Thursday, December 30, 2010

An Open Special Education Contract

I have recently been invited to join a committee that is exploring how to make access to Jewish education a priority in congregational schools for learners with the whole array of disabilities. While I have always cared about the full spectrum of special needs in Jewish Education, I have to tip my kipah to my friend and teacher Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell Georgia.Fred came to my congregation in CT straight out of rabbinic school and he really held my toes to the fire on this issue. It is so easy to concentrate on the needs of the many, but we are only as good as how we treat the few. And the lesson is not lost on anyone. I came across the blog Special Education {Tech} courtesy of someone I follow on twitter (I apologize for not giving credit).

This is from a blog entry by Chris Vacek, an educator whose bio follows the article. I think he presents an interesting and important challenge to us as educators. I am not yet certain his list is comprehensive or completely applicable in our settings, but I think it is the beginning point for an important conversation.

An Open Special Education Contract

Recently, I came across a classroom blog that struck a profound chord in me. It contained a teacher’s “manifesto”, with the promises the teacher made to his students. I love this idea, and thought about special education. I have never seen a Special Education Contract of that sort, and immediately started jotting down ideas. Then it occurred to me that this really needed to be an “open” project, and that I should seek the input of the special education world at large. If you are a special education professional, service provider, teacher or administrator, or a parent or advocate or a person with special needs, please contribute to this project. The items below are a beginning, and presented in no particular order, and I welcome your feedback and additions. I would love to see this grow and saturate the online special education community – so please share this with your friends, colleagues and contacts. Thanks!

  1. I promise to do no harm.

  2. I promise to individualize your education to the best of my abilities and resources.

  3. I promise to focus on your outcomes, and to be able to explain what difference the current education program makes to your functional independence later in life.

  4. I promise to listen to your parents, and work towards their goals, and yours.

  5. I promise to champion your success, and value your failures.

  6. I promise to promote your opportunity, and to seek opportunities for you to succeed.

  7. I promise to educate myself, to help educate you.

  8. I promise to use technology, and to help you use technology, so we can both succeed.

  9. I promise to strengthen your skills, and use your strengths to further strengthen your weaknesses.

  10. I promise to put your outcomes and needs first, and keep them close and centered, in your heart and mine.

  11. I promise to gather data on all your outcomes, and to only use data-informed, peer-reviewed, scientifically established interventions that document measurable progress.

  12. I promise to respect you and your wishes, always.

  13. I promise to involve you in decisions about your future, as best I can and as you are able.

  14. I promise to center your education around your needs today and your needs in the future.

  15. I promise to help generalize your skills in the classroom, and the home, and the community.

  16. I promise to use the most appropriate tools available for us to learn.

  17. I promise to remember daily that you are a wonderful human being, and that data and statistics rarely tell the whole story of YOU.

  18. I promise to help you fill your life with rich experiences in art, music, science, social studies, physical activity, etc… because reading and math are not more important than everything else. Everyone deserves to find his/her own passion.

  19. I promise to introduce you to, and teach you how to interact with, your peers. You will need both friends like you and friends that are different from you, and you’ll need to know how to interact with them.

  20. I promise not to think of you as data or outcomes, but to think of you as feelings and desires and wants and needs.

  21. I promise to advocate for you, always, everywhere, even when my boss disagrees, or the community disagrees, or the world disagrees. I will advocate for you.

  22. I promise to teach you how to help yourself, how to advocate for yourself, and how to become the most independent person you can be.

  23. I promise to love you as my student and as a person, even when my life is tough, your life is tough, and our work together is tough.

  24. I promise to value function over form.

  25. I promise to continually work towards your independence.

  26. I promise to educate others about how extraordinary you are.

  27. I promise to say something nice or positive to you daily.

  28. I promise to never try to make you fit into the world’s view of “perfect.” I will value you as “perfect” just the way you are.

  29. I promise to help you speak for yourself.

  30. I promise to help you stand tall.

  31. I promise to remember that you are whole, just the way you are.|

  32. I promise to do my best not to say or do anything unkind.

  33. I promise to listen to your eyes.

  34. I promise to laugh with you.

  35. I promise to ensure that you get to take your rightful place in the world.

  36. I promise to experience and celebrate you and your joy.

  37. I promise to do more than see. I promise to be a keen observer.

  38. I promise to not just say ” I hear you,” but to mean it with all my heart.

  39. I promise to learn from you and use what I’ve learned to help you grow.

  40. I promise that as hard as it may be to watch you fail, I know that “there is dignity in risk” and realize that sometimes you will fail before you succeed.

  41. I promise to facilitate your independence needs, and seek transparency and clarity for all in this process.
What promises would you make to your particular, and every other, special education student?

The original posting may be found at which is part of a very interesting blog called Special Education {Tech}.

About the author

Chris Vacek is the Chief Innovation Officer for Heartspring and the parent of a child with both Williams Syndrome and Autism. Heartspring, located in Wichita, Kansas, is a world wide center for children with disabilities, and a leader in technology based functional independence outcomes.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Imperative of Israel Education

This was published today, December 29, 2010 in eJewish Philanthropy. I post it because it is worthy of wider conversation and because it is a response to Stuart Zweiter's piece I posted two weeks ago. It was written by Matthew Ackerman, Middle East analyst with The David Project.

A fascinating discussion on Israel education recently concluded on Lookjed, an online forum hosted by The Lookstein Center at Bar-Ilan University.

The discussion was prompted by Stuart Zweiter, the Center’s director, in response to a challenge put to him by Natan Sharansky over how well American Jews are prepared to defend Israel against defamatory charges, as well as a couple of incidents (a Jewish day school whose students “love Israelis but not Israel,” the recently failed attempt to boycott Israeli hummus at Princeton) that raised for him questions about how Israel is being taught in Jewish schools.

The first person to respond complained about the course on Zionism he had taken at a “Modern Orthodox Yeshiva high school” where religious Zionism was the only version taught, and that in a fairly aggressive manner. He concluded, “A balanced curriculum is needed, where a voice is given to opposing actors, and even anti-Zionists. This is because certainty is a fragile thing: an untested Zionism is like a toddler with an ice cream.” 

Yitzchak Mansdorf from Midreshet Lindenbaum later wrote, “I am still amazed at the phenomenal lack of basic knowledge some students have regarding Israel after high school… They have little to no preparation related to the notion of Israel as ‘Jewish’ state. And they inevitably have an awakening when they begin to realize that many of the social and political dilemmas that find expression in the media and on campus are issues that we Israelis deal with all the time.” 

And the discussion was off from there.

Perhaps most notably, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that Israel is currently taught in a largely superficial and perfunctory manner in American Jewish schools. (This was probably best summarized by Alex Pomson, who quoted from studies he helped compile for the Melton Center at Hebrew University, “Israel education in day schools lacks clear educational purpose… and is bombarded by a confusion of initiatives that purport to solve the disconnect between American Jewish youth and the State of Israel.”) 

For some, like Michael Berkowitz, this isn’t a problem. He wrote that “anything more than a cursory knowledge of Israel” is unnecessary since everyone knows the “basic facts” and these are sufficient to know who the “Good Guys” and the “Bad Guys” are. If there is something preventing students from speaking out in defense of Israel, it has therefore to do with something other than ignorance.
On similar lines, Jay Goldmintz, Headmaster of the Ramaz Upper School in Manhattan, wondered about “priorities,” noting that schools have many other things to teach (Gemara, halakha, Tanakh) to students who will face moral challenges in high school and their lives beyond that in many ways cut deeper than the political issues swirling around Israel.

Most, however, seemed to agree that there is a problem in the current manner Israel is taught, with Wally Greene opening a side-issue on the problem of American gap year students in Israel who live largely in a bubble, without any substantive exposure to Tel Aviv and the wider, daily life of the Jewish state. Everyone who agreed on the problem also agreed that its solution included education in Israel and Zionism that was broader than usually considered, including different perspectives on the meaning of the Jewish state. 

This was summarized well by Zweiter, who acknowledged “that serious and systematic Israel education” in high school will be, like education in any topic, mostly an introduction to hopefully a lifetime of further learning, but that does not absolve schools from their responsibility of approaching the issue thoroughly and with a host of resources, as school’s choices about what they teach at a minimum tells students “what is most important to know.”

This much agreement on anything by this broad a range of thoughtful and experienced voices deserves serious consideration. It also, of course, is part of a broader trend of a deepening recognition of the seriousness of the issues surrounding the way Jews in America talk about Israel, a front-line of which it should be understood by all is our Jewish day schools.

Clearly, we at The David Project believe that Israel education needs to be handled much more systematically and with a broader range of perspectives than it is usually treated, and we’ve worked hard to develop curricula toward that end. In everything we do, we also try to present issues in as much complexity as different forums allows, giving the people we work with the opportunity to wrestle with the fascinating topic that Zionism is.

But I think it’s important to have in mind a direction for this kind of education, and to be clear and unapologetic about that goal. We need to teach Israel better not because, as some who are better left unnamed have inexpertly argued, we can no longer cover up the many ways in which modern Israel allegedly tramples on liberal ideals, but because we show how much we truly care about something in the focus we put on having our children understand it. Imperfect just as any other state, there is nevertheless no fact about Zionism or Israel that we need fear. We should teach our young people all of it as well as we can, first and foremost, because that kind of education is in itself an act of love.

The end, however, should be clear. A moral education that does not aim to ultimately help its charges become moral individuals is really nothing of the sort. An Israel education that doesn’t seek to impart pride and a sense of connection to Israel, along with equipping students with the tools to defend the Jewish state against the legion of unjust charges regularly hurled at it, is similarly lacking. On this point, we need to be clear. Otherwise our students won’t be.

Of course, none of this, done as it should be done, will be easy. It means more investment of school resources at a time when tuition affordability (and even that of a Jewish life) is increasingly in crisis. It means doing more than occasional school assemblies or mentioning Israel during school events. It might mean, even, teaching a bit less religious coursework in favor of teaching more about the secular ideas of Israel’s founders, or giving less time to SAT prep and more to Zionist history. If we want to be secure in the knowledge that this time we did all we could to combat a political scourge afflicting the Jewish people, they are the tradeoffs we’ll have to make.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

"Super..." and "Amazing..." Curricular Projects

This is cross-posted from Caren Levine's blog  jlearn2.0. Caren is one of those people who is always thinking about the intersection of Jewish education and technology. Her digital and analog lenses work in stereo, kind of a unified field theory of Jewish education. She cross-posted it to YU 2.0, an wonderful membership site maintained by my friend and fellow JJF Fellow, Dr. Eliezer Jones.

A question I am often asked is, "Yes, but what are some examples of how these resources are integrated into the curriculum? By real live educators with real live learners!"

Presenting two free ebooks to whet your appetites and tickle your imaginations:

The Super Book of Web Tools for Educators: A comprehensive guide to technology in all k-12 classrooms. Articles include perspectives from administrators and teachers, as well as elementary school, middle school, and high school projects, and projects centered around particular subject matter or tools (ESL, Skype, blogging). Contributors include notable education bloggers Steve Anderson, Richard Byrne, George Couros, Larry Ferlazzo, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, and others. Check it out!

But wait, there's more! Be sure to read through Terry Freedman's The Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, a compilation that is chock full of practical ideas for the classroom. The many contributors include an international cast of educators such as Terry Freedman, Jackie Gerstein, Julie Lindsay, Sharon Peters, Shelley Terrell, Silvia Tolisana, Jen Wagner, and Reuven Werber, to name drop just a few.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Seeing through the eyes of another.
The "Nalaga’at" Center.

Dr. Eliezer Jones is a friend of one of my colleagues on the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship at the Lookstein Institute at Bar Ilan university. He has been blogging daily about the Israel trip we just completed this morning. I want to share his posting about our dinner this past Monday because I think the experience and his posting raise the issue of experiential learning. We all do it. Do we do it well? Could we do it better? What are we missing? You can see the rest of his posts on Eliezer Jones's blog. The restaurant/theater is called Na Laga'at which means please touch, because people who are deaf and blind (as their actors are) need to use touch to communicate.)

Another amazing day on the JJF Fellowship Israel retreat. In fact, I feel a bit guilty that I have not been blogging about every aspect of the different days as there have been so many memorable experiences. For example, today we began with a presentation from Rabbi Seth Farber, Ph.D. Rabbi Farber is the founder and director of ITIM, The Jewish Life Information Center which is “dedicated to making Jewish life accessible to all” by fighting for social justice. Then we spent three hours learning together at ALMA Home for Hebrew Culture. ALMA “seeks to acquaint Israelis with the wealth of Jewish heritage” and is a secular Beit Medresh. However, although they are experiences I will never forget, it was how we spent dinner that changed forever the way I view an aspect of the human experience. We had dinner at The "Nalaga’at" Center.

According to their site, “The "Nalaga’at" Center, located at the Jaffa port in Tel Aviv, was founded by the "Nalaga’at" non-profit organization and opened its gates to the public in December 2007. The Center is comprised of the "Nalaga’at" Theater, home to the Deaf-blind Acting Ensemble; CafĂ© Kapish, with its deaf waiters and BlackOut, the pitch-black restaurant with its staff of blind waiters. The "Nalaga’at" Center currently employs some 70 people, most of whom are deaf, blind or deaf-blind.”

The JJF Fellows ate at BlackOut, the pitch-black restaurant served by blind waiters. To describe the level of darkness that exists there is to only to describe it as imagine you were blind, which for most of us is impossible to describe. I have never experienced such darkness. There was no adjusting to the darkness, being able to see edges or small rays of light. It was pitch black and my body was reacting in a way I did not prepare for.

As soon as we were escorted to our table conga line style and, yes, we did make choo choo sounds, I began to get anxious. This is not something I generally get. I was fidgety and talking more than I generally do, which is a lot. I began to notice perfumes, cigarette smoke (there is no smoking in the restaurant) and the aromas of the food as my other senses began searching to connect to something. I began to hear noises that overwhelmed my ability to hear the person across the table from me. My senses were frantic.

When are food came, things calmed down a bit. I ate delicious fish with my hands (although I had a fork and knife I kept bringing an empty fork to my mouth) that was warm but not hot lest I burn myself. There was no coffee or soup for that same reason. We had to pass each other water by touching each others hands. Someone spilled, but neither of us knew who it was. We shared bread. My friend kept putting half eaten bread back in the basket. Not cool. The waitresses had bells around their wrists so that we heard them coming and that they would not bump into each other.

This dinner, in such an intense manner, allowed me to “see” through the eyes of another that I would have never experienced unless I too, G-d forbid, were blind. It was only an hour and a half in the darkness, but I not sure I will see things the same way again. I am grateful for the experience and it enhanced my already strong support for experiential learning. I would recommend any school trip to Israel to incorporate The Nalaga’at Center. For those who do not make it here, there are many ways to learn about differences in others in the classroom through temporary experience (i.e. use a wheel chair in school for a day) that can make a significant impact on the perspectives of the students. Technology can also be of great assistance. Click here for a post about using virtual reality used to assist users in experiencing the positive symptoms of schizophrenia.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

3rd Century Disruptive Innovation
for Our Time

The photo shows the fellows and Lookstein staff in the theater 
at Zippori. (l to r: Front row: Dr. Eliezer Jones, Shalom 
Burger, Elana RIvel; 2nd row: Barry Gruber, Lillian Howard, 
Lisa Micley, Ellen Dietrick, Esther Feldman, Robyn Faintich, 
Ira Wise, Sid Singer, Jonathan Fass; 3rd row: Guide and 
Archaeologist Amit Dagan, Joy Wasserman, evaluator 
Elizabeth Bachrach, Zvi Grumet, Rachel Meytin, Nechemia 
Ichilov and 4th row: Howard Blas.)
I am currently in Israel, nearing the end of the final meeting of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan. For the past 8 days, we have been exploring the idea of innovation in Jewish Education. We have learned from teachers of text, venture capitalists and disruptive change consultants. Today we explored the city of Zippori, not far from Haifa. It was the birthplace of the Mishnah. I shared this D'var Torah at the end of our time there.

Zippori is the site of one of the biggest innovations of the Tannaitic period. L’havdel: Kerry Olitzky suggests that the true miracle of Chanukah was not the jar of oil (never mind issues of historical accuracy) but the fact that in the rabbinic story, they chose to light the menorah anyway, even though there was not enough oil. Judah’s vision was to take the leap and rededicate immediately. Similarly, while the redaction of the Mishnah – which took place here at Zippori – was absolutely a disruptive innovation, I think the actual miracle was the decision to write it – it was the product of incredible vision as well.

History is riddled with examples of leaders who led their own generation well, but lacked or simply didn’t use the imagination to visualize the long-term future of their people. In hindsight, it is easy for us to say it must have been obvious to Yehuda Hanasi that the Jewish people would soon become even more dispersed. But was it really?

Zippori shows us a city that was vibrant. Jews and Romans lived among one another. The place was alive with culture and learning. Coexistence ruled the day. Hadrian’s persecutions were generations in the past. The city had avoided the fate that befell so many others in the previous 130 years. The Sanhedrin was there. The new month was declared there. Cultural egotism suggests that just as in Spain in the late 15th century, Germany in the 20’s and early 30’s and America today – life in Zippori was good, perhaps the Beverly Hills of its time. Why would they have anticipated leaving?

It took real vision – chazon – for Yehuda Hanasi to look beyond the good life of his day and see the coming storm clouds. He saw the need to put the Oral Law into writing, making it portable as the Jews went into galut or diaspora (depending on your perspective). Clearly those of us who came after appreciate his foresight.

In the Talmud Yehuda Hanasi is simply call “Rabbi.” Like David Hamelekh, he becomes the exemplar of his field. After him, the rabbis of Bavel are called Rav, not rabbi. His vision is like Jeremiah’s who also worked to adapt Judaism to survive a lengthy road trip. He was also the MacGuyver of his day. He took the tools at hand: students, teachers, Torah and 400 years of Oral Law and used the division tool (in Systemic Inventive Thinking terms) to reorganize and arrange it in a way that would work and travel.

So my question is: “How do we understand the disruptions to come?” We have a good sense of the digital/analog divide and the need to help learners encounter Jewish life through both lenses. And many of us have begun to speak about how the expression of people’s spiritual and learning needs are changing. Many talk about needing to jettison existing structures for “something new.” I think a real challenge is going to be to figure out what to keep.

The rabbis of the Gemara often found the need to bring a teaching from the Mishnaic period that did not make it into the Mishnah itself. Fortunately for us, they and their students had the memory to have brought the baraitot – teachings from the rabbis of the Mishnah that were left on the editing room floor – with them.

I am concerned that as we restructure Jewish education – and I think we must – we might also lose some of the ideas we will need further down the road of innovation. The tension over not losing things of value (I confess to being a bit of a pack rat myself) should not hold us back from initiating change, yet we need to make sure we have some kind of backup hard drive. Rabbi had his students, who became the next generation of teachers. We should look to our students as well.

Finally, in The Networked Nonprofit*, Allison Fine and Beth Kantor suggest that when we talk about “social media,” the more important word in that smichut is “social,” not “media.” Our learners are seeing through a digital lens, and we need to speak to that viewpoint. We must remember that the point is to bring people together to learn, to pray and to be a part of a community.

* Darim is hosting a Book Group Discussion on this book on Facebook in January.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Do We Talk About Israel in Our Schools?

I am currently in Tel Aviv at the final meeting of the Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan University. Stuart Zweiter is the director of the Lookstein Center and coincidentally (to our being here) posted this observation to the Lookjed listServ (an e-mailed forum for Jewish Educators facilitated by Shalom Burger, director of the JJF Fellowship) on December 7. I think he asks some vital questions that I hope you will join me in discussing in the coming weeks. The original posting is archived here. You can reply there or here. I will copy comments here to the Lookjed list. If you would like to subscribe to Lookjed - and I recommend that you do, go to the on-line form at

This past Friday night Natan Scharansky told a few of us sitting  around the Shabbat table with him that he had found in his travels to  North American college campuses that Jewish students were uninformed  as well as scared to speak up for Israel, scared that if they were to  actively defend or speak positively about Israel it would impact  negatively on their academic career as well as their future professional career.

This morning in a discussion I had with the head of a major Jewish Foundation I was told that during a visit she recently had at a very  large Jewish high school, she found the students preparing for an  internal school debate on the topic, Israel: Is it an apartheid state? In an informal discussion she had with several students at the same  school, she was told by them that they love Israelis but do not like Israel.   

This evening I read a piece in the JTA concerning the vote taking  place this week at Princeton University on whether to ask the  university's dining services to provide an alternative brand of  hummus. Why? Because the current brand being offered is Sabra, which  is half-owned by The Strauss Group, which has publicly supported the  IDF and provides care packages and sports equipment to Israeli  soldiers.   

We all know of many similar examples. I am mentioning these because  they all occurred in just the past few days.   

This post is not an invitation to debate political issues related to  Israel. Rather, we are very interested in learning how Jewish high  schools and junior high schools of all stripes are educating their  students regarding Israel. It seems particularly important during this  period in which there is increasing de-legitimization of Israel. How  much time do schools invest in this critical issue that all of their  graduates will face on college campuses? Is it dealt with in a serious and systematic way through formal and informal educational  programs? Where does it fit into your school program? 

What does your  school do? We are hoping that through the Lookjed list the Center can  raise consciousness of and attentiveness to this issue and that the  thousands of subscribers to the Lookjed list can learn about the  different efforts and programs that are being implemented in schools.   

This question, of course, touches on how we prioritize what is  included in our school programs and how schools allocate and divide up  the time that is available. That itself is an important question for  reflection and deliberation by school principals and teachers. All  schools make choices regarding what is in and what is out? Where does  this issue fit in?   

Stuart Zweiter  
Director, the Lookstein Center

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

This fire is still burning: Racism is spreading

Observing the fires on the Carmel.

As I prepare to join my Jim Joseph Foundation Fellowship colleagues in Israel, I was dismayed, then heartened then dismayed again by the news. Dismayed by the wildfire that raged near Haifa. Heartened by the outpouring of support and aid from all over the world, including three firetrucks that crossed the Green Line from the Palestinian Authority to fight the blaze. And then dismayed by the odious declaration of 50 "rabbis" who banned the rental or sale of property to non-Jews. Then I came across this article published in the Jerusalem Post (thank you Facebook Wall) from my teacher
Rabbi Michael Marmur. Now davka,
that's a rabbi!

This fire is still burning: Racism is spreading

Rabbis' ban on the rental or sale of property to non-Jews demonstrates lack of understanding for the basic currency of life in a liberal democracy.

Fifty Orthodox rabbis, most of them recipients of state funding, have just declared a ban on the rental or sale of property to non-Jews. They cite a number of halachic precedents, including the fear of intermarriage which apparently will ensue if such property deals are concluded. They also note that prices will fall if such transactions take place. It’s the Aramaic version of “there goes the neighborhood.”

If we allow these declarations to pass with no comment, there goes Judaism. If the true voice of Judaism is one which provides a mandate for bigotry and a license for racism, then our crisis is of epic proportions.

There are precedents for the position adopted by the 50 saintly rabbis. The Bible itself does not read like an advertisement for intergroup dialogue.

The questions then become: How do you understand the essence of Judaism, and how long are you prepared to stay silent as the soul of Judaism is kidnapped? The declaration by these rabbis is shameful, harmful and wrong. Its argumentation may be sound, but its core is putrid. It demonstrates a breathtaking lack of understanding for the basic currency of life in a liberal democracy.

I just heard a very moving interview on the radio with Yona Yahav, the mayor of Haifa. He is no Jewish scholar, nor does he pretend to be. But as mayor of a city in which Jews and Arabs try to live together, he pointed out the obscenity of the rabbinic ruling and contrasted it with the displays of solidarity and good citizenship which characterized the past few days in the North. Jews and Arabs (and others too) fought the fire together, and often demonstrated great heroism and humanity in the process.

Last week, before the fire in the Carmel, evidence of the smouldering embers of bigotry was provided by a major survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute. It found that 53% of the Jewish public believes that the state is entitled to encourage Arabs to emigrate from Israel. I wonder if the 53% are prepared to think through the implications of this kind of ‘encouragement,’ and if the remaining 47% are ready and able to dampen these flames before all control is lost.

I am a bleeding-heart liberal. My heart is indeed bleeding, but not perhaps for the reason commonly attributed. It is true that the victims of this kind of intolerance deserve our sympathy.

My heart goes out to every non-Jewish citizen of this country whenever they are the victims of inequity. But it is for Judaism that my heart bleeds; if it cannot show the kind of moral focus and conceptual suppleness needed to face up to the challenges of the day. Bigotry makes us stupid, and it puts the success of our enterprise at risk. A Judaism which enjoins me to deny the civil rights and human dignity of any person does not deserve the monopoly on the brand name, nor is it worthy of state funding.

Judaism should never add fuel to our basest prejudices and lowest emotions. It is meant to give form to our highest aspirations and deepest yearnings.

WE ARE coming to the end of Chanukah, our fire festival. Some see it as a mandate for intolerance.

After all, Mattathias lashed out against the Hellenizing assimilators. Here again, the question at stake is how you understand Judaism. Are the candles symbols of bigotry or of boundary maintenance, of hatred or of hope? The fire in the Carmel is finally out. The fire of racism and intolerance is still burning. Indeed, it is spreading. If you are a Jew who cares about Judaism and Israel, regardless of your denominational affiliation, you need to stand up and say: This rabbinic ruling is wrong. Those within the four ells of halachic discourse will conduct the struggle from their vantage point. Those outside will use the tools available to them.

This fire threatens all. We have to douse the flames of bigotry with the life-giving waters which flow within a Judaism of humanity. Why don’t all those who strive for such a Judaism get our act together? We learned in this last crisis that when the situation is urgent, rivals and even enemies can cooperate. This fire is still burning. It is time to sound the alarm.

The writer is vice president for academic affairs of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

30 Days, 30 Texts:
Shema is For Real:
A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents

"In case of fire, throw this book in…"

So begins a religious school text book that was as revolutionary as the internet and social media are today. Joel Grishaver developed this book as graduate student at the University of Chicago, as a counselor at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, WI and as a the youth group advisor at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Il. 

I was a camper in Wisconsin and a junior youth grouper and religious school student at a neighboring congregation.
Shema is For Real: A Book on Prayer and Other Tangents was transformative. It said that we could have experiential learning and out of the box thinking at Sunday school. It said that Jewish learning could be fun and engaging, even if you got the next best teacher. It told us there were more interesting people than the Stickmans.

This is the book that launched (several years later) Torah Aura Productions and challenged all Jewish book publishers to raise their game. And it challenged teachers and synagogue educators to make us think about prayer, not just learn the words. It taught us that the prayers could mean something to us, and that the way they were organized in the service had a larger meaning. 

And when we got to play the Prayer Book Board Game (at camp, at temple, and at NSCI with Joel)—wow! Our opinions and ideas were connected to the prayers and became one. I still think about James Brown shouting “Let me hear you say Yeh!” when I rise for the Barchu. Thank you, Joel, for thinking this way. And thank you Jerry Kaye, director of Olin Sang Ruby for publishing it and Debbie Friedman’s Sing Unto God.

Cross posted at JESNA's site

This essay series is co-sponsored by:

Monday, November 22, 2010

Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur
Do Not Separate Yourself
From The Community, Part II

Rabbi Jamie Korngold giving lessons online
My friend Ilene urged me to post and expand my answer to her question about an article that appeared in the style section of yesterday's New York Times. We have been friends since our sons Sammy and Harper were in the baby room at the JCC. I have learned over the years that you don't spit in the wind, you don't tug on Superman's cape, and if at all humanly possible, you don't say no to Ilene. It's like yelling at the whirlwind.

The Times article - Bar Mitzvah Studies Take to the Web by Amy Virshup - describes how some rabbis and cantors are using Skype and other web 2.0 technologies to connect with young men and women preparing to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It also explores how some of those clergy offer their services specifically to enable families who do not belong to congregations to maintain this non-affiliation. For some of these service providers, they describe what they offer as a financial benefit:
"they’re not paying dues and religious school fees to a synagogue for years of preparation. The e-rabbis generally charge on a fee-for-service basis —Yitzhak Miller (he prefers “Rabbi Yitzi”) charges $950 for 12 hours of Hebrew tutoring (in either 15-minute weekly sessions or half-hour ones every other week), another $875 for his Family Exploration program (in which participants study the meaning and importance of the bar mitzvah ceremony) and then $1,000 to officiate at a Saturday morning Torah service."
 Others, like adventure-rabbi Jamie Korngold, say that they offer something meaningful that established synagogues by and large do not.
“Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation,” said Rabbi Jamie Korngold, aka the Adventure Rabbi, who offers an online bar mitzvah program. “It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else they have in their lives...”
Taking the online route, according to those who’ve done it, is especially good for children with learning disabilities who might have trouble in a conventional classroom. It is also more convenient and flexible, better attuned to the hectic schedules of contemporary family life (no carpooling!). “Joining a synagogue? I looked at it, and there would have been no bat mitzvah,” said Shari Steele, whose daughters’ double bat mitzvah was led by Rabbi Korngold in August. “It would not have happened for my family.”
For some time now, there have been voices in the Jewish world saying (sometimes shouting) that the synagogue is just so 20th century - it no longer meets the needs of the Jewish people (at least those under 40). George D. Hanus, an attorney in Chicago, went so far as to publish monthly newspaper for a while in which he repeatedly accused the synagogue rabbinate of engaging in a form of fraud, by holding education hostage to synagogue membership. Of course his agenda involved getting all Jewish children into day schools - not a proposition whose success is indicated by the data. Day school is great for many, but there always be more who make other choices.

I am not unbiased, as a synagogue based educator, but I am unconvinced. Does the synagogue need to change and learn how to meet the needs of a new generation? Absolutely, and it always has needed to do so. Synagogues have risen or failed to rise to meet that challenge for millenia. To that end, I want to recommend a book to anyone who is a professional or lay leader in a synagogue (from any movement/non-movement).

Jim Prosnit, my rabbi suggested that our Senior Staff (2 rabbis, 1 Cantor, 3 educators and our physical plant director) and our president make part of our bi-weekly staff meeting into a book club. We are reading Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence A. Hoffman and Ari Y. Kelman. It has been a fascinating read and we have had some wonderful conversations. I believe that this will spark a new level of visioning and development for our congregation. I will write more about this book later. The reason I bring it up in this discussion is to make it clear that there are many alternatives to tossing the synagogue and the synagogue school into the dustbin of history. The model is not useless simply because its roots are in centuries past. It needs to adapt to the needs of the 21st century. It needs Jews to join and create that evolution.

Another book that is helping me think this through is The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change by Beth Kantor and Allison Fine. They are two social media experts whose practice centers on helping non-profits (and the synagogue fits that category rather nicely) use social media to connect to their constituency - members and potential members, to a donor base and to the work that they do to change the world. One of the things they have taught me is that Millenials (born 1978 - 92) are passionate about causes, but not about organizations. This tells me that we have to change the way we and they think about the synagogue - refocusing on the idea that the synagogue is a community, not just another organization. They also expect web-savvy and social media competence. We need to get on that.

I recommend all Jewish educators get a copy of this book and start reading it. And join Darim Online's Facebook Book Group, which is getting ready to discuss it from a Jewish educational perspective. You can click here to listen to a very interesting webinar Darim conducted with one of the authors, Allison Fine.

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know I am committed to the idea of encountering Judaism and our Jewish connections through both an analog and a digital lens. And I applaud the clergy people described in the article in the Times for using technology to connect with their students.I have no problem with using technology, but the idea of becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah without being a part of a worshiping community is bankrupt. Sammy (Ilene's son) and Harper (my son) are not becoming Jewish adults this spring in a vacuum or so they can put it on a resume. They are assuming the role of young men who can say prayers to which the rest of the adults in the congregation can say "Amen."

Rites of passage in all cultures are not only about the one reaching a milestone, but about the change in their role within a community. There is nothing wrong with going to Israel or the Grand Canyon for a private or semi-private ceremony. That is just a Kodak moment. You don't "have" a Bar/Bat Mitzvah any more than you "have" a lawyer, doctor or tennis player. You become those those things.

And a child becomes a Bar/Bat Mitzvah by virtue of reaching the Jewish Age of majority, not because they participated in or led a service. The service is actually so that the adult community can publicly acknowledge that this person is no longer a minor in the eyes of the community, but someone whose prayers and blessings can count for all of us and to which we may say "Amen." (See Sanhedrin 68b)

But completely divorcing the process from a sacred community is not much different than the Faux Mitzvah - a non-Jewish riff on the Bar Mitzvah for the purpose of having a party to celebrate a birthday in a way that mirrors some of the B/M parties for which some communities have become a little infamous. It rips away the meaning.

I have admired much of the Adventure Rabbi Stuff Jamie Korngold has been doing. I think this may be a bit too much of an adventure. I do anticipate a time in the near future when our members' kids will have some of their BM lessons via skype. With two working parents, crazy schedules, etc, I see no problem with our cantor Blum scheduling a meeting that takes place in the comfort of their respective homes. In fact I hope it happens relatively soon. It responds to the needs of families and their unique needs. And we need to be asking the questions that will reveal the needs people have so we can meet them.

In this context, our cantor could be working with kids who go to religious school, to camp, on retreats and in the junior choir with one another - in short within the context of a sacred community of learners, of prayers and of doers of Tikkun Olam.

Solving the problem of the last Jewish family in East Cupcake, North Dakota or in Smolensk is noble and valuable. And technology can help do that for people who don't have much geographic proximity to a Jewish community, Giving a family in Chicago or Fairfield, CT  the opportunity to opt out of a congregation to save money or the commitment of time and energy in order to tag the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Base is just not Jewish.

We have all seen kids (and adults) who have no eyes. You know who I mean - the ones who never look up from their hand-held device: a Blackberry, an I-Phone/Touch/Pad/Pod, a GameBoy or other game system - and so we never see their eyes.

If technology serves to allow people to further separate themselves from the community, then community will only be virtual, not real. Technology needs to be used to bring us together, not give us the means to stay apart. Our congregation's Facebook Group is only a few weeks old and is already bringing people together. Our Kitah Hey (5th graders) connect with kids in Beersheva and Haifa via Skype on our SmartBoard.

But this past Shabbat, my twelve year-old son wanted to go to services with his dad. He's not too old to play with my tzitzit (and he is starting to think about what he wants his tallis to look like). And he wanted to sit with his grand-friend Jim Abraham in services and at breakfast with the Brotherhood. He set down his cell phone and connected in prayer and fellowship with his congregational community. And then when we left, he texted his good friends from Eisner Camp.

Rachel Gurevitz, my other rabbi, told me about a member of our congregation whose family began attending our monthly Mishpacha Shabbat. In the beginning, she and her husband would discuss it as the time neared. But community is habit forming. Now it just goes on the calendar at the beginning of the year. And that same member has become involved with a group of other parents in our Kitah Gimel (3rd grade). We don't have school the Sunday of Thanksgiving. So she and a group of other parents are arranging a Sunday morning get together because they don't want to miss out on their weekly community time together. 

Rabbi Fred Schwartz of Temple Sholom in Chicago once told me he believed that Jews should be allowed to die without benefit of clergy. If you don't affiliate or if you leave the synagogue, why should you expect a rabbi at you parent's funeral? Where were you when the congregation needed your support - and now you want theirs? And he wasn't talking about money. He was talking about being in the pews. At someone's shivah. At the Beit Cafe. Letting the Youth Group wash your car. Marching on Washington in support of Israel.

The woman quoted in the final paragraph of the New York Times article makes me very sad. "Once Joanne... had found a rabbi for Eli to work with, she pretty much bowed out of the preparations, she said. 'I just cared about the party.'" She misses the point of Eli becoming a Bar Mitzvah. This should be his coming out celebration - in the sense of the debutantes of yesteryear. How can he be a Jewish adult if she has disconnected him from the Jewish community? 

The point of the whole exercise is announcing that you are ready to engage in the richness of Jewish life and the community announcing it is ready to take your participation seriously on an adult level. Technology, like all innovations can be both tool and weapon. It can divide us or bring us together. As parshat Nitzavim reminds us, we must choose well, so we may live.

For more on this and the article inside the same section by Bruce Feiler please check out Sh'ma Koleinu by Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Technology in Temple: Spirituality in 140 Characters or Fewer

Rabbi Laura GellerThis was published recently in the Huffington Post. Rabbi Laura Geller serves Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. There are some interesting questions, and I think she has found some interesting answers in bringing the Jewish analog and digital lenses together. Obviously this exercise does not fit every setting at every time. The full sermon is here.

I am with my congregants on a Jewish study tour of Morocco following "the footsteps of Maimonides." There in the old city of Fes is the Kairaouine Mosque, constructed in 857 C.E. and connected to what might be the oldest ongoing university in the world. Maimonides was a student there. In some ways, the city hasn't changed since his time. Donkeys still carry heavy loads of fabric on their backs through the narrow ancient streets just the way they did when he lived here.

But when you peer into the mosque, you can see the same poster that you see as you enter our synagogue: a picture of a cell phone with a line drawn through it. In the mosque, the Arabic words on the sign can be roughly translated as: "Please turn off your cell phones. Talk to God instead."

Some things never seem to change and are common the world over. People still gather for prayer. Imams, priests and rabbis give sermons. We want people to pay attention. How do we help people pay attention?

Sometimes we take risks, do something that might even be slightly transgressive. Consider for example these recent High Holy Days in our congregation, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, a large, almost 75-year-old Reform congregation in the middle of Beverly Hills. The opening words of my Rosh Hashana sermon, as I took my cell phone out of the pocket of my white robe, were: "Please do not turn off your cell phone."

There was stunned silence, then nervous laughter. "Yes, you heard me. Please do not turn off your cell phones. In fact, please take them out now. And if you have a Facebook or Twitter account, please log on."

The theme of all of our High Holy Day messages related to the existential question posed by God to the prophet Elijah in the Book of Judges: "What are you doing here?" "What are you doing here," we asked our congregants. "What are you doing here in the synagogue and here at this very moment in your life?"

So I gave the congregation an assignment right there in synagogue: "Please post your answer to the question 'What are you doing here?' in 140 characters or less."

In 140 characters. Characters, not words.

Many of them did, and the answers, because they were so short perhaps, were especially moving.

"I am in Temple Emanuel for Rosh Hashanah services sitting next to my adult children thinking about my own parents." (111 characters.)

"I am letting beautiful music wash over me and feeling a connection with Jews around the world." (91 characters)

"I am thinking about last year... not an easy year... financial challenges, health scares...I'm hoping this year will be better." (117 characters)

"I am looking for balance in my life. ( 36 characters.)

"I am trying to connect my soul to something deeper than just myself." (68 characters.)

Existential questions probably don't change. But the ways we challenge people to think about them do change over time. And new technology gives us new tools.

My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Aaron also took risks with technology for one of his sermons. He used a PowerPoint presentation to encourage people to think about what it means to be "here." It opened with an image of the chairs in our sanctuary, and then of the sanctuary building. Then the picture expanded to the city of Beverly Hills, then to the state of California. In each subsequent image the camera zoomed further and further away until eventually we saw the picture of the universe from the Hubble space craft.

It was as though we were seeing the universe through God's eyes, as it were. Suddenly everything looked different, including our own personal dramas that often keep us stuck in constricted places and keep us from seeing the bigger picture.

The Biblical story describes how Elijah discovered that bigger perspective not in an earthquake and not in a fire, but rather in a still small voice. Our congregation got a glimpse of it through PowerPoint, Facebook and Twitter.

The important questions never change. But new technology can help us pay attention -- and respond -- in different ways.

Cross Posted to Davar Acher

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Can Open Source work for
Jewish Education?

My friend and mentor Shalom Berger of the Lookstein Institute for Jewish Education in the Diaspora at Bar Ilan share a link to Tzvi Daum's blog with a bunch of us, curious about our response to his challenge. As a synagogue rather than day school educator, I don;t believe he is speaking directly to me, but the questions are valid regardless of setting.

I have some thoughts, which I will share at another time. I am more interested in yours. In addition to his three highlighted questions, what do you think about open-source Jewish learning? Is there an upside and/or a downside to increasing our reliance on the digital lens for Jewish teaching and learning? And what should the balance be? (If you choose to respond in your own blog, please post a link in the comments to this blog and to Tzvi's.)

Quick, what do Mozilla Firefox, Linux, Moodle, Audacity and Filezilla all have in common?
Answer: They are all examples of great open source software available for free on the web. In general, open source products are developed by people around the globe who contribute their time and expertise to develop a product which is then made available for free to the public at large.

Recently there has been some discussion about exploring an open source model for Jewish education. It sounds idealistic, everybody chipping in their little part, the question is - how practical is such an idea?

As someone who has actually tried to organize an open source project or two for Jewish education, I would like to share what I learned from these experiences and what I see the challenges to be.

One particular project I tried to launch revolved around developing some Judaic Studies curricular materials. (I have blogged about it here in the past.) My thought was to start with something small that educators can collaborate on over the summer. I thought the free time in the summer and the limited materials that needed to be covered would make be a good first candidate for an open source project. However, sadly enough the project never got off the ground. I will be the first to admit that I was probably the source of the problem, however there are some lessons I took away from this. I view these as challenges which need to be overcome in the future.

Challenge #1
Are Jewish educators even online?

The first step in any open source project is finding like minded people willing to contribute their time and expertise. Where does one find such people? Techies use the internet to find each other. Where do you find other Jewish educators online? I posted invitations on Lookjed, I created a Facebook group...I even tried faxing an invitation to all schools in the Lookjed directory. However, at the end of the day, I question what percentage of Jewish educators were even aware of such a project. Many Jewish educators have ideological opposition to using the internet at home. If you can't find a big enough pool of contributors your project is almost dead in the water unless it is very small and specific. Although I thought my project was small and specific, obviously it wasn't small and specific enough.

Challenge # 2
Do educators have the time and technological expertise?

Even if we can find Jewish educators online, how many of them feel comfortable using technology collaborating tools? It is one thing for people who make their living as developers to use technology to connect and collaborate on the development of software, but can you ask them same of educators? Put another way, asking techies to use tech is somewhat different than asking non techies to use tech. Do we have any good examples of successful open source educational curricular projects out there on a national level? There is talk of open source textbooks, Wikipedia might be a close example but they are not exactly the same. I have seen some attempts for Jewish educators to get together on a wiki, but I am unaware of any great results in terms of team collaboration and project successes. With time the tools will presumably get easier to use, but the steep learning curve for contributors remains a challenge.

Another related thing to consider, is the time factor. While the average software developer probably makes a decent salary and most likely has a small family as the average American does, those involved in Jewish education are often making a minimal salary and work two jobs to support a larger than average family. That does not leave a lot of free time to dedicate to projects. Some of us are a little crazy, but the majority are not. Working on a project requires dedication and at a certain point one needs to ask themselves why am I doing all this work for free?

Challenge # 3
Who is leading and/or sponsoring the project?

Speaking of free, when you read about most of the successful open source projects you will notice two things they have in common. The first is, they are almost all led by a group at the top who are dedicated to the project on a nearly full time basis. Second, these people at the top are usually SPONSORED in some way. They are not working for free.

For example: is supported by Sun Microsystems, presumably because they want to chip away at Microsoft. Moodle headquarters is supported by hosting services who use the Moodle trademark and contribute a portion of their profits to the head team. Linux developers make their money by offering support. which hosts open source projects for free makes money by selling their platform software to businesses. Even Wikipedia has its own foundation and can easily make money by advertising. The point is, very few large projects are developed wholly by people with altruistic intentions. Filezilla was started as class project and released as open source because the developers didn't think anybody would pay money for it with so many commercial options available. Audacity is about the only project I know of that does not have a steady source of funding other than donations. It is a small project to be sure.

Thus, I think even if open source were to be used in Jewish education, at least the core team would need to be sponsored in some sort of manner and given organizational support. Sponsoring a core group would most likely get a project off the ground to the point where a greater mass of contributors can join at a later time and be guided to what their role can be.

I don't want to sound pessimistic or be the naysayer who says it can't be done, but until I see a successful open source Jewish educational project I remain unconvinced about the viability of using open source to solve Jewish educational needs. I know for example, the Jim Joseph Foundation made a grant to 14 fellows to build online communities of practice, I am curious where that will lead to after two years of training.

To be determined.

Tzvi Daum

PS I don't consider the various lesson planning sites such as or SJED as examples of successful open source models. For the most part these are sites where users just contribute lesson plans they created. There is no collaboration between contributers and the result is a jumble of lessons with hardly any rhyme, reason or methodology to it.