Saturday, August 27, 2011

"And You Shall Teach Them Diligently To Your Children ... And To Yourselves."

This summer I met @Moosh2, an online friend. She was working at Crane Lake Camp while I was at Eisner Camp. Her name in RL is Marci Bellows the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes a regular column inn the New York Jewish Week. We grew up in the same community and have a lot of friends in common, and yet we had never met!

When I saw this article, I thought it made some very important points in our ongoing discussion about what we should be doing in Jewish Education today. Let's discuss!

“When I was in junior high, and all my friends were having their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs (sic), I just enjoyed celebrating with them. It didn’t really occur to me that I wasn’t having one of my own. It wasn’t until college that I really began to regret it…” 

With these words, Jessica Yanow, my best friend since we were eight years old, began reflecting on her own Jewish upbringing and education. Growing up in Skokie, Illinois, it was impossible not to feel, at the very least, culturally Jewish. There was a bagel store in every strip mall, and a synagogue every few blocks. 

Jessica’s grandparents belonged to a Traditional synagogue, and they encouraged Jessica’s mother to enroll her in Sunday School there. Though the level of observance differed from what she was seeing at home, Jessica attended for a few years. When she was in second grade, her mother gave her a choice – she could keep attending Sunday School, or she could stop. Jessica explained, “At that age, I would guess that most children would choose not to go to any additional school. There was no discussion, as far as I can remember, with regards to later implications, like the fact that I wouldn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. So, of course, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go to Sunday School.’” 

I cannot express how much this one story has affected my rabbinate. I often hear young parents wrestling over whether or not to “force” their children to attend religious school. Likewise, I hear students bemoan the fact that they are “stuck” going to religious school every week. And, yet, I inevitably share Jessica’s story with them all, for this reason: Now that she is an adult, she deeply regrets not attending religious school, not building her Jewish identity from a younger age, and not celebrating Bat Mitzvah at 13. 

Interestingly, and perhaps not consciously, Jessica found other ways of engaging in Judaism as a teen. Jessica was active in our local Kadima chapter in junior high, and then we were all board members of my temple’s Youth Group in high school. She took Hebrew as a foreign language at our public high school. She traveled to Israel during the summer before college, and then we both began our studies at Brandeis University (where feeling Jewish is unavoidable). 

Surrounded by Jews of all stripes, Jessica was now confronted by her lack of Jewish knowledge and personal connection to her heritage. For the first time, she truly regretted her decision to halt her religious education. Thus, she continued studying Hebrew, added three semesters of Yiddish, and read as many Jewish books as she could. 

Fast-forward to now, and she is living in Phoenix, married, and mother to an amazing four-year-old son (who calls me “Auntie Marci,” which makes me giggle ALL the time). She and her husband have chosen to send their son to a pre-school at a local Reform synagogue. She hopes that they will become more involved in the coming years, and perhaps she will study towards Adult Bat Mitzvah. I asked her how she feels now that she is the parent. 

She delights in spending every Friday morning at the preschool’s Tot Shabbat celebration. She loves learning more about the holidays alongside her son. She was pleasantly humbled when he came home one day, looked at the family’s dormant candlesticks, and asked, “Mommy, why don’t we light Shabbat candles on Friday nights?” 

Jessica is but one case, but she exemplifies so many adults in today’s Reform congregations. For a variety of reasons, we have men and women who feel detached, alienated, or lacking in some way. Some of these adults will never set foot in the temple except to send their kids to religious school and then leave as soon as their youngest child turns thirteen. 

However, others are longing for connection, and they wish desperately that someone would reach out to them. These folks may be intimidated by adult education offerings, fearful that their lack of learning will be a source of embarrassment. To all of these people, I say, you are welcome here! You belong here! You are a crucial part of the fabric of the Jewish community, and you needn’t be afraid! Jewish learning is possible throughout our entire lives, whether or not we started our learning when we were young. 

As adults, it is our job to model the importance of a strong Jewish education – not just by sending our children to religious school, but by finding ways to continually enhance our own understanding of Judaism. Imagine how little we would understand about the world if we had stopped our secular studies at age 13! This month, the Union for Reform Judaism is highlighting various ways of approaching Lifelong Jewish Learning, and I encourage you to look for inspiring ideas and topics on their website: I’m sure that, with a bit of searching, you will find something that works for you. 

Oh, and, by the way, Jessica will not be giving her son a choice. He will go to religious school through Bar Mitzvah, at the very least. No doubt about it.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Reports of the Hebrew School's Demise Have Been Greatly Exagerated - A Parent Replies

Leslie Coff and I grew up together at Congregation B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Glenview Illinois. She recently tried to post a comment to a post in which I cite Benjamin Weiner in the Jewcy blog from January 2010 (there are few time limits on the internet), but it was too long for the blog platform to list it as a comment. So here it is. I have a few thoughts myself, but I will let all of you weigh in first.

You guys have absolutely hit home.

It is not that Hebrew Schools are at fault (my husband is a lovely man yet spent most of his Hebrew School years hiding behind the building at the lake), it is that if a Hebrew School were somehow inspiring, if we could really connect with the kids, then this would somehow connect them to the wider world of Jewish Lifestyle, Jewish Education and Jewish Joy?

Of course, as I am sure you have written before, Ira...Hebrew Schools these days are 'teaching to the test'. Children, after learning their Aleph-Bet, move into Shabbat liturgy/ prayers, all of which they are responsible for knowing the morning of their B’nai Mitzvah. No wonder kids 'quit' immediately afterwards. They have checked off the last box from their list and there is nothing connecting them with staying.

How is it that we, (when we were kids) in our three-hour-a-week language education somehow managed to learn to write sentences, to read poetry from Chaim Nachman Bialik out loud, to identify verb roots ("Ma Ha Shoresh??!!) and even to write small essays? (more on this later).

We, as a community, are also competing with children's other activities. Hebrew School is the same on the schedule (and mostly less important than) soccer. It is my feeling that what we are missing is connection....and of course, each child is different in their learning and interest and there has to be a widget to be able to use Hebrew School to light up many, many sets of eyes.

Not only are we, as American Reform Jews, struggling with this as a community...but for my husband and me, on a micro level, within my family. We have tried to instill a strong Jewish center into our children, into our home. We have lived in three different cities in different parts of this country while the kids have been school-age and have been active in each of our synagogues. Unfortunately, inspiration has never been a part of their education.  I am not sure quite why.

Our children, of course, have taken what we have given them to heart and mind each a different way, according to their personalities. Our oldest (perhaps with a strong need for a charismatic connection) is now affiliated with Chabad, dons tefillin and tzitzit. And yet, in college, failed to attend his Hebrew class.

He wishes to make Aliyah.
He comes home from Shabbos to discuss Gemarah with us.
He skypes his friends in Yochneam. 

Our next, a real scientist, is not interested in Birthright, not interested in OSRUI and found, after one summer, its spirituality uninteresting. He is interested in Judaism's history and philosophy. In every religious school class situation, his hand is always raised. He always knows the answer. Although he has a gift for language, Hebrew is not one he wishes to pursue, despite our living there as a family for a month. He feels a strong sense of duty to the Jewish people. Somehow he was never 'inspired'...or has not been yet.

Our youngest, recently a Bat Mitzvah, did not want to be Jewish in spite of our home situation, our involvement in synagogue and her multiple years at URJ's Camp Coleman in the North Georgia mountains. Since attending OSRUI in 2010, she wants to be Jewish, wants to chant Torah like her mom, wants to learn Hebrew, attend Hebrew immersion class, etc.

She was previously -- never inspired.

One days a couple of years ago I found myself in the office of our Temple's Hebrew School begging the administrator to let me do FREE Hebrew enrichment classes for the kids who had already attained the highest level of expected achievement AND for the next two months would only be coaching their classmates.

Let me clarify: my child was going to Hebrew School to teach other kids the prayers. To my request to teach Hebrew conversation: I was, much to my dismay, denied.

I do not believe that the educators are free and clear. I believe that the onus of inspiration is on them, as it is on every teacher to light the fires in the hearts and minds of the children. 

Kids can be engaged.
It is possible.
Yes, this needs to be reinforced at home.
Yes, understand that societal pressures (soccer!!!) play into the game.
If 'hooking up' is all that the kids want to do....teach them the words in Hebrew (okay, that was an exaggeration).

And yes, the kids are all different....and yes, they are tired and overdone by the time the synagogue Hebrew Schools get a hold of them and yes, it is hard.

But I am a believer and I believe there is a better way than just 'teaching to the test'.

Leslie Coff
Thanks putting up today's article, Ira. You obviously hit home with me.

Leslie Coff, MTOM, L.Ac. Dipl. Acu.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Hebrew Man, the Protests and Tisha B'Av

I have been watching the protests in Israel from my computer while at working as a faculty member at Eisner camp. I think they might be a step forward, but I am the last person to draw any meaningful conclusions at this early stage. I am hoping you, my chevrei, can help me to make meaning from it all.

This arrived today from the Makom Blog. I thought given the fact that Tisha B'av begins tonight, and the fact that I have always found Ehud Banai's music and writing to be very thoughtful, it would be worth sharing. And I want to recommend you visit and bookmark Makom for yourself if you have not already doen so. It is a tremendous resource for educators and for all Jews who are serious about engaging Israel. And here is a link (from the Makom site) to all of the editorials from the Israel press about the protests. 

MAKOM is a partnership between Jewish communities and the Jewish Agency for Israel. It describes itself as "a 'next-practice' endeavor, forming and driving experimental community networks that meet the call of re-imagining the place of Israel in Jewish life. MAKOM works to empower Jewish educators, rabbis, arts and community leaders to develop deep, sophisticated and honest Israel programming. Our team, based in Israel and New York, is made up of experts in travel, education, arts, and religion. We see this relationship between and MAKOM as a vital step towards enriching the public discourse about the place of Israel in the Jewish world."

Tisha B'Av and the Protests
Ehud Banai is a leading Israeli singer-songwriter.
This piece first appeared in Hebrew on

Sometimes I ask myself why the sages determined that the days commemorating the destruction of the Temples should be days of mourning and fasting. After all, it was the Babylonians and the Romans after them who caused all the exile and destruction, so why aren’t they fasting?

But the gaze of the sages is as always directed internally. They ask in the Gemara: For what reason was the land destroyed?

And they bring a collection of stories that recall a society with no mercy, no justice, eaten up with senseless hatred, with violent nationalist fanaticism, with a corrupt and patronizing government, and they state very clearly: This is why the land was destroyed.

The social protest that is breaking out now is important, fundamental, and unavoidable.

I’m not sure if it’s right to follow its every step and stride with cameras and the media. I’m not convinced that it’s right to turn it into another summer festival. You have to give it time. Real things permeate slowly and deeply and only then can a fundamental change occur, rather than a superficial change that passes just as soon as it came.

On the other hand, all attempts to belittle it, to declare it null and void, to say that it is political and only connected to one specific group is not right. It is a true cry that comes from the heart of the people onto the streets, and it crosses boundaries and sectors.

Right now I can’t perform at the tents, because these are the nine days of mourning leading up to Tisha b’Av when it’s not customary to play music. There are those who say that it’s permissible to sing without accompaniment, but I’m afraid I can’t really do that without a guitar…

Beyond that, I want to say that I’m really not comfortable with all the media pressure about who’s performing  and who is not performing. Which singer is behind the revolution and which isn’t. That isn’t really what is important.

I’ve been asked to come to support the tent-dwellers, in places far from the center of the country and far from the cameras, like Tel Hai and Katzrin.

I wanted to tell them: My heart is completely with you. If you’re still around after Tisha b’Av, I’ll come over and sing you “City of Sanctuary.”

A City of Refuge*
by Ehud Banai 

Before the drizzle becomes a flood
I need to find an unlocked gate
because the blues has come back to me again
I need to get out, I need to move
on the highway winding between Acco and Zfat
In Tiberias on the pier, going all the way down to Eilat
Surging, escaping, looking for a city of refuge
Surging, escaping, looking for a city of refuge

On the horizon the distance lights glimmer
I`ll get there with the last of my strength
And you wait in the doorway, turn the light on
a man is coming back to you from the cold
Take me to the alter, before I fall apart
and until the truth comes out, I`ll hide in you
because you, yes you, will be my city of refuge

Yes, until the truth comes out, I`ll hide in you
until the storm blows over and the ice breaks
until a spring bursts open flowing
until the judge comes and acquits us
you, yes you, will be my city of refuge

*"Ir Miklat" is biblical term from Numbers 35- a city of refuge when someone who has committed accidental murder can safely escape the vindictive actions of the victim`s family. Banai transforms this term into metaphor for the role of his beloved as he desperately seeks refuge from his own troubles and "blues." - From Ehud Banai's web site