Thursday, December 27, 2012

Just back from a family vacation, I open my e-mail to find that this week's Torah Lesson from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University is by one of the most thoughtful teachers from whom I have ever learned - Rabbi Elliot Dorff. So as a public service, I would like to share it with you and your parents. And I recommend subscribing to the Z School e-mails (link is at the bottom).

The Talmud asks "What is a Father's (sic) obligation to his son (sic)?" (Bavli, Kiddushin 29a). Rabbi Dorff extends that question to the role of the grandparents. Let's talk about it. Then let's take action!


Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

 Today's Torah

Shabbat Parashat Vayehi

December 29, 2012 / 16 Tevet 5773
Rabbi Ed Finestein
By: Rabbi Elliot Dorff,
Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
at American Jewish University

The Importance of Grandparents

  Torah Reading:  Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

  Haftarah Reading:  I Kings 2:1-12

"Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir, son of Menasseh were likewise born upon Joseph's knees...Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years...." (Genesis 50:23, 26)
We do not really know what to do with the Torah's claims that many of the people in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives. Once in a while in our times we hear of people living to 110, as Joseph is said to do in our Torah reading this week, but we cannot be faulted if we are skeptical about the numbers the Torah claims our Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived, let alone the lifetimes of hundreds of years for those who preceded them in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. These numbers may simply be the Torah's way of indicating that they were mythical figures, larger than life, as it were.

Indeed, the Psalmist indicates that "the span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years" (Psalms 90:10), and it is considered a great blessing to see your grandchildren - "May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life and live to see your children's children. May all be well with Israel!" (Psalms 128:5-6). 

This is closer to what was probably the reality in antiquity. Many died in childbirth - women and children - and those who survived birth often succumbed to infections and other diseases, but if you made it to age twenty and did not have to go to war, the chances were good that you would make it to sixty, seventy, or even eighty. This was true well into modern times, for life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was around 45 years of age, but that figure reflected many deaths in childbirth and childhood. 

Thus some of us who are now grandparents remember our own grandparents. (In my case, all four were alive when I was born, but three of the four died before I was Bar Mitzvah.) Now that life expectancy in the United States is about 78, more and more of us will see our grandchildren, and some of us will be lucky enough to see our great-grandchildren.

What is the role of grandparents? The Talmud is very specific about that. Not only do parents have the duty to teach Torah (and the skills to earn a living) to their children; grandparents do too (B. Kiddushin 30a), based on Deuteronomy 4:9: "Make them known to your children and to your children's children!" In our day, that might include helping parents pay tuition for Jewish schools, camps, and youth groups for their grandchildren. Grandparents can feel good about doing that, but not too good because it is not an especially generous act on their part; it is their Jewish legal duty!

 Grandparents, though, can and should have a much more direct and personal influence on their grandchildren. I have been a member of admissions committees for rabbinical school for over forty years, and time and time again applicants mention their grandparents as a major Jewish influence on their lives. Not every Jew should become a rabbi, of course, but this illustrates the immense affect that grandparents can have on the Jewish character of their grandchildren's lives. 

Following the lead of my friend, Dr. Alvin Mars, I now Skype with my nine-year-old grandson who lives across the country in New Jersey each week. We study D'varim (Deuteronomy) together for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then we talk about all kinds of other things. This not only deepens our personal relationships; it also communicates my own commitment to Judaism, and it helps him think about his own Jewish life. Aside from that, it is a sheer delight!

This becomes even more important when your children have married people of other faiths. How do you model your own Jewish commitments to your grandchildren so that they know about them and seek to figure out their own Jewish identity as they grow? Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, and a number of people working with him have produced wonderful materials to help grandparents do that, including Let's Talk About It - A Book of Support and Guidance (on talking with your members of your family who are intermarried) and Intermarriage Concepts and Strategies. Check out the FJMC website to order those materials here.

May we all grow to be grandparents and, if we are lucky enough to be as Joseph was, even great-grandparents, and may we take that role seriously by fulfilling our duties as Jewish educators for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Shabbat Shalom.

Those interested in more on this may be interested in Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), especially Chapter Four, "Parents and Children."
Elliot N. Dorff, Rabbi, Ph.D., is Rector and Anne and Sol Dorff Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University, Visiting Professor at UCLA School of Law, and Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Author of over 200 articles and 12 books on Jewish thought, law, and ethics, and editor of 14 more books on those topics, his most recent book is For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law.
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University

Forward this message to anyone who you think might enjoy joining our Torah community.
If you have received this e-mail via another person and would like to be added to the list for automatic receipt: Send an e-mail to  with the following in the body of the message: SUBSCRIBE torah.
Please note that this list is not set up as a discussion list. Only the moderator can post to the list. All replies will be sent to the moderator:
You are currently subscribed to Today's Torah as:
Thanks for joining with us in celebration of Torah.
© 2012 American Jewish University

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What If the Model Isn’t Broken?
Using the Congregational Religious School
as it was intended to be used

Lynn Lancaster
Lynn Lancaster is Education Director at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. She is also one of the sharpest Jewish educators I have ever met. We became friends when we both were invited to be mentors in the Leadership Institute. And today she was faster than me. She found this excellent article on eJewish Philanthropy and sent it off to me before I even looked at my e-mail. Well played, Lynn!

I agree with nearly everything Steve Kerbel says. And he makes a key point: the success or failure of any model of Jewish education rises and falls on the commitment of the parents. If we are successful in helping them to make Jewish learning and living as a part of a sacred community a priority, then everything will work and the opportunities for us to be spectacular increase. 

Many who want to blow things up seem to think that doing so will allow us to reach more adults and help them choose to prioritize things in this manner. Others suggest that doing so is giving up on getting most folks to prioritize Jewish living over suburban (or urban) life in general, and so we might as well make it as attractive as we can so we can get at least some of their attention.
In either case, I think Kerbel is refocusing the conversation in a manner that makes sense. 

What do you think?


Steve Kerbel

What if the model isn’t broken?

by Steve Kerbel

I have spent my adult life, even when pursuing other career choices, involved in Jewish education. I spent twenty years on the informal side, staffing and writing study materials for youth groups and Jewish camps, teaching in religious schools, tutoring b’nai mitzvah, and eventually teaching in day schools and leading two congregational religious schools for the last 18 years. I am a product of two excellent day schools, USY and several fine Jewish summer camps.

A few weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning, events converged in the sanctuary of the suburban Washington, DC congregation where I now work that lead me to believe that the congregational model of education might just work, if it’s used properly. Like any tool, you get different results if the tool is in the hands of an experienced craftsman versus a weekend warrior. Allow me to expand the thought.

Two smachot occurred, an auf ruf of a couple who met in the 4th grade of our religious school, and a bat mitzvah of one of our students. This was not the ordinary student, by any definition. She is gifted with a beautiful voice, she is poised and mature. But she has also been in synagogue most shabbatot since she was two weeks old. Her family welcomes Shabbat every week, builds a Sukkah and invites guests to share in its use, her father blows shofar on the High Holidays. When this family’s younger son had a conflict between weekday religious school and his Tae Kwon Do class, it was the Tae Kwan Do that yielded to religious school, not the other way around. The children in this family attend a Jewish content summer camp for four weeks every summer.

I contend that this is the right way to use the Congregational religious school model. You participate in services and activities, you take a role, you bring your Judaism into your home and you carry it out again, sharing it with others. This student led all of Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening, led the Torah service, read all 8 aliyot and led the congregation in Musaf. Not a typical suburban bat mitzvah. This was a religious school student, not a day school student. To me, it was a lesson in what can be, when we put a product to its best, intended use.

There is a lot of discussion and dissent in the education and lay communities that the model is failed, its failing most families, its tired, I’ve even heard that it needs to be blown up. The model as designed has the potential for success; to create comfort, confidence and community. The model can create committed, literate, striving Jews who integrate Jewish rhythms into their daily lives. We can connect our people to our living texts, we can teach about the sanctity of people and the sanctity of time, we might even improve the quality of our families’ lives. The cost is family buy-in and involvement. If you commit to raising a serious Jew the same way you commit to a serious musician or athlete, it takes what all these people talk about: participation, cheering your kid on, modeling healthy behavior, and yes, as any concert musician or Olympian will tell you, sacrifice. All those athlete profiles we watched from London this summer moved our emotions about how the athlete’s families have to sacrifice for the success of their child. I think we have to create this same expectation for our families if they want to commit to raising successful Jews.

The problem, however, is that the vast percentage of families involved in congregational education are the equivalent of those who take music lessons or participate in a sport and do not become, nor do they have any aspirations to become, concert musicians or Olympians. What models can we adapt or create to attract and retain these families as active, engaged and continuing participants in Jewish communal life?

The ‘model is broken’ conversation comes from the growing acceptance that, although we know what could work, we have been unsuccessful in convincing our audience. We are constantly in the position of the salesman who ‘successfully’ sells the car except for one small problem – the customer doesn’t buy it. The search for alternatives to the current model is driven by a desire to find the formula that will somehow break through this conundrum. We are without a doubt in a period of searching, transition and change. It may be that the formula I describe will remain as a viable option for some families within a larger community-driven set of alternatives. But for now, the search for the right context and mix goes on.

I’m not certain there is an exact formula that will work for everyone, and even the highest quality tool doesn’t produce the highest quality result every time. Perhaps the right investment by the consumers in the product, and quite frankly, better modeling and instruction by education professionals, can make a big difference in making something that may not be working for everyone work better for more people in an affordable, accessible way.

Steve Kerbel is Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Potomac, Maryland, is the current chair of the Education Directors Council of Greater Washington and a national officer of the Jewish Educators Assembly.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nevermind Oscar, Tony,
Emmy and Grammy...
Check out the Eddies!

This afternoon I received an e-mail from the folks at EduBlogs. Edublogs is a platform for teachers, students and administrators to blog about their world.  There are some really amazing sites among the 1,508,550 blogs hosted there. And the Eddies are the Edublog awards for outstaning educational blogs in a variety of categories.

Now I am not going to recommend that you look at all of the blogs that have been nominated and vote in each of the individual categories (not that that would be bad). I am going to be a little more narrowly focused (self-serving?).

From time to time, I have been asked to serve as a guest scholar with groups of teachers and synagogue educators, often to talk about technology in the Jewish classroom and in the educator's professional tool box. Sometimes, people just want to know what is out there for them to use and to share some ideas about how to use it. Other times it is about helping veteran teachers -digital olim (immigrants) and tayarim (tourists) get comfortable with the idea of incorporating some digital tools in their repertoire. Sometimes it is both and more. In each case I share a link to my spreadsheet of tech tools and invite them to add tools they find - and to evaluate the ones on my list. It is a massive exercise in crowd sourcing and I learn from it regularly. You are now invited as well. Click here.

So when Edublogs published their list of nominees, I knew the crowd had hit the mother load! Now all of the nominees are blogs, not tools themselves per se. Many of them are blogs about connecting people to the tools that are becoming available on a daily basis. One of my go to blogs is Free Technology for Teachers, Richard Byrne's outstanding blog. He finds the coolest stuff, often before I have ever heard of the category. And the obvious applications from the general ed world to Jewish education are easy. So I have added the nominees as a second page to my list. I encourage you to check some of them out. Please share reviews of what you find here or on the spreadsheet. And go to and see what they have to offer. Or click on the image above and vote!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Is Jewish Education Broken?

"Is Jewish Education Broken?" is the title of a panel debate being held in New York in two weeks. It looks like it will be a really interesting and valuable evening. Sadly I will not be able to attend. I would like to recommend that you do if you are available. Details are below.

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Gary Greene saw the session title and took issue with it. He said "...knowing what so many colleagues are doing to improve Jewish Education, I have come dislike rhetorical titles like 'Is Jewish Education Broken?' It's like asking 'Do you still beat your wife?'  I find that title self-defeating prophecy to which the answer has to be yes...Why not focus on the exciting innovations going on in Jewish Education?  ...I think a better title could be "How might we meet the challenges of Jewish Education today?"

You go, Gary. Amen Selah. I agree. Now go to the session if you can!



Five Leading Scholars Discuss New Visions

For Jewish Schools at a Free Event on December 13

NEW YORK, N.Y. … “Is Jewish Education Broken?,” debates new visions for liberal Jewish schools in the 21st century. This free event takes place on Thursday, December 13 at 7pm and is hosted by the 14th Street Y. “Is Jewish Education Broken?” is presented by Speakers’ Lab, a new public programming initiative of the Posen Foundation, with Tablet Magazine and The New School for Public Engagement, Jewish Cultural Studies Program.

As enrollment declines in liberal Jewish schools, scholars and educators are asking critical questions about the relevance of Jewish education to today’s students. “Is Jewish Education Broken?” will explore current models and challenges facing liberal Jewish education, and propose new curricula and educational models for teachers and administrators for the future. Concerns and topics will include:
  • The discrepancy between 20th century Jewish educational models and 21st century perspectives on Jewish life.
  • The teaching of Jewish culture as ahistorical and disconnected from contemporary life.
  • The role of Jewish schooling in Jewish continuity.
  • Concerns about using the American school model to teach Jewish culture.
  • The rise of new and informal Jewish educational models.
  • The challenges of teaching minority education in America.
To discuss these issues and more, this panel brings together five forward-thinking scholars including: Zvi Bekerman, Director of the Melton Centre for Jewish Education, School of Education, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Benjamin Jacobs, Assistant Professor of Social Studies, Education and Jewish Studies, New York University; Jonathan Krasner, Associate Professor of the American Jewish Experience, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion; and Tali Zelkowicz, Assistant Professor of Education, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. The discussion will be moderated by Bethamie Horowitz, Research Assistant Professor, New York University.

This is Speakers’ Lab’s second program. The next public program will take place in the Spring of 2013.

Admission to “Is Jewish Education Broken?” is free. Seating is limited and pre-registration is encouraged. Sign-up at or by calling 212-564-6711 x 305.

Event and Venue Info:
The Theater at the 14th Street Y

344 East 14th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues)
New York, NY 10003

Posen Foundation (
The Posen Foundation’s mission is rooted in the belief that Jewish education can make a meaningful difference in Jewish life and should be available to all who are interested. To this end, the Foundation works internationally to promote Jewish learning, support academic research in Jewish history and culture, and encourage participation in Jewish cultural life.

As part of this effort, in 2012 the Posen Foundation launched its new public programming initiative, Speakers’ Lab (, which is dedicated to exploring new perspectives on Jewish culture and identity. Based in New York City, Speakers’ Lab presents debates, arts performances, and panel discussions in collaboration with other organizations and venues. In 2012, Speakers’ Lab is presenting two events, one in the spring and one in the fall.
The New School (
The New School is a legendary, progressive university comprising seven schools bound by a common, unusual intent: to prepare and inspire its more than 10,500 undergraduate and graduate students to bring actual, positive change to the world. From its Greenwich Village campus, The New School launches economists and actors, fashion designers and urban planners, dancers and anthropologists, orchestra conductors, filmmakers, political scientists, organizational experts, jazz musicians, scholars, psychologists, historians, journalists, and above all, world citizens-individuals whose ideas and innovations forge new paths of progress in the arts, design, humanities, public policy, and the social sciences. In addition to its 92 graduate and undergraduate degree-granting programs, the university offers certificate programs and more than 650 continuing education courses to 5,619 adult learners every year.

Tablet Magazine ( Magazine, at, is the daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture.

14th Street Y (
The 14th Street Y, a Jewish community center in the heart of Manhattan’s East Village, is a vital neighborhood resource that welcomes people of all backgrounds. We offer programs with a distinctive downtown point of view, emphasizing excellence, innovation, creativity, and a questioning spirit.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

U.S. Jews Fighting Wrong Battle

A copy of a book by author Peter Beinart
under the chair of an audience member
as Beinart speaks at an event in Atlanta,
apart from the book fair, on Nov. 14, 2012.
(David Goldman/AP)
Like many, I have spent a fair amount of time monitoring a variety of sources to see what is going on in Israel. And like some I feel torn that I am not there sharing the stresses and helping. The truth is,  given my lack of training and experience, I would probably just be in the way their. But I can help spread the word. There are two postings I have rad over the past several days that I want to make sure as many people as possible read and think about and hopefully act on. Here is one of them. It was posted Friday on Tablet and written by Rabbi Daniel Gordis.

As rockets rain down on Israel, an Atlanta JCC bans Peter Beinart. When did we become so narrow-minded?

This has been a frightening and sad week in Israel. First, Hamas unleashed 160 rockets on Israeli towns. Then the IDF responded, and Israeli civilians were ordered—and many remain—in bomb shelters. And as was almost inevitable, some who did not heed the warnings were killed by rocket fire. At this writing, the end is nowhere in sight.

If there can be said to be a silver lining in this horrendous situation, it’s in the broad range of support for the prime minister’s decision to protect his citizens. “Labor, Kadima, Olmert, Livni back government’s air assault on Hamas,” reported the Times of Israel. But it shouldn’t take war for Jews to acknowledge that we’re utterly dependent on each other, no matter how deeply we may disagree.

Far from the fighting, the conversation among American Jews about Israel has become so toxic that it’s often impossible even for people who are allies to listen to each other. Not long ago, I was invited by a major national Jewish organization to give a lecture in the United States. Soon after, the person who’d invited me called me in Jerusalem to tell me that the major sponsors of the event had pulled their support and their funding because I’d signed a letter asking the Prime Minister Netanyahu to ignore a legal report claiming that Israel’s presence in the West Bank is not technically an occupation.

“You’re not embarrassed?” I asked her. She couldn’t understand why she should possibly be embarrassed. She explained that her organization believed that the report was important for defending Israel’s international legitimacy. “That’s fine,” I said, “and I think that adopting it would do us great damage. But so what? Doesn’t the fact that we disagree make it all the more critical that we talk to each other? Or have we reached the point where your supporters will listen only to those with whom they agree completely? Your sponsors based their decision to invite me on a record of 15 years of writing and speaking. I do one thing that they don’t approve of, and they pull the plug?”

That’s precisely what they did. I ended up giving the lecture, but the sponsors never restored their support.
They represent, I believe, a scary anti-intellectual trend in the Jewish community. These people believe that an increasingly narrow tent will best protect the state of Israel, and so they continue to move the tent’s pegs. But they are doing just the opposite of bolstering the Jewish state: They weaken Israel and make it more vulnerable because they exclude enormous swaths of the community that we need—particularly on a week like this.

The latest example of this narrowing happened this week in Atlanta, where one of the country’s major Jewish book fairs canceled an appearance by the writer Peter Beinart. “As leaders of our agency, we want the center to always serve as a safe place for honest debate, but we want to balance that against the concerns of our patrons,” said Steven Cadranel, president of the Marcus Jewish Community Center. I have no unique knowledge of what actually transpired, but this has become an old story: Many Jewish organizations have been pushed into such corners by donors who refused to contribute to festivals or organizations who will host people whose views they find reprehensible. Jewish community professionals regularly find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

I disagree with Peter Beinart on more issues than I can count. I was appalled by his oped in the Times calling for a boycott on some Israelis, and I found his most recent book far too accommodating of Israel’s enemies and unfairly critical of Israel. I think he’s completely wrong when he asserts the occupation is the core cause of Israel’s marginality. But his views represent those of a not inconsiderable swath of American Jewry, so I agreed to debate him at Columbia University. Our debate was fun—and far more important, it was civil.

I don’t know how many minds were changed that night; Beinart’s wasn’t, and neither was mine. But we did model for the hundreds of people who were there and the many more who watched the debate online that the Jewish community doesn’t have the luxury of refusing to speak to those who disagree with us. Instead, Peter and I did what the Jews have always done: We engaged the ideas, assumptions, and moral positions of the other, and in the spirit of the brave marketplace of ideas that Judaism has always been, tried to make our most compelling case.

Are there no limits to who’s in the Zionist tent? Of course there are. For me, the litmus tests are Israel’s Jewishness, democracy, and security. Anyone publicly committed to those three—even if I believe that their policy ideas are wrong-minded—is in the tent. There are many Israeli politicians whose ideas I believe are na├»ve or dangerous. But should I say that they’re not Zionists? That would absurd. For the same reason, Beinart is in my tent.

Speaking with people who agree with me is no challenge. Engaging with those whose views seem to me dangerous is infinitely harder, but far more important. That sort of conversation is perhaps the most critical lesson that we inherit from centuries of Talmudic Judaism. The Talmud is essentially a 20-volume argument, in which even positions that “lost” the battle and were not codified into law are subjected to reverential examination. When Hillel and Shammai debate, Jewish law, or halakhah, almost always follows Hillel. But we still study Shammai with reverence. Even those views not codified, we believe, have insights to share and moral positions worth considering.

The American Jewish community is the most secure diaspora community the Jews have ever known. Economically, socially, politically, culturally—we have made it, and what we say and model is watched by countless others. Yet New York Times readers this week can only conclude that in the midst of that security and comfort, we’ve utterly abandoned the intellectual curiosity that has long been Judaism’s hallmark.

Are we not ashamed to have created a community so shrill that any semblance of that Talmudic curiosity has been banished? Has the People of the Book really become so uninterested in thinking?

Taking Back the “Z” Word!

Like many, I have spent a fair amount of time monitoring a variety of sources to see what is going on in Israel. And like some I feel torn that I am not there sharing the stresses and helping. The truth is,  given my lack of training and experience, I would probably just be in the way their. But I can help spread the word. There are two postings I have rad over the past several days that I want to make sure as many people as possible read and think about and hopefully act on. Here is one of them. It was posted today on eJewishPhilanthropy and written by Rabbi Loren Sykes.

While over one million Israeli citizens need to be close enough to protected shelters to avoid death by missiles shot with the intention of killing civilians, while thousands of missiles have been shot from Gaza into Israel on a near daily basis over the past few year, reclaiming our 2,000 year old dream, “being a free people in the Land of Zion and Jerusalem,” from those who seek to destroy us, seems to me to be the least we can do.

With tensions escalating throughout the region, with increasing numbers of citizens living under the threat of missile attacks, it is not surprising that an important date in modern Jewish and Israeli history passed by [last week] virtually unnoticed. On November 11, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed the infamous Resolution 3379 declaring that “Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” While the UN revoked the resolution in 1991 after the first Gulf War as an enticement to gain Israel’s involvement in the Madrid Peace Conference, General Assembly Resolution 4686 could not undue the damage already done. The revocation, while symbolically important, was irrelevant in practice. The basis for today’s efforts to delegitimize Israel were sown and given legitimacy by the UN with the 1975 resolution. The term “Zionism” became anathema, the equivalent of the actually repugnant “N” word.

The 1975 UN resolution initiated a process whereby individuals, countries and terrorist groups co-opted Zionism for their own purposes, turning it into the “Z” word. To make matters worse, by preceding the “Z” word with the modifier, “Anti,” they gave themselves cover from accusations of anti-Semitism. “We don’t hate individual Jews; rather, we are just opposed to Israel.” The far left throughout the world, the Jewish world included, took ownership of Zionism, turned it into the “Z” word and claimed that those who were Zionists were, by definition, racists, discriminators and murderers.

Worse still, as the far left claimed the “Z” term with greater and greater passion, many in the organized Jewish world distanced themselves from using the word Zionism. Sadly, that distancing continues today. The result is the strengthening of radical BDS groups who revel in our embarrassment while, at the same time, strengthening the true racists and murderous terror organizations and the regimes, past, present and emerging, that support them. Terms such as “pro-Israel” and phrases such as “support Israel” are wonderful. At the same time, I believe they represent reactions to the co-opting of the word Zionism by those who hate Israel, who seek to delegitimate it and to destroy it. “Pro-Israel” is clearly a reaction to “Anti-Israel.” The time has come for a new strategy, one that is proactive rather than reactive.

Instead of distancing ourselves from Zionism, we must reclaim the word and celebrate it anywhere and everywhere. While definitions abound, we must make clear that the meaning of the term Zionism is “the certain knowledge of the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland.” We must cease arguing the legitimacy of this right with those who seek to delegitimate Zionism, Zionists and The State of Israel. Engaging in such argument is a waste of time as it simply legitimates the ability to raise the question of our right, a right that is as inalienable as it is ancient.

When others try to embarrass us by turning Zionism into the abhorrent “Z” word, we cannot not run and hide. Our response must be clear, full-throated and unbending: Those who deny the fact of the “the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland” are the racists, the spreaders of hatred, the hypocrites. One can accept the fact of this right and still be critical of or have a problem with specific policies. One cannot, however, be a denier of the fact of Israel and expect to be invited to join, be part of or initiate conversations that seeks to solve those problems by eliminating that fact.

Being “pro-Israel” or “supporting Israel” is important. We need as many people as possible to side with Israel, to support her, to love her. What we need even more, however, is for everyone who knows with certainty the fact of “the right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland,” everyone throughout the world – Jews and non-Jews alike – to take back the “Z” word from those among our detractors who seek to destroy Israel. We must remove any sense of shame that others may give to it, shouting loudly to the world in a strong, clear voice that the “right of the Jewish People to a safe, sovereign State in our ancient and ancestral homeland” is a non-negotiable fact.

While over one million Israeli citizens need to be close enough to protected shelters to avoid death by missiles shot with the intention of killing civilians, while thousands of missiles have been shot from Gaza into Israel on a near daily basis over the past few year, reclaiming our 2,000 year old dream, “being a free people in the Land of Zion and Jerusalem,” from those who seek to destroy us, seems to me to be the least we can do.

Rabbi Loren Sykes serves as the CEO and Executive Director of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center of the USCJ. Title and organization affiliation are solely for identification purposes. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


My friend and colleague, Shalom Berger, is the director of e-communities at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. He distributes a wonderful listserv called LookJed. While it primarily serves day school educators, I have found it to be a great source of ideas, resources and information in the years I have been receiving it. Recently he posted this piece by Aryeh ben David. I has really made me think. A lot. I would love to hear your thoughts!


Aryeh ben David
We’ve hit a wall in our delivery of Jewish Education. We have made great strides in teaching basic Jewish literacy – in explaining Jewish texts, educating the mind, and disseminating information. Jewish educators have excelled at this during the last 25 years.

But preserving the past will not get us to a better future.

The time has come for the next phase of Jewish Education: Personalizing Jewish wisdom. Bringing Jewish wisdom into our hearts and into our lives. We need to allow Jewish wisdom to make us better Jews and transform us into our best selves. We need to allow it to be the force for hearing the unique calling each of us have – in our daily behavior and in the big issues in our lives. This is the key to our future.

25 years ago Jewish knowledge was restricted to a tiny fraternity of rabbis and scholars. The role of Rabbis and educators was to create a literate people. Today, we have witnessed an explosion of access to Jewish information and texts: Israel study programs, Limmud programs, vast online resources, Melton Mini-Schools and adult education classes. People joke about consulting Rabbi Google. Just about everything has been translated. The battle for disseminating and acquiring information about Judaism is over. We have won. We know how to preserve the wisdom of our past. We have succeeded in teaching people to hear other people’s voices: the voices of tradition, the rabbis, and the commentators. The voices of the past.

Educators have become so expert in delivering the voices of the past that they often never discover their own voice. They are a megaphone for what was, and are often afraid to move out of this comfort zone. We’ve become stuck in the success of our scholarship and pedagogy and the question is often – “who knows more voices of the past?”

But today we need more.

Today – it’s not about information – it’s about transformation.

Today – it’s not about knowledge – it’s about wisdom.

Today – our educational goal should be not only to preserve our voices of the past, but to enable and encourage our own authentic voices to be heard and to enable personal and spiritual growth.

Today – most importantly, it’s about the future.

Today, we must ask:
  • How can we use the explosion of information to teach for transformation?
  • How can we bring this mass of Jewish wisdom into our hearts and lives?
  • How can Jewish education enable us to become better, kinder, more compassionate, idealistic, and authentic Jews?
  • How can we use the voices from the past to create a different and better future?

We need not forego our past successes, but we must wake up to the need for a different model of Jewish education. The Jewish world, like the general world, has evolved drastically over the last 25 years.

We must understand that education for transformation is a wholly different paradigm than education for information.

I contend that the goal of religious education should not only be to know how to continue the tradition, but essentially - in light of the tradition, how can we help our children find and clarify the unique voice of their souls?

A Rabbi recently told me that this approach is completely treif. He said: “Personal authenticity is just the code word for the yetzer hara and self-indulgence.”

I beg to disagree. This is not a narcissistic indulgence. We did not create our uniqueness – God did. We did not create the singular mandate our soul was given to better this world – God did. God gave us particular qualities and a unique life-mission in this world.

It is heresy to not listen to the voice of the soul that God gave us. It is heresy not to clarify our God-given unique purpose in this world.

And while we – parents, teachers, rabbis, professionals – try to educate our children with the wisdom of our tradition and experience, there is only one voice which can truly help them achieve this goal of fulfilling their God-given uniqueness and purpose in this world. There is only one voice which truly knows them – and it is the voice of their own soul.

I recently visited four elite high schools in the US. Devoted teachers and talented students. I asked the students: “Where in high school do you have an opportunity to personally explore your own unique spiritual path? When do you have the opportunity to listen to your own voice?” The vast majority of them answered clearly and emphatically: “Nowhere. Zero opportunity. We always have to listen. No one is listening to us. No one gives us the opportunity to listen to ourselves. It’s as if they are afraid of it.”

Our past improvements in Jewish education were necessary to preserve Jewish continuity. Now, we must move ahead and make the improvements necessary to create a vibrant Jewish future.

If we want to become a Holy nation, a light unto other nations, then continuity is not enough. Information alone will not transform us into our better selves. To fulfill our destiny and centuries of dreams, we must find the resolve and courage to open the door to the next level of Jewish education…and then walk boldly in.

Aryeh Ben David is the Founder and Director of Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education. Ayeka developed a unique educational approach and curriculum to enable adults to personalize Jewish wisdom and enhance their lives.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Dissatisfied Nation

Another cross post from This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 - The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century - published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education. It is written by Shimon Peres. Yes, that Shimon Peres.

Readers of this blog know that I have been very interested in promoting Peoplehood as what may be our last opportunity to connect (or reconnect) Jews, Judaism and Israel to one another. This Sunday, the Westchester/Fairfield Association of Temple Educators (WATE) is hosting a Kallah for teachers in our synagogue schools on Peoplehood. Dr. Evie Rotstein is the Keynote speaker. She was one of the principal organizers of the Peoplehood conference at Oranim College this past February. I am looking forward to it.

The Dissatisfied Nation
by Shimon Peres

The Jewish People feels very much at home in the 21st century. It is a century of constant renewal, innovation and evolution. And it is my definite belief that what characterizes Jews above all is dissatisfaction. If I ever saw a totally satisfied Jew, I would be very surprised. From our early days, we rejected ignorance and postponed satisfaction. Jewish children are taught to question everything and the habit is never lost. It is that ongoing quest for betterment which has made us a people of research, a people of demand, a people of questions, a people of Tikkun Olam, never content with the world as it is and always believing and striving to improve it.

This aspiration for betterment resides today in the State of Israel, homeland of the Jews. It was a long road indeed until the Jewish People had a land and law of their own. The promised land was not exactly a promising land from a material point of view. As we settled into the land, planting seeds and building roads, we also undertook to create a just society of freedom and democracy. And until today, our people, leaders and friends around the world are devoted to supporting Israel’s progress in security, prosperity and democracy.

One of the ongoing struggles we are faced with is maintaining the balance between two core values: Israel as a Jewish State and Israel as a democratic one. While upholding Israel’s status as the homeland for the Jewish People, we must never forget to ensure that the minorities within Israel feel at home, making the State of Israel a homeland not only to the Jewish People, but to freedom and democracy. In this delicate balancing act, we attempt to harmonize between the particular and the universal.

This challenge is worthy of our undivided strength and efforts. We must strive to convey its urgency and its significance to the real protagonists of the story of the Jewish People – our children. The future of Zionism depends on Israel’s success in appealing to young Jews around the world.

The traditional paradigm, which bases our collective Jewish identity on a common history and shared threats, has become obsolete. Most young Jews across the world do not define their Jewish identity through fear and antisemitism.

Zionism envisions a confident Jew, building a homeland of light, justice, liberty and peace. The intention was to leave our national traumas behind and replace them with hope.

Over the years, many Israelis expected the Diaspora mainly to contribute funds to Israel without taking any interest in the challenges these communities faced. That is not the way to build a profound, long-lasting relationship. The connection between Israel and world Jewry, stemming from historic values and facing modern demands, must be based on dialogues between people. Our relationship should be that of a family. The State of Israel should unite us, not divide us.

We must formulate a vision for the future, which will unite us. A vision for the future of the Jewish people in the new age, in a modern and global world. A vision which stems from our heritage and carries us into the future, as old as the Ten Commandments and as daring as modern technology.

I believe that the distinction of the Jewish People is not only its existence against all odds. It is rather what our people make of their existence. Our choice out of all the temptations was to select the most difficult one, the most uncommon one, the moral choice.

In Egypt our people began their Exodus towards freedom. At Mount Sinai they became a nation. There at the top of the mountain Moses became the greatest lawmaker of the time. In ten basic commandments, he handed humanity guidelines for a just society. His laws were and still are a revolt against the conventions of his time – against slavery, against discrimination, against murder, against lying.

As I wonder what Judaism’s most significant contribution to the world has been, I am convinced that the global and ethical justification for Jewish continuity goes far beyond our fight for survival. In my eyes, the answer lies in the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam – bettering the world.

Jewish culture and philosophy are known for their endless quests, never satisfied with what has been learned and achieved. This quality has made Judaism one of the greatest contributors to the betterment of the world throughout the ages.

Tikkun Olam encompasses the three foundations of our vision – morality, knowledge and peace. These three components constitute the firm basis upon which the Jewish People has stood and endured throughout history

Morality – Jews have always been exceptionally involved in idealistic movements aspiring to right the wrongs of the world. We have to continue to provide the moral call in our daily lives as a nation and as a state, understanding that acting with morality is not only the right thing to do but also the highest level of wisdom.

Knowledge – The Jewish People, with a positively disproportional number of Nobel Prize winners, built a modern state which has become an endless source of start-up companies and approved patents, must continue striving to better the world through science and technology.

Peace – Peace is mentioned more in Jewish scripture than any other concept. God himself is described as “He who makes peace in his high places and shall make peace for us”. Peace is not merely a practical or diplomatic solution to guarantee the security and prosperity of the Jewish people; it is a Jewish and universal moral obligation. Peace in the eyes of the Jewish tradition is not just a matter of life and death, but it is a matter of moral life and immoral life. As one strives not only to live but to live well, it is our duty to try not just to exist but to live rightly, morally. The difference between war and peace in our tradition is not just a physical difference but a spiritual one, as it is said “not by power nor by strength but by spirit.”

Our legacy – morality, knowledge and peace – should be our agenda for today. This vision shall guide us, encourage us in difficult times, so that we may never despair in the trials which we will encounter. And so, with an eye on the horizon, let us join forces to tackle today’s demands – building a just society, ensuring the safety of our citizens, encouraging scientific research and development. We have overcome obstacles many a time. With courage and determination, we shall not lose hope and will face these challenges head on. Dissatisfaction has led us thus far and I am fully confident that it will carry us to new heights in the never-ending quest for Tikkun Olam.

This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 9 – The Collective Jewish Conversation: Its Role, Purpose and Place in the 21st Century - published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Connected Congregations: Launching a Blog Carnival

Lisa Colton is the Founder and President of Darim Online. If you are a synagogue or Jewish community professional or lay leader, and you have the vaguest sense that technology might be relevant to your work or institution, then you need to know her and her Darim colleagues. Go to their site.

Lisa Colton
Right now.
I will wait until you come back.

See what I mean? and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The following is a post from their blog - Jew Point 0. More than worth reading. It suggests we get into the conversation. There is also a document published by the UJA-Federation of New York that explores some of these issues. You can find it at this location.

By Lisa Colton
We are stepping through the threshold of a new age.  Connected, individually empowered, globalized, diverse and personalized.    The technologies of today are far more than digital communication tools – they are transforming society at an increasingly rapid rate, with important implications and opportunities for the Jewish community.

Synagogues in particular are in the spotlight in this moment of transformation.  When communities are self-organizing, and individuals are seeking “anytime, anywhere” involvement, the structures of synagogue business models, programs and culture are often resonating less and less with those we seek to engage.
In partnership with UJA Federation of New York, and inspired by the work of Beth Kanter, Allison Fine, June Holley and many others, Darim Online is launching an initiative to explore what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits.  We call them Connected Congregations. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.

As we seek to create rich, connected congregations, investing in relationships is the foundation on which everything else is built.  Like fabric that’s made up of individual threads woven together, the strength of the community is dependent on the strength and character of both each individual thread (relationships) and the tightness and pattern of their weave.

But being a weaver and knitting a healthy and vibrant community takes more than good intentions.  It means knocking down ‘fortress walls’ (in the language of The Networked Nonprofit), pivoting our culture, evolving our staffing structure, and remaking our structures of leadership.  It takes real change, and active stewardship of that change over several years. There’s a lot of research and work to come for all of us. 
As we get started, we’re launching a blog carnival on Connected Congregations.  Over the next few months we’ll be handing the microphone of this blog to many smart people both from within and outside of the Jewish community, and some who straddle both worlds.  We’ll be encouraging them to share their ideas, their work, their insights and observations in order to develop a narrative and invite you into a conversation about being – and becoming – a Connected Congregation.

You can follow this series of posts on our blog by searching for #connectedcongs on our site, and following the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #connectedcongs.   Do you have a story or insight to share?  Contact Lisa Colton if you’d like to be considered for participation in the blog carnival.

This post is part of a blog series on Connected Congregations being curated by Darim Online in partnership with UJA Federation of New York.  Through this series, we are exploring what it means for synagogues to function as truly networked nonprofits. Connected Congregations focus on strengthening relationships, building community, and supporting self-organizing and organic leadership.  They are flatter and more nimble, measure their effectiveness in new and more nuanced ways, allocate their resources differently, and use technology in a seamless and integrated way to support their mission and goals.  We hope these posts will be the launching pad for important conversations in our community. Please comment on this post, and read and comment on others in the series to share your perspective, ideas, work and questions. Thanks to UJA Federation of New York for supporting this work.