Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Building blocks for the future

I've written a lot over the last year and a half about creating a Jewish  tomorrow. Cyd Weissman, Director of Innovation in Congregational Learning at The Jewish Education Project recently posted a piece entitled "inspired by a student: an article about new models" on her blog Cyd Weissman Takes LOMED Challenge.  In it she presents eight building blocks that she urges be considered as foundations for new models in congregational school education.  

When Cyd speaks, I listen. 

In the summer of 2006 I invited her to take part in a think-tank about Jewish education in the 21st century (some of you reading this were there). This was in preparation for the CAJE 32 conference that I chaired in 2007.  At that discussion, Cyd taught us that the term "education" is outmoded in the contemporary Jewish context.  Learning Judaism is not just something we derive from books: It's living it, incorporating it into our daily routines, being engaged  in Jewish life and learning. She introduced us to the idea that what we need to do is to foster an environment that will engage our students, whether they be children, teens, young adults or seniors. The idea of  Jewish engagement needs to be the framework within which we create Jewish learning environments.  

Since that hot summer Queens day (at St. John's University of all places) in June of 2006, I've looked at my profession differently.  It's not that I'm teaching my students something static like trigonometry  (my apologies to math teachers, please!  I guess that comment is a reflection of how I was taught that subject.)  My goal is to teach how to live a  life (a halacha if you will) that is defined by simply being Jewish - by "seeing the world through Jewish eyes". Cyd taught me that. 

So I present to you what Cyd Weissman calls the "Architecture of Jewish Education" for the future.  I think we can learn much from it.

Eight Building Blocks for New Distinctive Architecture

1. Regular engagement of parent/caregiver as well as the child
Parents and families are essential to a child’s life journey according to designers who use this building block. Regular engagement (e.g weekly learning at synagogue, home or other settings, socializing, using daily life as a classroom) of families most often includes a combination of adult and family learning and Jewish living. Engagement includes time for praying, learning, socializing, and action. This building block contrasts with programs that offer additive family programming (e.g. parents attend programs a few times year). Family engagement becomes regularized. The whole family, not just the child is considered the focus of engagement.

2. Learning in real life settings
Emphasis is placed on the lived experience of Judaism. Focus is on doing and being Jewish instead of a classroom experience that teaches about being Jewish. Instead of preparation for a “someday” event, this building block emphasizes the lived experience of doing and being Jewish. Shabbat, holidays, home, and tikkun olam action are examples of the lived experience that becomes central with this building block. While the lived experience is central in this model, most often it is book-ended with pre-learning that enables rich participation and post-learning that enables meaningful reflection.

3. Integrating children’s Jewish learning experience with the larger congregation’s values and practices
Recognizing the influence of a “norming” community, this model situates a child’s experience within the prime activities of the larger congregation. A “norming” community models “what is learned is lived.” It provides a living context for content. This contrasts to models where children’s experience is physically separated from the central activity of the congregation (e.g. in the basement), separated in time (e.g. on times and days where the larger congregation does not gather) and or separated by core activities (e.g. children study content areas, while the larger congregation is deeply engaged in acts of gemilut chasadim).

4. Making connections with the larger community
This building block assumes the benefit of cluster experiences where a child has multiple Jewish experiences in multiple settings over the course of time. This building block recognizes that the congregation is not the only effective way to engage a Jewish child. When applied, this building block links the child’s regularized experience to resources in the community such as summer camp, museums, Israel, and youth organizations. One can imagine a model where learning during the year is linked to visits to Israel and/or camp. Next step models might include year long experiences that are more like being in Israel or camp than in a classroom setting.

5. New Teacher roles and expectations
Just as the traditional classroom model, even if it has engaging activities, will not reach the goals set by the congregations, neither will traditional teaching. Congregations build regular time (e.g. twice a month) for teachers to learn how to create powerful learning aligned to their learner outcomes (e.g. Learners will be on a journey of applying Torah to daily life). Hired staff, teens and adults in the community learn together, and review one another’s practice within their own learning community. They learn from one another to shift teaching practice from a focus on covering material to creating learning that is a) life centered, b) relationship focused, c) makes rich content accessible and d) enables inquiry, reflection and meaning making. When this building block is established, congregations transform the traditional “teacher” role to facilitator, counselor and/or mentor.

6. Relationships among peers and across generations
Peer relationships, teen role models and intergenerational connections are viewed as essential to raising a child. Accordingly, this building block ensures that a child develops relationships with peers, teens, and adults in the larger community. An example is a model that has seniors and teens meeting weekly for Jewish learning and living with children and families. With this building block, children’s experiences are situated in multi-aged havurote (learning partners/groups). Another adaptation of this building block is a model that prepares adults in the community to act as mentors for children and families.

7. Choices for the learner
According to this building block, one Jewish learning plan does not fit all.. The system of Jewish education that emerged in the US in the 1950’s had each congregation offering one model of learning, x number of days and with specific subjects to teach. Now congregations are empowering learners with bolder choices. Families choose programs or learning plans. Or individual learners can shape or choose their method or area of learning. Choice for the learner also impacts the nature of learning where the learner drives inquiry and exploration.

8. Other
Additional building blocks were noted in the first decade models created in NY that were used, but have not yet been widely implemented. An example of this is the use of technology. For example, congregations are recognizing that decoding skills, although important, can be achieved at will online, or through skype with a person.

Next decade designers will create models based on these eight building blocks and ones yet to be articulated. New models will engage young children in ways that they enable them to construct lives of meaning and purpose, because of the deep connections they have made with Judaism and the Jewish people.

Those are blueprints.  Let's start building.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Tinkering With Tomorrow

When I was a kid I loved tinker-toys. I would spend hours constructing skeletal looking and what I thought were futuristic buildings.  I never knew what the outcome would be, I didn’t know if what I was building would stand up to the forces of nature or my brother’s kicks, but I had fun.  I just built and then decided if what I created was worth the effort. That was then, this is now.

I bring this up as I finish watching the videos from the recently held Jewish Futures Conference that were just posted for all of our viewing pleasure and edification. Go here to watch the presentations yourself. I’m also in the midst of reading a fascinating collection of essays published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, entitled Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, edited by Heidi Hayes Jacobs. The book and the conference videos are serendipitously providing me an opportunity to think about how we, as Jewish educators and futurists can tinker purposefully with a Jewish tomorrow.

What will we want our children, our students, to know when they emerge from their Jewish educational cocoon?  What will the Jewish curriculum look like tomorrow?  In one of the pieces in Curriculum 21, Jacobs suggests that we ask three guiding questions as we reevaluate curriculum and content in secular education. Let’s consider them within a Jewish context:

1.    Within the discipline being reviewed, what content choices are dated and nonessential?  In our world of Jewish learning, this question can be considered heretical.  Isn’t it all sacred?  What isn’t essential? How do we evaluate that? Who makes that judgment call?
2.    What choices for topics, issues, problems, themes, and case studies are timely and necessary for our learners within disciplines?   What is happening in the Jewish world NOW? How does Jewish practice and interpretation reflect life in the 21st century? What are the roles of Israel and the Diaspora; of men and women; of interfaith families in Jewish life?
3.    Are the interdisciplinary content choices, rich, natural, and rigorous? What does it mean to engage in Jewish life, learning, and spirituality? What are the different ways of creating meaningful Jewish experiences?

Among the winners of the Jewish Futures Competition, a contest for the most “forward looking” Jewish educational thinkers and doers that was featured at the Jewish Futures Conference, we find Charles Schwartz and Russel M. Neiss, the creators of MediaMidrash.org. In their submission to the competition they posited a paradigm for future Jewish engagement resting on four guiding principles:  

1.    Jewish resources need to be open, discoverable, and accessible. The body of Jewish learning needs to be available to all who seek it - free and non-proprietary.
2.    Remixable. Jews need to be provided the tools and opportunity to transform and reinterpret Jewish tradition and life. 
3.    Jewish education needs to be meaningful and relevant, providing the learner with a context in which to construct a Jewish life that matters.
4.    Meaningful Jewish life needs to continue to incorporate a process of community building, recognizing new definitions of affiliation and belonging, both face-to-face and virtual.

The way Jewish knowledge WILL be acquired tomorrow is different than the way it WAS attained yesterday. David Bryfman once wrote about the 19th century revolution in general education revolving around the new fangled tool called the chalk board.  We are in the midst of a similar phenomenon, this time being driven by digital and social technology.  Learning is becoming non-linear. It is more and more a social process, driven by demand and developed by a community that is linked in synchronous and a-synchronous environments, both present and remote. For better or worse, education is turning into an even messier affair than it already is.  This is what will drive us to answer the questions of what to teach. The structure will be more fluid, transparent and flexible. Stephen Wilmarth writes in Curriculum 21 how education has been a cathedral, an elegant top-down process designed by “wizards and experts”.  The future reality can be described as a bazaar, a market place that is noisy and unpredictable, a result of uncontrollable forces.  Knowledge will be open to all, redefined and remixed when appropriate so as to become personally and communally meaningful in contexts of yet unimagined social networks, creating new types of communities.

Jonathan Woocher, in his closing remarks at the Jewish Futures Conference notes that there is no one Jewish future.  It can’t be pre-determined.  There are multiple possibilities. Schwartz and Neiss retell the midrash of Moses visiting Akiva’s classroom of the future, not understanding a word, even though his teaching is the lesson being taught.   If we were to step into H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and be transported into a Jewish learning environment of the future, what would we find? Would it be alien to us?  Should it be?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Long Distance Runaround: Pondering the CyBar/CyBat Mitzvah

When I first read this past Sunday’s New York Time’s article on digital B’nai Mitzvah preparation, my first thought was that it was intriguing that this topic would be the lead story in, of all things, the Fashion and Style section. It then occurred to me that the topic’s visibility in the soft news section is a sign of how truly mainstream Judaism has become in American culture. This is what we have been fighting for – to be accepted in secular society. We have done such a good job that a central Jewish-American ritual has become a subject of pop culture. Like all the rest of American lifestyle, our traditions are now morphing into something potentially unrecognizable in this real world made virtual.

The point of the article, as I see it, can be found in this question asked in the fourth paragraph of the piece: “If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune?” That is it in a nutshell. Our communal striving for normalization and acceptance in the Diaspora has essentially led to the eradication of the line between the holy/kadosh and the mundane/hol. Nothing is sacred. Our coming of age ceremony, which is more of a process of becoming then merely a single event, has lost so much of its uniqueness that it can be acquired while the recipient is physically absent. Is this a tragedy? Maybe. What do we do about it? Embrace it.

Reaction to the CyBar/CyBat phenomenon seems to center on it being a reflection of a general decline in the centrality of Jewish communal life in the early 21st century. This is not news – those of us who work in synagogues struggle with this on an almost daily basis. We respond by trying to find new ways to engage our existing synagogue members and families, as well as to reach out to the unaffiliated. We are constantly exploring new models and technologies, and striving to create new visions that will enhance existing institutions. This is as it should be, and this is why we need to see the rise of the digital B’nai Mitzvah as an opportunity for us to expand our community. This requires developing a new paradigm of affiliation and membership. We need to leverage on-line participation, incorporating it into what we do in our brick and mortar facilities. This may take the form of a new synagogue membership category with its own price structure - call it “Virtual” if you will. We should contemplate creating semi-permeable walls that welcome those who are trying to find their own personal niche in the Jewish community. We must dare to think that digital experiences, if handled artfully, can be gateways to synagogue life for the unaffiliated. Face-to-face encounters no longer may be the only, or even primary, means of introduction to the Jewish community.

A Florida Rabbi I know, upon reading the Time’s article commented, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” This made me think of Sun-Tzu, the 6th century Chinese author of “The Art of War” who wrote, “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”. We, the inheritors of the tradition passed down to us from Moses to the Great Assembly to our parents need to find the open hands waiting to receive that birthright. Could it be that those we think are the “enemies”, those we accuse of emasculating the Judaism from which we grew, are actually reshaping our heritage, leading us to the next step in a dynamic and flourishing Jewish future?

Friday, November 5, 2010

Sharing a Shabbat Argument

I came across this poem recently. It’s by Leonard Cohen and appeared in his collection entitled Book of Longing. There’s something about it that has touched my soul, and won’t leave. I thought I’d share this as my Shabbat Shalom wish to you all.

You might be a person who likes to
argue with Eternity. A good way to
begin such an Argument is:

Why do You rule against me
Why do You silence me now
When will the Truth be on my lips
and the Light be on my brow?

After some time has passed, the answer to these questions
percolating upwards from the pit of your stomach, or downwards
from the crown of your hat, or having been given, at last, the right
pill, you might begin to fall in love with the One who asked them:
and perhaps then you will cry out, as so many of our parents did:

Blessed be the One
Who has sweetened
my Argument.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Strikes, Spares and the Jewish Future

I’m a bowler. I’m in a league. Sometimes I hate it. You see, once the ball is rolled, the outcome is by no means assured. I can control how I grasp the ball, swing and release it, but that’s it. Once it’s thrown, it interacts with the oil that is spread on the lane and is impacted by the laws of physics that determine the way it hits the pins, as it ricochets, slides and rolls. I can set up the perfect shot, but the process that takes place after I release that sphere is up to forces over which I have no control. There are too many variables. It’s sort of like planning for a Jewish future (you knew this was going somewhere.)

We can plan tactics, strategies, and methods of engagement but when we talk about modern Jews, we’re not dealing with a herd (Klal Yisrael notwithstanding). The phenomenon that Cohen and Eisen defined in The Jew Within 10 years ago describes American Judaism today and probably tomorrow – Jews are making their own Shabbat and are increasingly becoming alienated from established forms of Jewish communal life. Jonathan Woocher got it right last week when he wrote that we need to adjust the paradigm of Jewish education, empowering each individual to be involved in personally constructing "a meaningful and satisfying Jewish journey." And this is how building a Jewish future is like bowling.

There are many different types of bowling bowls designed for the particular style of individual bowlers. One size cannot fit all. As we design the foundations of 21st (and 22nd) century Judaism, not only do we need to contemplate how to link the silos of Jewish institutional life; we may very well need to build new ones to replace the antiquated structures that are still standing. But we can’t tear everything down, at least not for the time being.

As long as I’ve been in my present position as a synagogue educator, I’ve communicated with my religious school families via weekly e-mails. This year I decided to take the next step - I just created a religious school Facebook page. I happily announced it and received fascinating feedback. There were those religious school parents (all in their 30s and 40s) who thought it was cool. Then there were those (same demographic) who began to tremble in their shoes…as one religious school mom put it: “I’m one of the handful of people who refuse to use Facebook. I hope you will continue with your email updates.” As I’ve written before, we need to be careful of how quickly we embrace our future. We don’t want to leave anyone behind.

Obviously it will be impossible for us to forecast the outcomes as we tinker with the Jewish future. We may be positive that we’ll get a strike, but in the end we may only knock down a few pins. The trajectory of 21st century Judaism is radically different from anything that Jewish civilization has experienced before. One center of Jewish life, concentrated in North America, is a place where state sanctioned anti-Semitism by and large never existed – at least not since Peter Stuyvesant and Ulysses S. Grant. The only Jewish ghettos in the United States were self-imposed. This communal history has left an indelibly unique mark on the character of American Judaism.

The other center is Israel – with a flavor of Judaism that is defined by an amalgam of socialism, European nationalism and religious orthodoxy, and topped off with strife, both internally born and externally imposed. The resulting concoction is a type of Jewish identity that, at times, is almost alien to the Jewish sensibilities of its brothers/sisters/cousins across the great sea. Is it possible to link these silos?

In “The Big Lebowski”, John Goodman, playing the weirdest Jew I’ve ever seen, declares that he doesn’t “roll on Shabbos”. Now that I think about it, he may not be so weird, actually. He’ll drive. He’ll drink. He’ll fight. He just won’t bowl. He’s like many of us. We all seem to be making our own “Shabbos”. As we strive to engineer the future of our people, we must not be so confident that we have all the answers. We don’t. Sometimes the exception, or the unexpected, becomes the rule. That’s the only thing we can be sure of.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

L'shana Tova to One and All

Repentance.  Renewal.  Returning to our pure selves.  Looking in the mirror.  T’shuvah.

One of my favorite midrashim is about Reb Zusya – who upon his death was worried that he had been emulating Moses and Abraham too much, and not achieving his own Zusya potential - "In the world to come, they will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' They will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" 

In Mishkan T’fillah, the Reform siddur,  you can find a text attributed to the Jewish Funds for Justice and associated with the Nisim B’chol Yom blessings:

I can stay the tears of others, if I can see myself
as diminished by their sorrows.

I can hasten time when everyone will be able
to rejoice in freedom.

And if I can see myself as the companion,
of those fighting against oppression,

I can honor the struggle of people everywhere
to gain dignity and deliverance from bondage.

When I look at myself in the mirror
who will I see?

As the year 5771 begins, may we remember that the way we connect with one another, even the stranger, is how we find God.  Let’s not forget that we have worn the sandals and shoes of the oppressed. May we not allow ourselves to wear the boots of the oppressor.

Together we can make 5771 a year of freedom and justice and peace. 

L’shana Tova u’M’tookah…May this be a year filled with goodness and sweetness.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

My Dad, Repentance, and Mosques

Of late I’ve been obsessing about the controversy over the Muslim center in lower Manhattan.  Those of you who pay attention to my tweets or Facebook postings will have noticed this.  There’s a very simple reason.


That’s the number on my father’s arm.

We children of survivors are witnesses.  Imbedded in our genes is the understanding that oppression takes many forms:  quotas, job restrictions, zoning restrictions, segregation, marriage bans, ghettos, slavery, Auschwitz. If we don’t stand up at the first signs of the evil of prejudice, Martin Niemoller’s prophecy will come true.

Call me obsessed.  I’m second generation.  I grew up with The Number.  And hearing the memories.  My aunt regaling us with tales of her stay in Plaszow and Birkenau and Feldafing.   My uncle being part of the crew cleaning up the Warsaw Ghetto while the fighting was still going on.  My mother being smuggled out of the Budapest ghetto by her mom to get bread – at the risk of her 8  year old life. My father being introduced to life in Birkenau (he was 16) when he saw the flames rising above the chimneys and being told that that is what’s left of his parents. That’s my legacy.  And my lesson.

So I am embarrassed by Jews who oppose the Park 51 project. We have been the victims of much worse.  Jonathan Sarna spelled it out here :  how we (the Jews) were victims of the same type of hatred that Glenn Beck,  Sarah Palin and  their ilk  preach today. In America:  the Goldener Madina.

Oppression starts mundanely. My mom tells the story of how in the beginning of the Fascist occupation of Hungary, Jews couldn’t own radios. When she was 6 she couldn’t buy an ice-cream cone at her favorite vendor because she was a Jew.   That led to you-know-what. 

The majority rules, but not absolutely.  Conventional wisdom can be wrong.  At one point, the majority of Americans supported the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps, school segregation between African-Americans and whites, and treating Gays as second-class citizens. The majority has been wrong. 

It’s Elul.  We need to start thinking about T’shuva – Repentance.  If we stand silent, or oppose the right of another religious minority to build a community center or house of worship because it “doesn’t feel right”, we are validating The Final Solution. Because if we deny a minority their rights, we may be next.  

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me. (Martin Niemoller)

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Victory Dance

Last week I found myself bopping to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. Now, ordinarily, if I heard this tune pop up in Pandora or my radio I would turn it off.  It DOES NOT reside in my iPod. This time was different:  I was smiling.  I was watching the video-gone-viral:  “I Will Survive Auschwitz”. It features 3 generations: a holocaust survivor, his daughter and his grandchildren dancing their way through Auschwitz, Trezin, Lodz, Dachau and other holocaust sites. The score is Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”.  It ends with the survivor declaring how incredible and “historical” it was for him to visit the camps with his grandchildren. Their dancing prowess leaves much to be desired, but that’s not the point.  The video is about celebrating life.

When I first saw it (thanks to David Bryfman for calling my attention to it on his blog Bryfy.net) I was admittedly taken aback for the first few seconds.  When I realized what was going on, I was spellbound. I watched the family cavort in front of concentration camp gates, memorials and train tracks, and remembered…

Five years ago my dad, a survivor of Birkenau-Auschwitz (he was 15) brought my mom (who spent her 8th and 9th years enduring the ghetto of Budapest), my wife, our 2 daughters and me on our own “March of the Living”.  We ended up at the gates of Birkenau where my dad said “This is my victory. I beat the Nazis. And I’m with my granddaughters”. We didn’t dance.  We said kaddish for my dad’s parents and sister instead.  But it was a celebration nevertheless.

The “I Will Survive-Auschwitz” video had engendered much reaction. There seem to be 3 type of responses:  there are those who think it is a travesty and the ultimate in disrespect for the memory of those who died; there are the Neo Nazis and other anti-Semites who use the film to attack the “dancing Jews” and draw the obscene comparison between Auschwitz and Gaza; and then there are those who look at it as I do: as an affirmation of victory.

In my own very unscientific survey of reactions, I found that 2nd generation children, like me, understood the message and liked the video.  My parents had a different take:  they understood what the video was trying convey, but their objection was that the camps are cemeteries (for their parents) and as such are not appropriate places to dance.  I wonder if this is a generational perspective. Those of us once removed from the trauma may deal with it differently. I do.

My take is that the last thing that Rudolph Hoess (the S.S. Kommandant of Auschwitz) expected or wanted was a bunch of Juden dancing in his death factory.  It is an act of laughing in the face of Nazism and racism.  When we think of the Shoah we need to remember and memorialize the lives of the individuals and the communities that were lost. But we must also celebrate the fact that we are still here and Eichmann isn’t.   I can’t believe I’m about to do this, but I’m going to quote Gloria Gaynor: “I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give, and I'll survive, I will survive.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Worshiping at the Alter of Innovation - For Members Only?

I write this with love for Jewish innovation and ROI.

This is actually an account of what my mind has been coming up with while the ROI summit has been taking place in Israel this past week. For the uninitiated, the ROI Summit is the brainchild of Lynn Schusterman, the Center for Leadership Initiatives and Taglit-Birthright Israel, and is officially described as The ROI Community for Young Jewish Innovators. Its vision is to create and harness the energy of a “global community of outstanding creative individuals who have a personal vision about how to make the Jewish world a better place.”  The organization helps fund initiatives that could transform how we live Jewishly today and tomorrow. I’ve been following it religiously on twitter at #roicom as well as on the ROI website.

At the beginning of the week, as attendees began arriving, the tenor of the tweets was joyous:  Acquaintances being renewed and newly formed; folks retelling their stories of who they met on the flight.  One participant even tweeted: “guy next to me on the plane was reading a dossier on "the obama agenda" from misrad habitachon. creepy.” Sounds great.

During the course of the summit tweets described how everyone was being inspired by the goings-on. I was trying to find content:  what were the sessions about, and what did the facilitators have to say. I lurked the ROI website trying to glean what was being taught.  I was annoyed (let’s be honest here) that prominently placed on the right side of the page is a member login. Now, I don’t know about you, but I happen to find member logins supremely uninviting.  I’m a Jewish educator.  I thrive on creating innovating environments for my students – be they kids, parents or other adults.  So to be denied access to resources because I’m not a “young Jewish innovator” is frankly, and pardon my French, fucking annoying. There were a couple of videos that gave a taste, but that is not a meal.

At one point I (@redmenace56) did tweet my hope that we will learn from ROI so we who did not have the privilege to attend could apply these lessons.  Others (@Jewishtweets) reiterated that call. And references to progress kept being tweeted.  But no specifics have been revealed.  

On Wednesday ROI had its first “community [global] brainstorm”. One tweeter commented on the “focus on concrete and implementable ideas”. What does this mean?  How can I use it? Another tweet went like this: “Actually excited about a great idea @chicagoleah and I cooked up with Ben at #roicom” And the idea is?  There were a few tweets commenting on the role of Orthodoxy in the “Jewish Peoplehood category”.  @jchickrock tweeted: “325 challenges posted.127 solutions. 42 action posters created. let's get it on” Huh?  Can we in the Diaspora get a hint as to what is being alluded? @JewishTweets posted the following: “Will the results of the community brainstorm this morning be shared?” The response from the “official tweeter” (insofar as there is a concept of officialdom in this Brave New World), @ROICommunity, responded: “don't worry - we'll reveal all soon. well, not "all," but at least "some." :)” I was disappointed by that comment and what it implied. The Jerusalem Post published a description of the goings on. Not enough. We Jewish educators in the Diaspora need to get to work.  We need ideas now, even if we are not in the demographic that are invited to attend ROI summits.

I know I sound like I’m whining.  Maybe I am, but it’s because I feel shut out.  I know it’s not intentional.  At one point I got frustrated and googled “ROI grants 2010.” It took me here. The mother-lode. Stuff I can use as a Jewish educator.  Why isn’t this ROI’s homepage?  Why is it buried? It needs to be accessible. I’m pretty computer savvy for a 53 year old, but it should be easy.  Those of us in Jew-biz yearn to learn from the fresh creative minds that attended ROI. If you investigate the ROI website, you can find the newsletter and other nuggets. Buried.  It needs to be out there - accessible for us Digital Immigrants.  As our students join our ranks as Jewish educators and engagers, we all need to be in the same loop.  This ain’t highschool with its cliques and passwords. It isn’t Members Only.  It’s more important than that.  As weird as it sounds, the future is our teacher.  We need to learn from it. Please…share.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Opening the Door Wider

The theme of rebuilding connections to Israel has been making Jewish headlines this past week.  The newly released Jewish Agency strategic plan (Securing the Future: Forging a Jewish Agency for Israel and the Jewish People) sets out a blueprint that would lead to forging new links between Israel and the next generation, thereby ensuring the continued centrality of Israel and Zionism in 21st century Judaism. The new focus will be the younger generation, Jews between the ages of 13 and 35.  The tool will be creating more programs that will entice this age group to step through the door and come to Israel to study, to play, to visit, and maybe, ultimately to live.

What the Jewish Agency is planning makes perfect sense. It is not news that the best way to connect anyone to Israel is by taking them there. However, there is one glitch.  Yes we need to focus on those born in the last 3 decades.  But I think we are forgetting that there is a whole other group of people who may never have been to Israel, and have considerable influence on whether teens will go or not.  I’m talking about their parents.  Without their buy-in, their kids won’t be on that El Al flight to Ben Gurion airport.

According to Jack Wertheimer (The Truth About American Jews and Israel), only 35% of American Jews have visited Israel.  The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study estimated this number to be 41% of all Jews, and less then 30% of those between the ages of 18 and 54 (today’s 28 to 64 year olds).  We can’t just focus on teens.  We need to reach out to their parents, the folks who will sign the permission slip.  These are the people who came of age in the ‘80s, who grew up with Israel’s image being tarnished by the 1982 Lebanon war, the first Intifada and Gulf War #1.  This is a generation that never went to Israel because of the perceived violence and danger.  They haven’t had a chance to experience Israel first-hand.  They have raised their kids to see Israel as being somewhat important, but are unable to share their own personal impressions. These are the parents of the kids who now attend congregational schools and confirmation programs and who tell me “It’s too dangerous to send my kid to Israel.” These are the folks we need to send there.  If they go, their children are more likely to follow.

A flight to Israel during summer (when kids are on vacation) costs over $1000.00 a person. For a family of 4 we’re probably talking over $6000 for everything. I think the time has come to make it easier to get to Israel.  We seem to be moving in the right direction with college students and young adults.  We’re about to work on getting more teens there.  I propose that we create programs that focus on families who have never been to Israel:  sort of like Birthright, but for parents and their school-aged children.

I know it’s a lot of money and this idea is fraught with logistical impossibilities, but I believe that parents are the best teachers, and if they fall in love with Israel, this will influence how they raise their children.  Maybe I’m being impractical and unrealistic, however I am an old-time Zionist who still believes in what Herzl said:  Im Tirzu Eyn Zo Agadah:  If you will it, it is no dream. The door is open. We just need to try to entice more folks to step through.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar: pt 4 - The Jewish Edge Effect

Changing frames of reference.  That’s really the best way to describe this past week’s Teva Seminar on Jewish Environmental Education. Old ideas were presented in new packaging, and new concepts were introduced in the context of tradition (albeit in new garb, as well). These are examples of what I call the “Jewish Edge Effect”.

A few days ago I wrote about the scientific concept of “the edge effect”: the phenomenon of increased biodiversity in areas where different habitats meet. We can observe the Jewish edge effect when different Jewish perspectives converge and create new approaches to both tradition and modernity, challenging and modifying conventional wisdom.  That’s what happened here, specifically in terms of the JNF and Israel.

The presentations and programs from the Jewish National Fund were geared to present Israel in a benign, green fashion, sidelining the political elephant in the room.  I think to a great extent they succeeded:  The educators who participated in those sessions came away with ideas of how to present the Jewish State in positive ways that are accessible to all, and especially speak to young people – those who, according to research and experience, are the least engaged when it comes to Israel. 

This is where the Jewish edge effect comes in. At the Teva seminar, all participants learned that “nature has no boundaries” (Noam Dolgin) and that preserving the ecological balance in the region can be the key leading to less hostilities and even (dare I say it?) peace.   But this was just one small piece.  Sessions on climate change, Shabbat as an example for sustainable living, and rabbinic perspectives on consumption created a mindset for all participants to open up to other possibilities.  The “Topsy-Turvy” bus that sat by the lake in the parking lot across from the dining hall was, I think, the most salient example of how things can be seen differently.  This had a significant impact on how those Jewish educators from “main stream” institutions who participated in the JNF programming will approach teaching about Israel in the future.

If we present Israel as a place where nature happens, a place where the inhabitants cope with sharing scarce resources, could this possibly effect how our students look at Israel in the future; not as a venue of conflict, but as a land that needs to be worked and protected (Genesis 2:15)? A changing frame of reference regarding Eretz Yisrael, focusing on the context of The Land that is shared by all, might create a new spark of caring for those who don’t remember ’67, but do remember Gaza and the flotilla.  

I’m not so naïve as to believe that JNF’s mission has changed:  its raison d’être is classic Zionist: to create a majority Jewish presence on the Land.  However maybe if the sentiments of future supporters of JNF and Israel are not just motivated by demographic and nationalist concerns, but rather by caring for the Land and its promise, we may find a renewed interest in Israel and Zionism, which might then have a real influence on Israel itself.

The Jewish edge effect describes a framework for the promise of an evolving Judaism.  One that draws from different cultural, technological and intellectual habitats that converge and from which can spring forth a flourishing Jewish tomorrow.  

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar:pt.3

I was on an upside-down bus today.  Actually it’s called the “Topsy-turvy bus”.  Here it is:


Originally a work of art by the late artist Tom Kennedy, this unique mode of transportation has now become a tool for education: teaching new paradigms in the way we look at our relationship with the planet.  The bus runs on vegetable oil and has recently completed a cross-country trip, the goal of which was to deliver green education to all and sundry. For more information you can go to the Jewish Climate Change Campaign Tour blog.

Rachel, one of the drivers in the recent journey described the teaching method behind the bus madness as “taking folks by surprise.” Getting people’s attention is way to get them to be more receptive to a new message and way of seeing reality.  I think we have  a lot to learn from this when it comes to teaching about Israel.

One of the sessions I attended today was offered by the Jewish National Fund and focused on the “GoNeutral Project”. Its purpose is to create a connection between Israel and planting trees as a means of controlling carbon emissions.  It’s a clever idea, and makes it easy to care about an Israel where the politics are irrelevant.  It’s effective because most of us associate the JNF with the blue boxes and the issue of land ownership.  This reaches us because it frames the whole issue in the surprising context of Israel's role in reducing the threat of greenhouse gases. A good beginning towards getting us to change how we look at the Jewish State. More work needs to follow, but at least we are starting to make the first baby steps.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar:pt.2

I learned a new concept today: “The Edge effect”. This is a term used in environmental sciences that describes the phenomenon of increased biodiversity in areas where different habitats meet. This means that in areas where a forest and a meadow touch each other, you’ll find greater varieties of species coexisting. The introduction of new and seemingly disparate elements into a system expands it. Nili Simhai, Director of the Teva Seminar on Jewish Environmental Education, introduced this theme as she welcomed us all to this year’s 16th annual conference. She was teaching it in the context of Jewish environmental awareness and the interface between the learner, the teacher and the land, but I’m going to extrapolate from it: The education experience is like an ecosystem. The way we teach something has an impact on what we’re teaching. By bringing in new and possibly novel ideas and modalities, we can have an influence on both the learner and on what she is learning. While this isn’t such a revolutionary idea, the setting in which it was articulated made it special.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow followed Nili by exploring a spiritual aspect of the current environmental crises: Finding God in the Gulf, if you will. He started with the unpronounceable name of the Deity, explaining that it can only be articulated by exhaling. He’s right. Try to pronounce those 4 Hebrew letters. You can’t. If God’s essence is in a breath, then all life (human and other) is united by this. “The breathing of all life is God’s name.”  The implication is that “God’s own name is at risk” today on this planet, because of the threat to its ecological soundness. I found this thought refreshing not because I’ve become a follower of Jewish renewal (I have not), but because it reframed the question of our relationship to the environment, adding an extra layer to how we relate to it, interact with it, and influence it. The edge effect in action, if you will.

In my last post I wrote about my expectations of this seminar and how I hoped it would provide a new way to teach about Israel. Now I want to see how this “edge effect” can also describe the influence our teaching can have not only on the learner, but also on The Land.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Teva-JNF seminar:pt.1

Whew.  Finally got a seat at a bar as I await my flight here in Ft. Laurderdale as I begin my journey to the Teva-JNF Ambassadors’ seminar.  I’ve been mulling over the next few days – what can I expect, especially in this past week of Zionist maritime adventures?

This whole conference, initially meant to teach educators how to present Israel in a green perspective has taken on a more poignant perspective.  It’s not just about creating a connection between Creation (ma’aseh b’resheet) and Jewish life and Israel.  It’s become more urgent – building a link between Jewish youth of today and tomorrow and Eretz Yisrael in a language that speaks to their sensibilities. And now, after the events of the week, we need to find ways that create positive links to Israel, despite the troublesome stream of bad news from the region. We're not talking about PR.  It's not about image.  It's about how we want our kids to teach their kids about Israel.

So…my expectations?  What do I want to come away with?  A way of presenting the idea of Israel that is not linked to blockades and ships and commandos landing on a deck being attacked.  A way that will help us look at Israel as a fulfillment of the dreams of a people searching for freedom for themselves, and not at the expense on another.

Let’s see what the next week brings. I'll be tweeting  (you can follow me as redmenace 56) and blogging here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Choosing to Squeeze the Trigger

Yesterday was a difficult day.  As Daniel Gordis described it: A yom kasheh - a tough day. It’s irrelevant if the decisions of the Israeli government regarding the flotilla were right or wrong.  There are as many articles being published in Israel by fathers and mothers of Israeli soldiers calling the operation a debacle as there are hailing the bravery of our Israeli boys and nefariousness of the so-called “peace activists” (see the Gordis piece above). And now government ministers are protesting that they were not included in the decision.  I’m not sure we’ll ever really know the truth of what happened, but what concerns me is something different:  What has this conflict done to our sense of humanity and how  will it impact on what we teach the next generation.

I’m an old-time Zionist whose pride in Israel was shaped by the events of June 1967.  But as I grew, my belief in the righteousness of Jewish nationalism was enhanced by another Jewish value:  “That which is hateful to you, don’t do to another.” As a Jewish educator, I try to teach that the value of Tzedek – Justice, is a fundamental component of Jewish living, especially expressed in the context of the Jewish State. It is for this reason that I am repulsed by Golda Meir’s statement of how difficult it will be for Israel to forgive Arab leaders for “forcing us to kill their children.”  You see, it’s us, the Jews/Zionists/Israelis who are choosing to squeeze the trigger.  Yes, it is in self defense, but I can’t help but wonder if there could be another way.

Zionism is not a movement to create a country that’s just like others, like Thailand or Russia.  Its mission is to create a Jewish state – a place where Jewish values thrive.  Kedoshim Tehee’yoo – You shall be Holy.  These words are from the book of Leviticus, in Parashat KedoshimKadosh means special, distinct. Not like everyone else.  It means that we need to take the extra step towards imitating God, in whose image we were created.   This belief informs how I approach what happens in Israel, which I consider my homeland, from which I live in exile. I don’t know how to reconcile a blockade of 1.4 million people with holiness.  And Hamas be damned - we are talking about human beings.  Kids.  Old people. They are suffering.  Hamas is forcing us to do this?  We are squeezing the trigger. How is this holy behavior? In the name of self-defense can one put striving towards holiness on hold?  How do I explain this to a 7th grader?

Yes we are at war, and we need to defend ourselves.  But, are we doing it the right way, the just way?  How do we teach this to our kids?  I don’t know.  That’s what’s scaring me and made yesterday a yom kasheh.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Learning To Read All Over Again: Part 2

# 1. Our task as Jewish educators is to prepare and motivate students to use their power, talent, and passion to build their own Jewish lives, rooted in who they are and what they consider important. When through this individualized Jewish exploration, am’cha leads themselves into their own dreams, they will contribute in new and beautiful ways to the diversity of Jewish life. Even in these challenging times, there is no greater investment we could make. (Beth Cousens: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/making-jewish-meaning/)

#2. The core of any mature tree is old wood. The old wood is crucial to maintaining the tree’s structure, its ability to withstand the changing winds, but no growth is going on there. The living processes that are the growth of the tree, its message to the future, take place only in the tree’s newest and outermost ring. We today are that outermost ring, and the growing is up to us. (Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, quoted in Contemporary American Judaism by Dana Evan Kaplan)

#3. One Book, One Twitter: What the hell do we do now, #1b1t? (@crowdsourcing)

#4. Chester Middle School Principal Ernie Jackson… challenged reading and social studies teacher Mel Wesenberg to find ways to use text messaging to teach poetry. The results were surprising: Kids who used their cell phones to boil down the main points of the stanzas got 80 percent of the questions about a poem correct on a state test. Kids taught the same poem in the traditional way – reading, reciting and discussing – got only 40 percent of the questions right. (http://www.recordonline.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100426/NEWS/100429736)

In my last post I pondered the concept of cultural and technological literacy, and how it applies to the craft of Jewish teaching. I just read an article written by Beth Cousens, (see #1, above) that articulated the need for personal ownership of knowledge. Learning needs a heart to be real. Without belonging to the student, it becomes sterile, and ultimately besides the point. But wait…there’s more.

I’ve just finished Contemporary American Judaism by Dana Evan Kaplan. It’s a fascinating read that describes how we ended up where we are today. Reb Zalman’s musings on the relationship between tree growth and the Jewish tomorrow (see #2) struck a chord in me, articulating the dynamic between the past, the future and today’s students. Jewish learning is a force that connects all generations. This linkage, by necessity, leads to an obligation. We are each responsible, one for the other – including teaching those who have not yet been born. The meaning we create leads to conceptualizations that have yet to be grasped. But wait…there’s more.

I imagine you’ve all heard of the concept of “One Book, One Community”, where a whole community reads and discusses a book - all in “the real world”. Wired Magazine’s Jeff Howe (@crowdsourcing) has gone one step further, proposing and making real an idea so simple in its elegance: a community in the twitterverse will read one book and then discuss it “one tweet at a time” (#3). Thousands of “tweeps” (denizens of the twitterverse) will exchange ideas about a piece of modern American fiction (in this case American Gods by Neil Gaiman). The kehillah, the community, is redefined, giving birth to new modes of interaction. A new type of learning community is born. The revolutionary Talmudic trans-generational conversations of the past have led us to digital discussions in virtual time. But wait…there’s more.

A New York State middle school has made a successful step in integrating the way 21st century technology can be used in a language program, using cell phone texting as a teaching tool (#4). The initial results seem positive, the validity of state testing as a valid measure of student achievement being in question, notwithstanding. The implications of this lead us to consider the creation of a new form of midrash, reflecting new forms of realities and unthought-of technologies.

Where does this lead us?

The new language in which we need to immerse ourselves to reach our students is a tool that forces us to encounter a world in which poetry and novels can be interpreted in 140 characters. It’s a world where the mechanics of learning are newly defined in the contexts of digital brains and the ability to hyperconnect: to actively participate in an interactive virtual world where information from a myriad of sources is assimilated, translated and reduced to bits and bytes that are easily manipulated by these 21st century minds. When we build our new models for learning and teaching, we need to understand the hardwiring in our students’ heads, taking advantage of its schematics as an opportunity to grant our students the gift of creating personal meaning as they initiate their own Jewish explorations.

As a tree grows it adds new rings on old; its roots grow deeper and its branches longer and higher. It expands in all directions, taking nourishment from the earth, the air, and from itself: old wood feeding the new. Reb Zalman is right: We are currently the outermost ring; it’s up to us to provide the sustenance that will nurture the next one.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Learning To Read All Over Again

It’s that time of year again. I’m not talking about Yom HaAtzmaut, or Shavuot. I’m not even referring to end of the year progress reports, Hebrew evaluations and confirmation services. This is the time that my thoughts focus on the next few years. What will my school look like in a year or two? How can I, in partnership with my school parents, initiate and implement constructive and transformational change?

There are a lot of interesting ideas floating around the cloud these days. One I just discovered can be found at Yerusha (here: http://www.yerusha.org/index.html and here: http://www.forward.com/articles/127124/). This new model of Jewish education aspires to returning parents to the role of primary educator through learning experiences that integrate technology and homeschooling. I would love to know how and if it works. I do know that there is much to learn from this program. This is just one proposal – one way that we can reach our students, whoever they are.

I recently attended the 2010 Technology Conference hosted by the Palm Beach County School District. There, I explored how the iGeneration (or whatever you want to call folks born in the last decade or so) speak a different language. We educators need to adapt to shifting notions of literacy, adopting the concept of “Transliteracy”: the ability to read, write and interact across an array of platforms and tools. This doesn’t just mean that we need to integrate the iTouch and Google Earth into our lessons. What it demands from us is that we must re-learn how to read. It is incumbent upon us to develop the ability to understand the new alphabet that our students are embracing. At the same time, we need to learn to listen to the language our school parents are speaking, as they strive to find ways of connecting their kids to a Jewish future.

Jason Ohler defines literacy as “being able to consume and produce the media forms of the day. The default media form has shifted from the essay to the multimedia collage.” (http://www.jasonohler.com/storytelling/beyondwords.cfm). What this means in the world of Jewish educational engagement is that we need to reset our defaults. These new modules may vary from cell phone texting as a classroom tool to a community oriented spiritual experience by a lake. It doesn’t matter if the learning is electric or organic. Labels are irrelevant. What matters is not that we can decode a language – reciting a string of symbols without comprehension - but that we can really read - ascribing meaning to the words written in those symbols. It means immersing ourselves in a new literacy that will shape how the future will be perceived. It means that maybe, if we become fluent enough in these new languages, we too can become writers, reaching the readers, opening doors to Jewish tomorrows.

But first we need to learn to read all over again.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Can "Lost" save the Jewish world?

I’ll just put it out there: I love “Lost”. It helps complete my Tuesdays, watching how Hugo, Jack, Kate and everyone else on the Island figure out what their purpose in life is. In the last episode, “Lost” gematria became a major theme. For those of you who seek direction let me explain. In the show, a series of numbers pop up periodically, and seem to have a crucial connection to the lives of the characters. These numbers are 4,8,15,16,23,42. This week, the number 23 was very important in relation to one of the central personalities. On the same day, “Idea #23” was posted on the “28 days, 28 ideas” website, on which appear 28 “great new ideas for helping out the Jews”. Go here to read them all: http://28days28ideas.com/. I began thinking: What if Life imitated Art? Maybe there is a super-mystical connection between the numerals on “Lost” and the “28 Ideas”. So I began to correlate the “Lost” numerology to the 28 ideas for the Jewish tomorrow found on the web. This is what I found:

#4: Orthodox Feminist Day Schools - I’m not Orthodox, but this idea of rethinking gender roles in traditional Judaism is emblematic of Jewish history being defined by changes in frames of reference. The strength of Judaism is its ability to redraw itself within the context of modernity (whenever that is) and Jewish tradition, whether it’s the rise of Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the 2nd Temple, the emergence of the Hassidic movement in the 18th century or the development of Zionism in the last 150 years. We have never been afraid of walking through open doors – or at least checking out what’s on the other side. Idea #4 (http://blogs.forward.com/sisterhood-blog/124938/) is an example of an evolving and ever-growing Judaism.

#8: Jewish Artists Residency – The idea of establishing a community of artists (http://blogs.jta.org/philanthropy/article/2010/02/06/1010491/idea-8-jewish-artists-residency) leads me to think about creating dynamic communities of learning and engagement that touch on the diverse nature of what it means to study and be Jewish. It speaks to the concept that “the same old same old” doesn’t apply anymore, and that we need to foster safe, nurturing and constructive environments that can be catalysts for Jewish growth, even if they are not conventional.

#15: Return of the Matchmaker – We’re not talking about a throw-back to the time before JDate. This idea suggests the designing of structures that connect individuals to Jewish experiences; “building relationships rather than programs” (http://blogs.jta.org/philanthropy/article/2010/02/16/1010642/idea-15-return-of-the-matchmaker). It reflects the psychology of the 21st century American consumerist ethic. Whether we like it or not, Jewish life in North America is impacted by hyper-individualism. The question is how do we leverage this phenomenon to our advantage? How do we become guides and connectors in the marketplace of Jewish thought and practice?

#16: Chai Mitzvah – A simple but elegant idea (http://blogs.jta.org/philanthropy/article/2010/02/16/1010654/idea-16-chai-mitzvah) that compliments idea #15: link people to opportunities to study and practice Jewish life, establishing them as moments of celebration and confirmation. We never stop learning, so why can’t we create a new ritual or milestone that commemorates our never-ending path towards Jewish enlightenment? What’s wonderful about this is that it affirms what we all knew already: that study leads to practice, and that adults who continue on the journey of Torah Lishma can take this exquisitely personal experience and make it public, special, and (who knows) even holy.

#23: This is the idea that led me to the epiphany that “Lost” may help us find the answer. The idea is: Jewish Identity Projects Are Not The Answer. Now, this may sound radical, but the basic concept is that being Jewish is more than how one feels. Judaism is an action oriented culture/civilization/way of life. It’s not about talking the talk; it’s about walking the walk. Being Jewish is about doing Jewish. Idea #23 (http://blogs.jta.org/philanthropy/article/2010/02/23/1010767/idea-23-jewish-identity-projects-are-not-the-answer) teaches us that we need to reevaluate our efforts to promote Jewish engagement. Touchy – feely ain’t enough. It’s how we behave that defines what being Jewish is all about.

We’re missing one idea for one number: #42. But that’s okay. I was being a tad playful when I began this “Lost” scavenger hunt, but you know, these ideas are crucial. If we care about creating a Jewish future, we need to be prepared to find the answers in unexpected places. These ideas (and all of the 28) can help us rethink what we’re doing and how we need to move forward. And who knows, someone may come up with idea #42 which will change everything.

On that note, see you on the Island.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jump starting the week

Thinking about God today. I suppose it’s appropriate – it is Shabbat. Anyway, I just received a book by Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Ineffable Name of God: Man. It’s a collection of poems that this greatest of 20th century Jewish thinkers (though Buber is up there, too), published when he was slightly older then my daughter. I opened it up randomly, and found this piece (on page 31) which really speaks to me. Like I've always said: Serendipity is proof of the divine.

Here it is.

Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine.
Trading, twining My pain with yours.
Am I not – you? Are you not – I?

My nerves are clustered with Yours.
Your dreams have met with mine.
Are we not one in the bodies of millions?

Often I glimpse Myself in everyone’s form,
Hear My own speech – a distant, quiet voice – in people’s
as if under millions of masks My face would lie hidden.
I live in Me and in you.
Through you lips goes a word from Me to Me,
From your eyes drips a tear – its source in Me.

When a need pains You, alarm me!
When You miss a human being
tear open my door!
You live in Yourself, You live in me.

Have a good week everyone.