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 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!

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.

Julian Horowitz