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.