Monday, November 14, 2011

When Tweeting Depletes: How Social Media Can Disconnect Us

The conversation continues courtesy of eJewishPhilanthropy (What? You still don;t subscribe? Shame!). Here I am, Mr. Digital Oleh, agreeing that digital is not the only solution. Maybe not even the best solution. Like a knife or a drill, it is a tool. We need to learn how to use it well and when to put it back in the virtual tool box and use other tools. Discuss...

When Tweeting Depletes:
How Social Media Can Disconnect Us
November 11, 2011

by Ami Hersh and Leor Shtull Leber

As people who barely remember a time before the Internet and who use Facebook (too) often to stay in touch with friends from around the world, we are not ignorant of the power of social media and technology in connecting people and ideas. However, we question the direction we are taking when we rely too heavily on technology and we fear the authenticity of our relationships when they are based on “@s” and “#s”

We admit we are guilty too. Once we were sitting around a table with friends, each of us on our own laptop. Somebody walked in and asked if he could join and do homework with us, and we awkwardly apologized that we were actually in a meeting – it just so happened that our meeting involved us all sitting in a circle in silence working collaboratively on the same Google doc.

Still, we use the word “guilty” because of the value of personal relationships with which we were raised. We both recently attended the JFNA General Assembly in Denver and were shocked to see the technology culture present and the (over)use of smartphones during sessions. We were encouraged to play with our phones instead of focusing on the speakers. People barely looked up – a great success according to the “Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!” message of the conference. What happened to turning off your phone for a lecture? Further, one of the winning innovative ideas at the Jewish Futures Conference called for the elimination of meetings: young people don’t want to waste their time meeting in person when smart phones can do the job.

Well, we are young people who have smart phones. We still cherish the face to face time of meetings in person – and look forward to disconnecting by turning off our phones during those meeting. Email and social media are important and effective tools, but we must be conscious of overuse and of replacing genuine in-person relationships, both when we are distant and even when we are together in the same room, by tweeting instead of talking.

As it says in Mishlei 27:19, “As water reflects face to face, so the heart of man to man.” The beauty of interpersonal relationships is the ability to look into the eyes of another human being and connect deeply with them through conversation and expression. As you stare into the eyes of another human being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, you are able to let their souls reflect and interact with your own. The whole world can open up before your eyes. Social media is spectacular, important, and quite useful when utilized in its proper time and place. Let us not however allow the over-presence of social media to dilute our in-person enduring relationships.

Ami Hersh is a senior rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the assistant director of Camp Ramah in Nyack. He can be reached at

Leor Shtull Leber is a senior at Brown University concentrating in Cognitive Science and a Student Representative on the Brown RISD Hillel Board of Trustees. She can be reached at

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Connecting the Affiliated

My friend and colleague Arnie Samlan posted about a conversation he had with Beth Finger, who is working on a project called Jewish Without Walls. They suggest we "Forget about Jewish Affiliation, Think about Jewish Connectedness:"
"During our conversation this morning, we both challenged the relevance of "Jewish affiliation", which has been used in every Jewish demographic study as a measure of community success in modern America. The problem is, and has always been, that the operational definition of "affiliation" is often "pays dues to a synagogue". Even those who expand the definition someone, rarely get beyond handing money to an organization (JCC, Federation, Hillel) as the operational definition."
He explores several problems with using affiliation as a metric, including leaving our serious Jews who are "not religious," those for whom membership is of little if any value, and that it does not include significant numbers of Jews who relate to their Jewishness independently, including growing numbers who use social media to express their Jewishness.

He (with a nod to Beth Finger) suggests changing the metric to  "Jewish Connectedness." He would like Jewish sociologists to take into account the many ways of relating meaningfully to being Jewish. He wants to find a way to include serious Jewish paths that may not lead through a synagogue, federation or JCC. He includes summer camping and independent minyanim as well as those "who are doing Jewish in non-institutional spaces or in secular spaces, Jews connecting online in meaningful ways folks and who participate in Beth's Jewish Without Walls, in havurot and in other groupings that are not (yet) dues-based groups."

I think Arnie has the beginnings of an interesting framing of the conversation that we have all been having for a while. And while those who would overturn existing institutional frameworks might see this as invitation Occupy Organized Judaism, I see it as a refreshing way to begin talk about the apples and oranges in the same conversation. After all, Apple Jews and Orange Jews are still all Jews!

I would press the idea a bit further:

How can we in the synagogue world change the way we operate to increase the CI - Connectedness Index - for each member family and individual? While we in this world often do a lot to attract affiliation, we don't always (or even often) do a good enough job of connecting them to other adults in our congregations. We get them when they feel they need us (religious school, nursery school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah) but we don't always connect the adults in the family. So when the kids are ready to move on, the adults do as well.

Using the CI as a way to measure and improve what we do is as important as using it to find a meaningful category for non-Congregational connecting. I still like the word "affiliate" though. It makes me feel like we can use it to affirm that we obeying Hillel's dictum not to separate ourselves from the community.

Like Arnie, I am not the statistician to figure out how to count these things in the larger picture. I do know that in our synagogue and religious school, we have begun to focus on connecting parents. Our room parents now focus on getting parents together rather than doing the shopping or helping with the seder. (See article on page 6 Torah at the Center). I challenge you to share more ways of connecting the people who ARE affiliated! Because we need to raise the CI of all of our people!

Cross posted to Welcome to the Next Level

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gilad Shalit-A Teachable Moment

For close followers of Israel, such people, concepts and events as Yonatan Netanyahu, the Law of Return, the Balfour Declaration—even Sbarro and Dolphinarium—are quite well known. For the majority of non Jews and even Jews, however, they are quite foreign.

Today marks the one week anniversary of the release of Gilad Shalit. His release provides Jewish educators with an opportunity to initiate important discussions with our students, their parents, friends and neighbors. Nearly everybody has an opinion about the “fairness” of swapping Shalit for more than 1,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails. And this complex is worth discussing.

Shalit’s release seems to have left many wondering who are the “good guys” and “bad guys.” Who are these people who returned home to a hero’s welcome? How was an Israeli soldier “kidnapped?” Why do Israelis go in to the army in the first place, and for how long? Such questions point to one important fact--many people don’t know basic history—of Judaism, Zionism, of the Arab/Israeli conflict

Helping teach these “basics” is a fitting tribute to Gilad Shalit. And let’s commit to educating a few of our friends—before November 2nd. This date is the 94th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration of 1917--the famous letter from Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community. It contains a famous line which is useful in our work with our students:

“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In Praise of Rabbis and Cantors Who Are Willing To Think Out of the Box In Working With Children With Special Needs

When I started teaching Max, it was unclear if he’d even set foot in the synagogue on his bar mitzvah day. As his parents explain in this beautiful, moving video,, Max loves “Blues Clues” and is motivated by French fries. Aliyah l’torah and d’var torah were not likely to be part of Max’s bar mitzvah--we did not know at first what a Max bar mitzvah might look like. Max is a young man with autism and limited expressive language.

After several sessions working with Max in his home—singing songs, clapping, reading stories and putting “Blues Clues” on such objects as challah, candle sticks and a kipah, we began taking Max to his synagogue, Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan, to meet with Cantor Shayna Postman. The synagogue had never celebrated the bar mitzvah of a boy with autism, but they were open to working with Max and his family.

Shayna knew of Max’s love of music and began playing guitar for and with Max. Max enjoyed looking at Shayna’s mouth as she sang—and he had a special pick for strumming on her guitar. Together, they sang the Shema. And played drums for Halelu. Little by little, it seemed Max just might celebrate his bar mitzvah in the shul.

On the Sunday of Chol Ha Moed Sukkot, Max entered the synagogue—with his IPad and headphone. He didn’t agree to wear a tie or jacket, but he did wear nice khaki pants, a white shirt and a kipah. The cantor welcomed the guests, and his parents told Max it was time to put away the Ipad. His family presented Max with a tallis, which he wore proudly. He carried a small torah, shook a lulav and etrog (for his Sunday of Sukkot bar mitzvah), and stood at the torah offering one word answers to the cantor’s question about things he loved (“mommy, daddy, music, French fries, baby sitter Stacy…”).

While Max did not say the Torah blessings, read from the Torah or deliver a d’var torah, Max truly became bar mitzvah that day. The cantor’s love for Max was obvious to the fifty guests in attendance. She bothered to get to know Max and appreciated Max’s abilities while also understanding his limitations.

Cantor Postman delivered a beautiful mi sheberach prayer for Max. My hope and prayer is that more rabbis and cantors will continue to create caring communities where the Max’s of this world will have a Jewish home.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

This is a crazy inexplicable country

Photo of Gilad Shalit's helicopter
(he's in the one on the left)
taken by Lori Abramson
from her porch in Yokne'am
I thought about writing about Gilad Shalit's return yesterday, making this holiday a true Sukkat Shalom - if only for a moment. We had an amazing conversation in Confirmation class last night with our tenth graders. They were truly split on the issue of exchanging dangerous (potentially lethal) prisoners to bring one man home. They got how important it is for every parent to know that no price is too high to bring their children out of captivity. They also got how giving in to hostage takers may lead to more hostage taking and how releasing terrorists may lead to more deaths. They took sides. And they understood and were conflicted about the side they didn't take. They also understood that no matter their position, it was good that Gilad was finally home and alive.

Then I read this piece by Robbie Gringras on the Makom site. As usual, he is more eloquent than I could ever be. 
19/10/2011 | 12:21
Robbie Gringras 
We were driving home from Amirim when we saw them. Silhouetted against a dusky sky, two helicopters were climbing their way over the hills with the Mediterranean behind them. Who would have thought the sight of two ugly military helicopters flying north could make us whoop with delight and almost swerve off the road?
Gilad was on his way home.
We stopped in the local supermarket to do some pre-holiday shopping, but found ourselves drawn to the electronics section. There was a wall of plasma screens, all tuned to Channel 2, volume on full. As the live coverage showed the Shalit family clamber out of the now-parked helicopter and make their way home in convoy past the cheering people, we found we weren’t alone. Over forty people were crowded round the TV screens, their trolleys half-full, staring at the images as a grandparent might stare at the video of a grandchild’s first steps. 
We all shared snippets as we watched: how none of us had been able to get dressed in the morning, so fixated were we to the news; how frail yet indomitable Gilad had seemed in the Egyptian TV interview; how Iscar had continued paying Gilad’s father’s salary throughout his full-time campaign to free his son. 
Then we saw the family reach their house, shuffle through the singing crowds and the flying white flowers, and close the door behind them. Everyone breathed a sigh of satisfaction, wiped away the tears that had gathered or overflowed, and wheeled off back to the shopping.
And as I wandered in a daze round the vegetables and preserves, I jumped from thought to thought: 
  1. This is a crazy inexplicable country. Strange wonderful things can happen here, though rarely because of strategy or logic. This place and this people is ruled by the heart, the spirit, and the soul. For good and for bad. It’s a ridiculous way to run a country, but we must work with what we have. Whenever we begin to talk about ‘logical solutions’ to conflicts in this region, or ‘mutual interests’, we must learn a lesson from this prisoner exchange. For sure politics and interests were involved, but the engine was more emotional and spiritual than rational.

  2. How often in the past few decades has this country shed tears of happiness? I guess it is a rare thing for any country to elicit what is, generally speaking, a family kind of emotion. But tears of sadness, despair, and even rage flow in abundance here. Yesterday the tears were happy, and they were shed both by Israelis and by Palestinians.

  3. We didn’t see much of the Palestinians’ celebrations. To see that you needed to switch to CNN or BBC, because Israeli TV wasn’t interested. I normally rail against this insularity, but not yesterday. The many families whose loved ones were blown to pieces by the same people hailed as released heroes in Gaza, did not need to have those images pushed in their faces. None of us did.

  4. Which led me to wondering about this unique occurrence, a day when both Israelis and Palestinians are celebrating the same event. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything. If past experience is anything to go by, it probably will change little, but it’s worth noting nevertheless. Sometimes a light in the darkness is just a flash of a gun, but sometimes it can be a lighthouse, and sometimes it can signal the distant end of a tunnel.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Examining Your Educational Philosophy

This blog is cross-posted from

Earlier today I facilitated a presentation for the national NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), the youth affiliate of the Reform Movement. I had been asked to help their staff think about how educational philosophy is an important part of youth education planning. While many of their staff had – at one point – written educational philosophies, some had not and some hadn’t looked at them in a while. Others shared that they review it every year as a way to reflect on the prior year and to set the tone for the year ahead. We also discussed the importance of helping their teen leaders frame their roles as board members through the lens of Jewish educator – and therefore the need for the teens to start articulating their personal educational philosophies. At the end of the conversation, I shared my own educational philosophy. Writing it is an iterative process, so the version I share with you today might change based on tomorrow’s experiences.

I am wondering – how many of my colleagues have written/articulated educational philosophies? how many of my colleagues have shared their educational philosophies with their staff/colleagues/lay people/community partners? how many of my colleagues are congruent in their actions and their written philosophy? I invite you to share your educational philosophy in the comments section – perhaps inspiring others and perhaps as way for others to hold each of us accountable.

I am committed to experience-based and experiential education techniques–leveraging the text Na’aseh v’Nishma to convey the context. With pre-teen, teen and adult learners I champion for educators to serve as mentors/facilitators guiding learners to make their own educated conclusions about practice and thought; allowing the learner to personalize and own their Judaism because they understand the “why.” I believe in educating Jews to personal choice and meaning-making.

As the home is the primary indicator of adult Jewish identity, I believe in the power of Jewish family education. My goal is to help all Jewish professionals assess the way their organization and their education offerings help educate the entire family.

I believe in creating education opportunities where I can nurture people’s passions and develop multiple entry points that get people entrenched in community. The critical role that community plays in the learning environment is an essential aspect of any learning plan. I am committed to explicitly creating community as goal of all curricula.

My goal is to create an education system which enables Jews to make a shift to a “brit of faith” from a “brit of fate.” Ultimately developing a Jewish community where all Jews are actively “choosing Judaism;” are inspired to Jewish curiosity; expressing their identity in attitudes, skills, behaviors and knowledge; and viewing every aspect of their lives through a Jewish lens.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

"And You Shall Teach Them Diligently To Your Children ... And To Yourselves."

This summer I met @Moosh2, an online friend. She was working at Crane Lake Camp while I was at Eisner Camp. Her name in RL is Marci Bellows the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes a regular column inn the New York Jewish Week. We grew up in the same community and have a lot of friends in common, and yet we had never met!

When I saw this article, I thought it made some very important points in our ongoing discussion about what we should be doing in Jewish Education today. Let's discuss!

“When I was in junior high, and all my friends were having their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs (sic), I just enjoyed celebrating with them. It didn’t really occur to me that I wasn’t having one of my own. It wasn’t until college that I really began to regret it…” 

With these words, Jessica Yanow, my best friend since we were eight years old, began reflecting on her own Jewish upbringing and education. Growing up in Skokie, Illinois, it was impossible not to feel, at the very least, culturally Jewish. There was a bagel store in every strip mall, and a synagogue every few blocks. 

Jessica’s grandparents belonged to a Traditional synagogue, and they encouraged Jessica’s mother to enroll her in Sunday School there. Though the level of observance differed from what she was seeing at home, Jessica attended for a few years. When she was in second grade, her mother gave her a choice – she could keep attending Sunday School, or she could stop. Jessica explained, “At that age, I would guess that most children would choose not to go to any additional school. There was no discussion, as far as I can remember, with regards to later implications, like the fact that I wouldn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. So, of course, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go to Sunday School.’” 

I cannot express how much this one story has affected my rabbinate. I often hear young parents wrestling over whether or not to “force” their children to attend religious school. Likewise, I hear students bemoan the fact that they are “stuck” going to religious school every week. And, yet, I inevitably share Jessica’s story with them all, for this reason: Now that she is an adult, she deeply regrets not attending religious school, not building her Jewish identity from a younger age, and not celebrating Bat Mitzvah at 13. 

Interestingly, and perhaps not consciously, Jessica found other ways of engaging in Judaism as a teen. Jessica was active in our local Kadima chapter in junior high, and then we were all board members of my temple’s Youth Group in high school. She took Hebrew as a foreign language at our public high school. She traveled to Israel during the summer before college, and then we both began our studies at Brandeis University (where feeling Jewish is unavoidable). 

Surrounded by Jews of all stripes, Jessica was now confronted by her lack of Jewish knowledge and personal connection to her heritage. For the first time, she truly regretted her decision to halt her religious education. Thus, she continued studying Hebrew, added three semesters of Yiddish, and read as many Jewish books as she could. 

Fast-forward to now, and she is living in Phoenix, married, and mother to an amazing four-year-old son (who calls me “Auntie Marci,” which makes me giggle ALL the time). She and her husband have chosen to send their son to a pre-school at a local Reform synagogue. She hopes that they will become more involved in the coming years, and perhaps she will study towards Adult Bat Mitzvah. I asked her how she feels now that she is the parent. 

She delights in spending every Friday morning at the preschool’s Tot Shabbat celebration. She loves learning more about the holidays alongside her son. She was pleasantly humbled when he came home one day, looked at the family’s dormant candlesticks, and asked, “Mommy, why don’t we light Shabbat candles on Friday nights?” 

Jessica is but one case, but she exemplifies so many adults in today’s Reform congregations. For a variety of reasons, we have men and women who feel detached, alienated, or lacking in some way. Some of these adults will never set foot in the temple except to send their kids to religious school and then leave as soon as their youngest child turns thirteen. 

However, others are longing for connection, and they wish desperately that someone would reach out to them. These folks may be intimidated by adult education offerings, fearful that their lack of learning will be a source of embarrassment. To all of these people, I say, you are welcome here! You belong here! You are a crucial part of the fabric of the Jewish community, and you needn’t be afraid! Jewish learning is possible throughout our entire lives, whether or not we started our learning when we were young. 

As adults, it is our job to model the importance of a strong Jewish education – not just by sending our children to religious school, but by finding ways to continually enhance our own understanding of Judaism. Imagine how little we would understand about the world if we had stopped our secular studies at age 13! This month, the Union for Reform Judaism is highlighting various ways of approaching Lifelong Jewish Learning, and I encourage you to look for inspiring ideas and topics on their website: I’m sure that, with a bit of searching, you will find something that works for you. 

Oh, and, by the way, Jessica will not be giving her son a choice. He will go to religious school through Bar Mitzvah, at the very least. No doubt about it.

Cross-posted to Welcome to the Next Level.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Jewish Values at 41,000 Feet

I am writing this article from 41,000 feet, as I make my way to Connecticut to visit my mother, who is recovering from bypass surgery. Despite the high stress of the past two weeks, this experience has provided me the opportunity to consider anew what may be the most challenging of all the Ten Commandments to keep, the obligation to honor one's parents. It has also reminded me that teaching our children about Judaism is all the more powerful when it happens outside of the classroom.

"Honor your father and your mother; that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you," is the fifth of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:12) It sits between the first four commandments, which are about our relationship with God, and the last five commandments, which instruct us on our relationship with others. It has been suggested that the commandment to honor one's parents serves as the bridge between these two types of relationships that the Torah demands of us. It has also been suggested that the reason we are offered a direct reward for fulfilling this obligation (most commandments have no reward connected to them) is because it is so difficult to be mindful of this expectation, either because we are young and lack self-control, or because as we mature we are unable to adjust to a new relationship with parents we first met as youngsters. Our rabbinic tradition, recognizing this struggle, reminds us of the importance of this mitzvah in the Talmud by relating that "when a person honors his father and his mother, the Holy One Blessed be God says, 'I view them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honored Me'" (Kiddushin 30b).

When my daughter asked me why I was leaving for a week to take care of my mother, I had an important opportunity to remind her of the Fifth Commandment and that family stands at the core of Jewish life. "That's a Jewish way to live," I explained to her from the front seat of the car, "we do whatever we can to care for those who are sick, that's the mitzvah of bikkur holim, and when the visit is to your parents, you are also doing the mitzvah of respecting people who have given everything to make you who you are."

Even if my daughter didn't understand everything that two minute exchange on Braeswood Boulevard was intended to convey, she did kiss me goodbye at Hobby Airport the following Sunday, and saw Jewish values in action as I waved goodbye. The week will be hard for my family, but I believe that she will gain something very powerful from the experience. My daughter saw me living my Judaism in real-time, and making tough choices to balance my responsibilities as a parent and as a child to my parents. I hope the experience becomes part of what fashions her Jewish identity.

Although I hope she never has to make this type of trip for me, I do believe that seeing her father board the plane teaches her that our family's Jewish values are part of the very fabric of who we are and the choices we make each day.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Reflecting on the Past Two Years

In just over a month the founding members of this blog will be completing their fellowship with the Lookstein Center at Bar Ilan University and the Jim Joseph Foundation to create online communities of practice (CoP) for Jewish educators.

We were part of the first cohort of this new initiative, and so high expectations for the programs success, coupled with the recognition that there would be a steep learning curve for the fellowship's implementation, went hand-in-hand over the past two years.

Without question, I have been transformed by this opportunity. The program asked me to consider both my leadership and management style. It forced me to think critically about many of the fundamental assumptions about how the Jewish community should work and how Jewish professionals need to prepare themselves for the digital age. It has pushed me to incorporate emerging technology into my professional work both in and outside the classroom. It has exposed me, with greater sensitivity, to the diversity of our Jewish community and its professionals. It has helped me to create a broader network of colleagues and introduced me to people, places, and ideas that were unfamiliar.

Over the course of the fellowship, I often became frustrated by the challenge of birthing my community of practice and encouraging other JCC colleagues to participate. Even now, participation is not what I envisioned and the CoP still has a far way to go to be the resource for the field I believe it can be.

As is typical of new ventures, the process is often more fulfilling than the first product. I can't show you what I would consider a successful CoP just yet but, give a few minutes, and I can share with you a powerful learning experience that is certain to change the way I serve the Jewish community forever.

I am indebted to both the program's creators Rabbi Shalom Berger and Esther Feldman, as well as the Jim Joseph Foundation, for their innovative thinking in developing this first-of-a-kind opportunity.

Thank You!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Access Israel

A scene from "Not By Bread Alone,"
a play performed by deaf and blind actors at Na Laga'at
Marc Rosenstein has been blogging from Israel for the Reform Movement for years in a blog called "Galilee Diary." Rabbi Rosenstein made aliyah to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee, founded in the early 1980's by a group of young American immigrants. He is presently the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of HUC-JIR, as well as the director of the Makom ba-Galil, a seminar center at Shorashim that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence. His blog arrives in my inbox every Wednesday as part of the Union for Reform Judaism's 10 Minutes of Torah

The Jim Joseph Fellows visited Na Laga'at, which he discusses. If we have not been discussing the needs of learners who encounter the world in ways radically different from the majority, we are not doing our jobs.  Discuss. This is cross-posted from the URJ Blog and to Welcome to the Next Level.
"You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall you’re your God: I am the Lord."
-Leviticus 19:14
For years we had a subscription to the theater series at the Karmiel auditorium, which brought plays from the various repertory companies around the country. But we got bored with the selection a few years ago and decided to go it alone, and create an a la carte cultural schedule for ourselves. But long days and frequent evening meetings make it hard to keep up the resolve. We have been seeing more movies. And we just made our Second Annual Excursion to the Opera in Tel Aviv. The Tel Aviv Opera House is elegant and impressive.

On our way to a matinee of La Traviatta we went strolling in Jaffa port, an old area in the process of gentrification. One of the attractions there is the Na Laga'at ("please touch") Center which produces a play in which all the performers are blind and deaf, and offers a dinner served by blind waiters in complete darkness.

We stopped for brunch at their Kafe Kapish, where all the waiters are hard of hearing. There's a white-board and marker on each table. It was pleasant (and delicious), and brought to mind the large number of such enterprises one encounters scattered around the country: For example, Nagish Kafe (a pun on "we will serve" and "accessible") here in the Galilee, that employs persons with mental handicaps and illnesses, and the cafeteria at HUC in Jerusalem which is run by a similar foundation.

Then there is Lilith, a high-end gourmet restaurant in Tel Aviv whose kitchen staff are trainees placed by Elem, an organization working with marginal youth. Also, in addition to Na Laga'at, the Holon Children's Museum has both a "blind experience" involving a tour through a complex of different spaces, including a snack bar, in total darkness with a blind guide; and a parallel "deaf experience." The blind experience is so popular that reservations must be made months in advance.

In Old Acco one can shop at "The Shop for Meaning," run by young people with physical and sensory handicaps, for craft items made by the handicapped as well as various imported fair-trade products. Kivunim, the foundation that runs the shop, also operates a pre-army preparatory program for handicapped youth; we partnered with them last fall to operate a circus project for visually impaired Arab and Jewish teenagers. Maghar, an Arab village east of us, has a disproportionate population of deaf, due to in-clan marriages.

The answer of the director of the local community center? to host an international festival of theater of the deaf. A few miles away in Karmiel one encounters Alut-teva, a vacation village for families of autistic children, where they can relax in a setting where they are relieved of the tension and awkwardness that often beset such families on vacation in more public places.

And a particularly impressive story is that of Adi Altschuler, who, eight years ago when she was 16, was moved by her relationship with a neighbor with cerebral palsy to try to organize a mixed youth group of handicapped and "normal" kids. The project succeeded beyond her wildest expectations and today "Marshmallow Wings" is a national youth movement with chapters all over the country.

It has always been a source of some frustration that Israel, with its history of wars, and the ingathering of refugees, was not more conscious of the need for accessibility, and in general of the requirement to accept and integrate the handicapped. Perhaps our sensitivity was dulled by the strand in Israeli culture in its formative years that glorified strength and self-reliance, and was ashamed of helplessness and victimhood.

We still have many challenges in this regard. On the other hand, consciousness has risen a great deal in recent decades, and the number of heroes, both volunteer and professional, out there fighting on this front is really impressive, as is the creativity of their projects.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Summer Camps and Technology Go Hand in Hand

Once upon a time, Jewish summer camp was a place for beautiful Shabbat and Havdalah services, s’mores around a campfire, Shabbat-o-grams, and letters from home. Camps nowadays are all of this and more! You will be hard-pressed to find a summer camp without at least one climbing tower, outdoor adventures which include rappelling and cave exploration, experts coming for several days to teach everything from a capella singing to basketball to pastry baking. At my camp, Camp Ramah in New England, campers even have the opportunity to learn from an artist experienced in duct tape art!

And all camps have found creative ways to incorporate technology in to their daily operation. I remember “purists” ten years ago objecting to our wiring the camp for the internet. Now, security enabled wifi access points allow our 40 Israeli delegation members, our 20 Eastern European kitchen workers, and the other 140 staff members to be in touch with family, friends and the outside world.

We successfully walk a fine line: we do not allow campers to bring IPhones and other electronic gadgets to camp, but we use technology to communicate with camp families and to simplify their lives. Families register online, they send emails to their children which get printed out and delivered daily to their bunks. The director sends out a weekly d’var torah and updates from camp—with a spotlight on several notable events of the week. Families daily check the photo gallery to see pictures of their children—nicely arranged by division, and parents are informed of daily highlights by going to the camp blog. Today alone features news of the Amitzim (special needs program) talent show, the Machon etgar (15 year olds hiking and canoeing trip), the camp wide Six Flags trip, and the 14 year olds production in Hebrew of Alice in Wonderland.

Yes, technology in a Jewish summer camp has its limitations: rain storms bring the internet down, families come to expect more communication than we can offer, and more transparency leads to the occasional comment about: why is my son not smiling? (and the follow up, “doesn’t’ he have any friends?) Why is my daughter not in the bunk photo? (she was in the bathroom) or Why is my son (in the special needs camping program) putting tefillin on his left arm?—he is a lefty!

I’d like to think that Jewish summer camps will continue to find creative ways to use technology. Perhaps we will build on the already wonderful use nowadays--posting photos and blog entries, to the provision of year round on-line learning, video chatting on Jewish topics, discussion boards for parents, and more! Technology is empowering and has the potential to play a important role—year round—in the lives of Jewish summer camps.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Making Meaning Together

This will be in my synagogue's August bulletin. I submit it is an important lesson and invitation for all Jewish educational institutions.
I had the very good fortune to join a group of fifty synagogue educators in the Leadership Institute in learning with Dr. Larry Hoffman, a professor at the Hebrew Union College in New York. His lesson was a titled Limits, Truth and the Anxious Search for Meaning: The Changing Rhetoric of Leadership. He described different ways Judaism functioned through history, using the observance of Shabbat as a lens.
He described the period from biblical times through the middle ages as the age of limits. Essentially, Judaism was focused on rules. We observed Shabbat because it was required. In the book of Exodus (31:13-17) we learned that violating the Sabbath could lead to death or worse. Halakhah (Jewish law) consisted of rules that defined how we functioned as members of the Jewish community. It worked for a long time.
The age of enlightenment at the beginning of the 19th century brought something new. The freedom to be a part of the larger, non-Jewish world around us meant that the limits were not enough. We learned about how Jews in Salonika began hanging out in coffee houses on Shabbat. And what’s worse, they were ordering and paying for the coffee! Rabbi Hoffman described this as a symptom of a larger issue – namely that the game of limits was no longer working for a lot of Jews. Many Jews stopped believing that God would punish them.
The new game used the language of truth. We were in the age of Jeffersonian democracy, of liberty, equality and fraternity and of science uncovering all of the truths of the universe. Reform Judaism arose and introduced the sermon – an opportunity for rabbis to teach truth. We became the only Jews who rose for the Shema because it was the biggest truth in the service – and became known as “the watchword of our faith. There is much more to these concepts, but the exciting part comes next.
Rabbi Hoffman says that we are living in another revolutionary time right now. The game is changing from truth to one of meaning. Science has taught us that it cannot give us all of the truths in the universe. It tells us that our merely observing the world changes it.
The game of meaning means that we are interpreters of our world. Our task is to make meaning of the world and our experiences in it. We are active partners with God in the ongoing creation. We go back to Genesis and read that God created the universe and saw that it was good. God didn’t see limits or laws. God didn’t call it truth. God called it good. Rabbi Hoffman suggests that our role is to make it good.
We need to make up our our own life and worlds. It can be an overwhelming and daunting task. But if we believe that we have the freedom to try and develop the confidence to do it, we can create a beautiful and awesome reality. We are not interested in limits. Truths, he says are  a dime a dozen – you can find all you want on Wikipedia. We need to know that life is worthwhile. That we can make things better. That is what Judaism is all about.
The job of Jewish leaders (professionals and lay people – you) is to give our people real competence is areas of Judaism to use them to build their lives. So I want to invite you to step up to this challenge. As a member of B’nai Israel, your family is a part of a vibrant community. Among us are searchers and builders, teachers and learners, connectors and sticky people, those who like to pray, hang out or world repairers. Come in and talk to us, call, text, e-mail or tweet.
Come to services. Take a class. Join a committee. Meet someone new. Get together with someone you know well. Build a sukkah. Join a car pool. Let’s make some meaning together.

 Cross posted to Welcome to the Next Level

Saturday, July 9, 2011

In Israel, diggers unearth the Bible's bad guys - AP News

In December of 2009, our team of Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows were in Israel for our 12-day seminar. Bar Ilan University's Lookstein Center is the sponsor of our program and we spent a bunch of time on the Bar Ilan campus during our visit. But the highlight of our campus visit (dare I say for all of us) was the trip to the archeology lab where our tour guide (aka amazing educator) Amit Dagan works and studies as a PhD student.

Amit, and his boss Aren, showed us some artifacts they had recently found.
Including this rock with the name "Goliath" engraved on it in ancient Hebrew.

They told as all about their work at Tel es Safi.

They showed us other artifacts they found:

and even let us hold some.

Today, July 9, 2011 ... this article came across my Yahoo home page (click here). Imagine my excitement at reading in the main stream news about the work of our friends - which we had witnessed first hand (and now you get to see up-close photos of!). The irony, I am sitting here in the t-shirt they gave me from the dig ... with the words "Tel es-Safi" right on my chest!

memories brought to life!

Friday, July 8, 2011

8.2 Unsubstantiated Claims (and three questions) about the Meaning and Scope of "Integration" in Jewish and Non-denominational Educational Settings

This post was originally written by Rabbi Micah Lapidus on his blog: Rabbi Lapidus is the head of Judaics and the rabbi-in-residence for the Davis Academy in Atlanta, GA and is a doctoral student at Northeastern University and Hebrew College in Jewish Education Leadership.

8.2 Unsubstantiated Claims (and three questions) about the Meaning and Scope of "Integration" in Jewish and Non-denominational Educational Settings

Welcome! If you've made it past the unfortunate title of this post, then there's something wrong with you: you care. Caring is SO 1990!! Caring means responding, it means engaging in dialogue. It means lovingly denying the premise of the argument. It means sharing your thoughts with me or someone you like more.

Which brings me to the premise (AKA unsubstantiated claim #1):

(1) "Integration" is NOT about making cross curricular references between otherwise discrete and alienated academic disciplines. If that's the essence/ big idea of integration then "lame" on us!

(2) Integration is a noun and not a verb. It's not content specific. It's actually a "process" (really a series of processes).

(3) Integration is a series of processes that reflects a deep and natural human yearning: to be whole. The precondition for integration-- the thing that makes integration a necessary process-- is the fact that our world is fragmented and broken. The fact that teachers who share walls don't share goals is but one dim reflection of the shattered world which we are blessed to inhabit. Sadly it's not our biggest problem.

(4) God has many names: Truth, Good, Beauty, Love, Endlessness, Dwelling... Another name for God is "One." God is Indivisible Unity. God is Perfect and Seamless Integration. God is Process.

(5) The Divine image that resides within every human being remembers the experience of Oneness that we once self-consciously enjoyed (and still CAN enjoy) but more often than not fail to affirm. Healthy individuals integrate all the time and even have moments of joyful affirmation. Spiritually unhealthy individuals need to be guided back to an understanding of how to integrate. Healthy and unhealthy aren't meant to be judgments. I'm sorry that they sound like judgments and would love better vocab.

(6) Children know how to integrate IN SPITE of adults. Maybe it's because they're closer to the initial experience of Oneness. Maybe it's because they're children (but that would be a "tot"-ology). If we think that children are unable to integrate then we need to evaluate the conditions that we've imposed upon them that undermine this natural human process. I'm arguing that these conditions are generally unconscious, deeply embedded, and invariably lamentable and arbitrary.

(7) Two critical areas where the process of integration radically transforms social and educational experience (and therefore makes the world more integrated, whole, and healthy):

  • Home/School-- There is nothing more powerful than the integration of these two institutions. Nothing should be easier. Happens all the time right? Go figure.
  • Learning/Living-- The places where we learn and the places where we live (i.e. act, interact, impact) need to integrate. The school bell should never actually ring. Learning should be learning, learning should be living, living should be learning, living should be living, and this sentence should stop.
(8) Integration undermines the rigidity of roles and strips away the illusions that perpetuate the compartmentalization, departmentalization, Procrustian Bed-itization, Not In My Back Yard-itization, of the human experience. Teachers are students, students are teachers. We're all in this together. Kumbaya.

Three Questions:
If you've made it this far then let's ask:

(1) What identity markers am I so tied to that I can't experience the transcendent/grounded fullness of being a radically integrating, processing, striving, embracing creature of God?

(2) Why aren't more hugs initiated and received on any given day?

(3) Why do I say hello to some people I pass on the street and not others?



Sunday, June 26, 2011

In G-d I Trust? Nope! and You Can't Make Me!

This post is cross-posted to my personal blog. I feel that strongly about it.

I read an article today about a possible new license plate design for Georgia. Each design has some Peach element in it (shocker! not!) but what did shock me was that a few of the designs had "In God We Trust" at the bottom. I am outraged.

I am a purist when it comes to religion/state separation. I don't think we should have prayer before senate/congress sessions at any level of government, I don't think G-d should be mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance and I don't think "In G-D We Trust" should be on our money. I am always angry when I hear of public schools holding graduation in churches (illegal by the way and I was part of a case that won this battle<- read about it here). So imagine my outrage at the thought that I will be required by law to declare on the bumper of my car something that I feel shouldn't be there (and if you have read my blog at all (or just this entry), you also know is an untrue statement - I don't trust G-d).

So here is the letter I wrote the Commissioner today. If you live in Georgia and agree with me, even slightly, please take the time to write him as well here:

Dear Commissioner,

My name is Robyn Faintich and I am a 5-year resident of Roswell, GA. For almost 16 years, I have been dedicated my career to being a full-time Jewish educator working with teens and their families to help them live their American lives through a Jewish lens. One topic we often engage in revolves around the issues of religion/state separation. Our families battle these issues daily in schools, public universities, town hall meetings, etc. We often engage the Anti-Defamation League to help us decipher where the law protects our rights and where it doesn't. I have not reached out to them yet on the issue for which I am writing you about, but am prepared to do so.

I just read about the new proposed license plate designs and was completely disheartened to see "In God We Trust" on several of the designs. My relationship with God, my belief or non-belief is MY personal choice. How can my state government require me to put the word "God" on my car? How can my state government require me to proclaim something from my bumper that I might not believe in?

If one of these designs is chosen, I will end up risking fines because I will NOT put this plate on my car unaltered. I would find it necessary to blacken out those words.

Please consider the serious personal religious rights violation these license plates will cause. I implore you to remove these designs from the possibilities.

Thank you in advance for your consideration. I hope to hear from you on this matter.
Robyn Faintich
Roswell, GA

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Why we need to ask our students to name their “spark”

My 17 year-old son sent me a link to a fascinating TED talk. (If TED talks are new to you please see the * below for brief explanation.) In his TED talk, Dr. Peter Benson, author and president of the Search Institute shares his compelling perspective about American culture, child development and social change.

Benson believes that as a society our vision for Americas kids focuses mostly on simply keeping children safe and out of trouble and that our tactics revolve around management and control. He cynically claims that our highest aspirations for our youth are acing ACTs and make America more competitive in marketplace.

Benson’s vision is different. His focus is on raising students that thrive which he defines as “kids who experience joy, feel connected and engaged, kids who are kind, happy and compassionate and generous and kids who fall in life with their life”. Sadly through his research Benson believes that 3/4 American kids are not on the path to thriving.

Using metaphors to make his point Benson believes that youth are not vessels to be filled but fires to be lit. He believes that deep inside each child is a spark that ought to be nurtured and fanned into fire. For Benson that spark represents joy, energy, hope, direction and purpose. Benson challenges us to ask kids to name their spark and to ask them what helps them nourish their spark. Kids say they know what a spark is and easily can point to the kids with and without spark. Through his interview with kids Benson has identified 220 spark categories that include service, leading, learning, the creative life. He is careful to point out that is not the same as the work you want to do but rather is it an orientation to life—one in which life is the fullest.

As educators and parents we need to ask ourselves about what we are doing to nurture the unique spark in each of our kids. To see Peter Bensons TED talk click on this link:

*A Word about TED Talks (quoted from the TED website

The TED Mission: “Spreading ideas. 

We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we're building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.”

TED is a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”. TED started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual TED Conference in each spring, and the TEDGlobal conference each summer -- TED includes the TEDTalks video site, and TED Conversations, the TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Bittersweet Taste of Summer...

This time of year is always so bittersweet.

Working in a day school, who’s calendar still remains built on an agrarian society, means that like many of my colleagues, and certainly the millions of students across the country, we look forward to the summers to unwind a little, catch our breathes, and recharge our proverbial batteries in preparation for the next academic year. We evaluate the year gone by, and we assess where and how we will make our necessary changes to ensure another successful, innovative, and “upgraded” experience for our students when they return to school in the fall.

However, even with the wonderful summers to enjoy the privileges of “two months off”, seeing the students leave for the summer is always a little sad… even if understandable and expected. That being said, this year, as I stood giving my charge to the graduates during their graduation ceremony, I noticed while looking out at those 36 young adult faces, that they too expressed a similar bittersweet sense of happiness and sadness.

Upon asking these graduates about their bittersweet expressions I was (very pleasantly) surprised to hear their appreciation and acknowledgment of their recognition of having been provided a Jewish day school education. These students understood that they were moving on from an environment that had prepared them for a high school experience with a perspective and an outlook on life that their contemporaries had simply not been offered.

In today’s increasingly high stakes educational environment, I meet children all the time who describe their education as being “force-fed knowledge” like it was disappearing or becoming ever extinct. Ironically, as information becomes more easily accessible it seems as though the common American education system is perpetuating an outdated model attempting to deal with unprecedented access to unlimited information using the same old model of education built on limited access to information. This persistent need to focus more on our children’s ability to regurgitate information in order to demonstrate “knowledge” rather than gaining “wisdom” to evaluate and synthesize the knowledge must be addressed beyond the day school’s walls.

I specifically differentiate between “knowledge” and “wisdom” because as a Headmaster of a Jewish day school I have come to understand, and even appreciate and embrace the fact, that knowledge is knowing the information, whereas wisdom is knowing what to do with the information!

Our Jewish heritage and traditions never called our great texts “knowledge literature” rather it has always been recalled as our “wisdom literature”. At the Seder we never identify the child who is knowledgeable or similarly the ones who lack the knowledge, rather we mention the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask. Interestingly, the way our Haggadah describes each of these is in direct reference to their ability to ask questions; never is it described as what knowledge or information these proverbial sons possess or are able to potentially regurgitate back to the adults at the table.

And what about common culture? If one does a quick Google search for the term “wise owl” or “wise old owl” one gets 1,100,000 and 341,000 results in 0.12 and 0.21 seconds respectively. However, try “knowledgeable owl” and “knowledgeable old owl” and you get 666 and 2 in 0.16 and 0.04 seconds respectively! Not that this is scientific by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly demonstrates how the masses use/identify these terms!

One of the most significant things that make Jewish day schools so unique is the ability for a child to graduate the day school experience and see the world through a “Jewish lens”. This ability to see things that others see, but from a perspective that generates questions and continued curiosity and learning is unique to how we today should be quantifying and even qualifying “successful education”. For a child to ask questions and think critically about what they see, and to not always take what they see for granted or even as the only option, is what has helped the Jews survive when other mightier, wealthier, larger, and even nobler sovereignties, dynasties, commonwealths and empires have fallen.

Unfortunately however, common knowledge tells us that the Jewish community is less connected, less involved, less affiliated, and less Jewishly educated than it has ever been historically. Yet, ask most Jewish educators and our collective wisdom will tell you that we just have to question whether what we are offering as a Jewish community is meaningful, useful, beneficial, and worthy of “becoming connected” by the marginally affiliated?

For my students, and in my microcosm of the world, I am proud to say “yes”. Yes, our students are unquestionably connected, and graduating with wisdom beyond their years. But as a Jewish educator, committed to ensuring an active, vibrant, and sustainable Jewish community for future generations, here I am disappointingly less confident!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

“The Wheels of the CoP Go Round and Round…”

Five days on a bike, riding with 40 riders through the Golan Heights and the Galilee to raise more than $200,000 for Camp Ramah special needs camping programs, gave me new perspective on my Ramah Special Needs Program Directors CoP (read “Nurturing an Online Community of Practice:

In the past few weeks, I have been wondering if our small, “closed,” directors CoP has reached an impasse and is in need of some “new life.” Perhaps the recent fall off in participation is seasonal. As the camp season approaches, camp directors are very busy--maybe even too busy to actively participate in monthly CoP video conferences and google group discussions. . When participation wanes, I sometimes wonder if we have reached an impasse and need to breathe new life.

Now I think we simply need to measure success differently. While in Israel, there were two wonderful developments very much connected to (and more likely an outgrowth of) the CoP. In fact, both developments occurred precisely because the Ramah special needs directors are in regular contact.

The CoP has demonstrated to the National Ramah director and the National Ramah Commission that there is great benefit in having all Ramah special needs programs working more closely together. The seven programs—spread out across the United States and Canada—are part of a larger whole, and we special needs program directors have a lot to share with each other.

The first successful outgrowth of our CoP was the Ramah Galil Bike ride itself! Riders connected to all seven Ramah camps came out in support of the various Ramah special needs programs. Two special Shabbat panel discussion with Tikvah Program founders, Herb and Barbara Greenberg, and me, taught the riders about the 41 year history of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England--Ramah’s first program for campers with special needs. They also learned about challenges, successes and the many Ramah overnight and family camp programs for campers and their families. The riders became more aware and therefore more connected to the cause.

Second, while the riders were enjoying Israel, raising money, and learning about the Ramah special needs programs, a special group of experienced Ramah counselors—from the various special needs programs across the US and Canada—were meeting together (at Camp Ramah in New England) for the first ever joint training program—and it was underwritten from the proceeds of the ride. The riders enjoyed the phone call on our last evening with the dozen or so star counselors—they took a break from their learning and sharing to thank us.

I was smiling for an additional reason. They didn’t know it yet, but their desire to stay in contact, share programs, offer support and start a google group, was leading them to…the formation of a Ramah special needs counselors CoP!! The wheels on the CoP truly go round and round!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Goodbye, Oprah; Hello, James Frey

I know I’m risking my man card when I say this, but here goes:

I’m really going to miss Oprah.

(And football, too, if the lockout cancels the season. Just feel the need to mention that for balance.)

I’m not obsessed. I don’t shriek with glee when Tom Cruise walks out on stage. But I can’t deny that I have enjoyed her show. It’s the most polished show on TV, in my opinion. But it’s more than that.

My wife is a huge Oprah fan, and has been forever. She Tivo’s it and watches it at night, so for years I have often seen parts or even full episodes with her. Everyone who knows us knows she’s a big Oprah fan. I have advised certain friends of mine—and they know who they are—not to badmouth Oprah if they come to our house for a Shabbat meal. (In one instance, it came close to me walking my friend to the door before dessert.)

It’s more than that, too.

Oprah has managed to stay real by allowing her viewers to see her struggles: Her abused childhood. Her weight. Her early struggle to gain the confidence to succeed in TV. Her messages are generally universal in nature and empowering—find your inner spirit, forgiveness is empowering, believe in the power of redemption, and so forth.

But it’s more than that, too.

As I was watching the celebrity-filled United Center send-off—yes, the celebrity shows are fluffy, but you have to admit it’s cool to see the range of celebrities who came out for her farewell—it occurred to me: there is no other show which has her capacity for social impact.

As they showed people—mostly women and children, but definitely men as well—from around the globe who have been touched by this show, it became clear to me what her departure from the stage will mean.

What other show has the capacity to put someone on screen, and almost instantly raise awareness of an issue to that degree? What other host has the leverage to get major corporations to donate hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, to her specific causes? Who else can effect change so quickly and dramatically?

I know there are those who can’t stand Oprah, who see her as an egomaniac. Yes, it seems silly to me that she needs to be on the cover of her magazine each month. But here’s why that doesn’t really bother me: she puts her money—and her show—where her mouth is.

When Hurricane Katrina happened, she gave $10 million of her own money toward the relief efforts. No other celebrity gave anything close to that, to my knowledge; Rosie O’Donnell even bemoaned on TV how depressing it was to be turned town by ultra-wealthy celebrities when she made calls asking for $1 million donations for Katrina relief. Oprah's Angel Network has raised tens of millions more, and galvanized millions of people to participate in the process.

And that, I think, is the legacy of her show—the profound social impact. More than the celebrities, or the screaming women receiving free gifts, is the commitment to use her platform to improve the world. To speak out against abuse. To fight hunger, spread literacy, and provide a voice to others who felt they had none. To recognize so clearly that there were viewers at home who would identify with those on stage, who struggled with the same issue, and who might just use that particular episode as a lifeline to keep them afloat.

I don’t see any other show on TV with that kind of social impact. And I’m going to miss that.

And I have no idea what my wife is going to watch now.

~ ~ ~ ~

As Oprah’s show has wound down, one specific episode really struck me.

When I heard that James Frey, the now infamous author of A Million Little Pieces, was going to be on her show again in the final weeks, I couldn’t believe it. How could she give that guy who lied in his book, and then presumably profited even more from the controversy, more publicity? I hate when people profit from bad behavior—see the financial collapse of 2008—and was upset that Oprah would give him this platform again.

(If you were absent from Earth and missed the James Frey controversy a few years ago, click here for a summary, or click here for the transcript of the January 2006 interview in which Oprah scorched Frey.)

But I watched the latest James Frey interview.

And it was riveting.

For starters, Oprah was much more low-key than she was when Frey came back to her show during the heat of the controversy in 2006. Back then, she tore into him for embarrassing her and deceiving her readers; now, sitting in a quiet hotel meeting space, with no studio guests, both Oprah and Frey were reflective on what happened. They both reflected about that famous day on her show, how the whole situation came to be, about all of it.

Interestingly enough, neither watched the show after it was first broadcast; Frey still hasn’t. (I wouldn’t, either; if there’s only pain and negativity in the rear-view mirror, take the lessons you need to get out of it and just look forward.)

He acknowledged, when asked, that he was not aware of the lion’s den he was about to walk into that day, that the producers had not told him the details in advance. Oprah then asked him essentially the same question in different ways at multiple points throughout the interview: Did he feel ambushed by the questions she asked him that day? Did he feel it was unfair? Was he upset afterward?

Every time she asked, his response always came back to this:

“Whatever happened that day, I brought on myself.”

He said it not in a diplomatic-but-quietly-I’m-upset kind of way, but in a way that suggested he really meant it. He did not communicate any feelings of anger over what happened, never once expressed displeasure with her producers for not preparing him.

So why did he come back that day, even when his attorneys advised him not to, telling him that he would expose himself to lawsuits and more?

“I came because I think I owed it to you to come,” he told Oprah. “When this was all happening, I kept saying to myself, ‘How did you arrive at this? How did you do this?’… I knew that what happened was my fault. I created that mess, I created that situation. And that if I had to come bear the responsibility of what I had done, that I should do it.”

Wow. I was stunned as I watched that. (Click here to see a clip of the interview.)

We live in an age where we teach our children, and teens in particular, to make good decisions, to take responsibility for their actions. Yet all around us we see the opposite. We see athletes who get caught cheating yet continue to lie. Politicians who get caught yet continue to deny. People who simply refuse to say, “I made a mistake,” or more importantly, “I’m sorry.”

Frey did none of that. Over and over, he simply said it was entirely his fault. He explained that shifting the book’s genre to memoir would make the story more inspiring and thus increase sales. Once the book took off and was chosen for Oprah’s book club, things had spun out of control and there was no turning back. But all of that, he said, was on him.

Oprah, for her part, also expressed regret. She acknowledged the criticism she received after that show, that people said she judged him too harshly. Now, looking back, she said what people saw that day was a lack of compassion, for which she apologized to Frey. Also impressive.

I love stories of redemption. But more than that, I love stories where people take responsibility for their behavior and try to make things right, especially if it leads to the repair of a relationship. It’s so simple, so obvious, yet so rare.

So when the show was over, I really liked James Frey. Who knows, I might even pick up a copy of A Million Little Pieces.

Ah, who am I kidding? I’d rather watch football.

Cross-Posted at

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mojo, Maslow and Jewish Education

I am reading “Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow” by Chip Conley with my friends, colleagues and teachers in my CoP—the Rhea Hirsch School of Education Alumni Virtual Book Group.

In this engaging book, hotelier Chip Conley, shares how he uses Abraham Maslow’s iconic concepts of the “hierarchy of needs” and theories of human motivations to create a dynamic and thriving culture for his employees in his boutique hotel business. We in turn, talk together about apply these concepts and Conley’s insights to our world of Jewish education.

In addition to theory and pearls of wisdom, Conley provides examples by sharing some of the “backstory” about culture, attitudes and practices from companies such as Google, Southwest Airlines, Zappos and other from the “100 Best Companies to Work For" list. While this might sound contrary to our image of the ‘profit-driven amoral business world’, we in Jewish education have much to learn about culture that supports community, personal growth, integrity from innovative businesses who pay careful attention to the needs of employees and customers.

Conley’s principles can be easily translated to how we work with our students, their families, our faculty staff and colleagues. In his book he talks about how to create lasting impressions, loyalty, peak experiences, trust, challenge and empathy. While the setting and roles of the examples Conley shares come from the world of business, it is easy to substitute synagogue, board member, teacher, learner or parents into the principle.

Given the time that we (the Fellows) spent at Google in Tel Aviv last December, I especially enjoyed reading Conley’s description of Google’s commitment to supporting their employees need to feel that they are making a difference in the world by encouraging employees to spend 20 percent of their time on projects they feel can make a difference in the world.

Conley’s book is a good reminder that people’s once basic needs are met, in a supportive culture, people (learners, teachers, colleagues, parents, staff, board members etc) are motivated by the human drive to find meaning and to make a difference.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Jewish Holidays Explained

As the summer approaches and, with the exception of Shabbat, only a few holidays remain before we start again in the Fall (whew!), let’s take a moment to consider the cycle of Jewish holidays as a whole.

The calendar of Jewish holidays is diverse. We have holidays that last as few as one and as many as eight days. We have holidays that ask us to change our daily routine, such as Shabbat and Yom Kippur; holidays where daily celebration is basically the same as usual, such as Hanukkah; and holidays that overturn our entire lives, such as Passover and Sukkot. One reason why Jewish holidays have a distinctive lack of uniformity is that each is based on different sources that commemorate or celebrate different historical events in the history of our people. Despite this diversity, our holidays can be divided into three primary categories.

The first category of Jewish holidays is those that are discussed in the Torah. These are the holidays that G-d gave the Jewish people through Moses. Traditionally, these holidays, including Shabbat, have restrictions on the type of activities one can perform and can be identified by how we mark their beginning, with the lighting of two candles and the reciting of Kiddush, a prayer of sanctification, over a glass of wine. Although all the specific ritual acts of these holidays are not provided in the Torah, our rabbinic tradition establishes practices for these holidays based on an explanatory reading of the Torah.

The second category of Jewish holidays is those which were established by the Sages of the rabbinic period and codified in the Talmud. Most of these holidays have their origin in the Bible but were not given by G-d to the Jewish people and do not have the same level of sanctity as those discussed in the Torah. Purim is the most common example of this class of holidays, although others include Tisha B’Av and the minor fasts to commemorate the other tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people in the First and Second Temple periods and beyond. Hanukkah, also a holiday in this category, is distinctive from the rest in that it is established by the Rabbis but not Biblical in origin. Actually, it was the Rabbis themselves (for reasons that would require another article) who decided not to include the books of First and Second Maccabees, that tell the Hanukkah story, in what was to become the Jewish Bible. Nevertheless, the Rabbis instituted the holiday to commemorate this moment of Jewish triumph. The practices of these holidays are less restrictive because they are not instituted directly by G-d but by the recognized guardians of the Jewish tradition.

The final category of Jewish holidays is those created in the modern period. These holidays commemorate or celebrate events of that are connected to the modern Jewish experience, the Holocaust or the establishment of the State of Israel. Since these holidays were created in modernity, they are not marked by most of the ritual and prayer that is central to the celebration of Torah-based or Rabbinic holidays. In addition, these holidays have the fewest number of restrictions.

Interestingly, most of us have holidays that we appreciate over others because their message or practices are personally compelling. In addition, you might find that one category of Jewish holidays seems to have greater magnetism than another because the rituals or restrictions of the day fundamentally shape the nature of its observance.

We should also help those we teach to give more serious thought to the Jewish holidays. Explore with them how they could expand their connection to sacred Jewish time. What is telling about the fact that they prefer Yom Ha'Atzmaut to Rosh HaShanah or Purim to Shavuot? Have they been adequately exposed to the ideas, rituals, or prayers that could make the observance of the holidays more meaningful? Teaching about the holidays should not be something that ends at Bar Mitzvah age, but something explored at all times in a learner's Jewish journey. That way, we are constantly renewed in our Jewish living each year.