Sunday, February 27, 2011

Under One Roof

I have to admit to feeling a little envious of some friends during my college years. At Columbia University in New York City, for example, there were enough Jewish students on campus to support OJC, CJC and PJC (Orthodox Jews at Columbia, Conservative Jews at Columbia and Progressive Jews at Columbia)—strong, often separate, Jewish communities. At Washington University in St. Louis, in contrast, we all came together at our Hillel House on Friday nights—under one roof--to pray (in one of three minyanim), followed by Shabbat dinner and one program—for all.

Yes, the members of the Orthodox minyan at Wash U. had to pray with the sounds of guitar playing coming from the Reform minyan. And sometimes a male from the Conservative minyan was “borrowed” for the Orthodox minyan. And we had to figure out just “who” could make kiddush and lead birkat hamazon for the community. But we all learned an important lesson in Jewish communal living. We learned to work together and to respect each other—in our similarities and in our differences.

While “those college days’ were more than twenty years ago, I often wonder where, in the Jewish World of 2011, do Jews continue to coexist, under one roof? Where do Jews collaborate, respect each other, and comfortably come together “as one,”?

Here are a few examples which come to mind. I invite you to add my list. You may also challenge my list.

1. JCCs (often in smaller Jewish communities). Large campuses often house the JCC, the Jewish Federation, Jewish Foundation and Board of Jewish Education. New Haven and Memphis are two examples which come to mind.
2. The Jewish special needs world—there are NO denominational differences when it comes to special needs. Jews work together to access services for their children.
3. College campuses with small Jewish populations
4. Jewish communal commemorations and celebrations (examples: Yom HaShoah, Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Parades)—though, increasingly, differing political and religious views make for a less than “communal” feel.
5. Support of Israel in times of crisis (again, this is sadly less and less the case)
6. Model youth programs, like the Bronfman Youth Fellowship, designed to attract high school juniors, from across the Jewish landscape, on a life-changing Israel summer experience.
7. Our own Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship (JJFF)—bringing together fourteen educators--with various backgrounds and styles of observance—and working in such diverse settings as community day schools, camps, JCCs, synagogue-based early childhood programs, religious schools, YU, HUC, and more.

The fellows are actively involved in a number of projects with amazing potential to create additional places where Jews can come together under one “virtual” roof. We are all designing and running online communities of practice. Stay tuned to Davar Acher for news of how these CoPs are growing and changing the landscape of the Jewish World!

In the meantime, please add to the list!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

True Grit in Jewish Education

In a simultaneous post, I shared an article by Chip and Dan Heath in which they looked the remake of the film True Grit as a metaphor for achievement. They focused on public health campaigns and a resource site for teachers as examples of "endurance in pursuit of long-term goals and an ability to persist in the face of adversity." They refer to new psychological research that suggests that "grit" in this sense is a key factor in making people successful.

Like many people I have a pension plan. Like most people with such plans, I opened my quarterly statement (a mistake) about a year and a half ago to learn that the nest egg I had been building since 1991 had lost more money in a quarter than I made in a year in salary. I freaked. Of course this is not news. Many people freaked that year. I was lucky. My retirement was years, perhaps decades away. My wife, who has an MBA reminded me (or did I remind her? It was a traumatic time for many of us!) that we were in the pension for the long haul. If we had planned on retiring that year we would be in dire straights, but we had time. We needed to be patient. She (I?) was right. In the most recent statement, the fund had fully recovered to pre-recession levels. Staying the course worked in this case.

How Disruptive Must Innovation Be?
Some of the people I respect the most in Jewish education today have been shouting that our Beit Midrash is on fire: "Religious School is dead, we just don't know it yet." "Synagogues are history. Independent minyanim are the way of the future." "All Jewish learning must be online all the time." "Technology means that Kids and Parents are different than they have been and they will never go back." "We need more engagement." "We need more disruptive innovation." "We need mobile apps."

Contrary to my teenage sons perceptions, I am too young to be a curmudgeon. And, as I said, I respect a lot of the people who are calling for change and disruptive innovation in Jewish life. I am incredibly excited about the work of people like Russell Neiss and Charlie Schwartz (MediaMidrash is only their first act-they rocked the NATE conference with a digital/real world scavenger hunt in Seattle. Click here to read their manifesto on open source Jewish Education which helped them win the competition to go to the GA in New Orleans last year. Brilliant!)

I am wowed by the work of PresenTense, ProjectIncite, The Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows and Leadership Institute (both of which I am a part), ROI Community, the iCenterthe Foundation for Jewish Camp, and Keshet. And these are just the new initiatives that jump into my head at the moment. There are dozens more. I have had the honor of being a reader for grants given by two foundations and the ingenuity of the proposals they were considering was incredible. I can only hope that they all find funding somehow.

We are in the midst of a wide ranging surge of innovation in Jewish learning and living, and it is due in some large part to the encouragement of foundations like Jim Joseph, Lynn and Charles Schusterman, Covenant and many others. It is being heralded by some of the gedolim of Jewish education - I will avoid names lest I leave someone out. And it is being carried out by educators ranging in age from 18 - 68 (an arbitrary number that sounds good to me).

Let me clear. I celebrate all of these developments.

Let me be clear. We have seen all of this before. The hand wringing and worry that is followed or joined by innovation and excitement, which is then followed by the declaration that the old way of doing things is defunct, long live the new way.

It happened in the early days of the internet with the development of wonderful sites like Jewish Family and Life and - a precursor to the current situation.

It happened in the early 70's and gave us the Jewish Catalogs, Chavurot, Shema is for Real and Debbie Friedman (and the musical rebirth that followed).

It happened after the Six Day War when American Jews found their Zionist t-shirts and synagogues advertised all-Israeli Hebrew faculties and switched to modern Hebrew instruction.

It probably happened when Karo and then Isserles finished the Shulchan Aruch, when Rashi's commentaries were first published, when Rambam wrote the Mishneh Torah. We know it happened in Mishanic times when according to Rabba, Joshua ben Gamla invented formal Jewish education outside the home (Bava Batra 20b - 21a).

All of these innovations changed the universe for the teacher and the learner. So let's not be frightened. If being a student of Jewish history has taught me anything, it is that the Jewish people have remained a viable culture because of our ability to adapt to the changing world around us, no matter how disruptive innovations may be (even if you think of exile, inquisition and holocaust as disruptions - although they were much more than that, of course).

Plus ca change, Plus ca la meme GRIT.
It's not really true. The more things change, they do not stay the same. Things do change. I embrace change. But change does not mean throw out everything but the basics and bring in everything new. That would mean that core values are no longer valid. I just sat with a young women preparing her D'var Torah for Parshat Kedoshim. She is working off of the first verse - "You shall be Holy, for I the Eternal, am holy." I asked her what she meant by that.

She answered: "Always do the right thing." And when I asked her to elaborate, she pointed out that verse 16 talks about treating the blind and deaf appropriately. Rather than going into issues of caring for the differently abled, she said, "You know, they can't hear or see if you do the right thing. So I think being holy means doing the right thing, even if no one is looking."

Hmmm. No mobile app. I checked. No tweeting or crowd sourcing. All Torah. Cool.

I think the lesson I want us all to take away from True Grit and the Heath's article is simple. We are in the throws of intense, exciting and wonderful innovations in Jewish living and learning. I pray that we learn the lessons we evaded after the 1990 and 2000 Jewish population studies and A Time to Act came out. We need to stop pointing at programs or institutions as a category and saying "this one is worthy" and "that one is not." We need to spend less time saying the Religious School/Synagogue/Day School/Nursery School/Federation/JCC/name your institution is dead as a concept.

We need to look at each individual institution and see where it is. Some may be beyond salvage, and we owe to ourselves to identify them and retask resources and find ways to re-engage their members in Jewish life if needed. Others may need a dose of innovation or reality or just some introspection to figure out the puzzle of connection Jews to Judaism and to one another.

We already have Torah and all of the textual richness of our heritage. And there is an app for most of them! And the app is great for the person on the go, stuck at the airport or on a train. I still maintain there is no app that can replace a camp counselor or faculty member and a bunch of kids, under a tree at camp talking about Torah and Jewish values. Google Earth is a cool tool on a SmartBoard (just used it last week), and the Skype conversation our fifth graders had with kids in Haifa and Beersheva two Sundays ago was awesome. Neither has value until they sat down with a teacher and talked about the experience. We still need to make meaning of all of the apps. Judaism is not designed for hermits.

We need a little True Grit to help us remember that the point of the exercise is Torah, God and Israel. Everything else is a tool.

So innovate like mad, but don't forget.

My favorite rabbi (because of his name), Ben Bag Bag said it best:

"Click it over and over, because everything is in it."

Cross Posted to Welcome to the Next Level

Friday, February 11, 2011

Learning Torah Online, With Special Young Adults

Last night may have been my best night yet online! No, I did not watch a cool YouTube video or reconnect on Facebook with a friend from 2nd grade--i learned Torah with members of Camp Ramah in New England's Vocational Training Program. This group of young adults with a range of special needs meets every Thursday night at 8 pm, as part of our "Shabbos Is Calling" video conference. Following a few minutes "shmoozing"--about Ortal's upcoming Israel trip, Jason's volunteer work on Fridays playing chess with elderly adults, and David's delight that work at a local private school wasn't cancelled even once this week due to snow, we moved on to a discussion of the parsha, the weekly Torah portion.

I reminded the group that we had learned last week about the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle which the Israelites carried with them through the desert. "Why did they need a mishkan?" I asked. Jason had two answers. The first was the more conventional answer. "They need a more physical way to connect with God." Jason's second answer blew me away. "The mishkan is God's way of showing the people what is okay to build and what is not okay to build--the mishkan was okay to build; the Golden Calf was not!" No commentator I am familiar with has offered this interpretation. Thanks, Jason!

Then, we discussed this week's parsha of Tetzavah, about the special clothes of the Kohanim, the priests. I offered an explanation about the me'il, a special blue garment--with a high neckline, and special gold and cloth bells at the bottom. I explained how it was worn as a kaparah, an atonement for l'shon harah, derogatory speech. The alternating bells--the ones that ring and those which are silent--reminded us that there are times when a person should speak up and times when he shouldn't. Jeff said it best, "Sometimes, when you have a thought, you shouldn't say it!" I was so pleased that Jeff was taking a Torah lesson, and connecting it to a lesson we learn in our job training program--sometimes, on a job site, and in life, it is best to censor a thought. Jeff is telling us that it is okay to think something, but we need to screen and think carefully before we speak.

We wished each other Shabbat Shalom and signed off--excited to meet again next week. I am still smiling--thinking about how online communication has amazing potential to teach torah and to connect all Jews--even those who sometimes feel disconnected from the Jewish world. I will truly have a Shabbat shel Shalom--a peaceful shabbat.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Hard to Believe? What does it mean?

This is a true story—really!

On January 1st I stumbled upon this display at the entry to the shopping area in departures at Ben Gurion Air Port. The figures in the display are even bigger than life size and so this “exhibit” very hard to miss. I stood staring in disbelief for several minutes. Mystified, I asked myself over and over what is their real message? Diesel is a successful multimillion-dollar business—what do they know that I don’t understand?

I have been reading “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink with my RHSOE CoP. Pink believes that the “keys to the kingdom are changing hands” and that our society that has been dominated left brain (analytical) thinking is moving into a new era that will value and be dominated by right brain (emotional) thinking. Perhaps the folks at Diesel agree with Pink’s read of the declining appeal and influence of left brain thinking and values. Like Pink, it seems that Diesel feels that rebelling against left brain thinking (driven by knowledge and analysis) means valuing emotion, creativity, and play.

I do believe though that Pink would be mortified, though maybe not surprised by this ad display that shouts; "SMART CRITQUES, STUPID CREATES”. “SMART LISTENS TO THE HEAD, STUPID LISTENS TO THE HEART” and “STUPID IS GOOD FOR YOU”, “SMART HAS BRAINS, STUPID HAS BALLS”, “STUPID IS FEARLESS”, and my personal favorite, “TRUST STUPID”.

As a Jewish educator I am struggling with how to make sense of all this. What does Diesel know that I don’t? What lessons can we draw from this jarring approach as we do our avodat kodesh (sacred work)?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Todah Rabah to our Educators!

In the world of Jewish education, the people who run our synagogue religious schools are often the most under-appreciated and under-recognized. We often defer to the role our rabbis and cantors play when reflecting on the Jewish education of our children and certainly the role a child’s Hebrew tutor plays. But behind the scenes running the religious school is a director of education (sometimes known as the principal) who cares about the Jewish journey of the students and their families.

For the last two weeks, I have traveled across the country to participate and present at professional learning conferences designed for these educators. The Conservative movement’s Jewish Educators’ Assembly (JEA) and the Reform movement’s National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) sponsored the two events held in Philadelphia/New Jersey and Seattle respectively.

Collectively, over 450 educators gathered to learn about the challenges and opportunities that technology and social media offer us in education. (Yes, both conferences engaged in the same theme.) While together in their respective conferences, educators took the opportunity to network, collaborate, and engage in meta-level conversations about Jewish education in the 21st century. If you want a glimpse at all they learned and toiled with, you can check out the twitter feeds for #jea59 and #nateseattle.

I had the opportunity to present at both conferences, which gave me the chance to learn with the participants in a unique way. These educators work hard. They work hard at their own learning. I only wish their students and the parents could see them hard at work. I wish they saw the role modeling in life-long learning these school leaders engage in. In addition to the core education components, each of the conferences included aspects of Torah L’shma (text study for the sake of study), offered t’filah, and community-building activities. A perfect dugmah (example) of what our synagogues are trying to offer the student learners. From sun-up at 8 a.m. until way past sun-down (sometimes after 11 p.m.) these educators gave 1000% of themselves for the sake of their own learning, for the sake of being better so that they can serve our people better.

These educators don’t make a fortune; they don’t do the work because of the first-class perks they get, or the year-end bonuses. They do this work because it is a true passion for each and every one of them. So the next time you wonder through the halls of your synagogue, take time to peak your head into the office of the education director, and just thank him/her for dedicating themselves to this sacred work.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jewish Disability/ABILITY Awareness Month.

February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Google these words and you will be pleased to get 53,300 hits! Nearly every link encourages readers (and organization and synagogues) to do such admirable things as start an inclusion committee, offer programs and events on disability awareness, and dedicate a Shabbat to inclusion and to the contributions of people with disabilities.

Through my work as the director of the Tikvah Program at Camp Ramah in New England, and as a teacher of Jewish Studies/bar and bat mitzvah for children and young adults with a range of special needs, I am very aware of Jews of all ages with disabilities. I am also aware of their sometimes amazing ABILITIES. Tikvah campers routinely lead birkat hamazon and Friday night davening for the entire camp, they put on a play, travel to Israel and participate in a weekly “Shabbos Is Calling” video conference. Campers take part in more than a dozen Special Olympics sports, some climb the Alpine Tower in seconds, and one camper (with Down Syndrome) even tutored a neurotypical peer for his bar mitzvah (many years later, that appreciative bar mitzvah student became a counselor in our Tikvah Program!).

Bar Mitzvah students with disabilities have delivered profound divrei torah, read the Torah and Haftarah, and lead the congregation in davening. Others moved the congregation by exhibiting their deep love of Judaism—unable to speak, they operated Power Point presentations, used a Dynavox Dynamo augmented communication device, or lovingly clutched the torah; or they displayed a model of the portable Tabernacle which they had carefully constructed.

Jewish Disability Awareness Month is a time to acknowledge those with a range of both disabilities and abilities, and those who work as tireless advocates on their behalf.

I would like to introduce a few people and organizations making a difference. There are truly hundreds of examples. Please add yours by commenting on the blog!

Richard Bernstein
: a marathoner and Iron Man Triathlete, and a diability rights attorney in Detroit—who happens to be blind from birth

Aaron Rudolph
: a former Tikvah camper and staff member who is one of many young adults with special needs hired by Walgreens to work in one of their many distribution centers (Walgreens is a company with an amazing policy of hiring adults with special needs). Aaron is an amazing worker!

Eytan Nisinzweig
: also a former Tikvah camper, is a young man with autism who is a very talented piano player and a prolific artist of very engaging drawings. His family has taken his art work and put them on T-shirts and notecards—check out his impressive website!

Jodi Samuels
: founded Jewish International Connection of New York (JICNY), a Jewish outreach program for international Jews living in the metropolitan New York City area. She has also been a tireless advocate for daughter, Caila, who has Down Syndrome. Jodi and her and her husband, Gavin, have worked hard to create Jewish educational opportunities for Caila and other children with special needs in Manhattan

Jay Ruderman and the Ruderman Family Foundation have been helping people with special needs in the Boston area, and in Israel, and they have been making a tremendous impact in the world of Jewish special needs. Jay recently organized Advance, the first-ever international Jewish funders conference on special needs. As a result, 13 foundations have recently joined forces “to improve the treatment of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and to raise awareness of their needs” (see recent Jerusalem Post article:

Reelabilities Film Festival is a film festival, held throughout New York area, dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities. If you are in NY from February 3-8, 2011, join me at the festival!