Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Remarketing Jew Education

This week the Jewish Educators Associatian (JEA) is having their annual conference. This coming week, I will be joining my colleagues from the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) at our  annual conference in Seattle. Both the Conservative JEA and the Reform NATE conferences are making technology and futuring the centerpiece of their learning. It is very exciting. 

In The Networked Non-Profit, Beth Kantor and Allison Fine point out that when it comes to Social Media, the important word is SOCIAL not MEDIA. In other words the technology is a tool for bringing people together, and in our case, making Jewish learning happen.

Joel Grishaver has posted what I think is a very interesting idea about futuring on his blog, The Gris Mill, and I am glad he wrote it now so I can think about it while I am learning in Seattle.

Remarketing Jew Education
by Joel Lurie Grishaver

We are at an interesting moment in the world of parenting. This parenting chaos directly impacts the way we present ourselves as Jewish “schools.”

The first voice is Amy Chua, author of  "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,"  who says give your child no room to do anything but succeed. The other voice is Wendy Mogul, whose long overdue second book, “The Blessings of a B-Minus,” cajoles us to accept our child as human beings. Both books are now coming to prominence. One is about high achievement, the other is about resilience. Both take a swipe at the long over emphasized issue of self-esteem.

Chua wants us to be tougher on our kids and demand “perfection.” Mogul understands that “failure” is a useful growth opportunity. Both of them wind up as commentary on new reports about the failure of American schools to even teach the difference between facts and opinions and the overall failure of American Universities to make any impact on the learning of many of their present students. Richard Arum, lead author of the study, “Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) came out in January, too, is the third voice putting the foundations of the way we parent at risk.

Believe it or not, all this comes back to the role and optics of Jewish schools, particularly Jewish supplemental schools. Who we are as a school has a lot to do with what our parents believe a school is.

We are simultaneously being told be like regular schools and become technological. At the same time we are being told, don’t be like a school at all (we’ve had enough of that) be a camp or a program or something interesting (and do that using a lot less time). What is common knowledge every where but in our classroom, is the universal belief that the present Jewish schooling system is a total failure.
Here is a radical idea. We ought to play to our own strengths. We know that the Jewish tradition centers on learning how to close-read texts. (Think reading comprehension!) That we use a thing called “Talmudic Logic” that teaches you how to evaluate evidence, reason, and know the difference between fact and opinion.

Jewish schools can and should do camp pretty well. We need to get better at technology. For sure, our tradition centers on building both self-esteem and resilience. But, what Judaism really is good at is learning—deep learning.

In the future, when the alternative (for example) is 10 minutes of Skype a week plus one informal event a month probably involving families, we will brag:  “We help our students become better learners.”
Camp will do camp better than we do. Other schools will always have more money to spend on technology than we do (and Web 2.0 apps only go so far). But what we can really brag about is “let us teach your children the Jewish tradition and they will do better in life.”

We will incorporate the camp selling point: “You children will make friends to last a lifetime.” We will have the technological appeal: “We allow your children to remix the Jewish tradition.” But our unique promise is about learning skills. Right now we teach not language but mechanical reading. Language provides useful insight. Mechanical reading is self-serving. We are geared to teach names and facts, but “meaning” and “insight” are what are precious. We have to work to make our classrooms both challenging and responsive, and those are goals we can achieve. It is perhaps the only truth that will keep us in business.

To stay on the weekly schedule, to make it worth the carpool time, Jewish Schooling has to have advantages. The good thing is that we own them: Friends, Remixing, Creativity, Resilience, and Academic Excellence. We know how to do this—we simply need to become good Torah teachers and not a pale imitation of secular schools.

Cross posted to The Gris Mill and Davar Acher.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Jon Stewart's Moving Monologue
on the Arizona Shooting

This review by Lindsey Compton of Jon Stewart's response to the shooting of Representative Gabriel Giffords and 18 others appeared in Celebrity Cafe. My thanks to my friends Fred and Debra Greene for sharing the link on Facebook. As Fred said, "Jon Stewart just became one of my great teachers...

"Boy would it be nice to be able to draw a straight line of causation from this horror to something tangible because then we could convince ourselves that if we just stopped 'this' the horrors will end."
In the wake of the Arizona shootings, Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart put aside his political satire and witty jokes by opening Monday night’s Daily Show with a serious speech that didn’t point fingers at any particular person to blame, but rather questioned and examined the nature of the violence.

Stewart opened the show with a few jokes, trying to lightheartedly, it seemed, talk about the shooting that shocked the nation. After a few laughs with his Senior Correspondent, John Oliver, Stewart transitioned into somber statement — “So here we are again stunned by a tragedy. 
 We have been visited by this demon before.”

He went on to give his condolences to those who were killed and affected by the tragic shooting, wondering what causes people to commit the crimes that they do.

“How do you make sense of these type of senseless situations seems to be the question that's on everybody's mind and I don't know that there is a way to make sense of this sort of thing.,” he said. Stewart added that the political pundit world who were working “feverishly to find the tidbit or two that will exonerate their side from blame” were “predictable” and “dispiriting.”

“We live in a complex ecosystem of influences and motivations and I wouldn't blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine,” he said, calling the political environment toxic and unproductive.

Amongst small jokes here and there, he later stated that he refused to give into the despair that the world is full of “crazies,” because “anonymous goodness does exist in the world. [Crazy] is rarer than you think. There is light in this situation.”

“Someone or something will shatter our world again and wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take this opportunity and the loss of these incredible people…to make sure that the world we are creating now…wasn’t better than the one we previously lost.”

Even though we “can’t outsmart crazy,” as Stewart stated in his speech, we can send our prayers and condolences to those who lost their lives and who were affected by this tragedy. May peace be with you all.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona Shootings Reaction
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>The Daily Show on Facebook

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let's Dig a Hole and Plant a Seed

This post is from the iCenter, which is on the cutting edge of Israel education in North America, and is written by my friend Lori Sagarin. Very appropriate for the season and for a day of celebrating the life of Debbie Friedman.

When I think of pivotal memories... Tu B’shvat always emerges as one of the clearest. I am sitting in my Talmud Torah class, licking the backs of the JNF “green stamps” working my way down the card to purchase a tree in Eretz Yisrael.

I, not unlike many American Jews, imagined someday visiting Israel and seeing “my tree”. I planted trees in honor of relative’s special birthdays, anniversaries, and most notably, in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Recently, while visiting my parents I came across the letter, dated in the spring of 1969 from the desk of Coretta Scott King thanking me for honoring her husband in this special way. Re-reading this note reminded me how significant this tree planting exercise had been for me and my generation. It connected us in a very tangible way to the State of Israel.  We were the first generation who had not known a time without a Modern state and we appreciated the importance and significance of this faraway place in our lives.

I don’t imagine a single child in my 1960’s Religious School did not plant a tree. It was a given. No one had to prod or cajole any of us. It was just what Jewish kids did. Over the years, I think we have lost this connection. Yes, we continue to send tree forms home with our students each year prior to Tu B’shvat but only a minority plant trees and I imagine it is at their parents’ behest.

Two things have happened that have convinced me that time has come to renew our efforts in encouraging children to plant trees. The first is our international growing awareness and support for the green movement. We are all far more aware of the need for protection of natural resources and the roles trees have in that effort.  JNF has reinvented itself in order to provide a context for extensive green education through a Jewish lens and they are not alone. Hazon has produced a myriad of resources that any family or institution can take advantage in an effort to spread a green message and connect our families to Israel and our tradition.

The second are the recent Carmel fires which devastated northern Israel destroying conservatively 5 million trees. I am the kind of Jewish educator who consciously tries to avoid linking all of Jewish history to tragedy and endeavors to engage my students through the accomplishments of our people.  This event, however, is a tragedy with healing - healing that can take place at their hands through the planting of trees.

My congregation’s lay leaders have picked up the gauntlet and beginning on Tu B’shvat and continuing through Yom Ha’atzmaut are raising funds to plant a grove of trees. These trees will be a small effort to begin to replenish the lost Carmel forests. I am so proud and excited to be a part of a community that is ready to take action in such a meaningful manner. I look forward to incorporating the children in our schools in this effort, renewing the excitement and pride I felt so many years ago, licking those stamps, filling that card and planting that tree.

This past weekend we lost the voice of American Jewish music. Debbie Friedman wrote music that gave access to both liturgy and Jewish celebrations by creating the musical backdrop for generations. Debbie wrote an iconic song for Tu B'shvat for very young children the title of which is "Plant a Tree for Tu B'shvat". I couldn't have said it better myself.

Lori Sagarin is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple
Beth Israel in Skokie, IL. She is the former president of the National
Association of Temple Educators (NATE), and is also past president of
the Chicago Association of Temple Educators. Lori is an educational consultant to the iCenter.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mourning for Debbie Friedman

This is from Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Bridgeport, CT.

Dear friends,
I am truly at a loss to share words at this time.  Debbie Friedman touched the hearts and souls of thousands with her music and her presence.  She was among my dearest friends for these past 12 years and I am deeply mourning her loss.  I have no words.

I simply wish to share, for those who have not received the information through other channels, that the gathering for Debbie last night at the JCC Manhattan, which was streamed live, was also recorded and can be viewed here.

In addition, the funeral will be broadcast over the web.  It is taking place on the West Coast tomorrow morning, at what will be 2:00 pm EDT.  If you wish to attend the funeral in this way, the link is here.

Her memory is forever a blessing.  May she be blessed as she goes on her way...

Friday, January 7, 2011


If you have been following this blog for a while you know that one of my favorite teachers is Seth Godin. I have never learned from him face to face. I began reading him in Fast Company Magazine. Then I read the Idea Virus and The Purple Cow. A few webinars, YouTube and some TED talks. And most recently Linchpin - which has helped me to crystallize a lot of my thoughts about synagogue education. And I follow his blog.This is what he posted today:

All you've got, all your brand has got, all any of us have are the memories and expectations and changes we've left with others.
It's so easy to get hung up on the itinerary, the features and the specs, but that's not real, it's actually pretty fuzzy stuff. The concrete impact of our lives and our work is the mark you make on other people. It might be a product you make or the way you look someone in the eye. It might be a powerful experience you have on a trip with your dad, or the way you keep a promise.
The experiences you create are the moments that define you. We'll miss you when you're gone, because we will always remember the mark you made on us.
There's a sign on most squash courts encouraging players to wear only sneakers with non-marking soles. I'm not sure there's such a thing. If you've going to do anything worthy, you're going to leave a mark.
Tonight the chairs of my religious school committee - Gayle Szuchman and Cindy Becker - gave a report to the board of our synagogue about the work of the committee. They were asked to do so because the committee has become a shining example of a group of people coming together around a shared vision and working to make it real. That vision is all about relationships. 

We changed some of the focus of the committee from the classroom to the parents. We decided that the most important factor in determining whether a child grows up to be a Jewishly functionally literate adult connected to the community are his or her parents. And our focus is not initially on improving parents Jewish knowledge or even expanding the range of their Jewish practice. It has been on developing and deepening relationships between adults.

Our room parents no longer focus on who is bringing snack or shopping for the model Seder we no longer hold. Instead they have been charged with bringing the parents in their children's classrooms together. Teams of parents in the middle grades come together to create and implement relationship-building games among their children during school hours - getting the teams together is as important as the socialization among the kids. And the committee spent part of the summer identifying and reaching out to parents who were asked to step up and take a role in the life of our school.

They have spent this year creating experiences that have brought people together. Those folks have begun to develop relationships. They have become Facebook friends. And their kids are getting together too! I think Seth is right, worthwhile things we do leave a mark. And that is what this group is doing. And that mark is making people more connected to the synagogue, and valuing their membership in new ways.

How will you leave a mark? Please offer your suggestions or experiences. I am hoping we can all learn from one another!