students.

Flips retail for about $120, at the time I write this, they're selling for about $10 less on Amazon.

You can read about the other headphones we recently reviewed here.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Rabbi Brant Rosen Resigned From Evanston's JRC Synagogue

It's an odd thing when your rabbi resigns and the news makes international headlines. Welcome to my synagogue. I have many thoughts about Rabbi Brant Rosen's sad and surprising recent announcement, but one of the things that irks me most is seeing how my synagogue community is characterized in the news and especially (insert eye roll here) the comment sections of the online press. I don't know if I will comment further here personally, but I did want to share (with permission) a note written by Joshua Karsh, a past president of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. He eloquently states many of my thoughts from an informed perspective.

Regarding Rabbi Brant Rosen's Resignation

When Brant announced his resignation earlier this week, he said in his email that the decision to resign was "mine alone" and added that: "The Board has not asked me for my resignation, nor have I experienced any pressure from our congregational leadership to curtail my activism as a result of this controversy. On the contrary …"

Brant made his own choice. But of course choices are influenced by circumstances. And having served on the JRC board for several years, including as President from 2009 to 2011, and been involved, twice, in making sure that the congregation came to terms with Brant in contract negotiations so that he would continue as our rabbi, I know something about the context of his resignation. So I find myself more than a tad defensive for the congregation when I read press coverage and Facebook posts stating or insinuating that Brant was  "silenced" or "forced" to quit or "pushed" out because of his positions.

When Brant began speaking out about the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, that would have been a career-ending move in most congregations. Not at JRC. At JRC, Brant had a home in a congregation committed to the proposition that rabbis should have freedom to speak their minds—when they're right and when they're wrong and also, as is often the case, when only time will tell. As recently as June, the JRC Board stood by Brant and reaffirmed those principles.

JRC did not limit Brant’s activism or silence him: Brant’s blog (, his book (, his writings for Al Jazeera (, his attendance and remarks at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in support of divestment (, his leadership role in Jewish Voice for Peace (, and his cooperation with a group of protesters who disrupted a JUF dinner in Chicago last month (, all prove that.

Brant was not forced out. Brant resigned. And he resigned in the third year of a ten-year contract, which the congregation gave him while knowing all about his political views and activism and the controversy they occasioned. The congregation gave him a 10-year contract despite the fact that some long-time members had left the congregation because of his politics, others no longer wanted Brant to officiate at their life-cycle events, and some, including some of the largest donors, had stopped giving to the capital campaign, which pays our mortgage—because of Brant's politics. Supporting Brant was not always easy. But the Board stood by him. The congregation, as a whole, stood by him.

Brant has decided that he doesn't want to be our rabbi any more. I sympathize with him. As a pulpit rabbi, Brant served two masters, his conscience and his congregation, and sometimes, by speaking his mind, he inflamed significant numbers of members of the congregation, who spoke out against him. There is strife within the congregation. It had to be exhausting and painful for Brant. No sane person would not be anguished. After a while, in this case six years, enough is enough. Maybe that's the point that Brant reached. Maybe he realized that there are other jobs he can do where he can advance the causes he cares about without becoming a lightning rod. But being a pulpit rabbi isn't one of those jobs—unless your congregation has a litmus test for membership that requires all members to agree with the rabbi or agree not to voice their opposition when they don't. At JRC, we have no such litmus test.

The JRC Board gave Brant a ten-year contract. We worked really hard to make it possible for Brant to be our rabbi, and we will miss him dearly.

JRC lost a popular, inspirational, and charismatic rabbi once before (Arnie Rachlis, in 1992). Then, as now, the rabbi resigned, his resignation was not planned, and many members did not see it coming. They were shocked, hurt and angry. They despaired, believing that the rabbi was JRC. But JRC survived and, as it turned out, prospered, growing and improving, including, ultimately, by finding and hiring Brant. We’ll survive again now and prosper too. Every great congregation is bigger than its rabbi, and conflating the two is a mistake –and also a distinctly un-Reconstructionist mistake. (Reconstructionism is a "bottom up" approach to Judaism).

We have just celebrated JRC’s 50th year. We have been through change before and will change again, and we've had and will have other rabbis. Although it’s a painful lesson to learn, rabbis, even the very best rabbis, are not forever. For many of us, and for my family in particular, Brant has been the best or one of the best rabbis we've ever known. But ultimately, the most important and stable part of any great congregation—and JRC is a great congregation—is its members. Our members come to JRC and stay at JRC for many reasons—including the congregation’s commitment to social justice, the environment, and tikkun olam; the warmth of the community and the friends who become family; the inspiring music (much of it composed by our own members) and the dancing; the joyous spirituality; the beach services; the Kallah; Families Enjoying Shabbat Together (FEST); the adult education programming; the early childhood program; youth group; the religious school. I could go on. All of that, and more, is still here. We have a lot of work to do, but we also have a lot to celebrate.

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