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-clich├ęd 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.