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).

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Torah study for all

In three provocative op-ed pieces that have appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week, Charles Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, argues that -

1. we should recognize - and accept - that about half of the students in our schools are of below average intelligence whose potential for academic success is limited
(see http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009531 )
2. too many students are being encouraged to continue their formal education in four-year colleges, when other professional tracks might be better for them
(see http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009535 )
3. gifted students deserve special attention in the course of their education, since their talents require them to shoulder greater responsibilities to the community at large
(see http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110009541 )

Although his arguments with regard to general education deserve a serious response (and I encourage such discussions here or on Lookjed), I will limit my comments to their logical implication were we to apply them to day school students and Torah study. According to Murray's arguments, it would make sense for Jewish schools to recognize the limitations of a large proportion of its students and direct them away from serious academic settings, focusing resources instead on those gifted students who have the potential to contribute the most to the Jewish community.

Such a suggestion would hardly be a new idea. From what I can tell, it was a system that was commonplace throughout Jewish history, up until pre-war Europe. Students with unique potential (or from families of significant wealth) would be encouraged and supported as they continued their Torah study. The expectation was that when these young men (and they were, invariably, men) were of appropriate age and maturity, they would take on leadership roles in the community. The movement of universal Torah study in the Orthodox world beyond elementary school – for the commandment of Torah study ensured that virtually all Jews were literate and knowledgeable on some level – is relatively new, probably the outgrowth of our living in one of the most prosperous ages in world history.

While many argue that the movement today in certain circles towards universal Torah study into adulthood carries with it many dangers, I am not interested in discussing the Kollel phenomena. My question is whether all of our students should be encouraged to continue learning in formal settings post-high school, or if such study should be viewed as the domain of an elite few.

Let us recognize that Torah study is not first-and-foremost about Torah knowledge. It is about the experience of learning; the attempt to be part of a conversation that spans generations from the time of Moses (and before) until today. It is the effort to understand God and His will. Every Jewish student (and every Jewish person – child and adult – should aspire to remain a student) should aim to reach his or her highest level of this experience and understanding, but there is no objective achievement that should be the goal for all students.

Recently programs have been opened in two prestigious Israeli institutions that have programs that cater to American high school graduates, whose purpose is to allow special-needs students to participate – on their own levels – in the post-high school Israel experience. These types of programs should be a model for all students, recognizing that what is important in Yeshiva is not only the amount of Torah memorized or analyzed, but the experience of being involved in Jewish life to one's own, personal, utmost.

Aside from this issue, we should recognize what Howard Gardner taught the world of education some years back. There are multiple intelligences out there. The academic scholar may very well not make the best community leader. With the dearth of leadership in Jewish education – and in the Jewish community in general – it makes a lot of sense to recognize the different strengths and intelligences of all of our students, recognizing that it is not only the intellectual elite that will be driving the future of the Jewish people. We need to educate and encourage every Jewish child to aspire to make a difference in the future of the Jewish community.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ethics in Jewish schooling?

Sitting at my Shabbat table recently was a young man studying in what is considered a very fine Israeli post-high school (Hesder) Yeshiva. He was proudly describing his exploits of the previous weekend, in which he was satisfying his quest to meet various Torah luminaries living in Bnei Brak. Armed with their addresses (culled from the title pages of their books) he set out on Friday afternoon. He knocked on the door of one and asked if he could come for a Shabbat meal. The Rabbi's wife responded that she was sorry, as she had only cooked enough for those she was expecting.

Not to be deterred, he appeared at their door Shabbat morning (as they were sitting down to eat) and again asked if he could join. (He had been told that this was "the move" to get in.) Not prepared to turn someone away who apparently had no meal, the Rabbi's wife allowed them to enter.

Although the young man insisted that he just wanted to be in the Rabbi's company and did not want to eat, the Rabbi's wife insisted that he should eat, and brought out what was apparently her portion of fish. The same was true of the rest of the meal.

When I asked the young man why he didn't just ask initially to be present at the meal and not eat, he replied: "The Rosh Yeshiva doesn't like to be bothered during his meal."

I think I missed something here. The Rosh Yeshiva wanted a private Shabbat meal. So in order to spend time with this Torah scholar, for whom the Yeshiva student presumably has great admiration, the student harasses him and his family, to the extent that his wife gave up her meal? Even more disturbing was that this was not an isolated incident. It is something the Yeshiva guys (in certain circles) share and plan. When I asked him how his father would react to the story, he responded that his father would be very happy that he was "hanging out with Gedolim" and would be delighted to send a check to the Rosh Yeshiva for the meal.

In the discussion about who determines the agendas for schools, parents or educators, I used to think that the two moderate the extremes of the other, and establish some sort of balance in the dynamic process. But when the parents and the Yeshiva are in collusion, so that a student - and his friends - could get the idea that such exploits/exploitations are considered "cool" and laudatory, I shudder at the implications. To whom can we turn to restore a sense of decency and ethics?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Time to Ditch the Messiah

At the end of the daily tephilla in school, we would always sing the twelfth Ani Mamin: "I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the messiah, and even though he delays, I will nevertheless wait every day for him to come".

It's a beautiful statement and I loved the tune, but educationally, I thought we were teaching a bad message and I made my displeasure about the policy known.

According to Maimonides, Judaism has thirteen principles of faith. Only one of them is about the coming of the messiah. I can understand that in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the faith of future salvation for the Jewish people was very appealing, and possibly even crucial, for the re-building of our people. However, I believe that in focusing on the mashiach, we have re-ignited messianism. Our history teaches us that messianism, whether it was from the biryonim at the time of the destruction of the second temple, Bar Kochba 70 years later or Shabbatai Zvi in the middle-ages, has been disastrous for Judaism.

I remember very well my teachers telling me that we have to do mitzvot to help bring mashiach. Nonsense! That is not why we must keep the mitzvoth. We keep the mitzvot because so we are commanded. It has nothing to do with mashiach.

While Israel's Chief Rabbinate was cautious in ascribing the establishment of the State of Israel in messianic terms (it was not the redemption or even the beginning of the redemption, but only the early shoots of redemption), the event itself gave many Jews, the impression that the complete redemption was imminent.

Many secular Jews have even been affected by this phenomenon, with those believing that a peaceful utopia is imminent.

Unfortunately, mashiach will not come tomorrow, neither will there be peace tomorrow and needless to say, we will not experience the rebbe's second coming tomorrow*.

This sad fact is causing much disillusionment in religious Zionist circles, many secular Jews are despairing of Israel and Chabad are on the verge of creating a new religion.

Yes one day the mashiach, will come, but that should not be the focus of our lives. Our focus should be on giving our children the tools to live each day as a Jew and of creating a better future for the Jewish people that is based on the fruit of our labors rather than reliance on messianic intervention.

*In response to one of the posts below, I would like to add the following statement: I pray and hope that mashiach will come tomorrow and I really want him to, but I have much doubt that he actually will. Certainly, we should not be teaching that he will.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Knowing your Bible

So Yuli Tamir, the Minister of Education here in Israel, is moving ahead with the idea of giving a more central focus to Tanakh in Israeli public schools. I think that it is a great idea. I am fascinated time and again when secular Israeli politicians of the older generation quote fairly obscure pesukim in order to make a point in a debate or an interview. It is part of their cultural heritage. They are not trying to "score points" with anyone (like American candidates who toss out a word or two in Yiddish when visiting one neighborhood, Spanish in the next and Chinese in a third), they are simple making use of imagery that makes them who they are. When I moved to Israel and the Meretz party was part of the coalition, Shulamit Aloni – an avowed secularist – was on the radio regularly. I don't think I ever heard her speak without quoting a pasuk or referring to a midrash. (Aloni has since retired from politics.)

The younger generation of Israeli politicians do not share that cultural heritage. They do not use biblical imagery, nor do they think in those terms – something that is sorely missing. Any plan to bring Tanakh back as a focus of educational endeavor, seems like a worthwhile effort to me.

Reading this makes me think about the state of Tanakh instruction in the Diaspora. I recently presented one of my doctoral research findings to a group of aspiring young American educators. I had collected surveys from several hundred students on one-year Israel programs and among the questions I asked was "Is the modern State of Israel a fulfillment of nevu'ot of our prophets?" Only about 15% agreed or strongly agreed to that statement. In contrast to this, a recent Pew Report found that almost 60% of white evangelical Protestants agreed or strongly agreed with a similar statement that was presented to them. When I asked my audience why they thought this might be true, the suggestion that struck me was "Well, the Christians actually know what the prophecies are – our students don't!"

Who is looking out for Tanakh studies in day school classrooms in the Diaspora?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Priority Israel?

I’ve been living in the States—a temporary abode for studies—for about a year now, and I still haven’t gotten used to the reaction of other members of the tribe when I tell them I’m from Jerusalem. The response is often a momentary look of utter confusion that reads “What? Why?” which is quickly replaced by a smile and a “How nice.” This has happened too many times for me to write it off as a rarity.

Last year, when Ariel Sharon fell ill, I was glued to the Internet, watching Channel One news. I could talk about nothing else. And my American Jewish friends, well, they shrugged. It didn’t really touch them. When I returned from my three-month stay in Israel over the summer, I was asked about the war, but the conversations died quickly—either they could not find anything meaningful to say or just did not find the topic of serious interest. While the people I am referring to donate hard-earned money to Israeli causes, participate in Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities, and visit when they can, they are unable or unwilling to engage in higher-level conversations about Israel—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sadly, it seems to me that for them Israel is almost a fictitious Never-Neverland—whether a spiritual utopia, a punching bag, a sunny holiday destination, or a war-ravaged country that they can do without.

Israel was a serious priority in my high school. For instance, instead of offering standard Hebrew language classes that focused on grammar, they had two options: Sifrut and Itonut—that is, classes where students studied classic and modern Israeli literature or analyzed modern Israeli newspaper articles, so that we were introduced to the challenges Israeli society faces. A subtle message that we were somehow connected to Israel and Israelis was channeled through school programming—hearing Hativka on the PA system in the mornings, discussing various Israeli inventions in Science classes, staging a mock debate of the first Zionist convention, etc. I’m not on the Jewish Agency payroll here, but shouldn’t basic knowledge of Israel be part of Jewish literacy taught in our schools/camps? Shouldn’t our students be able to answer elementary questions about Israeli history and modern politics? Don’t we want Jewish citizens who can transcend the role of tourists?

Friday, January 5, 2007

Who's teaching our children

A lot of people in the Jewish orthodox blogosphere are talking about this article. When I first read it, all I could think is -"what's wrong with these people?" Why would any society go out of it's way to undermine the growth of one half of its population? A lot of modern orthodox people who read this article reacted like I did at first - e.g how sad, how unfortunate! but it doesn't really influence me.
And then I realized - hey, this is part of my world. Hareidi Jews are not a separate people. These are Jews too and their rulings impact on me - a lot of our teachers are Hareidi and more and more community Rabbis across Europe are from the Hareidi world. And we all know that Hareidi rulings tend to influence modern orthodox thought. It' sad amazing how so many MO Jews think that Hareidi Jews are closer to the real thing. We shouldn't be looking from the side. We should be getting right in there and arguing. We should be saying loud and clear, hey guys, this is a mistake, both socially and halakhically. We should be shouting it out and we should make it clear to the people around us and to our children that these type of rulings are just not acceptable to us.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Recovering July and August

Q: What are the two most important reasons to become a teacher?
A: July and August

This joke has been around for as long as I can remember. I recall one summer being challenged by someone in the business world who wanted to know why teachers need so much time off. The answer was simple - if you want your kids' teachers to come in with lots of energy and creativity, to have new ideas and not simply repeat the same things they've been doing for the past five years, they need the opportunity to actual;ly think about what they do, learn, read, plan. All the things that they have no time for during the actual school year.

When I first moved into an administrative position, I really missed July and August. Running a school is a full-time business. True, the schedule during the summer was lighter, and I did get to take two weeks away and squeeze in some much needed reading, but it was not the same.

It turns out, however, that many teachers don't have July and August. To supplement their salaries, they need to work in camps and other summer environments, so that they, too, barely have time to catch their breaths. Certainly not time to rejuvenate themselves, learn, free their minds to think creatively.

A colleague of mine recently wrote to me that he had to turn down a professional development program (with full scholarship!) because he could not afford it. Listen: a senior administrator in one of the wealthiest communities in the world, had to commit to working in camp so that his kids could attend. He couldn't afford two weeks for professional development.

And people want to know why it's hard to get good people into the field?