Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Fifth Child has a new home (click here to be transported)

The Fifth Child has moved to JCast Network.  You can access my blog here.  When you travel to  you'll find a lot of great content from Rabbi Joe Black, Amichai Lau-Lavie, The Schmoozer, and many other Jewish cultural and educational leaders.  Check it out!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Occupy Jewish Education

Something has been bothering me lately. Where are all the congregational educators? Let me back up. If you've read my previous posts, you know that I've been taking part in on-line conversations about Jewish education. They've been great. They've opened doors that lead to a bevy of potential Jewish futures. But there's one element that is noticeably absent. My colleagues. Congregational/complimentary Jewish educators.

 Don't get me wrong. There's been a relatively large cohort of complimentary educators participating in the webinars I've "attended". There's a lot of irony here. Webinars are becoming "old school". They're "formal" learning environments in cyberspace - a lecture in the cloud. Sort of passive (though one can chat). They're like frontal teaching in a classroom. L'havdil, the twitter and google+ based conversations that have popped up (#edchat, #jedchat, Hangouts) represent a new type of "informal"and "experiential" learning. And it's here that we find a dirth of synagogue educators. Why?

Okay, I know - we're out there. Of course we are. The majority of students that are enrolled in some type of structured Jewish educational program attend supplemenatary/congregational schools (at least according to Jack Wertheimer's "Recent Trends in Supplementary Jewish Education"). And yes there is some very very important work being done to transform the way the majority receives their Jewish education. One great example is The Coalition ofInnovating Congregations, in the New York area. This community that has taken on Cyd Weissman's "Lomed Challenge" will ultimately change the face of complimentary Jewish education. Kol HaKavod. My issue is that a disproportionate amount of attention is being lavished on full time Jewish education, even though it does not service most of the students. PLEASE NOTE: This is not a critique of the Day School movement, which serves an incredibly important purpose. I'm commenting on a state of affairs that relates to (mostly) synagogue based education.

At the last two #jedchats, I attempted to ascertain if any congregational educators were present in that portion of the cloud. I asked the question: "Any congregational/complimentary educators here?" The virtual silence was deafening. All of the other participants were Day School/yeshiva educators. A couple of weeks ago, educational technologist Sarah Shapiro-Plevan (@shaplev)hosted a google+ hangout geared specifically to synagogue educators. The turnout was...well... underwhelming. Why does it seem that we are so underrepresented in the emerging Jewish cloud. Where is our digital footprint? We teach the majority. Why aren't we present?

Day Schools, like their mostly secular counterparts (both public and private) are beginning to devote a larger proportion of resources integrating technology into their programs. Most synagogues are not able too. Their leaders are too concerned about paying the electric bills. I know of very few synagogues (actually I've only heard of one or two) that have any type of specialist devoted to Information/Education Technology. Usually it's the innovative teacher or education director who will explore the cloud, usually on an antiquated PC or laptop. It's an issue of time and money. And that's the problem. We need to draw attention to ourselves. We need the world to see that "Hebrew school" isn't the same as it was. It's evolving. And it's worth investing in, like Day Schools. Jewish public money from Federations as well as from private funders stream into the Day School movement. Why shouldn't the majority receive a proportional level of this largess?

We complimentary Jewish educators need to raise our voices. We need the movers and shakers in the Jewish world to start noticing that we are transforming part-time Jewish education, creating a climate that will encourage our students to engage in a pluralistic Jewish life tomorrow. We must stretch ourselves, take a risk, enter uncharted virtual territory and raise our profiles. Let's participate in #jedchat (Wednesdays at 9:00 EST). We can join videoconferences such as the Google + Hangout #jewpronet, hosted by Darim Online's Miriam Brosseau (@miriamjayne). The next one is at 2:30 pm EST on Thursday, December 1. Of course, last but certainly not least, we can appear at the next congregational educator Hangout (#congedchat) taking place on December 6, at 12:30 pm EST. Contact Sarah Shapiro-Plevan (@shaplev) to "rsvp".

Maybe now is the time to take a cue from the OWS movement as it's being evicted from physical space. 
Maybe now is the time to Occupy Jewish Education - at least in the Cloud. All in the name of Complimentary Jewish Education.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Big Bang - Adventures in Cyberspace

The universe is expanding.  That’s the core of the Big Bang Theory. As the cosmos gets older, everything in it moves apart.  Not to delve too much into such esoterica like Hubbles Law, I need to affirm - אני מאמין - I'm a believer.  In the last week I experienced something akin to this phenomenon in my own universe. Let’s call it the Virtual Big Bang.

Last Wednesday I participated in the first #jedchat., organized by  Dov Emerson, Rabbi Akevy Greenblatt and Rabbi Meir Wexler. What was special about this was its synchronicity. Dozens of Jewish educators from around the globe simultaneously came together on twitter to build a new professional learning network.  This  real-time inaugural conversation focused mostly on introductions and general brainstorming about how to use twitter to grow this nascent PLN.  Suggestions for the topic of this Wednesday’s (November 2nd at 9:00 PM eastern time) were thrown out.  We are all anxiously awaiting the result of the online poll that will ultimately determine what we’ll tweet about.

Then, earlier this week I took part in a Google+Hangout, initiated by Miram Brosseau, focusing on the bridge that is being constructed between technology and experiential education.  If you haven’t yet experienced a G+Hangout, you should.  All it requires is a Google+ account, a quick and painless browser plug-in download, a webcam and yalla…you’re in.  Video conferencing is old news, I know, but what G+ seems to have done is created a free and seamless environment for folks (up to 10 at one time, according to Google!) to come together to explore and learn together. What was exciting about this hangout experience was that it expanded my PLN that has, up to this point been, in a large way twitter based. Now, these tweeting encounters are being enhanced by virtual f2f encounters that deepen the educational experience. And it’s always fun to see the face and hear the voice behind the tweet.

We’re in the midst of a process of learning and development.  As we all know, technology has the tendency of not working at the most inopportune time. At a hangout I facilitated last week we found ourselves gazing at each other while using the phone - one of our participants had microphone issues.  But you know, that’s okay.  Let’s call it growing pains.

For the past few years there has been a lively discussion about the nature of community in the 21st century.  What does it mean to be part of a group of people who may never physically meet?  What are the ramifications of non-f2f encounters that take place in the cloud?  Paradoxically, as social networks evolve and expand, (like galaxies moving through space), we individuals are drawing closer. The technology that expands our worlds is becoming the very tool that brings us together.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Steve Jobs, the Consumer, and Inventing the Jewish Future

Of all the recent retrospectives of the late Steve Jobs, the one that has had the most impact on me contained the observation that he “hated traditional market research”.  It was a comment made by one of the guests (advertising consultant, Cindy Gallup) on the public radio show “The Take Away” on Friday, October 7. You could hear the entire recording here.  Mr. Jobs believed that successful marketing and production must be customer centered, but that consumers don’t really know what they want. He believed in what Alan Kay once said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”    According to author Steven Johnson, also on the same show, Jobs understood that a product’s design incorporated usability.  It isn’t just what the product looks like; it’s how it can be used by the consumer.  Jobs’ genius according to Johnson, was that he believed that when designing a product,   “the totality of the experience of using the product” must be part of that design process.  So what do we, as Jewish educators and innovators take from this?

The iPod was created to fill a vacuum. Its creators saw what was trending in the business of music: (napster and clunky mp3 players) and created something new, thereby creating demand and changing the way we listen to and buy music.  This is the paradigm that could work for Jewish education.

When we design a Jewish experience, we need to remember that there is a delicate balance between the goals we set as educators for our constituents, and their desires and needs.  Franz Rosenzweig was right when he taught us that the periphery leads us to the center.  Whatever Jewish experiences we develop, they must relate to where our students and families are today. It can’t just look cool.  They need to be practical, useful and accessible. But therein lies the dilemma.  Do we, as Jewish leaders, design experiences that we believe will serve the purpose of (and forgive  me for using this phrase but it actually is apt) Jewish continuity, or do we develop models that may, in the short run, seem appealing, but in the end, add nothing to creating a  Jewish future?  Another way of asking this question is: Do we want to fill a vacuum (like the iPod did) or do we want to enhance the already existing empty space of ideas that lead nowhere?

Following Steve Jobs lead, what we design must be multifaceted, and  informed, though not determined by conventional wisdom.  Just because an idea is popular doesn’t make it The Truth or The Answer.  We are on a narrow bridge, and need to make sure that we don’t fall off into the chasm of irrelevance.  The subtlety is following the teachings of Steve Jobs in creating a synergy between what we design, how it works and our roles as leaders.

So we need to pay attention to what’s trending in our congregations and communities.  Parents are busy.  Kids are overwhelmed.  There is a drive to create models of juvenile Jewish education that can fit into our overscheduled families’ lives. The question is….will these experiments really lead to a Jewish tomorrow?  Is “fitting in” enough? 

Collaboration, construction of knowledge and finding personal meaning are all guidelines that need to shape what type of Jewish experiences we design.  We need to master the tools available to us in the 21st century, both digital and experiential to make Jewish life to enhance the usability of the “product” we design. The role of a Jewish professional is to learn from conventional wisdom and then apply knowledge and experience to invent a new future. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Of Quills, iPads and the New York Times

The other day I opened up my print copy of the New York Times (yes, I still rely on that ancient form of technology: The printed newspaper.) I couldn’t help but notice the article on the front page, above the fold: Grading the Digital School: In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores. The piece described how the drive to digitize classrooms has not led to improved student scores, as measured by current standardized tests. Its perspective, in part, mostly challenged the prevailing philosophy that educational technology will result in increased student achievement. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think that all this is beside the point.

It isn’t that using iPads and Google Docs will necessarily make our students smarter. For better or worse, we live in an increasingly electronic world. The screen of tomorrow will define how we will interface with our environment; just as ink and paper defined how previous generations interacted with their universe. What we as educators need to do is grasp how the ubiquity of digital technology is shaping the way our students learn how to live in their future. We need to redefine our paradigms and expectations so that we can help them be prepared for tomorrow.

Indulge me as I look backwards: This is something I wrote nine months ago:

Technology is not meant to be the end, but to be the means. Technology is a tool to engage our students. Web 2.0 has introduced us to new ways of creating and defining community. Just as the chalk board created new ways to create relationships between the student and the teacher and the nature of education itself, the digital universe we are entering is opening up new doors that will lead to a different learning and teaching reality. It is incumbent upon us to grasp this new type of chalk, and start writing on the virtual chalk board.

I wrote the above words as part of a homework assignment for my just completed education technology certificate course. I called this, at the time, my edtech “mission statement”. I still believe it. My understanding of the ramifications of using education technology in the Jewish classroom has deepened as I’ve learned how these tools can be used. More importantly, I believe more than ever that ultimately all of these programs and applications are merely aides to help us achieve a final goal – creating a Jewish future.

Yes we have no choice but to embrace this digital universe - but not blindly. We need to be critical consumers, analyzing whether this gadget or that program will serve our needs. Will using a smartphone help our students learn to chant Torah? How? Will creating a VoiceThread effectively teach our students what the Amida is all about? What would be a more effective way to learn about midrash: Through bibliodrama or Animoto? We need to define our goals, and then determine the best way to reach them.

Yes, I believe now, more than ever, that 21st century technology is a means to an end. But I also am mindful that the words of Torah are written on animal skin using a bird’s feather and ink made of gallnuts. They can be just as meaningful on that ancient form of technology as they are on my iPad screen. It doesn’t matter how I let those words touch me; its that they do. And that’s the point.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Variable Rates of Change

“A little rebellion now and then is a good thing”.  This little piece of wisdom was uttered by Thomas Jefferson in 1787. What does this have to do with Jewish education and social networks?  Everything. 
At the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) conference I was immersed in a sea of digital technology.  I attended classes and window shopped at the technology expo – an open market filled with vendors selling their wares, both hard and soft.  At one of the classes I attended, educator and author Dr. David Thornburg explained how we are in the midst of a revolution that is changing the social and cultural matrices that define our society.  He described how we are living in the third of a series of “disruptive technologies” that have shaped learning and teaching. The first took place thousands of years ago, with the invention of the phonetic alphabet.  In the 16th century the world was changed through the introduction of mass-produced books. The current “mobile revolution” is impacting the way our students (who will become the adults/parents/consumers of the future) look and interface with the world.   He stressed that we educators need to recognize the new “21st Century Literacies” of our age.  Another presenter, Lee Crockett, author, artist, and co-founder of the 21st Century Fluency Project, had his own criteria, which he not surprisingly called, “21st Century Fluencies”.  Both lists are more or less similar.  These intertwined concepts can be roughly called survival skills for the future. They define how our students view their world, and how those perspectives will shape what that universe will look like. They include the ability to:
  • critically assess content and resource 
  • prioritize between a myriad of stimuli
  • participate and collaborate 
  • seamlessly integrate the different types of digital and social networks and media
  • engage in creative problem solving.
All these proficiencies are expressed within the context of living as global digital citizens.
The kids in our schools respond to a learning environment that is characterized by being relevant to their interests.  A structure has to be in place that provides the opportunity for students to create something that is their own. It also has to be authentic - touching upon their real lives. Learning happens when what is being presented matters to the student. If the kids don’t care, they won’t learn.  So we as educators need to foster a process of discovery that sticks to their souls.  To accomplish this, we must bring our school parents into the picture. We need to encourage them to participate and collaborate with their children to create a truly personal sense of Jewish engagement.  Our educational goals should relate to our families’ lives.  Lee Crockett put it best when he said that learning in the 21st century is not about the teacher - it’s about the learner. Our families need to care about being Jewish.  They need to be engaged in creating a Judaism that belongs to them.
So now we get to tachlis. How do we translate theory into practice?  Our students (youngsters and their parents) need to be comfortable with the idea that God can be found at the beach, in their neighbor’s house, on facebook, Google +, as well as in the synagogue sanctuary.  Teaching for tomorrow is defined as the art of curation and facilitation. Creating environments for self discovery, informed by our 4,000-year-old tradition as translated by Second Life and Apple, are the new roles for Jewish educators. There are no concrete answers and “how-to’s” to offer, because tomorrow someone may invent a new app “that does that” (whatever “that” may be).  That’s the point.  Change is constant.  It’s the rate that is variable.  That’s the paradigm for Jewish education today:  Adapting and designing for Jewish engagement that is consistent with this rate of change.  Let’s learn from Yochanan Ben Zakai, who was carried out in a coffin beginning the process that led to the writing down of the Oral Law, adapting Jewish life to a new post-Temple future. It’s no longer a question of what Judaism will look like next week. It’s what we, as educators, will do to make that change meaningful.
Disruption has always been the Jewish norm.  Rebellion to the Jewish status quo should not be a surprise or anathema. It’s what we learn from it that is important.  This is the challenge that will define our future.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Finding Dragons in the Clouds

I remember, as a kid, lying on my back on the side of hill looking at the sky, finding a dragon, George Washington and a tree floating amidst the white, billowing clouds.  I'm going to bet that most of us have had similar experiences, finding disparate symbols in the mist that resides in the sky.  Clouds are made up of water vapor, much of which has previously fallen near or to earth and then evaporates. They are self-renewing. But I think they stand for something else:  The infinite reaches of nature.  For me a cloud summons Heschel's idea of radical amazement.  So attending ISTE 2011 I find myself being amazed and amazed again.  Not at the works of nature or God, (unless we believe that the Deity's Hand is in everything) but at the efforts of Woman and Man.  It's not so much that I am blown away by the latest animation software or iteration of optical touch screens. I am. It's that we are not done yet.  We are still Primitives.  Next year at ISTE there will be new technology.  New applications.  What is innovative today will be passé next summer. But that really doesn't matter.  What's important for me, at least, is what these works of humanity represent.  It's the symbolism that I'm writing about.

I have a confession to make.  In the middle of the day today I escaped the world of apps and androids.  I needed fresh air.  I also had a pilgrimage to make.  You see, I’ve never seen the Liberty Bell in real life.  It’s always been a part of every American’s life.  For my family and me, all being immigrants from the “old country”, it took on special significance, as my parents had chosen the freedom of America that The Bell represented.  So I figured that I’d take a couple of hours to visit this symbol of liberty for which my parents risked their (and my) lives to reach.

Symbols are something conceived by humans to represent something greater.  Our Jewish tradition is full of them: the Chanukiah, challah, the mezuzah, and tallit to name a few.   The Liberty Bell is an example of one of the icons of American secular religion.  I was surprised by my reaction as I stood before this flawed chunk of metal.  I was truly in Awe.

As I gazed upon the cracked and silent bell, I realized that it’s message of liberty (an idea that was associated to the bell 100 years after its casting to protest the abomination of slavery) transcended its physicality. The Bell represents something greater than itself.  It is a symbol that bridges the past with the future.

What does this have to do with Google, Second Life, and wireless document cameras?  These amazing constructs that astound us at their power are but transient symbols and signposts pointing to tomorrow. One of the sessions I attended focused on virtual games and simulations. The instructor (Dr. Greg Jones) pointed out that there is no definitive research that shows that using gaming and sims in the classroom results in higher student achievement. They are short lived. Tomorrow there will be something new. Dr. John Medina, the keynote speaker on Sunday also said that it is still to early to judge the long-term impact of digital technology on the brain. The ISTE conference and the drive to integrate education technology in our classrooms is not The Answer.  It is a symbol for a direction that we are choosing to travel.  It is representing a new way to interact with our environment, what we have learned, and what we will learn.

In the Jewish world, we are also travelling this evolutionary path.  We are used to it. We started out with Oral Law.  Then we wrote it down.  Then we interpreted it…again and again. That’s what the Responsa and commentary are all about.  We’re still doing it.  Storahtelling.  Media Midrash. Bible Raps. G-dcast.comJewish Education Network. YU 2.0. There’s more.  Things I don’t know about and things we haven’t yet thought of.  And before all that I am…Amazed.

Clouds represent the infiniteness of nature, and if you will, the Holy as It interacts with the physical world.  The cloud that we are creating represents human potential.  Just like the Liberty Bell.  The cloud we are crafting does not reside in the sky.  Lo BaShamayim Hee.  It resides in us, in our hearts. Clouds flit across the sky, ever-changing.  The electronic cloud we are creating also doesn’t stand still. We shape its form and direction.  We must remember that we are in the midst of an ever-changing process that defines intellectual and technological development.  This also applies to how Jewish learning accommodates and adapts to contemporary reality. If we want a definition of Jewish survival, I think that’s it: We never stand still. We change our shape and form, but we won’t dissipate into nothing.  We adapt and renew, taking on new forms. Just like clouds.

Before I forget, here's a picture of the Liberty Bell.  Can you find the crack?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Lessons Learned in the Cloud...So Far

My head is spinning.  My first 36 hours at the ISTE 2011 conference have left me intellectually exhausted. And my feet hurt.  I need to tell you that the Philadelphia Convention Center is BIG.  Really.  So what have I learned that I can share with you? Well, let’s frame it in this context:  What are my “takeaways” after one full day at the largest educational technology conference in the world? Here’s a random and partial list:

1)   The conference keynote speaker was Dr. John Medina, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.  Dr. Medina, a molecular biologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine revealed that every person’s brain responds to the environment in its own unpredictable and unique fashion. If there is one generalization that can be made about the human brain, it’s that "it is designed to solve problems related to survival in unstable meteorological settings while in constant motion". According to Dr. Medina, the best way to learn is in a setting that is characterized by “aerobic exercise punctuated by islands of learning”. In other words, the classrooms in which we place our children, and the offices in which we find ourselves are incompatible with our biology. The implications are that when it comes to learning, there is no one-size-fits all. Brain research is the proof text.
2)   Learning is quickly leaving the realm of the traditional classroom, and is entering an augmented, virtual reality. Mobile technology, such as QR codes, smart phones, and iPads, will soon be mainstream tools in the classroom. We’re talking within a matter of a few years, according to the Horizon Report: 2011 edition, an authoritative annual publication focusing on the future of education.
3)   On another note, it seems that Google is striving to become the proprietor of all human knowledge.  I couldn’t believe how many applications can be found with the name Google associated with it:  Plan your next vacation with Google City Tours; explore the human body with Google Body; investigate the science behind a bottle stopper at Google Patents; read the front page of your favorite magazine or news paper at Google Fast Flip.

I could go on.  I won’t because there is so much more.  I think the main thing I’ve taken away so far is that many of the assumptions that we have held about the nature of knowledge, learning and teaching are being revisited and rendered, in some cases, irrelevant. It’s almost like we need to start over and rebuild what we think we know when it comes to teaching our kids.  Knowledge no longer resides only in books or in the minds of great teachers.  We can find it anywhere, and anytime we want. 

What is great is that when it comes to the future of Jewish education, I’m going to be an optimist.  There are many Jewish educators here. Some are associated with Dayschools, others with what’s called part-time or complimentary Jewish education:  congregational schools, after-school programs and informal education.  We are all here to learn, with our general and secular education colleagues, how to build a better future for all of our students.  It is an exciting time. There is hope for a Jewish future.

Oh, and there is one more thing I’ve taken away. Hand luggage isn’t always hand luggage.  Don’t plan on a quick getaway from the airport by meticulously packing all of your belongings in a small carry-on. The flights attendants may decide that there is no room for your small bag. Then Murphy’s Law will come into play:  Your hand luggage will be the last piece to arrive.

Maybe some things will never change.  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Flying Into the Cloud

There’s something about airports. I find them exciting. For me I think they represent travelling into the unknown.  I mean I know that I’m flying to Philadelphia to participate in the ISTE11 (International Society for Technology in Education) conference, but I’m not exactly certain what to expect.  That’s a thrilling prospect.  What I understand is that thousands (according to one description I’ve read, 20000) educators and participants will be there.  Wow!

Thanks to PELIE (Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education) I’m going to have the opportunity to explore ways that Jewish education can be transformed, through the use of digital and cloud based learning experiences. My pedagogical toolbox will be restocked and refitted.  These new implements of learning and teaching can be means that will certainly enhance the way we engage our students.  Just as the radio and television revolutionized what went on in the classroom in the last century, Google Docs, edmodo and mobile technology can transform learning tomorrow.

Of course, I’m going with a specific goal – exploring how edtech can be integrated into the Jewish classroom.  Just as secular education suffers from budget constraints, Jewish education (especially complimentary Jewish education) also is impacted by a deficit in financial support from synagogues, federations and national organizations. My hope is to explore how we can overcome monetary limitations and create vibrant Jewish educational experiences with the technology we already have, while advocating for increased investment.

For the next few days I’ll be blogging here about my experiences.  If you are interested in learning more about this conference from a Jewish perspective, follow on twitter at #pelietech, #jed21 and #avichaifdn. For general info about the conference, follow #iste11.

Onward and Upward!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Challenging Conventional Wisdom

One of the blogs I follow is– a site that presents fascinating, and at times challenging, perspectives of the current and future state of Judaism. I just read this piece by Dan Ab questioning conventional wisdom and the view that Day School education is the primary Jewish educational tool.  The writer reiterates the point I have made elsewhere:  That the majority of children receiving any type of Jewish education DO NOT attend Day Schools. He reminds us all that we must devote our efforts to a broad based and pluralistic approach that validates and supports the various forms of formal and informal Jewish educational experiences. I’m posting this piece as a reminder that as important as Day School education is, it isn’t the ONLY answer or option.  There are many keys that will open the door for our children that will lead to future Jewish engagement. We must not put our proverbial eggs all in one basket. (Note: I’m cross-posting most of the piece. You can go here to read it in its entirety. I did not include the original last paragraph.)  

Taking from the poor to pay for day schools is not the way to improve Jewish education

A recent article in the Forward, by Jerome A. Chanes, discusses the perennial issue of why we must focus our Jewish education efforts on day schools and how to make them affordable. “The system, at least with respect to the most prominent prescription for the [Jewish] future — education — is broken. Jewish parents find themselves increasingly caught between rising day school tuitions and declining real-dollar income. Teachers’ salaries in many Jewish day schools are disgraceful. And because in tough economic times, schools cannot afford to alienate anyone, day schools are increasingly parent-driven — not necessarily a good thing. Add to these a rather flaccid commitment on the part of federations to Jewish education. The system is collapsing.” He worries that, “The Hebrew-based charter school represents a further erosion of the classic text-based Jewish curriculum… The charter schools take this erosion to a new, dangerous, level by separating Hebrew learning from Judaism completely.” He concludes that charter schools are a distraction and only reallocation of more Federation funds towards day schools will fix the broken system.

Dr. Chanes put forth an almost identical solution in a 2009 article for The NY Jewish Week . He hadn’t happened upon the Charter school bogeyman yet, but he did detail which priorities federations need to shift. He urges that federations spend more money subsidizing day school tuition and less money on gyms, immigrant aid, child care for those in need, and poverty programs. He rationalizes this by noting most of the poverty related federation programs spend a lot of money on non-Jews, and, “most analysts agree that Jewish poverty is, in 2009, not the pressing issue for the community.”

Dr. Chanes is not the only opinionator preaching the doom of Jewish peoplehood that can only be avoided if we massively increase donations to day schools. I’m highlighting him because he’s one of the only ones brave enough – at least in 2009 – to say what charitable causes he considers less important than day schools. I (and a few millennia of Jewish ethical principles) might differ with his funding priorities. It’s also questionable if the UJA-Federation of NY, with annual grants of $167 million is even big enough to meaningfully subsidize the 93,000 day school children just in NYC. I’m also doubtful federations would receive their current levels of donations if they followed his suggestions. Still, I give Dr. Chanes credit for being willing to propose where the money should come from.

My bigger concern is that the basic solution for improving Jewish education woes through massive increases in subsidies to day schools, proposed by Dr. Chanes and others, ignores the greater problem we face in giving the next generation the education they need to live Jewish lives. In discussing the importance of day schools in The NY Jewish Week, Chanes notes that almost 30% of Jewish children in the NY area study in a day school or yeshiva. Even taking that number at face value, in the US region with probably the greatest proportion of Jewish day school attendees, over 70% of Jewish children don’t attend them! Many don’t receive any formal Jewish education. And there’s no evidence that any remotely realistic reallocation of Jewish philanthropy towards day school tuition subsidies will shift these percentages by a useful amount. For example, a 2001 report from the AVI CHAI Foundation by Jack Wertheimer notes that, assuming a $10,000 cost per student, it would require an extra $1 billion a year to support a 50% increase US day school enrollment. An article in the Forward this week—in the very same issue as Dr. Chanes’ article—details how a $65 million effort by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education has helped created new day schools and improved quality, but did little to increase the total number of children actually attending.

Many day schools provide a quality secular education paired with more hours devoted to Judaics than any other option. The children who attend them are given the skills, and frequently the desire, to be vital and active members of our communities. Day schools have unquestionably earned the Jewish community’s intellectual and financial support. However, a narrow focus on supporting day schools as the primary means to educate future Jews shortchanges the educational needs of the vast majority of Jewish children.

We need to find ways to bring more children into formal Jewish education, starting at young ages. We need to work together to improve the quality of Jewish education for children in all forms of educational programs. We need to innovate, document, and evaluate new models of Jewish education to increase the quality and content of Jewish education for children inside and outside day schools.

New models like Hebrew language charter schools paired with afterschool education in Judaics (Dr. Chanes seems to have forgotten to mention the afterschool Judaics component in his Forward article), might be a good fit for some families and communities, but not others. Programs like Kesher and Edah are trying to take the daily afterschool hours, when many families need childcare, and use them for Jewish education. I’m part of an effort to set up a similar program, currently called WMAJA, on the Maryland/ D.C. border. I described my vision in a bit more detail in an article for CJ Magazine. These afterschool programs won’t be the right fit for every Jewish family, but they do have the advantage of being mostly self-supporting (after the start-up years), and they can give children who aren’t in day schools – for a variety of reasons – more Jewish education than they’re currently getting.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Genesis Redux

“The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life...Everything is changing…Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men [sic] communicate than by the content of the communications.” (Marshall McLuhan)
These prescient words were written by Marshall McLuhan in his ironically entitled book The Medium is the Massage in 1967.  The volume was an accessible explanation of his earlier (and denser) work.  His premise, ergo the title, was that:

“All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive…that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered.  The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments.”
Facebook has changed the world.  It’s not so much WHAT’S said on this social network.  It’s how it is said.  It is the way we make ourselves known. We declaim.  We share private moments. We express our opinions without regard of who reads our words. Being a friend is now a verb and relates to people who, in the past, we would have ordinarily forgotten. We publically open ourselves up to the world.  The public square, once the center of town, is no longer a place where we need to physically gather to find out “what’s happening”.  It is nowhere and everywhere. It is the global, virtual, social network. The soapboxes upon which we stand are plugged into an available power outlet.

So what do we do about this?  Embrace it.

If what we say becomes, as McLuhan wrote, shaped by how we express it, then we need to understand the social networking environment.  Notions of privacy are being thrown out, and replaced by new norms. The nature of public discourse is being redefined. The way our students conduct themselves in both the physical and virtual universes has been shaped by digital life and will translate into modes of behavior and learning in the classroom. The way we teach must reflect the way our students interact with their environment.  We, the instructors, are just one facet of that educational milieu. Rather than bemoan the accouterments of social networking, it is incumbent upon us to truly understand the ramifications of these new definitions and modes of behavior and direct our energies towards accommodating what we do, as teachers and educators, to these new realities.

Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, bemoans the state of humanity, blaming its inevitable demise on the invention of those insidious new technologies, the alphabet and writing.   He claims that this new fangled idea of writing things down will result in the destruction of memory. How far have we gone! Technology shapes the way we experience the world. McLuhan wrote: 

“The wheel is an extension of the foot; the book is an extension of the eye…clothing, an extension of the skin…electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.  Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world.  When these ratios change, men [sic] change.”
Social media has led us to new ways to interact with the world and with each other. Maybe this is the next step in human evolution. 

And it was evening, and it was morning, the next day.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I Love Ya Tomorrow!

I had a conversation with a Rabbi recently.  He was upset because a cantorial colleague of his had decided to strike out on her own, performing “destination B’nai Mitzvah”, divorcing herself from synagogue life, and setting up private Hebrew schools in community club-houses.  He fretted that this is antithetical to the idea of community and affiliation.  He felt that to be a true part of the Jewish community, one needed to belong to a synagogue. He continued, pointing out that he knows that times are changing, but  he is concerned that the future of Judaism “may bear no resemblance to the Judaism that we are familiar with.”  I looked at him, paused, smiled, and said, “I certainly hope so.”
At the recent Judaism 2030 conference, Jonathan Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA, asked participants to share their visions for Judaism in the year 2030.  I always get nervous about future oriented questions like that.  A lot can happen in the next 19 years.  In the past, the face of Judaism has unpredictably and unalterably been transformed in shorter spans of time.  Yes we need to keep our eyes on the target of long term goals. For me I guess I’d want to see inclusive, engaged and vibrant Jewish communities both in and outside of Israel. But I also think we need to be very careful that in our rush to embrace our visions, we don’t ignore the realities of what our students need today.  After all, what will be is built on what is.  At a recent NATE webinar on the “History of Identity and Technology” facilitated by Ari Kelman, this very theme was brought up.  By engaging our students in the process of creating their own Jewish knowledge databank today, we can shape how their Jewish practice might look in 2 decades.
The reality in America today is that we are in the midst of an era in which supply side economic theory is victorious and has trickled down to what we do as Jewish educators.  It’s become all about lowering “regulatory” barriers that prevent individual expression. No longer does the synagogue determine what it means to be Jewish. Parents and kids are searching for ways to engage in Judaism on their own terms - a free market mentality.  The Judaism of tomorrow will be very different from what we, our  parents, and grandparents are familiar with. It will be shaped by what we do today.
There is no one answer, one tool, one technology that can prepare us for this mission.  There are many answers:  learning via camp-like experiences, digital platforms, family programming, Day schools, Hebrew charter schools, even old-fashioned congregational schools. These are what we are familiar with now. I expect that more approaches that we haven’t thought of yet will arise.  All we do know is that we must be open to the idea of choice. Rather then reject we must be prepared to embrace. We educators must be given the resources to retool and re-envision our profession.

“Teaching” as a concept is undergoing a metamorphosis, reflective of new modes of learning that are embedded in what Eisen and Cohen called “the Sovereign Self”. We need to reconcile ourselves to this today. If we don’t adjust how we “teach” and “lead”, we’ll render ourselves obsolete.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Answers to Open the Door

Pesach is a time for questions.

So, in the spirit of the season, I would like to ask you some.  I’ll start with one: How do Jewish educators learn to use 21st century educational technology in the Jewish classroom?  This will lead to a few more.  What follows is a survey with 15 questions (an auspicious number for Pesach). The goal of this short (5-8 minutes) questionnaire is to find some answers to the question of how and what we learn.  

My friend and colleague Barry Gruber recently posted a piece about the smorgasbord of opportunities to learn what the ‘net provides. He’s right – it truly is a blessing.  I wonder if this cornucopia is so bountiful that there will be many who, like the 4th child, will be so intimidated by all the resources available that they will be daunted by the act of beginning to learn. They won’t know where to start. They won’t know what to ask. If this is the case, what should we do about it?

Ergo the survey.   This is an independent project to explore the nature of on-line Jewish professional development related to the utilization of educational technology.  It’s focus is to find out how we Jewish educators learn about these new tools, where we learn from, and if we need to make these learning opportunities more accessible.  I'm hoping that this information will help shape the way Jewish educators can easily learn more about the use of digital tools in their classrooms.

Teaching is leading.  We educators create an environment for our students to construct their knowledge base.  The tools that are being developed today and tomorrow empower us to achieve this goal.  The complicated part is that we need to learn how to use them.  There’s the rub.  What’s the best way for the educators, who can’t go to conferences or don’t have local resources provided by central agencies, to learn how to take the next step into the world of digital Jewish learning?

Questions.  There are many.  And the answers may lead us to an understanding of what we can do to build a solid base of Jewish educators who can comfortably engage their students, speaking a common language. This is why I’m asking you all to take part in this adventure.

I must thank Jonathan Woocher and Rebecca Leshin of the Lippman Kanfer Institute for supporting this project and providing the platform to make it possible. I also want to acknowledge the many educators in the Jewish cloud who have contributed ideas to help create this survey.  There are too many to mention by name, but I do want to thank you all for you assistance.

So please click here to access this professional development survey.  Answers can be signposts leading us in the direction of creating Jewish futures for our students. We just need to start with the questions.  Together let’s find the answers.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Stepping Through the Door Together - Now's the Time

“I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!”  I feel like the white rabbit.  You know, rushing hither and yon, trying to figure out how to get where I need to go without being too distracted by all the tweets, network posts, and blogs I follow; not to mention the old technologies like the printed word and emails. There is so much information available to us.  If I miss a day of twitter, I feel it’s a catastrophe.

I’m not a technical neophyte.  I sort of know what’s going on.  Can you imagine being someone who has never tweeted, doesn’t know what a wiki is, thinks a glog is a type of fruit, and is trying to just stay afloat in this ever changing new world, let alone explore the Jewish educational cloud?  There are so many resources and new technologies that appear daily.  It’s easy to be intimidated.  There are probably fantastic teachers in the front lines who are so afraid of trying to figure this stuff out that they retreat into their old tried but true habits, becoming increasingly irrelevant in the classroom.  I know that there are folks who left both the JEA and NATE conferences with a sense of despair at not knowing how to proceed. Those who were unable to attend either conference are even more lost.  I believe that the time has come for us to help our teachers, especially those working in congregational/supplemental schools, break out of their shells to find a new comfort level in tomorrow.

We can lower the level of stress associated with learning new edtech skills by creating an accessible portal through which our teachers will learn to use the tools they need to move forward.  We are all searching for scrapes of knowledge wherever we can find them.  There’s too much out there that’s spread all over the place. We no longer have the one conference a year where we all came together to learn.  Now's the time to get organized again!

This is what I propose:  Let's create a new trans-denominational platform for Jewish educators of all flavors to gather virtually or, if practical and affordable, f2f  to explore the possibilities that tomorrow presents.  This collaborative cloud-based venue would be a forum that would promote dialogue, teaching and learning. It would be a consortium of all professional development providers that would “push” the opportunities to learn to us all.  I’m talking one-stop-shopping - a mall for Jewish education. It would be one venue that would offer educators and knowledge seekers ALL the opportunities and resources to enhance the field of Jewish education:  A 21st century virtual Pumbadita, if you will - an on-line center for Jewish learning that would be comprehensive, all inclusive and easy to access.

This idea will be made real as a result of cooperation and collaboration between all Jewish education service providers, both those affiliated with a movement, like NATE and the JEA, as well as others like JESNA and PELIE. We all need to work together.  We need to move forward now.

I’ve started to have conversations about this vision with individuals affiliated with different groups and organizations. People are interested in seeing this come to fruition. I believe it is now the appropriate moment to widen the circle and have an expanded group of those who care about the future of Jewish education come together and brainstorm how to make a new Jewish Professional Learning Network happen.  Dr. Jonathan Woocher, the Chief Ideas Officer and Director of  the Lippman Kanfer Institute, has indicated that he is happy to host such a web meeting.

This is a concrete call to action. If you are interested in joining in the conversation and taking part in a virtual brainstorming session, email me, Peter Eckstein at

If not now, when?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Swimming to 31°47'N, 35°12'E - A Shabbat Homework Assignment

Howard Schwartz is a storyteller, a folklorist, a scholar, and a poet. He's collected many Jewish stories, my favorites being found in Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural, Elijah's Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales  and Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism.

He has a new collection of poems out: Breathing in the Dark. This is a sample (which is also posted on the publisher's website cited above. You can buy the book there.)  I love it because I feel like I am always on a quest. I'm also searching  for my Jerusalem.  I thought I'd share this as a Shabbat gift to you all.

It's also a Shabbat homework assignment. Where is your Jerusalem?  Can you always find it at 31°47'N, 35°12'E?  Shabbat Shalom.

The first time
I went on a quest
for forbidden fruit.

The second time
I built an ark
and tried to get there by sea.

The third time
I came in search of my ancestor,

If the sun was hidden
I let the stars
guide me.

If the tablets were broken
I carved
new ones.

In the future
my bones
will roll to that city.

Last night
I dreamed
I was swimming there.