Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thou shalt help those with special needs find their best place among us!

Paul Kipnes is the rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA and my classmate at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR (Class of '91). He has a terrific Blog called Or Am I? Below is his post from yesterday. It sends a very strong message of inclusion which I echo. And he asks an important question: Who else makes it a point to meet the learners with special needs where they are? And I am asking not only about Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but also about other points of connections. 

For congregational schools: Is your school willing to include any child in your established classes if they are included in their weekday school? Are you willing and able to provide paraprofessionals or madrikhim to shadow them if that is how they best learn? Is your school willing to create stand alone learning for those students for whom inclusion is not the best answer? What about physical needs? Is there a ramp or lift on the bima? Large print siddurim and a hearing assist system? Do you have an elevator if the synagogue has upper floors? There are more things we could be doing.

In the Torah, Amalek is considered the ultimate in evil. He was no the only king to attack the Israelites, but he gets the biggest black hat because he ordered his troops to attack the rear of the Israelite column. that is where Moses had positioned the non-combatants, which surely included those whose physical and other abilities prevented them from being effective fighters. We can assume that if they had people with special needs (it is possible that such people didn't survive long as slaves in the ancient near East) they were among those to suffer first at Amaleck's hands. The message is clear to me: that it is a compelling positive mitzvah: Thou shalt help those with special needs find their best place among us!

I am proud of Paul, Doug and their congregation for what they do and what Paul told that parent. I am equally proud that my congregation can answer yes to all of the questions I listed above. I am proud that two of our madrikhim (one is my son) work closely with two young men with autism in a stand alone classroom and that we we have a special needs coordinator who monitors all of our learners, helping avocational teachers learn how best to respond to those learners' needs. 

Please comment to this post by sharing the ways in which your school/congregation/institution works to meet the needs of learners (children and adults) who encounter the world differently from the statistical mean. And now for Paul's post: 

I received a message recently about a parent of a child with special needs. It seems that this parent was unsure that the special needs child could ever become a Bar Mitzvah. Here's my response to the parent:
Recently, Cantor Doug Cotler and I officiated at two different B'nai Mitzvah services of children with special needs. In each case, the parents were sure that their child would never read from Torah, lead the service or become a Bar Mitzvah. Like the few dozen other such families who thought the same, they were overwhelmed and blown away when their child led the service, read from Torah and gave a speech. There wasn't a dry eye in the house!
At Congregation Or Ami, we are committed to the idea that any child of a member who works to the best of his or her ability, has the privilege and right to a Jewish learning experience and to becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah. The children participate in a real service, just one that is subtly tailored to each child's unique abilities (which, by the way, is basically what we do for EVERY child). 

What does that mean?
  • Maybe he will read Torah but not Haftarah.
  • Maybe he will sing the prayers he knows and explain others.

  • Maybe his service will be before only 15-20 of the closest and then there will be a bigger party.
  • Maybe he will only chant one verse of Torah per aliyah.
  • Maybe his Torah portion will be the V'ahavta prayer, which he will already know by heart (the V'ahavta in the prayerbook, comes from the Torah).
  • Maybe... maybe... maybe...
The keys to it all are three interlocking elements:

  1. The commitment of the Temple to say "YES, this CAN and WILL happen."
  2. The creativity of our B'nai Mitzvah tutor Diane Townsend to figure out ways to get each child to do his/her best. Diane works with me to tailor the service in a way that outsiders would not realize is tailored, but makes your child shine brightly.
  3. The willingness of the parents to let go of their sense that it cannot happen, but instead to believe that yes, my son - just like every other Jewish boy - can become a Bar Mitzvah.

By the way, I have NEVER encountered a child with special needs (at Congregation Or Ami or at my previous synagogues) who could not and did not become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
I so look forward to celebrating as your son becomes a Bar Mitzvah. So don't worry. Just say to yourself, "Yes, this will happen." Then breathe...
We can talk more if you want.
Gosh, I wish we could better publicize this message. I wish that all synagogues would realize that there should be NO barriers to children with special needs, especially with regard to Jewish ritual.

Alas, we can only work in our little corner of the world...

What is happening in your corner of the world? Please post a comment and share! - Ira

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Five Things That Marketing And Business Can Teach Jewish Teachers

I wrote this for one of Carol Starin's FIVE THINGS EXTRAVAGANZA'S at the 2005 CAJE conference in Seattle. I am happy to find that I still think it is relevant. I do think that in the last six years I have found at least five more things, but let me share these first and invite you to share some of your own! Shavuah Tov!


  1. Create Purple Cows – In his book Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable, Seth Godin discusses the need for businesses to distinguish their products and services by making them stand out. To prove his point, he gave away copies for the book to people who e-mailed Fast Company Magazine. My copy arrived in a purple and white, ½ gallon milk carton.

    What can we learn? We need to use and create materials, projects and activities that WOW our students. Our 5th graders prepare a presentation on their Jewish heroes. We let them determine the medium, so long as they are not merely reading from a paper. So now we get web pages, power point presentations, videos…
  2. Watch for the Tipping Point– In The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell describes “a new way of understanding why change so often happens as quickly and as unexpectedly as it does. For example, why did crime drop so dramatically in New York City in the mid-1990's? How does a novel written by an unknown author end up as national bestseller? Why do teens smoke in greater and greater numbers, when every single person in the country knows that cigarettes kill? Why is word-of-mouth so powerful? What makes TV shows like Sesame Street so good at teaching kids how to read? I think the answer to all those questions is the same. It's that ideas and behavior and messages and products sometimes behave just like outbreaks of infectious disease. They are social epidemics.”

    What can we learn? We need to be students of the culture in our classrooms and schools. Do behaviors by both students and teachers correspond to the values you are teaching? Are we teaching “Thou Shalt Not Steal” using pages photocopied from a textbook or music from a cd that was burned from someone else’s copy of an album? Do we reward tardiness be recapping what latecomers missed (and punish timeliness by making those students sit through it again)? Do we schmooze with colleagues at the back while students are singing or praying or dancing with a “specialist, or are we singing, praying and dancing with our kids, modeling the behavior?
  3. Design Matters – Go to Fast Company and read about why design matters. The articles range over a variety of businesses, from the cap on a detergent bottle to cell phones to Old Navy Pajama Bottoms to OXO Easy Grip kitchen tools to architecture and beyond. In each case, they discuss how the design of the product or its packaging influences how much people like the product.

    What can we learn? How much attention have we paid to design in our classrooms? The walls, the layout of the furniture, the materials we distribute and our lesson plans all send messages to our students. What message do you want to send: “I’ve been doing this so long that I don’t need to plan anymore” or “I want this to be as fresh and interesting for me as it swill be for you!” “Yeah, we’re all stuck in a nursery school room, just grin and bear it?” or “You know, if we paint the ceiling tiles as a class project or create bulletin board that will be hung over the nursery posters when we are in session, we can really create our space among the toys!” Oh, and spelling and grammar do count for teachers, both in the classroom and in progress reports.
  4. Spread Idea Viruses –Seth Godin’s The Idea Virus takes The Tipping Point a step further, suggesting that ideas can be spread like viruses. “At the core of any ideavirus are sneezers – the folks who tell 10, 20, or 100 people about some new thing, and whom people believe. There are two basic kinds of sneezers: promiscuous sneezers and powerful sneezers. Promiscuous sneezers are folks like your dear Uncle Fred, the insurance salesman. You can always count on Fred to try to "sell" his favorite ideavirus to almost anyone, almost anytime. You know what Fred's up to when he starts to pitch whatever it is that he's onto now…

    Compare that with the influence of powerful sneezers. Go back to the early 1980s. The hat business is near the end of a decades-long downward spiral to total irrelevance. Each year has brought worse news, with one manufacturer after another going out of business, and most towns left with one haberdasher – if they're lucky. All of a sudden, in the midst of all of this dismal news, from out of nowhere, a hero bursts onto the scene: Harrison Ford. Carrying a bullwhip. Wearing a hat. Like the Marlboro Man, Indiana Jones had an enormously positive impact on sales of Stetson hats. Why? Because Harrison Ford is cool, because he has the influence to set style, and because his appearance in a movie in which he wore a fedora coaxed millions of men who wanted to be like him into buying one for themselves.”

    What can we learn? Who are the “vectors” – the students who tend to spread the word? Which are promiscuous and which are powerful? The ones who spread everything will keep your idea (say for a special class project, or a tzedakah recipient) out there in front of everyone, and you can enlist their aid. The powerful ones need to be won over, but when they pronounce their support for your idea, it will become reality. We began our retreat program as an idea virus, using one kid to infect another, until most of the kids were going. Then we used those kids to convince the next group to go using younger siblings. Of course, your idea needs to be a good one! Go Fast Company (again) for a two-part article by Godin on the idea virus.
  5. Bring the Curriculum to the Student – In his seminal work My Pedagogic Creed," John Dewey said "I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child's powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself...The child's own instincts and powers furnish the material and give the starting point for all education. Save as the efforts of the educator connect with some activity, which the child is carrying on of his own initiative independent of the educator, education becomes reduced to a pressure from without... If it chances to coincide with the child's activity it will get a leverage; if it does not, it will result in friction, or disintegration, or arrest of the child nature." (First published in The School Journal, Volume LIV, Number 3, January 16, 1897.)

    What can we learn? Okay, Dewey was a teacher not a marketer, but he understood how to draw lessons from the students’ perspective, which is the trick that all good marketers have mastered. So what are kids interested in? If you teach 3rd – 5th grade, check out a show called “The Fairly Odd Parents.” It is the hottest show on cable and your students watch it (or it was in 2005. What do you think is hot right now?). And Sponge Bob Squarepants. And some of them like magic cards and Lindsay Lohan (clearly the mojo has moved to the likes of Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, etc). If we know where they are spending their time, we can make better connections. The movie Mean Girls is full of opportunities to teach Derekh Eretz!(Still true, but there are other newer aawesome films!)

Monday, November 14, 2011

When Tweeting Depletes: How Social Media Can Disconnect Us

The conversation continues courtesy of eJewishPhilanthropy (What? You still don;t subscribe? Shame!). Here I am, Mr. Digital Oleh, agreeing that digital is not the only solution. Maybe not even the best solution. Like a knife or a drill, it is a tool. We need to learn how to use it well and when to put it back in the virtual tool box and use other tools. Discuss...

When Tweeting Depletes:
How Social Media Can Disconnect Us
November 11, 2011

by Ami Hersh and Leor Shtull Leber

As people who barely remember a time before the Internet and who use Facebook (too) often to stay in touch with friends from around the world, we are not ignorant of the power of social media and technology in connecting people and ideas. However, we question the direction we are taking when we rely too heavily on technology and we fear the authenticity of our relationships when they are based on “@s” and “#s”

We admit we are guilty too. Once we were sitting around a table with friends, each of us on our own laptop. Somebody walked in and asked if he could join and do homework with us, and we awkwardly apologized that we were actually in a meeting – it just so happened that our meeting involved us all sitting in a circle in silence working collaboratively on the same Google doc.

Still, we use the word “guilty” because of the value of personal relationships with which we were raised. We both recently attended the JFNA General Assembly in Denver and were shocked to see the technology culture present and the (over)use of smartphones during sessions. We were encouraged to play with our phones instead of focusing on the speakers. People barely looked up – a great success according to the “Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!” message of the conference. What happened to turning off your phone for a lecture? Further, one of the winning innovative ideas at the Jewish Futures Conference called for the elimination of meetings: young people don’t want to waste their time meeting in person when smart phones can do the job.

Well, we are young people who have smart phones. We still cherish the face to face time of meetings in person – and look forward to disconnecting by turning off our phones during those meeting. Email and social media are important and effective tools, but we must be conscious of overuse and of replacing genuine in-person relationships, both when we are distant and even when we are together in the same room, by tweeting instead of talking.

As it says in Mishlei 27:19, “As water reflects face to face, so the heart of man to man.” The beauty of interpersonal relationships is the ability to look into the eyes of another human being and connect deeply with them through conversation and expression. As you stare into the eyes of another human being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, you are able to let their souls reflect and interact with your own. The whole world can open up before your eyes. Social media is spectacular, important, and quite useful when utilized in its proper time and place. Let us not however allow the over-presence of social media to dilute our in-person enduring relationships.

Ami Hersh is a senior rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the assistant director of Camp Ramah in Nyack. He can be reached at

Leor Shtull Leber is a senior at Brown University concentrating in Cognitive Science and a Student Representative on the Brown RISD Hillel Board of Trustees. She can be reached at

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Back to the (Jewish) Future (From eJewish Philanthropy)

My Shabbat afternoon reading today. VERY intriguing. Thinking of ways to use his principles within the synagogue. Not his point, I know, but it is my milieu. Good learning here. Discuss... Thanks to eJewishPhilanthropy for posting it! - Ira

November 11, 2011 by eJP
Back to the (Jewish) Future:
The Six Demands of the Next Generation of Lay Leadership
by Ben Wiener

[Earlier this month, I was named one of the two winners of the 2011 Jewish Futures Competition, sponsored by the Jewish Education Project and JESNA's Lippman Kanfer Institute. As part of the competition, my winning video was shown at the Jewish Futures Conference held at the GA in Denver this past week, and I also presented my venture ( and my view of the Jewish Future. Here are my remarks.]

I’ve been asked to give my view of the Jewish Future. Now I’m not a prophet but it seems to me that at least with regard to young lay leadership the Jewish Future does not look good.

You know as well as I do that the numbers are headed in the wrong direction. The Federation had a donor base in North America of 1 million people a few decades ago and it’s less than half that today. This summer, while I was a PresenTense Global Fellow we heard first-hand from Natan Sharansky, that over 500 more young Jews per day no longer consider themselves affiliated with Judaism.

Young lay leadership in the Jewish Future is broken and headed for disaster.

Now, lots of people are talking about “engaging” the next generation. People in Federations are signing up to learn how to speak Twitter. But seriously – how do you do this engagement thing, practically?

We need something revolutionary. And like every good revolution, our revolution begins with a list of demands. That’s right, my generation and those younger than me have a list of demands. If you, the organized Jewish Communities want us to get involved, you need to meet our needs and demands.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Demands? Who the heck do you think you are? Well, look in the mirror. Jewish communities aren’t getting any younger. At some point in the Jewish Future you will need to bring us, the next generation, into the family business. You will need us to be engaged, and involved as the next generation of leadership minding the store. And to do that you’ll need to get us into the store. So here are our six demands:

  1. We actually want to work with you. We come in peace. Hey, we’re a great revolution because we’re nonviolent. We’re not trying to overthrow anyone. We want to work with existing communal institutions – just find a way to get us involved, and nobody gets hurt.
  2. No Meetings: We cannot do meetings. Our schedules are too crazy. We are a generation of sound bytes. We communicate in 140 characters for G-d’s sake, not in agendas. We don’t meet, we tweet.
  3. Non-denomination. Plurality. We need to have our own voice and make an impact our way. We want to be invested in our own creative ideas, not advance someone else’s mandates or agenda.
  4. We’re going to need to be able to make an impact regardless of the amount of money we individually contribute. We modern-day Montefiore’s are high on creativity, but sometimes low on capital.
  5. We need to be involved in things that are financially sustainable. Our generation embraces sustainability as a philosophy, as a core value, not just as some kind of marketing gimmick. And finally …
  6. Our involvement depends on technology. You need to weave Jewish communal service into our technology, not wrestle our technology into your Jewish communal service.

So how do we fix the lay leadership problem in the Jewish Future before it happens? As one of my colleagues, Ana Fuchs said this summer at PresenTense, “it’s time for an upgrade.” We need to upgrade to Jewish Communal Service 2.0.

What is Jewish Communal Service 2.0? Well, like any program, there are different versions. I’ll give you a quick example of the tenpartners version of Jewish Communal Service 2.0.

Let’s say Matt, Pat and Jane get together to form a tenpartnership in their local Jewish community. They reach out through their friends and get others to join, hopefully representing a cross-denominational group. When they get ten people to commit, each of them seeds a local bank account that they control, with an equal and reasonable amount of money, for example $1,000 each. (Ten is based on the concept of a minyan, and also on the Hebrew word “ten,” to give.)

Then the ten partners start to evaluate and discuss programs for their local Jewish community using tenpartners’ custom-designed technology platform. Projects or events must do two things: 1) educate through experience, promoting Jewish experiences and values via events like lectures, concerts, Jewish internet cafe? night, etc., and 2) each project must have a revenue model. The participants from the community must pay to participate. Communal programs don’t have to be free. So in our model, the partnership’s money underwrites a program, and then comes back to the partnership through the revenue collected, and then cycles back in to the community via another program, and back, and so on, and so on.

What’s awesome is that this model meets all of our demands.

  1. Partnerships – the ten partners need to reach out and work with existing communal institutions to run successful programs.
  2. No meetings. All tenpartners activity runs off your iPhone or email. No meetings. You can be a tenpartner from the comfort of your couch at 2 am.
  3. It’s nondenominational and fosters creative ideas. Anyone, including other partners, me, you, other people in the community can suggest programs or events to a tenpartnership, but the ten partners ultimately decide what to do. Nobody else tells them what programs to run; they do what they think is best for their local community.
  4. It offers an equal voice at the virtual table. Each tenpartner has the same “say” and the same ability to have an impact.
  5. It’s sustainable. The partners seed the account once and then it can stay evergreen, creating new programs for years, without any new money. No need to put in more money, nobody asking for further donations, ever. Isn’t that refreshing? And …
  6. It’s based on technology. Our simple, custom-built collaboration platform fits in to the way we manage our information in real life.

Our model doesn’t recreate the wheel – it adds a new one. We’re not suggesting that we throw out the Federation model – rather, we’re creating a new layer that extends the reach of current institutions.

It engages young Jews where they are, out on the periphery, and brings them into the family business on their terms. It creates an easy-entry, entry-level layer of lay leadership engagement that gets them into Jewish communal service. Hopefully some of them will “graduate” from tenpartnerships into other types of institutional lay leadership afterwards.

The Jewish Futures Conference is primarily about education. We believe that education is experiential. If we are successful in rolling out our tenpartners Jewish Communal Service 2.0 model across the country and around the word, we will engage and empower hundreds of new lay leaders, who will create thousands of new educational experiences, that will touch tens or hundreds of thousands of people in their communities, all with a financially sustainable business model. It’s remarkable, yet amazingly practical and simple.

So what do we need from you? We need you to download the upgrade to Jewish Communal Service 2.0. It’s not as easy as clicking a button, but its close. You just need to work with us, support us. Open your doors and let us in to the family business. You have a lot of experience, wisdom and resources to offer us, and we have tons of young, dynamic and energetic people we can bring to the table as the next generation of young Jewish lay leaders.

That’s practical “engagement”. That’s Jewish Communal Service 2.0. And that’s how we can work together to create the next generation of Jewish lay leadership, and start fixing the Jewish Future – today. Ben Wiener is President of Portofino Equity Advisors, a private equity company. He is also the founder of tenpartners, an innovative Jewish nonprofit start-up. A former corporate lawyer, Ben also clerked on Israel’s Supreme Court before leaving legal practice for a business career. Ben earned a B.A. from Yeshiva University, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. He lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Connecting the Affiliated

My friend and colleague Arnie Samlan posted about a conversation he had with Beth Finger, who is working on a project called Jewish Without Walls. They suggest we "Forget about Jewish Affiliation, Think about Jewish Connectedness:"
"During our conversation this morning, we both challenged the relevance of "Jewish affiliation", which has been used in every Jewish demographic study as a measure of community success in modern America. The problem is, and has always been, that the operational definition of "affiliation" is often "pays dues to a synagogue". Even those who expand the definition someone, rarely get beyond handing money to an organization (JCC, Federation, Hillel) as the operational definition."
He explores several problems with using affiliation as a metric, including leaving our serious Jews who are "not religious," those for whom membership is of little if any value, and that it does not include significant numbers of Jews who relate to their Jewishness independently, including growing numbers who use social media to express their Jewishness.

He (with a nod to Beth Finger) suggests changing the metric to  "Jewish Connectedness." He would like Jewish sociologists to take into account the many ways of relating meaningfully to being Jewish. He wants to find a way to include serious Jewish paths that may not lead through a synagogue, federation or JCC. He includes summer camping and independent minyanim as well as those "who are doing Jewish in non-institutional spaces or in secular spaces, Jews connecting online in meaningful ways folks and who participate in Beth's Jewish Without Walls, in havurot and in other groupings that are not (yet) dues-based groups."

I think Arnie has the beginnings of an interesting framing of the conversation that we have all been having for a while. And while those who would overturn existing institutional frameworks might see this as invitation Occupy Organized Judaism, I see it as a refreshing way to begin talk about the apples and oranges in the same conversation. After all, Apple Jews and Orange Jews are still all Jews!

I would press the idea a bit further:

How can we in the synagogue world change the way we operate to increase the CI - Connectedness Index - for each member family and individual? While we in this world often do a lot to attract affiliation, we don't always (or even often) do a good enough job of connecting them to other adults in our congregations. We get them when they feel they need us (religious school, nursery school, Bar/Bat Mitzvah) but we don't always connect the adults in the family. So when the kids are ready to move on, the adults do as well.

Using the CI as a way to measure and improve what we do is as important as using it to find a meaningful category for non-Congregational connecting. I still like the word "affiliate" though. It makes me feel like we can use it to affirm that we obeying Hillel's dictum not to separate ourselves from the community.

Like Arnie, I am not the statistician to figure out how to count these things in the larger picture. I do know that in our synagogue and religious school, we have begun to focus on connecting parents. Our room parents now focus on getting parents together rather than doing the shopping or helping with the seder. (See article on page 6 Torah at the Center). I challenge you to share more ways of connecting the people who ARE affiliated! Because we need to raise the CI of all of our people!