Thursday, December 30, 2010

An Open Special Education Contract

I have recently been invited to join a committee that is exploring how to make access to Jewish education a priority in congregational schools for learners with the whole array of disabilities. While I have always cared about the full spectrum of special needs in Jewish Education, I have to tip my kipah to my friend and teacher Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell Georgia. Fred came to my congregation in CT straight out of rabbinic school and he really held my toes to the fire on this issue. It is so easy to concentrate on the needs of the many, but we are only as good as how we treat the few. And the lesson is not lost on anyone. I came across the blog Special Education {Tech} courtesy of someone I follow on twitter (I apologize for not giving credit).

This is from a blog entry by Chris Vacek, an educator whose bio follows the article. I think he presents an interesting and important challenge to us as educators. I am not yet certain his list is comprehensive or completely applicable in our settings, but I think it is the beginning point for an important conversation.

An Open Special Education Contract

Recently, I came across a classroom blog that struck a profound chord in me. It contained a teacher’s “manifesto”, with the promises the teacher made to his students. I love this idea, and thought about special education. I have never seen a Special Education Contract of that sort, and immediately started jotting down ideas. Then it occurred to me that this really needed to be an “open” project, and that I should seek the input of the special education world at large. If you are a special education professional, service provider, teacher or administrator, or a parent or advocate or a person with special needs, please contribute to this project. The items below are a beginning, and presented in no particular order, and I welcome your feedback and additions. I would love to see this grow and saturate the online special education community – so please share this with your friends, colleagues and contacts. Thanks!

  1. I promise to do no harm.

  2. I promise to individualize your education to the best of my abilities and resources.

  3. I promise to focus on your outcomes, and to be able to explain what difference the current education program makes to your functional independence later in life.

  4. I promise to listen to your parents, and work towards their goals, and yours.

  5. I promise to champion your success, and value your failures.

  6. I promise to promote your opportunity, and to seek opportunities for you to succeed.

  7. I promise to educate myself, to help educate you.

  8. I promise to use technology, and to help you use technology, so we can both succeed.

  9. I promise to strengthen your skills, and use your strengths to further strengthen your weaknesses.

  10. I promise to put your outcomes and needs first, and keep them close and centered, in your heart and mine.

  11. I promise to gather data on all your outcomes, and to only use data-informed, peer-reviewed, scientifically established interventions that document measurable progress.

  12. I promise to respect you and your wishes, always.

  13. I promise to involve you in decisions about your future, as best I can and as you are able.

  14. I promise to center your education around your needs today and your needs in the future.

  15. I promise to help generalize your skills in the classroom, and the home, and the community.

  16. I promise to use the most appropriate tools available for us to learn.

  17. I promise to remember daily that you are a wonderful human being, and that data and statistics rarely tell the whole story of YOU.

  18. I promise to help you fill your life with rich experiences in art, music, science, social studies, physical activity, etc… because reading and math are not more important than everything else. Everyone deserves to find his/her own passion.

  19. I promise to introduce you to, and teach you how to interact with, your peers. You will need both friends like you and friends that are different from you, and you’ll need to know how to interact with them.

  20. I promise not to think of you as data or outcomes, but to think of you as feelings and desires and wants and needs.

  21. I promise to advocate for you, always, everywhere, even when my boss disagrees, or the community disagrees, or the world disagrees. I will advocate for you.

  22. I promise to teach you how to help yourself, how to advocate for yourself, and how to become the most independent person you can be.

  23. I promise to love you as my student and as a person, even when my life is tough, your life is tough, and our work together is tough.

  24. I promise to value function over form.

  25. I promise to continually work towards your independence.

  26. I promise to educate others about how extraordinary you are.

  27. I promise to say something nice or positive to you daily.

  28. I promise to never try to make you fit into the world’s view of “perfect.” I will value you as “perfect” just the way you are.

  29. I promise to help you speak for yourself.

  30. I promise to help you stand tall.

  31. I promise to remember that you are whole, just the way you are.|

  32. I promise to do my best not to say or do anything unkind.

  33. I promise to listen to your eyes.

  34. I promise to laugh with you.

  35. I promise to ensure that you get to take your rightful place in the world.

  36. I promise to experience and celebrate you and your joy.

  37. I promise to do more than see. I promise to be a keen observer.

  38. I promise to not just say ” I hear you,” but to mean it with all my heart.

  39. I promise to learn from you and use what I’ve learned to help you grow.

  40. I promise that as hard as it may be to watch you fail, I know that “there is dignity in risk” and realize that sometimes you will fail before you succeed.

  41. I promise to facilitate your independence needs, and seek transparency and clarity for all in this process.
What promises would you make to your particular, and every other, special education student?

The original posting may be found at which is part of a very interesting blog called Special Education {Tech}.

About the author

Chris Vacek is the Chief Innovation Officer for Heartspring and the parent of a child with both Williams Syndrome and Autism. Heartspring, located in Wichita, Kansas, is a world wide center for children with disabilities, and a leader in technology based functional independence outcomes.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Super..." and "Amazing..." Curricular Projects

This is cross-posted from Caren Levine's blog  jlearn2.0. Caren is one of those people who is always thinking about the intersection of Jewish education and technology. Her digital and analog lenses work in stereo, kind of a unified field theory of Jewish education. She cross-posted it to YU 2.0, a wonderful membership site maintained by our friend and fellow JJF Fellow, Dr. Eliezer Jones.

A question I am often asked is, "Yes, but what are some examples of how these resources are integrated into the curriculum? By real live educators with real live learners!"

Presenting two free ebooks to whet your appetites and tickle your imaginations:

The Super Book of Web Tools for Educators: A comprehensive guide to technology in all k-12 classrooms. Articles include perspectives from administrators and teachers, as well as elementary school, middle school, and high school projects, and projects centered around particular subject matter or tools (ESL, Skype, blogging). Contributors include notable education bloggers Steve Anderson, Richard Byrne, George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, and others. Check it out!

But wait, there's more! Be sure to read through Terry Freedman's The Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, a compilation that is chock full of practical ideas for the classroom. The many contributors include an international cast of educators such as Terry Freedman, Jackie Gerstein, Julie Lindsay, Sharon Peters, Shelley Terrell, Silvia Tolisana, Jen Wagner, and Reuven Werber, to name drop just a few.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Inspiring Jewish Educators

Why would a group of Jewish educators spend half a day with a leading Israeli venture capitalist firm? I would like to suggest that educators can learn a great deal from venture capitalists—especially if the firm is Jerusalem Venture Partners (JVP), founded in 1993 by Erel Margalit. The firm, currently with $820 million under management, is dedicated to building world class media strategy companies, and also to bringing together “profit and social profit, innovation and creativity, technology and leadership, in one place.”

Our JJFF (Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship) visit began with a tour of JVPs Lab (Ha’Maabada), a performing arts incubator for graduates of Jerusalem’s arts academies. We then learned about “Bakehila,” an educational empowerment program in four of Jerusalem’s underprivileged neighborhoods (including 15 schools and 10 learning centers).

But the main purpose of the visit, in the words of JJFF Israel Seminar Coordinator, Rabbi Zvi Grumet, (Associate Educational Director of the Lookstein Center of Bar Ilan University and editor of Jewish Education News) was to “look outside of our own world (of Jewish education) and view models of innovation in the business world—to see people who do creative things and think creatively."

Meeting Gavin from the Animation Lab and viewing some of his high quality/high resolution animated film, seeing Maor’s work on the soon to be released project, and learning about Veoh, was invigorating.

The cynical part of me thinks such a visit makes us question why we are in Jewish education when there is so much excitement and life (and maybe even compensation!) in a place like JVP. But maybe a business like JVP is precisely where Jewish educators should look for inspiration and ideas. This will give us the chizuk (reinforcement) we need to stay in Jewish education!

In our short visit, I observed:

1. excited, enthusiastic and super intelligent workers
2. physical space organized for collaboration and sharing (well lit work rooms with tables meant for working together; doors, even of bosses, which were literally transparent and inviting, sending the message to “come in” and share an idea
3. an environment consciously sending the message “we are here to take care of you so you can use your professional skills to produce an amazing product” (they provide food, administrative support, legal and accounting work, etc. to people involved with the projects they support.
4. super cool, innovative products. For example,, now in beta, will be released in a month, allowing people (including Jewish educators) to access that perfect movie clip.

Today, fourteen Jewish educators went from learning about innovation at JVP, to learning about an innovative king, King David (via our afternoon at Ir David, the City of David). May we continue to learn from models of inspiration and bring this excitement back to our various Jewish educational settings.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Do We Talk About Israel in Our Schools?

I am currently in Tel Aviv at the final meeting of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University. Stuart Zweiter is the director of the Lookstein Center and coincidentally (to our being here) posted this observation to the Lookjed listServ (an e-mailed forum for Jewish Educators facilitated by Shalom Burger, director of the JJF Fellowship) on December 7. I think he asks some vital questions that I hope you will join me in discussing in the coming weeks. The original posting is archived here. You can reply there or here. I will copy comments here to the Lookjed list. If you would like to subscribe to Lookjed - and I recommend that you do, go to the on-line form at

This past Friday night Natan Scharansky told a few of us sitting  around the Shabbat table with him that he had found in his travels to  North American college campuses that Jewish students were uninformed  as well as scared to speak up for Israel, scared that if they were to  actively defend or speak positively about Israel it would impact  negatively on their academic career as well as their future professional career.

This morning in a discussion I had with the head of a major Jewish Foundation I was told that during a visit she recently had at a very  large Jewish high school, she found the students preparing for an  internal school debate on the topic, Israel: Is it an apartheid state? In an informal discussion she had with several students at the same  school, she was told by them that they love Israelis but do not like Israel.   

This evening I read a piece in the JTA concerning the vote taking  place this week at Princeton University on whether to ask the  university's dining services to provide an alternative brand of  hummus. Why? Because the current brand being offered is Sabra, which  is half-owned by The Strauss Group, which has publicly supported the  IDF and provides care packages and sports equipment to Israeli  soldiers.   

We all know of many similar examples. I am mentioning these because  they all occurred in just the past few days.   

This post is not an invitation to debate political issues related to  Israel. Rather, we are very interested in learning how Jewish high  schools and junior high schools of all stripes are educating their  students regarding Israel. It seems particularly important during this  period in which there is increasing de-legitimization of Israel. How  much time do schools invest in this critical issue that all of their  graduates will face on college campuses? Is it dealt with in a serious and systematic way through formal and informal educational  programs? Where does it fit into your school program? 

What does your  school do? We are hoping that through the Lookjed list the Center can  raise consciousness of and attentiveness to this issue and that the  thousands of subscribers to the Lookjed list can learn about the  different efforts and programs that are being implemented in schools.   

This question, of course, touches on how we prioritize what is  included in our school programs and how schools allocate and divide up  the time that is available. That itself is an important question for  reflection and deliberation by school principals and teachers. All  schools make choices regarding what is in and what is out? Where does  this issue fit in?   

Stuart Zweiter  
Director, the Lookstein Center

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Blown Reputations

This blog was originally written for the JFNA Challah Back blog and is being cross-posted to

I have a reputation. I have a reputation for walking into Jewish professional spaces and knowing the majority (if not a large percentage) of others in the space. [In fact, in one group it was statistically proven by survey that I was the most-connected in the group.] I have a reputation. I have a reputation for sitting pretty far to the left in my political and social viewpoints. Both of those were challenged this past week.

I have been hired by Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ – just don’t try and put the ‘S’ into the full name of the org) to serve as a program leader for their immersion service-learning initiative. Over the next six months I will be leading groups of participants to New Orleans where they volunteer to help re-build post-Katrina and will encounter the systemic issues which created the immense and distorted oppression which these victims suffer. The program participants, some with a 20’s/30’s group, some with college groups and some as bar/bat mitzvah students and their parents, will also engage in Jewish text study to learn how Judaism frames social justice. Along with my JFSJ program leader colleagues (about 30 of us), we will take over 500 people to have similar experiences, not only in New Orleans, but in Los Angeles, Baltimore and the Gulf Coast.

Last week, the program leaders from JFSJ came together with the program leaders of American Jewish World Service (AJWS … and if you haven’t seen their brilliant PR video, stop reading right now and click here to watch, for a five-day training held at Pearlstone Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD. The partnership, along with leadership from PANIM Institute at BBYO, was inspired. The AJWS program leader staff leads similar trips to that of JFSJ, but to international locations like Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ghana and Mexico. The multi-agency partnership, under an umbrella of Repair the World, was a powerful tool for training, networking, and collaboration.

Here I was, surrounded 50+ passionate Jewish educators who are dedicated to social justice and Jewish identity development. I was in a Jewish space, where pluralism seemed to be at its best, and where expression of Jewish identity came in so many forms. As a post-denomination Jew, I was in a great space.

So what was challenging my reputation?

First of all, other than two of the senior staff people, and a brief encounter once with one other program leader, I walked into a room of strangers. How could it be that I was in a room with dozens of Jewish educators, ranging in age from early 20s to early 60s, and I didn’t know anyone? After spending a week with these new colleagues, I surmise that a large portion of that is that I came to this work 85% through my Jewish education lens and 15% from my social justice lens, and the majority of the program leaders seemed to come to the work 95% through their social justice passions and 5% from a motivation of a “traditional” (aka establishment) Jewish education framework. It was truly enlightening.

I heard the following from these talented people:

“It’s [Social Justice Judaism] almost its own denomination. It is my form of Jewish identity; it’s how I connect to Judaism.”

“It’s [Social Justice Judaism] now becoming an accepted way to express Judaism. Once it made it’s way to a GA session, that makes it almost mainstream.”

One of the highlights of the program was a panel with Simon Greer (CEO of JFSJ); Ruth Messinger, (President of AJWS); Rachel Meytin (Associate V.P. of Panim Institute at BBYO); and moderated by Jon Rosenberg (CEO of Repair the World). Ruth shared with the group some personal insights into the work she has done for so many years as well as some anecdotes she has heard from past participants. Of one, Ruth paraphrased the person’s response to her learning with AJWS: “I have learned more text at AJWS than I did at Hebrew School.” This seemed to resonate as a prominent experience for many JFSJ/AJWS participants, as reported by my program leader colleagues … that many participants encounter Judaism only via Social Justice (or primarily through it).

I encounter Judaism in a dozen different ways each an every day. I walk through this Jewish professional world by way of each of these pathways, and along them encounter many Jewish professionals over and over again. However, for the bulk of my co-leaders, this is THE pathway to their Judaism, and therefore the chance of me coming across them in other venues is slim to none; my professional network reputation blown!

The second challenge to my self-identity came by way of the political and social spectrum. I am not sure that there has ever been an instance when I have been described as “on the right.” In most of my experiences, I am somewhere on the left of the group or in the middle of the pack in my political and social beliefs. This is perhaps the first space where I might have been the person standing the furthest on the right. It’s disorienting.

One such case where this displayed itself was in the context of my leading a “pluralistic” Kabbalat Shabbat experience. In the effort to model Shabbat experiences we help shape in the field, the larger group was broken down into three smaller cohorts of about 20 people each. These 20 people had to work together to design a Kabbalat Shabbat experience and a Havdallah experience in which all 20 people would have their Shabbat needs met on some level. I joined the Kabbalat Shabbat sub-committee, and along with my teammates, decided to plan a multi-option experience. The group started out together talking about “B’ruach shel Shabbat” (in the spirit of Shabbat) and sang several songs to usher in that feeling. Then participants were given a choice of celebrating the Ruach shel Shabbat by participating in a liturgical singing service or by moving into a reflection/meditation/conversation space. Then, the groups came together at the end for Kaddish and a closing song. It was during the preparation and recitation of the Kaddish that I unknowingly entered into a political arena I had never encountered in a Jewish professional space.

The first hint of this was when I asked that our group keep the soldiers of the U.S. and the soldiers of Israel in mind as we recited the prayer. One group member then offered, “and those of Palestine.” To which I quickly broadened it to “all those who have lost their lives in this world fighting for their rights and protecting their homelands and freedoms.” The second mention of this came after services were over, and after dinner, when I was approached by one of the other program leaders who had been in my Shabbat group. She very respectfully sat down with me to ask why I had asked the group to call into memory the soldiers of Israel and of the U.S. I shared that I believe that American Jews are citizens of both countries and that while I don’t expect everyone to agree on the politics behind the wars/battles themselves, I assume that everyone would support the soldiers and their families who have sacrificed and lost. To which she responded, “I do not consider myself a citizen of Israel,” and went on to share that she does not believe that Israel has a right to exist as a nation-state and doesn’t believe that it represents her identity in any way. She confided that she often feels alienated in Jewish spaces, particularly in prayer spaces, because of the role Israel plays from the bima, and as a result removes herself from synagogue community. We spent about 30 minutes talking about this, from a Jewish educator perspective and as a personal Jew perspective. While I don’t agree with her politics, I have allowed her to challenge my assumptions as an educator and to challenge what real pluralism in Jewish spaces truly means, especially as it relates to Israel. As a result of this experience, and other conversations I had at this training, I have perhaps re-oriented myself on the political and social spectrum. Maybe not permanently, and it may be only situational, but it was my reality for at least those five days; my leftist reputation blown!

Monday, December 6, 2010

On the Road to Breaking Functional Fixedness

I can’t get the image out of my head. I keep thinking of the Power Point slide of the metal shopping cart with wheels, turned on its side, over a fire pit. Only a mischief-maker would burn a shopping cart, right? Wrong. An innovative person who wanted to cook meat but didn’t have a grill might be clever enough to put a shopping cart in a fire! The slide was entitled “Task Unification.”

The 14 Jim Joseph Fellows got a taste of what S.I.T.-Systematic Inventive Thinking does in an online webinar, and we will be spending 11-1/2 hours in Israel, starting a week from today, learning about tools and principles for breaking cognitive fixedness. One type of fixedness, “Functional Fixedness” is defined as cognitive bias which limits a person to using an object only in the way that it is traditionally used. Perhaps this applies to computers and video conferencing as much as it applies to shopping carts.

I am assuming that MegaMeeting and other video conferencing systems were intended to make it easier for employees of a company, based in different locations, to hold meetings, share ideas, and communicate better.

The directors of the special needs programs at the various Camp Ramah camps have begun using MegaMeeting for a slightly different purpose—for our “Shabbos Is Calling” Program. Every Thursday for 30 minutes, campers and their counselors “meet;” they hear and see friends from places as far away as Buffalo, NY; Chicago, IL; and Boston, MA. They sing Shabbos songs, hear stories about the weekly Torah portion or upcoming holiday, or simply “shmooze.” Last week, the group sang Happy (19th) Birthday to Riffy, talked about Chanukah, sang Chanukah songs, and even watched a counselor light Chanukah candles.

We are finding new uses for MegaMeeting, and we are proudly helping campers with special needs overcome isolation and loneliness by connecting in a meaningful way in the months when camp is not in session.

Time to get ready for next Thursday’s “Shabbos Is Calling!”

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

30 Days, 30 Texts:
Shema is For Real:
A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents

"In case of fire, throw this book in…"

So begins a religious school text book that was as revolutionary as the internet and social media are today. Joel Grishaver developed this book as graduate student at the University of Chicago, as a counselor at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI and as a the youth group advisor at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Il. 

I was a camper in Wisconsin and a junior youth grouper and religious school student at a neighboring congregation.
Shema is For Real: A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents was transformative. It said that we could have experiential learning and out of the box thinking at Sunday school. It said that Jewish learning could be fun and engaging, even if you got the next best teacher. It told us there were more interesting people than the Stickmans.

This is the book that launched (several years later) Torah Aura Productions and challenged all Jewish book publishers to raise their game. And it challenged teachers and synagogue educators to make us think about prayer, not just learn the words. It taught us that the prayers could mean something to us, and that the way they were organized in the service had a larger meaning. 

And when we got to play the Prayer Book Board Game (at camp, at temple, and at NSCI with Joel)—wow! Our opinions and ideas were connected to the prayers and became one. I still think about James Brown shouting “Let me hear you say Yeh!” when I rise for the Barchu. Thank you, Joel, for thinking this way. And thank you Jerry Kaye, director of Olin Sang Ruby for publishing it and Debbie Friedman’s Sing Unto God.

Cross posted at JESNA's site and Welcome to the Next Level
This essay series is co-sponsored by:

Monday, November 29, 2010

Instilling Jewish Pride in the Next Generation

Last week, as my son and I were doing some last minute Hanukkah shopping, we found ourselves staring face to face with an aisle devoted to Christmas. You can imagine how appealing these items were to a five year old, and I have to admit that I found myself staring at them quite a bit as well, as they were a remarkable display of the holiday season. When he asked me what they were, I told him that they were for Christmas and we moved on to the next aisle. A few aisles later, we found the Hanukkah section, and it included a pretty small selection of items compared to all that we had seen just a few aisles back.

Unlike the merchandising selection at this department store, we can't let Hanukkah, or any Jewish holiday for that matter, be seen as the smaller or less significant stepchild of a more popularly held holiday. It's critical that we not compare Christmas and Hanukkah as if they are in competition. Each holiday stands on its own merits, and in their true celebration express very different theological messages. Hanukkah's central theme is the courage to maintain one's religious convictions in the face of persecution. When we light our hanukiah and place it conspicuously in our windowsill, we are actively engaged in publicizing the miracle of Jewish survival and are linking ourselves to thousands of generations of Jews who have fought for the right to practice the faith of their ancestors.

Often, Jewish professionals use the term "December Dilemma" to refer to the struggle that interfaith families have in navigating the challenge of satisfying the needs of both partners during the holiday season. However, Julie Hilton Danan, a Rabbi and Professor of Religious Studies at California State University, Chico suggests in her book The Jewish Parent's Almanac, that the term might also apply to "the range of uncomfortable feelings that many Jews, in particular Jewish parents, experience while most of the rest of the country is celebrating Christmas. It’s as if the year’s biggest party is going on, and we’ve decided not to be invited…"

Indeed, although my family leads a very active Jewish life, my children occasionally feel that they have been left out of the mainstream, and want to "taste" what they are seeing on television and at shopping malls throughout Houston. What might be the solution to this "December Dilemma?" In my opinion it is making Judaism compelling year round. The more our children feel a sense of pride in being Jewish, the less they will look longingly at other traditions to fill a need their Judaism isn't providing.

On this issue Rabbi Danan continues: "I think that the people who experience the most problems with children and Christmas are those for whom December is practically the only time of year in which their children feel distinctively Jewish…When family observances revolve around the Jewish calendar, we know who we are, not just who we aren’t."

Hanukkah is just about to begin and Christmas is right around the corner. With four opportunities to celebrate Shabbat in addition to celebrating the Festival of Lights before Santa makes his yearly visit, consider ways to make your kids feel so happy to be Jewish that Christmas is just another day of the year.

Sunday, November 21, 2010


It’s hard to believe that it was only 13 months ago that the 14 of us Jim Joseph Fellows met in Los Angeles for the first time. We knew the name of our fellowship, Leading Educators On-line, and we knew that each of us would be responsible for starting and leading an on-line Community of Practice (CoP). But other than a few preparatory articles and internet-based asynchronous discussions about them, we were pretty clueless what they really meant.

And so, not surprisingly, we spent much of our first retreat together learning with CoP experts like Nava Frank and Nancy White. A great deal of our discussion centered around what initially seemed like a very elementary concept: Exactly what is a community? Lots of ideas and definitions were put forth. Most of them had to do with the people within a community having something in common: a common purpose, a common goal, a common heritage. We never really came to a conclusion, and the discussion continued at our Israel treat last December. I remember one of our teachers suggesting that perhaps everyone who pays taxes belongs to the community of taxpayers. As you can imagine, that garnered a great deal of lively discussion.

Now here we are, over a year into our fellowship, and each of us has already launched or is preparing to launch a CoP. My particular CoP is extremely outcome driven: We are planning the upcoming Jewish Educators Assembly annual conference (the theme is technology) using the CoP model. On paper, we look pretty perfect. We have several teams working and have been using google groups as our asynchronous platform. We have dozens of discussion threads, share documents and videos, and have worked out speakers and a schedule through web 2.0 collaborative tools. Every few weeks since July we have had team web conferences, using DimDim as our synchronous platform. By most standards we have been extremely successful and productive, and the conference is pretty much planned and the registration materials have gone out.

But something doesn’t quite feel right. Yes, we are clearly meeting our common and goal and purpose – the JEA conference will be a great one. And there have been many benefits of doing the planning as an on-line CoP, including fresh ideas and getting many more “average” members involved. But most of the time, it feels like we are just a committee that happens to be “meeting” on the web. It doesn’t feel like a “community” to me.

Contrast this to the fellowship itself. Nowhere in the description of this fellowship did it ever talk about the fellowship itself becoming a CoP, merely that we would learn how to start our own. And yet, somewhere along the line, without even really trying, we all realized we were, in fact, a CoP.

So what makes a group a community rather than just a bunch of people with some commonality or another? I have come to the rather obvious conclusion that in order to be a community, the members have to care about and feel obligated to one another. Once the 14 of us started to care about each other, we couldn’t help become a community. Similarly, although I don’t necessarily like everyone who goes to my shul, I feel obligated to make shiva calls, or go to a Bat Mitzvah, etc… That’s why a shul is a community, and not just a gathering of people.

Somehow, whatever the issue, the weekly Parsha always manages to convey an answer, and this issue of community is no exception. This week, we begin the story of Jacob’s family. While clearly a family, Jacob’s 12 sons do not start out as B’nei Yisrael, a community. Rather, there is sibling rivalry, hatred, jealousy, and all sorts of divisive issues. The brothers don’t really care about each other, and certainly feel no obligation to one another. By the end of the story, the brothers put aside all their issues and began to care about each other. Certainly, they begin to feel obligated to each other. Only then, in Egypt ironically enough, do they truly become the community of B’nai Yisrael.

We spend a great deal of time worrying about how to facilitate a CoP, how to be the technology steward, how to draw in the outliers, which platforms to choose. Yet to me, these are not the real challenges. For me, creating this vitally important sense of community is the real challenge of a CoP that exists only virtually.

Any ideas, anyone?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tag Team from the GA

I recently attended the Jewish Federation of North America General Assembly in New Orleans (JFNA GA NOLA, because we like acronyms!).

This blog is a piece I wrote for the Challah Back Blog which is sponsored by the JFNA National Young Leadership (JFNANYL). I am curious to hear from Davar Acher readers their take on changes JFNA may need to take to reach younger leaders, and also to reach more of the Jewish education constituency.

Ten days ago, a former student of mine asked me what advice I had to give as she prepared to attend her first GA. I responded:

@edenrachael advice for the #nolaga. First thing - bring snacks. Second - most business is conducted in the hallway/lobby. Third - business cards.

This exchange embodies my GA experience.

First of all, it happened on Twitter. According to JFNA leadership, there were about 4,000 tweets that came through the #nolaga hashtag. This in and of itself represents a new feeling about the GA. The use of technology and social media to build community, transmit ideas, and disseminate information was profound at this year’s General Assembly.

By running an archive application on the #nolaga hashtag, I was able to ascertain the top words which appeared in the tweets.

NOLAGA, Jewish, Thanks, Israel, Netanyahu, Speech, Jews, New Orleans, Young, GA, Community, Best, Students, Hero, Amazing, Plenary, Twitter, 2010

In thinking about these as words that represented the GA, what I find as fascinating is that words I would typically associate with the Federation (i.e. fundraising, campaigns, leadership, boards, etc) are not the words that were highlighted in the list. This either indicates an overall shift in what took place at the GA, or it represents what those drawn to a tool like Twitter feel is important. This is an important lesson for JFNA as it continues to struggle with how to engage “the next generation.” (More on that later!) The archive tool also generates a list of the top-tweeter. Hillel came in first and pulling into the second slot is William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy and Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America. There’s a commentary in that juxtaposition as well. Note: I did make the top 10.

Continuing on the note of technology, in one session I attended (and was asked by organizers to live-tweet), The Jewish Futures Conference, the organizers invested in equipment where participants could vote from their seats in a poll and live results were displayed on large screens. There was a clear sense of enjoyment from the over 300 attendees. The presence of “Bloggers Alley” (sponsored by Jewlicious) in the Exhibit Hall is another sign of the infiltration of technology and social media into the GA.

Lastly, while not an actual display of technology itself, the Nolaism Schmoozeup, attracted a few hundred people who use social media regularly. It gave me a chance to meet people whom I have been conversing with for a while on Twitter or in the blogosphere but have never met. The introductions are unique: Hi, I’m Robyn Faintich…Silence. JewishGPS…Oh, wow, so great to meet you, I’m [insert Twitter name here]. But as unique as the introductions are, the foundation for a collegial relationship, and often times a friendship, are already laid and the conversations pick up where they left off in cyberspace. (BTW, only to be picked back up in cyberspace the second we departed for the airport.)

But, back to my advice to @edenrachael. First, bring snacks. As a frequent attendee at a large variety of Jewish conferences, the GA stands out to me to be a unique entity unto itself. At no other conference do the sessions run all the way through the day without any meal breaks. At no other conference, are meals not a general part of the conference culture itself. This is a downside to the GA in my opinion. Meal times allow for de-briefing, re-energizing, and community building. As a result of the lack of meal breaks, people who need to meet and network are forced to do so outside of the sessions. Which brings me to my second piece of advice.

Most business is conducted in the hallway/lobby. In my experience, the GA is less about the sessions themselves then they are about the conversations that are feverishly scheduled to take place in the lobby, in the Kosher Café, in the chairs under the staircase, on the front steps of the hotel, or standing up in a hallway. I am pretty sure that this is not what the JFNA organizers intended when they GA was first thought into being, but it is certainly now a primary focus of what the conference has become for many participants. As a new start-up Jewish education consultant, the time in the hallway was priceless. I was able to create several dozen face-to-face connections with people, who are all phenomenal Jewish leaders, within a two-day period of time. In addition to the formal meet-ups, the quick passing in the hallway, elevators or security lines of old colleagues and dear friends, added value and rounded out my GA experience.

My last piece of advice to her was to bring business cards. In a fast-paced environment like the GA, sometimes the exchange of a business card is the only thing two people have time for before moving on to the next conversation. The business card exchange is actually more about what happens after the GA than what happens during. The follow-up, post-conference conversations are often stewarded by the business cards you end up with by the end of the GA.

The Twitter exchange with @edenrachael highlights another part of the GA experience. Mentioned briefly earlier in this article, it is the goal of JFNA to engage more “next generation” Jews. I heard and read on twitter about this through the entire GA (and in fact, last year’s GA as well). A few items come to mind when I begin to contemplate this. First, I am not thrilled with the term “next generation.” There was a resounding pushback from those between the ages of 21 and 40 saying, “We are not the next generation of leaders, we are leaders now.” I challenge JFNA to come up with another term to describe this age cohort and for readers to offer suggestions. Perhaps JFNA can use the upcoming TribeFest ( as a forum for the actual end-users to come up with and vote on a name. It seems the liveliness and edge of the TribeFest messaging and marketing is exactly what JFNA should try and replicate throughout its work with this age cohort.

Second, the formality of the GA – both in physical space and in dress code is often a turn-off for this group. Frontal panels and speakers, in theater-style seating, is far from the intimate environments that young Jews are building for themselves in Hillels, Moishe Houses, independent minyanim, and entrepreneurial startups. I suggest thinking about how some sessions could be conducted more parlor-style, including couches, coffee tables, in the round, breakout spaces, etc. I know when trying to arrange logistics for 4,000 people, this kind of specialty setting may seem over-the-top, however, it goes back to the goal of JFNA try and engage this population. Another formality of the GA is the suits and ties. The formal dress code of the GA demonstrates a disconnect between the conference culture and the current dominant professional culture of business casual and in many cases, casual, dress. One question that has to be asked is if the leadership of the GA wants to encourage a huge cultural shift at the conference and blatantly persuade attendees to dress down. If the answer is no, there may be a real challenge to be debated here because while the staff/leadership may give “permission” to the crowd to dress down, if it’s not an entire conference culture-shift, then those who choose to will still stand out, be set apart and possibly be judged as un-professional. This tension already exists: I had a discussion with a woman who was in-town attending the International Lion of Judah Conference. They had participated in a volunteer project in the morning, and therefore had attended morning plenary in casual clothing. She was lamenting why it was important to get “all dolled up and dressy” to attend the next day’s sessions, when she was just as committed, confident and content in her jeans and sweater. I overheard a similar conversation at the GA when participants were attending Monday’s Plenary dressed for the Day of Service that commenced as soon as the Plenary ended. It would be interesting to ask in a survey how the culture of the GA impacts the overall experience. Informally, I encourage discussion about this here.

Overall, I noticed a significant difference in the overall energy of the GA due to the make-up of the conference as result of the influx of young participants, the increased representation of independent non-Federation organizations, the introduction of text study and service-learning opportunities, and the embracing of technology and social media. Next year, as we all descend on Denver (hashtag still being widely debated!), I will be curious to reflect on how far I have come in my new venture in Jewish education consulting (what will the meetings at this GA turn into?) and how far the GA has come in making space in the schedule for meetings, in the further embrace of a younger, more independent participant, and in “providing snacks.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Technology in Temple: Spirituality in 140 Characters or Fewer

Rabbi Laura GellerThis was published recently in the Huffington Post. Rabbi Laura Geller serves Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. There are some interesting questions, and I think she has found some interesting answers in bringing the Jewish analog and digital lenses together. Obviously this exercise does not fit every setting at every time. - Ira Wise

I am with my congregants on a Jewish study tour of Morocco following "the footsteps of Maimonides." There in the old city of Fes is the Kairaouine Mosque, constructed in 857 C.E. and connected to what might be the oldest ongoing university in the world. Maimonides was a student there. In some ways, the city hasn't changed since his time. Donkeys still carry heavy loads of fabric on their backs through the narrow ancient streets just the way they did when he lived here.

But when you peer into the mosque, you can see the same poster that you see as you enter our synagogue: a picture of a cell phone with a line drawn through it. In the mosque, the Arabic words on the sign can be roughly translated as: "Please turn off your cell phones. Talk to God instead."

Some things never seem to change and are common the world over. People still gather for prayer. Imams, priests and rabbis give sermons. We want people to pay attention. How do we help people pay attention?

Sometimes we take risks, do something that might even be slightly transgressive. Consider for example these recent High Holy Days in our congregation, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a large, almost 75-year-old Reform congregation in the middle of Beverly Hills. The opening words of my Rosh Hashana sermon, as I took my cell phone out of the pocket of my white robe, were: "Please do not turn off your cell phone."

There was stunned silence, then nervous laughter. "Yes, you heard me. Please do not turn off your cell phones. In fact, please take them out now. And if you have a Facebook or Twitter account, please log on."

The theme of all of our High Holy Day messages related to the existential question posed by God to the prophet Elijah in the Book of Judges: "What are you doing here?" "What are you doing here," we asked our congregants. "What are you doing here in the synagogue and here at this very moment in your life?"

So I gave the congregation an assignment right there in synagogue: "Please post your answer to the question 'What are you doing here?' in 140 characters or less."

In 140 characters. Characters, not words.

Many of them did, and the answers, because they were so short perhaps, were especially moving.

"I am in Temple Emanuel for Rosh Hashanah services sitting next to my adult children thinking about my own parents." (111 characters.)

"I am letting beautiful music wash over me and feeling a connection with Jews around the world." (91 characters)

"I am thinking about last year... not an easy year... financial challenges, health scares...I'm hoping this year will be better." (117 characters)

"I am looking for balance in my life. ( 36 characters.)

"I am trying to connect my soul to something deeper than just myself." (68 characters.)

Existential questions probably don't change. But the ways we challenge people to think about them do change over time. And new technology gives us new tools.

My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Aaron also took risks with technology for one of his sermons. He used a PowerPoint presentation to encourage people to think about what it means to be "here." It opened with an image of the chairs in our sanctuary, and then of the sanctuary building. Then the picture expanded to the city of Beverly Hills, then to the state of California. In each subsequent image the camera zoomed further and further away until eventually we saw the picture of the universe from the Hubble space craft.

It was as though we were seeing the universe through God's eyes, as it were. Suddenly everything looked different, including our own personal dramas that often keep us stuck in constricted places and keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

The Biblical story describes how Elijah discovered that bigger perspective not in an earthquake and not in a fire, but rather in a still small voice. Our congregation got a glimpse of it through PowerPoint, Facebook and Twitter.

The important questions never change. But new technology can help us pay attention -- and respond -- in different ways.

Crossposted to Welcome to the Next Level

Thursday, October 28, 2010

45 Volumes, 45 Years - An Amazing Accomplishment for Klal Yisrael

Even if you are an infrequent adult Jewish learner, at some point you have encountered the Talmud. Often inadequately described as a commentary on the Mishnah (a compendium of legal traditions that initially developed orally), the Talmud is really a conversation on all spheres of life: the home, street, marketplace, and field; and all types of human relationships: those between husband and wife, children and their parents, neighbors, teachers and pupils, and communal leaders and the general public. Its topics range from both the most mundane to the most theologically challenging. Developing as an oral tradition over centuries, it was compiled and set in writing around the fifth century. No Jewish journey is complete without an exploring this critical exploration of all things Jewish.

Until recently, studying the Talmud was an activity reserved for the most ambitious students. Beyond the challenges one faces in deciphering a text that appears both in Hebrew and Aramaic, a Talmudic discussion is often circuitous and its logic is very different from that of the western philosophical tradition. Today, there are numerous opportunities to study the text, either in its original, with a parallel translation, or in a foreign language altogether. This study can even occur online or through podcasts and software purchased through Jewish vendors.

Perhaps the most pioneering development in making the study of the Talmud accessible occurred in 1965, when Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz began his work in providing a translation and running commentary on the Talmud. Rabbi Steinsaltz’s work began a movement to bring the Talmud to the masses, and this groundbreaking initiative is about to be completed forty-five volumes and forty-five years later, when Rabbi Steinsaltz publishes the final volume this November.

On Sunday, November 7, communities around the world will celebrate Rabbi Steinsaltz’s achievement both personally and for the Jewish people, by participating in the first Global Day of Jewish Learning. This program, developed by the Aleph Society and supported by national and international Jewish organizations including United Jewish Communities, the Jewish Community Centers Association, and the Joint Distribution Committee, will include both Talmud study and the opportunity to participate in a Jerusalem-based live broadcast of a siyyum, a celebration of the completion of study, led by Rabbi Steinsaltz.

I study Talmud each week. Sometimes I struggle, sometimes it comes easily. I am personally indebted to Rabbi Steinsaltz for making the Talmud accessible both for me and my students. Thank you Rabbi Steinsaltz.

For information about a Global Day of Jewish Learning program in your community go to

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A CoP Comes To Life

I was sitting in my living room at 9:30 pm Sunday night, staring at my computer screen, hoping and praying. And one by one, they appeared--Rose from Chicago, Elyssa from Denver, Beth from New Jersey, Adam and Casey from Toronto, Ralph from Chicago and me—in Manhattan. And Avi joined us for twenty minutes from his home in Washington, DC to update us on the status of the Tikvah Ramah Bike Ride in Israel.

For weeks, I had been preparing for this day. Our Ramah Special Needs Program Directors Community of Practice (“CoP”), designed to connect directors from eight Ramah programs in four time zones in the US and Canada, has been meeting regularly since April, 2010. In our Google Group and in our conference calls, we have been offering each other support and sharing information relevant to directors of overnight camping programs, vocational training programs, and family camp programs—from staff training to buddy programs; social skills groups, Yahadut curriculums, use of technology with a special needs population, fund raising, and Israel trips—even such sensitive issues as sexuality and marriage.

But Sunday was different. After sending out Meeting Wizard to find a date to bring all of us together, then trying out Megameeting with three smaller groups, speaking with Megameeting tech support (“how do we reduce feedback and squelching?” “can a member who will be on the road call in by phone?”), sending out step by step instructions and reassuring notes to our somewhat technophobic group, and…praying--the moment arrived!

One by one, the nervous faces turned to smiling faces. Within minutes, we were hearing about a May, 2011 bike ride in Israel to raise scholarship money to support our programs. We were learning about the successful Buddy Program in Ramah Wisconsin. We were sharing ideas about the successful “Shabbos Is Calling” Program in New England—and discussing ways to use video conferencing to connect campers in the winter months—in Canada, California, Wisconsin, and New England. The group was excited when they learned that we can apply for a foundation grant for this exciting project—aimed at connecting a population which often feels isolated. We discussed staff hiring, and the role of the division head within our programs. And, best of all, our ninety minute meeting ended with plans for our next video conference, and with a discussion of when and where we might meet over the summer for an in person meeting. The group was excited to meet at one of the camps—to see an actual program in action!

I am proud of my colleagues who are the best proof that online technology works! A group of busy camp directors who live in four time zones, have other employment in the winter, and are a bit nervous with new technology, are excited to meet and share on a regular basis.

Perhaps we should invite Tzvi Daum to join us in a future MegaMeeting. Daum, in a recent blogpost writes:

I don't want to sound pessimistic or be the naysayer who says it can't be done, but until I see a successful open source Jewish educational project I remain unconvinced about the viability of using open source to solve Jewish educational needs. I know for example, the Jim Joseph Foundation made a grant to 14 fellows to build online communities of practice, I am curious where that will lead to after two years of training.

We can tell Daum how helpful our CoP has been, and we can let him know what we have accomplished after just one year of Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship training. I hope he will share my excitement when I tell him my plans for our CoP going forward—connecting counselors and staff from Ramah camps. And a CoP for all staff members of Jewish special needs camps—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Community—you name it. And if he has time, I can share updates about the status of my 13 amazing Jim Joseph colleagues—all hard at work on their CoPs—and changing the landscape in the area of education and online technology. Visit us, Tzvi!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Including All Jews

In many ways, it was the perfect Jewish conference. And it had so much to do with the careful, thoughtful planning. Of course the location (mid-town Manhattan), the weather (a crisp clear autumn day), and the delicious kosher food contributed to the success of the day--but they were mainly incidental.

I have never been to a conference where the conference packet was available in large print and Braille, where the keynote addresses were signed by a professional sign language interpreter, and where several of the speakers, including Jerry White and Richard Bernstein, were professionals and motivational speakers who just happened to be people with disabilities (White lost a leg in a Golan Heights mine explosion; Bernstein is blind from birth). Even some of the “who's who” of Jewish communal leadership—including Jerry Silverman, Barry Shrage, Devorah Zlochower and Mark Charendoff-- spoke masterfully about their own connection to special needs.

I guess you might just expect such sensitivity and careful planning from Advance: The Ruderman Jewish Special Needs Funding Conference was perhaps the first ever coming together of more than 100 funders representing large foundations, smaller family funds, venture philanthropy and more. And they came for “deep-dive into issue area” morning sessions, and “strategies to maximize funding impact” sessions” in the afternoon. I was lucky enough to serve on the professional advisory committee and to chair the morning session on informal Jewish education.

Imagine the energy and excitement in the sessions devoted to formal Jewish education, informal (camping, Israel trips, college campuses), housing, vocational training, raising awareness, leveraging and partnering, and more!

Perhaps the greatest take home message of the conference is that people with disabilities have tons of abilities, and that funders—in attendance from the US, Canada, and Israel—along with program providers--can partner to do even more to include people with special needs in all aspect of Jewish communal life.

May we soon see the day when including all Jews in all aspects of Jewish life happens so naturally that there won’t need to be special conferences on the topic!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What does it take to create community?

The 14 Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows came together this week for our final US retreat of our 2-year fellowship.  Yes, we have one more Israel retreat left, but the days of our formal in-person gatherings in the US, as our own unique Community of Practice (CoP), are no more.

Since the first day we met each other online we all knew that this group was as diverse as they come.  We span the decades, we cover both genders, and we represent the wide array of Jewish educational environments.  We cover the entire US from California to Florida and Massachusetts to Texas; and we identify as every mainstream branch of Jewish ideology as is represented in our own unique communities.

Somewhere during the fellowship we became a "community".  Somewhere during this last year plus we transitioned from a collection of independent Jewish educators to a Community of Practitioners; and over these last few days each of us tried to identify what was the magic moment, the specific experience, or the secret concoction that helped us move from "one of many" to a "community of one".

What I do know is that we collectively created a community (with of course the help of our Lookstein leaders, coaches, and guest presenters, teachers, and group facilitators).  What I don't think any of us knows, however, is what did it take to create "it".

We look forward to your ideas, suggestions, comments, and answers.  Our hope is that we'll know when we read it.  But until then, help!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Two Parts Authenticity, One Part Emotion

I BOUGHT MY FIRST BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN ALBUM when I was 12. I got a late start on the concerts (it didn’t help that the band broke up for nearly 15 years), but have made up for lost time, and saw my 13th Springsteen concert last fall. It was the first Bruce show for a colleague attending with me (an informal Jewish educator, of course); he said it was the greatest concert he had ever seen.
Those close to me—and any youth I’ve worked with—are well aware of my Bruce fanaticism.
What does this have to do with the world of informal Jewish education? Everything.
For starters, I point to Bruce as a great example of authenticity.
How is a performer like Springsteen able to hold on to the image of representing the working man, despite his millions? Why do his flannel shirts, boots, and jeans resonate with so many who have so much less than him? I believe the answer lies in that realness, or authenticity, that he maintains with his fans.
You can't fake the energy he displays during a three-hour show—at age 60, no less—without ever leaving the stage. You can't fake his compassion for those who have less, for those who have hit rough times, that he has delivered in his lyrics from Day One, and which he has backed up through his support for those causes.
Bruce isn’t just another old-time rocker playing hits for money. He takes risks. Some of his recent projects (a solo Southwestern album, a folk music tribute to the music of Pete Seeger) did not connect entirely with fans. Others didn’t like his open support of the Democratic presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2008. But he was authentic, for better or worse.
There’s a second element inherent in Springsteen’s work that has deep connections to the world of informal education, which goes hand-in-hand with authenticity: emotion.
David Brooks of the New York Times wrote one of the best essays I’ve read on the emotional value of the Springsteen experience. He writes of the “other education”—the emotional education:
We don’t usually think of this second education… This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives...
This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it…The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious…
Once I got a taste of that emotional uplift, I was hooked. The uplifting experiences alone were bound to open the mind for learning.
Brooks’ comments could easily be speaking about informal Jewish education, and the emotional highs that teens experience at a Shabbaton or convention. Isn’t that emotion, after all, what separates the formal from the informal education we aim to provide our teens as a community?
The formal side sits them down in a classroom, and aims to fill in all the basics they need to know to be a literate Jew—the Bible stories, Shabbat, holidays, tzedakah, Jewish ethics. The informal side, on the other hand, aims to brings them as a group to a proverbial Mount Sinai (the rock concert hall), stand them up on their feet cheering, and have that emotion seep in from under the floorboards and through the vents, so that when it’s over they always want to return for more. To make them say of Jewish life, as Brooks wrote of the concert experience, “once I got a taste of that emotional uplift, I was hooked.”
Springsteen teaches us a simple formula for resonating with those you aim to connect with: Creating meaningful relationships starts with authenticity. Adding in emotional ingredients strengthens the texture.
No one, of course, has better BS sensors than teens. You can’t fake it. Keep it real—respect, honesty, minimal judgment balanced with real expectations, show your inner self without crossing the line—and you just might make a real impact. Better yet, they might even deem you authentic.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Will Social Networks Change the World,
or Do You and I
Still Have to do the Heavy Lifting?

My friend and colleague Josh Mason-Barkin sent a few of us an e-mail his question and my reply follow. I hope you will add your thoughts.
"Malcolm Gladwell (in the New Yorker) says online social networks are not capable of empowering real and meaningful change. If he's right, what does that mean for attempts to make real and meaningful change in Jewish education?"
Josh - thanks for tossing this football out.

I think you reduce Gladwell's point to the level at which it might be paralyzing, or at least unhelpful. On one level, I think he is absolutely correct. The internet is changing the world. Not the way the men at Woolworth’s in Greensboro did. 

The social network is not a movement, at least not in terms that lead people to sing “We Shall Overcome” in a way that suggests the way things are done must change and change now. It is more a change in the way we perceive and make meaning. Not as dramatic as making a stand on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in March of 1965, nor did I think we are praying with our fingers on the keyboard as Heschel praying with his feet in Selma. 

What we can do is profound, but not as dramaticly or even as profound as what Gladwell describes.

I think Gladwell has used the civil rights movement as a straw man of sorts, but one that knocks you down instead of being bowled over itself. That doesn’t mean social networking is trivial. It just isn’t going to change the world the same way as actual civil disobedience and real time advocacy will. 

At the same time, let’s look at “Yes We Can” and the Obama online juggernaut of 2008. The campaign relied heavily on social networking to mobilize money, awareness, bodies at campaign rallies and votes. They didn’t give up traditional RT campaign methodology in favor of the digital campaign. Plouffe and company’s genius was integrating the two.

One of the things I find myself saying often is that the technology is awesome. But it is not the only thing! It is a tool, not a revolution. Our success will come from integrating. Nothing will replace the value of students and a teacher sitting around a table or under a tree with texts and ideas. As Grishaver  suggests, we need technology PLUS analog/Face to Face/RT experiences, not INSTEAD of them. If the revolution means all digital all the time, it will fail as soon as the kids master the next level of the video game. He says: 
“The real point is that real life still offers some unique opportunities: classroom community, love-interests, caring faculty and a speed and spontaneity that you don’t get pounding away a keyboard with your thumbs. Virtual community makes it possible to participate with less exposure. It often feels safer. Yet Solomon and Flexner bring a whole bunch of research sources that suggest participation is higher in blended circumstances. A friend is part of a heavily funded online dialogue. The story I got from this friend was that at first, before they ever met, their online dialogue was full of posturing and pontificating. Once the online group shared a retreat together, the dialogue shifted. It became real people talking to real people.”
What social media and other Web 2.0 technologies offer is access to learners and teachers in new and exciting ways. It offers that access because they are using the technology. When we were kids (and you guys sort of still are ;-}) we went home and played with our friends, did our homework, read books and watched TV. There was not much access to us for our Hebrew school teachers when we were not in the temple. 

My sons, aged 12 and 17, now multi-task. While doing homework, they access their text messages on the phones, chat and post items on Facebook, surf the web, watch YouTube videos, etc. 

If my teachers are social media savvy, 

AND the kids let them, they can initiate or invite contacts that were unimaginable. 

AND we can entice them into other Jewish learning modes through third web sites and applications like the Embassy of Israel, the work David and others are doing in Second Life, and even blogs like Jew School and David Wilensky’s stuff. 

I am actually putting together a class called “Judaism, there’s an App for that” for our community high school. 

I am hoping to explore how we can get students to focus both their digital and analog eyes on Judaism.

So Gladwell is right. But his point doesn’t change the need for us to engage in digital forms of building learners, learning and learning communities.

Cross-posted to Welcome to the Next Level.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ever wonder what happened to Mad Magazine...

...that educational wonder that we enjoyed as children?

It morphed into the Moshiach Times!

This article explains the metamorphosis....

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dropping the Baton in the Synagogue

This is from the July issue of FastCompany. FastCompany is a business magazine, and ever since the first issue came my way fifteen years ago I have read it cover to cover. Each month I find articles that make me think about my work as a Jewish educator and as a human being. There are more ideas than I have had a chance to implement and the list grows longer each month. It has introduced me to Seth Godin, the importance of Design and more recently Chip and Dan Heath.

This article made me think about the process of recruiting, and more importantly growing and maintaining the relationships with a member family in our congregation. They come in through so many different doors: nursery school, family education, social justice, a desire to enroll children in religious school, a worship experience, spiritual searching - you name it. And then we get them to join. 

Some time later - hopefully years - they resign. And we are shocked, I tell you. Simply shocked. (cue Sam on the piano - you must remember this...)

Why would they leave? Perhaps they have accomplished what they thought of as their purpose for joining. Maybe the kids have left the house so they see no reason to belong for themselves. Maybe the dues are too high. Maybe, maybe maybe.

This article made me wonder how many ways we drop the baton in our synagogues. With our students. With their parents. With the family as a whole. We should have been working to help them find multiple reasons for being connected to the temple, to develop relationships with other members and with the institution itself that go beyond the reason they joined. I began this line of thought on this blog in April. I am sure there is more to come. I invite your thoughts on this.

Team Coordination Is Key in Businesses

By: Dan Heath and Chip Heath July 1, 2010
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the American men's 4x100 relay team was a strong medal contender. During the four previous Games, the American men had medaled every time. The qualifying heats in 2008 -- the first step on the road to gold -- should have been a cakewalk.

On the third leg of the race, the U.S.A.'s Darvis Patton was running neck and neck with a runner from Trinidad and Tobago. Patton rounded the final turn, approaching anchorman Tyson Gay, who was picking up speed to match Patton. Patton extended the baton, Gay reached back, and the baton hit his palm.

Then, somehow, it fell. The team was disqualified. It was a humiliating early defeat. Stranger still, about a half-hour later, the U.S.A. women's team was disqualified too -- for a baton drop at the same point in the race. (Freaked out by the trend, the U.S.A.'s rhythmic gymnasts kept an extra-tight grip on their ribbons.)
Team U.S.A.'s track coach, Bubba Thornton, told the media his runners had practiced baton passes "a million times." But not with their Olympic teammates. Some reporters noted that Patton and Gay's practice together had been minimal.

Thornton's apparent overconfidence was understandable. If you have four world-class experienced runners on your team, shouldn't that be enough? Unfortunately, no, it isn't. The baton pass cannot be taken for granted -- not on the track and not in your organization.

We tend to underestimate the amount of effort needed to coordinate with other people. In one academic experiment, a team of students was asked to build a giant Lego man as quickly as possible. To save time, the team members split up their work. One person would craft an arm, another would build the torso, and so forth. (At least one person, of course, was charged with tweeting compulsively about what the others were doing.)

Often, the parts were carefully designed, yet they didn't quite fit together properly, like a Lego Heidi Montag. The problem was that nobody was paying attention to the integration. The researchers found that the teams were consistently better at specializing than they were at coordinating.

Organizations make this mistake constantly: We prize individual brilliance over the ability to work together as a team. And unfortunately, that can lead to dropped batons, as JetBlue infamously discovered back in February 2007.

You remember the fiasco. Snowstorms had paralyzed New York airports, and rather than cancel flights en masse, JetBlue loaded up its planes, hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came, and some passengers were trapped on planes for hours. If you've ever felt the temperature rise on a plane after an hour's delay on the tarmac, imagine what it was like after 10 hours. These planes were cauldrons of rage -- one stray act of flatulence away from bloodshed.

JetBlue did its best to survive the wave of hatred -- its CEO apologized repeatedly and the company issued a Customer Bill of Rights, offering cash payments for delays and cancellations. But the executives realized that these efforts wouldn't eliminate the underlying problems, which were rather unyielding: The weather is unpredictable; New York airports are overcrowded; passengers expect on-time performance anyway. If JetBlue didn't fix its operations -- learning to respond to emergencies with more speed and agility -- another fiasco was likely.

JetBlue's executives knew that a top-down solution by a team of executives would fail. "The challenges are on the front line," says Bonny Simi, JetBlue's director of customer experience and analysis. In October 2008, Simi and her colleagues gathered a cross-section of players -- crew schedulers, system operators, dispatchers, reservation agents, and others -- to determine how the company handled "irregular operations," such as severe weather.

Individual members of the group knew the issues in their departments, and "if we brought enough of them together," Simi says, "we would have the whole puzzle there, and they could help us solve it."
Where do you start? If you ask individuals what's wrong with their jobs, you'll get pet peeves, but those gripes may not address the big integration issues. But if you ask people directly how to fix a big problem like irregular operations, it's like asking people how to fix federal bureaucracy. The topic is too complex and maddeningly interrelated; it fuzzes the brain.

Rather than talk abstractly, Simi decided to simulate an emergency. As the centerpiece of the first irregular operations retreat, Simi announced to the group: "Tomorrow, there's going to be a thunderstorm at JFK such that we're going to have to cancel 40 flights." The group then had to map out their response to the crisis.

As they rehearsed what they would do, step by step, they began to spot problems in their current process. For instance, in severe-weather situations, protocol dictates that the manager on duty, the Captain Kirk of JetBlue operations, should distribute to the staff what's known as a "precancel list," which identifies the flights that have been targeted for cancellation. There were five different people who rotated through the Kirk role, and they each sent out the precancel list in a different format. This variability created a small but real risk. It was similar to slight differences among five runners' extension of the baton.

In total, the group identified more than 1,000 process flaws, small and large. Over the next few weeks, the group successively filtered and prioritized the list down to a core set of 85 problems to address. Most of them were small individually, but together, they dramatically increased the risk of a dropped baton. JetBlue's irregular-operations strike force spent nine months in intense and sometimes emotional sessions, working together to stamp out the problems.

The effort paid off. In the summer of 2009, JetBlue had its best-ever on-time summer. Year over year, JetBlue's refunds decreased by $9 million. Best of all, the efforts dramatically improved JetBlue's "recovery time" from major events such as storms. (JetBlue considers itself recovered from an irregular-operations event when 98.5% of scheduled flights are a go.) The group shaved recovery time by 40% -- from two-and-a-half days to one-and-a-half days.

Ironically, JetBlue's can-do culture contributed to its original problem. "The can-do spirit meant we would power through irregular operations and 'get 'er done,' " says Jenny Dervin, the airline's corporate communications director, "but we didn't value processes as being heroic." The company's heroes had been individuals -- but now they share the medal stand with processes. (Here's hoping that the next American relay team, too, extends some glory from the runner to the handoff.)

The relay team with the fastest sprinters doesn't always win, and the business with the most talented employees doesn't either. Coordination is the unsung hero of successful teams, and it's time to start singing.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Cross-posted to Welcome to the Next Level.