Rabbi Alan Berkowitz

Pinhas 5777

Thursday, July 13, 2017


Dear Magen David Families,


I hope that you are enjoying the summer and the time with your children.  The long vacation from school during the summer was originally established because of a belief that children needed time to rest their brains from the academic challenges of the school year.  Today, we know that this was a mistaken understanding of the “brain science”.  In fact, it wasn’t scientific at all.  Nevertheless, there are significant social emotional benefits to summer vacation and the more informal learning that occurs outside of school.


Because I believe the message of this week’s parasha “says it all,” I’m sharing these words of Torah that when put in the context of our school, demonstrate that we are on the right path. 


The parasha can be divided into two sections.  The first part is a narrative that has to do with some of the decisions made by Hashem and Moshe during the 40th year in the desert and the second part is dedicated to instructions regarding Korbanot, sacrifices.


As the parasha starts Hashem informs Moshe that Pinhas will join his father, Elazar as a Kohen.   We next learn about the appeal from the daughters of Selof’hod to inherit their father’s portion of the land and this is followed by the proclamation that it will be Yehoshua and not Moshe, who will lead Bnei Yisrael into Eres Yisrael.


Considered together, these cases are all part of a transition to a new generation that will enter Eres Yisrael.  The two most significant leaders will be Yehoshua and Elazar, not Moshe and Aharon.  But it is also important to note that the daughters of Selof’hod’s request is unusual.  They seek to overturn conventional wisdom and come away with a new law.  In the absence of a a son to their father, they wish to inherit his portion of the Holy Land.  This request is a break from communal norms and expectations, but Hashem says it is appropriate and instructs Moshe to grant their request and assign them their father’s land.


The first part of the parasha indicates that there comes a time for new leadership and new ideas and that this is good and appropriate.  However, the second part of the parasha has a different message.  The specific korbanot mentioned in the parasha are obligatory sacrifices to be offered by the community at set times and dates.  We are instructed to offer the daily sacrifices in the morning and afternoon.  We read about the special sacrifices for Rosh Hodesh, Shabbat and holidays and all of these korbanot are fixed and unchanging.   The korban musaf for Shabbat is the same every week and the sacrifice offered on the third day of Succot is exactly the same as that which was offered a year earlier on the same occasion.  


It seems that the message of the second part of the parasha is that things must stay the same and not change from year to year.  


So we have an apparent contradiction in that half of our parasha indicates that change has to happen and it is good, while the other half of the parasha indicates that we must leave things unchanged.


Perhaps though, there is no contradiction, but rather the two halves of the parasha taken together make up a model for communal life for future generations.  Just as Elazar, Pinhas, the Daughters of Selof’hod and Yehoshua were presented as the new leaders and agents of change, they were told that some things must remain constant.  They would lead Bnei Yisrael into new territory and undoubtedly, have to make decisions regarding new situations.  They would most likely have to innovate at times, but they also had to remember that some things were not within their authority to change.  


Through the structure of this parasha the Torah presents a paradigm for the future of MDY.   With fidelity to Torah law which is unchanging, along with communal traditions that should be maintained, we need to recognize opportunities and the need to innovate and make appropriate, permissible changes.  It is unreasonable to expect all things to stay the same and it would be a tragic mistake (and a sin) to change everything.  May Hashem grant us the wisdom to distinguish between the two and the courage to act appropriately.



Rabbi Alan Berkowitz


Technology and Thoughtful Parenting

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Dear Magen David Families,


In a letter I wrote earlier this week, I mentioned things that children were writing to each other in their group chats that were generating fear and anxiety.  In writing about this I glossed over the subject of “group chats” and so I was not surprised to receive some feedback that I’d now like to share with you.  This letter is about our children and their use of technology.  If you don’t have time to read the whole letter, please take note of the guidelines presented at the end.


On every occasion that we have discussed the topic of technology and the use of devices, you have heard me express my view that our children should have devices because they are essential 21st Century tools.  You have also heard me state emphatically that adults must figure out how to accept the responsibility of monitoring their children and students’ use of technology. This means that we need to know about new apps and social media that are available to our children and we have to make decisions about what and when they can make use of these apps and social media.  We should also take advantage of services like those provided through TAG to install filters on our children’s devices. More important than just knowing what’s available to our children is active monitoring of their technology usage.  Parents should make it clear to their children that as parents, they must know every one of their children’s passwords and that they reserve the right to check anything on any device at any time.  I suggest that this should be explained by saying to children something like “It’s not because I don’t trust you, it’s because I do love you.”  


Without burdening you with too many real-life anecdotes that come to our attention on a daily basis, I want to share one story that happened this week.  It is but one of many stories we hear about every week and it is real.  There is a large group of 10 year old boys and girls that are in a social media group together.  In that group, several of the girls started to use a vulgar term towards each other. This is inappropriate among girls of any age and certainly in children so young.  It is even worse in a coed group and, in some homes, it will generate conversations that are not yet age appropriate, but since the issue has been forced parents may not have a choice but to raise the issue.  One of the parents brought this group to our attention and asked for help.  Indeed, I hope that this letter provides some of the requested help even as I know that it may be insufficient.  The terrible things that the children wrote to and about each other continued over the course of a few days, because the adults didn’t get involved.  This can’t happen again.  If we hope to provide our children with the guidance they need, they will need guidelines.  The guidelines will have to be set by parents, enforced in every home and supported by the school.  (*Please see my suggestions below.)


We have made a purposeful decision not to be a school that bans specific forms of technology, just as we do not ban many other things.  We take pride in giving thought to our actions and being a community that parents and rears children in a thoughtful, purposeful manner.  Let us be mindful that this course of action, this approach to child-rearing is not simple.  It requires us to evaluate and re-evaluate our plans for, and interactions with our children at all times. It also requires open and transparent communication between adults.  Again, I remind you that we are up to the challenge.



Rabbi Alan Berkowitz


  1. Parents decide what apps their children have on their devices.
  2. Parents are privy to all passwords and reserve the right to monitor usage as they deem appropriate.
  3. Parents should consider installing filters on their children’s devices.
  4. Parents decide when and where children can use technology.
  5. Parents decide which groups their children may join and which they may not join.
  6. Parents agree to be in touch with each other and communicate openly when problems arise.  As responsible adults parents agree that allowing children to be part of specific peer groups means accepting the responsibility for the well-being of all the children in the group.  
  7. Parents commit to being “in this together”.

Talking To Children About Tragedies

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Dear Magen David Families,

In a letter I recently wrote to you, I pointed out that only God can absolutely guarantee safety at any time. For many people it is always comforting to be in God’s hands while for others there may be a sense of anxiety that comes with the human inability to be in complete control. Sadly, it seems that every day we are forced to struggle with this challenge. On a daily basis, news reports from near and far engender conversations in which we share concerns about safety, especially with regard to our children. There is no doubt, that the world around us has changed and many of us do not yet know how to adjust our daily habits and adapt to the new reality. But we are strong and resilient and together, we will figure out how to live our “normal” lives and properly balance concerns for safety and security. At this point, we don’t have another option and we will need to figure this out.

However, as we engage in these important discussions, I’d like to offer a few cautionary words and some advice. Reacting to terror attacks and articulating fears are part of adult conversation and as such, children should not be fully included. While we cannot shield our children from the news, they will certainly hear or read something somewhere, we can make smart choices about how we interact with them around this topic and our own anxieties. We can and should decide what to say and what not to say to our children. We can also make choices about the timing of their access to social media and unsupervised interactions even with their peers. The most disturbing emails I receive from parents raising concerns about their children’s safety are those in which they refer to their children’s increasing anxiety as they read their friends’ messages in their group chats. This is a recurring pattern that has emerged after each tragic incident and it need not be this way.  Our children need to hear from us and we should recognize that at times, we have to tell them to turn off their devices and engage in a family conversation.  

We know that we do not have all the answers. Still, in the face of this uncertainty, we must demonstrate strength to our children. They expect “their adults” to be in control and for their sake it is our obligation to provide stability and guidance for them. Our school psychologists have offered suggestions and provided resources for parents to help us in speaking with our children and addressing their concerns (see attached). Please take advantage of this material. If you have further questions or concerns specific to your child please contact us. We can help.

We are living in challenging times, working together thoughtfully we will be equal to the challenge.



Rabbi Alan Berkowitz

March With Us

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Dear Magen David Families,


Today, our students in grades 6-8 will be marching in the Salute to Israel parade.  They will be joined by their peers from Magen David Yeshivah High School and, their teachers and members of the school administration.  Needless to say MDY will be one of hundreds of schools participating in the parade today. Indeed as I write this letter some schools are already marching up Fifth Avenue.


In light of the recent terror attacks around the world including the horrible events of last night in London, many of us are apprehensive about participating or having our children march in the parade.  I believe that our concerns are rational and justified, but I also believe that we cannot give in to our fears.  When we decide to hide or that we as Jews and Zionists need to silence our own voices, we in affect, capitulate to the terrorists.  This we must not do!  Our brethren in Israel stand up to more significant threats on a daily basis and perhaps we owe it to them on this one day to step forward.  But more than that, I think we owe it to our children to demonstrate true resolve at this challenging moment.


Let us also keep in mind that security is tighter than ever. We have spoken with parade officials as well as our school security consultants who are well informed of security plans and they have assured us of the extensive security measures in place. (We will also have security personnel at school when students are dropped off and picked up.)  Only Hashem can provide us with the guarantee that many of us want with regard to safety and even those of greatest faith can at times feel vulnerable.  Nevertheless, we have an opportunity to stand up tall and teach our children a valuable lesson about living life in accordance with our values.


Please march with us today.



Rabbi Alan Berkowitz