Wednesday, February 23, 2011

True Grit in Jewish Education (Part II)

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

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


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

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

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

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

Let me clear. I celebrate all of these developments.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So innovate like mad, but don't forget.

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

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

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