Sunday, February 28, 2010

All Together Now

When I was a kid, the Purim carnival was all about the Men’s Club – or so it seemed to me. They coordinated everything, food, games, moonbounce, tickets, prizes – it was their show. I was a kid, and my only concern was winning a goldfish. (Keeping it alive later was a lower priority and probability!)

Jump forward about 35 years. This afternoon was the Purim carnival at our temple. For a variety of reasons, I played a larger role that ever before, as did the members of the Religious School Committee. It was amazing!

Now its amazing-ness had nothing to do with anything I did. I tried very hard to follow the well-designed plan of our Family Educator, who has done it for years. And her foresight made everything work. What was amazing was what my changed perspective allowed me to see, and what I am certain was always there.

It’s about the numbers. A committee of 8 people planned the carnival, made the calls and made things happen. 14 people baked cakes for the cake walk. 20 people showed up early to join the maintenance staff in setting up. 12 adults and 82 kids (grades 4 – 12) came and ran the booths. The brotherhood brought a dozen to prepare and serve the food. Another dozen stayed to clean up. And during it all, they schmoozed. Some were already friendly with one another. Others were acquainted or met one another for the first time.

It was a thrill to watch! This is not the most intellectual, spiritual or educational event in our calendar. I was excited to see the connections being made, renewed and deepened. It occurred to me that with all of our wikis focusing on Hebrew, conferences on educational technology and blogs bemoaning the failure of institution X to reach goal Y, that we sometimes overlook the most important value of all – community. And that value is modeled and lived in many places, including in the kitchen as the “Pressure Cookers” of the Brotherhood get ready to feed several hundred people!

This all seems very kamuvan – obvious – but we often take it for granted. Look at the 28 Ideas, 28 Ideas blog. No, really, go there. It is really cool and interesting. More importantly for my point, most of the ideas there are creative explorations of how can better connect the Jewish people. In other words, it is about community. 21st century, hyper-connected and tech savvy, but community nonetheless. So let's keep our eye on the prize!

They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat – together!

And now on to Pesach!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Searching for Everyday Miracles

Most of us live our lives like commuters, not paying much attention to the "scenery" of life as we move from one activity to another. Commuters move on auto-pilot, and only pay attention to experiences that jar us from the everyday. So, the birth of a baby or a visit to the Grand Canyon is a miracle moment, but watching your toddler learn to talk is just the natural, developmental progression of a two year old. In today's miracle-jaded society, if an event would not make the evening news it isn't a miracle.

Judaism asks us to be more sensitive to the everyday miracles around us. In being more sensitive to miracles, we may come to greater appreciate Judaism as our tour guide to a miraculous world. In an important and often neglected teaching, the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidic Judaism, reminds us that miracles are happening every day but we “take our little hand and cover our eyes, " and the miraculous disappears.

Judaism recognizes two types of miracles, the revealed and the hidden. The miracle of Purim, the saving of the Persian Jewry through the efforts of Esther and Mordechai, is considered a hidden miracle, because God is never mentioned explicitly in the Purim story. Nevertheless, Jewish tradition "writes" God into the story by recognizing certain plot twists as only possible through God's intervention. For example, when King Achashverosh is unable to sleep, checks his royal annals, and is reminded of Mordechai’s loyalty, the Rabbis understand this verse to mean that God, the King of the Universe, woke up to the plight of Persian Jewry and began to work behind the scenes, through Mordechai and Esther, to save the Jews from annihilation.

The revealed miracles of the Bible are more familiar to us, including movie-worthy moments such as the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. It is easy to forget that Purim is a miracle, so the Rabbis wrote Al HaNissim, a prayer that reminds us that Purim is no less of a miraculous event as the Exodus from Egypt. This prayer begins by thanking God “for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds and triumphs, and for the battles which You did perform for our ancestors in those days, at this season.” The prayer continues “You (G-d) in Your great mercy did frustrate his (Haman) counsel and upset his plan; You did cause his plans to backfire upon his own head, so that he and his sons were hanged upon the gallows.” Notice that the Al HaNissim prayer does not praise Mordechai or Esther at all, despite the fat that they are the heroes of the story.

The Al HaNissim prayer, which is also said during Channukah (a different version), reminds us to recognize the miraculous even when events don't stop us in our tracks. Treating our daily experiences as mundane might be necessary to get to work but does not need to spill into all of our daily experiences. Take some time to be awed once in a while and it will transform you into a more appreciative person and, at the same time, put your place in this world into perspective. This is a way that Judaism can make our lives more sensitive to the world around us. Ironically, we have the ability to cover our eyes and make miracles disappear. That doesn't make us powerful, just blind.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tovim Ha-Shnayim...Strength in Numbers

Collaboration: A recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals.
Merger: When two organizations join together into one, with one organization surviving and the other disappearing. The assets and liabilities of the disappearing entity are absorbed into the surviving entity.

We are at a time in American Jewish history that’s transforming the Jewish Community as we have known it to be. Agencies are responding to the recession by closing down, merging, collaborating in new ways, and re-identifying themselves. And so we hear about two agencies merging and we mourn for the loss of one of them. Or congregations create a combined high school and we are saddened at the implication that their numbers were too low on their own so they had to collaborate as a matter of survival. We assume that when congregations merge, they are in a position of weakness and they had no other choice.

But mergers and collaborations are potentials for streamlined efforts, for exciting new initiatives and for stronger communities. When a congregation can reflect on its strengths and weakness, and

work with others in the community

to support and build on the others strengths and weaknesses, the end users, the congregants (and the community) are the beneficiaries.

We know that this is a difficult time for synagogues; population studies are showing us that our communities are older, intermarried and not affiliating, and shrinking in size. Research is showing us that Movement demographics are shifting; buildings are aging; both Day Schools and Congregational schools are struggling to fill their classrooms (with students and qualified, quality teachers.) And in many communities, synagogue leaders are territorial – if it doesn’t happen within our walls, it’s not good for our congregation.

So what is a congregation to do?

How does the leadership consider options for moving beyond the proverbial four walls and network and share with other congregations in their area in order to strengthen their home congregation?

This is part of my work at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership (a recently combined agency still working on a new name). Later this week we will be meeting with synagogue leaders to talk about collaboration and how building relationships and networks can provide opportunities. It is our belief that there are numerous ways to collaborate without losing institutional identity while providing services to the community, often at a higher level of quality.

The difficult economy has a silver lining for the Jewish Community if we can take a step back, reflect, and see what we have to offer each other. Kohelet, Ecclesiestes said it quite well – Tovim ha-shnayim min ha-echad: Two are better than one.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Including Everyone

I was pleased to learn that the theme for a sophomore class Shabbaton at a Modern Orthodox High School is "Stand By Me--A Thought and Heart-Provoking Exploration of REALationships.”

A very thoughtful, young woman shared her “take” on this topic. While she and five of her classmates, who were also asked to speak on the topic, were initially unclear on what, exactly, a “REALationship” is, this mature sixteen year old began to understand that it is a special, perhaps unexpected, relationship that she had been part of.

She shared her talk with me since I am the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England. Our overnight program for campers with developmental disabilities celebrates its 40th Anniversary this year. We are very proud to be pioneers and leaders in the field of Jewish camping, and in the inclusion of campers with special needs in the camp community. Our Tikvah campers, and the members of our Tochnit Avodah (vocational training program) have always been full members of the camp community, but they have lived in their own bunks.

Seven years ago, we decided to grow with the times and “push the envelope” We created an INCLUSION PROGRAM for campers too young for our Tikvah Program, for campers with more mild impairments, and for those whose parents preferred a more inclusive approach.

The young woman writes, “A child with special needs was put in a bunk of campers like you and me. Children with Down Syndrome, Asperger Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and other developmental disabilities joined typical bunks and spent their summer partaking in the same activities as other campers.

“Three summers ago, ‘R,’, a camper with Downs Syndrome, joined my bunk. At first, my group of friends and I hated it. We had extra responsibilities now. We had to help R. put on her pajamas, get into her bathing suit, brush her teeth, and pour herself water. These burdens were annoying. Why did we want to waste our time helping someone who probably didn’t even realize we were helping her? R was always stubborn and seemed to need our help for every single thing. It appeared that everyone was having a miserable summer, simply because she was in our bunk.

“While these extra responsibilities were annoying and slowed us down, by the end of the summer, each camper in my bunk had formed a special REALationship with R. We began to enjoy playing sports with her, seeing her accomplishments, such as climbing to the top of the rock climbing wall, as well as surprising her with a party on her birthday. This entire experience showed us that it is not easy to go out of your way to help someone, yet once you do, the result can be something you never expected that it would be.

“Over the year, my bunkmates and I continued to reach out to R. Many of us invited her to our Bat-Mitzvahs, we wrote her letters through snail mail, and we even planned conference calls with each other before Shabbat, so we could all sing the pre-Shabbat songs, just like we do at camp.

“The following summer, many of my friends and I signed up for a special buddy program, where we got paired up with a special needs camper, who we did various activities with, like playing sports with during our free time. This past summer, we all signed up again, and were assigned to new buddies, who we swam with and built sand castles with during their swimming period. Since I have been on a swim team for many years, I did not expect any of the kids to be as good as me. Surprisingly, I raced one camper and was shocked when he almost beat me!

“One can form a special REALationship with anyone. In my case, my friends and I were able to form REALationships with particular campers, simply by holding their hand and running with them to first base while playing kickball, helping to glue newspaper onto a paper mache balloon that would become a globe, writing a letter to their parents to tell them about their field trip, or singing and dancing with them in the dining hall after dinner. This summer, I am looking forward to being a CIT and strengthening my REALationships with some of the same campers I worked with in past years.

“By partaking in these special REALationships, one can learn that when someone has a disability, that means they also have an ability. Over the years at camp, I have learned that children with disabilities really do have the abilities to express themselves and enjoy the camp experience. Even if you do not keep in touch with these campers, you can still have a REALationship, because you have made a difference in their lives.

“My Shul has held a Yachad Shabbaton one Shabbat for the past few years. I have noticed that the Yachad members are not the only ones who enjoy these experiences. The members of my Shul also look forward to this weekend, and everyone takes something away from the experience. I hope that in camps and Shuls around us, we can take advantage of opportunities like the ones I have had, like at the Yachad Shabbaton coming up in a few weeks.”

The program certainly has its challenges, but the benefits to the typically developing campers, the campers with special needs, and to the entire camp community, are amazing.

We hope our attempts at inclusion at Camp Ramah in New England (and throughout the Ramah Camping Movement) will inspire others in the Jewish World to follow our lead and in turn, inspire others. Please share your inclusion successes and challenges so we can all help each other!

This article on inclusion in the Jewish world deals with special needs in the Jewish community.

Read some articles I’ve written about Tikvah.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are Jewish summer camps a luxury?

Since I began my career in Jewish education I have been identified as a "formal" Jewish educator. First in day schools in the United States, then in post-high school programs in Israel; most recently at the Lookstein Center where I have been moderating the Lookjed list for day school educators for 12 years and now play a role in directing the Jim Joseph Fellowship project, which is the inspiration for this blog.

But there comes a time when I proverbially "let my hair down," when I trade my formal attire for a pair of jeans, cajole my kids into the old station wagon and head to summer camp. On-and-off for the past 20 years I have played the role of Rav Machane - camp Rabbi - at Camp Moshava in Indian Orchard, PA. To be honest, when I first began doing this as a newly married day school teacher, it was a "summer job." As years went by, though, it became a central part of my educational being. It became clear to me that a Jewish summer camp experience is not merely a way to keep the kids occupied in the summer, it is a hothouse environment where kids can be nurtured and developed in a more holistic way than can be offered by most formal Jewish school settings.

Over the years, many of the campers who I met grew into positions in camp as counselors, into division heads, and from there into positions in Jewish education via the rabbinate, graduate studies or both. Some of the most creative, dedicated, thoughtful educators I know trace their roots not to the classroom but to the experiences that they had climbing mountains, fording streams and learning Torah under the stars and trees.

I share this in the context of a conversation that I recently had with a concerned parent who told me that he doubts that he will send his kids to camp this summer. On one level, his reasons are financial - the job market is slow and he has had to turn to the scholarship committee of his kids' day school to ask for help with tuition. Same with camp. But the choice to forgo camp appears to be that of the day school's scholarship committee. He was told that the committee would be looking very closely at "discretionary spending." Included in that list were:
Luxury automobiles
Lavish Bar and Bat Mitzvahs
Family vacations
Summer camps.

He is nervous about losing his kids' scholarship at the day school.

If I understood him correctly, the day school committee's perspective about the educational experience offered by a Jewish summer camp was that it was a "discretionary activity" much like a lavish party or expensive vacation.

I hope that I am wrong. In any case it is time that the world of formal Jewish education accepts Howard Gardner's "Multiple Intelligences" and recognizes that for many of our students who don't shine in the classroom, summer camp is an opportunity for learning and fulfillment, and for virtually all kids it can be an essential part of their educational experience.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Beauty of Collaboration: Welcome to Davar Acher!

I’m sitting on a 20 seat minibus with fourteen North American Jewish educators on an unseasonably warm December day. We are accompanied by three teachers and an amazing tour guide, and we are on the road from Mount Carmel in Israel to our base, the Jim Joseph Educational Building at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. Rachel Meytin, a new friend and the Vice President of the Panim Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values/BBYO turns to me and asks if I will serve as guest speaker on an upcoming service learning conference call. All she had to do was share the proposed title and I was in! For a guy who directs the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, an overnight camping program for children and young adults with special needs, this was a dream come true. I would get to speak to BBYO professionals across the country on the topic of “Integrating and Partnering with Students With Special Needs!” We opened our laptops, confirm the dates, and start generating ideas (which we share by email, thanks to Israeli wireless Pelephone technology!)

I am most appreciative to Rachel for the opportunity to share my talk and Power Point slides with her colleagues from LA, Austin, St. Louis, and DC. Where else could a Ramah director and BBYO professionals share information and best practices?

Thanks to the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows-Leading Educators Online Program, the fourteen of us in the first cohort are working with the staff of the Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan University and with experts from around the world as we learn to develop and lead online collaborative communities in our professional fields. Our group of fourteen Jewish educators come from formal (e.g. supplementary, congregational, and day schools) and informal Jewish education settings (e.g. camps, youth groups, Jewish Community Centers and early childhood programs, we come from eleven states (California, Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia), and we represent every imaginable movement in the American Jewish community. And we are loving the excitement of sharing and beginning to collaborate with colleagues from “across the aisles” of the Jewish world.

We have discussed ways to use Wikis in afternoon schools, blogs in early childhood centers and Animoto and Make Beliefs Comix in community day schools. We schedule meetings on Meeting Wizard and chat on Oovoo. We regularly Tweet during our conferences and lectures. We have experienced the frenzy of collaborating on a Tu B’shvat on an admittedly early version of Google Wave. We’ve even had fun sharing fun facts about ourselves using!

And this is the tip of the iceberg. We firmly believe that it is time for Jewish educators from all parts of the Jewish World to share technology, best practices, ideas, thoughts and support. The fourteen of us and our teachers have decided to create a blog. After a pretty crazy “naming contest,” we have all agreed that our blog should be called, “Davar Acher: On the Other Hand.” In that spirit, we invite you to join us—read our blog, share your ideas, thoughts and perspectives, and consider being a guest writer! Beruchim HaBa'im and Welcome to Davar Acher!

Welcome to Davar Acher