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.