Thursday, January 28, 2010

The State of our People's Disunion

So I sit here an hour after President Obama’s first State of the Union address, thinking. I should be thinking about America. About the president’s ideas and words. I found him as inspiring as ever, even if I don’t have a firm opinion on each and every proposal. And I am. But my wife has said for as long as she has known me that I see the world through schmaltz-colored glasses. I can’t watch Avatar at the theater and just be taken in by the wonderful storytelling and be blown away by the effects. No, in addition to all of the enjoyment, I find myself almost unconsciously identifying ways to use the film in my “All my Jewish Values Come From the Movies” class.* It’s just the way I am.

So I will leave the analysis of the speech and it’s possible impact on our country and world to wiser heads, or at least to limit those thoughts to other fora. This is a blog about Jewish Education. At the beginning of the speech he said:

“So we face big and difficult challenges. And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics. For while the people who sent us here have different backgrounds, different stories and different beliefs, the anxieties they face are the same. The aspirations they hold are shared. A job that pays the bills. A chance to get ahead. Most of all, the ability to give their children a better life.

You know what else they share? They share a stubborn resilience in the face of adversity. After one of the most difficult years in our history, they remain busy building cars and teaching kids; starting businesses and going back to school. They’re coaching little league and helping their neighbors. As one woman wrote me, 'We are strained but hopeful, struggling but encouraged.'

It is because of this spirit – this great decency and great strength – that I have never been more hopeful about America’s future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong. We do not give up. We do not quit. We do not allow fear or division to break our spirit. In this new decade, it’s time the American people get a government that matches their decency; that embodies their strength.

And tonight, I’d like to talk about how together, we can deliver on that promise.”

I cannot hear this call to civility for the common good without looking at how we Jews sometimes treat one another. And then we wonder why so many of the marginally connected keep walking the other way, hoping not to be noticed – at least not noticed as being with the rest of us.

I read about the
Women of the Wall and I want to scream. Audrey and I were at their second gathering. Women were asked to bring their men. They formed a prayer circle in the Ezrat Nashim (women’s section). We formed an outer ring facing outward in all directions. We were a barrier to the shouts, phlegm and steel chairs that were hurled at them. A Haredi man stood inches from my face shouting “BOOS! BOOS!” at the top of his lungs, spitting on my face. He had recently feasted on some kind of very garlicky sausage. We refused to fight back, merely serving to protect the women who were trying to praise the God we all shared with the words of the siddur and sefer Torah we all held sacred. Before they could finish, the police ordered everyone to disperse and then fired a tear gas cannon at us all. That was in 1988.

Two weeks ago, three teachers from my school (visiting Israel as part of Legacy Heritage: Israel Engagement Innovation Grant) and some HUC students were brought by Doctor Lisa Grant to visit with Anat Hoffman. Her fingers were still stained by the ink used to fingerprint her by the police when she was arrested for inciting women to wear a tallit next to a retaining wall that holds up the mount where the Temple once stood.

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The disputes between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”

– Pirkei Avot 5:17

And there is no shortage of intolerance of one another on all sides. Although none of the rhetoric or actions generally reach the outrageousness of what is happening in Jerusalem right now, it is hard to justify the way we speak to and about one another as being like the disputes of Hillel and Shammai. I am sad that our friend Lorna felt pressured to leave her home in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. She was the last secular Jew there, having cast the only vote in that precinct for Teddy Kolleck in his final election.

I am sometimes asked about the Steinsaltz Talmud in my office. I bought it with the money I received from friends and family as gifts when I graduated from HUC in 1991. I study as often as can (e.g. not enough), and Rabbi Jim Prosnit and I lead a Talmud group for lawyers every month. They ask because they don’t expect in the office of Reform Jewish educator. I am not even a rabbi – that, at least, they would understand. When asked, I explain that it is our Talmud too. This Shabbat, I will be taking 27 Kitah Vav (6th grade) students, their teachers, some madrikhim and my friend and song leader Shawn Fogel (of the LeeVees and Macaroons!) to Eisner camp for a retreat. We will have fun and explore what this whole Bar/Bat Mitzvah thing is all about – for them. Among other things, we will study Sanhedrin 68b from the Babylonian Talmud. That is where we learn about becoming a Jewish adult. They know it’s there Talmud too!

I want us to raise Obamas in the Jewish community – people that will remind us that we all stood at Mt. Sinai. I want my sons to become men who will teach us all that when the Tower of Babel was toppled and languages were babbled, we Jews all ended up speaking Hebrew! When I was a kid, the UJA campaign for years was build around the slogan “We Are One.” Not sure that would rally the troops right now.

So I take hope in the words of our president. And I take more hope in the words of my sons and all of our students. They will fix things. But like the president said, we can’t leave it to them. We have to show them we are read for them to lead, by leading ourselves.

I love the way he phrased the call for energy efficiency and green technology: “I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.”

We don’t have to agree on whether the Torah was letter for letter given at Sinai to recognize that we are one people and to remember to act like it. We don’t have to settle every difference to agree that we are all created B’tzelem Elohim – in God’s image. And the prayers of one group need not prevent the prayers of another from ascending to the Divine Presence.

I am blessed to be part of the
Jim Joseph Foundation Fellows of the Lookstein Institute at Bar Ilan University. Our small group covers most of the Jewish spectrum (not all, but most). And I am struck by the efforts we all make to respect one another’s religious needs. I pray that as we begin to bring others together into communities of practice, that considerate, thoughtful approach continues and spreads. Kein Yehi Ratzon – may it be God’s will.

And the president’s proposals? Gam Kein Yehi Ratzon.

* There were at least two – As Jake Sully becomes enculturated, falls in love and ultimately becomes a Na’vi is great study in interdating/marriage and conversion (and let’s not even get into the linguistically interesting name of the Pandoran natives, i.e. Na’vi = prophet in Hebrew); and the whole issue of two groups whose claim to the same land leads to inevitable conflict, particularly if one or both parties believes that sharing is not a desired outcome. This may be a difficult but possibly interesting way into a discussion if the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

#jed21 on tutors, teachers and coaches

A day or three of tweeting while working! My friend Robin Faintich tweeted in response to my last blog posting about an article in the New York Jewish Week on tutoring. More friends joined in: Josh Barkin, Peter Eckstein, Ellen Dietrick and Ruth Abusch-Magder. I am amazed, but not surprised, by the level of dialogue that can occur in 140-character chunks. The conversation began Monday morning. As I write this it is almost noon on Wednesday and Jonathan Woocher just jumped into the pool. As my wife’s accounting professor at the University of Michigan, Chip Klemstein, once said, “It’s not the miracle of birth, but it is pretty cool!

I am posting the conversation to date below in order to continue it with you. I am also posting it as a comment to
David Bryfman’s blog about the potential value of twitter in Jewish education. David has some very interesting things to say (and he mentions me-check it out mom!). Please continue the conversation with us here on twitter!

(The left hand column is the speaker, the name in the right hand column is the person to whom they are responding or directing their words.)


Tutoring vs.Religious School redux - Al tifrosh? #jed21


@IraJWise Tutoring vs.Religious School ... isn't it our job to figure out how to integrate them? #jed21


@rfaintich It’s our job, but Ira's right: we need to be wary of something that is educationally and ideologically problematic. #jed21


@barkinj one challenge is that I am not sure that @IraJWise would agree that RS is educationally problematic-if that's what you mean #jed21


@rfaintich Absolutely. It is also our job to bring them in at the beginning, which means offering something compelling & meaningful. #jed21


@rfaintich RS as it exists might B problematic, but not necessarily. methinks tutoring CAN be integrated w/out leaving community #jed21


@rfaintich I don;t think it is. It can be. We don;t always get right. But we do more than we get get credit for. #jed21


I am the product of the tutor/RS integration,i KNOW it is possible. Know of a great model in OC-Mindy Davids special. #jed21


@IraJWise i agree that some, incl. you, do more than you get credit for... and in a paradigm that i believe is systemically broken. #jed21


@rfaintich No. I meant that Jewish education through tutoring is educationally problematic. #jed21


@barkinj why? #jed21


@rfaintich Tutoring is fine for cognitive learning. Good Jewish education should also be affective, emotional, spiritual, communal. #jed21


@barkinj you falsely assume tutoring can't also be affective, emotional & spiritual and then integrated into communal #jed21


@rfaintich yeah makes sense but challenge is finding resources & institutional will 2 create programs that R NOT 1 size fits all #jed21


@rfaintich like prev post re: teens, creating mix of tutoring & communal learning needs resources that many of us don't have (more) #jed21


@rfaintich we want change & know it's doable, but when lay leaders won't provide resources we r stuck with taking very small steps #jed21


@rfaintich & small steps R not always enough 2 hold funders, parents & kids attention, even though we try. need something big.#jed21


@rfaintich big change perceived as dangerous-small may not b enough. risk not always positive thing in many funders/parents eyes. #jed21


@rfaintich An observation, not an assumption. I've never seen tutoring do those things. #jed21


@rfaintich we need mechanism to filter the innovations and drive 4 change down from big centers to the periphery. #jed21


@rfaintich Tutoring is generally used for "training", which by definition is not affective, emotional, spiritual, community-oriented. #jed21


@rfaintich Not that tutoring can't be those things, but a communal setting can make them richer and deeper! No student is an island. #jed21


@IraJWise @rfaintich Yeah, Ira said it better. #jed21


@barkinj @IraJWise perhaps the problem is word/implication of "tutor" & not mentor, facilitator, role model, personal educator, etc #jed21


@rfaintich@barkinj @IraJWise On tutor discussion, I love the idea of Jewish life coaches instead of religious school teachers. #jed21


@IraJWise my "tutor" is the one who brought me into Jewish camping & gave me a new community. I was in RS for judaics-she enhanced it #jed21


AHA! So it was not JUST the tutor. Sounds like the kind of person we need doing lots of things. Not a Zero-sum game! #jed21


@rfaintich @irajwise @barkinj Abe Unger weighs in on the benefits of tutoring in the Jewish community in op-ed #jed21


@ellen987 Not sure what you mean by "life coach" in this context. #jed21


@ellen987 I call them "teachers", you call them "coaches." Good teachers know Jewish education is not about imparting info. #jed21


@barkinj I think there is a real difference between coach and teacher. Especially when you are inviting them into your home. #jed21


@barkinj By Jewish life coach I mean someone to help you figure out how to reach your family's goals for Jewish living and learning. #jed21


@ellen987 What if your family's goal is to have a bar mitzvah and then disengage from Jewish life? #jed21


What if the option is a tutor or nothing? that is quite common #jed21


@barkinj If your goal is to disengage aren't you going to do that even if your kid goes to RS? I'm talking people who want to engage. #jed21


@barkinj is it ever someone's REAL goal to disengage? Or an assumed path b/c lack of something compelling, inviting, worth change? #JED21


@RabbiRuth I would say it is then the role of the "tutor" to try and bring the entire family into other entry points. #jed21


@DarimOnline You're right. Lots disengage because we don't offer anything engaging. But some disengage because that's what they want. #jed21


@ellen987 Religious schools need the disengagers (and their tuition/dues) to pay salaries, keep the lights on, etc. #jed21


@RabbiRuth Why? The vast majority could send their kids to relig. school. The people who choose tutoring usually do so as a choice. #jed21


@barkinj @DarimOnline i think those who have chosen to disengage before they even see the product are those who are "in" out of guilt #jed21


@barkinj A coach working with entire family provides more avenues for engagement. Goal for enrolling kids in RS is not fundraising. #jed21


@ellen987 ellen - i'd like 2 talk 2 U more abt this - i'm starting a lifecycle coach program @ my synagogue. how do we touch base? #jed21


@rfaintich @barkinj Can we re-cast the guilt paradigm? It's so not-compelling and will ultimately fail (is presently failing). #jed21


@ellen987 I totally agree. But too many congregations use BM as bait to get people in the door. #jed21


@barkinj A bit cynical. For those only seeking BM, we meet a need. If we are good, we use their time here to help make more connects #jed21


Need 2 real conversations w families: when they join, when BBM approaches. What will make this m'ningful 4 u? What must we do & u do? #Jed21


@IraJWise Yes. Playing the "cynic's advocate" here. But what would happen if all those BM-only folks left your school? #jed21


@barkinj We would have to become a completely different kind of institution to afford serving those who want us the way we are. #jed21


@barkinj And we still wouldn't reach those who left. #jed21

Conversation continues! Join in at #jed21.

If you don't understand how to follow a twitter hashtag (#jed21 is a hashtag!) go to Mashable's guide.

Here is the rest of the conversation:

@rfaintich @IraJWise what would you project would happen to your school if b/m were universally moved to 18 (or h.s. grad)? #jed21

@IraJWise @rfaintich Not sure. But you can't move it. People won't follow. That's how we got Confirmation in Reform. #jed21

@IraJWise Our conversation on tutors and schools through Josh's last post on line #jed21 This is cool stuff!

@rfaintich @IraJWise if everyone agreed to move it (not like that will happen) then ppl choice - follow or nothing? #jed21 just hypothesizing

@lookstein thought of #edchat (see when read @IraJWise compilation of tweets ( maybe need jedchat 4 #jed21

@barkinj @rfaintich @IraJWise What are the implications of this conversation (tutoring) on the larger conversation about post BM dropout? #jed21

@barkinj @rfaintich @IraJWise My hypothesis: Schools that heavily integrate 1-on-1 tutoring have higher rate of post BM dropout. #jed21

@barkinj @rfaintich @IraJWise My reasoning: Maybe families/kids that don't heavily value community have less reason to stay after BM. #jed21

@rfaintich @barkinj one thought- does "drop out" only apply to weekly RS or the community/congregation on the macro? #jed21

@barkinj @rfaintich I say macro. Because I'm not so narrow-minded as to believe that RS is the only way to engage w Jewish education. ;) #jed21

@barkinj @rfaintich But even on the macro level, I would still make that hypothesis. #jed21

@rfaintich @barkinj going with the macro, if done well, I respectfully disagree with you #jed21

@barkinj @rfaintich "If done well" is a big if. My read of the trend (as described in JWeek story) is that it prob isn't usually done well. #jed21

@rfaintich @barkinj so let's find a way to fix it :) #jed21

@rfaintich @remilder or it means that part of the "tutors" job is to be a role model and work to bring them in to J community opportunities #jed21

@rfaintich article quote "[judaism] is learning-based, not rite-based." based on discussion about b/m do we agree? #jed21

@barkinj @rfaintich Right. So do we try to improve tutoring (because it's a trend like it or not), or do we try to fix the underlying problem? #jed21

@rfaintich @barkinj i think it's more than a trend & is actually educationally sound (again if done right) I think we should improve it #jed21

@RabbiRuth I think that there is much that could be done to support organizations like Milestones in SF that make this work well #jed21

@FlorenceBernard Welcome To The Next Level: #jed21 on tutors, teachers and coaches

@rfaintich @jwoocher beyond what makes it meaningful is WHY are you engaging in this? What is motivating your choice for joining & for BBM? #jed21

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Al tifrosh min hatzibur - Do Not Separate Yourself From The Community

This article was just published in the latest issue of the New York Jewish Week. I think the questions Jo Kay is struggling with cut to the core of one of the biggest challenges we face. BTW, I think Jo is one of the outstanding educators in our world.

How do we help people internalize Hillel's injunction - Al tifrosh min hatzibur - do not separate yourself from the community - in a world that is all about personalized service, and tending to individual needs?

I am less interested in how we think Jo should respond to the requests for private tutoring than I am in the question of how do better learn about people's needs, how do we meet them AND help them to be a part of our synagogue communities? I want my cake and I want to eat it! Thoughts?

Tutoring Trend Tests
Jewish Values

by Julie Wiener, Associate Editor

Several times a year, Jo Kay, the director of the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s education school, finds herself in a tricky position.

She has to decide how best to respond to unaffiliated families who — seeking an alternative to synagogue Hebrew schools — ask her if she can help them find a private tutor.

Kay ran Congregation Rodeph Sholom’s religious school on the Upper West Side immediately before assuming her current role, and her graduate school, a division of the Reform seminary, trains educators to work primarily in synagogues and day schools. A strong believer in Judaism as a communal, rather than do-it-yourself endeavor, she is not a big fan of home tutoring, even though she recognizes that many families have “extenuating circumstances” that make it necessary.

Nonetheless, due to her relationship with graduate students — many eager for extra part-time income — she’s seen as a source for tutor referrals. And, while she wishes the families who call her would instead find a place for themselves in a synagogue, she is reluctant to turn away anyone seeking a Jewish experience.

“The more families are turned away the less likely they are to connect ever,” she notes. “When I get a call from a family, I want to extend a hand, I don’t want to be just another person that they can say wasn’t interested in them.”

Kay, who hopes her tutoring students will inspire the families to get involved in congregational life, is hardly alone in her ambivalence about tutoring.

As seemingly growing numbers of families in New York and other major metropolitan areas eschew Hebrew schools for the convenience and intimacy of private tutors, many in the organized Jewish world — particularly those active in synagogues — worry that tutoring’s individualized approach, part of a larger trend in modern American culture, poses a threat not just to synagogues, but to the very ideals of Jewish community.

“There’s such a notion of privatization in the city,” observes Rabbi Felicia Sol of the Upper West Side’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. “We want to combat the notion that Judaism is all about hiring someone to meet my needs, on my schedule and not necessarily being as interested in the community at large. ... Jewish life has always been centered around the community.”

Yet at the same time, those who criticize tutoring recognize that part of the reason it remains attractive is because a number — though far from all — of Hebrew schools leave much to be desired.

And, like Kay, they understand that for many families the choice is not between Hebrew school and a tutor, but between a tutor and no Jewish education at all.

The most frequently leveled criticism against privatized Jewish education — whether with a one-on-one tutor or in a small group environment — is that it fails to teach about, or expose children to, the broader Jewish community.

Rabbi Laurie Phillips, director of education at Congregation Habonim, on the Upper West Side, likens Jewish studies tutoring to private sports lessons.

“You can learn to play soccer with a tutor, but it’s a different experience if you’re learning one-on-one versus being part of a soccer team. You’ll know how to play, but won’t know how to be part of a team.”

Jack Wertheimer, a Jewish history professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary and editor of “Learning and Community: Jewish Supplementary Schools in the Twenty-first Century” (Brandeis University Press, 2009) wonders “how well” private programs “can socialize young Jews to feel part of a congregation.

“One of the great advantages of Jewish children being educated in schools is that they are exposed to different types of Jewish role models,” he says. “They see the rabbi, they see their teachers, they see other adults engaged in Jewish living. The private route limits the exposure of young people.”

In addition to exposing children to congregational life and, ideally, instilling in them a sense of belonging to a community, Hebrew schools, unlike tutoring, offer students a chance to socialize with other Jewish children — including ones who come from different backgrounds.

While one-on-one tutoring, by definition, cannot expose students to Jewish diversity, even small groups of kids learning together with a private tutor — such as the model Rabbi Reuben Modek offers in his Rockland-based Hebrew Learning Circles program — tend to “end up with very homogenous groupings,” notes Saul Kaiserman, director of lifelong learning at the Upper East Side’s Temple Emanuel.

“When synagogues are doing their best work, you have public and private school kids from all over the city that are having to deal with their different backgrounds and different levels of observance,” he says.

Says Rabbi Sol: “We really believe that having relationships and experiences together, and growing up with the same group of kids, instills something in our children that ‘it’s not just all about me.’”

At B’nai Jeshurun even the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony — and, while an exception is made for special-needs children, privately tutored children cannot have a BJ rabbi officiate, nor can they have the ceremony on Shabbat morning or a community mincha —teaches about community, Rabbi Sol says.

“B’nai mitzvah don’t lead the whole service, because it’s not only about them. The ultimate expression of bar mitzvah is actually becoming a functioning participant in the community at large — not that everyone suspends their own spiritual needs to have a concert or performance by a 13-year-old kid.”

Even if Hebrew schools do a better job than tutoring when it comes to fostering community, some leaders believe that synagogues would do well to adapt some of the practices of private tutoring — such as offering students more flexibility, more options and one-on-one attention.

“The organized Jewish community should adapt this model within its institutions so people don’t have to seek it outside,” says Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute, which often gets calls from people seeking recommendations for a private tutor.

“If the goal is to provide Jewish education, then we should provide as many opportunities to get there as possible,” he says.

Some Hebrew schools offer some of these features, particularly opportunities for one-on-one attention.

Central Synagogue, one of the few Hebrew schools to employ full-time teachers, has a homework room, where children can go after class to receive extra help.

Scott Shay, who co-founded and helps run the Jewish Youth Connection, a Sunday school that is now sponsored by Kehillath Jeshurun, on the Upper East Side, says his program is a “hybrid” that provides the best of what Hebrew school and private tutoring have to offer.

All the JYC students spend part of Sunday morning working on Hebrew one-on-one with college students, called “big brothers and big sisters,” Shay says. The college students often check in on their charges during the week in order to see how they are managing their homework.

But the program also features regular classes, as well as parties and other group activities.

Where private tutoring wins hands-down, however, is convenience. With a teacher who comes to your home at a mutually convenient time, there is no commuting, no need to carve out one, two or even three afternoons a week — and for busy families struggling to balance an array of competing demands and activities, this is no small thing.

Nonetheless, argues Kaiserman, convenience isn’t everything.

“I suspect those parents wouldn’t have their kids study karate or ballet in their living room, but somehow manage to get them to class because they want a quality program, and value it.”

Hebrew schools, he says, need to offer high quality — to compete not only with tutors, but with “the marketplace of after-school activities.”

“We’re down the street from the [Metropolitan Museum of Art], so we have to offer something as good as an art class at the Met,” he adds.

And while “we try to make it not impossible or unbearable,” Kaiserman says, “I don’t think inconvenience is necessarily a negative. Jewish values, yeah, they’re inconvenient. That’s the whole point. If they weren’t we wouldn’t need to be learning about them.”

JYC’s Shay agrees that requiring a bit of effort from parents is not necessarily a bad thing.

“While for some tutoring is a good option, I think there’s tremendous value in the parent having to get up and bring the child to a place with other Jews and other parents and say ‘This is something we Jews do,’” Shay says. “As opposed to saying ‘Here’s Rabbi X who’s coming, and your piano teacher is coming an hour later.’”

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reports of the Hebrew School's Demise Have Been Greatly Exagerated

I have dedicated my professional life to supplementary, or complementary or afternoon Jewish Education. In other words, Hebrew School. I am committed to it be cause:
  1. It worked for me and my friends. We all came through a wonderful experience at B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in suburban Chicago, learning from Rabbi Mark Shapiro, educators Barbara Irlen, Bernice Waitsman and Marshall Wolf, and dozens of teachers including Sharon Steinhorn (arguably the first - and second - congregation based family educator ever), Sy Bierman, Sandee Holleb, Joan Goldberg and more than I can name right now. It led us to be campers at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, to participating in our Jr. and Sr. youth groups, to becoming camp staff and teachers, etc. over 25 of us grew up to go to HUC-JIR and become rabbis, cantors, educators and Jewish communal workers. Lots more became functional Jewish adults and leaders of our Jewish communities.

  2. Something in the neighborhood of 85 - 90% of all Jewish children in North America will not be going to day school. Period. They need a place to learn about being Jewish and to love being Jewish. Waiting for Birthright is too little, too late. Summer camps are awesome, but it is extremely difficult to get the "unsynagogued" to go in many communities. (I know MIlwaukee is different! Please don't flame me from Eagle River you Interlaken folks!) Not much left of the non-Orthodox Zionist youth movements. I mourn Young Judaea's present state. I would like to back up the following statement with actual research (I recall it but can't cite, so therefore it is an opinion, not a fact): I believe that the majority of families with children in Hebrew schools would not choose to enroll their children in day schools if there was no tuition charged.

    The decision to enroll in day school or not is, I believe, based on much more than cost. Those who make the choice are either believers in the endeavor day school represents (a valid, meaningful choice), driven there by inadequate public options in their community (equally valid and meaningful, if unfortunate) or looking for something that a particular day school offers that they believe is more beneficial to their child(ren) than the public option (again, valid and meaningful). Cost does turn some away who would otherwise choose day school. I believe if it were free, most would continue to make the choice not to enroll in Day School, because the alternative is pleasing to them. It is not a last resort.

  3. Finally, because I believe in Hebrew School, I have made it my life's wrok to make the experience as meaningful and impactful as I can. I owe it to those who helped me become who I am. I owe it to my sons. I owe it to my grandchildren who are merely dreams in my and my wife's heads (and not yet very vivid -- we have lot's of time!).
I believe Hebrew School can be great. Not for everyone. Certanily not for the kid whose parent says: "I hated it. You'll hate it. You gotta go." Fortunately, we don;t hear that much in our synagogue anymore. I think you can judge the strength of a school by how many B'nai Mitzvah keep coming. Nearly 70% of our B'nai Mitzvah become confirmed at the end of tenth grade. One or two of them choose not to continue to High School graduation. Fifteen years ago it was 29%. Our goal is 85%. We will get there. I don't think we are the best of the best or anywhere near alone. Some things become facts (like the failure of the supplemental school) just by repeating them loudly and frequently.

Why am I talking about this? My friend Robyn Faintich of the Florence Melton Communiteen High School (and fellow Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow at the Lookstein Institute) tweeted about the following blog from Benjamin Weiner on the Jewcy blog.

Jewcy is an online media outlet/blog, social network, and brand devoted to helping Jews and their peers expand the meaning of community by presenting a spectrum of voices, content, and discussion. JEWCY is a project of JDub Records, a non-profit organization dedicated to innovative Jewish content, community, and cross-cultural dialogue. Read it. Join the conversation.

Stop Blaming Hebrew School

My weekly unsolicited email from Shalom TV, "America's Jewish Television Cable Network," informs me that Michael Steinhardt, philanthropist provocateur, in a recent "rare, personal interview," launched into a tirade against non-Orthodox American Jewish education. Hebrew school, argued the hedge-fund tycoon and Taglit-BIrthright impressario, spitting the word out through clenched teeth (or so I imagine the scene), "has been, and continues to be, a shandah--an abysmal failure." In Steinhardt's estimation, the ineptitude of this warhorse of an educational model is responsible for skyrocketing rates of non-Orthodox intermarriage, and the plummeting percentage of Jewish philanthropic dollars actually going these days to Jewish causes. (He sets the figure at 15%). "Can there be a worse term in the American Jewish lexicon than 'Hebrew School?" he asks. "There were six kids in the 20th Century who liked it!"

I am still digesting the press release--the lack of a cable hookup means it will take me some effort to watch the actual interview. Other tidbits include Steinhardt inveighing against the use of "mythical" anti-Semitism as a "boogeyman" to "raise money" for Jewish organizations, and against an obsession with the Holocaust that hinders us from thinking "about what we want to accomplish and what we want to be in the 21st century." The "religion of Judaism," he says further, is "so deeply disappointing" in its "practice, its verbiage, its inability to reflect realistically upon our lives."

The only redemption he sees for the "moribund world" of the Diaspora is a relationship with Israel, "my Jewish miracle." He has no respect, mind you, for the political and business establishment of the country, which he described with adjectives such as "awful" and "less than glorious," and he does not seem to be in favor of living there all the time, either. "I have a wonderful house in the middle of Jerusalem," he says. "I love Israel. I love America. And," like Alec Baldwin in bed with Meryl Streep, "it's a complicated situation."

I admit again that I am only relying here on the sampling of quotes provided in the press release, so I don't feel justified launching a full critique of Steinhardt's performance. Instead, I'd like to focus on the first salvo, the oft repeated claim that synagogue Hebrew schools are responsible for the decline of the Jewish people--a claim that is more or less akin to stripping your parents' house of all viable woodwork, plumbing, and appliances and then wondering why they live in such a dump.

Firstly, it should be noted that Hebrew school has not been a failure, as it is largely responsible for the success of many who have spent time on the editorial board of Heeb, or in the Alpine fortress of Reboot, or the stables of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, or most likely, if you will pardon me, the inner sancta of Jewcy and JDub [Editor's note: I should just point out that I didn't go to Hebrew school, but several of my colleagues did].

Anyone who has jockeyed disaffection with the Jewish establishment into a successful career of personal expression on the American mass-media stage, including the Coen brothers (who, since "A Serious Man," I consider the patron saints of the genre), should reflect on the debt of gratitude he or she owes to this half-assed system of religio-ethno-cultural indoctrination. Things might have been far less interesting had the ingredients come out fully-baked.

But, snarkiness aside, the problem with blaming Hebrew School for the collapse of our millennia-old civilization is that such talk, to paraphrase Tevye, blames the cart for the inherent lameness of the horse; exonerates the many who fled the challenge of creating meaningful Jewish life for the sorry state of affairs they left behind, and ignores the implacability of the forces that made them flee in the first place.

For what created the supposition that two to six hours a week of afterschool guttarality could foment a firm commitment to the Jewish people? I don't think this paradigm was determined deliberately from the outset, by committee. At the turn of the last century, there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them. And then there was mass immigration, and genocide, and breakneck assimilation--from a flummoxed traditional culture into a post-War America that was primed with petroleum to give Jewish people the greatest thrill ride they had ever experienced in a Gentile world. And, at the end of the day, Hebrew School emerged because it was the best we were allowed to do. Speaking, gloves off, as a working rabbi and education director, trying hard to find ways to reflect the "verbiage" of the Jewish religion "realistically upon our lives," it is frustrating that, by consensus of the parents of my community, I can only educate their children for two hours a week with no homework, and that those hours come well after regular school hours, and that the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house--despite the fact that they are all, without exception, great kids. But this is roughly the extent of the concession that many American Jewish families are willing to make these days to their Jewish identities, and there should be a category of Nobel prize for whoever figures out how to put these parameters to the best use.

There is a lot of talk in circulation about "what we want to accomplish, and what we want to be in the 21st century;" what it will take to "get our groove back," whether that means summoning the "boogeyman," or replacing religion with spirituality, or pretending we're Jamaican, or humping each other at younger ages with fewer prophylactics, or giving "Jewish barbarians" (Steinhardt's term) free trips to an Israel whose only redeeming virtue seems to be that we only have to be there sporadically. Of course, it is the responsibility of those who care to come up with compelling answers to the question of why be Jewish. But these answers are getting shorter and shorter, and sounding more and more often like marketing slogans, and, at the end of the day, the lack of substance is less the fault of educators than it is the fault of Jewish consumers who don't want to buy, no matter how cheap the cost. Beyond that, it is the fault of history.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Things are complex...The End of the Exodus Era

This is from Daniel Gordis' regular e-mail of his blog, which also ran in the Jerusalem Post on New Year's Day. More of his work is available (and very worth reading) and comments can be posted at

Jan 01, 2010

ExodusInsideI no longer recall who told me to read Exodus when I was a kid. But I was transfixed by the book, and a few years later, when I saw the movie, I was enthralled. I probably saw it only once back then (this was long before VHS), but that was more than enough to form a lasting impression of Israel. As if it were lifted out of the Hanukka liturgy, Israel seemed a tale of the triumph of the weak over the mighty, the few over the many, the righteous over the wicked. It was a story imbued with moral clarity, a sense of purpose and mission. It was, quite simply, the Israel I deeply believed in before I ever saw it.

Many years later, at the start of the decade now just ended, we'd moved to Israel. One day, two of our kids were home from school. The intifada was raging; they were young and confused, hurting and frightened. So I decided that renting Exoduswas just what they needed.

But almost as soon as we started the film, I could tell that my planned educational moment had failed. They were bored silly by the movie, appalled by its primitive technology. The story line seemed saccharine, insipid. But even more damning, the movie didn't reflect the complexity of the conflict in which they were living. I made a feeble attempt to get them to stick with it, but to no avail. In truth, even I could scarcely bear the appalling lack of nuance. We didn't finish watching it; I mumbled some sort of apology for wasting their time, and returned the movie with no fanfare.

IT'S BEEN years since I'd thought of that failed parenting moment, but it all came back with great clarity last week when I read of the death of Ike Aharonovitch, the captain of the Exodus. The ship's commander, Yossi Harel, had died a year or two earlier. Leon Uris, the novel's author, had died in 2003, and Paul Newman, who had played Ari Ben-Canaan in the movie version, passed away in 2008. Thus, with Ike's death, the Exodus era had ended.

To my surprise, I found myself much sadder than I would have imagined.

IkeFor if I grew up on Exodus, my kids have grown up on Munich and on Waltz with Bashir. I grew up with an idyllic, Ari-Ben-Canaan-like image of Israel, formed from afar. Our children, though, were raised here. And this decade-just-ended, in which they became adults, began with the second intifada, proceeded to the disengagement and then to the highly problematic Second Lebanon War, and is now ending with a Schalit stalemate, a looming Iran and unprecedented international condemnation of the very fighting force that Exodusunabashedly held in such high esteem. Ike's death is thus the perfect metaphor - his passing is a reminder that the world in which I was raised is almost totally gone.

Our kids are busy these days. One's in law school and getting married, one's in the army and hardly ever awake on the days that he's home, and one's working on matriculation exams, thinking about what he'll do when he gets drafted. In many ways, they know a lot more than I do about this country; they're no longer inclined to set aside time for their father's carefully scripted educational moments.

YET I'M actually tempted to try again. It will never happen, but I still imagine some moment, when for old times' sake, perhaps just to humor their aging parents, the kids sit down with us and watch Exodus. I'd tell them to cease the sniggering at the old-Hollywood-style love story, to try not to laugh at the images of the noble Arab in his robe and keffiyeh on the rear terrace of the King David Hotel, and to suspend their incessant political commentary on the obvious oversimplification of the conflict.

Why bother? Because despite the oversimplification and the saccharine overdose, Exodusreminds us of a world that used to exist, but doesn't anymore. It's a reminder of the days when young American Jews instinctively knew that the story that was unfolding across the ocean in Israel was also theirs - something we can no longer take for granted. It brings us back to those days when American Jews, and their Israeli counterparts, knew that the story was complicated, but also knew, with every fiber of their being, that the Jewish future depended on Jewish sovereignty. It was an era when Jews across the world still believed in the possibility of genuine leadership, when Jewish masses could speak without embarrassment of the fundamental justice of our cause.

Our kids, and most of their close friends, still believe those things. But they've learned that most people don't; in much of the world, those convictions are considered naïve, or worse. Exodus is a vestige of an era when the world was different. Moviemaking has changed, and so has the world. Because of that, peace and justice are more elusive now than they were then.

LIKE OUR times, Ike Aharonovitch was complicated. Were it not for Harel, he probably would have gotten the ship sunk and its passengers killed. We, too, are prone to extremes. But his legacy matters because he believed in the Jews, in their still-emerging state and in the fundamental justice of their cause.

None of us would write Leon Uris's novel today; but that's no excuse for having no story to tell. Ike's memory demands that we recapture the narrative - perhaps with more nuance, but with no apology for insisting on the fundamental justice of our cause.

They won't watch the movie, though. So I'll say it to them here. We're in Ike's debt, and in the debt of his contemporaries. So, as a new decade dawns, our obligation to him is simple. Somehow, we have to find once again the courage and the fortitude to believe, and to bring to fruition the dream his generation lived and bequeathed to us all.