Monday, May 31, 2010

A Tale of Two Campuses

Once again, it is that time of year. Three of my children are graduating from school in the coming weeks, as are thousands of other young people who are proudly reflecting on the accomplishments of years of formal schooling.

Who is speaking at your school's graduation? If Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to America were available, would you invite him?

Interestingly, two institutions of higher learning with Jewish roots - Brandeis University and Yeshiva University - both invited Ambassador Oren to speak. At Brandeis University his announced appearance on campus was greeted with petitions and editorials protesting the invitation, led, to a large extent, by Jewish students on campus.

At Yeshiva University, the student body appears to have been pleased with having the opportunity for a distinguished representative of the State of Israel address them at their commencement.

Why do two groups of students who are largely products of the same cultural environment have such radically different reactions to the Israeli ambassador?

Let's try multiple choice:

  1. Brandeis students are more sensitive to social justice issues
  2. YU students have stronger personal connections with Israel
  3. Orthodox Jews always support Israel
  4. All (or none) of the above


Would you invite Ambassador Oren to your school's graduation?

Would your children protest?

Why (not)?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I can’t stop thinking about the “Lost” finale.

(Even if you’re not a fan, stay with me, I promise there’s a larger point. And if you DVR'ed it and haven't watched it yet, consider this your spoiler alert.)

I loved the show from day one. It was thrilling, mesmerizing, can’t-wait-for-what’s-next TV, and at the same time the action was always secondary to the character development. Through flashbacks about a different character each week, by the end of the first season we knew these characters very well. Virtually all of them had flaws, but they were like family members—you loved them, warts and all.

I loved the finale, even though it didn’t answer all the questions. After it was over I found myself not wanting to let go. I re-watched some of the most poignant scenes, when various sets of characters in the "sideways" universe (a sort of parralel existence that wasn't explained until the very end) suddenly remembered their time on the island and reconnected with lost loved ones, all in the same instant. The emotional intensity of those moments, built upon six years of relationships—their relationships with each other, viewers’ relationships with the characters—was overwhelming. (This was the best of them, in my opinion.)

So what does the “Lost” finale have to do with Jewish education and community? Everything.


For starters, the finale touched upon several religious themes. Maureen Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, in her review Sunday night, laid out three key themes that strike me as quite Jewish:

  • It's never too late. You can always remake your fate (or take a run at resolving your issues in another Sideways life, brutha).
  • No one is eternally good or bad. You can revise or redeem your character through your actions.
  • No one can go it alone. It takes a village and all that.

Secondly, the show, and the finale in particular, demonstrated the power of the emotional connection. I’ll defer again to Ryan, simply because after I read what she wrote, I thought this is exactly how I feel. Noting the distinction between the “structural mode” and the “emotional mode” of watching the show, she writes:

“The structural mode has to do with the filling in of answers and with puzzle-solving… It's the more analytical part of being a ‘Lost’ fan, and it can be a lot of fun (or incredibly frustrating, depending on what happened in that week's episode)….

“But then there's also the emotional, ‘here and now’ mode of enjoying the show. That has to do with how the show makes me feel within that hour and the feelings and reactions it elicits in the moment. I love it when any film or movie or performance reaches down into the pit of my heart or soul and creates visceral, physical reactions -- fear, tension, tears, joy, elation, sadness.... So, here's how the finale landed for me: The emotional part of the finale worked so well that I don't care much about the analytical/structural stuff.”

I can’t help but think that this is how participants in Jewish education break down their own experience, distinguishing between the structural and emotional components (even if they don’t think of it that way.) For some, the focus on the nuts and bolts of Jewish life—prayers, tzedakah, chesed, holidays, Hebrew, life cycle, text study, culture, food, music, and so forth—resonates a lot. It offers easily identifiable symbols that people, and children in particular, can latch onto.

For others, however, none of that matters nearly as much as the emotional connection. One person might define their Jewishness by the positive emotional experiences they have within it; another may step away from Jewish life entirely because of a negative emotional experience.

In the field of informal Jewish education, we spend lots of energy going after exactly what Ryan is describing: reaching down into a teen’s heart and creating emotional reactions (albeit aiming for more joy and elation, and much less fear and sadness). By setting up environments and experiences that trigger emotional responses, we believe we’re increasing the likelihood of deeper and more profound connections—among participants, between participants and staff, and of course the connection the participant has with the experience itself (prayer, Israel, performing acts of tzedakah, and so forth.)

It makes me wonder, though, if as educators we could choose only one connection, structural vs. emotional—which would we choose?


Finally, there’s a third parallel from the “Lost” finale that resonates with the work my Jim Joseph Fellowship colleagues and I are doing to build online communities of practice. “Lost” dumped a group of strangers on an island, and we watched as over time they became a community, learning to trust, rely on, and at times, even save each other.

At the end of the finale, Jack, the main character, has a dialogue with his deceased father, that speaks directly to the idea of building community:

“The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people,” Jack’s father told him. “Nobody does it alone, Jack. You needed all of them, and they needed you.”

Sounds like the foundational idea behind a good community of practice.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Capetown, South Africa

In this day between Shavuot and Shabbat, I wanted to share with you three anecdotes from a trip I took right before Shavuot. I spent nine days in South Africa visiting my son who is studying at the University of Capetown this semester. Three Jewish experiences stand out for me from this trip.
1. We planned the trip using the internet and were able to rent a car, find places to stay and arrange for kosher food via the internet. The kosher caterer/restaurateur who provided for us deserves mention here because he was so helpful in our planning. I was able to order food in advance from his menu and he delivered it to our hotel so that it was waiting in our room upon arrival. Avron of Avron’s Place made us feel welcomed and cared for as we planned to spend Shabbat in Capetown. He did not ask for any money in advance and this feeling of trust was very heartwarming.
2. We went to shul at the Marais Road Shul (known as the Marera shul) on Shabbat morning and were welcomed by the guard who knew my son from his past visits there. We entered a shul more than 7500 miles from our home and, in addition, to feeling at home in the company of the community and inspired by the beautiful choir- we ran into a friend of ours who lives in Englewood, New Jersey. That familiar face in a place which was so familiar yet so far from our home made us all smile and added a special feeling to that Shabbat for us.
3. Before leaving Capetown we visited the Herzliya School of Capetown. Our son had done some volunteer work there and wanted us to see this amazing school. We walked into the school office and David introduced himself and spoke of his last visit there and an administrator got up from her desk and spent the next hour showing us around the school. The school is a magnificent example of a Jewish day school which serves almost the entire Jewish community of Capetown. 80% of the Jewish children of Capetown attend this beautiful school. My son said it best in his blog so I’ll quote him:
The school had a great vibe to it, as kids were busy engaging in afterschool activities, including everything from basketball to water-polo. Wandering around the school, I saw signs of everything you would expect from a good Jewish day school: science contraptions, art projects in memory of the holocaust, and posters discussing Jewish values. It’s nice to travel half way around the world and up a mountain, and see that Jews everywhere are pretty much doing the same thing: using Jewish education to pass on to their children a lifestyle and tradition of community, knowledge, values, and of course, fun.
I, too, felt the power and strength of Jewish education as I walked through the halls and grounds of this school.

All three of these anecdotes reminded me of the closeness and uniqueness of the Jewish community and greatly enhanced our trip.
Shabbat Shalom!!

Sunday, May 16, 2010


One of my personal Jewish outlets is participating in Limmud Southeast+Atlanta. As you may know Limmud is an international organization that represents a cross-communal approach to Jewish learning. It began in 1980 in the UK and now has about 35 all over the world.

Limmud Southeast+Atlanta has several events through the year; the highlights are a day-long Limmud in March, a full weekend over Labor Day called LimmudFest, and piloting a Jewish music festival this June. I am an active VOLUNTICIPANT (a cool Limmud concept for a participant who is also a volunteer!). For LimmudFest 2010, I am the co-chair of a committee called Participant Care (i.e. hospitality, special needs requests, transportation, housing, etc). It is such a rewarding experience to be involved in Jewish community for personal reasons and not just professional ones.

Limmud gives me a phenomenal multi-generational community amid which I have made some of my closest friends in Atlanta. They are all people who are committed to Jewish life - however they personally define it. They are engaged, intelligent, and loving (not to mention a ton of fun!). Limmud gives me an outlet for my post-denomination Judaism. Limmud gives me on-going adult Jewish learning for learning's sake. Limmud has given me front-line access to some of the world's best Jewish educators. But now, Limmud has given me something else.

I was recently asked to represent Limmud Southeast+Atlanta to be a part of an international Limmud project called the Chevruta Project. It is a book, published once a year, in which texts are examined around one theme, through many lenses, and by-way of both traditional and modern texts. The Chevruta book is divided into four sections and each section is developed by a geographic team. This year's theme is TIME and my team is North America. The North America team has representatives from Toronto, New Orleans, Chicago, NY, Boston, LA, Philly and Colorado. The section of the book we were assigned is around Communal Time.

In thinking about on-line learning communities, one of the greatest strengths is what has become known as "crowd-sourcing." The Jim Joseph Fellowship has reinforced the useful nature of tapping into the collective wisdom of a community. So combining my participation in the Fellowship with my participation in the Limmud Chevruta Project, I wanted to take this opportunity to ask all of the Davar Acher readers to participate in crowd-sourcing around the topic of Jewish Time. I invite you to answer any one, a few, or all of the questions below.
  • What does Jewish Time mean to you?
  • What traditional texts best frame or guide your view of Jewish time?
  • What modern texts do this?
  • How does Personal Jewish Time play out in your life?
  • How does Communal Jewish Time play out in your life?
  • What comes to mind when the concept of G-d's Time is introduced?
  • Do you have thoughts about Eternal Time?
I look forward to the amazing discussion I think we can have in asynchronous TIME about this topic.

NOTE: Picture to left is Salvador Dali's "The Persistence of Time"

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Two Types of Freedom

Imagine sleeping late for the most important appointment of your life! According to Jewish tradition, that is exactly what the Jewish people did the morning they were to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai. To make certain that this doesn’t happen again, many Jewish communities stay up for an all-night study session the first evening of Shavuot (Erev Shavuot). This special tradition, called a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, hopes to ensure that the Jewish people make it to their Mount Sinai meeting on time.

Shavuot, also called the Festival of Weeks, is the second of the three Festivals of the Jewish year. Like many Jewish holidays, Shavuot has both agricultural and religious significance. Shavuot celebrates the harvest and dedication of the first fruits of the agricultural year and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. For this reason, Shavuot is also often called both Hag HaBikkurim (Holiday of the First Fruits) and Hag Matan Torah (Holiday of the Giving of the Torah).

However, the connection between Passover and Shavuot is perhaps the most important aspect of this holiday’s celebration. Passover celebrates the escape of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But what happened after that miraculous escape at the Sea of Reeds? Seven weeks later, the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai and were given the Torah. As Passover celebrates physical freedom, Shavuot celebrates spiritual freedom through the covenant made between G-d and the Jewish people millennia ago.

Unfortunately, Shavuot often falls during the summer and many people forget about this celebration altogether (There is no excuse this year, as Shavuot is at the end of May). Additionally, Shavuot may be less “memorable” because it doesn’t have a unique experience as part of its celebration. Sukkot has the sukkah, Passover has the Seder, Purim has the costumes, and Shavuot is primarily a synagogue based holiday exactly at the time when synagogue attendance starts to wane in the summer season.

Nevertheless, participating in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot is a great way to throw you into Jewish learning and provides a great opportunity to become re-inspired to explore Judaism anew. I have participated in all-night study programs that explore everything from classical biblical texts to the growth of the Israeli wine industry. With a diversity of learning experiences, everyone has the opportunity to stay engaged and awake. Plus, all-night learners really feel a sense of accomplishment if they make it to dawn on Shavuot morning.

Study is central to the Jewish people. Jewish study is not about mastering knowledge; rather it is about using what is learned to affect how we live. We study the Torah all year, every year because the work that we put into study has the potential to transform our lives. This is why Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that the process of Torah study is to “turn to it, and turn to it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, grow old and gray over it. Do not budge from it. You can have no better guide for living than it” (Avot 5:25). Take some time this year to study our tradition.

Shavuot begins the evening of Tuesday, May 18, 2010, the 6 Sivan 5770. For more information about Shavuot, check out