Sunday, December 31, 2006

From FFB to BT

In my early teens I discovered that I was an FFB (Frum From Birth).

I fully acknowledge that I am observant because that is the way my parents brought me up. Would I have chosen to be orthodox had I been brought up secular?

In my naive youth I was confident that I would have. It was obvious to me that Jewish history was being governed by a prime mover and that the only way to “guarantee” Jewish survival was to be observant. I still believe this to be true, but I was far more naïve about my second article of faith.

I believed, perhaps because of the influence of a number of BT (Ba’al Teshuva) friends, that non-religious Jews would on masse choose to be religious, however not just because of the reasons stated above, but because I believed that observant Jews were honest, good and tolerant people able to lead rich and satisfying lives without disregarding the positive aspects of wider society. Their behavior would be a shining example to others for others to emulate.

How wrong have I been about this!! Not only are orthodox Jews not shining examples, neither is their leadership. In Israel, one of the Chief Rabbis is being investigated on corruption charges, the other had a criminal act of violence perpetrated in his house, involving his son daughter, and wife for which his son was imprisoned, yet, the only desecration of God’s name that bothered the rabbi, was that people might think he had Internet in his house.

A gay parade was cancelled in Jerusalem, because the police did not believe they could safely protect the demonstrators from religious counter-demonstrators. Apart from the fact that rabbis barely address the serious issues of sexual identity, few rabbis seemed concerned that it was real violence and murderous threats that stopped the parade. Apart from a few calls of abomination, violence seemed to be the extent of the religious arguments.

While there is bias in the ways that religious issues are reported in the Israeli press, we cannot get away from the fact so many serious issues, such as the plight of agunot and sexual abuse in the community, are not taken seriously enough by religious Jews and there is very little debate abut these issues. We are light years behind our brethren on these issues.

Furthermore, religious leaders have shown themselves to be no better morally than their secular counterparts and a good portion of the religious community has shown itself to be narrow-minded, hugely intolerant and to simply be missing the plot. Would I become religious today? I am afraid to answer that question.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sometimes you've got to squeal

Earlier this week my colleague Chana German blogged about the need to raise awareness about sexual abuse, and how the day school system is the place to do it. I fear that there are much more basic issues that are rarely discussed in schools that deserve attention. Let me tell you a story.

When I was teaching in a post-high school one-year program in Israel, I had a student who "marched to the beat of a different drummer." The program encouraged Hevruta study, but she never seemed to be able to find someone to learn with on a regular basis; she didn't seem to be unhappy, but she never seemed to be part of the group and didn't appear to have any close friends.

The set-up of Israel programs is such that unless there is a serious problem, teachers rarely have the opportunity to interact with parents. This is not unusual in a college-level program (how often did your parents have a conversation with your Math or English lit professor?), but in settings whose educational purpose goes well beyond straightforward academic pursuits, there are certainly drawbacks to this arrangement.

In any case, when this student's mother came to Israel for a visit, I made sure to meet with her and discuss her daughter's social situation with her. The mother listened to my description, and admitted that she was unsurprised. In most settings, she explained, her daughter found one or two friends who were also uncomfortable socially, and she managed well with a small circle of friends. While it was unfortunate that in this setting she had not found such companions, she could also do well on her own, so the mother was not concerned. As our conversation continued, the mother attributed her daughter's social difficulties to her daily school-bus commuting in elementary school. Only after an entire year - during which time her daughter became more and more unhappy and withdrawn - did it come out that a group of her peers ridiculed and taunted her on a daily basis. When asked why she had never reported their behavior to her teacher or her parents, the girl simply said "it would have been lashon ha-ra (speaking evil of others)."

I was reminded of this story while reading an article by Rabbi Mark Dratch that he recently referred to in a Lookjed submission, where he takes issue with a printed responsum that forbids believing someone who accuses a parent of abuse unless there are two reliable witnesses.

I have the sense that schools often work under the assumption that if kids aren't beating up on one-another during recess, then everything is fine. Perhaps we need to begin talking about abuse in school, but verbal assaults can have lasting effects on students - no less that physical ones.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Community taboo

In his blog last week, Yakov Horowitz brought up the important issue of sexual abuse in the community and announced that he was planning on partnering with Prof David Pelcovitz to create a pamphlet on this topic to distribute among parents. Horowitz was responding to a post by Sephardi Lady, who asked, among other things, about the role the school has in dealing with this. I cannot remember sexual abuse being discussed in any of the schools I attended and thinking about it now, I wonder at this. Surely the school has a role here. Perhaps it should be part of a health education curriculum, perhaps there should be informal discussions with a homeroom teacher. But if the school does not take an active role, how will a student know what constitutes abuse? How will a student feel comfortable coming forward if necessary? And as important, what does it say about the stance of the community at large if sexual abuse is taboo to discuss in our schools?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Looking over the shoulder

Some twenty years ago, while running an educational seminar, the question came up regarding a recreational activity for the staff. It turned out that one or two of the team was religiously uncomfortable with the choice of the activity, and a discussion ensued as to whether we should show respect for the strictures of that team member or whether that team member would have to bear with the desires of the rest of the group.

I am reminded of that scene often as I visit day schools. Certainly in Orthodox schools, but also in many schools (both day and congregational) affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements, it is easy to find teachers whose religious convictions are stronger than those of the parent body (and, hence, the student body). It is rare to find Jewish studies teachers whose commitments and convictions are less than those of the parent body.

That seems perfectly reasonable, as parents send their children to day schools to strengthen their Jewish commitments, not weaken them. One outcome of this is that schools tend to lean to the right, sometimes to the delight and other times to the chagrin of the parents and the community.

Is this inevitable? Can schools be confident enough in the commitments they seek to inspire to expose students to role models who are more open (not less religiously committed)? Is it possible to have schools which acurately reflect the spectrum of the parent body? I know that this is the theory of the cross/trans-denominational community schools. Can it hold true in denominational schools as well?

Hanukah or Christmas?

When I lived in Canada, I loved Christmas. I loved the tinsel, the trees and especially the lights. The holidays are so much fun – there are all those gifts; everything in the stores goes on sale and haven’t you noticed how everyone’s so polite, how the average person on the street smiles more.. Everyone’s so much nicer and happier! Oh…and we’re all on vacation

In North America, we give Hanukah presents and a lot of us even have family Hanukah dinners with stuffed turkey and other Christmas Hanukah delicacies. Whether we like it or not, North American Jewish society is all out there shopping and enjoying it. How can we possibly compete with the glitter of Christmas without just imitating it? How can we let our kids know (okay, I know this sounds trite) that all that glitters is not gold? Are we even interested in trying?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Boring Chumash

One Friday evening on Parshat Noach, our rabbi got up to speak. He chose to discuss the episode of the Tower of Bavel. He began by saying that he had read those nine verses so many times yet only this year had he finally understood it, i.e. God had previously declared that humanity should “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Yet the people of Shinar built the tower “so that they will not be scattered across the face of the earth” (ibid 11:4). They tried to thwart God’s will.

Unfortunately, my rabbi did not deal with the more obvious question he posed, how through his many years dedicated to scholarship, he missed such a blatant point. I decided to tell him why (after the service, of course).

The answer begins with my children’s Bible education. Every Friday night I discuss the parshat hashavua with them. I usually find it frustrating. Did my children (the oldest is 8) really have to be told that the Tower of Bavel was built in order to plug a hole in the sky to stop another flood? Did they really need to be told that Yitschak went willingly to the Akeida or that Sarah died after Satan told her that Avraham was about to or even had already sacrificed him? Was it so vital to the story that that they had to be told that Rivka was three years old when she married Yitzchak? Was it so essential to the storyline that they needed to be told that Pharaoh’s daughter’s arm expanded rapidly in length when she reached into the Nile to pick up baby Moshe? Was it so indispensable to the plot that they had to be told that there was only one frog and that each time the Egyptians hit it, it split up into many frogs? Etc.

Is the Chumash so boring that our teachers are forced to resort to midrash to “spice it up” or is it that they enjoy ridiculing it, so that the stories sound more like fairy tales rather than serious religious inquiry? Or perhaps, even more frighteningly, do they not really know how to teach Chumash?

While some Midrashim are cute, such as Avraham’s experiences in his father’s idol shop, most damage our ability (even as adults) to look at the text impartially (some even damage our respect for the text – but that’s another story!!).

My rabbi, whose scholarship and breadth of knowledge I respect, couldn’t see the obvious because whenever he read the story he couldn’t get out of his head the image of Nimrod climbing up a tall tower with an outstretched sword ready to ascend the heavens and engage God in combat.

I have no desire to mock Midrash. As someone who studied it in university, I really do appreciate its beauty and depth, but we must never forget that a Midrash is what it claims to be: “drash” and not “pshat”. Before we even begin to teach our children “drash” let’s first try to teach them “pshat”.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The future of the committed Jewish family

Here’s another take on the tuition crunch: Last week, the Jewish Advocate reported that putting one child through day school from K-12 costs $180,000 for the family, at least in the Boston area. That astronomical number gives grounds for posts like these.

It also brought to mind an article I read a few years back about a new form of “birth control” used in Jewish circles. It seems that some young families, troubled by the high cost of day schools coupled with their concern that their children stay within the framework of formal Jewish education, are opting to have fewer children than they’d like. The argument, in short, goes like this: “We can’t compromise on Jewish education for our children. At the same time, we make enough money to be charged full tuition, but if we pay full tuition for four children, we’d have to live on an extremely tight budget. So we’ll have two. Three, tops.”

That in mind, I conducted an informal and admittedly, not very scientific, survey of some young families I know on the East Coast. They are all middle class professionals – lawyers, doctors, software designers, etc. The results weren’t too encouraging—almost everyone mentioned it as a concern, and more than half said it was a significant factor in their family planning and that they weren’t going to have more than three children as a result and even that was a stretch.

Let’s not get into a discussion about the values involved in decisions like these, or the various options available to help finance your kids through schools (even if there are enough tuition breaks out there, perception is sometimes more important than reality). What’s clear is that this is actually happening, possibly in your neighborhood. So what is this going to do to American Jewish demography? Yes, there will be Orthodox families who aren’t going to let tuition influence family planning (some of those families will eventually make aliyah, in part to eliminate the need to pay day school tuition). And yes, there will be families who wouldn’t send their kids to day school anyway. But there will also be mainstream committed families--the ones whose kids have a lower chance of intermarrying because they're in day schools--who will have less children because of financial constraints imposed upon them by their Jewish commitment. So what does this mean for Jewish America?

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Jimmy Carter, Ken Stein and Apartheid

On occasion I am asked whether the Lookjed discussion list is different because it is based in Israel, rather than in a Diaspora setting (North America generally - and New York specifically – seems to be where people seem to assume that it would have been housed, were it not based in Israel). I think that having the discussion's foundation in Israel lends a number of different angles to it, but the main one is that I try (when appropriate) to focus on issues having to do with Israel. By chance, two of the queries that appeared in the last Lookjed asked about Israel issues, but I will also direct attention to such topics when I have the sense that it is what Diaspora teachers should be discussing with their students. At least part of this stems from my sense that although Israel was front-and-center in the Jewish education that I had as a student in the 60's and 70's, today there is less of an emphasis on it, in day schools of all stripes and sizes.

I may have begun this unintentionally (or, perhaps, subconsciously) in the beginning, and I recall receiving an email some years back from an irate Lookjed subscriber who wrote to me saying that he did not sign up to the list to read about the political situation in Israel, which he perceived as being removed from the core subjects of Jewish education that a list like Lookjed was supposed to be discussing. My response was – and still is – that Israel is central to the Jewish people, and part of a basic Jewish schooling should include educating students to be aware and concerned with what is going on here.

Having said all of this, I would like to introduce you to a personal hero of mine – Ken Stein of Emory University. I have never met Professor Stein, but have made extensive use of his work – both academic and pedagogic – in my own teaching about Israel. Stein directs the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel at Emory University in Atlanta, which runs seminars and workshops about teaching Israel. Don't miss the newsletters that the institute puts out as well as the other resources that appear on the ISMI website.

The very fact that Professor Stein is passionate enough about the subject of teaching Israel to make sure that his work does not remain in the academic ivory tower - laboring to ensure that it is translated into classroom pedagogy - is enough to make him a hero to the community of Jewish educators who care about Israel. What drives me to write about him today is his resignation as a fellow at former President Jimmy Carter's think-tank following the publication of Carter's recent book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

When the former President of the United States says on record that Israeli policy is worse than that of South Africa's apartheid regime, it is essential that a scholar can get up and respond to him in a forceful way. It is also essential that Jewish educators learn how to respond to the misinformation that appears about Israel on a daily basis in the press. Visiting the ISMI website, making use of the materials that appear there and signing up for Ken Stein's workshops, is a good way to start.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Why are we investing?

In recent years there has been an explosion in the number of trans-denominational/non-denominational community schools designed to service the spectrum of the Jewish community without making any of their students feel like they were (borrowing from a phrase popularized by a dynamic Rabbi from the NY area) "not yet Orthodox." These schools have been embraced by many, but not all, Central Agencies and visionary groups, as opening the doors to a population that would not otherwise attend day schools.

Interestingly, in some communities, the local Federation was against the institution of these schools - fearing that they would drain money and students from existing schools without generating a substantive increase in enrollment.

One school, questioning why their enrollment was falling far short of their projected numbers, came to the conclusion that they were too religious, and that they could only attract students by becoming less religious. (Note: their Jewish studies component consisted of one period a day of Jewish studies plus prayer.) It's hard to know if lessening the Jewish studies will or will not increase the enrollment in the school, but even the enrollment doubles or triples in the next two years, is it worth the investment of untold millions of dollars of Jewish communal funds to pay for what amounts to Jewish private schools with minimal Jewish content?

Monday, December 4, 2006

Is education worth paying for

This week, the in the NY Times there appears an interesting article on Asian enrollment. What I found particularly interesting about the article was the Asian parents response to requests for money: When a principal of one school asked the Korean Parents Association to help him raise some $4,000,000 (after he was already rebuffed by the school's PTA and other community members) their response was: $4,000,000? why not $40,000,000 and then they went out and raised the money.

In the Jewish day school community, one of the most common complaints is the price of schooling, how no one can afford it, how teachers and principals and everyone else in the system is making too much money. Few parents are willing to do anything other than complain. Fundraising is left for others to do (though I'm not sure who the others are)and many philanthropists are not willing to donate money so that others peoples' kids can get a good Jewish education. We want our children to get a good general education; we want them to have a good Jewish education; we'd like them to learn with other Jewish children; and we want them to have the best facilities and the best teachers - but we don't want to pay for it.

When the average expenditure per pupil in the public school system is over $10,000 (and as high as $15,000 in New Jersey and New York), is it reasonable for the community to focus on lowering costs rather than on raising quality?

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Educating for Minutiae

Am I wrong, or are our schools missing the point in their pastoral care of our children?

I was recently informed that at a parents' evening in a prominent Israeli school, the principal discussed his new initiative on how the school and parents would work together to create an environment of mutual respect within the school. A noble and important task, I thought, and so I listened intently to what the principal had suggested.

To my disappointment, the whole proposal was the principal’s desire to introduce a dress code for parents (aka mothers) when they came to pick up their children from school.

Who was this principal trying to kid? Were his students so respectful to the teachers, fellow students and the environment, that this should be his priority? The contrary appeared to be true: a visible number of students often spoke disrespectfully to their teachers, students also regularly treated each other discourteously, recess incidents were noticeable, the restrooms seemed unsanitary while their walls were painted with graffiti and broken pieces of school property were noticeable on the school grounds.

From what I understand, this phenomenon is quite common in dati leumi schools in Israel.

While it is obvious that an initiative to rectify the above issues would be far more appropriate, by insisting on a dress codes of the mothers, isn’t the school really saying that “it’s not important how you behave (we say its important, but we don’t really mean it), but how you dress” or even worse “how other people dress”. The students will learn one of two messages: either s/he can do what s/he likes, but as long as they’re dressed appropriately they’re fine, or that their schools are hypocritical institutions that just don’t get it.

And isn’t that what is happening to our kids today?!! We have many who dress the part but lack the required middot and many who just drop out.

I don’t really want to knock Israeli schools. To begin with this information is all anecdotal and secondly, my kids know a lot more than I ever did at their age. Furthermore, from the discussions I’ve seen recently on Lookjed makes feel that this issue is universal.

Maybe, I’m misinformed, and please tell me if I am, but when implementing pastoral policies, are our schools focusing on the minutiae and not on the big picture?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

No Jewish Child Left Behind

Barnea Selavan regularly forwards me articles of interest about education that he thinks deserve attention. Today he sent me an article that appeared in the NY Times magazine section over the weekend. Entitled "What it takes to make a student," it focuses on the successes and failures of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" legislation. This program aims to narrow the education gap between rich and poor, whites and minorities, by forcing states to set standards in math and reading that all schools would need to meet.

I have always felt that "No Child Left Behind" has little to do with the system of North American Jewish day school education. Nevertheless, the article is worth reading. Aside from commenting on "No Child Left Behind" it also presents studies that attempt to find the root cause of the differences that exist between academic success and failure and how those differences are tied to race and socio-economic factors. Moreover, the article then examines the methods used by schools to overcome the disadvantages that the less successful students bring with them to class.

These studies and methods should be of great interest to the Jewish educator - including the individuals who are personally charged with Jewish education - parents. Knowing that simple exposure to language - and the tone and nuance of language - plays a significant role in children's development, is intuitive, but is worthwhile hearing repeated. It is in the area of remediation, however, that day schools have the most to learn from the programs that are successful with these students. It is "a counterintuitive combination of touchy-feely idealism and intense discipline" that help some of these schools succeed, which includes a longer school day, setting goals on an annual, monthly and even weekly basis, and working to guide the behavior and values of the students.

Many of these ideas dovetail with the ideals of Jewish education. While most of our students do not face the challenges of poor, minority groups, we can certainly learn from the academic research and practical solutions that have evolved from the "No Child Left Behind" programs. How many of us spend as much time as we should talking to our kids at home? And how many of our schools have well-planned (or planned at all) syllabi for Judaic studies that state clearly what students are expected to learn every year?

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Expanding Horizons through Virtual Cases of Teaching by Sharon Feiman-Nemser and Jon A. Levisohn

Educational quality, in Jewish education as in general education, depends on the quality of teaching. But teachers tend to teach in the ways that they were taught, and often are limited by their abilities to envision alternatives. So how can teachers expand their pedagogical horizons?

What if it were possible to visit vibrant Jewish studies classrooms across the country or across the world? What if it were possible to see multiple models of the thoughtful teaching of parashat ha-shavua (the weekly Torah portion), or Mishnah, or the book of Isaiah? What if these visits were not just glimpses of a classroom in action, but systematic explorations of an accomplished teacher's practice, complete with reflections on her goals, insights into her planning, and samples of her students' work?

Imagine the Tanakh or Chumash faculty at a Jewish day school, gathering to explore a website with classroom video of an innovative teacher presenting parashat ha-shavua to a first grade class. The school's director of Jewish studies leads the case-study discussion: What is the teacher doing? What does she want children to learn? How does she manage the group and attend to her subject? What challenges does this approach entail?

The faculty at the school have access not only to the teacher's pedagogy but also to her goals and decision-making. On the website, the teacher explains her planning process, shares her own analysis of the videotaped lessons, and thinks aloud about some of the challenges. Although the faculty are distant in time and space, the technology enables them to learn from this thoughtful teacher's practice. The goal is not the dissemination of best practices but of new ideas about practice, new questions, and new images of teaching Torah.

Next, the director of Jewish studies leading the session clicks on electronic copies of student work from the featured lesson. What do the teachers see in that student work? How have individual children understood the parashah? What does the student work reveal about the impact of the teacher’s pedagogy? For the faculty, the examination of student work opens up fundamental questions about what students know and how they know it, questions that they immediately take back to their own practice.

This kind of case study – rich, multi-layered, thoughtful, critical, grounded in documentation of real teaching – is within our reach, and has already been advanced in general education (for example, see recent work at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching). In fact, a draft of the case described above, of an accomplished and thoughtful first grade teacher of parashat ha-shavua, has already been developed, as a pilot project at the Mandel Center at Brandeis.

We do not need advancements in technology to build or distribute these multimedia cases of teaching and learning within Jewish education; we only need to provide thoughtful educators with the time, the intellectual support and the resources to develop them. An online virtual library of such cases of teaching would become an invaluable resource for transforming practice throughout Jewish education.


Sharon Feiman-Nemser is the Mandel Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University and the Director of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education. She has led teacher education programs at the University of Chicago, Michigan State University, and Brandeis, and has published numerous articles about teacher education, new teacher induction and mentoring. Jon A. Levisohn is Assistant Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis and Assistant Director of the Mandel Center. His work focuses on philosophy of education and philosophy of Jewish education. Recent publications include "A Plea for Purposes," Jewish Educational Leadership, Fall 2005.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Jewish Day School Education: Why? by Susan Kardos

As we envision the full potential of Jewish Day Schools in North America, we must revisit a central question about the purpose of Jewish education.

The public discourse is replete with worried calls about Jewish continuity and a Jewish future. We are duty bound, of course, to heed these calls. However, we also must not let our concern for our future overshadow our critical Jewish present.

Jewish schools—and Jewish families—offer our children a way of being that has at its heart the core values of learning (Torah), caring (chesed), and justice (tzedek). Jewish schools offer our children a connection to a glorious Jewish past—stories of hope, faith, heroism, and redemption. Jewish schools offer our children sacred, living texts which guide, challenge, and inspire. Jewish schools fill our children’s ears with Hebrew, their mouths with joyous song, their souls with a love and longing for Zion, and their hands with parchment and silver and the hands of others. Jewish schools are the warmth and wisdom of our ancestors and our Jewish optimism about our destiny.

But Jewish schools do not exist only for the sake of the future; and our students are not only vessels of continuity through which Judaism will pass. Jewish schools must also exist for the sake of a compelling experience of contemporary Jewish life that inspires children and their families today. After all, it is this younger generation which will ultimately determine the shape of the Jewish future. It is up to school leaders, teachers, and community professionals to make curricular, pedagogic, programming, policy, and funding decisions based on a vision of a Jewish present that is rich and attractive, and yes, holy. Our children are clever enough to know if our daily plans for them grow out of fear rather than hope. A subtle yet deliberate shift in focus—a vision that embraces our past, our future, and our present—will ensure individual and community Jewish life that is irresistibly exciting, compassionate, and courageous. It will also ensure that the future our children create is inclusively and beautifully Jewish.


Susan Kardos is Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. She is author of over a dozen articles and book chapters about education policy, school culture, teacher induction, and school leadership. She is co-author of the book Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools (Jossey-Bass, 2004) and author of “Clandestine Schooling and Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto During the Holocaust,” (Harvard Educational Review, 2002).

What if by Norman Adler

What if? What if we recognize our youth moving into the next stage of Modern Orthodoxy by carrying Torah values onto the world stage?

We can help by encouraging our adolescent, Torah-observant youth to explore the world in broader ways than we have for the past few decades. We can move the classroom into the world. This would help them to broaden their education -- and help the Jewish community by training leaders who could represent our interests in world forums that need our best and brightest to defend our interests.

For young Jews who are just awakening to their heritage, projects like Birthright introduce them to Israel. Our students routinely visit Israel throughout their Day School years, during their Yeshiva experience in Shana Alef before College (at Yeshiva University or other American universities), and as post-graduate adults. They often visit Europe on March of the Living to recall and memorialize our recent history. They perform chesed projects all over the globe. I propose they engage in more formal, cultural experiences. One summer, let them explore more broadly.

We have a model of global learning. Yeshiva University's undergraduate Honors Programs has developed a series of Summer Experiences (some open to university students from other US colleges). Secular colleges often send students for summer or junior-year-abroad programs, which are not possible for observant students. The YU programs make it possible for students to study Jewish History in the context of the European historical experience in various European venues: English history and literature (including visits to the Globe Theater for performances of Shakespeare in the original Elizabethan costume and dialect), Italian culture and origins of modern science from Galileo through modernity, history of France through the Jewish experience and the Jew as "other" in French history. Students have even traveled to Guatemala and examined ancient and Modern Mayan civilization as "another" culture, like ours, with an ancient and modern representation. It is now possible to travel virtually anywhere in the world under kosher, "frum" auspices and view the world through Torah perspective. This model could be adopted for junior/seniors in high schools or through Hillels on other college campuses.

What I propose here is the "Hebraisation" of one of the pillars of a Western education - "The Grand Tour". This was the European travel itinerary that flourished during the 17th through 19th century. It was popular among the British upper-class who, after completing their formal education, would tour the European continent viewing the classic sites that Edgar Alan Poe described as, the "glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome".

Western civilization has been described as being built conceptually on two cities - Jerusalem and Athens. Hebraism and Hellenism are the two foci that have generated Western culture. We are the citizens of Jerusalem - who have continually interacted with Athens. Whether one subscribes specifically to the educational philosophy of John Dewey, we all recognize that educational best practices depend on first-hand experience. To experience world culture (Madda) in the context of a Torah education is now possible. What if we incorporated this into our curriculum?

Prof. Norman Adler is University Professor of Psychology and Special Assistant for Curriculum Development and Research Initiatives at Yeshiva University. He is an international authority on the biological basis of behavior and has worked extensively on the intersection of biology and psychology in reproductive processes and biological rhythms. As one of the developers of the field of biological basis of behavior (sometimes called evolutionary psychology), he is now studying the biological psychology of religious experience.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Planning for Educational Growth Beyond K-12 by Jeffrey Kobrin

We spend hours agonizing over the most appropriate teachers, informal programs, and curricula for our children and students as they progress from pre-school to the elementary years and on to secondary school. We work hard to forge continuity between the various levels, to insure both that the students’ learning is developmentally appropriate at each level and that they have sense of growth and continuity as they progress. It often seems, though, that once our students reach graduation, all we can do is hope and pray that they will continue their Judaic studies, whether by opting for a year or more of study in Israel, by continuing at Yeshiva University and the like, or by attending shiurim or establishing hevrutot on their own.

While we have begun to seriously commit financial and political resources to maintaining and Orthodox presence on various college campuses, whether by funding Chabad houses or by placing Kollel Mi-Tzion representatives and their families to serve as role models and teachers, the disconnect between our children’s secondary educational experience and their campus experience remains unnecessarily vast.

In the 1950’s, Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein initiated a program in continuing Jewish education for yeshiva graduates attending New York area secular colleges. Students in the program heard lectures from their former high school instructors on topics including lashon, Tanakh, and Talmud. The program was, for the time, relatively rather intensive, meeting at least twice weekly for two hour sessions. Without thinking about what such a program would demand of already overextended high school programs, faculty, and budgets (quite easy to do in this venue), wouldn’t this be a wonderful way for high schools to maintain and strengthen the relationships with alumni, as well as provide much needed support in the form of both content and “go-to” people for the students now out in the world of secular studies?

Schools could provide classes for their own alumni as well as for any other interested students attending local universities. Imagine the possibilities for community impact! Admittedly, such a program would require a re-envisioning of the role of the high school in the community, does not help the student in a town devoid of any such program, and begs the question of when we stop giving our children “roots” and start encouraging them to use their “wings.” Nonetheless, it might really be a much-needed system of support for many of our high school graduates.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kobrin
Ramaz Middle School
(212) 774 - 8057

Role Models and Education by Nati Helfgot

In many of our day schools, in addition to the living role models that our children can learn and grow from, there is often a conscious attempt to present to students ideal types of people who they should aspire to emulate. This goal is achieved both through formal and informal means such as stories, choice of curricula and direct exhortation as to the "ideal" they should strive for. One of the more popular, and ultimately not so subtle methods is the ubiquitous pictures or posters of various great Rashei yeshiva and Gedolim that often adorn the halls and walls of many day schools throughout the country.

This phenomenon has always both fascinated and troubled me. One the one hand, these pictures on the walls reflect an attempt to project the centrality of Talmud Torah as a central value of Jewish existence. It highlights the esteem in which we rightfully hold Torah scholarship and our aspirations that all should strive for Torah excellence. On the other hand, these pictures by definition limit our perspectives by sending a message that there are only one or two "ideal" models that we project to our children in the classroom.

In terms of Talmud Torah proper, the model that is projected is the great Rosh Yeshiva, expert in Shas and Poskim and classical "lamdanut". No pictures usually appear of great baalei machshava like R. Yehuda ha-Levi or experts in parshanut ha-Mikra like R. Abraham Ibn Ezra or Nehama Leibowitz zt"l who were not gedolim in classical gemara learning. Moreover, beyond the world of Talmud Torah proper, other role models of the great baalei chesed - whether rabbis or lay-people - communal leaders who worked tirelessly for the Jewish community or Israel, simple baalei battim who toiled with honesty and integrity, or a whole host of other wonderful role models are often left out of the mix entirely. We would and should be proud to project such people to the wide spectrum of children that we teach.

With these models on display, Talmud Torah, in its more narrow "lomdishe" sense, subtly moves from being a central value, to being an exclusive value. In addition, the young girls in our schools are very quickly initiated into a reality into which women role models of excellence in Jewish life are simply invisible. We should try to be more inclusive. The pictures we choose to put up on our walls are part of the portraits that we shape in our hearts and the hearts of our students.


Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot is the Chair of the Departments of Tanakh and Mahshevet Yisrael as a well as a Halakha rebbe at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School. He worked in a wide range of Yeshiva High Schools for over 15 years and continues to lecture and run in-service workshops to Judaic studies faculty in various locales.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Community Educator: Building a Profession, Supporting Professionals by Carol K. Ingall

Teaching is a profession that has almost no career ladder. Brand-new teachers and veterans of twenty years share the same job description. Bored teachers leave the profession, or worse, they stay, and their students are the losers. For many teachers, administration has no allure. Those who might be interested are overlooked by search committees preferring CEO types to run their schools, non-educators with backgrounds in finance and fund-raising. These skewed priorities mean that teacher education, a must for professionals as well as pre-professionals, is an afterthought, if it exists at all.

I am also concerned about our inability to keep newcomers, particularly those to Jewish day school education, in the field. I have just completed a study of three young women who had all the predictors for success in the field. (Down the Up Staircase: Tales of Teaching Jewish Day Schools [2006], JTS Press.) No one lasted longer than four years. What intervention might have made a difference in their careers?

I propose the position of Community Educator (CE) as a remedy. The CE would be a seasoned teacher blessed with the ability to reflect on the nature of teaching and skilled at “reading” a classroom, i.e., interpreting student behavior. She should be an expert in pedagogical content knowledge, an extrovert who reaches out and empathizes with the struggles of both newcomers and veterans. Her mandate would be to create a community of teachers who learn, making professional development an organic part of school culture. What might the job description entail?

  • Design of parent education programs, curricular initiatives, and co-curricular experiences for students
  • Socializing novices into the profession, the school culture (“how we do things here”), and the community, if necessary, through a multi-year course designed by the CE
  • Training mentors among the senior staff in a course of her design
  • Setting up dyads of mentors and mentees who follow a program explicitly designed for new teachers
  • Monitoring the dyads to avoid mismatches and confusion of coffee-klatsching with mentoring
  • Working with all teachers on problems that occur in their planning, teaching, or evaluation

While the CE is a full-time position, mentors and novices would receive reduced teaching loads to accommodate their teaching and learning responsibilities. As day schools insist on CEO’s instead of visionary leaders, the CE is a position that is long overdue.


Carol K. Ingall is the Dr. Bernard Heller Professor of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Maps, Metaphors, and Mirrors: Moral Education in Middle School and the recently published Down the Up Staircase – see

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Communities of Learning by Pearl Mattenson

What would our schools look and feel like today if they were truly communities of learning? Imagine if all the stakeholders in the school community truly identified themselves as learners. All of us, administrators, parents, teachers, board members, and of course our students, acknowledging that what we don’t yet know is a more powerful motivator in our lives than what we claim to know. What would the conversation sound like in our staff meetings and our board meetings? What approach would we take to a phone call with a dissatisfied parent or a child who has been sent to the Principal’s office? How would we present our ideas in our professional associations? How would we respond to the ideas of other?

When I declare myself a learner and live my life that way, I am committed to ongoing reflection and consideration of new ideas and approaches in light of what I have already learned. I am a listener and know the value of developing good listening skills- if I can’t listen I might miss critical learning. I am a keen observer, aiming to describe what I see even before I try to make sense of it in the context of what I think I already know and believe. As a learner I am thirsty for any and all sources of knowledge. As a Jewish learner, I am sensitive to the complexity and multiplicity of meaning and that sensitivity humbles me. But to play on Hillel’s statement in Pirkei Avot, ‘if I am only a learner what am I?’

I am not sure that learning can really take place in the absence of community. Although some of us might wish otherwise, Gan Eden is not a secluded island filled with books for Adam to pore through for the rest of his life. Each of us is unique and endowed with divine capacities. As Rav Kook has taught[1] ‘True peace can only come into the world through multiplicity…when all sides and approaches are revealed and it will become clear how there is a place for each.’ We have much to learn from each other, and a true community of learning is structured to honor that assumption. Professionals learn from their lay leaders and vice versa. Teachers have opportunities to collaborate and learn with and from each other. Students are not only learning with each other but are exposed to a broad range of people and ideas.

May we all be inspired to create and contribute to communities of learning and perhaps give voice to that which Resh Laskish taught (Shabbat 63a):

אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש שני תלמידי חכמים המקשיבים זה לזה בהלכה הקדוש ב"ה שומע לקולן

Resh Lakish said, “When two scholars attend to each other in the course of debating the law, the Holy One Blessed Be He hears/listens to their voice.

Partnerships rooted in a serious intention to learn and understand one another will cause even God to sit up and take notice!

[1] Author’s translation עולת ראיה, הוצאת מוסד הרב קוק, דף של:
השלום האמת אי אפשר שיבוא לעולם כי אם דווקא ע"י הערך של ריבוי השלום...שיתראו כל הצדדים וכל השיטות ויתבררו איך כולם יש להם מקום


Pearl Mattenson is a Leadership Coach who specializes in building the capacity of both veteran and aspiring leaders in the Jewish non-profit world. Her clients are professionals who want to take their leadership capabilities to a new level- developing themselves and learning to develop others. Pearl is currently coaching several Heads of Jewish Day schools. In addition she co-directs the Induction Partnership, a program of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Focus on Prayer by Francis Nataf

One of the most problematic features of our educational systems is that the period in our day that has the potential to be the most powerful formative religious experience has, in fact, become an exercise in drudgery.

The fact that the opportunity for a sustained direct encounter with spirituality provided by prayer does not exist anywhere else in our school day should give it our most serious attention.

The first problem is that our schools (and shuls) don't really teach prayer. We may teach our students the vocabulary and mechanics of the prayers but rarely is there a serious attempt at teaching the art and experience of prayer.

This is not the place to explain the various exercises possible at various age groups to help them truly pray. Suffice it to say that prayer as art and experience needs to be taught experientially.

If teaching the art of prayer may be difficult and uncomfortable, we have less of an excuse when it comes to teaching about prayer and its literature. The forte of our institutions is the teaching of text. Since we have so many teachers who are talented in making Tanakh and Talmud come alive by rigorous close readings, why don't we ever see these teachers use this methodology with the siddur? Lest we think of the siddur as some sort of basic primer lacking sophistication, I would strongly concur with Rab Shlomo Wolbe z'l's observation that the siddur is, in fact, not only the most profound, but also the most difficult text of the entire Torah
she be'al peh (Alei Shor I p. 28). I would also add that for the individual Jew it is the most important.

Equally valuable are organized courses on the nature of prayer. This topic is one of the most central ones in Jewish Thought. Our students must be versed in what prayer is all about and how it works.

Lastly, I have told my own students going into Jewish education that if they are forced by the school schedule to limit prayer education to the slot alloted for prayers, they should seriously consider (within halachic limits) making prayer education the primary focus of this period and actual prayer secondary. I feel that doing otherwise is a dangerous misreading of priorities.

Rabbi Francis Nataf was ordained at Yeshiva University and also holds degrees in Jewish history and international affairs. He is the Educational Director of David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nataf is a regular contributor to Lookjed and has just come out with his first book entitled "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Genesis: Explorations in Text and Meaning" Urim Publications).

What if? by Erica Brown

What if we situated Hebrew schools in Jewish day schools and not in synagogues? Sounds preposterous? Never been done? All the more reason to give it some thought. Today, day schools in America are a fast-growing educational movement. People who never sent their kids to day schools are reconsidering, and synagogue movements that promoted public school education now have their own affiliate day schools. With all of the enhancements in recruitment, attendance and quality of day school education, there is a community educational orphan that we can no longer afford to neglect: congregational schools.

Hebrew school education has been notoriously bad for decades. It was and continues to be the Jewish educational institution most pilloried and least effective. The novelist Philip Roth created a fictional scene that we can imagine taking place in a variety of American living rooms. A young boy complains to his father that he hates Hebrew school. The father beams and wishes his son mazal tov for following in the fine family footsteps of his ancestors; both he and his father also hated Hebrew school. This "tradition" is not only damaging to the young minds who hold Judaism at
fault for a life-time; it hurts the Jewish community as a whole.

Instead of using weak teachers with little background in Hebrew schools, imagine having the elementary division of day schools using some of their finest teachers, resources and even day school students to participate in a much more content-rich program for public school students when the regular school day is done. Sure there are plenty of practical details to iron out, but many day schools use their facilities for Jewish camping in the summer or rent out auditoriums for community functions. Why not have the day school become the real educational center for the community at large?

For all of us whose lives rotate around day schools - we attended them, send our kids to them, teach in them, run them - it is time to look beyond our walls and invite others to join in the success. Who knows? Such a program might even enrich the school coffers and more importantly, might even draw some new students who would never have given day school a second thought.

Dr. Erica Brown is Scholar-in-Residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Dr. Brown's articles have been the basis for discussions on Lookjed in the past. See, for example

Putting God in the Center by Yaakov Bieler

When thinking about where Orthodox Jewish day schools might place renewed emphasis both curricularly as well as experientially, I would advocate that God and the manner in which an awareness of His Presence shouldimpact all that we do should be made the central theme of all religious education initiatives. If Avodat HaShem is the ultimate purpose of Judaism and Jewish belief, I am not sure that day schools are presently doingenough to nurture such a sensibility.

While a symptom of the problem is the quality of Tefilla (prayer) that the average day school student engages in not only within the school precincts, but also on Shabbat, Yom Tov and during vacation times - if a student sensed a personal closeness to HaShem, his/her Tefilla per force would have to be serious and heartfelt - I believe that the manner inwhich the subject matter of the Shiurim that comprise roughly half of thedual curriculum is approached, also contributes to spiritual aridity. TaNaCh, Tora SheB'Al Peh, Halacha and Hashkafa must all be perceived by teachers and students as so much more than mere examples of ancient literature and commentaries that comprise Jewish culture and tradition. While wishing our students to achieve literacy with regard to the textsand concepts of our heritage is an important goal for our educational institutions, nevertheless I would maintain that literacy must be understood as little more than a means to an end rather than an end initself. Even if a student upon graduation can competently read, decode, analyze and comprehend Jewish primary and secondary texts, if s/he is devoid of spirituality and a sense of having a relationship with the Divine, then literally and figuratively "Ikar Chaser Min HaSefer" (the essence is missing from the text).

I have always been inspired not only in my personal study, but also in myteaching by the insight of R. Chayim Volozhin in his commentary RuachChayim: on Pirkei Avot 1:1 :

For when one engaged in the study of Talmud and Codes and Tosafot, and inhis research and dialectical discourse concerning them, he is attached(deveikut) to the Holy One for all comes from Sinai ... The Holy One andTora are a unity, and he who is attached to His Tora is attached toHim.

[1] Placing God front and center in the day school experience is crucial to the viability of Orthodox day school education.[1] Cited in R. Norman Lamm, Tora for Tora's Sake in the Works of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin and His Contemporaries, Ktav , Hoboken, NJ, 1989, p. 243.

Rabbi Yaakov Bieler is the Rabbi of the Kemp Mill Synagogue, Silver Spring, Maryland, and is on th faculty of the Malvin J. Berman HebrewAcademy. He has published extensively on topics related to the philosophyof education in the modern Orthodox day school, including an article entitled "Preserving Modern Orthodoxy in our Day Schools" accessible at