After the Bar Mitzvah, the Service Continues by Judy Bolton-Fasman

This is a story about a church, a temple and a young man dedicated to feeding the hungry. For over two decades Project Manna at the Massachusetts Avenue Baptist Church in Cambridge has fed thousands of people a year from its little kitchen. And for 24 years Temple Emanuel in Newton Centre has been moved by the mission of this small yet mighty church to produce the eponymous Project Manna, a concert to raise critically needed funds to keep the food kitchen open. “It is,” says Rabbi Wesley Gardenswartz, Temple Emanuel’s senior rabbi, “a story about black-white, Christian-Jewish love, partnership and community building that has been going on for over two decades.”

MassAveThis year’s Project Manna concert on Wednesday, March 24, 2013 at Temple Emanuel, features Neshama Carlebach, daughter of the legendary Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, and a star of Jewish music in her own right. Neshama and her band will celebrate the traditions of gospel and Jewish music with the Green Pastures Baptist Church Choir. Rabbi Gardenswartz notes that, “Neshama’s music is deeply moving and a salve for some of the suffering seen throughout the world.”

Inspired to “repair the world” as well as by Temple Emanuel’s commitment to feeding the hungry Max Breslau, a recent Bar Mitzvah, decided to do more than attend the annual Project Manna concert. It began with Max’s older brother Mitchell who was required to do a community service project for his school in Needham. As Jane Breslau, the boys’ mother, points out there wasn’t much volunteer work for kids who were under sixteen. The Breslaus noticed that Temple Emanuel’s Brotherhood volunteered at the Mass Avenue Baptist Church’s soup kitchen and decided to commit to serving there for a year. A year soon stretched into two years and Max joined his brother and mother that second year as part of his Bar Mitzvah project.

Conventional wisdom holds that doing one thing three times becomes a habit. In the Breslaus’ case volunteering over time has become a passion. Monday evenings in the Breslau household belong to the Mass Avenue Baptist Church. Jane notes, “we take our commitment to the church and the guests at the soup kitchen as seriously as someone takes a sports commitment.” On a given Monday the Breslaus will be among the volunteers who serve upwards of seventy meals. They not only serve, but also help to prepare the supper. Jane notes that among the moving experiences at the kitchen are the prayers said before every meal. “Sometimes my sons will do a prayer and it will be a bracha—a blessing in Hebrew. Other times they’ll simply note how thankful all of us are to be there. We feel we are a part of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church family.”

As parents, Jane and Howard Breslau purposely pushed their sons out of their comfort zones. Neither boy had any idea what a food pantry would be like. Much to their surprise, the boys’ perceptions of the homeless were shattered. “It wasn’t just a learning experience for my sons,” Jane notes,” they completely changed their assumptions about who was homeless. They saw how thankful these people were to be there. How respectful they were.”

Max, who became a bar mitzvah at Temple Emanuel last week, says that his time at the soup kitchen will go beyond his bar mitzvah project. “I love doing it every Monday. Everyone who comes and eats makes friends. There’s one guy who loves the Patriots and we talk about the team. With other people, we share how our week has gone. Everybody has a story and people don’t necessarily look homeless. You wouldn’t expect some of these people to be out in the street.”

Max also noticed the soaring temperatures inside the church during his summer service at the soup kitchen. “I decided to raise money for two ceiling fans and air conditioning window units.” At first the goal was to raise a thousand dollars. Max reached out to friends and family and to his temple email list. The response was so generous that he raised the goal to $2000. Max and his family called it the Fan Project, asking people to “be cool and become fans of the Mass Avenue Baptist Church Soup Kitchen.” As of this writing Max and his family have raised $1800.

As for their own parenting, Jane and Howard assert that their commitment to the soup kitchen has been a “ learning process.” Howard notes that it is “breathtaking” to see his family’s commitment every week. “It’s a joy to see their eagerness to go there. They’ve established friendships with the staff and guests that are very meaningful.”

Jane notes that, “everyone has a different perception of what a mitzvah is. It’s not something that should be easy or immediately fit into your life. You should make it fit into your life so that you’re giving back to the community. We began this project to help our children, but our time at the soup kitchen has had a profound effect on me too.”

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The Radius of the Bomb by Judy Bolton-Fasman

When you move to Boston there are three things that you must accept—you are forever a member of Red Sox Nation, you’ll never get used to someone passing you in the breakdown lane on Route 128 and the Boston Marathon is what we really celebrate on Patriot’s Day. I live half a block from the marathon route—on Heartbreak Hill—and I must confess that every year I feel claustrophobic anticipating that I won’t be able to cross Commonwealth Avenue by car. But my love-hate relationship with the marathon, my angst over feeling penned in, evaporates when I watch the runners go by.

The marathon route begins in Hopkinton and wends its way through the suburbs of Boston—Framingham, Wellesley, Newton and Brookline before crossing the finishing line in Boston’s Back Bay. By the time the majority of runners reach me, they’re approaching the 20-mile mark—Heartbreak Hill.

mile19

This year I watched the runners go by in the early afternoon—the height of the marathon on my little stretch of the race. Where I live, the marathon is a party. People bring picnics and watch the race on folding chairs. We look for the names of runners on their shirts or written in black magic marker on their arms. Go, Margaret. Last hill, Bob. Every year I am in awe.

This year, I watched my fifteen year-old son clap and whoop for every runner. He’s a runner too and thinks nothing of taking a five mile run. I am, at the moment, training myself to go around the block in the hope that I can run a 5k road race this summer. I’m almost halfway around my block without stopping. Heartbreak Hill, indeed.

By four o’clock in the afternoon, the 2013 Boston Marathon was no more. Commonwealth Avenue was empty save for the occasional police car and yellow school bus picking up stranded runners. Not again, I thought. Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Newtown. And 9/11. Please God, not again. London, Madrid, Jerusalem.

Enough.

I am a compulsive reader. A Kaddish reader. After 9/11, I gazed into the eyes of every victim and read their accompanying word portraits. Lives thrust into the news, engraved in our hearts. Their memories for a blessing. I’ve said that too often for people I’ve never met, but somehow are not strangers to me.

It is deeply disturbing to live so close to an act of terrorism that happens during such a quotidian event. My teenager and his friend didn’t take the T to the finish line because of inertia—easier to hang out in our suburb. Yet he’s cultivating his independence and one of the ways he’s learning to do that is getting around Boston on public transportation. After last Monday, how do I keep him safe? How do I help him stand down fear?

The day after the bombing, I was glued to the television and radio. “The sadness here in Boston is palpable,” said one reporter. Everyone who called in or was interviewed was testifying about something—their love for Boston, their relief that a loved one made it safely across the finish line, their dream of completing the marathon cruelly derailed. People were stunned and grateful that they were in Back Bay at the right time and the right place. Each one of them mourned for the victims. For eight year-old Martin Richard who loved riding his bike and playing ball, who hoped for peace after the Newtown shootings. Martin Richard, everyone’s child. For 29 year-old Krystal Campbell cut down in the prime of her life.

Over 180 injured people—many of them seriously—flooded the emergency rooms in downtown Boston. Any one of them could have been my friend who crossed the finish line 15 minutes before the bombs went off or his wife who was cheering him on a few yards from the explosion. There but for the grace of God go my friends. Boston was a huge shiva house—quiet, heavy and grief-stricken where the Psalm of Consolation, as my rabbi observes, seems to be “patently untrue.”

For the Guardian of Israel

                Neither slumbers nor sleeps…

                The Lord shall keep you from all evil…

                The Lord shall guard your going out and your coming in,

                From this time forth and forever.

And yet for me the psalm has the potential to offer solace in the same way that the Mourner’s Kaddish praises God and doesn’t say a single word about death.

Sometimes, though, I think this God of ours is too demanding of our loyalty without giving much in return. I can’t depend on God to keep my children safe. Or can I? Do we devise our fate or is it pre-ordained?

A bomb goes off. Three dead and almost 200 wounded. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote how the lives of these dead and wounded increase the radius of a bomb’s crater. If that’s the case, then the diameter of the bombs that went off in Boston stretched across the world. And in the wake of our tragedy, the truest words I have to offer are Yehuda Amichai’s:

The Radius of the Bomb

Yehuda Amichai

The radius of the bomb was twelve inches

And the radius of its effective force seven yards

Containing four dead and eleven wounded.

And around those, in a wider circle

Of pain and time, are scattered two hospitals

And one graveyard. But the young woman,

Buried in the place she came from,

Over a hundred kilometers from here,

Widens the circle quite a bit,

And the lonely man mourning her death

In the provinces of a Mediterranean land,

Includes the whole world in the circle.

And I shall omit the scream of orphans

That reaches God’s throne

And way beyond and widens the circle

To no end and no God.

Live and In-Person: Media and Young Children by Judy Bolton-Fasman

A couple of weeks ago was school vacation week for both kids, which meant that the four of were reunited for a few days. All was well until we went out to dinner. There was a 20-minute wait to get a table, which meant that three out of the four of us immediately whipped out our iPhones. Poor Adam was left in the dust, but perhaps more dangerously, we disconnected from one another. “Someone talk to me,” he pleaded.

iPhone

I’m sure I’m in the majority when I say that I don’t know how I ever lived without the convenience of 24-7 access to, well, everything. Can’t remember the name of an actor? No problem, take out the phone and start Googling your way to the answer.

But have our fingers become too quick to text and Google out of habit? A recent article in the New York Times put that question out there in an article called Your Phone vs. Your Heart. In it Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor, talked about the downside of establishing an ingrained habit that can not only change neural pathways but also “mold the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit.”

The scientific term for that molding is called plasticity and it is used to describe the flexibility of the nervous system to adapt and learn. Frederickson’s research shows that plasticity further affects the heart-brain connection. So the more you look up from your iPhone and interact with people, the more you literally strengthen your heart. And Face-to-face contact fosters empathy as well as improves overall health.

Frederickson’s research in social genomics— the study of how our personal history, social life or even loneliness affect gene expression in immune systems—also clearly shows that parents role-modeling screen-time behavior can be as life-altering as the genetics a child inherits. According to Frederickson, interrupting to text while ostensibly playing with your child or reading to her can “leave life-limiting fingerprints on their and their children’s gene expression.”

But how do we translate the findings of social genomics to our own children? Writing in the latest issue of The Atlantic, social commentator Hannah Rosin explored the brave new American childhood of iPads and iPhones. Remember how we thought we were going down the rabbit hole when VCR’s were installed in mini-vans? Ever since viewing screens entered American homes, parents and educators have worried that children’s brains would turn to mush from too much watching. In 1999 the august American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warned that television viewing for children under the age of two affected brain development, particularly when it disrupted interaction between parents or caregivers.

iPad

Enter 21st century touch technology to complicate what seemed to be a straightforward directive against too much screen time for toddlers and young children. Touch technology was popularized by the iPad and it’s taken off among the toddler set where the swipe of a finger can move action figures, act like a paintbrush or manipulate shapes. It’s mind boggling to realize that hundreds, if not thousands of apps for games and reading and art can be easily packed into a gadget the same size as your average board book.

I remember when three year-old Adam sat on Ken’s lap as he maneuvered a mouse. I thought how revolutionary and how scary. It’s stunning to contemplate how much more ubiquitous technology has become over the last decade. As Rosin points out, “technological competence and sophistication have not, for parents, translated into comfort and ease.”

By 2010, there were more than 40,000 kids’ games and apps available on iTunes. In the iTunes “education” category, many of those best-selling apps targeted preschool or elementary school age-children. Apps were also available for children as young as 18 months. The AAP weighed in with a recommendation discouraging parents from using electronic media with children under 24 months.

Lisa Guernsey, author of the book Screen Time: How Electronic Media from Baby Videos to Education Software Affects Your Young Child, offers guidance by identifying the three C’s of media consumption—content, context and child. Content, says Guernsey, is the way in which information is presented. Apps labeled as educational are not necessarily good for kids if children cannot fully comprehend the task at hand. Context relates to the way a parent uses social media. Like Fredrickson, Guernsey advises that social interactions are a critical part of using media particularly with babies and toddlers. The success of the first two C’s depends on parents taking the time to know their children. Each child is different, but on the whole parents should keep a kid away from apps or television directed at adults.

There has been no research to date that suggests that using an iPad will make your preschooler smarter or, alternatively, short circuit her neural pathways. But the iPad has only been around for three years—a relatively short time for scientists to secure grants to investigate the topic. Humans, however, have been around for a very long time and nothing improves one’s psychological outlook or better cultivates empathy than looking up from an iPhone screen, even if it is Face Time, and making a real, in-person connection.