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Rabbi-Hacking IV: Hacking Our Teaching

One of our colleagues wrote a humorous and thoughtful “rabbi’s” version of the ahl cheyt. One of them was “for the sins we have committed by relying on ‘Rabbi Google’ rather than the sacred texts in our study.” I can relate. The extent of Jewish teaching resources available online is extraordinary. Websites for texts, commentaries, and community continue to grow. A contemporary Kohelet could say, “Of the making of websites there is no end.”

How do we separate the wheat from the chaff? Personal preferences play a role. So denomination and ideology, along with usability and relevance. We all know of the excellent URJ site. What follows are some of my favorites. Please leave some of your favorite resources in the comments section so we can all benefit.

1. Jonathan Sacks recently retired as Chief Rabbi of Great Britain. Yet, he has maintained a website filled with Torah commentaries, essays and lectures, and it is filled with wonderful ideas and chomer l’drush.

2. A lay leader brought this to my attention. It gathers texts from the Tanach to Maimonides to Midrash Rabbah in Hebrew and English, in a format where one is able to create a teaching source sheet. The site is still developing, and the available texts are a bit haphazard. Yet, this site is beginning to prove eminently useful.

3. Maintained by the American Jewish World Service, this site has a similar concept as Sefariah, but is more developed and focused on social justice. It also has the benefit of providing users with access to source sheets put together by others.

4. JTA is a great source for Jewish news, opinion and blogs.

5. I am biased, as I blog regularly for the Huffington Post, but the range of writers and topics is phenomenal. I’ve found many good ideas for lunch and learn and other adult education classes on the site.

6. Mosaic is the successor the Jewish Ideas Daily. Though its selection has a clear conservative bent, Mosaic offers articles on topics in Jewish thought and history difficult to find elsewhere. Its articles lend themselves to good discussion.

7. Tablet is a bit more pop-culture orientated than Mosaic, but it also offers excellent essays on Jewish life and thought, and it is frequently updated.

8. This site has nothing to do with Judaism or Jewish life. In fact, its author is a devout Christian and former head of a major Christian-orientated publisher. But the insights on leadership and productivity are better than can be found anywhere else. He gives insights into blogging, organizational leadership, and how to get more done in less time. That’ Unknownsomething we can all use.

 Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Rabbi-Hacking III: Hack Your Productivity

Do you ever get asked the question: “What’s a typical day in the life of a rabbi?” I do, and it’s a tough one to answer. The truth is that there are no typical days. A funeral can lead us to drop everything and visit with a family. Sometimes we have multiple congregants in the hospital, or we have a community event to attend.

The fact that we do not have typical working hours makes figuring out an effective system for organizing our projects and responsibilities even more important. We could live simply from emergency to emergency, but then our rabbinate would be one of responding and managing rather than creating and building. The best systems for productivity are both simple and comprehensive. They allow us to incorporate all the different parts of our lives without becoming so intricate that we spend more time managing the system than managing ourselves.

The best system I have found for doing so is called Getting Things Done (GTD). Developed by David Allen, it is simple, effective and life-changing. Several of our colleagues have embraced it, and it is quite popular among pastors and non-profit executives. The entire system is laid out in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done, but I will include a short summary here, along with a couple of ways it impacts my rabbinate.

The key principle of GTD is that we need to get everything out of our head. Our brains are meant for thinking and reflecting, not for remembering or reminding. The first step of the GTD system is doing a “mind dump,” where we write out everything that’s on our mind, from buying cat food to starting a new building project. If it’s on our mind and not in our system, it is tugging at our psychic energy, even if we do not realize it. Once we have a list of what’s on our plate, we process it.

A popular part of GTD is the “2-minute rule.” Any action that can be dispensed of in two minutes, we do right away. If it’s a phone call, email or signing papers, we just do it. If it would take more than two minutes, we have three options. We can defer it, delegate it or trash it. To defer it means to put it on a list or on our calendar. (More on lists later). To delegate it is to assign it to someone else. Trashing is self-explanatory!

After processing we organize. The organizing phase is where we decide what lists to put the action or project on. David Allen is famous for making lists, and they are at the heart of his system. The most important list is the “Projects List.” It is an inventory with every project (he defines a project as something that requires more than one action) we have in our lives. It is usually several dozen.

For me it includes “Develop a new confirmation curriculum,” “Organize Israel B’nei Mitzvah trip,” and so on. A project has to start with a verb and, very importantly, be able to be crossed off the list eventually. A project is not an ongoing responsibility, like leading worship. Rather, it is something that can be finished, like creating a new siddur.

In addition to the “Projects List,” there are next actions list. A “next action” according to GTD is a “physical visible step” we need to take. GTD organizes next actions by context. So we have a next actions lists for “@phone,” “@computer,” “@errands” or even “@Executive Director.” These are things we need to do when we have a phone, or are sitting at our computer, or have time to run errands, or are meeting with our Executive Director.

Why do we need all these lists? Because we need to free up brainpower from remembering things to thinking about and creating things. Deciding what list to put an action on also forces us to begin to think about how we will accomplish the action, giving us greater impetus to actually do it.

The next two phases of the GTD workflow are “Review” and “Do.” Review means looking over our lists and figuring out what needs our attention at the moment. The doing is the most important part, where we work through our lists.

UnknownI know this may sound both overly complicated and commonsensical at the same time. My wife, Rabbi Ari Moffic, gently chides me for my obsession with lists. Yet, it works. For example, on my projects list now is “Get CCAR Journal Book Reviews to printer.” Then on my @computer lists are notes with each of the ongoing book reviews attached to them. When I sit down at my computer, I open up my @computer list and see the book reviews I need to get done for the project. Without having to constantly worry about what I’m missing, I can focus on getting the work done.

To learn more, pick up a copy of Getting Things Done. Or give me a call and we can talk more about it, and I can refer you to other colleagues who use GTD.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.


General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Rabbi-Hacking II: Hacking Your Memory

Have you ever thought of the perfect quote or illustration for a sermon or article, and then searched for hours to find it, only to come up empty and frustrated? I think we all have. Teaching and preaching on a weekly basis requires lots of time and resources, and we could all use ways of saving both. One piece of software has helped me save enormous amounts of time by giving me a way to save and quickly access quotes, illustrations, favorite articles, commentaries and texts and much more. It is called Evernote, and it is FREE. What follows is a short overview of what Evernote does, and a quick overview of the way I use it in my rabbinate. Much much more could be said, and once again I invite you to contact me for further insights or ideas.

How To Use Evernote

Evernote is note-taking and storage application. You can use it from an iPhone, droid, mac, PC, Blackberry or iPad. You can save any type of file—sound, pdf, video, Word document or webpage. Everything you save is also searchable. So if you remember reading an article by Larry Kushner about synagogues and tent pegs, but you weren’t quite sure what the title was or where it might be on your computer, you could get on Evernote, type in “kushner tentpegs” and the complete article would pop up.

You can also scan documents directly into Evernote, creating a searchable digital PDF accessible from any device. You can even take a picture of a note or page of an article, save it to Evernote, and then have it searchable and accessible immediately from anywhere.

Among the most useful of evernotes’s feature is the ability to seamlessly clip articles from a website. Let’s say you read a particularly inspiring or insightful URJ Torah commentary. All you have to do is click a button “save to Evernote,” and a full text of the article is saved in a predesignated Evernote notebook. You could then “tag” the note with the name of the Torah portion, and over time develop several notes with the same tag that you could use for a sermon or class on that parasha. I’ve got tags for teach of the parashiyot, and that has made preparing for Torah study and sermons much more efficient.

imagesGet It Out of Your Head

Evernote really comes in handy in that it allows us to get ideas out of your head and into a system. This year right after the High Holy Days I start a new tag called “HHD 5775.” On the first note tagged with it, I wrote out my impressions and potential changes for next year’s services. Whenever I see a potential iyyun tefillah or sermon idea or illustration, I save it in evernote and tag with “HHD 5775.” Half of what I create never gets used, but when I sit down to write, I have a treasure trove of ideas and illustrations waiting for me.

I also use Evernote for storing notes for life cycle events. Every couple gets a note, and I can pull it up at each meeting. Then right before the ceremony I review the note and can speak more freely and extemporaneously with them because I just familiarized myself with the gist of our conversations. After each funeral intake meeting, I create a note and scan in my handwritten notes from the meeting. (Like many colleagues, I feel awkward using a computer or other digital device during a funeral intake meeting.) Those notes not only help with the eulogy, but they are easily accessible if a family asks for a stone dedication.

Evernote has already made a tremendous impact in the educational world, with innovative schools using evernote to story class notes accessible to students and teachers. I haven’t used it in that way for teaching, but I have used it as a repository for texts, articles, and other papers usually kept in a physical file folder or in my memory. Evernote has the capability to effectively replace a physical filing system, making our documents more accessible and safe. We can even encrypt a note if it contains sensitive information. For any rabbi that has ever dreamed of “going paperless,” Evernote is a dream come true.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.

General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Rabbi-Hacking Part I: Hacking the Sermon

“The day is short and the task is great.” Rabbi Tarfon’s observation applies to us as much as it did to our predecessors. Our work is endless and our time is limited. How do we make the most of that time? How do we ensure we have enough for our families, our communities, and ourselves?

The next four blog posts will feature unique resources that can help in doing so. The title—“Rabbi-Hacker”—is derived from the popular website “Lifehacker.” While often used incorrectly as a term of derision, the word “hacking” comes from the software industry and early days of personal computing, where hackers found shortcuts and creative “workarounds” to solve problems.

The website Lifehacker is devoted to the idea that we can use technologies and the experiences of others to meet our personal and professional goals more efficiently. These technologies are not just electronic. They include systems and thought processes developed and tested over time. I am confident we can learn from them, even as our goals and responsibilities as rabbis are unique and multi-faceted. They include speaking, teaching, writing, and leading an organization. Drawing from my own experience and research, the next four blog posts will look at ways we can “hack” each of them.


Many of us use the Alban Institute as a resource for pastoral and leadership resources. We may not know, however, about some of the other extraordinary resource centers in the Christian world that can teach and benefit us as rabbis. One of them that I experienced for four days this year is known as the SCORRE Conference. SCORRE stands for “Subject, Central Theme, Objective, Rationale, Resources, Evaluation.” Developed by writer, minister and comedian Ken Davis, it consists of a comprehensive system for preparing, developing and delivering speeches and sermons.

I spent four of the most meaningful and productive days of my life at the SCORRE conference in Orlando this past May, where we learned the system and then spent several hours in sessions where we used it to prepare and deliver speeches, and were then critiqued by instructors and other participants. It was like two years of homiletics packed into three days. The system is deceptively simple, and enormously effective. I cannot do it justice in one blog posts, but I will try to distill its essence.


The essence of the SCORRE method is two-fold. First, it relies on the idea that every speech or sermon demands the listener take some of action. That action can be changing our perspective, learning a new technique for doing something, or taking an action like voting or petitioning. A speech or sermon written with the SCORRE method does not teach simply to impart information. It teaches in order to persuade or cause an action.

Second, and most importantly, every speech or sermon must be summarized in one sentence. The sentence can be one of two kinds: an enabling proposition, or a persuasive proposition. A persuasive proposition always has the words “should” and “because” in it. An enabling proposition always has the words “can” and “by” in it. This central sentence does not have to appear verbatim in the speech, but we always need to write it down. The SCORRE process gives us a blueprint for writing it.

First, we pick a subject. It could be “Abraham” or “generation to generation” or “memory.” Then we pick a central theme within that subject. What about “Abraham” or “memory” do we want to discuss? Perhaps we want to focus on Abraham’s hospitality when he welcomes the three strangers. Perhaps we want to zero in on the way memory is incorporated and relived in a Passover seder. After we pick the central theme, we decide on our objective. This is where we decide our “thesis” or takeaway message. If our subject was “memory” and our central theme “memory and ritual,” our objective could be “We can honor the memory of our ancestors by practicing these three rituals.”

The rationale is another name for the points of a speech. It hangs on a key word, which is always a plural noun. In the case above, the word “rituals” is the keyword. The precise rituals we highlight would be our rationale. The rationale always matches the key word in grammatical form, so they would always be nouns.

Resources are the illustrations. They are the examples or midrashim or personal stories. They reinforce the rationale.

Evaluation is a reminder to constantly improve. It is the discipline to ask questions after we have finished and to seek constructive input from others.


This year I used the SCORRE methodology for each of my High Holy Day sermons. My preparation time was significantly less than in years past, and the messages were both more focused, clearly delivered and (if I may be so bold) effective. I also felt more confident in tackling a difficult subject, as the methodology gave me a way in to focusing a message around it. For example, I decided to talk on Kol Nidre on the “Giving God a Chance.” My enabling proposition was “We can challenge ourselves to think more deeply about God by confronting three key obstacles.” Notice the proposition has the “can” and “by” in it. The key word is “obstacles.” They were 1) theodicy, 2) prayer and 3) fundamentalism.” The illustrations fit each point. Under theodicy I talked about the Newtown shootings. Under prayer I talked about Unetanah Tokef. Under fundamentalism I talked about religious orthodoxy.

The exact proposition did not appear in the sermon, and the three-fold structure was not terribly obvious. Simply the disciplining of outlining and writing it helped keep my writing on target.

I know this brief overview may make SCORRE seem overly simplistic. But the opposite is true. A clear framework gives us room for intellectual exploration. The SCORRE method works in more than sermons and speeches. I use it in my bulletin articles, blogs and even books. If you would like to talk about further, do not hesitate to email or call me. It will save you time and help make our sacred message more clear and meaningful. If you are really interested, I would highly recommend the SCORRE conference, which is this May in Orlando. I’ll be returning, as its organizers have become friends and mentors, and we can always use Unknownmore practice and growth.

Rabbi Evan Moffic is the rabbi of Congregation Solel in Highland Park, IL.