Thursday, May 21, 2009

Classroom Teaching with Mark Smilowitz

I have just spent 15 minutes on the treadmill learning about the issues involved in bringing "fun" into the classroom. I did it with my i-pod and a podcast on Classroom Teaching from the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora by Mark Smilowitz. He is a very engaging teacher and very easy to listen to. You can download (or listen online) any of his podcasts (28 so far) at

Podcasting is a great mix of old and new technology, and is really great because it is portable. I have been listening to podcasts of Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me and Car Talk since my family bought me an I-pod over a year ago. I listen while exercising or cutting the grass. In fact in the podcast I just listened to, he even suggests having the students create their own podcasts engaging in the content of their class

Here is Mark's bio from the Lookstein site:
Mark Smilowitz has taught Judaic studies in middle school and high school levels for 11 years, in Israel. Unsatisfied with the available options for professional growth, Mark sought his own, personal mentor. That's how he met Professor Stephanie "Stevie" Bravmann, a veteran master teacher who, according to one colleague, "knows everything" about education.

Mark emerged from his weekly sessions with Stevie with powerful new insights and ideas about teaching that he immediately implemented with profound impact on his students, not to mention great personal satisfaction. When Mark moved to Israel in 2005, he found that his his new teaching tools worked just as well with children on the other side of the globe.

Now Mark wants to share what he's learned with other Judaic studies teachers. This podcast is an attempt to help teachers - beginners and veterans - find personal satisfaction in teaching. Please send us your comments so we can learn how these ideas affect you. Together we can create a community of teachers committed to excellence and bringing the very best in teaching to our most precious commodity, our students.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Technology for Temples

Adam Simon of the Schusterman Foundation writes on JTA's Fundermentalist Blog about his take on the Nonprofit Technology Network. I urge you to read it and the comments that follow. Here is mine:


Very interesting piece. As a congregational educator I am interested both bottles, the old and the new. I know that for many --especially thos below 40 and especially for those below 30, web 2.0 is becoming hardwired into how they perceive the world. We can spend (end lose) the next generation asking people to come into the synagogue and turn off their various devices, or we can figure out how to use the emerging technologies to reach them and enrich their Jewish identity. Then we can draw them in the doors of the shul, where they will choose to pause their tweeting, etc. to be a part of an RT (Real Time) community.

To paraphrase John Dewey from over 100 years ago: we can't bring the Jew kicking and screaming to the synagogue, we have to bring the synagogue to where the Jew is. Right now, cyberland is covering a lot of the Jew's personal space.

I am not convinced that Web 2.0 is the only way to reach them. The life of a synagogue is still essential. But we ignore the technology at our (and the synagogue's) peril.

Thank you for bringing NTEN to us. I am not sure we will make aliya there, but I look forward to you and others bringing the message from that mountain so we can create the Rashi together!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Being Visionary

My rabbi shared an article from the CCAR Journal (published by the Reform Rabbinate) by my teacher Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence Hoffman and Ari Y. Kelman called Functional and Visionary Congregations. It is a precis of a book coming out later this year from Jewish Lights, and it explores different approaches to what a congregation is and does.

In very simplistic terms, a functional congregation is one that focuses on servicing specific needs of members. The appraoch might seem consumerist (although that is a reduction). It is kind of like a synagogue as Wal-Mart. Jewish Education for children in aisle 15, Shabbat worship in aisle 22, senior programming in aisle 3, etc. It leads, they indicate, to a passivity among the members and a heavy reliance on staff to cater to their needs. It is very easy to leave a functional congregation. Just put your Bar/Bat Mitzvah certificate in the car and drive away.

A visionary congregation is different. Sure, it meets the specific needs of its members. It's focus however is on providing more than discrete products to meet the needs of the moment. It strives to make the members embrace theri own role in a Kehillah Kedoshah, a sacred community. It makes demands of the members beyond the financial. It sets up expectations for individuals and families, young and old, to engage in the life of the congregation and to advance in their own spiritual journeys.

I am being overly simplistic. I recommend the article and I expect to like the book as well.

My rabbi shared the article first with the senior staff and then with the Board of Trustees of our congregation so that we could use it as a lens for self-examination. The study is ongoing. My initial sense is that on the spectrum from functionary to visionary, we are more visionary than functional, but we have a lot of room for expanding the vision, both in terms of how we do what we do and in whom reach and how deeply.

I am fascinated by the metaphor and my teachers and I are going to use this lens as well. A version of the article is at, in a publication of the UJA Federation of New York. I would love to hear from anyone reading this blog what you think of the concept, and more importantly, how a synagogue school might use it.