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....