Learning to live with integrity

Posted Wednesday, Feb 20th, 2013
Washington Jewish Week

"Living With Integrity."

Sounds like a goal we'd all want to reach somehow, some way.

Suppose we were given an opportunity to think differently about life's daily decisions?

The Chabad Jewish Learning Institute of Friends of Lubavitch is offering a six-week course helping us "navigate through everyday ethical dilemmas" at the Chabad Shul of Potomac.

"There comes a time when we're forced to choose between conflicting responsibilities or to make ethical compromises for good reasons," writes the Chabad literature. "How do we decide what is right, and more importantly, what is right for us in our unique situation."

Locally, the course is being led by Rabbi Mendel Bluming.

On a cold February Wednesday night, the Chabad Shul of Potomac is packed with students. Some are shomer Shabbos and shomer mitzvot, others represent different levels of observance. But shul experience is hardly a prerequisite here. The questions presented are real ones that any one of us could face. The lessons are divided into six categories including Privacy, Forgiveness, Charity, Parents, Honesty and Commitments.

On that February night, some 67 people attended, most bringing along a textbook designed for the course. The rabbi explained that even if a student is visually impaired, Chabad will provide a textbook in Braille.

For Devorah and Kevin Berman of Potomac, the class is part of their Wednesday "date night." The Potomac couple hire a babysitter, go out for dinner and then take in the course.

"My husband and I are interested in learning about all things Jewish," she said. "The course material interests us. A lot of it is just knowing and understanding how to better face challenges of life that are meaningful to us. And Rabbi Bluming has an incredible gift in taking information and making it meaningful and helps us connect to the Jewish text. Each topic touches people in different ways."

What is also interesting about the class is that it is happening simultaneously with 300 similar JLI classes around the world reaching thousands of students.

"I think that if the right opportunity is presented, you'll find that Jews are thirsty for Torah study," said the rabbi.

The students are getting an incredible teacher in Rabbi Bluming. His love and excitement of Yiddishkeit comes through with his teaching. But it's not only the rabbi's teaching, it's also his tolerance. Students are given respect for their answers.

On this particular evening, the topic is forgiveness. It was clear that the course had hit a sensitive area.

How does a Jew ask a fellow Jew for forgiveness? What are the preconditions? These are the questions and answers that Rabbi Bluming uses Jewish source material, but more often than not, the words of his students to answer.

Living With Integrity is the middle course of three offered by Chabad. The first six-week course was called "The Kabbalah of You." The final course of the three is called "Curious Tales of the Talmud."

"We were looking to make every course very relevant," said Rabbi Bluming. But not just relevant, added the rabbi, downright personal.

During the first lesson on privacy, Bluming said that each person has an obligation to protect his or her own privacy and the privacy of others. Violating privacy destroys, he said, an important principle of humanity.

"Every human being is created in God's image," he said. "Each person is a unique expression of that Godly image. By allowing me the privacy to discover my inner thoughts and delve into my unique calling, I can better serve this distinctive mission."

Invariably, his students will contact him after a particular class because the issue has had such a personal impact on their lives. While they are learning from him, Bluming said he learns an equal amount if not more about Judaism from his students.

"This week," he said, "we'll be talking about our parents, our relationship with our parents, what do I owe my parents, abusive parents, parents who make requests with no rationale. It's a very stressful subject. Yet in our class there's a sense that one can put his guard down and share what's on his heart."

There are weeks when Bluming is almost thrown by a class member's question.

"In our class on charity the other week, someone asked a question that really humbled me," he said. "She said she's always been careful to give 10 percent of her income to charity. But then she said that if she had given 10 percent to charity one particular month, then her phone service would have been cut off and she was in a quandary. Should she have given to charity and see her phone service cut off? I wanted her to scream on the hilltops to God that question. What a devoted Jewish person to come up with a question like that."

Or as Susan Samakow, a life coach, said, Rabbi Bluming is the perfect person to teach these classes, because "he is so full of integrity. He really brings it to life.

"I've been taking his classes for several years. One reason is because he's teaching them," she continued. "I really like the subjects. And he is so open and he's inclusive when he teaches, so it's not just someone who's lecturing."

Samakow added that the rabbi "never makes another person feel like they are wrong. He's the ultimate mensch."

The course is scheduled Wednesdays from 8 to 9 p.m. at the Chabad Shul of Potomac, 11621 Seven Locks Road. A website on the course is located at www.myjli.com

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