Sunday, December 27, 2009

What's the Point?

One of the hardest things I do is try to figure out what to teach my students, whether they are supremely unmotivated 8th graders or the teaching staff at the religious school I direct or my daughters. I find myself getting caught up in what I want them to learn, what I want them to know, and I forget that maybe I need to think about what they are ready to learn, what they are ready to know. If I start from where they are, I may make more progress.

This week in the twitterverse a fascinating question was raised: Is there such a thing as a universal Jewish curriculum? I translate that to mean “what are Jewish basic skills? What does a person need to know to be a member of the tribe?” Prayer? Which nusach, Ashkenazi or S’faradi? Keeping Kosher? Which heksher, OU or Star K? Affinity to Israel? Which ideology, Jstreet or ZOA? My point is best articulated by Jay Michaelson in his recent piece in The Forward called “The Myth of Authenticity” ( in which he exposes the idolatrous nature of Jewish-ideological-correctness. Once we understand that the concept of Jewish Absolute Truth is not at all clear-cut, we can begin to create a standardized Jewish curriculum.

What are the Jewish big ideas (or enduring understandings if you prefer) we want to pass on to the next generation? As I mulled this over, Rambam’s 13 Articles of Faith popped into my head. These are the 13 things ( that Jews are supposed to believe, according to the 12th century Maimonides. They are summarized in the siddur in the prayer called the Yigdal. Are they, as written, still relevant to the 21st century Jewish world? Do you, as an educator or 21st century Jew, accept these 800 year old statements as core values in your faith? For instance, do you believe in the physical resurrection of the dead? How about the assertion that the Torah was actually given to Moses at Sinai? Do you believe in the messiah as an actual person who will be descended from the House of David? If we tried to create a curriculum based on these tenets, would our students accept them? Would they be relevant to them at all? I’m not sure.

So as we discuss Jewish big ideas, we need to make sure that they have meaning to the modern mind. If we start teaching about values that have no connection to the belief system of our students, we will be so totally out of their frame of reference we will ultimately be teaching to empty classrooms.

The strength of Judaism is its ability to evolve. Back in the days of the Mishnah, Pharisees , Sadducees and Essenes were arguing over the definition of authentic Judaism. Should Torah interpretation be permitted? Is there life after death? What about free will and angels? Today’s arguments over the role of women, the centrality of the State of Israel, matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent need to inform whatever curriculum we create. If anything is authentically Jewish, it is the dynamic nature of pluralistic Jewish spiritual and ideological development. Maybe that’s the big idea, the enduring understanding with which we begin: The glory of Jewish diversity.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Way or Another

I just read a depressing column in last week’s Forward ( It was written by Rabbi Irving Greenberg and it was entitled “There is No Alternative to Day Schools”. In the piece Rabbi Greenberg spelled out his case for massive funding for Day School education, declaring that that there is no other alternative in the fight against assimilation. He calls for the organized Jewish community to “muster its will to live and step up to pay the price – whatever it costs – for the highest level of Jewish education for its young.” Great sentiments. I agree with Rabbi Greenberg. Unfortunately, the solution he is proposing marginalizes most American Jews. That’s why it’s sad.

The majority of those getting any Jewish education in the U.S. do NOT attend Day Schools. Most of them have chosen the path of Congregational education. There are a lot of reasons, cost being just one. The point is that this is where most of the kids are and, I believe, where they will be in the future. So to declare that the Jewish Community needs to invest its education resources primarily in Day Schools ignores the reality of American Jewish life.

Congregational schools (Hebrew Schools, Supplementary Schools, whatever you want to call them) have gotten a bad rap over the years - in some cases deservedly so. Many of us “of a certain age” recall with shudders our Hebrew School experiences. Ironically, some of us have chosen, davka, to work in Jewish education to make it better. That’s the point. There are many Jewish educators in North America who are working very hard to recreate the Congregational School, reformatting it if you will. We’re experimenting with technology, experiential education, off-site learning, service-learning, camp-like experiences. You will find us at conferences, or in the cloud on Twitter and Google Wave. Those of us who work in Jewish education and are affiliated with Synagogue schools understand that the reality of the Jewish community is expressed in its diversity. There is no ONE way. We need to reach the kids however we can. This means that Day Schools, by definition, are definitely NOT the only alternative.

The organized Jewish community (i.e. federations) doesn’t seem to get this message. They are proud of the amount of money they give their community Day Schools, but when asked about how much they give to synagogue schools, in many cases the sound of silence reigns supreme. Amending Rabbi Greenbergs dramatic call, I believe that community organizations must “muster their will” to promote ALL Jewish education, embracing the diversity that is the strength of Judaism. It is time for synagogues and other non-Day School entities to have a seat at the community table when the discussion turns to funding the education of the next generation.

I’m not sure if Rabbi Greenberg will ever see these words. If you do, Rabbi, please understand that I wrote them with only respect for you and your message. I hope that you can understand that the future of Judaism that is embodied in our young people is rooted in more than one type of learning. During the Pesach seder we embrace the four sons, reveling in how they come to us with different questions (even if we don’t like the way they are asked), looking for answers that speak to them. We must remember that they are our children. We cannot turn them away.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Halloween, and other Scary Monsters

I’m running out of candy.

And they keep ringing my doorbell.

So I’m sitting here, wearing my “Scream” face (you know – the demon with the BIG mouth from the movie) and my“Cat In The Hat” hat on my head, waiting for the inevitable.

I really wasn’t planning on blogging about Halloween. I mean I think it’s amusing that there are folks who think it’s a terrible holiday because of its pagan roots. I even got yelled at because I called this week’s Junior Congregation “Spooky Shabbat”. I figured we would tell stories like the Witch of Endor (II Samuel) or about vampires (Sefer Chassidim) or about the Golem (the Maharal). I can’t say I was surprised, though. We have a lot of censorship in the Jewish community.

I think that’s really what I want to blog about. That’s what’s been keeping from posting for the past 6 weeks.

You see, I’ve wanted to write about Israel, but I was worried that what I would write would be too controversial. It would challenge the mainstream view of the heroic Jewish state. I launched a trial balloon about contemporary Diaspora connections to “The State” on Twitter at #jed21, but they were ignored. Quoting Gomer Pyle – “Surprise, surprise, surprise”.

And then there was J.Street ( I’ve been a supporter since it began. I believe that one’s support of, or opposition to, settlements in the West Bank should not be a measure of one’s support of Israel. But, in America, it seems that folks are so paranoid that if you make a public statement opposing current Likud policy you are branded a self-hating Jew. This, despite the fact that the same views are held by many Israelis, including Israeli parliament members representing main stream Zionist parties, like the Labor party and segments of Kadima. That pisses me off, because I love Israel. I love being Jewish. And I oppose settlement expansion. I’ve been a supporter and participant of Shalom Achsav (Peace Now – the mainstream Israeli peace movement) since it’s inception in 1978 and took part in anti-war demonstrations while I served in the IDF as a combat medic in the West Bank. Does that make me anti-Israel? I dare you to tell me so.

The Zionist movement has always been democratic. My god, there were folks (including Theodore Herzl) who were in favor of creating “Altneuland” in…Uganda. Can you imagine what that would mean? Making aliya to Kampala? So to say that J.street is not pro-Israel because it opposes current Israeli government policy is an expression of one’s (how do I say this?) ignorance of things Zionist. Can you say "Swift-boating"?

J.street is the embodiment of our people’s struggle with the idea of “Der Judenstaat”. What is the nature of creating a Jewish state? How do we deal with the OTHER inhabitants of The Land? More to the point, what is Diaspora Judaism’s role in this process? I think that is an incredibly important question. We don’t live in Israel. Our kids aren’t drafted to the IDF. So do we have a right to an opinion? If we don’t does that mean that we should we stop giving money to Israeli organizations that promote a political agenda, such as American Friends of Ateret Cohanim or American Friends of the Likud that support continued settlement growth in the West Bank, or American Friends of Peace Now or B’tselem, that don’t? What are our roles, in the Galut, the Diaspora, when it comes to Israel and policy?

I’m going to ask it again: Do we have a right to an opinion? If we don’t, what does this say about the state of Zionism, a movement that was created to link Galut with Eretz Yisrael?

If we don’t have a right to an opinion, what does this say about our relationship to Israel?


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

To Be, Or Not To Be...Part Of The Jewish Community. That Is The Question

A few weeks ago a story broke in our local paper about a Jewish girl who is being privately trained for her Bat Mitzvah. The happy event will take place on a cruise ship – hence we are speaking of a “boat-mitzvah”. The family has not been affiliated with any synagogue. Letters to the Editor were sent by Rabbis and congregational leaders bemoaning the fact that such a ceremony was being planned and implemented sans congregational blessing. A hue and cry was raised asserting that becoming a Bat (or Bar) Mitzvah implies becoming part of the Jewish community, and to celebrate this milestone without said community makes the ceremony meaningless. This is all true, but…

I think the issue is that people are trying to find new ways of engaging in what they see as Judaism. Granted, deciding that the Bat Mitzvah should take place on a cruise without any synagogue involvement is troubling – reflecting a sense of communal alienation. Down here in Palm Beach County we suffer from an extremely high rate of non-affiliation – I believe that we are close to having the highest rate in the United States. What has caused such an alarming statistic? Is it a symptom of a poor educational system that failed to transmit the message of klal yisrael to these peripherally engaged Jews, or is because many feel that it's really expensive to be part of the organized Jewish community today, or is it that they perceive (rightly or wrongly) that they are not welcomed in congregations because they are in interfaith marriages? What do we do about all this? Is it fair to blame the unaffiliated, or must we look at ourselves in a mirror – seeing our own blemishes? What are our responsibilities?

The definition of living Jewishly is changing. This is not news. Assumptions regarding our relationship to Israel and to the organized Jewish community are being challenged. I refer you, for instance, to this article in New Voices – National Jewish Student Magazine: . The implications are, to say the least, intriguing. Questioning what traditional Jewish affiliation is has become acceptable and mainstream. What we are witnessing, it seems, is a redefinition of what it means to be part of the tribe. I’m not sure this is so bad.

When we are challenged, we thrive. I think that is what is happening to Judaism today. We are being forced to question what we always thought was right, and rethink what we need to do in the future. We are starting the process of retooling ourselves, developing new paradigms that will shape what it means to be Jewish, tomorrow.

You know what? I’m glad. Yeah – we always need to look back, but we have to focus on the road ahead. Seeing what’s behind us is what rear view mirrors are all about. However, the action is always in front of us. That’s why windshields are so big.

Here’s wishing one and all a joyous, sweet and fulfilling New Year. L’shana Tova u’m’tooka.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime?

San Francisco - an incredible city. I just returned from what I thought would be a 5 day respite from my “real world”. I explored, what was for me, a new corner of the globe. The food, the climate, and the tourist attractions – all were unforgettable. And so was the real world I crashed into - the homeless denizens of the Bay Area: that community of rootless individuals living in doorways, panhandling, living their lives – if that’s what you can call it – the best they can. I kept asking myself “Why?”

While on my vacation, I kept up, as best I could, with my on-line life (much to my wife’s chagrin!) A theme that popped up was about the individualistic nature of today’s Jewish young people. They, it seems, want to know what Judaism and the Jewish community can do for them as individuals. What can the “we” do for “me”? Okay, in the context of the American ethos of hyper-individualism (sort of an extension of Ayn Rand’s concept of selfishness as a virtue), American Jews seem to strive for individual fulfillment in their Jewish identity. How does this inform the work we do as Jewish educators? How do we teach that “us” matters?

We’ve been mulling over the apparent failure of contemporary Jewish education. We’ve been trying to figure out how to make being a Jew in the 21st century meaningful to the individual. Maybe we are focusing on the wrong thing. I’m not sure if the Jews of the future who are growing up today hear God the way we or our parents do: through ritual, B’nai Mitzvah, Hebrew, Israel. We need to find new hearing aids.

The lost souls of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district got me thinking about how holiness and community can be found by supporting the fallen, raising them from the doorways that are their beds. Perhaps creating Jewish schools of conscience, schools where mitzvot bein adam l'chavero – obligations relating to human interactions - are taught as being the essence of Jewish community, is a direction that we can take to help students hear God again. Maybe through teaching that together we can make a difference in the world, we would be providing the key that would help the one student join with the many, creating a compelling reason to be part of something larger. Conceivably, the concept of Klal Yisrael may need to be redefined as the Jewish path that starts with study, leads to action, and ends with a new and different world. Jewish, because inherent in this old-new Halacha is the word tzedek – justice.

Who knows? Maybe our children will find God living on Market Street.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jewish Bifocals

My kid, the youngest, Keren, is going to college tomorrow. I’ve spent the day helping her pack, buying last minute electronics (how can she NOT have a good speaker system hooked up to her MacBook?) and printer cartridges. I’m doing what I can to get her ready for the next chapter.

And I wonder – does she have the tools she will need to make choices about the world? Through which lenses will she observe and judge what is happening? How will she meet the future?

It got me thinking about how other kids are prepared to deal with the vicissitudes of society. What do we teach them, especially in religious/Hebrew school? What kids learn in many Jewish congregational schools today seems to be linked to religion. God. Holidays. Thou shall and Thou shall not. I’m not sure that’s what Judaism is all about. I think it’s more about how we live our lives. What we do. These are the lenses through which we see the world. Our job as Jewish parents and educators is to teach our kids how to see what goes on in the world from a Jewish perspective. Jewish bifocals if you will.

We need to find ways of teaching that acting Jewish doesn’t end with kashrut, or t’fillin, going to services or wearing kippot. These are the means. The ritual we teach, the way we celebrate and mourn; all serve as spiritual signposts pointing the way towards having a positive impact on the world. I call that Jewish Attitudinal Learning: Teaching Jewish values that touch our students’ lives today. Copping a Jewish attitude to help us decide how live. We need to supply our kids with the skills to confront the issues of the future.

As I drive the SUV we’re renting with all the boxes and refrigerator we’re putting in her dorm room, I’ll think about the choices she’ll be making. What will she do with the Jewish knowledge she’s garnered over the years? I’m hoping she’ll make the right choices – whatever those are. If you are into Harry Potter, you’ll recognize the image of portraits of wizards past, looking benignly upon the students of Hogwarts. I’m hoping that the images looking upon Keren and all our students are Jewish wizards who’ve laid the foundation for a future based on Jewish vision.

We Jewish educators – teachers and parents – are our children’s ophthalmologists. Hopefully we diagnosed correctly and wrote the right prescription.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Of Parking Meters and Particle Colliders

At the beach I was flummoxed by technology. Once upon a time we’d go the shore, find a parking spot and deposit whatever loose change we had into the parking meter. There has been a revolution, though. The old fashioned parking meter was replaced by a computerized one, which now handles the entire lot. We keyed in our parking space number, deposited the requisite amount of quarters, and the meter remembered how much time we had. Cool! For some reason however, the-powers-that-be determined to revert to a hybrid system: No more parking numbers. We deposit our quarters and then (are you ready for this high tech solution?) we receive a paper receipt that we must place face-up on the driver’s side dash. It seems that the technological innovators of South Florida didn’t totally get what they were doing. It’s the old 1 step – 2 step shuffle. Backwards.

Recently I’ve read about the problems facing CERN’s Large Hadron Particle Collider - a piece of super advanced science equipment that was felled after only 9 days of operation by essentially an electrical short. So far it’s taken a year to figure out how to fix it. Sometimes I think modern technology is enthusiastically embraced without fully understanding the ramifications or consequences.

I’m not suggesting anything as luddite as to slow down. We need to progress. My question is if we’re moving too fast for everyone else? This morning’s NY Times had an article about the move into digital textbooks. You can find it here: It’s not that it’s a bad idea. I embrace it, but the question (raised in the article) is what to do with kids who don’t have computers. Will the technology we need to utilize to move forward have an unintended side affect of creating a class of people who don’t have equal access - the educational haves and have-nots? We need to think this process through to its logical conclusion.

So how do we not repeat the mistake of the Delray Beach Ministry of Parking or CERN? How do we take control of the use of technology in our classrooms without paying a price? The particle collider costs something like $10 billion. The cost of our misusing technology or (worse) misunderstanding the ramifications of using these tools in the Jewish classroom is much higher. Yes, we’ll make mistakes and pay good money for them. This will not make our congregational funders pleased – they already have limited tolerance for trial and error anyway. But it’s the kids that concern me the most. I don’t think we want to lose an entire generation because we didn’t totally understand what we were doing.

As we travel into the yet uncharted void of the digital universe, it seems to me that we need to make sure of three things: That we are comfortable with the technology, that the teachers who will be the front line practitioners, understand how these tools work, and that the students don’t suffer from OUR growing pains. The kids will have no patience for our fumbling. On our journey, we need to tether our teachers and students with us. But the line needs to be short. We need to be able to reel them in quickly. We can’t lose them. The worst sin of an educator is irrelevance. It’s a price we can’t pay.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Jewish future in 140 characters

Twitter has been called overrated, overblown, narcissistic and a waste of time. I never bought into that. I knew that there was potential there. I felt that meaning and relevance could be found despite the plethora of celebrity tweets. Last week my patience was rewarded.

It began with a question about the recently released paper describing the L.A Bureau of Jewish Education's Jewish education concierge program. You can find it here: The discussion that ensued concentrated at first on the relative merits and legitimacy of the program described in the piece. It quickly expanded into a far reaching conversation among a group of folks who are tenuously connected by at least 6 degrees. Some of us have never met one another – our first encounter being in the #JEd21 thread (in the twitterverse you can define discussion topics – this is what ours was named). Community, congregation and education and the role of technology was our focus.

What I loved about it was that we were taking on these weighty matters using a new technology and overcoming a major obstacle. What we wrote needed to be meaningful and very succinct, resulting in a lot of creative spelling. Also, in a sense I felt it mirrored a Talmudic debate, to the extent that it was asynchronous. We were conversing over time and space. The nature of the exchange reflected the topic. How does technology impact Jewish engagement? How does it change the way we see community, congregations, synagogues and education?

The very relevancy of synagogues in this brave new future we are creating was put into question. What is the definition of a synagogue: The building or the congregation? This morphed into a discussion about the difference between congregations and communities. Can a true community exist in a virtual universe? Does a congregational experience need to be exclusively “f2f” (face 2 face in twitterspeak). Should synagogues continue to be responsible for Jewish education, or are there new and better venues out there - in the concrete world or in the internet cloud? Is this an either/or proposition? Is it “brick vs. click” or “brick with click” as it was pithily tweeted? What are the responsibilities of the learner and the learning provider in this newly defined world?

I am not giving this 3 day tête-à-tête full justice. There was much more – go to and search for #Jed21 and read up. My point is that we have already embarked on a journey into the cloud. I don’t know where it will take us, but I do think we will end up in a stronger and more vibrant place. When Yochanan ben Zakkai went to Yavneh, he and his followers were doing something outrageously revolutionary, ensuring a Jewish future. I wonder if the 21st century Ben Zakkai is even a human. I think that we may be starting a new chapter in what it means to Jewishly engaged and it’s being defined by an interface between people and machines.

Maybe even 140 characters at a time.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The point of teaching Hebrew is...?

It’s been awhile since I’ve last written. I’ve been focusing on the tachlis of creating a meaningful learning experience for my students – the kids who will be attending the religious school I’m running.

I’ve been obsessing on Hebrew lately. What’s the purpose of teaching decoding to kids? Remember, reading implies comprehension. My guess is that most kids, despite our best efforts, really don’t understand (or don’t care about) the meaning of the Hebrew they’re reciting. They just mouth the sounds: ergo decoding. At the risk of sounding really cynical, I’m going to guess that a large chunk of the parents who send their kids to a congregational school do it for one main reason – to prevent performance anxiety. They want their kids to shine at their 13-year-old-coming-out-party. Is this the really the point of what we Jewish educators are doing?

The other day, my friend Adrian Durlestor sent out the following tweet: “how far over prevailing synagogue suppl sch rates can independent jewish suppl school reasonably charge?” It got me thinking about the purpose of congregational schools. It’s certainly NOT supplementary. The idea that our schools “supplement” what our kids learn at home became irrelevant probably in the 50’s or 60’s. Nowadays Jewish education is contracted out to Jewish educators. And the failure of the “supplementary school system” is that successfully performing at one’s bar/bat mitzvah is the definition of a good religious school education for many of the parents.

Where did we go wrong? I’m not sure the answer really matters. These parents who grew up in the congregational school system of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are just passing on to their children what their experiences taught them. It’s more where we go from here - which is what I’m struggling with.

Do we teach Hebrew so that the kids can decode their Torah portions without error, or because the Hebrew language is that which defines the Jewish people? Remember – back in the 3rd century BCE (!) the Torah was translated into Greek by 70 rabbis for the Greek speaking Jews of the Diaspora. I wonder if back then they were having the same conversation we’re having now about Hebrew education. What does this tell us about the goals of teaching Hebrew? Where do we put our energy? What should be the focus of whatever Hebrew instruction we implement? Given the realities of the amount of time we have the kids, what should we be aiming to accomplish?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Riding Two Horses At Once

On Friday night I went to my synagogue’s “Blue Jean Shabbat”, during which we all ate hotdogs, drank Sam Adams beer and welcomed the Sabbath Bride, who was accompanied by Uncle Sam, in commemoration of Erev July 4. A happily serendipitous confluence of celebrations: both spiritual and political.

When I was growing up, my mom would recite a Hungarian saying: “You can’t ride 2 horses with one bottom (in Magyar the word for the bodily part is “segg”, which is slightly more graphic, but you get the point). How do we American Jews/Jewish Americans manage this feat? How do we reconcile our affinity to both promised lands, the one in the east and the one in the west?

This concerns me in light of recent political events in the Middle East; the ramifications of which I fear will come to roost here. There has always been more or less a condominium of interests between the governments of Israel and the United States. When things weren’t so lovey-dovey, like during the period of Bush the First and the loan guarantees issue, these divisions were swept under the rug as much as possible. With Obama’s call for a true just peace agreement between Israel and Palestine on the table, and with Israel’s political leadership minimizing the centrality of the Jewish settlement issue in reaching said peace agreement, are we fast approaching some type of conflict that will be harder to hide?

How to we teach loyalty to a country and an idea (Israel and Zionism) when the practical policies of that land have the potential of running counterpoint to the stated policies and values of the U.S. of A? I’m referring not just to the issues of Jewish settlement in the West Bank but also pending legislation that would limit freedom of speech in Israel for non-Jews and their Jewish sympathizers. Which horse do we ride? More to the point, which Israel do we teach? What vision of Israel do we want the next generation to embrace – that of Shas or Avigdor Lieberman or Tzippi Livni or Gershon Baskin?

More practically, who decides which vision to teach? In the constellation of the American Jewish organizational alphabet soup, who is the arbiter of truth?

I offer no answers - just a lot of questions that we will all need to confront in the weeks and months to come as we move towards peace or war in Israel/Palestine.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Zchut Avot, Michael and Farah

I’ve been listening to the continuous reports on NPR about Michael Jackson’s tragic passing. Now it’s getting a tad scandalous. His physician’s car has been impounded and said physician is, at the moment, “unavailable” for questioning. Curiouser and curiouser. And I can’t help but think about poor Farah Fawcett. Her death is truly tragic, what with her public fight against cancer. No scandal there. Of course, in the shadow of Michael’s death, Farah’s demise has been relegated to footnote status.

All this brings me to the concept of Zchut Avot – roughly translated as “the merit of our ancestors”. In our Jewish tradition there is an intrinsic connection between those who came before us, the current generation, and those who will follow. The way we remember our predecessors should reflect the way we live our lives and how we teach our children.

My question is: How do we teach the proper way of respecting and honoring those upon whose shoulders we stand, in light of the manic media feeding frenzy we are witnessing on all things Michael and the peripheral coverage of Farah Fawcett? Is it honorable to constantly remember the weirdness that characterized one person’s life and ignore the poignancy of another’s? Doesn’t that sully both memories? Shouldn’t we strive to learn from whatever goodness can be found in both their truncated lives?

Michael Jackson’s gift to the world was music - beauty. Farah Fawcett gave the world a sense of grace, providing us a lesson in humanity in the face of tragic illness. This too is beauty. May their memories be for a blessing. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

My pet fly, Vinnie.

OMG!!! Obama killed a fly, and on network television yet!! This cruel act of arthropodocide raised the hackles of PETA, which proceeded to send the POTUS a humane fly catcher.

So my question is: Is there a point when our striving to be humane borders on the absurd?

Let me assure one and all that I was not the type of kid who used to pluck wings off of flies or legs off of daddy-long-legs or stomp on worms. I don’t even like to go fishing because I don’t eat freshwater fish. But, I’m sorry; when I heard about PETA’s reaction to the President’s act, I thought that it was a sentiment so sublime that it bordered on the irrelevant.

Flies, I know, are part of the ecosystem. Like mosquitoes and lice and deer ticks. They serve a purpose in the food chain. They also cause disease. We kill them because they can harm us. Malaria or cholera or lyme disease, anyone?

PETA gave Obama a humane fly-catcher. Let’s say he catches a fly. Then what does he do with it? Keep it as a pet? Call it Vinnie? Let it go? Where?

When we all stood at Sinai, we heard the Ten Utterances. One of them was that we are not allowed to murder. Doesn’t say don’t kill. Just don’t murder. We kill only in self defense: if we have no choice. Now, I know that this mitzvah concerns humans, not members of the class Insecta, but the way I figure it, if a mosquito lands on my arm, I’m gonna kill it. It’s not because I revel in exterminating bugs. I have no choice. Ever try to catch a mosquito? If I let it hang out on my arm, it’ll sting me. And that’ll not be good. Same thing goes with a fly. Also, I suppose I could make the argument that I don’t know where these flying creatures have been, and by killing these winged pests, I am potentially saving my life and the life of others. A form of self-defense if you will. It’s a stretch, but no more then humane fly catchers.

So…to all PETA supporters: Your hearts are in the right place, and I laud you. I think throwing paint on people wearing fur coats may be going a tad too far, but I understand where you’re coming from. Declaring that we humans should be vegetarians is also comprehensible, though I personally like meat too much. But go ahead with promoting your agenda. B’vakasha. But let’s be reasonable. Catching a fly? Methinks PETA doth protest too much.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Jewish Identity Crisis-Victim and Oppressor?

On Wednesday some anti-Semite nut job tried to shoot up the Holocaust memorial. What I’d like us to think about is how we react to hate and how we teach our kids to respond to anti-Semitism. Facts are facts. Anti-Semites killed Jews. My dad has a number on his arm to prove it. We need to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. The question (here goes!) is: What is the price WE pay to fight anti-Semitism?

A story. As a former member if the Israel Defense Forces, I subsequently served a monthly stint every year in Miluyim (Israeli reserves). Sometimes I would find myself at a checkpoint outside of Eilat – Israel’s southern most city, and the only port city in the south. As such, it was considered a strategic asset, with special security protocols. We were commanded to “detain all those with an ‘eastern complexion.’” In Hebrew: “la’atzor kol echad im d’moot mizrachit”. So, being good soldiers, we followed orders. It got weird, as many of the guys in the unit were S’faradim (Jews of Mediterranean origins) and had dark skin, but we all knew what the order meant. You see an Arab. Pull him over. Take him off the bus.

Long-story short: An Eged bus came to our checkpoint. We got on. We checked the passengers’ I.Ds (those who looked Arab anyway). I got off the bus and saw that one of our guys had pulled off a gentleman with his wife. She was dressed in traditional Arab garb – a hijab and robe. And she was very very pregnant. He was from Jerusalem. He was okay. She was not. I think she came from Ramallah – in the West Bank. She didn’t have the proper papers. So she and her husband were not allowed to enter Eilat. I argued with my C.O. At least they gave her a chair to sit on, under the hot desert sun. They had to wait for a taxi to take them back north. I don’t think she was a terrorist.

What does fighting oppression do to us victims?

A few days ago, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn publicly declared that a memorial to the victims of Nazi genocide should only be in memory of Jews and not the other victims, such as Gays or the disabled. “To include these other groups diminishes their memory…These people are not in the same category as Jewish people with regards to the Holocaust…It is so vastly different. You cannot compare political prisoners with Jewish victims.” (
Tell that to my dad, whose barracks in Birkenau was directly across from the gypsies’ area. He remembers waking up to the shots and the screams as the Roma children were driven out to be burned. Assemblyman Hikind, where is your sense of all people being created B’tzelem Eloheem?

So what do we teach our kids? That only we Jews have a monopoly on suffering? That the world is against us and so we can do whatever we want to protect ourselves? Should we agree with Chabad Rabbi Manis Friedman, who wrote in the recent issue of Moment magazine that “The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle),”

What do we tell our kids? How do we teach them compassionate self-preservation? How do we, the victims, not turn into the oppressors?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Tony Awards made me think...

When I started out in Jewbiz back in ’93, I was hired to run a Reform-Conservative supplementary school, serving the needs of two neighboring synagogues separated only by three city blocks and one religious movement. The experiment was born out of financial need, and died for the some reason. The powers-that-be decided after 6 years that the combined school was no longer financially beneficial (the idea of creating community be damned) so the time had come to create separate schools.

What this teaches us is that in the current reality many think it is easier to make our own Shabbat. And you know what? Sometimes that works. Sometimes collaborating with another synagogue doesn’t work. Is that intrinsically bad? Torah Aura recently tweeted a link to a piece on cooperative schooling – which I guess is another way of saying community school. The referenced article waxed prosaic on sharing resources. Great, if But one size doesn’t fit all. Which means that making my own Shabbat doesn’t negate your Shabbat, and in fact may help you light the candles.

That being said, on the Tony awards one of the winners talked about the concept of Fine Arts – how that means that the craft of acting is constantly being tweaked and modified. That’s sort of like what we, as Jewish educators and passers-on-of-traditions, are doing, or should be doing. Looking at what we are transmitting and making sure it makes sense to those receiving our message.

Which brings me back to the question: how do we create meaningful opportunities for Jewish engagement in each of our communities? And what does the concept of engagement mean? What is Jewish Fine Arts?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Fifth Child - the first question

As a lurker in the Jewish blogosphere, it’s taken me a while to get the courage to stop being a voyeur, and to start getting into the thick of things - virtually speaking. So here goes:

Ladies and Gentlemen, may I present my first foray into blogging: “The Fifth Child”.

We’re familiar with the 4 sons of Passover: the wise, the wicked, the simple and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask. These characters are meant to teach us that we must recognize the different types of learners that cross our paths. I think that many of us (including yours truly) fits into a fifth category – a combination of all of the above. Sometimes I know something and want to find out more. Sometimes I revel in questioning authority. At times I really don’t know what’s going on. And then every once in a while I don’t even know how to ask. Ergo “The Fifth Child”.

I’ll be writing about questions I have that touch upon how the modern world interfaces with the Jewish past, present and future. With answers that you can provide, together we can explore ways that will enable us to transmit what we know (or think we know) to the next generation.

I start with a couple of (my) "givens":

1) Technology, such as twitter, Second Life and iPods, is poised to be the connective tissue that links tomorrow's Jews to Judaism and the Jewish community today.

2) Learning and teaching need to be experiential. The effectiveness of what has been dubbed “formal education” has been exposed to be a myth, especially in supplementary Jewish education. We understand that learning must involve doing, experiences.

Does anyone out there have other "givens"? Anyone disagree with mine? Let's start the conversation.

I think it’s time for tachlis…what works and what doesn’t. As a Jewish educator in a congregational setting, I am fascinated by how we can engage our students with their Jewish heritage. I’m not talking about ideas that can be applied the day after tomorrow (like my friend, Adrian Durlester’s idea of divorcing supplementary schools from synagogues. Check out his blog at I want to know what we can do this afternoon, and tomorrow. What can we do to keep our students interested? What can we do to get the parents to park their cars and to come into the building? What works? What doesn’t?

The next question, of course, is what I mean by the concept of “our Jewish heritage”? Well, that’s the 64 thousand shekel question. I maintain that it is time for us to reevaluate what we are teaching. What (if any) role does the modern State of Israel play in the lives of 21st century American Jews? Do denominations matter? And when you get down to it…what in tarnations IS a Jew anyway? In a world made up of what Joey Kurtzman of called “Frankenjews” (, what does it mean to be a Member of the Tribe? How does it impact what we teach about ourselves and about the idea of Klal Yisrael?

I’ll stop here for now. If anyone is reading this, please respond – let’s start a discussion about what are the practical steps in creating a meaningful Jewish future.