Friday, September 14, 2012

URJ Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education:
Revolution AND Evolution

Two postings today on the Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. I am honored to have been invited to submit a response to Dr. Edelsberg's initial posting. As before, please comment on the blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation!

I am so pleased that this symposium began with Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s words, as I have known of and benefited from his vision as realized through his work with the Jim Joseph Foundation. He writes,
“[We] must begin with the understanding that education does not equal schooling. In fact, the very place of Jewish institutions as centers of Jewish teaching and learning – day and congregational schools perhaps most prominent among them – must be called into question by any earnest futurist.”
Reading this, I felt a visceral response. After all, I have dedicated my life to being a synagogue educator. Then I took a breath and remembered that for the past several years I have been saying more or less the same thing. We do need to question how learning is best transmitted. In fact, we need to question the language we use in the entire endeavor.

At the same time, I also question those who have already decided the answer is to jettison the schools – and the synagogues for that matter – and find the new new thing, to borrow a phrase from Michael Lewis. We do need to find the new new thing, but I don’t think that means jettisoning the models we have.

We need to transform our schools. And for a visionary idea, I look to the past, to John Dewey. As recently as 1897, he said:
I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself… I believe that the school is primarily a social institution… I believe that the school must represent present life-life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.
So when Dr. Edelsberg invokes the idea that “profound revolutions in information and communications technologies are accelerating deep learning outside of formal institutional settings – occurring in real time, all the time,” he is restating Dewey. It is the same as it ever was, and we need to be constantly adapting how learning happens in our congregations.

To me, the focus is on creating community and relationship. While the self-direct approach will serve some better than anything we have done before, I believe it must – particularly for younger learners – be a component of the learning experience, not the totality.

For the last few years at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT, we have been trying to focus on relationship building. While our school is still a school, it is not monolithic and unchanging. This past spring, a parent emailed to explain that the timing of school as her daughter moved to a new grade was not going to work – and because we couldn’t help her, they were going to “do it on their own.” Another parent expressed concern with the content and the methodology of the program – and because we couldn’t help her, they were going to “do it on their own.” We invited both to bring their concerns to and join our Religious School Vision Team. 

On September 9, we opened our fully subscribed Etgar class, a pilot program that meets the challenge of logistics, integrates Hebrew and Judaic learning and brings experiential learning to the forefront – all in response to the needs we helped our families articulate.

It comes down to relationships. Between adults. Between children. Between congregational leadership, professionals, and our congregants. My wife, a healthcare marketing professional, told me once that all problems are ultimately communications problems. Sometimes we don’t ask the right questions; sometimes we don’t correctly hear the answers or questions directed to us. Instead of meeting the needs we think people have, we need to focus on the needs they really have.

One of the ways we do that in our temple is through organizing the parents to help them build their own relationships in the context of the congregation. In Torah at the Center (page 6), our Room Parent Coordinator Amy Newman described how our room parents don’t do what traditional room parents do. Their role is to get the parents of the students to socialize and build relationships. Parents of older students create programs that get our students to do the same.

My teacher Jerry Kaye, director of URJ Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, teaches his staff that “camp is for the campers.” That means that all activity (not just teaching) must be designed with, as Dr. Edelsberg says, “personal relevance to the learner foremost in mind.” I use the same teaching with my faculty: Everything we do is in service of the learner’s experience and that of her family – not the experience we think they should have, but the one they have come to expect, because we developed it together.

Dr. Edelsberg gives us a lot to chew on. And we have to both embrace where have been and let go enough to bring in other possibilities. Soon, we will be asking students to turn their phones on at the start of class, so they can bring the world in with them – and so they can go out into the world and bring their classmates with them, as well.

Ira J. Wise, RJE, is the director of education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT. He blogs about Jewish Education at Welcome to the Next Level and first met Dr. Charles Edelsberg as a Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow at the Lookstein Institute for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University. He is a graduate of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR.

URJ Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education:
Thinking About the Generations
That Will Come After Us

Two postings today on the Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. The first is by my friend, colleague and occasional mentor, Rabbi Stan Schickler, R.J.E., the Executive Director of the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE). As before, please comment on the blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation! 

Much of the reaction to Charles Edelsberg’s initial blog post has offered specific examples of responses to the challenges we face in our communities and their settings. During this High Holy Days season of introspection, I would like to take a more general approach.

My first thought after reading Dr. Edelsberg’s piece was of a quotation attributed to Yogi Berra: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” My next thought was to remember an essay by Simon Rawidowicz, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher, called Israel: The Ever-Dying People. The premise of this essay is that every generation of Jews sees itself as the final generation, as the last generation that will exist before we perish:
Israel makes only one image of itself: that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing. (p. 53)

He who studies Jewish history will readily discover that there was hardly a generation in the Diaspora that did not consider itself the final link in Israel’s chain. . . . .  Each generation grieved not only for itself but also for the great past that was going to disappear, as well as for the future of unborn generations who would never see the light of day. (p. 54)
I periodically return to this essay, which has become a touchstone for me. Why? Because I find it heartening and encouraging that our current generation is motivated and moved by this same impulse that has moved the preceding generations. What initially sounds like something negative and pessimistic is actually hopeful — Rawidowicz points out:
[Our] seers and mentors have time and again pronounced the dire warning: “Israel, thou art going to be wiped off from the face of the earth; the end is near—unless and if…”  There were many “ifs,” and yet they were always the same. (p. 53)
It seems to me that most of our attempts to both predict and take hold of the future come from this impulse, this notion, that we are the final generation. There is something paradoxical about that. It is pessimistic, yet hopeful. Rawidowicz issues a jeremiad regarding our continued existence, but then ends on a promising and even encouraging note: “unless and if.” These qualifying words imply that we have some control over our fate, that our fate is connected to steps we can proactively undertake, to behavior we can actually carry out. That is tremendously encouraging and motivating — the notion that what we do can and does make a difference as we work to transmit our heritage and our way of life on to the next generation. The stakes are high — they are no less than the  perpetuation of Judaism and Jewish life.

While much of the activity in Jewish life and in the world of Jewish education right now is a reaction to the economic challenges of the past number of years, I find the ferment and the fertility to be incredibly exciting and encouraging. Indeed, this activity flows from our commitment to Rawidowicz’s “unless and if.” We seem to be on the cusp of a sea change in the way we carry out Reform Jewish education, and Dr. Edelsberg’s insights and observations are tremendously relevant as we go forward. In fact, this is a wonderfully exciting time to be involved in the field of Jewish education.

At the same time, I, too, am apprehensive about trying to predict the future. It is not clear what will have staying power, what will be “sticky.” Everything moves so rapidly and so quickly that it is tough to know where to put down a stake and where to make commitments to particular venues or media or delivery strategies. But I do agree with Dr. Edelsberg’s assertions regarding the power of our Reform Movement and its distinctive qualities that uniquely position us to engage our members in order to foster and enhance and deepen relationships — between individuals, between individuals and institutions, and to Judaism and Jewish life.

To bring us back to where we started: There is always the impulse to think about the generations that will come after us. This impulse has been at work throughout our history, and continues to be operative today. The famous story of Honi the Circlemaker illustrates this beautifully.
One day while [Honi was] walking on the road, he noticed a man planting a carob tree. Said Honi to the man: “You know that it takes 70 years before a carob tree bears fruit. Are you so sure that you will live 70 years and eat from it?” “I found this world filled with carob trees,” the man replied. “As my ancestors planted them for me, so do I plant them for my progeny.”(Ta’anit 23)

URJ Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education
Key to Meaningful Jewish Education:

I got behind and missed yesterday's postings on the Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. The blog had three yesterday. Here is the third, by Micah Ellenson. As before, please comment on the blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation!

“In a global world, there is unprecedented opportunity for relationship building, inter-connectedness, learning and meaning-making between and among Reform Jews across the globe,” Dr. Charles Edelsberg writes.

Relationship-building between congregants and the institutions to which they belong is at the core of creating a meaningful Judaism in the 21st century. However, many barriers prevent connection between congregants and institutions. It is crucial to identify the obstacles that exist today in creating relationships of intimacy and meaning between congregant and congregation. Although there are many – and each congregation has a unique set – I will identify a few that I feel are the most universal and important.

One of the first barriers to successful relationship building occurs because we are always worried about the future of the Jewish people. As a result, we oftentimes negate the present. As Jewish professionals and lay people we have become so focused on b’nai mitzvah, post-b’nai mitzvah, retention, and the future of Judaism that we sometimes unintentionally ignore the children and families that show up every week to the local synagogue and are highly committed to providing a Jewish education to their children. Jews are, in fact, showing up to synagogues – and they will continue to show up whether or not they have Smart Boards in their children’s religious school classrooms. The thing we should really be concerned with is creating deep and meaningful relationships between families and the synagogue while they are there.

The second difficulty is the ever-changing dynamic between clergy, synagogue, and the congregant. There was a time, not so long ago, when the rabbi could rely on the aura of his dynamic presence to get those who did not know him to follow him. Today, with community organizing models and access to so much information, the only way clergy and educators will reach the people who walk through the doors of the synagogue is by knowing them personally and cultivating engaging relationships with them. This type of relationship-building requires more work, and there is more risk of rejection. However, without the rabbi, cantor, and educator being real and accessible and speaking from the heart, they will be unable to reach the hearts of the people they wish to shepherd and have join them.

The third hurdle is that American Jews have changed in their self-perception and self-definition. Judaism has always been a religion of questions and very few answers. The Talmud is full of thousands of debates and very few resolutions to those great discussions. With so much access to information, we have become a culture that values answers over the process of asking questions. Rabbis, cantors, educators and congregants are all guilty of becoming infatuated with the product of Jewish living as opposed to the process – as if the point of Jewish education were to be able to read Hebrew, chant Torah, and be able to “pray anywhere in the world.” The point of Jewish education needs to be about process-seeking, and not about finding. When one is taught to be a Jew, by questioning and seeking, then Jewish values – like community, ritual, mitzvot, lifecycles, and God – will flow naturally and authentically from their very being. It is not the products of education that are important, rather it is the process of being educated that is truly what Jewish education needs to be about. Therefore, it is a model of process over product in Jewish education within the synagogue that will truly be what makes Judaism generative and personally relevant to the congregant.

Relationship has always been at the core of Judaism. Relationship leads to community, and community is, at its core, what Judaism strives to achieve. In Exodus 19:6, God tells the people of Israel right before they receive the Ten Commandments, “And you shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” However, we can only become this holy nation by being a connected community. The real implication of post-denominationalism and the technology boom is that people will imagine they have community and all that Judaism has to offer because they know the facts of Judaism – but it is a shift from product to process, from dynamic leadership to community organizing, from paying attention to our present and not just our future, that will ensure a vibrant and meaningful Jewish future and it all starts with relationship.

Micah Ellenson received his Masters in Education from the University of Judaism in 2005 and served as Director of Youth Activities and Dean of the Academy of Stephen S. Wise for four years.  He is currently in the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Sara, and daughter, Lily.

URJ Virtual Symposium on Jewish
Changing the Dynamic
of Reform Jewish Education

I got behind and missed yesterday's postings on the Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. The blog had three yesterday. Here is the second, by URJ Vice President Jonah Pesner. As before, please comment on the blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation!

The Jewish month of Elul is the perfect time for this symposium, and not just because  synagogues are opening of their religious school doors to young people and their parents for another year of Jewish learning. Elul is the very season of return. This month, in anticipation of the new year, we pause to recommit ourselves, communally and individually, to the enterprise of Jewish life and learning. So it’s the perfect time not only to imagine the future, but also to examine ways to inspire the next generation to discover joy in Jewish learning.

Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s recent essay, characteristically, is both exciting and challenging. Jewish learning in the future, Reform or otherwise, will need to be more personal, more multimedia- and tech-savvy, and increasingly positioned as a lifelong endeavor. But the point that resonated most with me, based on the insight of The Power of Pull, is that to succeed, Jewish education will need to be relationship-based, rather than didactic and transactional.

Let’s be honest about the past and present of Reform Jewish education: Although there are important pockets of innovation, the synagogue religious school is not fundamentally different than it was one or even two generations ago. Most temples have “formal” classrooms, teachers, and students, and curricula that lead to bar and bat mitzvah. Thankfully, we have made enormous strides with family education, retreats, and “informal education,” both in and out of the classroom. And yet, we are still, overwhelmingly, organized around what Dr. Edelsberg’s calls “schooling” as opposed to education. He rightly argues that the shifts in information and communication call into question the very role of the formal school, forcing us to ask this critical question: What is the role of formal schooling in today’s 24/7, completely connected environment?
I would take it one step further.

Despite enormously creative innovation and experimentation, Reform Jewish education today is, by some measure, failing. Fifty percent of teens who become bar and bat mitzvah drop out of synagogue participation by tenth grade, and 80 percent drop out by their senior year. Why does that matter? Over and above the question of how much “content knowledge” students retain (my hunch is that it’s not much), the alienation from Jewish communal participation that this schooling continues to engender should alarm us.

That’s why the language of The Power of Pull resonates with me. Over and over again, when asked why they continue to engage in Jewish communal life, involved teens, parents, and others describe the inspiration created by key relationships with those who kept them engaged. They describe a dynamic rabbi, a loving cantor, an inspiring teacher, a camp counselor or a youth advisor, a peer mentor, or someone else in their social or educational network who invited and sustained their participation. They describe moving experiences shared with others and memorable moments they will never forget. Although I don’t remember much of what I learned in all those years of Sunday school, I certainly do remember the wonderful people and the inspiring experiences we shared.

The Reform Movement launched the Campaign for Youth Engagement (CYE) with this paramount insight as a baseline assumption: In the context of inspiring Jewish experiences, we need to foster stronger and deeper relationships with and among teens, parents, and families, in order to turn the dropout rate on its head. No one is more committed to the CYE than are the members of the National Association of Temple Educators, who yearn to change the dynamic and are willing to test new modes aggressively.

There are some compelling examples of success across the Reform Movement. Congregations such as B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, VA, Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, and Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, retain nearly 100 percent of their teens through high school because they have elevated learning through individual relationships and transformative experiences. As Rabbi Fred Guttman of Greensboro likes to say, “Youth engagement is not a curriculum; it’s the curriculum.” To be sure, there are other examples – but not nearly enough.

So what’s the implication for the future of Reform Jewish education? Perhaps this will be the generation that ends “schooling” in favor of new models of engaged, inspired learning and community. This fall, the URJ and HUC-JIR jointly launched the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution as one step toward that possibility. If we are going to be honest about synagogue education, let’s be honest too, about bar and bat mitzvah. After all, that is now the end game for so many of our kids. Shouldn’t our goal be to have such a creative and exciting build up to the b’nai mitzvah experience – and to have a once-in-a-lifetime transformative experience of the event itself so that our young people will not abandon our synagogues afterward, but rather yearn to continue onward? As Dr. Isa Aron explained when we first started imagining the B’nai Mitzvah Revolution: If we can change that, we might be able to change everything.

Now more than ever, during these sacred days of renewal and return, the time has come to focus on how we bring people (parents and their children) into relationships with one another and with talented, engaging facilitators of Jewish learning who will inspire and promote just that—not more “schooling.” How appropriate that now, on the brink of the new year, we can lay the groundwork for such a critical new beginning.

URJ Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education
Jewish Education & Technology:
New Models Abound

I got behind and missed yesterday's postings on the Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. The blog had three yesterday. Here is the first, by my friend and colleague Deborah Niederman. As before, please comment on the blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation!

I am grateful for the way that Dr. Charles Edelsberg frames his piece on education in the Reform Movement. Too often, what is written about Jewish education is merely a critique and sometimes an outright attack. We often read that Jewish education, especially complementary education through our congregations, is in crisis. But the truth is that we have always been reading articles that make such claims, and there has always been great innovation in congregational education, especially in the Reform Movement. (Innovative projects such as the Experiment in Congregational Education of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education and communal initiatives locally have been helping congregations rethink how they approach education for over two decades.) I am grateful that Dr. Edelsberg frames his piece around phenomena that can offer a robust approach to Reform Jewish education.

I agree with the challenge and necessity of discussing this important topic despite all the unknowns – and the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) is not shying away from this difficult conversation. Like Dr. Edelsberg, we, too, struggle with the distinction between fads and trends. In this rapidly changing world, communication is constant and access to information has been democratized. The demand we face is in determining how to harness this power and accessibility to create rigorous, individualized approaches to learning that will meet the needs of all learners, in all situations, all the time. Many of NATE’s members are on the very front lines of this challenging work, and often on the receiving end of such demands. And really, this is an overwhelming demand! For NATE and our members, any request or demand related to education should be seen as an opportunity. The demand for offering education in a personalized and relevant way is our greatest opportunity yet.

The world around us is rapidly changing – and not only the organizational world of Jewish communal life. In this globalized world, Reform Jewish learners of all ages and interests have access to information in a way that, just a generation ago, we could not have imagined. As educators, our tasks are now much more as facilitators and guides, rather than as sole creators and providers. We must become co-creators with our learners and families in order to provide meaningful learning opportunities – but let us never give up on congregational education and the potential that lies within congregations. The truth is that the vast majority of Jews will always be educated in the congregational system, even if not literally within the walls of synagogues. There has been much innovation over the last several decades, and the religious school of this generation is new, vibrant, and robust in many ways. New models abound everywhere!

In her response to Dr. Edelsberg, NATE President Lisa Lieberman Barzilai states, “As the North American Jewish community changes, it is our responsibility to make this a time of inspiration and spiritual growth that will create an ever-vibrant Judaism. NATE and its members understand and embrace our role in shalshelet hakabalah, the chain of tradition.” Indeed, NATE strives to help its members embrace this role by remaining true to what has always been at the heart of Reform Judaism: a commitment to meaningful and purposeful change that acknowledges the positive influences of society, while at the same time remaining true to the prophetic values of justice, mercy, and the pursuit of shalom, peace and wholeness.

Deborah Niederman, RJE, serves as the first vice-president of NATE. She is the Alumni Engagement Coordinator for the HUC-JIR Schools of Education and the Coordinator of Induction and Retention for the Jim Joseph Education Initiative of HUC-JIR.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

URJ Virtual Symposium
on Jewish Education Day 3:
Early Childhood Ed:
A Holistic View of Jewish Education

The blog had two postings in the Virtual Symposium today. Here is the second, by . As before, please comment on the blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation!

The seven phenomenon that Dr. Charles Edelsberg outlines are compelling, astute, and inspirational. Two of the ideas he offers – expanding the concept of education and focusing on relationships – are key ingredients in excellent early childhood education. We agree wholeheartedly with his vision and differ on only one point: The future he describes does not require prognostication and prediction, because the future is now.

Dr. Edelsberg advises that we move beyond the concept of schooling in our thinking about Jewish education. Early childhood education lends itself naturally to a broader view of this idea. We see our students as learners from the moment they enter the world, and we see them in the context of their families. The family is the student, and early childhood education theory tells us that we must address the needs of the family if we are to nurture the development of the child. This naturally promotes a holistic view of Jewish education; the system must be seen as a whole.

Reform Jewish life today is about choice, not obligation. The idea of choosing is certainly not new to Reform Judaism, but the types of choices that families face are. The youngest learners in our congregations – the students in our early childhood programs or the babes in arms of the families walking through the doors of our buildings – live in a rapidly changing and expanding world. Jewish choices are not only measured against each other but against everything else, as well. The engagement our congregations offer to families on all levels competes with a plethora of opportunities for spiritual enrichment, community building, education, and, ultimately, identity development. Young Jewish families seek intentional communities where they can engage deeply and meaningfully, and the moment is ours to capture.

Our thinking about Jewish education must include early childhood programs, including schools and other early engagement offerings, as well as congregational schools, day schools, camps, youth groups, adult learning, congregational and community life; everything is sacred. Not only must we think holistically and broadly about the entire system, we must also think strategically. Human beings are becoming more and more accustomed to the concierge lifestyle: We are shepherded from one product, idea, or activity to another as our electronic devices flash suggestions for what else we might like or need based on what they “know” about us. If professionals in the Jewish world don’t learn from this model and work together to guide the Jewish journey of the families they encounter, we, as a community, are missing the boat.

Dr. Edelsberg also reminds us that we must make the shift to relationship-based learning. This concept is the foundation of learning in the field of early childhood education. Research from Harvard University’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child shows that young children learn in the context of relationships: “Stated simply, relationships are the ’active ingredients‘ of the environments influence on healthy human development… Relationships engage children in the human community in ways that help them define who they are, what they can become and how and why they are important to other people.” In order to ensure that there will be Jewish adults of the future, Jewish children of today must have relationships both in and out of the family context that help them learn about who they are and why that is important. The Jewish families of today have similar needs. 

They must connect with each other, with clergy and synagogue professionals and with their communities, to process who they are as a Jewish family and the importance of their place in the Jewish community.
Early childhood education has never been limited in scope, only in chronology. We have always known that young children are students of their environment; their classroom is the world, beginning with the microcosm of their family and blossoming outward as they grow. Relationships are integral to human development from the beginning of life. As Dr. Edelsberg teaches us to broaden our view of education, these should be among the tenets of Jewish education for all learners, for all time.

URJ Virtual Symposium
on Jewish Education Day 3:
Chain of Tradition in Jewish Education

The blog had two postings in the Virtual Symposium today. Here is the first, by my friend and collegue, who is also the president of the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE). As before, please comment on the blog, so that we are all part of the same conversation!

I share Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s trepidations about making predictions, especially when it comes to the curriculum – in its broadest sense – of Reform Jewish education. With dramatic changes underway in both the American and Jewish communal landscapes, it would seem folly to make statements for which one might be held accountable. And yet, because we are at a point in history when, as they say, “change is the new constant,” it is a question that must be addressed.

Indeed all learning, and most especially Jewish learning, needs to be relevant to the student— from the very youngest to those who are older. Watching my 5-year-old nephew sing Jewish songs because he understands the relevance of the lyrics to his life brings joy to my heart. Even better is to watch him talk with my 95-year-old grandmother, his great-grandmother, about a particular Jewish holiday about which he also sings. Here, it is clear that the curriculum is touching the heart of a student and is being shared with others. This core of relevancy will be vital to the avenue of delivery that is chosen.

Harnessing technology’s potential for education is one area that Jewish educators likely will need to address to ensure that we are on the cutting edge and not lagging behind. With today’s ever-changing technology, however, we cannot limit ourselves by stating that a curriculum ought to use the web, or a particular app or social utility such as Twitter or Pinterest. All too often, Jewish education lacks the ability to make nimble adjustments based on changes in our North American culture.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, “What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people.” My interpretation of this quote for our times is that we need teachers who are living models of Judaism and masters in the art of engagement. Although the faculty as a whole needs to embrace the beautiful tapestry in which one can live a Jewish life, individual teachers—through their relationships with students—must be able to translate a true love of Judaism to the next generation. The world we live in does not embrace community in the same ways as of old. Once, people joined congregations to be part of a community, to seek opportunities for education and spiritual fulfillment; today, people join congregations because of individuals. It is the one-on-one relationships that then grow to create a community. Such community-building needs to take place in all our educational settings – encompassing the youngest of our learners through to those with lived-life wisdom.
Lisa Lieberman Barzilai

As the North American Jewish community changes, it is our responsibility to make this a time of inspiration and spiritual growth that will create an ever-vibrant Judaism. The National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) and its members understand and embrace our role in shalshelet hakabalah, the chain of tradition.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

URJ Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education Day 2: The Future is Today

Here is the second posting from the RJ Blog Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education written by Robin Eisenberg. She is a synagogue educator in Boca Raton, FL and a past president of NATE, the National Association of Temple Educators. Please remember to comment on the RJ Blogsite, so that the conversation is shared by all!


The Future is Today
by Robin Eisenberg
Dr. Charles Edelsberg’s recent blog post begins with a statement about his being “wary of invitations to predict the future.” My sense is that much that is addressed in his post is not about the future: It is now! The points raised here can be heard in our congregational committee and staff meetings, as well as in parking lots and coffee shops.

The recurring theme of Dr. Edelsberg’s post calls for those of us who are educational leaders, dedicated congregational leaders, and members of Reform congregations to radically adjust our mindset. He highlights the need to pay attention to individuals who are seeking personal meaning. In my world, I immediately jump to the logistics of how to facilitate helping our members to find personal meaning.

We must keep in mind that our congregants comprise multiple identities, all working at the same time, sometimes in concert and sometimes in opposition. Our traditional congregational school system needs to be reinvented for some, while others are happy with the current structure because it works for them. We continually attempt to remove, or at least lower the barriers to give our congregants the opportunity to discover their own personal meaning. We must look at a reallocation of both financial resources and personnel, in order to create a variety of models to address today’s realities.

One of the challenges I face is ensuring personal relevance to learners of all ages while creating and nourishing opportunities for relationships to develop – not just the global relationships, but getting to know the people who live down the street. I constantly strive to strike a balance between these two key goals. We are faced with demands to accommodate a variety of schedules, learning styles, and interests. At the same time, we must make our programs relevant, challenging, and worthwhile. And if we haven’t established personal connections with others, their experience is not nearly as fulfilling.

In order to address the issues of personal relevance and individual needs we have created new learning models. We now offer a menu of learning options for children in two locations 10 miles apart. They include:
  1. A one-day option (Sunday 9:30 am-1:30pm)
  2. A traditional two-day program (Sunday plus a midweek day)
  3. Individual plans (using technology with staff support)
  4. A combination of classes/options to gain credit while incorporating Jewish activities in daily life
  5. A combination of classes/retreats for post-b’nai mitzvah students
The classrooms on our Beck Family Campus are equipped with SMART boards, and our teachers are encouraged to bring the world into their classrooms by using the web and the many other resources available. Our b’nai mitzvah program encourages families to customize their service by planning a mitzvah project that the child is passionate about. For adults, we offer a variety of standard classes, in addition to targeted learning opportunities for doctors and lawyers that has been quite successful.

Our goal is to provide multiple entry points for congregants and potential congregants of all ages. Our menu of learning options starts to address the need for individualization and relevance, but it remains a challenge to figure out how to ensure the development of significant personal relationships. We have widened our options outside the classroom with retreats and expanded youth activities, and are now considering broadening our adult interest groups from our current Knit and Nosh with a biking group and dinner club.

When all is said and done, I agree with most of Dr. Edelsberg’s points. Where I take issue is that I believe the future is today!

Robin Eisenberg, RJE, is the Director of Jewish Learning and Living at Temple Beth El in Boca Raton, FL.

Monday, September 10, 2012

URJ VIrtual Sympsium on Education: Unprecedented Opportunity: The Future of Reform Jewish Education

The URJ began a Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education today. I hope you are aware of it. Here is the first posting by Dr. Chip Edelsberg, who I met as a Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow at Bar Ilan University. He is the founding Executive director of the Foundation. If you have comments, please do so on the symposium site:, so that we will all be part of one conversation. I plan on commenting there and here, and to crosspost the main blog articles.


This post is the first in our Virtual Symposium on Jewish Education. Each day this week, we’ll feature posts from Reform Jewish educators responding to this piece and discussing the future of Jewish education.

by Dr. Charles Edelsberg

I am wary of invitations to predict the future… of anything. While I am a longtime student of literature on the future of education, dating back nearly four decades to my public school days (when I frequently consulted the works of Marvin Cetron, Paul Ehrlich, John Naisbitt, and Alvin Toffler), I seem to have an uncanny knack for miscalculating what the future will bring.

It has taken me years to learn to distinguish between fads and trends. It requires a great deal of careful study to separate out the pundits from the pontificators, an activity I take seriously. But I am no oracle. Thus comments I offer below are issued with a healthy dose of trepidation.

First, I believe any prognostication about the future of Reform Jewish education must begin with the understanding that education does not equal schooling. In fact, the very place of Jewish institutions as centers of Jewish teaching and learning – day and congregational schools perhaps most prominent among them – must be called into question by any earnest futurist. The fact of the matter is that profound revolutions in information and communications technologies are accelerating deep learning outside of formal institutional settings – occurring in real time, all the time.

Secondly, the basis on which Reform Judaism as a movement defines itself has a critical relationship to the nature, shape, and future forms of education that it will promulgate.

With these two assumptions in mind, I would suggest the following seven phenomenon as potentially seminal to a robust Jewish Reform education future:
  • Any and all teaching must be designed with personal relevance to the learner foremost in mind.
  • Platforms that facilitate self-directed learning will maximize engagement.
  • Multimedia simulations will become increasingly prevalent as a means to engender learning.
  • To the extent Reform Judaism successfully differentiates and “brands” the values it represents –  for example, religious pluralism, social action and gender equity – the greater the likelihood the Movement will pull members into educational engagement with its distinctive Reform Jewish beliefs, values, and practices.
  • Reform Jews’ relationships with Jews in Israel and around the world will become a more prominent part of individual Jewish identity.
  • Jewish learning capitalizing on burgeoning interest in the environment; the food movement; Jewish literature, film, art, music and dance beckons Reform Jewish educators to meaningfully engage their members in “life-centered” Jewish education (Redesigning Jewish Education for the 21st Century: A Lippman Kanfer Institute Working Paper, p. 20).
  • In anticipating that humans will live longer and enjoy better health, even in the later years of their existence, lifelong learning should be integral to the future of Reform Jewish education.
In a global world, there is unprecedented opportunity for relationship-building, interconnectedness, learning, and meaning-making between and among Reform Jews across the globe.

Reform Judaism is exceptionally rich in its social capital. Its committed organizational leadership, charismatic rabbis and educators, cadre of successful overnight camp leaders, social activists and the like make for a formidable pool of talent. The Movement is well-positioned to optimize its educational effort as the shift in the world from one “where value is concentrated in [didactic] transactions to one where value resides in large [dynamic] networks of long-term relationships” (page 55 of The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, Lang Davison).

Arguably, we live in a post-denomination era. Democratized access to information and the decentralizing of sources of conventional authority pose a daunting challenge to the Jewish denominational movements. Reform Judaism is a movement built on renewal of religious traditions, creative adaption of Jewish customs, and continuing education of Movement members. As Rabbi David Ellenson indicates in his position paper “The Future of Jewish Education from the Reform Perspective,” Jewish education must ultimately be “generative – inspiring Jews to create and support vibrant Jewish communities that sustain Jewish life.”
Charles (Chip) Edelsberg, Ph.D. is the founding executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, a $700 million dollar private foundation whose mission is to support education of Jewish youth in the United States – one of the largest foundations of its type in North America.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Who is a Jew? Peoplehood Versus Religion

by Avraham Infeld

I’ll begin with a story. A few weeks ago, eJewish Philanthropy ran on its front page a quote: “Being Jewish is defined by membership in the People and not by religion.”

It was attributed to me.

I confess: Guilty, as charged. I said that and I stand by it.
Soon afterwards my phone rang. It was a well-known charedi rabbi who was less than pleased. “How dare you wear a kippa and say something like that? Who do you think you are making a statement like that?” he blasted me.

I told the rabbi that I would be happy to meet with him and talk it over in person, but since we were on the phone anyway, I had a halachic question for him.

You see, every morning I daven on my porch and my next door neighbor, who happens to not be Jewish, sees me praying and it got him thinking. One day he came to me with an unusual request. He wondered whether I would go with him to buy tfillin and help him wrap his arm so that he could pray in the morning, too.

“So, rabbi,” I asked, “what should I tell him?”

“You’re not allowed to, of course!” the rabbi responded.

“Why not?” I asked, innocently.

“Why not?” he repeated my question. “Because he is not a member of the Jewish people, that’s why!”

It was music to my ears.

“Rabbi, did you hear what you just said?”

There was a pause and then he sheepishly admitted that maybe I was right. That just maybe, it is membership in a People that defines whether you are a Jew or not.

Here’s the part where I confess that the non-Jewish neighbor with tfillin-envy never happened, but this scenario came to me during my conversation with the rabbi to illustrate my deep conviction that everything goes back to Peoplehood.

In other words, this concept of Peoplehood that is so fashionable these days, wasn’t invented by Mordecai Kapalan in the 20th century. It is, in fact, the oldest phrase in Jewish history. We were always known as am Israel, the People of Israel. Even Pharaoh in Egypt spoke about the Jews as an am, as a People.

And yet, to my mind, the most serious danger facing the Jewish people today is that Jews of all kinds have forgotten that word: People.

We are not a religion and we’ve never been a religion. Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. It bases itself entirely on the covenant between a People and God Almighty – not between an individual and God.

And yet, we are losing more and more Jews because fewer and fewer Jews recognize the fact that we are a People. That is why so many organizations and educators have awakened this very word that we should have never have lost in the first place – to carry us back to our roots.

But before we examine how it is that we are a People over a religion, we must first ask ourselves, how we lost this identity in the first place?

If there is anything about which Jews have been in agreement throughout the generations, it was the understanding of what it meant to be a Jew.

Up until great emancipation in the beginning of the 19th century, being a Jew meant being a member of a particular People. Once upon a time we were slaves in Egypt and when we left Egypt and came to Mt. Sinai to meet the creator, we signed a covenant with him by which we agreed that we would be his People and he would be our God; he would take care of us and give us rain in the right season and take care of our land and we would keep His commandments.

I know of no Jewish philosopher before the emancipation who understood being Jewish as anything other than this covenant of Peoplehood.

But back to the covenant itself. It turns out that God kept his side of the bargain, but we sinned and because of our sins, we were scattered among the nations of the earth. This is why for thousand of years every Jew understood inherently that our role in life was to keep ourselves distinct as a People, which was why Jews lived in ghettos. It was there that we could more easily keep God’s commandments. It was there that we hoped and prayed that God would forgive us and bring us to back to the land of Israel. Then around 250 years ago, along comes modernity, and with it, modern nationalism, and with that, modern liberalism and suddenly, Jews are faced with the opportunity to leave the ghetto and in order to do so, many of them have to change their understanding of what it means to be a Jew.

Some simply stopped being Jewish.

The charedim among us became more ghettoized.

But the mass of Jews accepted two new issues of what it meant to be Jewish. One is that Judaism is a religion, which most of the Western world still believes today, and the second is that Jews are a nation, which is a product of Zionism.

For many who left the ghetto eager to become assimilated, they adhered to one non-written rule: We can act like them, but we can’t accept their God. From that day on, Judaism became a religion.
For the Zionists, the manifesto became: We are a nation.

The American Jews declared: We are a religion.

And so it was that the basic idea of who we are started getting lost. All Mordecai Kaplan did was try to reawaken the oldest idea of what it means to be a Jew – that Judaism is a culture of that particular people.

When I was President of Hillel International, I used to travel around the Jewish world meeting with young students. I always carried a chart with me that was divided into three columns. The top line listed: apples, oranges, bananas. Down the side read: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber. A final line that asked the students to fill in the blanks: Jew, it listed, and then two blank spots. In other words, What is to a Jew as an apple is to an orange?

In the USA, over 200,000 responses were unanimous: Jew, Christian, Muslim.

What does that say? Judaism is a religion.

But from the over 40,000 responses from Israelis, not one said Jew, Christian, Muslim. Instead they said Arab or Italian or American. In other words, for them, Judaism is a nationality.

When it came to the Russian Jews, 10,000 responded this way: Jew, non-Jewish is a Russian?

What does this all tell us? I’ll tell you what this tells us: the Jewish people are totally confused about our identity!

So now we see organizations, like the former UJA, making statements like, “We are one.” We are one what? We are one hell of a mess, that’s what we are!

Therefore, the time is ripe to remind the Jews that we are first and foremost a People. Let is remember what Ruth, the first convert to Judaism, the great-grandmother of King David, the forerunner to the messiah for both Jews and Christians once said, “Your people shall be my people and your God is my God.”

The order is not accidental. If I want to become Christian I would say, “Your God is my God,” but when it comes to Judaism, I cannot first say, “Your God is my God” until I say, “Your people is my people.”

It is not that I am anti-religions. I am an observant Jew. But I am bound to the commandments only because I am a member of a People. The moment you define Judaism as a religion, the first thing that happens is you create religions denominations. Where was Reform, even Orthodox Judaism 700 years ago? They did not exist because we did not define ourselves as a religion.

Also, if Judaism were only a religion, what right would Jews have to their own state? No other religion has a state.

We are only perpetuating confusion by not educating our children that they are members of a People.

Only when we understand Judaism in the context of Peoplehood can we begin to understand what it means to be a Jew. And only when we see ourselves as part of a People will Judaism unite – instead of divide – us.

Without Peoplehood what would Israelis have in common with Jews in the Diaspora?

The time is now to teach our children that Judaism is the culture of the Jewish people. The State of Israel is the homeland of the Jewish People and all the organizations that are supposed to serve the Jewish people should put up front and center the message of Jewish Peoplehood.

That is why I have become a fanatic about teaching about the Jewish People.

If you want to know the truth, I hate the word Peoplehood. It is confusing. I want to teach about am Israel. I want to create a sense of belonging in every Jew to the Jewish People. How do you interpret the culture of Jewish Peoplehood into your life?

The mission of Jewish leaders in the 21st century should therefore be how to ensure the continued, significant renaissance of the Jewish people, ensuring a sense of belonging by every Jew to his people, its heritage, its values, its State, and its dreams and aspirations to work as Jews to make this a better world for all.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Letter to Aly Raisman From an IDF Soldier

There is nothing I have to add to this very eloquent post from Olympic Gold Medalist Aly Reisman's Facebook page as reported by the Algeminer.

Below is a letter to Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, the American and Jewish gymnast who performed to the tune of Hava Nagila in London, from an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. The letter was posted by the author on Aly’s Facebook page.

Dear Aly,

I want to tell you about how you became the hero of a gym full of Israeli soldiers.

The same Israeli soldiers who have to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat to the Jewish state. The same ones who serve two-to-three years of their lives, because we have to; because there’s no one else that would do it besides us, because our neighborhood sucks, and when the leadership next door in Syria massacres their own people, there’s no way we would let them lay hands on our kids, as foreign dictators have done for thousands of years.

You picked a song for your floor routine in the Olympics that every Jewish kid knows, whether their families came from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the Asian steppes of Azerbaijan, the mountains of Morocco or the Kibbutzim of northern Israel. It’s that song that drew almost everyone at the Israeli army base gym to the TV as soon as the report about you came on the news this morning. After showing your floor exercise to Hava Nagila, the announcer told about your gold medal with unmasked pride, and of your decision to dedicate it to the Israeli athletes who were killed in the Munich Olympics in 1972.

There were some tough people at that gym, Aly. Men and Women, Battalion Commanders from Intelligence, Captains from the navy, Lieutenants from the Armored Corps and more. You probably understand that words like ‘bravery’ and ‘heroism’ carry a lot of weight coming from them, as does a standing ovation (even from the people doing ab exercises.) There was nothing apologetic about what you did. For so long we’ve had to apologize for who we are: for how we dress, for our beliefs, for the way we look. It seems like the International Olympic Committee wanted to keep that tradition. Quiet, Jews. Keep your tragedy on the sidelines. Don’t disturb our party.

They didn’t count on an 18 year-old girl in a leotard.

There wasn’t one person at the gym who didn’t know what it was like to give back to our people, not one who didn’t know what happened to the good people who died in 1972, not one who didn’t feel personally insulted by their complete neglect in the London Olympics, the 40 year anniversary of their deaths, and not one who didn’t connect with your graceful tribute in their honor.

Thank you for standing up against an injustice that was done to our
people. As I was walking back to my machine at the gym, I caught one of the officers give a long salute to your image on television. I think that says it all.

Dan Yagudin
Officer, Israeli Defense Force

Monday, September 3, 2012

Yoav and Ayala get married - again

I love Israel. It is the only  place in the world where you can get a McDonald's cheeseburger made with certified kosher cheese, glatt kosher beef on a pesadik bun during Pesach. It is also the place where each time you return up to Jerusalem, it feels like the very first time you are arriving. And when you come up to Jerusalem for the very first time (for real) it feels like you have always been there. It is a place of delights and contradictions.
It is also a place of deeply personal aggravation. Personal not because many of these angst producing behaviors affect me personally, but because I feel a personal connection to Israel, and when the nation allows officially obnoxious behavior, I am disappointed and embarrassed. Unfortunately I am not surprised. So today's piece from Ha'aretz surprised me only because the author, Naomi Schacter,  identifies herself as orthodox. As I have ducked into the office on Labor Day to get a jump on the opening of religious school this week, I am reminded that one of our biggest challenges as Jewish educators is to help our students and their families develop an intense love for Israel in the face of this kind of narischkeit. Enjoy.
- Ira

The Jewish wedding ceremony is a ritual that connects us to the generations of our ancestors and resonates deep in our souls. But I also hope that my children will bring, for example, a bit more egalitarianism to the ceremony.

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman
Yoav and Ayala both grew up in Jerusalem, and both their families were active in Kol Haneshama, a Reform synagogue here. They each celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah, respectively, at the synagogue, where they enjoyed the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman. A romance between these two fabulous young adults developed, and when they decided to get married, they naturally wanted their rabbi to officiate at the ceremony. This event took place this week near Jerusalem.

But Yoav and Ayala's marriage by Rabbi Weiman-Kelman will not be recognized by the State of Israel, which sanctions only Orthodox marriage ceremonies presided over by Orthodox rabbis authorized by the Chief Rabbinate. Yoav and Ayala's wedding ceremony was rich in Jewish tradition, liturgy and spirituality - nevertheless, it will not render them legally married here in the Jewish state.

And so, before this week's wedding, Yoav and Ayala did what many couples either choose or are forced to do: They had a civil marriage abroad, as civil marriages from abroad are recognized by the state. Not only are Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist or other Jewish alternative ceremonies not recognized in Israel, but there is no option for civil marriage, either. Among the Russian community living in Israel, the approximately 350,000 of whose members are of uncertain religious Jewish status have no choice but to marry abroad. There is new legislation that offers one exception to this rule: In cases where both members of the couple do not meet halakhic standards of Jewishness (even if they legitimately came to Israel under the Law of Return ), they are permitted to marry here according to a category defined by the Interior Ministry as a "civil partnership agreement."

Ironically, these presumed non-halakhic Jews have to have that status certified by the rabbinate - in and of itself a humiliating bureaucratic ordeal. However that may be, this policy may ease the way for a handful of couples in Israel each year. It clearly does not solve the basic problem.

Yoav and Ayala had a beautiful civil ceremony in Washington, D.C., in late June, at the residence of the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren. Michael is Yoav's father. So it turns out that the son of Israel's ambassador to the United States could not be married in Israel by the rabbi of his choice because that rabbi belongs to the Reform movement. Is this a big deal? I think so. Any couple may opt to have a wedding party overseas for personal reasons - but they should not have to do so.

How much longer are we going to put up with this absurd situation? Approximately 20 percent of Israeli Jews do not marry under the auspices of the state rabbinate, most of them through lack of choice. The most popular destination for Israelis who opt for or are forced into a civil ceremony is Cyprus, and the Hebrew-language Internet is chock full of Cyprus marriage packages. It's a phenomenon.

The late Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, with his Shinui party, and more recently Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitenu, in their campaign platforms, both pledged to bring civil marriage to Israel. Neither succeeded (aside from the recent minor exception mentioned above). Coalition politics and the power of the ultra-Orthodox parties blocked them. Most of Israel's Jewish Knesset members are secular or somewhat traditional, but that majority has done nothing to change the status quo. Why do we allow this non-democratic situation to continue?

People may feel irritated by the restrictions, but when they are immersed in other marriage preparations, they usually just take a deep breath and either opt to accept the dictates and authority of the Orthodox rabbinate (many now use the slightly more user-friendly Tzohar rabbis ), or choose another option. Some may decide on a common-law partnership. Some couples will marry with an Orthodox rabbi and then supplement the ceremony with the rabbi or spiritual leader of their choice. Or they go abroad for a civil marriage, and then have the meaningful Jewish ceremony when they return home.

 Those who opt for a civil marriage abroad and later decide to divorce cannot do even that in a civil court; the divorce has to go through the Chief Rabbinate, which is predominantly ultra-Orthodox and has a poor track record regarding women's rights. This leads to a not insignificant aguna problem (literally, a "chained woman," referring to women whose husbands refuse to grant them a divorce ).

I myself am Orthodox, but I hope that my kids, when they get married, will opt for a ceremony in which they combine traditional and original elements. The Jewish wedding ceremony is a ritual that connects us to the generations of our ancestors and resonates deep in our souls. But I also hope that my children will bring, for example, a bit more egalitarianism to the ceremony. Depending on what they choose, they too may require a civil ceremony abroad and only then a modified Orthodox wedding here. For even those Orthodox rabbis who are inclined to allow certain alternative elements in the ceremony are being watched, and have to be careful about what they do and don't do to avoid risking their eligibility to officiate.

The "Take 2" wedding event this week for Yoav and Ayala was truly lovely and moving. But if circumstances in this country were different, this should have been the only wedding they had.

Naomi Schacter
Naomi Schacter is associate director of Shatil, an initiative of the New Israel Fund.