Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bible stories in Prime Time


I once thought about developing half hour television programs that would focus on a bored student in Humash class who would daydream about the stories that were being taught. My idea was to offer a variety of different perspectives – all based on traditional commentaries – that would play out while in the background the teacher droned on and on.

Well, I never took my idea further than the drawing board, and it appears that someone else has done it first – although a bit differently than I envisioned it.

See this short Haaretz TV spot, which describes a new initiative that will be used in Israeli schools this month.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Jewish History Timeline and More

How do you present the historical narrative to the variety of students in your class? There are plenty of tools, games, and multimedia modules for general history teachers, but teachers of Jewish history have slim pickings.

Jeffrey Spitzer announced a valuable new resource today on Lookjed, based on the Simile project from MIT. It is a database of events, people, groups and periods and can be organized by any of those categories, in addition to importance (beginner versus advanced students). The information can be then viewed in several formats, including a timeline. I don't see a printer-friendly option yet, but the materials can be exported in different ways that allow further manipulation. See the tool here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Book review: Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew

Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew
Edited by Rabbi Daniel Mann
Eretz Hemdah Institute, 2007
Reviewed by Shalom Z. Berger

Before you read this review, I have a confession to make. I do not like books that present Jewish law as a simplistic set of rules. When my children bring home their halakhah texts from the local Mamlakhti Dati (the religious stream of the Israeli public school system) school, I am always frustrated that the nuance of tradition and the rich historical development of ritual practice have no place in the rote behaviors presented in their school books. From my perspective it appears that Jewish law is presented as an arcane system with little rhyme or reason.

When I saw the recently published Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew, my fear was that this would be a similar type text, albeit aimed at a more mature audience. The book is made up of responses to questions that were submitted to Eretz Hemdah Institute in Jerusalem, at least some of them via the OU's vebbe rebbe website form, with most queries answered in the space of two or three pages. While some of my concerns remain with this type of presentation of halakhah, there are several redeeming features that make this volume valuable to both the interested layman and the classroom teacher.

What is truly innovative in this book is a companion CD (that the publisher will send you upon request) that contains source sheets with background on each of the questions. The introduction to the book presents this CD as useful enabling "the advanced learner to come to his or her own conclusion and/or deepen his or her understanding of the topics." The very fact that the people at Eretz Hemdah recognize that their decisions are not the last word on the subject is a refreshing revelation in the realm of English language halakhic texts. Perhaps they were inspired by the words of Rav Moshe Feinstein who writes similarly at the end of his introduction to the first volume of his Igrot Moshe.

For the educator, the source sheets can be very useful, as they bring together a good collection of relevant sources on each question that can easily be used in a classroom setting.

Two more unique aspects of the book deserve mention. The first is an important introduction that presents the building blocks of how halakhic decisions are reached by the Rabbis of the Institute. While some of the information is very basic (e.g. definitions of Written and Oral Torah) the idea of sharing the inner workings of the process of pesak halakhah is innovative and will be eye-opening for students who were taught that halakhah was simply a collection of rules. The second is a clear decision to include topics that engage the reality of the contemporary State of Israel and its place in the world of Jewish law. The Eretz Hemdah Institute makes no excuses about identifying with the values of the Dati Le'umi (National Religious) community, thus questions about getting married on Yom ha-Atzma'ut (i.e. during Sefirat ha-Omer) or purchasing Israel bonds (and potential issues with forbidden usury) are treated as issues of real concern for the committed Jew.

Living the Halachic Process: Questions and Answers for the Modern Jew
is available from http://www.eretzhemdah.org

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Lessons from Jacob and Esau

While there are pedagogic lessons to be learned from every line in the Torah, the lessons from Parashat Toldot are particularly straightforward. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch wrote a powerful essay entitled "Lessons From Jacob and Esau" in which he analyzed the educational message of this story.

I first was introduced to this essay in an article by Dr. Joel Wolowelsky that appeared in Ten Da'at that is accessible at http://www.lookstein.org/articles/moral_ed.htm; I was reminded of it today when Professor Yitzchok Levine emailed me, suggesting that it be shared on Lookjed. He has posted it at http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/rsrh/lessons_jacob_esau_col_vii.pdf

Here is an excerpt:
<<
Down to our present day we have been able to observe the disastrous consequences of a one-sided approach to the unique task of being a Jew. Many a son of a pious talmid chacham has been totally lost to Judaism because his father insisted on training him to become a talmid chacham without considering whether his personality and inclinations truly lay in that direction. Thus he is exposed to Jewish life in only one context: that of a quiet existence of study and meditation for which he has neither talent nor desire. What attracts him instead is the busy, colorful life of the world outside. But as a result of the narrow view of life in which he has been trained he gets the impression that in order to participate in the active, variegated life for which he yearns, he must give up his mission as a Jew. He consequently abandons his Judaism in order to fling himself into the maelstrom of excitement and temptations offered by the world outside.

The story of such an individual might end quite differently if only, instead of forcing him into the mold of a talmid chacham, his father would raise him from the very beginning to become a man of the world who, at the same time, is faithful to his duties as a Jew; if only that father would teach this son that the activities of the world outside, too, have their place in God's plan, that it is possible to preserve and to demonstrate one's complete loyalty to Judaism even as a sophisticated man of the world. He should make his son understand that, as a matter of fact, many, if not perhaps the most important, aspects of Jewish living are intended primarily to be practiced amidst the conditions and aspirations of everyday life, in the midst of the world and not in isolation from it. He should make his son understand that the Taryag Mitzvos are not meant to be observed in the klaus [Judeo-German equivalent for a small synagogue. (Ed.)] or in the beth hamidrash but precisely in the practical life of the farmer or the public-spirited citizen. If only that father would make it clear to his son that the spirit and the happiness of Judaism are just as accessible to a Zevulun "in the world outside" as they are to an Issachar "in the tents,"—who knows whether that son might not stand by his father's deathbed and gently close his father's eyes as a loyal, pious Jew?
>>

The above is from RSRH's essay "Lessons From Jacob and Esau" that appears on pages 319 - 331 of his Collected Writing VII. This volume deals with his thoughts on Jewish Education. For the rest of this most insightful essay on Chinuch, see http://www.stevens.edu/golem/llevine/rsrh/lessons_jacob_esau_col_vii.pdf

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Biblical characters in your life (and classroom)

I was recently directed to a blog that presented the following questions:

  • Which biblical character do you feel you are most like?
  • Which biblical character would you marry?
  • Which biblical character would you want on your team (or on your side, during a war?)
  • Which biblical character would you want to be close friends with?
  • Which biblical character do you think would make an excellent Disney villain?

    While the author presented these as a sort of brainteaser, it strikes me that it would be a great exercise for the classroom – try it!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Ask Wiki now in alpha

AskWiki -- a natural language search engine for the English Wikipedia entries -- is now in alpha. A great tool for students and teachers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Curricular integration in the courts

Rabbi Jack Beiler sent me the following email:

One of my students as well as several friends involved in the legal profession have called my attention to the fact that one of my essays that appears on the Lookstein site was referenced in a Second Circuit Appellate Court Decision re: a dispute between a day school and the village in which it is situated.

The issue involved is a novel legal application of the concept of integration between Judaic and general studies. I have been told that the Second Circuit is quite prestigious and influences the legal decisions of other courts as well.



Larry Kobrin forwarded to me the relevant reference and suggested that it be shared in the context of the Missions Statement discussion that took place on Lookjed this past summer. If I understand correctly, in this case the school's presentation of all of its in-school activities as involving integration with Judaism was an important part of its argument that its expansion plans were protected by laws guaranteeing freedom of religion.

The excerpt reads as follows:

B. Westchester Day School's Aims

As a Jewish private school, Westchester Day School provides its students with a dual curriculum in Judaic and general studies. Even general studies classes are taught so that religious and Judaic concepts are reinforced. In the nursery and kindergarten classes no distinction exists between Judaic and general studies; the dual curriculum is wholly integrated. In grades first through eighth, students spend roughly half their day on general subjects such as mathematics and social studies and half on Judaic studies that include the Bible, the Talmud, and Jewish history.

In an effort to provide the kind of synthesis between the Judaic and general studies for which the school aims, the curriculum of virtually all secular studies classes is permeated with religious aspects, and the general studies faculty actively collaborates with the Judaic studies faculty in arranging such a Jewish-themed curriculum. For example, the General Studies Curriculum Guide describes how social studies is taught in grades 6, 7, and 8, explaining that WDS tries "to develop an understanding of humanistic, philosophical thought, the nature of cause and effect in history, and the application of ethical Judaic principles to history and daily life" (emphasis added). The Guide further notes that "[s]tudying the history of Eretz Yisrael [the land of Israel] has become an increasingly prominent feature of assemblies and social studies lessons." And, the Guide's Science Curriculum Map notes that in science class first graders are taught about "the world around them [and] the seasonal changes and connections to the Jewish holidays" (emphasis added).

The school's physical education teachers confer daily with the administration to ensure that during physical education classes Jewish values are being inculcated in the students. This kind of integration of Jewish and general culture is made possible when a school actively and consciously designs integrated curricular and extracurricular activities on behalf of its student body. See Jack Bieler, Integration of Judaic and General Studies in the Modern Orthodox Day School, 54:4 Jewish Education 15 (1986), available at http://www.lookstein.org/integration/bieler.htm. Thus, the school strives to have every classroom used at times for religious purposes, whether or not the class is officially labeled Judaic.

A Jewish day school like WDS exists, at least in part, because Orthodox Jews believe it is the parents' duty to teach the Torah to their children. Since most Orthodox parents lack the time to fulfill this obligation fully, they seek out a school like WDS.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

An open letter to the teachers and principals of the Modern Orthodox school system

A young man with whom I had the pleasure of meeting while working on an educational program a short while ago, asked that I share this with the community of Jewish educators.

I welcome your reaction to it.

Mo'adim Le-Simcha!
Shalom


<<
This past summer I was a counselor on a prominent Israel touring program for eleventh graders. Most of the participants hailed from the New York metropolitan area where they attend a variety of Modern Orthodox schools. I am writing to you because I was deeply disturbed at the complete apathy of these professedly Modern Orthodox teenagers towards their religion and its values. To them, Halakhah was a burden to be thrown off at the turn of the counselor's back, or even in front of him, spitefully. Besides for the typical Zionism espoused by Jews of their background, these teens had no sense of Jewish mission, responsibility, or experience.

Not only did they not want to daven, many of them did not even know how. Tzitzit were not worn. Tzniut and shemirat negiah were non-existent. It is almost laughable that in just a few years many of these same kids will be deciding between various one-year yeshivot in Israel, because now they can hardly be distinguished as Jews, save for the few that wear kipot on a consistent basis. Finally, and some would consider most distressing, was the severe lack of midot and derech eretz displayed by so many of my campers in so many different venues. This disrespect was directed not only towards their counselors, but towards the staff and property of the hotels and sites we visited. One look at the squalor left on the bus for the drivers to clean up would be telling enough in this respect.

An anecdote is quoted in the name of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, to justify, as it were, the Modern Orthodox lifestyle. This story has a group of Haredi youngsters hesitate to help out a non-religious merchant whose car had gotten stuck, based on a discussion from a relevant gemara. “Children of that age from our camp would not have known the gemara,” wrote Rav Lichtenstein, “but they would have helped him.” I cannot know for sure, but sometimes I found myself thinking that my kids would neither help the driver nor know the gemara.

Where does Modern Orthodox education go wrong? Why does Judaism have to be a “winter sport,” all religious conscience shedding with the good weather? What is it that nine months in Israel can do that we can't do in twelve years? Unfortunately, I can't say I have the answers to these questions. However, there are two topics that I think were missing in my education (a mere two years ago) and, from my conversations and sessions with them, sorely missing from the education of my campers.

The first issue is that of “the why.” Any grade-schooler knows that the first class of a good history course is “why do we learn history?” Is there a similar “why do we learn gemara” lesson built into the Talmud curriculum? Or, for that matter, is there ever a “why be Jewish” session given to a group that is largely disinterested in Judaism? How can a sixteen-year-old with the ever-present distractions of modern culture be expected to sit down and learn hours of ancient texts on a daily basis, without understanding or feeling the importance and excitement of what he or she is doing?

Secondly, there is little to no exposure to our hashkafa. Yes, we are modern: secular subjects are taught, the arts and humanities are valued. Yes, we are orthodox: Torah is taught, Halacha is enforced. But is there any attempt at teaching and explaining the synthesis of the two? The same goes for Religious Zionism. Instead of teaching students medieval Jewish philosophy, why don't we expose them to the names and schools of thought on which their entire lifestyle is based. The few of my campers who had heard of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik knew nothing about him. Every mamlachti dati high school student in Israel is at least familiar with seminal works such as Kol Dodi Dophek and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Why can't we do the same?

I do not intend to imply that we will be able to imbue every single student with eagerness and enthusiasm by appealing to their intellects. The occupants of the school system come from such varied backgrounds and levels of religiosity that it would be nearly impossible to design a curriculum that will cater to everybody's religious needs. But we must at least give them a chance. A chance to see what lies behind our religion, instead of just showing them the sometimes dry and difficult exterior. A chance to see that being frum should not be something exclusive to those who have spent a year in Israel, and maybe giving them a little taste of what the Israel experience has to offer.

When Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah unconditionally, it was only after having been witness to the hand of God in the Ten Plagues and the Splitting of the Sea. And even then, they sinned. How much more so must we work to show the Bnei and Bnot Yisrael of today the Godliness that is all around them, so that they too can accept the Torah.

Sincerely,
Julian Horowitz
>>

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Church versus State

The doors opened to the Ben Gamla Hebrew Charter School last week, but already there are problems. The school board has rejected the Hebrew language curriculum, saying that it overstepped the bounds of the church-state divide, and now the school has suspended Hebrew classes.

The challenge is teaching Hebrew and Jewish culture without teaching Judaism. Some critics insist that there is no way to do this. Others argue that schools that teach foreign languages do not necessarily teach an associated religion.

Is it possible to teach Hebrew without teaching Jewish culture? Is Jewish culture another way of saying Judaism?

Read the New York Time's article here.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Solution for day school tuition?

Rising tuitions are a constant issue of concern for Jewish parents with children in day school. For what it's worth, the Jerusalem Post asked some of the leading Presidential contenders for their solution to the tuition crisis. Read their answers here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Meditation and learning

A new stress reducing program, "mindfulness training", is being tested in classroom across the US:

"Dr. Saltzman, co-director of the mindfulness study at Stanford, said the initial findings showed increased control of attention and “less negative internal chatter — what one girl described as ‘the gossip inside my head: I’m stupid, I’m fat or I’m going to fail math,’ ” Dr. Saltzman said.

A recent study of teenagers by Kaiser Permanente in San Jose, Calif., found that meditation techniques helped improve mood disorders, depression, and self-harming behaviors like anorexia and bulimia."

Saturday, June 16, 2007

What do students remember?

After all is said and done, how much of what students learn in school do they remember?

In the classes I took with Nechama Leibowitz, she often said that students do not remember anything (if memory serves, her point was that teachers should spend more time teaching methods of study, rather than content).

In any case, for those of us who wonder about this, I thought that the "Five minute University" might be something to consider. See it at http://www.cs.washington.edu//info/videos/asx/5minuteU.asx

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

who runs the show

One of the perennial questions I struggle with is who should be running the show in Jewish day schools. On the one hand, schools are started by and designed to serve the community. As such, the community should determine what is appropriate for it - policies, educational agenda, pedagogical approach, etc. On the other hand, community people and lay leaders are neither religious authorities nor are they educational professionals (I assume the principals and heads of school are educational professionals). Then again, are the parents the ultimate consumers, since they pay the bills, or is it our students?

Another way of viewing this is the question of the nature of schools. Are schools communal organs, part of the religious establishment, or professional environments in which the professionals direct the show?

In the ideal there would be convergence between the groups - communities would hire leaders and educators who are completely in sync with the community. But we don't live in an ideal world.

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Gay Parade and Orthodox Judaism

The Jerusalem Post reports that rabbis have enacted a curse against any involved in any way with the planned Gay parade that is due to take place in Jerusalem on June 21st (see http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?c=JPArticle&cid=1181228589549&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull).

While the paper puts the onus on extreme anti-Zionist Hareidi rabbis, Jews from many streams of Orthodox Judaism were involved in threatening last year's attempted parade with violence. The parade was eventually changed to a rally at the Hebrew University, as the police could not otherwise guarantee the safety of the participants; they feared there would be loss of life.

Many orthodox Jews saw the cancellation as a victory. Essentially however, it was a black day for Judaism. Orthodox Jews proved that they had lost the debate, that their arguments were unpersuasive and that they lacked a common language with the general public.

If we want Orthodox Judaism to be taken seriously we must remove the stain of barbarity and threat. Let us use logical persuasion rather than violent threats – and if our logic loses, then let us wear sackcloth and mourn; but let us not dishonour Judaism with threats of violence against our fellow Jews.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Anti-Semitism: Good for the Jews

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA, wrote a provocative piece in today's Wall Street Journal, arguing that moderate anti-Semitism is good for the Jews and for Israel. He writes:
<<
Publicly visible anti-Semitic advocacy is, at least in America today, an important informational tool: It informs American Jews of the value of Jewish institutions, and it presents this information in an especially emotionally effective way.
>>

I would like to think that people should identify with the Jewish community for positive reasons – that is the way I think that children should be educated – and his claim that it is negative statements that carry the most weight in creating group identification among Jews is profoundly disturbing to me, especially since I fear that it might be true.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Is Live and Let Live Enough?

A debate has been raging in The Times (London, of course) between believers in God and atheists, in the wake an article by Professor Richard Dawkins, defending his book "The God Delusion" see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1779771.ece. It was followed up by an interview of him, counter articles by other columnists and of course, reader talkback.

Much of the reader debate has not centered on proving or disproving God's existence. Both sides seem to admit that it cannot be done. Rather, much of the debate has centered on why either side feels the need to promote their views to others. Why can't we all live and let live. The believers feel the need to save others, while the atheists feel the need to reveal the folly and even danger of the believers.

I must say that I have sympathy for both arguments. On numerous occasions I have been accosted by Christian missionaries wanting me to see the light and be granted a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Annoyingly, they have even prayed in front of me to the Nazarene, that I accept him into my heart. I don't like it when I see Jewish kiruv workers doing similar things.

And yet, I believe I have something precious in my faith, which I would like my fellow Jews to feel. While, I think "saving" a person has more to do with being moral than religious, I still cannot help to want to teach the beauty of Judaism and yet, I do not want to impose my views on others.

Can a religious Jew really accept the doctrine of live and let live?

I believe that the answer is yes and no. We must be involved in the world and we must work hard to make it a better place; but not because we are right and because others are wrong. Not because we have the truth and because the others must be saved from falsehood.

We must interact because we all have so much to learn from one another. We must interact with respect, with an openness and as equals.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Privacy and the generation gap

Andy Warhol said "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. With Web 2.0, myspace, facebook, etc., it's certainly becoming true. But is it a good thing or bad - or are we even asking the right questions?

From New York magazine:

"And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up “putting themselves out there” and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it." [say anything]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Homework - do we really need it?

As a child I hated homework and now that I'm a parent I hate it even more. It seems to rob the kids of having any opportunity to spend time running around outside after spending all those hours at schools. Even more so in Israel, where children study 6 days a week.

But now I feel like someone's proven what I've been feeling for years. According to Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish in their book "The Case Against Homework" , there is almost no evidence that homework helps elementary school students achieve academic success and there is little evidence that it helps older students. Yet daily, children around the world are heavily burdened with homework. This is even harder for the day school child with longer school hours. Do we really need to put our children through the angst of daily homework? Are we needlessly robbing our children of the sleep and play, and exercise time they need for proper physical, emotional, and neurological development?

Five hundred million dollars

We all like to dream - If I were a rich man ... If I had a million dollars ...

Suppose someone offered you five hundred million dollars to some something transformative for American Jewry. What would you do with that money? Build day schools? Fix those that are already there? Design outreach programs for the less affiliated? Expand Birthright? Setting up learning centers on college campuses? Build a "Foreign Ministry" for the Jewish people?

OK, I don't have that kind of money to throw around. But to dream of what we would do with extraordinary resources should help guide what we do with more limited reources. So let's dream - what would you do with it?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Public Enemy #1: Your local Jewish day school

The topic of day schools comes up every so often at jpsot.org, but it is usually only in passing, while advocating public school education. This week, however, there was a passionate (and sometimes bitter) debate about whether supporting day schools undermines the values of an equal and just society. Having never thought about day schools in quite this light before, I found it to be an interesting read. I won't give away the conclusion, but I think our neighborhoods are safe. Read the debate here and here.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A new way to deal with bullying

Bullying has become a major concern in many schools today, and Jewish schools are no exception.

In one California school, an elementary school student was suspended for bullying. Her mother did not want her "punishment" to be hanging around the house watching cartoons, so she devised a more creative way for her to spend her time off.

As a principal I wouldn't have done it, but if her mother wants to, it works for me.

Hat tip: Shira Borstein

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Too Much Doing and Not Enough Being

A recent article in the London Times shows that commuters all over the world are walking much faster than they were ten years ago (see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article1733967.ece). The gist of the article is that in the [post] modern world, people are too busy today to enjoy life in their quest to achieve.

In a recent Lookstein Center webconference on spirituality, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David asserted that people often neglect their essence, rather than being "human beings", they become "human doings".

Has Judaism has also been affected by this process? Is it possible that Orthodox Jews have become obsessed with the minutiae of halachik achievement, constantly adopting more stringencies and practices, that they have stopped thinking about and appreciating the purpose of our halachik practice? Has keeping halacha to its strictest degree overtaken its purpose of bringing us closer to God and Man?

For example, rather than becoming liberated by Pesach, many of us have become slaves to its halachik (or pseudo-halachik) stringencies and rather than creating a holy society, strict separation of the sexes on even busses and taxis, has often succeeded in desecrating God's name (See Zvi Grumet's schmoozed http://schmoozed.lookstein.org/2007/05/jewish-education-works.html).

Monday, May 14, 2007

Jewish Education Works!

People often complain about what's wrong with Jewish education. Why doesn't it work? Here's a true story about Jewish education that worked.

Outside Ben Gurion airport arrivals, I'm on a long line waiting for the Nesher shared taxi to Jerusalem. The dispatcher, walking up and down the line, spots me.

"Are you going to Jerusalem" - "Yes"
"Are you traveling alone? - "Yes"
"OK, come with me."

Delighted about avoiding a long wait, I am ushered to the front Nesher! God is good to me today. As the driver takes my luggage, I notice a young woman leaving the taxi. She identifies her luggage in the back of the taxi, which is promptly removed.

As I enter the van I survey the scene and quickly figure out what had happened. The back row was occupied by three hareidi young men, with one seat left. The woman was unwelcome to sit next to them, and had to find place on a different taxi.

Moral dilemma: do I take the seat and enjoy my good fortune, or do I refuse to reap the fruits of an injustice done to another? I sat, and the taxi took off.

Conveying my good fortune to my wife I explain that I was the beneficiary of a magnificent hillul Hashem, and that I was feeling somewhat awkward (even as we sped homeward).

The young hareidi men apparently understood English, and when I hung up the phone (yes, I plead guilty to speaking on a cell phone in public) they challenged my description of the event as a hillul Hashem.

What was to me self-evident apparently needed some explanation, which for the next twenty minutes to half-hour I gladly proferred. It was very simple: If, as a result of my actions/interactions, another human being thinks more highly of the God of the Jews, then that is a kiddush Hashem. But if as a result of my actions/interactions they think less highly of the God of the Jews, then that is a hillul Hashem. Uncomfortable as they were by my formulation, especially since it suggested that their actions were anything less than laudatory, they provided a simple response - "but that's what we were taught! You're not permitted to sit next to a woman."

Now that's what I call effective Jewish education!

I offered an alternative lesson. I told an apocryphal story of R. Hayyim of Brisk who was visiting another European Rosh Yeshiva in his home. Suddenly, they heard the Polish maid singing. Fearing the prohibition of hearing a woman sing (kol isha), the Rosh Yeshiva got up to silence her. R. Hayyim intervened. "NO!", he said. "She works hard; singing eases her burden. Besides, she is allowed to sing. It is we who are forbidden to listen. We should leave the house." And they did.

My traveling partners understood. Red faced, they admitted that they had no need to compromise on the values they had learned without impinging on her place in that taxi. They could have found themselves another taxi that would have been more religiously suited to them.

And who says that Jewish education doesn't work?

Bad things happening to good people

It's a quandry for anyone who believes in God - if God is good and even more importantly, if God is just, how can God allow bad things to happen to good people? Sorry - I don't have any answers, but this article in the NY Times had an interesting take on it.

It seems to me that maybe we shouldn't be asking "why", because it always does. Maybe the question should be - when bad things happen, what do you do with it?

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Torah, Maddah and doubt

One issue that was not raised in the recent Torah U'Madda discussion on Lookjed was whether academic study itself is a threat to religious belief. This was the topic of discussion in a recent interview that appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, entitled "Losing Faith: How Scholarship Affects Scholars." In it, four Bible/archaeology scholars were asked whether their professional study in a field that held potential discrepancies with their beliefs affected their religious devotion.

Lawrence Schiffman was the (Orthodox) Jewish representative in this conversation, which is subtitled "2 who did and 2 who didn't." I will let you in on his conclusion (he did not find that his studies led him to lose faith), but the conversation is an interesting one.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Remembering the "Forgotten Middle"

A few months ago, I pondered what tuition may be doing to the demography of the committed Jewish family. Although there are some universal tuition reduction programs, and some capped tuition programs, the vast majority of schools rely on need-based scholarships. If those at the top of the income bracket can afford to pay tuition, and lower income families qualify for financial aid, where does that leave middle-income families?

The UJC of MetroWest NJ recently announced a campaign to help reduce tuition in three local day schools, which would help ease the load for those in the middle:

"Consider a family making $200,000 with four kids in day school," said Kushner executive director Michael Grad. "The tuition bill can be more than $60,000. Can they make it?"..."If they were making $50,000 it wouldn't be an issue," he said, because a family in that financial situation would be getting assistance…. Schechter families face similar financial challenges, combined with the fact that day school is not as inevitable an option in the Conservative movement as it is among the Orthodox, said Schechter's head of school, Joyce Raynor."We have anecdotal evidence of people who say, 'We're leaving. Please understand we love the school but our financial situation has changed' or 'We're struggling with three children in the school' or 'I've lost my job,' " Raynor said. "Where do they go? They go to public school."

Read the whole article here.

Hat tip: Peretz Rodman, Mifgashim

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jewish Pride

As an orthodox who is often openly critical of the morals of orthodox Jews and of various other issues about Jews, Judaism and Israel, Shalom's blog below about the honesty of the winner of the Hidon HaTenakh reminded me that it was high time I wrote a piece of why I am proud to be Jewish, and why we can all take pride about the moral values of our people.

The British "Sky News" recently reported about an honesty experiment that was done in Britain (see http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30000-1260939,00.html). Essentially, valuable items such as mobile phones, PDA's and wallets, with the owners' contact details clearly available, were left on busy city streets. Without going into details, suffice it to say that the British public failed the test miserably.

I believe that the Israeli people would have passed this test with flying colors. I obviously do not have any hard evidence about this and I am aware of all the taxi driver stories and the corruption in government, and I'm not naïve, but I have much of my own anecdotal evidence. I've got my own taxi driver story (the time I was halfway down the highway on a long journey in a taxi when I realized I left my wallet at home), the time I lost a credit card on a public bus and the way little children can eat goods in a supermarket before they have been paid for.

We are certainly not perfect, and while we do not always behave as a light unto the nations, we can be very proud of the good we have given and continue to give.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

who's fault is it anyway...

It amazes me how much thought people put into to trying to understand really horrible people? As Shmuel Boteach says in a recent Jerusalem Post article: "A particularly troubling aspect of the news coverage of the gruesome massacre at Virginia Tech is the fact that no one seems to hate the killer, Cheo Seung-Hui. Indeed, he is not even referred to as a killer or a murderer." Is it because we feel empathy for the accused?

Similarly, the Jewish community always worries about the guilty parties to the point where they abandon the victims. For instance, last month when another case of sexual abuse emerged in the Jewish educational community, it became obvious that the community had allowed this to happen. Even people who I consider sensible, think it's okay 'at times' to cover up an incident, to protect the guilty. For instance, when talking about the recent events in Baltimore, a popular Jewish blogger wrote: "the frum community tended to keep things under wraps, but genuinely take care of business. Rabbi Herman Neuberger ...could arrange that someone would never get a job in chinuch again without publicly embarrassing anyone, or so I thought." How could anyone consider any type of cover-up to be 'genuinely taking care of business'?

If someone behaves like a criminal, we shouldn't feel sorry for them, we should punish them. And we shouldn't be afraid to punish them publicly. If not, how are our children to know that they can turn to us for justice?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bible quiz - "only in Israel"

Oftentimes someone sends me "only in Israel" stories. When I read them, my reaction usually is that they would probably happen in any close-knit community, not just in Israel. One event that really is "only in Israel" is the hidon Tanakh that is broadcast live and on national television every year on Yom haAtzmaut. Kids – most, but not all of them from religious schools in Israel and around the world – vie to answer difficult questions from the Bible. The panel of judges includes scholars and political figures in Israel.

I sat with my children this year and watched the contest. As usual, the finalists were a pair of Israeli students – a boy from Jerusalem and a girl from Be'er Sheva – and they ended up in a tiebreaker, each of them responding to a series of rapid-fire questions. Their knowledge was impressive. As the questions were coming to a conclusion it became clear that the young man was very upset about something.

When he was announced the winner, he voiced his complaint – he believed that one of his answers was wrong, and that his adversary should share the first prize with him. Even after the judges assured him that they had accepted his answer (they were just looking for him to say "the king of Assyria" and he said the name of the wrong king of Assyria), he was insistent. He could not accept first prize, since he did not truly deserve it.

His attempt to rectify the injustice made no impression on the Israeli Prime Minister, who announced him the winner against all of his protests, and did not seem to understand what the young man was all upset about.

You can watch the ceremony here (you will have to click on "TV broadcasts" then on "On Demand" and scroll down to find it), and see his comments, where he admits that perhaps he should have made his arguments more politely here.

This reminded me of an article, "Cheating Pays" that Joel Wolowelsky published in Ten Da'at a while back. He argues that it is important to teach our children that honesty will cost you, but that we should strive for it nonetheless. It's worth reading.

I do not mean to say that the State of Israel is a paradigm of honesty, but I couldn't help thinking that what I saw at the Hidon Tanakh this year was an "only in Israel" story.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Some Yom HaAtzmaut resources

I have already posted a list of Yom HaAtzmaut resources from the Lookstein Center, including our newly developed, annotated Israel Online list. This is an opportunity to share a few things that have come my way in the past few days.

Professor Yoram Shachar offers an on-line collection of original documents related to Israel's declaration of independence.

Gil Student (who was my student back in 9th grade) offers different Rabbinic positions on Yom HaAtzmaut and reciting Hallel on that day on his hirhurim blog.

Hillel Nadoff, who occasionally posts on Lookjed, shares early reactions to the establishment of the State on the Torat Imecha list that he moderates.

Jeffrey Wolfe, my neighbor in Efrat and colleague at Bar-Ilan University has uploaded the letter from President Truman recognizing the establishment of the State of Israel

Gila Ansell Brauner has shared the latest materials from the Jewish Agency prepared for Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut

As they say here in Israel, Mo'adim LeSimcha LeGeula Shelemah!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Passion! Passion?

Before I made aliyah I believed that a Jew could live a full, rich Jewish life anywhere there was a healthy Jewish community. Indeed, I felt that I was living a rich Jewish life in my wonderful community and working in the various day schools with which I was associated. The one thing that was missing from that life was passion. Rich, yes. Passionate, no.

One of the things I love about living in Israel is that it is a passionate place. Hagim are hagim, mourning is mourning. You feel it in the air. The cycle of the Jewish year sweeps you along in Technicolor. People daven with intensity; people dedicate themselves to causes with a fervor. Young people believe in things, whatever they may be, and commit themselves to causes.

One of the things that frustrates me about living in Israel is that people live with passion, with intensity, with unbridled dedication, and without a sense of moderation. Arguments are passionate and heated, neighbors yell and scream, fights break out in shul. The volume level of life is high.

Can day schools in the Diaspora inject that kind of passion that drives Jews commit themselves to a life of rich Jewish living? Maybe, maybe not. Do the parents really want them to? We like to believe that we want our kids to take their Judaism seriously, but not too seriously. You know, I wouldn't want my kid to "flip out" or, God forbid, make aliyah or decide to become a Jewish teacher.

Can we teach kids to become passionate without becoming extremists, or is extremism one of the necessary byproducts/risks of teaching kids to leave a passionate life?

Tonight in Israel is Yom Hazikaron - Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers. It affects every home, everyone. In the US it is barely known. Tomorrow night begins Yon Haatzmaut. Regardless of one's political leanings, it is a day of deep, passionate expression. In the US, unless your kids are in day school you are likely to miss the date.

Hag Sameah

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A lesson from the Virginia Tech Massacre by Pesach Sommer

Dear Friends,

I am pasting below an e-mail that I sent to many former talmidim based on what I said this morning in shiur about what occurred at Virginia Tech. I do not claim to have written anything profound, nor do I think that this the only thing that we can teach our talmidim about what happened, but if you feel that anything that I have written is worthwhile, please feel free to use it, or share your thoughts.

I hope you are all well.

Pesach

Over 30 people have been murdered. Numerous others are in the hospital. What are we to make of such a terrible tragedy? While there are many answers to this question, I would like to make one suggestion.

What struck me as the news of this tragedy unfolded was the difficulty the media had in coming up with information about the gunmen. I would have expected all sorts of quotes from roommates and friends, but there were none. Then the reason came out. Nobody on campus really knew him. Yeah sure, they were able to talk about their fear of him, but that's it, he had NO friends.

There is a story that is told, I do not know if it is true, about a boy getting off a school bus carrying all of his school books. He was struggling to carry them, when another boy offered to help carry them. Years later the boy with the book revealed that the reason that he had been carrying all of his books was because he was planning on killing himself when he got home. He had not wanted to add to his parent's burden by making them retrieve his books from school. He had wanted to kill himself because day after day he was ignored. NOT picked on, but ignored. He sensed that no one cared. When this boy helped carry his books, this was enough to change his mind, as he realized that at least one person did care.

I do not know if any of you who are reading this can relate to the feeling of being alone. Thank G-d I can not. But I have developed my soul enough that I can picture what it is like to feel like no one cares. I well remember the relief I felt as a boy, when my classmates ruthlessly picked on a boy day after day. Sometimes I joined in, other times I silently watched, only once did I have the guts to defend him. I am ashamed of that to this day. Surely you must be aware that there are kids in school, both High School and University who have few if any friends, sitting by themselves every day, as various clicks sit around them enjoying themselves, ignoring him. I have seen this in every school I have worked. I have even heard Rabbis refer to these kids as nerds. But they are not nerds, they are people, a lot more like you than you care to admit, kids who just want to feel like they matter.

There is a custom at this time to exhibit acts of mourning as a reminder of the fact that Rabbi Akiva had 24,000 students who died during this time. The Gemara explains that they died because they failed to exhibit proper respect for one another. These Talmudic giants, who reached levels of Torah scholarship beyond what we can imagine, were not allowed to pass on their Torah. Why was so much Torah lost? I have heard a chilling answer to this question. If they had not developed the concept of TRULY loving their fellow like themselves, then all the Torah they learned was flawed. Our goal in studying Torah is not to collect knowledge, but to become holier and more sensitive people. Look around the class and the cafeteria tomorrow. Take notice of those kids who you have ignored in the past. Then have the guts to start to change.

As with everything that I write, if you find this message to be a worthwhile one, please feel free to pass it on.

Rabbi Sommer

The End of Modern Orthodoxy

I believe that Mordern Orthodoxy is the ideal.

However, I'm not sure it is viable anymore.

The world we live in is no longer the modern world of the 19th -mid 20th century: it's a post modern world, and it is hard for an orthodox Jew to interact with it.

When I was growing up my secular friends wanted to debate and I was eager to take part in that debate. Students were active and took Jewish and social issues seriously. I was able to go to parties and not worry about drugs, drunkenness and lewdness. Even television was innocent.

In general people seemed to care much more and were prepared to do something about causes that they considered to be worthy.

However, today it feels that people don't care anymore and that they are not interested in debate. All they want to do is party, and that party is not a place I actually have any desire to be. I have found that I have become somewhat a hermit from the post modrn world.

Can modern orthodox Jews interact with the world when the world just doesn't seem to be interested in any intellectual interaction and when it is actually quite a foul place to be?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Supporting minds not buildings

We often hear of generous grants in the world of education that touch the heart, but John Werner Kluge's donation to Columbia University is still extraordinary. His recent $400 million dollar donation to the university will be used to provide financial aid to needy students. Kluge had been the receipient of financial aid when he was a student and that has changed his philanthropoic outlook: “I’d rather by far invest in people than buildings. If I can infuse a mind to improve itself, that’ll pass on to their children, and to their children’s children.”

How do we choose our children's teachers

Most people want to to see that their children's teachers are well-trained; they want to know that they're paying for quality and often that quality is measured in university degrees.

Interestingly a recent study seems to indicate that the quality of instruction in elementary classrooms has little to do with the teachers credentials.

From Education Week :
"Detailed observations of 5th graders in 20 states show that students in classrooms overseen by teachers labeled as highly qualified spent most of their time in whole-group or individual “seatwork,” focused on basic skills rather than problem-solving activities, and may or may not have received emotional and instructional support from their teachers. "

Thursday, April 5, 2007

A critique of Talmud study in high schools

I do not believe that the situation described in this article is as true in North American Yeshiva High Schools as it is in Israel, nevertheless, it does raise some questions about the curriculum in our schools.
For those of you who are not familiar with the author, Uri Orbach is a popular religious radio personality here in Israel and something of a humorist who focuses on religious culture. See, for example, selections from his ulai b'Shabat yizriku sukariyot.
Hag Same'ah!
Shalom

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Visit a library this holiday

Confession time. I remember very little of what went on in elementary school. I do remember, though, that twice a year we walked about ten minutes to the local branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Pesach vacation is a wonderful time to do things like read a book or visit a library.
This visit to the library of Rav Yisrael Meir Lau is an interesting insight into what makes up a personal library.

Of course, there are many on-line library collections that you might want to visit, like:
The library at JTS and their special exhibit of The Prato Haggadah;
The library at HUC and the collection of illuminated Haggadot that they have available;
The list goes on:
The British Library, Yale, The Library of Congress...

So visit a library. And take your students (and your kids).

Hag Same'ah!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Holiday of (praying for) Freedom

I have found that people are always looking for a new "angle" at their seder. Not that they have a problem with the traditional text and tunes, but that something unexpected should take place, too. This fits in well with the view of the Sages that the seder is an exercise in pedagogy, and that it is essential to keep everyone – and specifically the children – interested and participating.


One of my favorite additions here in Israel is including midrashim on the last passage in the Arami Oved Avi story emphasizing the modern day return to the Holy Land.


Recent contributions to Lookjed have included suggestions that we remember the on-going tragedy in Darfur or, perhaps, the issue of global warming as we celebrate our sedarim. These suggested prayers have been criticized by some Lookjed readers who argue that the Pesach seder should reflect ideals of freedom, and should not be a "catch-all" for every prayer.


Which is why I would like to point you to a new prayer that I think we can all agree is appropriate for seder night. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel has written a prayer calling for freedom for the three Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped last summer. You can find the prayer in English or in Hebrew.


Hag Kasher ve-Same'ah!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Admor, Adless

Earlier this week I found myself at the Kotel sometime after 10 PM. I hadn't been there at night for quite a while, and found myself surprised by the sheer number of people who were there. In the midst of all the activity, the gates to the plaza suddenly entered and a car came speeding through, screeching to a halt as it reached the end of the plaza (perhaps 250 feet). Curious to see who the VIP being rushed in was I peered through the crowds, but could see nothing more than four hasidim who jumped out of the small car and rushed off.

Three minutes later the gates opened again, and this time it was a van which came speeding through the plaza. It, too, screeched to a halt at the other end, and when the doors opened there were a large number of hasidim who emerged, togsther with their Rebbe, the Admor. (I will not identify the particular sect.) He was a man in his late 50's, finely dressed with a distinguished appearance.

Within minutes, hundreds of his hasidim, from teens to middle-aged men, flocked to his side, and escorted him inside the "tunnel", where they gathered for Maariv. The dedication, devotion and commitment they showed toward their Rebbe was admirable, perhaps even inspiring. But it was exactly that dedication that caused me to wonder.

I'm sure that getting the Rebbe to Maariv on time was important. Was it important enough to speed through a crowded plaza, endangring the dozens, if not hundreds or people who were there? Was the Rebbe not aware of the road carnage in Israel, which claims more victims than all the wars and terrorism? I am sure that one word from the Rebbe to have his hasdim drive more responsibly would have immediate impact, ad perhaps sent an important message to them all about road safety.

I am similarly puzzled why the Rebbe, and his colleagues (both in the hasidic and the Yeshiva worlds), hesitate to issue an outright, unambiguous ban on smoking. If their followers hang onto their every word - from voting preferences to Kashrut supervisions to public demonstrations - surely they would adhere to an edict declaring cigarettes to be as forbidden (or more so!) than pork (or non-halav Yisrael milk or products with only the supervision of the Israeli Rabbinate).

Cynicism aside, I began to reflect on all of our leadership models, including the educational ones. It is very flattering to have students who become personal adherents. They hang onto every word, send gifts for the holidays, call you for years afterward, invite you to their weddings, and remind you of how important an influence you were on their lives. Such relationships come with at least three significant dangers.

First, there is a profound responsibility the teacher bears. If the students follow the teacher so carefully, even mundane things the teacher never intended to become educational lessons suddenly take on gravitas. The teacher must watch his/her every move.

Second, such attachments threaten the independence and personal development of the students. The exaggerated attachments prevent the students from truly coming into their own and becoming self-secure adults.

Third, these types of relationships easily lend themselves to abuse. We have been flooded the past few years with numerous incidents, both in Israel and the US, of such abuse - by teachers, Rabbis, etc. Multiple organizations have been established to deal with these, and some of the leaders have been criminally prosecuted. The very teacher-student relationships which are so critical to the healthy growth can metastasize into ugly distortions of themselves.

Leaders with real followers have profound responsibilities, both for what they say and do as well as for what they refrain from saying or doing. Responsibilty for the sins of omission is as great as for the sins of commission.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Kiruv Field Workers and Teachers

I'm coming out! I declare publicly, without hesitation or shame, that I am an orthodox Jew. Moreover, I would only be delighted if more Jews were to appreciate the wisdom of our tradition and to accept the yoke of Torah and mitzvot.

Why is it then that I am uncomfortable with the concept of the Kiruv movement, organized groups that aim to bring Jews back to religious observance?

I have identified two problems:

1. Kiruv tends to be one way traffic
2. Some Kiruv movements are interested in the ends not the means

What do I mean?

Even though I am an orthodox Jew who regularly studies and teaches Torah, I acknowledge that I do not have the answers to life's problems. I also have many doubts as to whether "my" way is the really right way. Furthermore, living in an orthodox community, I see, as well as the very many positive things, the myriad of problems that an orthodox way of life causes. I also see the contradictions and the hypocrisy.

Furthermore, I have learned and gained so many positive values from many of my non-orthodox and secular (and dare I even add, non-Jewish) friends and family.

We all have so much to learn from each other. However, my experience from some organized Kiruv movements (which includes training to be a kiruv field worker) is that they believe that they have a perfect gift to give. So perfect is that gift, that they had nothing to learn from others outside of the faith. Rather, everyone had to be saved.

Therefore, all the methods of encouraging people to orthodoxy were pseudo-educational, rather than educational. As a Kiruv trainee, I was taught how to give quick answers to difficult questions. A pretense of learning was made, rather than serious inquiry.

However, more disturbingly, I was taught amateur psychology, i.e., how to make a quick psychological analysis of a person, and to then feed them with the parts of Judaism that suited them best.

While, I cannot come out say that all this was wrong, after all, salesmen and advertisers use similar techniques (I guess I find them distasteful too!!), and we all do similar things at least on a sub-conscious level. Nevertheless, I was left with the unpleasant impression that some kiruv groups treated Judaism as a commercial product, and that they often used unethical and even dishonest methods in order to sell that product.

Judaism is very precious to me and I would like other Jews (all other Jews, in fact) to stake their claim and commitment to it, however, I would like to see that attained through a two way educational process, rather than latent coercion.

The fear I have, is that many Jewish Studies teachers in our schools are really kiruv field workers, rather than serious educators.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Second-hand eating disorders

For most of my career as a professional Jewish educator, I worked in programs whose students either included or were solely made up of young women. One of the unfortunate things that I learned in those settings was that today, high-achieving, middle class adolescent girls are more likely to suffer from eating disorders than any other group, and that Jewish high school and post-high school programs are made up of precisely those students. As one of my colleagues noted, if we had 100 students in the program every year, 10-15 of them were suffering from eating disorders. The only question was whether the faculty and administration would spot them and be able to help them.

Although the staff may not have been aware of the students who were suffering from such disorders, their friends and classmates usually were well aware of the situation - and often suffered along with them in one way or another. In fact, they were often the source of information that made the school realize that there was a problem. The difficulty was making students aware that sharing this information with the school was not "tattle-tailing" on their friend, but was helping them.

I was reminded of this when reading a recent NYTimes article that described the effect of anorexia on the siblings of the sufferer.

All too often we mistake an eating disorder for a diet. Ignoring these issues can be dangerous – not only to the physical well-being of the students, but to the psychological well-being of those around her, as well.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Canned Divrei Torah

As we approach pesah I am reminded of the hours of preparation day school students undergo so that they can properly perform at the family Seder. That includes not only the requisite recitation of Mah Nishtanah (in 3 tunes and four languages), but the reams of Divrei Torah kids bring home to share with their families. It's the the same syndrome of the canned Shabbat Divrei Torah read off of parsashah sheets, but magnified many times over. That must be why outside of Israel there are two days of Seder - to allow for the recitation of all those Divrei Torah.

It's hard not to be cynical. Recent seminary graduates (both men and women), full of enthusiasm for what inspired them, carefully prepare sheets with shortened versions of complex ideas which the students for sure do not understand, and maybe even the teachers themselves. Ask any of these kids a question about their devar Torah, and you are met with a blank stare - it's not on the sheet!

The imperative to speak words of Torah at a meal (and not just a Shabbat meal!) are meant to ensure that the topic of conversation around the table is to revolve around weighty matters, not to have a perfunctory performance. Similarly, the Seder is not designed as a forum for showcasing kids' talents at reading, but is the quintessential educational interactive session, in which parents dialogue with their children to try to engage them in a meaningful exploration of Yetziat Mitzrayim and its themes. Somehow, this all gets lost.

Perhaps we should be encouraging our schools to teach kids to ask questions of their parents, rather than be the source of instruction to the parents. and if the parnets don't know - let them come and learn, or maybe even explore together with their kids. Who knows, maybe they'll manage to stay awake till the meal.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Guess who's coming to dinner?

So you are running a Jewish day school and the community begins to change. More Jews moving out; more Moslems moving in. What do you do?


Well, for the King David School in Birmingham, England there was one obvious solution – encourage non-Jewish children to join. According to news reports half of the students in the school today are Muslims (35% of them are Jewish). So what makes it a Jewish school? Well, everything but the student body. They learn Hebrew, celebrate Yom ha-Atzma'ut and say Keri'at Shema in unison every morning.

From the story in the paper it does not sound as if intermarriage is a problem, although the students are said to stay in close touch and attend each others' weddings. In fact, it seems as though everyone – especially the Moslems – are excited about the opportunities for intercultural interaction. One Moslem parent is quoted as saying "We were attracted by the high moral values of the school, and that's what we wanted our kids to have. None of us has any problem with it being a Jewish school. Why on earth should we? Our similarities as religions and cultures are far greater and more important than our differences. It's not even an issue."

So I am torn. I really believe that in school – certainly in primary school – Jewish children should be surrounded by Jewish friends who share their basic value system. On the other hand, is it better that the Jewish school should close down and stop servicing the local children? And wouldn't it be a great thing if all of us grown-ups would decide that "our similarities as religions and cultures are far greater and more important than our differences" and get along a little better with our neighbors?

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Is Israel Important?

Recently Zach Luck lamented the state of Israel education in the American Jewish educational system claiming that it has inadequately prepared students to deal with the harsh realities of Israel. While it’s true that Jewish American students know little about Israel, it’s inaccurate and unfair to blame only the educational system. A school’s curriculum reflects what the community thinks is important. Apparently teaching about Israel is not really that important. Think about it: how many day/supplementary schools have proper Israel Studies curriculum or formally integrate its study into subjects where it would fit naturally (i.e. Hebrew Language & Lit., Tanakh, etc.)? We can’t expect students to cultivate non-clichéd opinions about Israel without teachers teaching it properly, nor expect teachers to provide anything beyond a look through rose-colored glasses if they’re not given the class time or resources, and we can’t expect schools to address this unless the community starts asking for it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Ad De Lo Yada – I Won't Drink To That

Purim is almost upon us. It's a time of great merriment and joy as Jews celebrate salvation from the brink of destruction. There are numerous unusual ways in which Jews are supposed to celebrate this day – however, it's not by desecrating the name of God.

I remember my yeshiva days, and rabbis talking about what it means to get drunk on Purim. And then I remember Purim night, the rowdiness and the pools of vomit whose aromas wafted along the campus.

Something's wrong.

Apart from the fact:

  • that the Talmudic statement, "hayav inush livesume" is unclear as to its actual meaning,
  • that Maimonides gives it a more sobering interpretation,
  • that even if alcohol consumption is a mitzvah, it is only with wine and no other liquor,
  • that even if there is a mitzva, it is only during the Purim seuda and not throughout the day (and certainly not the night before!!)

And even if we can find some Talmudic legitimization for drinking on Purim, surely common sense teaches us that the encouragement of young immature students, who in many cases it is even illegal for them to be drinking, is wrong.

I've heard many people argue, that the mitzvah is only for special people. Well, as educators we always try and get our students to model our behavior. If rabbis are really so great, why are they not great enough to realize the terrible example a drunken educator can teach.

It is tragic that not only is God's name desecrated in the mistaken belief that a mitzvah is being performed, but that God fearing educators are encouraging this desecration.

Who pays for the kids?

Here's a new twist on an old theme. In one community, schools have banded together to withhold (!) tuition assistance from families with more than 8 children. You heard right. The schools simply cannot afford to hand out free tuition to parents who were not responsible enough to plan for the financial stability of the families they were having. It's a novel thought - you want to have children, make sure you can afford to support them.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Do you believe in evolution? You should.

Some people get their backs up when they hear others talk about how Jews control the world. Not me.

Since we control the banking industry, I am just waiting for my cut.

Since we control the media, I am waiting for the TIME magazine front page article about me.

Since we control Hollywood, I am waiting for the call to star in the next Harry Potter movie (As an educator, I hope to get to play Dumbledor).

Since we control education, it appears that Jews are behind the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools. Not any of us personally…no, it is the Rabbis of the Talmud, the Sages of old, who first came up with this one.

Don't believe me? See the website of the good people at the Fair Education Foundation. They'll explain it better than I can.

I know, you wonder why I am sending you to a website run by a bunch of crazies. Well that is because so many other people are, apparently, taking this nonsense seriously.

So go ahead, teach evolution. If it is good enough for the ancient Rabbis, it should be good enough for you.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Is Book Banning Acceptable?

This year's winner of the Newbery Medal, a prestigious award in children’s literature, was Susan Patron for her book "The Higher Power of Lucky" and it's causing an uproar in libraries across the USA. On the first page of this book about a 10 year old girl appears the word "scrotum", and it is this word that has reopened the debate on what constitutes acceptable content in children’s books. Librarians around the country have been threatening to ban the book because they feel that the language is inappropriate for children.

From the The NY Times article
"Ms. Nilsson, [a librarian] reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. “I don’t want to start an issue about censorship,” she said. “But you won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.”

Friday, February 16, 2007

Florence Melton, Jewish Educational Visionary

Florence Melton, the woman who revitalized adult Jewish learning in the English-speaking world died earlier this week. Over 20,000 Jewish adults have studied about Judaism in the Florence Adult Mini-Schools since they were established in 1986. Florence Melton said that she pursued adult Jewish education because Jewish children learned how to observe the rituals, but they grew into adults who did not know about “their history, Jewish values, the ideas of Judaism and why they should be proud to be Jewish.”

Read the full JTA obituary here.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Academic freedom

I recently came across an article in the Jerusalem Post that describes Bloody Passovers: The Jews of Europe and Ritual Murders, a historical study written by Professor Ariel Toaff of Bar-Ilan University, who argues that some blood libels may not have been libels at all.


Here's an excerpt:

<<
Toaff offers as an example the case of Saint Simonino of Trent. In March 1475, shortly after a child's body was found in a canal near the Jewish area of Trent, the city's Jews were accused of murdering Simonino and using his blood to make matzot.
After a medieval trial in which confessions were extracted by torture, 16 members of Trent's Jewish community were hanged.

Toaff reveals that the accusations against the Jews of Trent "might have been true."

Toaff refers to kabbalistic descriptions of the therapeutic uses of blood and asserts that "a black market flourished on both sides of the Alps, with Jewish merchants selling human blood, complete with rabbinic certification of the product - kosher blood."
>>

Yesterday Bar-Ilan University responded by releasing a statement condemning "any attempt to justify the awful blood libels against Jews" stating that Professor Toaff will be summoned to the president of the university to explain his research, arguing that it is not clear whether the reports in the press accurately describe the research. At the same time the statement asserts that the university "champions freedom of academic and scientific expression as the basis for its research activity."

Bar-Ilan's predicament - balancing academic freedom with basic Jewish beliefs - is one that educators (and parents) face daily. While we aspire to teach our children to be inquisitive, open-minded and critical thinkers, we also want them to come to accept religious dogmas that are difficult to fully explain or prove definitively. Does there come a time when it is appropriate to say to a child "you cannot make a statement like that" or "you cannot ask questions like that"? Can a student be allowed to engage in Holocaust denial? In rejecting Zionism? In questioning the historical accuracy of Megillat Esther? At what point – if at all – do we say "now you've crossed the line"?

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Ethics and Halacha

I would like to share with you an ethical dilemma I had last year. I received a parking ticket (unfairly I might add, but that's another story). Parking fines in England are very expensive. The fine was £80 (around $150) but would be reduced to £40, if I paid within fourteen days.

As I picked up the phone to pay, I noticed that the parking attendant erred in my car's license number. The only identifying feature about the car was the license number. It meant that I was off the hook. Or was I? I checked online to see if another car with the license number on my ticket existed. I saw that there did.

I faced a dilemma: should I pay the ticket or not? On the one hand, I could not get caught, but on the other hand, another person would be sent a large fine in the mail. While this person would presumably be able to prove that they were not guilty of the fine, they would nevertheless have to waste precious time and presumably some expenses, proving it,

I posed this dilemma to a number of friends. All my orthodox friends told me not to pay the fine; their argument being that I have no legal obligation to pay it and that the unknown person would get out of it. On the other hand, all my secular friends told me to pay the fine because the person would face much stress and after all, I was guilty of parking illegally.

The response of my secular friends was more ethical than that of my orthodox friends. I believe that it was because my orthodox friends tackled the dilemma from a halachik, legal angle, while my other friends, who did not have this halachik training, dealt with it from a moral, right vs. wrong angle.

If this is the case, what does it tell us about our halachik and ethical education? Is there an ethical dimension missing in the way we teach halacha?

Saturday, February 3, 2007

A modest proposal

There is no debate that Jewish educators are underpaid. Raising their salaries measn raising tuitions or other significant fundraising attempts, none of which are too popular. Here's a simple proposal.

In my years working in day schools in the States, I discovered that many professionals offered me discounts. Car mechanics whose kids went to the school, accountants, even doctors would sometimes waive the insurance co-pay. True, I would rather have been paid a more respectable salary and paid for my fair portion, but I was certainly happy with the savings, which did add up.
A central agency, such as The Lookstein Center, would issue 'membership' cards to all Jewish educators who register. All Jewish professionals (doctors, lawyers, etc.), businesses, sefarim stores, Judaica shops, kosher restaurants, etc. agree to give Jewish educators showing that card a discount. Many of them anyway give discounts to all sorts of groups - here is a group that is dedicated to serving the Jewish community, and here is an easy way for the community to give back. Those stores that give the discount could proudly display a sign saying something like, "we proudly support our Jewish educators". That advertising itself is good for the stores, and cheap.
I don't think that lots of people will rush to become Jewish educators as a result. But this is one step toward helping those who have made the commitment, and toward communal recognition of the value of those educators.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Improving technology in your school

The Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd) recently unveiled a new web site for delivering technical assistance to educators, technology coordinators, and parents. Here, one can access a comprehensive array of free online tools. The site is organized into three core focus areas:
The Learn Center helps users select resources and tools for implementing technology to support the needs of students;
the Action Center provides tools to plan ed-tech initiatives in the classroom and professional development models;
the Research Center offers CITEd's articles on educational practices grounded on the latest research.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tu BiShvat resource

While driving my kids to school this morning, local newsradio here in Israel reported on the many "Tu BiShvat Seders" that will be taking place in community centers around Israel over the weekend.

For "do it yourselfers" they recomended going to the matnasim website and downloading their Tu BiShvat packet. It looks interesting (even though the introductory letters are signed by Limor Livnat and Natan Sharansky, neither of whom is a govenment minister today, which indicates
that the program is not brand new), and can be accessed in .pdf format .

Eat bokser!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Looking for a few good role models

A recent discussion on Lookjed focused on the need – or appropriateness – of teaching our children to turn to Rabbinic leaders on issues of personal choice. The discussion of Da'as Torah – whether to view Rabbinic Sages (or specific ones, at any rate) as having unique insight to which a committed Jew is obligated to hearken – has a long history, much of which is readily available on-line (as Jonathan Marvin pointed out). In many ways it is a discussion that already has had its lines drawn.

My concern is related, but a different one. I believe that we can all agree that students need role models, people who they can look to as inspiring personalities to emulate. Ideally, they should find them at first in their homes and local communities.

Given the role of the media in contemporary society, role models often are figures in the world of sports and entertainment. This brings with it certain challenges. While there is great value in bringing happiness to people, I am not certain that today's entertainment world is an embodiment of true joy, or if it offers an ephemeral "high" that passes for happiness today.

As our children grow and become more aware of the world around them, such models of leadership should be people who have made their mark on the larger community. Depending on a child's interest, it probably makes sense for us to direct our children's attention to a scientist whose work has made people live longer or better, a developer whose buildings house thousands or a visionary whose ideas have made the world a better place.

My greatest concern relates to leadership figures who are truly in a position that calls for role-modeling. Someone who enters the public arena in a position of leadership – say, the President, Prime Minister, Chief Rabbi, Justice Minister, etc. – is, by definition, someone who we should be able to point to as a model for our students and children. If we would like to encourage them to take initiative and responsibility as adults, it just seems logical that such figures should be people who inspire respect. Unfortunately, such is not the case today – and while I am writing from the perspective of someone who lives in Israel, I believe that recent events concerning public officials in Israel are covered by the media around the world, and are of concern to everyone who feels connected to the Jewish State.

How are we to inspire our children to want to lead and impact on their community, when it appears that the people who fill so many of those types of positions today are the living antithesis of the values and aspirations that we hold out for our children?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Back to Basics

With all this talk about curriculum choices, Cyberdov reminds us of a more fundamental element of education--the role of the teacher. He recently related a story about a talk Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, rabbi of the NYU Hillel, gave at the Riverdale Jewish Center:

[Sarna] related that when he first came to NYU Hillel, he figured his job was
basically to teach and learn. Through a very moving story of a formative
experience there, he ultimately came to understand that his real job was to care
- deeply - about the students on campus, as individuals… What they really seek
are people to care about them.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Career in Learning

A friend of mine was recently approached by a relative of his, concerning the financial plight of a young couple. The couple, both orphans, had just had their third child in five years. The oldest child was forced to sleep on the floor, as the parents could not afford a bed, as the father was in full-time learning, making only 1,000 NIS (around $230) a month. The friend bought a bed for the child, as she could not bear the idea of the three year old sleeping on the floor. Nevertheless, before she made delivery of the bed, she made her feelings known to the relative that it was unacceptable for the father to be neglecting his family in such a way. She felt that it was a disgrace that he sat and learnt while his family was left starving.

I feel the same way but do not have the nerve to express this to the people suffering. Often, people knock on my door asking for financial help. I never say no, but I always get irked when after telling me his sob story, the person says that he’s in kollel, as if he is doing something so righteous that I have a duty to support him. I always want to shout out: "So get a job then instead of coming round begging!" It is for this reason that for a few a years now I have stopped donating money to Kollels – I see them as the biggest perpetuators of poverty (possibly after certain Israeli political parties) amongst our people.

As you can imagine, those collecting for kollels often challenge me, saying that the learning their students do helps sustain our people. The problem is that I do not believe that to be the case. Most people are in Kollel because they do not know what else to do. Very few actually learn all day long, many double dip, going to different kollels in the morning and afternoon, claiming an allowance twice, (many also go to a further evening kollel and get a third allowance) and many, do not even bother turning up to their kollel, yet still claim their stipend. Very few are in it for the sake of heaven.

I remember a conversation I once had with a young kollel student. He told me that because his wife worked and they only had one child, he did not need to bother with evening kollel.

However, what bothers me most is the way that many educators not only encourage their students to be kollel learners (and female students to marry those in learning)--they actually look down on those who choose a career, as if they are only second best or have somehow failed.

It is time that our religious leaders and educators look about and see the damage that this policy is doing to young families. Poverty is not an ideal; it is an evil. I really have no problem with a select elite of brilliant people choosing this lifestyle and being supported by the community. However, career learning, in its present format is creating and perpetuating tremendous suffering.

Coincidentally, I notice that Sephardi Lady also tackles this subject this week, though from a slightly different angle, see http://orthonomics.blogspot.com/2007/01/propping-up-ailing-system-charlie-hall.html.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

What are we teaching our children?

One thing about traveling is that you get to speak and meet people that you'd never get to meet in your own communities. Interestingly, when I say I'm from Israel, it brings out the conversation in the people around me - the woman on the train who asked me if I had to wear a burkaon the streets in Israel, the man sitting next to me on the airplane who was returning from a protest march, the taxi driver, whoever. And I'm always learning new things. For instance, last week I experienced an interesting contrast between religious Jewish attitudes and religious Christian attitudes to Bible:

In El Paso, the driver of the hotel shuttle, a religious Catholic originally from Mexico, was very excited to meet someone from the 'Holy Land' and told me that he reads the Bible daily. He begins with the Old Testament, moves on to the New Testament and when he finishes begins the cycle again. He's been doing this all his life and can quote by heart much of the Bible. His respect for the Bible contrasted sharply with someone I met later that same week - a 13-year from a community day school on the west coas who explained to me that he had to complete his Humash-learning by 8th grade. "Because" he said "in high school (read: Yeshiva) I plan on studying only Gemara." He also explained to me that Gemara was all-important since "from Gemara we learn how God thinks!" (Torah, on the other hand was just his written words.) He had learnt this from his 7th grade Jewish Studies teacher (Rebbe) who gives them weekly 'lessons' on the importance of Gemara (and subsequently, the unimportance of Tanakh).