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 na├»ve 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?