Sunday, October 18, 2020

Even the way you hold your glass matters

On August 28th the world tipped a little further on its side for some of us. That was the day Mark S. Shapiro, my rabbi, died. Now there have been a number of rabbis who I have called MY rabbi. MSS, as many of us who speak or write about him, was my first rabbi. We joined B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim when I was entering second grade in 1968. My Grampa Leo had died that summer, and sometime before he did , he told my mom it was time I started Hebrew school.

MSS was not just the rabbi who told Chelm stories on the bimah and gave you a pen with the temple's name on it when he called up all of the September birthday kids. (It was usually in pieces before the Oneg.) He was not just the rabbi encouraged us all to go to Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute. He was not just the rabbi who pulled out his guitar and sang "We're in the same boat brother."

"I see you." Many others have written about that Na'vi greeting in the movie Avatar means so incredibly much. it is about seeing deeper than the surface. It is about seeing the person inside the wrapper. MSS saw each of us. It wasn't that he knew what felt or thought - although sometimes it seemed he did. The idea, and I have now heard may who knew him describe it different ways, is that no matter who you were or how old you were, he listened. He saw you. And he was happy to wait until you showed yourself, and got to see him back. And he taught me - and many others - the patience to see others.

I started a closed Facebook group called "I am a Jewish Leader and Mark S. Shapiro was my rabbi!" many years ago. Dozens of us went on to become Jewish professionals. Dozens more became teachers and lay leaders in Jewish communities around the world. What follows is something I posted there two weeks after MSS died. I realize now, that he was teaching us how to try and see God in our actions and in one another.

I am not usually one to post in Shabbat. The dishes are done and I wanted to share a teaching I learned from MSS that I shared two weeks ago tonight with my family (not for the first time). So close your books (this is what MSS would say when it was time for the sermon).

It may have been at temple. It may have been in the Rotunda at OSRUI, either in the summer or on retreat. We were all about to sing the Kiddush when rabbi looked around and said (approximately-it was at least 40 years ago):

"It is important to think about how you hold your Kiddish cup. When you are holding it up high with one hand it looks like you are making a toast. Not a bad thing - maybe 'Here's to You, God.'

But we are not drinking a toast. We are saying Kiddush, making Shabbat holy with our blessing. So we should hold it in two hands because we are receiving a gift...the gift of Shabbat."

Thanks rabbi. I have taught that to my students and campers ever since. Shabbat shalom y'all.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Virtual Experiential Education: It Works!

I do not believe that anyone who is reading this does not already know about, an amazing curated blog that covers Jewish Philanthropy and Jewish Education. "To assist organizations progress as they adapt to the continuing changes and challenges of the 21st Century, eJewish Philanthropy was launched in 2007 as an independent on-line publisher and a facilitator of resource mobilization serving the professional Jewish community."

There are some very important articles that originate or end up there. This is on of them. If you want to make a comment, I urge you to so on their page: in order to engage in the wider conversation. I include the article here because I think it is relevant and would like to talk about it with you.

Virtual Experiential Education: It Works!

By Anna Serviansky

In designing JustCity/CityStage 2.0, JTS’s Pre-College summer program for teens, our team of educators intentionally crafted a setting and learning environment where the objectives of experiential education would be met. While we were unsure how this unchartered territory of an online format versus the in-person experience we had curated for years would be received, it took only the first day of seeing the program unfold in action to realize that our careful planning was producing the results we hoped for. A community of learners was formed, the social emotional needs of the group were met, and the teens were excited to learn in the dynamic, experiential environment we engineered. As we step back to review what made our program a success, I can distill the elements that took place and see that in fact they mirror what researchers have been studying for decades.

While some might question whether excellent experiential education can happen online, if certain conditions are present, then the setting is less important and learning outcomes will be met in the positive, reflective manner that contributes to the personal growth of our learners. While informal Jewish education, which includes experiential education, tends to be tied to say the place of camp, JCC, youth movement, or synagogue as juxtaposed to the formal classroom setting, this notion of “place” is becoming less important to where informal and experiential education can thrive and accelerate outcomes.

In fact, as Dr. Barry Chazan writes describing informal Jewish education, “It works by creating venues, by developing a total educational culture, and by co-opting the social context … it does not call for any one venue but may happen in a variety of settings.” (Chazan, The Philosophy of Informal Jewish Education, 35). Our finding was that indeed, in our virtual platform, we were able to create a venue and social context where our learners could process their own Jewish identity within the current milieu among a community of like-minded peers and knowledgeable educators.

Moreover, reviewing Dr. Jeffrey Kress’s rubric of quality experiential Jewish education, we have a road map for not only what made our program successful, but also what can be translated to future impactful virtual programs. (Kress, Experiential Jewish Education Has Arrived! Now What?, 326). I will divide this rubric into two categories and explore how we might continue to make use of the six elements he outlines.

Logistics, Relationships, and Participant Involvement. Our schedule was modified to meet the needs of our participants and educators (ibid). We had three sessions spread throughout the day with ample breaks. Our first class was a text-based class on Judaism and justice that used contemporary and ancient writings as a jumping off point for students to relate to their own questions on certain justice issues from immigration to the environment and more. Our second class was a creative arts workshop where learners had an opportunity to explore those justice topics deeper through poetry, song, and theater. And at the conclusion of each day, a third educator facilitated participant involvement where teens planned their own reflections and social activities. All of the educators nurtured learning environments where they modeled how to do Judaism and social justice and how to form a community around these issues from different perspectives that teens could relate to. They also purposefully constructed relationships between the teens themselves throughout their programming.

Ritual, Spirituality, Programmatic/Developmental Elements. For a pluralistic program like ours, we celebrated Shabbat Friday afternoons with reflections, divrei torah, and singing. As when we are in person, we continued our model of a diversity of forms of spiritual exploration and reflection tools not only during Shabbat, but also as a way to process our learning, both context and social-emotional, through journaling, the arts, and more. The positive energy of our educators who used music, creative check ins, and digital strategies transferred to our teens who often wanted to hang out outside of scheduled times. And, we focused on opportunities where our learners could become skilled practitioners, applying what they learned in real time from how to study a Jewish text to how to advocate for causes to how to have tough conversations with those of differing views.

Our virtual program included all six of those elements that comprise excellent Jewish experiential education. And, so, perhaps we should not have been surprised that the “venue” itself did not matter and that a virtual program can provide learners with what they need. In their own words, teens reflected on the power of this experience:

“I didn’t think I’d create the same bonds I have at other summer programs because we were online and not spending time together 24/7, but I was so wrong. I made so many friends, and it’s just been so amazing!” Miriam S.

“My favorite thing about this program was getting to learn from my peers. Rather than just being talked at by our teachers, we were able to have open discussions and hear each other’s ideas on relevant issues. I also really loved being able to connect Jewish texts to modern day social justice issues. I had never done that before, and it was super interesting.” Yaya S.

The hallmark of any good experiential Jewish education to my mind is when the participants do not want the experience to be over. Many of them wished they could continue their learning together and spoke extensively about how much they had appreciated the community during a challenging summer. And so, while the world is changed, we must continue to bring the very best of experiential Jewish education virtually, and when we do so, we will continue to meet our objectives of developing strong connections to Judaism and to one another.

Anna Serviansky is Associate Dean of List College and the Kekst Graduate School and the Director of JTS Pre-College.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Civilly Speaking: A Curriculum on Civil Discourse (redux)

In the summer of 2018, Harlene Appelman, a mentor, friend and the Executive Director of the Covenant Foundation asked me and Joel Lurie Grishaver (also a mentor, friend and the Creative Chair of Torah Aura Productions) to create a curriculum on civil discourse.

She looked at the public environment and saw and heard people shouting at the top of their voices. And using language that would have gotten your mouth washed out with soap - at least if you grew up before the 1980's. Few people in the public sphere were listening to one another. Conversations were often no longer a free exchange of ideas leading to people making up their own minds, or even for seeking common ground to move forward together. They became competitive events to be won or lost.

Harlene was clear - we could not take sides in this curriculum. To be authentic, we had to begin from a place where all positions have legitimacy - the point was to focus on how to engage with one another with respect. We had to make sure that all participants understood that we are all created B'tzelem Elohim - in God's image. Even though we can agree that Nazis are bad, there were examples in real life that we avoided in order to not fall into the trap of seeming to take sides. Teachers years from now can look back to the events of this past decade with greater perspective.

As I watch the news and the various political campaigns right now, I think we need to get back to being civil with one another more than ever. When the rabbis of the Talmud considered the question of how God could have allowed the Romans to destroy the Temple in 70 C.E., the only answer that made sense to them was Sinat Chinam - baseless hatred. The Saducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Sicarii and Essenes were splinter groups (some of the splinters were very large) who were often incapable of coming together for the good of the Jewish people. The rabbis said that if they could have figured out a unified position, the Temple would still be standing.

And as President Lincoln said in accepting the nomination of the fledgling Republican party in 1858: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." That was true then when the issue was slavery. It is equally true today when the issues are many and varied.

Friends, teachers, colleagues: I urge you to teach the value of civility. Be like Shammai and greet each person with a smile and teach your learners to do the same. And on behalf of myself and Joel, I invite you to download the free six lesson curriculum on Civil Discourse from the Covenant Foundation site. Each lesson has three versions. One is for middle school, one for high school and one for adults. Feel free to mix and match parts based on your knowledge of those you are teaching.

Help us keep the metaphoric temple - the United States and the Constitution - from being destroyed.

The curriculum is here:

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

What A Long, Strange Trip It Could Be!

You would think that with the pandemic and quarantine I would have posted often. As I look at the past six months or so, I realize two thing about my time. I am not sure if this is universal, or just my mishigas (craziness).
  1. I have been busier than ever before. Working with lay leaders and colleagues, we spent an enormous amount of time figuring out what learning should look like at our congregation. We spoke to nearly every family of returning students. Teachers and I spent a great deal of time online together and individually developing skills for both lesson planning and teaching in a digital space as well as figuring out out how to adapt to teaching outdoors with masks and distancing.

  2. At the same time, so many items that had been part of the regular flow have work has been laid aside. I have a lot of folders in the standing rack on my desk that I have not touched in months. I plan on scheduling an hour every few days to triage some of those files. If I am not touching them, I probably don't need them. 
Today is the first Monday after the end of the fall festivals. As I reflect on the Cheshbon hanefesh - the accounting of the soul - that I, like many of you engaged in during the High Holy Days, I gave some thought to this blog.

On the one hand, my most recent post was six months ago. I have treated this blog like those files on my desk. One thought was to say goodbye today.

On the other hand, when I have been more active in this space. I have found the act of writing as well as the occasional conversation it has engendered - on Facebook, via email or even the occasional live or digital face to face - has been valuable to me. And I hope occasionally to someone who has read it.

So I am back. Whether this more of a digital diary for myself or the beginning of conversations with you, whoever you may be, is not up to me. If you are reading this, I hope you will see this as an invitation to engage. In my happiest dreams, I would write regularly and so would you. I am happy to post your thoughts and give full credit. I will also include the occasional article I come across that I think worth sharing and/or reacting to - kind of like when I was curating (of blessed memory). 

The title of this blog comes from a television ad for a video game system from the early 1990's. Welcome to the Next Level in the ad was a play on how when you defeat the obstacles on the screen of a video game, you move to another, harder level. The ad suggested that buying their gaming system was taking you to a higher level of gaming. I adopted the name for this blog because of belief that in Jewish education, we have to do the same thing. We are always working for the win - a successful lesson or experience that engages the learners. And we are always trying to level up. 

Social, emotional and spiritual learning (SESL) were not part of the vocabulary in 1991 (when I began to use the term "Welcome to the Next Level" in my work, but long before I started this blog). And Experiential Learning is light years beyond the informal education or even the confluent education some of us studied with Bill Cutter 29 years ago. And the way learners perceive their world and we perceive them has changed in significant ways, and not just in terms of their digital acuity. Their life both in school and afterward are very different.

The day I stop trying to innovate and learn from my learners is the day I apply to be a Disney cast member so I can operate the roller coaster or log ride. And I want to learn from and with all of you.

I would love it if you were along for the ride.



Monday, March 30, 2020

The Socially Distanced Full-Contact

Seder ™

Before our children were even conceived (the youngest turns 22 on Sunday) my wife Audrey and I developed what we called the Full-Contact Seder. The idea was to create a Seder that was so engaging that the children we would someday have would be an experience that filled them with wonder. Thanks to being at the seder at Kibbutz Lotan in 1989 - where we saw five little ones mesmerized by the shadow-maggid their parents performed - we were determined. And with the help of family and friends, I believe we succeeded for many years. 

We continue to make our seder with many of those same friends and when COVID-19 decided on a Zoom seder for us, we dusted it off. Here is the introduction of the planning document. I happily share the planning document which are welcome to copy or download. The comments are live on the document, and I invite your thoughts, suggestions and ideas. You can find it at this link:

Socially Distanced Full-Contact Seder ™

Welcome to the Family Virtual Seder Planning Page!
Also known as the Socially Distanced Full-Contact Seder ™

So it took a few (thousand) years, but we finally have a seder that is fully a product of experiential learning. I was opposed to having an actual plague this year, but you all know how THOSE guys get when they start getting silly.

My understanding of the plan is that we are going to a modified digital version of the Full Contact Seder we did when all of our kids lived at home and were too young to tell us to cut it out.

Below is an outline of the 15 parts of the seder (and some of them are subdivided into more parts). Each has at least one link to a site that will explain what it is about or other relevant information. We agreed that each participating family will take responsibility for at least two of the items. That may include dealing one of them off to a child(ren) or even the one communal grandchild. If you can deal more than one off (keeping at least one for yourselves, of course) awesome! We can skip or just talk about the ones no one took!

The task for each part or sub part is to creatively express, teach or engage us in the meaning of that part of the Seder.

We are using Zoom on a professional account, so the only time limit is the patience of everyone attending (so no filibusters!). You can share your screen with the group, so if you have something prepared on your computer or on another website (e.g. a YouTube Video, Prezy or the like) there is no problem.

As soon as you decide which TWO parts (or sub-parts) you want to own, please put your name on the chart below so we don’t have two families or individuals planning the same part.

I will post prayer sheets, etc. as pdfs for all to download. If you would like to post anything, go ahead or send it to me and I can convert it and post if you prefer.


Here is the link again.
Socially Distanced Full-Contact Seder ™