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.


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!

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!