Showing posts with label Leadership Institute. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leadership Institute. Show all posts

Monday, June 17, 2013

"School as camp?" We can do better!

Jeff Kress has been my colleague in the Leadership Institute for the past nine years. He has taught me and many others a great deal about Social and Emotional and Experiential Learning. For the past year I have been part of and SEL study group with him, Evie Rotstein and a small group of congregation-based educators. We have spent our time exploring different aspect of how focusing on these types of learning can be effective. Yesterday, Jeff published the article below on

I am not going to add anything today except to say I think it is worth all of our time to read it, and that I have collected a small group of links to articles that relate to this topic at the end of the posting.

Click here for the original posting on eJP and to read other comments.

A More Accurate Analogy?
Thinking About Synagogues, not Schools, and Camps

Posted on June 16, 2013 
by Jeffrey S. Kress, PhD

It seems that the idea of making supplemental schools more “camp-like” has gained even more momentum over the past year. In that time, I have engaged in many conversations with practitioners and researchers who shared my mix of hopefulness and skepticism about the idea. The hopefulness often springs from the freedom to think creatively about education while at the same time maintaining a developmental-growth framework to inform new initiatives. Skepticism, on the other hand, often emerges from pointing out the ways in which schools were not like camps (camps being seen as voluntary, having more contact hours, etc.).

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, February 20, 2012

Mifgash Means Encounter, Part 1

Six months ago, some of us thought holding a day long conference with the Fellows and Mentors of the Leadership Institute and a group of Israel public school principals was not a good idea. We are bringing people thousands of miles for a mere 9 days of traveling and learning in the land. How could we devote more than 10% of that time in classrooms? We were certain there would be a revolt.

Still, the plans progressed. Evie Rotstein - our fearless leader - along with Roberta Bell-Kligler and David Mittelberg and the rest of their staff at Oranim framed the conference around the idea of Jewish Peoplehood.  Mittelberg described the idea of Jewish Peoplehood as emerging from a dialogic discourse. It describes both process and content. He invited the combined American/Israeli group of educators to explore and model what Jewish People can emerge to be. 

Doctor David Mittelberg
He cited two studies (NJPS 2000 and Avi Chai/Guttman 2012) that indicate that both American and Israeli Jews have between an 80 - 93% sense of connection to the Jewish people. So what is the problem with that? Why a conference and a whole department of Jewish Peoplehood at Oranim? Mittelberg says that both Israeli and Diaspora Jewries are partial and incomplete. Neither can do it on their own. Both communities see imparting a sense of connectedness to our children as real challenge.

In Israel, he said, being Jewish is a matter of fact. In the United States, it is a matter of choice. The problem is both in variety of degree and in type. In Israel being Jewish is taken for granted. In the U.S. being Jewish cannot be taken for granted. And being born Jewish in either place is no guarantee anymore that you will stay Jewish. He suggested that only in our mifgash (encounter) with each other can we make up for each of our deficiencies.

He said quite a bit more, and I refer you to the resources at the bottom of this posting for more detail. It was an amazing mifgash. So much so that this is coming in three posts, as I sit at Ben Gurion waiting to go home a week later. I was skeptical about having this conference. It was the highlight of an amazing trip with a wonderful group of educators. Evie, I was wrong. You, Roberta and David were right. Now we need to have more of these mifgashim between American and Israeli educators or it will just have been a great day. It needs to be the beginning of a long and truly essential conversation.

Resources on Peoplehood:
Convergent and Divergent Dimensions of Jewish Peoplehood - David Mittelberg (pdf)
Jewish Peoplehood Education: Framing the Field - Shlomi Ravid & Varda Rafaeli
Towards Jewish Peoplehood - David Mittelberg (pdf)
Jewish Educational Leadership - A Guide to Jewish Peoplehood
ewish Peoplehood

Crossposted to Leadership Insitute: The Blog!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Culinary Queens of Yerucham put Sallah Shabbati to bed!

Topol as Sallah Shabbati
Many of us of a certain age (50ish and older) were shown the Israeli movie Sallah Shbbati - in youth group, or in religious school, or - as in my case - on a rainy day at camp, cooped up in a M*A*S*H style tent we called the Beit Am. It was a black and white, and was made in 1964. It was for a long time the most successful film in Israeli history. It starred two actors who were then unknown outside of Israel, Gila Almagor and Topol - before he starred as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof or as Hans Zarkov in Flash Gordon.
Danny Yarhi, writing in iMDB describes the film:
A Yemenite Jewish family that was flown to Israel during "Operation Magic Carpet" - a clandestine operation that flew 49,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel the year after the state was formed - is forced to move to a government settlement camp. The patriarch of the family tries to make money and get better housing, in a country that can barely provide for its own and is in the midst absorbing hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Humor, sensitivity, politics and music highlight this capsule of history.
It was an hysterically funny comedy. Seeing it years later with a much deeper knowledge of Israeli history, that comedy turns out to be an incredibly biting dark satire and social commentary on Israeli society in the 50's. It brings out the best and worst of Israel - the wondrous rescue of nearly forgotten Jews and the far less than ideal treatment of non-Ashkenazi Jews by the European born or descended elites of Israel.

I recall one scene where Sallah is given a job planting trees by the Jewish National Fund. An official plants a sign next to the saplings with the name of a couple from the Diaspora. As a driver brings them up to the forest, the official tells them that thanks to their generosity, this was "their" forest. As soon as they left, the official took down the sign and replaced it with one with another name, just as another official drove up with another donor from abroad. Sallah accuses the official of dishonesty. When the next donors come to see "their" forest, Sallah starts plucking the new trees out of the ground!

As a member of the Leadership Institute, I had the pleasure for the second time to visit with one of the Culinary Queens of Yerucham. It was created by Atid Bamidbar (The Future is in the Desert) to "create opportunities for local women with no or low incomes, from diverse ethnic groups in town, to host visiting groups from Israel and abroad in their homes for an enriching multicultural culinary and human experience. The encounter gives visitors a great meal, warm hospitality, and insight into the lives of local residents and Jewish ethnic traditions; it provides the hostesses with added income, a boost to self-esteem and a widening of horizons."

It was all of that and more.

Mazal and her husband Jojo were wonderful and 20 of us had a wonderful meal. And the best part was Jojo's storytelling. He was animated, expressive and funny. He told of coming from Tunisia at the age of five with his parents. They wanted to go to Jerusalem. They were loaded on a truck at the port and driven through the night. They were told they were in Jerusalem and dumped in the desert. He has been in Yerucham ever since. He also told the story of their courtship. Rather than explain it, here are three videos!


Part I

Mazal and the other Queens have taken the dark satire of Sallah Shabbati and set it aside. They are part of several projects from Atid Bamidbar and other agencies like Nativ that are changing the face of Yerucham and other development towns in the Negev. Sallah seemed to have little hope. Not so any more.

And think about how the culinary queens are one of many projects that is helping this community that has spent so long in the economic trough climb out. And make it a point to visit them for lunch! It is worth it!

Part II 

  Part III

Crossposted to Leadership Institute: The Blog!

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Fifth Passover Question

Full disclosure: Josh Mason-Barkin found this and posted a section of it on his blog, Yikes. Dahlia Lithwick wrote and posted it on where she is a senior editor. I tweeted and Facebook shared his posting and contacted Dahlia for permission to re-post which she granted. Incidentally, it turns out the Lisa she refers to is another friend! There are only two degrees of separation in the Jewish world. I think the chatimah is that given the opportunity and the call to lead, people will step up even if they are not drawn to leadership naturally. 

Our first seder was led by two sisters in a room filled with 40 people including two rabbis and two Jewish educators (who were not called upon to lead happily). They were magnificent and took us successfuly from slavery to redemption. 

And they step up beautifully!

How do we choose who will lead the seder?
Who's going to lead the Seder?
By Dahlia Lithwick

Posted Tuesday, April 19, 2011, at 1:02 PM ET

How do we decide who leads the Passover Seder? Something seems to happen to all the thirtysomething Jewish people I know at Passover. They stare deep down into their own hearts, then look deep down at their own feet, and then ask—in some equal measure of panic and despair—"But who's going to lead the Seder?"

I can't tell you how many conversations I have had this month with friends who have been attending Seders for over 30 years: folks who are adept at Hebrew, familiar with every song, and are nevertheless paralyzed by the prospect of actually leading a Seder of their own. There's something about Passover that makes even the most competent among us crave some real grown-ups, while disavowing the possibility of our own grown-up-ness at the same time. It would be deeply Gen X, were it not for the fact that I'm starting to suspect it might be timeless.

I wonder if my father felt this way when my grandfather died and he and his brothers seemed to slide so effortlessly into his place. I wonder if my grandfather once felt this way as well. Maybe everyone has that sense of sheer fakery and fraud when sitting at the head of the table for the first time.

Even if this anxiety is universal, the irony is rather breathtaking, when you think about it: The word Seder means "order." Every action and word required of us is spelled out in the Haggadah with the precision and clarity of a NASA launch sequence. That so many of us feel unequal to the task of doing something so structured is amazing.

At the Seder last night, someone suggested that leading has in fact become more complicated in our time. Our fathers and grandfathers read aloud or assigned reading to others. Everyone knew the tune and the page. But leading the Seder in 2011 can involve complex choreography, the frog song, the store-bought plague paraphernalia, the extratextual readings, and other heroic efforts to be inclusive/relevant/child-friendly and compelling. The days of mumbling before the brisket and mumbling after the brisket have morphed into something requiring the timing, sensitivity, and theatricality of a performance artist.

It's true, furthermore, that whereas our fathers and mothers tended to go to the same Seder year after year, the members of our ambulatory generation have probably attended several different kinds of Seders, each of which had a slightly different take on how to get from the four questions to Dayenu. So despite the "order" there is no longer a standard format. And with every new Seder, guest, and song, what it means to "lead" the Seder becomes more ambiguous and panic-inducing.

There also seems to be a secret, lingering sense among my women friends—women who own their own businesses and publish books, by the way—that leading a Seder is still somehow a man's job. And even if you went to Hebrew school, even if you know each word by heart, even if you're as good at this stuff as your grandpa once was, and even if in every other context you are the source of Jewish tradition and learning in your household, somehow the feeling still persists among some women (myself included) that on Passover the daddies lead and the mommies ladle.

Passover is really the only Jewish holiday in which most households tap some layperson to be professional clergy for a night, and—as my friend Lisa observed yesterday—it's thus apt that this holiday celebrates one of the most reluctant leaders in all of biblical history. Here is poor Moses, begging to be relieved of the responsibility of Sherpa-ing his people from one dusty place to another—pleading unfitness, a speech impediment, and the absence of meaningful leadership qualities. And here we all are, thousands of years later, pleading unfitness, performance anxiety, and the absence of meaningful leadership qualities.

Stop me if this is starting to sound familiar.

Maybe the real lesson of Passover is that nobody—in any generation—feels fit to lead a bunch of other people, but they do it anyway, because in the end somebody has to. Maybe it's not just the story of the Exodus we are passing down from generation to generation, but the trick of leading, when all you ever wanted to do was follow.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Young American Jewish Elite

This ran in eJewish - one of the great sources of Jewish ideas and information. It raises some very interesting ideas, and I think it tells us something about where we should be going in teaching the next generation of leaders. What do you think?

September 14, 2010 by eJP  
by Matthew Ackerman

It is (or should be) a truism of media and academic culture that what deserves the least attention often gets the most of it. In “Good to Great,” the obsessively researched management book, Jim Collins aimed to find companies who had demonstrated consistently superior performance relative to their peers for at least 15 years. He came up with a list of 11 companies, every one of which – companies like Walgreens and Kimberly-Clark, a paper company – was decidedly un-sexy. Even more telling, they were all led by extraordinarily effective leaders who had received far less media attention than their less successful peers.

So, too, of course with much of the Jewish world, a significant segment of which has been obsessed in the last decade with identifying and understanding younger Jews. From the American side this obsession grew out of Jewish population studies conducted in 1990 and 2000-2001, which revealed for many Jewish leaders what they should have known long before: that many young American Jews were alienated from Jewish life, which meant they were increasingly marrying non-Jews, which meant the Jewish population was stagnating or even shrinking. Of late Israelis have become no less concerned in this regard, as they see their country’s international standing sinking ever lower and point the finger, at least in part, on young American Jews less committed to Israel’s security.

This led to the commissioning of many studies on young American Jews as the established community sought to understand what had gone wrong. A revealing interview about this work with Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York who has written many of the most important studies of this kind, was published recently by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

These Jews, Cohen says, are “alienated,” don’t feel comfortable around “upper-middle-class, in-married, middle-aged, family people,” and dislike distinctions being drawn between the Jewish and the non-Jewish. Israel is, at best, a place to support if it meets standards of “tolerance,”“human rights,” and “women’s rights” that it is supposedly lacking in. For these Jews, to even define oneself as “pro-Israel” is to buy into the “sometimes immoral policies of the Israeli government.” (Then again, any label is supposedly anathema for this set.) Jay Michaelson, a bellwether of this kind of thinking, recently went so far as to propose that support for Israel is in direct conflict with American Jewish identity.

The crucial question, though, is who exactly Steven Cohen is talking about. In his interview with the JCPA, several times Cohen obliquely noted that his comments were limited to the “non-Orthodox.” He was more explicit in this regard in a 2006 study he wrote on intermarriage, limiting his work and conclusions only to non-Orthodox Jews. So one important thing we know about these Jews is that they are not Orthodox.
The other important thing about the young Jews Cohen focuses on is that they hail from a strong web of Jewish connections. They are fluent in traditional religious practice and familiar with Gemara and other mainstays of Jewish tradition. Despite their aversion to supporting Israel, many have nevertheless spent significant time there and know Hebrew. And they all have lots of friends with similar backgrounds. (None of these traits are odd for people with an Orthodox background. And pushed as far to the “left” as it will reasonably go, the Orthodox label comfortably contains within it many people as conversant in the secular world as the religious.)

The last important thing about them, which again can easily be seen in Cohen’s casual references in the JCPA interview to the havruta movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s and “social justice,” is that they define themselves as a protest against the mainstream, which is both bereft of meaning and corrupt.
So in effect we are looking at a cohort of American Jews under 40 who define themselves against the Jewish mainstream and do not call themselves Orthodox (no labels, remember) yet have the experiences and knowledge of their peers who do. An unusual and small group that Cohen considers an “elite.” And they can be forgiven to a certain extent for thinking of themselves in similar terms, as they have been showered with fellowships, awards, and other euphemisms for money by a Jewish establishment desperate for their attention.

Left entirely unasked is whether or not any of it is worth it. Even the most successful of their generously supported endeavors, places like Yeshivat Hadar, cater almost entirely to the small group of people like themselves who are well-versed in Jewish life but yet cannot bring themselves to rub shoulders with all those annoying middle-aged people and their children. Or commit themselves to substantive support for Israel, the largest collection of Jews in the world and the first independent Jewish polity in 2,000 years (located in the same place as the polities that preceded it, with even the same capital city) that finds itself under increasing assault from an international campaign determined to cast it as fundamentally illegitimate.

If this is an elite, it is a strange one. It shares little in common with the Jews it will supposedly lead who, in any case, it refuses to take responsibility for leading. It explicitly defines itself in opposition to the center of the Jewish community (which nevertheless goes on shoveling it money). And it sees avoidance of the most frightening and important issues affecting the Jewish people as a matter of high principle.

When the story, in some distant future, of our Jewish current is written, one thing we can be near certain of is that these types of leaders will not feature largely within it. For now, it is long past time to look elsewhere for the kind of leadership American Jews need.

Matthew Ackerman is an analyst with The David Project.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reports of the Hebrew School's Demise Have Been Greatly Exagerated

I have dedicated my professional life to supplementary, or complementary or afternoon Jewish Education. In other words, Hebrew School. I am committed to it be cause:
  1. It worked for me and my friends. We all came through a wonderful experience at B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in suburban Chicago, learning from Rabbi Mark Shapiro, educators Barbara Irlen, Bernice Waitsman and Marshall Wolf, and dozens of teachers including Sharon Steinhorn (arguably the first - and second - congregation based family educator ever), Sy Bierman, Sandee Holleb, Joan Goldberg and more than I can name right now. It led us to be campers at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, to participating in our Jr. and Sr. youth groups, to becoming camp staff and teachers, etc. over 25 of us grew up to go to HUC-JIR and become rabbis, cantors, educators and Jewish communal workers. Lots more became functional Jewish adults and leaders of our Jewish communities.

  2. Something in the neighborhood of 85 - 90% of all Jewish children in North America will not be going to day school. Period. They need a place to learn about being Jewish and to love being Jewish. Waiting for Birthright is too little, too late. Summer camps are awesome, but it is extremely difficult to get the "unsynagogued" to go in many communities. (I know MIlwaukee is different! Please don't flame me from Eagle River you Interlaken folks!) Not much left of the non-Orthodox Zionist youth movements. I mourn Young Judaea's present state. I would like to back up the following statement with actual research (I recall it but can't cite, so therefore it is an opinion, not a fact): I believe that the majority of families with children in Hebrew schools would not choose to enroll their children in day schools if there was no tuition charged.

    The decision to enroll in day school or not is, I believe, based on much more than cost. Those who make the choice are either believers in the endeavor day school represents (a valid, meaningful choice), driven there by inadequate public options in their community (equally valid and meaningful, if unfortunate) or looking for something that a particular day school offers that they believe is more beneficial to their child(ren) than the public option (again, valid and meaningful). Cost does turn some away who would otherwise choose day school. I believe if it were free, most would continue to make the choice not to enroll in Day School, because the alternative is pleasing to them. It is not a last resort.

  3. Finally, because I believe in Hebrew School, I have made it my life's wrok to make the experience as meaningful and impactful as I can. I owe it to those who helped me become who I am. I owe it to my sons. I owe it to my grandchildren who are merely dreams in my and my wife's heads (and not yet very vivid -- we have lot's of time!).
I believe Hebrew School can be great. Not for everyone. Certanily not for the kid whose parent says: "I hated it. You'll hate it. You gotta go." Fortunately, we don;t hear that much in our synagogue anymore. I think you can judge the strength of a school by how many B'nai Mitzvah keep coming. Nearly 70% of our B'nai Mitzvah become confirmed at the end of tenth grade. One or two of them choose not to continue to High School graduation. Fifteen years ago it was 29%. Our goal is 85%. We will get there. I don't think we are the best of the best or anywhere near alone. Some things become facts (like the failure of the supplemental school) just by repeating them loudly and frequently.

Why am I talking about this? My friend Robyn Faintich of the Florence Melton Communiteen High School (and fellow Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow at the Lookstein Institute) tweeted about the following blog from Benjamin Weiner on the Jewcy blog.

Jewcy is an online media outlet/blog, social network, and brand devoted to helping Jews and their peers expand the meaning of community by presenting a spectrum of voices, content, and discussion. JEWCY is a project of JDub Records, a non-profit organization dedicated to innovative Jewish content, community, and cross-cultural dialogue. Read it. Join the conversation.

Stop Blaming Hebrew School

My weekly unsolicited email from Shalom TV, "America's Jewish Television Cable Network," informs me that Michael Steinhardt, philanthropist provocateur, in a recent "rare, personal interview," launched into a tirade against non-Orthodox American Jewish education. Hebrew school, argued the hedge-fund tycoon and Taglit-BIrthright impressario, spitting the word out through clenched teeth (or so I imagine the scene), "has been, and continues to be, a shandah--an abysmal failure." In Steinhardt's estimation, the ineptitude of this warhorse of an educational model is responsible for skyrocketing rates of non-Orthodox intermarriage, and the plummeting percentage of Jewish philanthropic dollars actually going these days to Jewish causes. (He sets the figure at 15%). "Can there be a worse term in the American Jewish lexicon than 'Hebrew School?" he asks. "There were six kids in the 20th Century who liked it!"

I am still digesting the press release--the lack of a cable hookup means it will take me some effort to watch the actual interview. Other tidbits include Steinhardt inveighing against the use of "mythical" anti-Semitism as a "boogeyman" to "raise money" for Jewish organizations, and against an obsession with the Holocaust that hinders us from thinking "about what we want to accomplish and what we want to be in the 21st century." The "religion of Judaism," he says further, is "so deeply disappointing" in its "practice, its verbiage, its inability to reflect realistically upon our lives."

The only redemption he sees for the "moribund world" of the Diaspora is a relationship with Israel, "my Jewish miracle." He has no respect, mind you, for the political and business establishment of the country, which he described with adjectives such as "awful" and "less than glorious," and he does not seem to be in favor of living there all the time, either. "I have a wonderful house in the middle of Jerusalem," he says. "I love Israel. I love America. And," like Alec Baldwin in bed with Meryl Streep, "it's a complicated situation."

I admit again that I am only relying here on the sampling of quotes provided in the press release, so I don't feel justified launching a full critique of Steinhardt's performance. Instead, I'd like to focus on the first salvo, the oft repeated claim that synagogue Hebrew schools are responsible for the decline of the Jewish people--a claim that is more or less akin to stripping your parents' house of all viable woodwork, plumbing, and appliances and then wondering why they live in such a dump.

Firstly, it should be noted that Hebrew school has not been a failure, as it is largely responsible for the success of many who have spent time on the editorial board of Heeb, or in the Alpine fortress of Reboot, or the stables of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, or most likely, if you will pardon me, the inner sancta of Jewcy and JDub [Editor's note: I should just point out that I didn't go to Hebrew school, but several of my colleagues did].

Anyone who has jockeyed disaffection with the Jewish establishment into a successful career of personal expression on the American mass-media stage, including the Coen brothers (who, since "A Serious Man," I consider the patron saints of the genre), should reflect on the debt of gratitude he or she owes to this half-assed system of religio-ethno-cultural indoctrination. Things might have been far less interesting had the ingredients come out fully-baked.

But, snarkiness aside, the problem with blaming Hebrew School for the collapse of our millennia-old civilization is that such talk, to paraphrase Tevye, blames the cart for the inherent lameness of the horse; exonerates the many who fled the challenge of creating meaningful Jewish life for the sorry state of affairs they left behind, and ignores the implacability of the forces that made them flee in the first place.

For what created the supposition that two to six hours a week of afterschool guttarality could foment a firm commitment to the Jewish people? I don't think this paradigm was determined deliberately from the outset, by committee. At the turn of the last century, there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them. And then there was mass immigration, and genocide, and breakneck assimilation--from a flummoxed traditional culture into a post-War America that was primed with petroleum to give Jewish people the greatest thrill ride they had ever experienced in a Gentile world. And, at the end of the day, Hebrew School emerged because it was the best we were allowed to do. Speaking, gloves off, as a working rabbi and education director, trying hard to find ways to reflect the "verbiage" of the Jewish religion "realistically upon our lives," it is frustrating that, by consensus of the parents of my community, I can only educate their children for two hours a week with no homework, and that those hours come well after regular school hours, and that the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house--despite the fact that they are all, without exception, great kids. But this is roughly the extent of the concession that many American Jewish families are willing to make these days to their Jewish identities, and there should be a category of Nobel prize for whoever figures out how to put these parameters to the best use.

There is a lot of talk in circulation about "what we want to accomplish, and what we want to be in the 21st century;" what it will take to "get our groove back," whether that means summoning the "boogeyman," or replacing religion with spirituality, or pretending we're Jamaican, or humping each other at younger ages with fewer prophylactics, or giving "Jewish barbarians" (Steinhardt's term) free trips to an Israel whose only redeeming virtue seems to be that we only have to be there sporadically. Of course, it is the responsibility of those who care to come up with compelling answers to the question of why be Jewish. But these answers are getting shorter and shorter, and sounding more and more often like marketing slogans, and, at the end of the day, the lack of substance is less the fault of educators than it is the fault of Jewish consumers who don't want to buy, no matter how cheap the cost. Beyond that, it is the fault of history.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

What Should We Be Teaching Our Children?

Shalom Berger of the Lookstein Institute asked me to respond to a posting to the LookJed list by Richard D. Solomon based on his reading of Understanding by Design from my perspective as a congregational educator. Richard and I are cross posting the discussion and I hope it will include other responses as well. If you have a comment, please make it below and I will share it with Richard.

Richard D. Solomon's original posting on LookJed:

Dear Rabbi Berger,

According to *Wiggins and McTighe (1998) in order to decide what (Judaic) knowledge should be taught in school, the following three categories or priorities of knowledge should be determined:

First priority: Knowledge that is enduring, essential information that students must know.

Second priority: Knowledge that is important, but not essential for students to know.

Third priority: Knowledge with which students should be familiar.

A graphic organizer of the three different types of knowledge appears at right (originally in Richard’s blog post

I believe that it is the responsibility of the Jewish Professional Learning Community to determine what is enduring Jewish knowledge, important Jewish knowledge, and knowledge with which an educated Jewish person should be familiar. So as we begin a new year, here are a few questions that Lookjed educators may wish to ponder.

1. What is enduring Jewish knowledge from your perspective?

2. Where specifically can a mentor or a teacher find enduring Jewish knowledge?

3. Is all Jewish knowledge enduring?

4. What is "not enduring" Jewish knowledge?

Shavuah tov,

Richard Richard D. Solomon, Ph.D.

* Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

My response:

Richard D. Solomon asks four intriguing questions based on his reading of Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe. I think he is on point in how he phrased the questions. In trying to address them, one risks falling into the trap of E.D. Hirsch, author of the “What Every … Grader Should Know” series. It is very easy to list specific content goals, lean back and congratulate oneself on a job well done. We all know (I hope) that such lists only scratch the surface of essential learning.

That caveat given, what about his questions?

Eight years ago, the Reform Movement began to publish its CHAI Curriculum. It is constructed around the organizing principles of Understanding by Design (UbD). I refer readers interested in their process to begin with Torah At The Center[1] which introduced the concept to Reform educators. Additionally there is a web page for the curriculum at which has a great deal of information about the curriculum and how it adapts UbD.

1. What is enduring Jewish knowledge from your perspective?

To address Richard’s question, I look at the two central goals I have for my school (a congregation-based “complementary” school, where children attend for 1.5 – 3 hours per week, depending on their grade):

We seek to help families raise children to become functionally literate adult Jews – that is, Jews who can walk into a synagogue, camp, committee meeting, community center or communal organization or any other Jewish milieu and feel like a sabra, not an oleh. Given our time constraints, will they be able to lead traditional or conservative style davening as shlichei tzibbur? No. Will they know how to pray, what they are praying and what it means to them? Yes. And they will know what they don’t know, and how to go about learning what they don’t know if that is of interest to them.

We seek to help families raise children who have a strong sense of Jewish identity, identification with the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael and who feel that being Jewish is central to who they are. The test is when they grow up—will raising Jewish children be a priority for them enough to say to a potential spouse: “You may be ambivalent about raising children who have a strong Jewish identity and connection to God, but I am not. If that doesn’t work for you, maybe we should see other people.”

So what is enduring Jewish knowledge from my perspective? Enduring knowledge is whatever makes me – the learner – come back for more.

For me personally, history is a huge draw. I once visited the JTS library and archives as part of a CAJE conference chavaya, and was allowed to touch some of the Geniza fragments Solomon Schechter had studied, and hold in my hands a Lucite encased letter written by Rambam’s scribe Baruch and signed by Rambam’s own hand, inviting various Jewish communities to contribute to a campaign to ransom the Jews of Jerusalem during the third crusade. I still get chills when I recall it. For me it is travelling in Eretz Yisrael with a knowledgeable moreh derekh and learning about what happened in the spot where I am standing. For me it is the experience of being a camper, counselor, unit head and faculty member at our Reform Jewish summer camps—and in this case it is not a single datum or concept, but the whole gestalt of the experience, which speaks to all of my learning modalities.

I see our role as educators as helping our teachers get to know each of our students well enough to learn which understandings will be enduring for them and then designing the learning to meet them where they are. As I often imagine John Dewey[2] saying (I am a bit free with his words): we cannot bring the child kicking and screaming to the curriculum. We have to bring the curriculum to him. I do believe there are commonplaces that every Jew should learn about: Hebrew language and literature; the land, people and state of Israel; times and seasons; the Jewish life cycle; Torah and texts; history; God/theology; comparative Judaism and comparative religion; Mitzvot and Midot; Kedushah and Tefillah. The extent to which we focus on each is determined by the community and deeper focus may be indicated by learner needs and interest.

2. Where specifically can a mentor or a teacher find enduring Jewish knowledge?

Find yourself a teacher; get yourself a friend[3]. I am not sure I can improve on Pirkei Avot on this one. I have served as a mentor in the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators at HUC-JIR/JTS for the past five years. The mentors and the fellow have learned at the feet of some outstanding teachers focusing on leadership, pedagogy and Jewish learning. There are resources in most communities and on line. At the end of the day, I have learned much from all of them, but more I have learned from my fellow mentors as we have processed the work we do with one another and discussed our needs as professionals. And from the fellows, our students, I have learned most of all. Hmmm. Seem to be falling back to Avot yet again…speaking of enduring understandings[4]!

I think ultimately your question is not where can we find enduring Jewish knowledge, but how can we make knowledge enduring for our students. Again we have to look at context. In my school, a lengthy exploration of Kashrut does not make educational sense until students reach adolescence. When they begin experimenting with what they imagine their adult life to be, they are ripe for a conversation about eating deliberately. This is the time when many choose to be vegetarians—at least for a while—in response to their reaction to where meat comes from and their compassion for living beings.

This is an ideal time to talk about how Kashrut takes the same approach to eating deliberately and bringing the idea of God, mitzvot and holiness to the table as valid rationales for decision making. In a community where Halakhah is a core value, Kashrut makes sense much earlier, because the conversation is about how as much as about why, if not more so. Those children return to Kosher homes, while most of mine do not.

To make it enduring then, requires more strategy and forethought than just putting the “most enduring stuff” out there for them.

3. Is all Jewish knowledge enduring?

I will not belabor my previous point. I believe it can be, depending on the needs of the individual and the community. On the other hand, the teachings of the Karaites seems to have limited appeal and applicability for many today. I wish I had been taught about the halakhah of war and the idea of Just War when I was a young teen during the days of Viet Nam. I was grateful to be able to bring teachers to my school who were well versed in it during the current war in Iraq.

Back to Avot: Ben Bag Bag[5] said that everything is in it (the Torah). It is our job to make it enduring. Will I spend a lot of time on the laws of sacrifice in a post-Bayit world? No, but it is worth teaching about sacrifice from an historical perspective and to connect forms of worship from then to the present day. In another part of our community, I will see great disagreement, with colleagues who believe that it is all Torah and all valuable and central to understanding everything else. They are not wrong for their schools. I am not wrong for mine.

At the end of the day, I believe all Jewish knowledge is valuable, but given the constraints of time, interest and attention span, we need to start in places that make learners want more, and then drill down and give them as much as they can take. Not a very UbD approach, and I suspect not exactly what you are looking to hear, but there it is.

4. What is "not enduring" Jewish knowledge?

Again I turn to Pirkei Avot: Any conversation that is for the sake of heaven endures. Any that is not does not endure[6]. So long as we as educators and communal leaders strive to disagree like Hillel and Shammai, who struggled from different perspectives to help their community find the right way to confront a changing world, so should we. When find ourselves becoming like Korach and his company, trumpeting “the right way” or “THE enduring understanding” we get into trouble. And Korach ended up with much worse than a bad reputation.

I look forward to reading other responses and perspectives.

Moadim l’simcha!


[1] Torah At The Center, Special Edition, Volume 5, No. 2 • Winter 2001 • Choref 5762.
[2] My Pedagogic Creed, by John Dewey, School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80.
[3] Pirkei Avot 1:6
[4] Actually Ta’anit 7a, but referred to in Kravitz and Olitzky’s Pirke Avot: A Modern Commentary on Jewish Ethics, URJ Press, 1993, page 102.
[5] Pirkei Avot 5:22
[6] Pirkei Avot 5:17

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mentoring as a Growing Activity

When I was a student in the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, I was blessed to have clinical faculty members—professionals in the Los Angeles community—serving as my mentors. They provided a strong practical counterpart to the formal learning we did with Sara Lee, Michael Zeldin, Isa Aron, Bill Cutter and the rabbinic faculty. These mentors helped shape me as a temple educator, modeling behaviors, giving me responsibilities within their schools and then helping me to reflect upon those experiences and draw lessons from them. When Evie Rotstein invited me to be a part of the Leadership Institute, I knew that it was my opportunity to pay forward the gift the College-Institute. I would like to share three ways in which my participation as a mentor in the Leadership Institute for Congregational School Educators has impacted my practice as an educator—as a mentor, as a learner and as a colleague..

As a Mentor
When my wife and I were expecting our first child sixteen years, ago we devised a test for ourselves. We called it the Ethan-test. We used it to examine our own actions. We asked ourselves whether we would do something we were contemplating if our unborn son were ten years old and watching us. Would we want him to emulate us? If the answer was no, we didn’t do it. It was a great way to parent reflectively.

I have found myself being more proactively reflective as an educator because of my involvement as a mentor in the Leadership Institute. As I prepare for and engage in meetings with my mentees, I fond that I use a variation of the Ethan-test—call it the reflection test. This is a little different. In essence, I try to look back to when I was a student at HUC meeting with one of my mentors. They were both gifted and/or well-trained enough to know that I needed their help in developed analytical skills of reflection, not just their accumulated wisdom. So my self-test is to think about what would have been most helpful to me as a mentee.

During my three years as a mentor, I have fought the natural impulse to respond to questions or problems posed by my mentees by either telling them what I would do or merely by telling them about a similar situation I have faced and how I dealt with it. To be sure this is sometimes appropriate, but I have found it to be more beneficial to the mentee in the long run to ask probing questions that help him or her to examine the situation and develop their own strategies. It’s like the Chinese parable about teaching someone to fish so they can feed themselves forever. While it would be flattering to have them hang on my every word and to continue calling for my help for the remainder of our careers, that would not be helping them. And in developing their skills, I further refine my own.

As a Learner
The opportunities to continue my professional learning with the scholars who have shared their work and insight with the LIC has been incredible. Sometimes I feel like I am working on a second masters. It is rare that was professionals get to return to the safety and warmth of the College-Institute for such in-depth study, and that has been an incredible gift.

I remember near graduation in 1991 I promised myself I would find time for study on a regular basis. While I have had varying degrees of success with that, both on my own and with various chavruta partners, the Leadership Institute has given me a renewed discipline. Moreover, most of my chavruta study has been in the classic texts of the Talmud and Midrash. The institute has brought me to the feet of some of the top minds in education today, such as Joseph P. McDonald, Dr. Bonnie Botel-Sheppard, Dr. David Ellenson, Dr. Jonathan Woocher, Dr. Lisa Grant Jo Kaye, Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress and Dr. Steven Brown. Learning from them as well as from all of the Judaic teachers has been a trhill. And more importantly, when I was a student seventeen years ago, my classmates and I were all embarking on new careers. Our conversations had the high certitude of the relatively inexperienced. I knew everything because I had been a teacher and a camp counselor.

Nearly two decades later, I am learning with my fellow mentors and participants in the program as professionals in the field, with a wide range of experiences. The conversation is now among seasoned people who are only too well-aware of how much we don’t know. The learning is much richer and deeper, because we are all capable of digging deeper. We can truly appreciate what our teachers are saying and are more able to make meaning from it. My mentees and I have all had the opportunity to apply methodologies learned at the institute to our practice as educators.

As a Colleague
Joshua ben Perachyah said: “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.” His words in Pirkei Avot 1:6 remind us that Jewish learning is not meant to be the solitary activity of a scholar in a tower or a hermit in a cave. We need partners in learning. My participation in the institute has given me many such partners and enriched the network of colleagues on whom I can count on to tell me the truths I cannot see and imagine possibilities I could not visualize on my own.

This has spurred me to try and create similar mentor/mentee and collegial relationships among the teachers in my school. My congregation and view my participation in the LICSE as an honor. We also view it as some of the most meaningful and essential professional growth for me ever available.

I want to thank the College-Institute, the Seminary and the Federation for the insight and vision to create the institute, and Evie, Dena, Jo Kaye and Steve Brown for making it a reality and for me to participate.

Originally presented to the Board of Governors of the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, May 4, 2008