Tuesday, September 28, 2010

If We Were the Rulers of Hebrew School World: Part One

This is the first of four postings from Joel Grishaver on this topic. It is actually a  four year-old document created for a presentation he and I did at the CAJE conference in St. Louis. Given the recent flurry of postings on the “failure” of Hebrew school, He felt that the time has come to repost it. I include the first posting here, and I beg you to go to The Gris Mill to read the rest. There is a navigation menu on the right to take you through all four parts.

Part One:
Five Reasons That
Hebrew Schools Can’t Succeed

I am riding with this congregational rabbi on the way to the synagogue when conversation turns to the future. The rabbi is fantasizing a congregational day school and explains the choice by saying, “After all, Hebrew schools can’t work.”
I swallowed, said nothing, and came home ready to teach a session at CAJE called “Five Reasons That Hebrew School’s Can’t Succeed.” I solicited a few friends to join in and found that they were worried about the impact of such a session. They were scared that a number of people would not get the irony in the title—that it was really intended to look at conditions that were needed to succeed.
A few days later we hosted a number of Los Angeles principals for a luncheon at Torah Aura, and the topic was on the table. I then realized that second half of the conversation – the part that imagined a better future – was more important. We changed the name of the CAJE session, and I changed my focus. This series of essays is designed as a preparation for CAJE.
We’ll start with some key problems in this essay and move to the fixes in the next several issues of the Gris Mill.
1.         Rabbis and lay people don’t believe that they can succeed.
I am not even sure that we believe we can succeed anymore. We know that we have some success. We can all tell stories of the individual moments where we feel that we have made a difference. But whether we are making enough of a difference to preserve Jewish life—that is the big question. As long as we doubt our own success, as long as the leaders of the community doubt our success, failure is likely.
Here is my truth.First we have to restore our own faith in what we are doing. We need to believe that Hebrew schools can make a huge difference in the future of the Jewish people. Then, with that renewed faith, with that renewed energy, we can go out and sell our colleagues and our lay leaders on it. Then, with their help, we can sell our clients on the difference we are going to make in their lives. Otherwise we have a wonderful failure to fulfill.
2.         They now exist as learning communities with too few hours to impact significantly on student lives.
Let us forget about content for the moment. Let’s forget that all the research says that it takes three sessions a week to readily master languages. Let’s forget about all the wonderful programs we would like to run. Let’s ignore the improvement we could make in our faculties if we could hire them for more hours per week. We need to focus on just one truth. The future of the Jewish people probably resides more in the friendships that our students make in school and the level of community we forge among our students than in anything we teach them.
The simple questions that needs to be asked are (a) Do we meet often enough? and (b) Do students attend enough of those few sessions to bond with each other? Because it is their friendships that will bring them back after Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and it is what they do after Bar/Bat Mitzvah that will lead to Jewish connections in college, and it their Jewish life in college that will lead to their Jewish future. Getting the first domino in place is a major part of the job. It is George and Sarah who will lead Britney toward a Jewish future, not the ability to read v’shamru with few enough errors and more than enough fluency to secure the Jewish future.
3.         School goals are now so low that success in school doesn’t equal success in Jewish life.
If Jews could get tattoos, this would be on my chest: “Bar/Bat Mitzvah is not going to save the Jewish people.” If I thought it would make a difference, I would hire a sky writer to write in the skies over every Jewish conference in North America, “Just preparing students for Bar/Bat Mitzvah will not assure the Jewish future.”
If our students can answer four questions with well-reflected and informed answers, then Jewish life has a chance.
  1. What is my role in the redemption of the world?
  2. How do I understand and how will I face my own mortality?
  3. What tools can help me to continue becoming the best person I can be?
  4. What is my connection to the Jewish people, and how does the State of Israel enrich my Jewishness?
The answers to these questions build a Judaism that is important more than one day a lifetime, more than at a few family gatherings a year, more than a decaying sense of ethnicity in a post-ethnic America. A Jewish education that doesn’t make Jewish life a vocation, a way of being (a job), is a Twinkie Judaism filled with empty calories and with little chance at succeeding in the real job, carrying the Jewish people forward another generation.
We have given our educational goals over to the DJs and caterers, to the people who do Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation, and to the dance teams. We have correctly affirmed the need for Jewish preschools to build a solid foundation for Jewish living but have forgotten to assure that it reaches into adulthood. Schools that challenge students all the way through high school are few and far between.
4.         The contexts of ethnic identification and religious life in North America work strongly against our success.
There was a time when Jewish schools could fail and Jewish life would still succeed. In an era when Jews were different, outsiders, the other, Jews stuck together. We married each other and raised families with a sense of Jewish memory because we had little choice.

We are now living in a North America that considers us “white,” that allows us to distance ourselves from Israel, that has adopted Yiddish words, bagels and chicken soup and guarantees our equality with Kwanzaa. We are past a generation with different accents, different memories, and different priorities. Jews are not marrying out of their Judaism, they are marrying into a pluralistic community that fully welcomes them. Judaism is no longer a nationality (in our context), barely an ethnicity, and it will survive only through active (rather than passive) choice.
5.         We have failed to make family education a context and have reduced it to a program, and we have failed to wrap the supplemental school in the supportive environment of camps, youth groups, and Israel experiences for a significant number of our students.
We had in our hands tools that could have corrected the situation, and we have reduced them to minor options or mechanical programs. Summer camps serve way too few of our children (and are now way too expensive to service a significant percentage). Israel, which used to be the instant solution to the problems of America, never reached 15% of American Jewish kids (and has run into a political barrier to participation: danger). Youth group is not what it once was—and that is a longer story we will explore in a future essay.
But the big question is: What ever happened to family education? Once the great promise, it has been reduced from “context” (a way of looking at Jewish education as a series of relationships between school and home) to one predictable program per year per class.
Now that we have chronicled what is wrong—it is our obligation to make it better. That we will do in the coming days.
Read the rest and comment at  The Gris Mill

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sukkot: Back to Basics

G-dcast does it again for Sukkot! Enjoy!

Sukkot: Back to Basics from G-dcast.com
More Torah cartoons at www.g-dcast.com

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dropping the Baton in the Synagogue

This is from the July issue of FastCompany. FastCompany is a business magazine, and ever since the first issue came my way fifteen years ago I have read it cover to cover. Each month I find articles that make me think about my work as a Jewish educator and as a human being. There are more ideas than I have had a chance to implement and the list grows longer each month. It has introduced me to Seth Godin, the importance of Design and more recently Chip and Dan Heath.

This article made me think about the process of recruiting, and more importantly growing and maintaining the relationships with a member family in our congregation. They come in through so many different doors: nursery school, family education, social justice, a desire to enroll children in religious school, a worship experience, spiritual searching - you name it. And then we get them to join. 

Some time later - hopefully years - they resign. And we are shocked, I tell you. Simply shocked. (cue Sam on the piano - you must remember this...)

Why would they leave? Perhaps they have accomplished what they thought of as their purpose for joining. Maybe the kids have left the house so they see no reason to belong for themselves. Maybe the dues are too high. Maybe, maybe maybe.

This article made me wonder how many ways we drop the baton in our synagogues. With our students. With their parents. With the family as a whole. We should have been working to help them find multiple reasons for being connected to the temple, to develop relationships with other members and with the institution itself that go beyond the reason they joined. I began this line of thought on this blog in April. I am sure there is more to come. I invite your thoughts on this.

Team Coordination Is Key in Businesses

By: Dan Heath and Chip Heath July 1, 2010
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the American men's 4x100 relay team was a strong medal contender. During the four previous Games, the American men had medaled every time. The qualifying heats in 2008 -- the first step on the road to gold -- should have been a cakewalk.

On the third leg of the race, the U.S.A.'s Darvis Patton was running neck and neck with a runner from Trinidad and Tobago. Patton rounded the final turn, approaching anchorman Tyson Gay, who was picking up speed to match Patton. Patton extended the baton, Gay reached back, and the baton hit his palm.

Then, somehow, it fell. The team was disqualified. It was a humiliating early defeat. Stranger still, about a half-hour later, the U.S.A. women's team was disqualified too -- for a baton drop at the same point in the race. (Freaked out by the trend, the U.S.A.'s rhythmic gymnasts kept an extra-tight grip on their ribbons.)
Team U.S.A.'s track coach, Bubba Thornton, told the media his runners had practiced baton passes "a million times." But not with their Olympic teammates. Some reporters noted that Patton and Gay's practice together had been minimal.

Thornton's apparent overconfidence was understandable. If you have four world-class experienced runners on your team, shouldn't that be enough? Unfortunately, no, it isn't. The baton pass cannot be taken for granted -- not on the track and not in your organization.

We tend to underestimate the amount of effort needed to coordinate with other people. In one academic experiment, a team of students was asked to build a giant Lego man as quickly as possible. To save time, the team members split up their work. One person would craft an arm, another would build the torso, and so forth. (At least one person, of course, was charged with tweeting compulsively about what the others were doing.)

Often, the parts were carefully designed, yet they didn't quite fit together properly, like a Lego Heidi Montag. The problem was that nobody was paying attention to the integration. The researchers found that the teams were consistently better at specializing than they were at coordinating.

Organizations make this mistake constantly: We prize individual brilliance over the ability to work together as a team. And unfortunately, that can lead to dropped batons, as JetBlue infamously discovered back in February 2007.

You remember the fiasco. Snowstorms had paralyzed New York airports, and rather than cancel flights en masse, JetBlue loaded up its planes, hoping for a break in the weather. The break never came, and some passengers were trapped on planes for hours. If you've ever felt the temperature rise on a plane after an hour's delay on the tarmac, imagine what it was like after 10 hours. These planes were cauldrons of rage -- one stray act of flatulence away from bloodshed.

JetBlue did its best to survive the wave of hatred -- its CEO apologized repeatedly and the company issued a Customer Bill of Rights, offering cash payments for delays and cancellations. But the executives realized that these efforts wouldn't eliminate the underlying problems, which were rather unyielding: The weather is unpredictable; New York airports are overcrowded; passengers expect on-time performance anyway. If JetBlue didn't fix its operations -- learning to respond to emergencies with more speed and agility -- another fiasco was likely.

JetBlue's executives knew that a top-down solution by a team of executives would fail. "The challenges are on the front line," says Bonny Simi, JetBlue's director of customer experience and analysis. In October 2008, Simi and her colleagues gathered a cross-section of players -- crew schedulers, system operators, dispatchers, reservation agents, and others -- to determine how the company handled "irregular operations," such as severe weather.

Individual members of the group knew the issues in their departments, and "if we brought enough of them together," Simi says, "we would have the whole puzzle there, and they could help us solve it."
Where do you start? If you ask individuals what's wrong with their jobs, you'll get pet peeves, but those gripes may not address the big integration issues. But if you ask people directly how to fix a big problem like irregular operations, it's like asking people how to fix federal bureaucracy. The topic is too complex and maddeningly interrelated; it fuzzes the brain.

Rather than talk abstractly, Simi decided to simulate an emergency. As the centerpiece of the first irregular operations retreat, Simi announced to the group: "Tomorrow, there's going to be a thunderstorm at JFK such that we're going to have to cancel 40 flights." The group then had to map out their response to the crisis.

As they rehearsed what they would do, step by step, they began to spot problems in their current process. For instance, in severe-weather situations, protocol dictates that the manager on duty, the Captain Kirk of JetBlue operations, should distribute to the staff what's known as a "precancel list," which identifies the flights that have been targeted for cancellation. There were five different people who rotated through the Kirk role, and they each sent out the precancel list in a different format. This variability created a small but real risk. It was similar to slight differences among five runners' extension of the baton.

In total, the group identified more than 1,000 process flaws, small and large. Over the next few weeks, the group successively filtered and prioritized the list down to a core set of 85 problems to address. Most of them were small individually, but together, they dramatically increased the risk of a dropped baton. JetBlue's irregular-operations strike force spent nine months in intense and sometimes emotional sessions, working together to stamp out the problems.

The effort paid off. In the summer of 2009, JetBlue had its best-ever on-time summer. Year over year, JetBlue's refunds decreased by $9 million. Best of all, the efforts dramatically improved JetBlue's "recovery time" from major events such as storms. (JetBlue considers itself recovered from an irregular-operations event when 98.5% of scheduled flights are a go.) The group shaved recovery time by 40% -- from two-and-a-half days to one-and-a-half days.

Ironically, JetBlue's can-do culture contributed to its original problem. "The can-do spirit meant we would power through irregular operations and 'get 'er done,' " says Jenny Dervin, the airline's corporate communications director, "but we didn't value processes as being heroic." The company's heroes had been individuals -- but now they share the medal stand with processes. (Here's hoping that the next American relay team, too, extends some glory from the runner to the handoff.)

The relay team with the fastest sprinters doesn't always win, and the business with the most talented employees doesn't either. Coordination is the unsung hero of successful teams, and it's time to start singing.

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the authors of the No. 1 New York Times best seller Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, as well as Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Young American Jewish Elite

This ran in eJewish Philanthropy.com - one of the great sources of Jewish ideas and information. It raises some very interesting ideas, and I think it tells us something about where we should be going in teaching the next generation of leaders. What do you think?

September 14, 2010 by eJP  
by Matthew Ackerman

It is (or should be) a truism of media and academic culture that what deserves the least attention often gets the most of it. In “Good to Great,” the obsessively researched management book, Jim Collins aimed to find companies who had demonstrated consistently superior performance relative to their peers for at least 15 years. He came up with a list of 11 companies, every one of which – companies like Walgreens and Kimberly-Clark, a paper company – was decidedly un-sexy. Even more telling, they were all led by extraordinarily effective leaders who had received far less media attention than their less successful peers.

So, too, of course with much of the Jewish world, a significant segment of which has been obsessed in the last decade with identifying and understanding younger Jews. From the American side this obsession grew out of Jewish population studies conducted in 1990 and 2000-2001, which revealed for many Jewish leaders what they should have known long before: that many young American Jews were alienated from Jewish life, which meant they were increasingly marrying non-Jews, which meant the Jewish population was stagnating or even shrinking. Of late Israelis have become no less concerned in this regard, as they see their country’s international standing sinking ever lower and point the finger, at least in part, on young American Jews less committed to Israel’s security.

This led to the commissioning of many studies on young American Jews as the established community sought to understand what had gone wrong. A revealing interview about this work with Steven Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York who has written many of the most important studies of this kind, was published recently by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

These Jews, Cohen says, are “alienated,” don’t feel comfortable around “upper-middle-class, in-married, middle-aged, family people,” and dislike distinctions being drawn between the Jewish and the non-Jewish. Israel is, at best, a place to support if it meets standards of “tolerance,”“human rights,” and “women’s rights” that it is supposedly lacking in. For these Jews, to even define oneself as “pro-Israel” is to buy into the “sometimes immoral policies of the Israeli government.” (Then again, any label is supposedly anathema for this set.) Jay Michaelson, a bellwether of this kind of thinking, recently went so far as to propose that support for Israel is in direct conflict with American Jewish identity.

The crucial question, though, is who exactly Steven Cohen is talking about. In his interview with the JCPA, several times Cohen obliquely noted that his comments were limited to the “non-Orthodox.” He was more explicit in this regard in a 2006 study he wrote on intermarriage, limiting his work and conclusions only to non-Orthodox Jews. So one important thing we know about these Jews is that they are not Orthodox.
The other important thing about the young Jews Cohen focuses on is that they hail from a strong web of Jewish connections. They are fluent in traditional religious practice and familiar with Gemara and other mainstays of Jewish tradition. Despite their aversion to supporting Israel, many have nevertheless spent significant time there and know Hebrew. And they all have lots of friends with similar backgrounds. (None of these traits are odd for people with an Orthodox background. And pushed as far to the “left” as it will reasonably go, the Orthodox label comfortably contains within it many people as conversant in the secular world as the religious.)

The last important thing about them, which again can easily be seen in Cohen’s casual references in the JCPA interview to the havruta movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s and “social justice,” is that they define themselves as a protest against the mainstream, which is both bereft of meaning and corrupt.
So in effect we are looking at a cohort of American Jews under 40 who define themselves against the Jewish mainstream and do not call themselves Orthodox (no labels, remember) yet have the experiences and knowledge of their peers who do. An unusual and small group that Cohen considers an “elite.” And they can be forgiven to a certain extent for thinking of themselves in similar terms, as they have been showered with fellowships, awards, and other euphemisms for money by a Jewish establishment desperate for their attention.

Left entirely unasked is whether or not any of it is worth it. Even the most successful of their generously supported endeavors, places like Yeshivat Hadar, cater almost entirely to the small group of people like themselves who are well-versed in Jewish life but yet cannot bring themselves to rub shoulders with all those annoying middle-aged people and their children. Or commit themselves to substantive support for Israel, the largest collection of Jews in the world and the first independent Jewish polity in 2,000 years (located in the same place as the polities that preceded it, with even the same capital city) that finds itself under increasing assault from an international campaign determined to cast it as fundamentally illegitimate.

If this is an elite, it is a strange one. It shares little in common with the Jews it will supposedly lead who, in any case, it refuses to take responsibility for leading. It explicitly defines itself in opposition to the center of the Jewish community (which nevertheless goes on shoveling it money). And it sees avoidance of the most frightening and important issues affecting the Jewish people as a matter of high principle.

When the story, in some distant future, of our Jewish current is written, one thing we can be near certain of is that these types of leaders will not feature largely within it. For now, it is long past time to look elsewhere for the kind of leadership American Jews need.

Matthew Ackerman is an analyst with The David Project.

Going Overboard for Yom Kippur!

G-DCAST has come up with something special from Josh Nelson just in time for Yom Kippur! Enjoy!

G'mar Chatima Tovah!

Yom Kippur from G-dcast.com
More Torah cartoons at www.g-dcast.com

There is a teacher's guide as well at http://www.g-dcast.com/sites/default/files/curricula/yk_curriculum.pdf. You will have to register with the site first, but it is worth it. If you are new to G-dcast (hate the dash), you are in for a treat. They have animated commentaries on all of the parshayot and some of the holy days as well!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

We Are No Longer Accepting Comments For This Article

I spotted the new issue of Time magazine while I was in line at the grocery store with my cart loaded in preparation for my Erev Rosh Hashanah cooking marathon (actually not such an ordeal, with a great new fast and easy roast beef recipe from Arthur Schwartz). The cover was intriguing and troubling.Why Israel Doesn't Care About Peace winked out from a string of daisies in the form of a Magen David. I didn't pick it up, because I knew I didn't have time to read it and I was pretty sure I wanted to begin the New Year with other thoughts. The ideas suggested by the cover wouldn't go away if I waited for the weekend. Those kinds of ideas don't ever really go away.

By the time I got around to reading the story (and don't just read it online - the print version is fuller and presents a visual gestalt that the web version does not), there were many responses floating in the blogosphere. A partially annotated list of some of them is below. After reading the story and the blogs I am every bit as disturbed as I expected to be in the grocery store. I am glad I waited until after yontiff, since it seems like the monster under the bed of my childhood has crawled out again - and it is not cute and fluffy like Sully from Monsters, Inc.

The title of this posting comes directly from the Time Magazine web site which shows the article by Karl Vick. I assume they have shut down the comments due to either the volume or intensity of the responses they have received in the nine days since it was posted. Clearly, they would like to let their article be the last word on the subject.

When you read Daniel Gordis or Rick Teplitz - and you MUST read them, you will understand that there is trouble in River City. I could reiterate what they say. I could be alarmist, intellectual or angry. Welcome to the Next Level and Davar Acher are blogs that are primarily about Jewish Education. So I want to issue a challenge and an invitation to all of you who read them, since you are among some of the most creative educators I know.

How will we teach this to our students? Obviously there are different needs for learners of different ages. I don't think I will be pushing the issue in Kitah Bet (2nd) or Hey (5th). But Kitah Zayin (7th) and above students are going to have some questions that we are honor bound to address. I have created a document in Google Docs which can be accessed by clicking here. It is a blank document right now. Please go there and fill it with your ideas for addressing the issues raised - Anti-Semitism, Zionism, Media Bias, Anti-Israel, Civil Rights, Peace, Arab/Palestinian-Israel Conflict, or any other that occurs to you. They can be a sentence, a link or a fully articulated lesson plan. Whatever we all put there is available for all of us to use. And as you develop things, please add to the document. Invite others to share. Just having the link (http://bit.ly/diEM3D) gives you permission to edit, just like a wiki. All I ask is that you do not change other people's words. Comment freely, supplement and add your own ideas.

A Partial List of Blog Responses
Cross posted to Davar Acher