Thursday, December 27, 2012

Just back from a family vacation, I open my e-mail to find that this week's Torah Lesson from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University is by one of the most thoughtful teachers from whom I have ever learned - Rabbi Elliot Dorff. So as a public service, I would like to share it with you and your parents. And I recommend subscribing to the Z School e-mails (link is at the bottom).

The Talmud asks "What is a Father's (sic) obligation to his son (sic)?" (Bavli, Kiddushin 29a). Rabbi Dorff extends that question to the role of the grandparents. Let's talk about it. Then let's take action!


Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

 Today's Torah

Shabbat Parashat Vayehi

December 29, 2012 / 16 Tevet 5773
Rabbi Ed Finestein
By: Rabbi Elliot Dorff,
Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy
at American Jewish University

The Importance of Grandparents

  Torah Reading:  Genesis 47:28 - 50:26

  Haftarah Reading:  I Kings 2:1-12

"Joseph lived to see children of the third generation of Ephraim; the children of Machir, son of Menasseh were likewise born upon Joseph's knees...Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years...." (Genesis 50:23, 26)
We do not really know what to do with the Torah's claims that many of the people in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives. Once in a while in our times we hear of people living to 110, as Joseph is said to do in our Torah reading this week, but we cannot be faulted if we are skeptical about the numbers the Torah claims our Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived, let alone the lifetimes of hundreds of years for those who preceded them in the genealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. These numbers may simply be the Torah's way of indicating that they were mythical figures, larger than life, as it were.

Indeed, the Psalmist indicates that "the span of our life is seventy years, or, given the strength, eighty years" (Psalms 90:10), and it is considered a great blessing to see your grandchildren - "May the Lord bless you from Zion; may you share the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life and live to see your children's children. May all be well with Israel!" (Psalms 128:5-6). 

This is closer to what was probably the reality in antiquity. Many died in childbirth - women and children - and those who survived birth often succumbed to infections and other diseases, but if you made it to age twenty and did not have to go to war, the chances were good that you would make it to sixty, seventy, or even eighty. This was true well into modern times, for life expectancy in the United States in 1900 was around 45 years of age, but that figure reflected many deaths in childbirth and childhood. 

Thus some of us who are now grandparents remember our own grandparents. (In my case, all four were alive when I was born, but three of the four died before I was Bar Mitzvah.) Now that life expectancy in the United States is about 78, more and more of us will see our grandchildren, and some of us will be lucky enough to see our great-grandchildren.

What is the role of grandparents? The Talmud is very specific about that. Not only do parents have the duty to teach Torah (and the skills to earn a living) to their children; grandparents do too (B. Kiddushin 30a), based on Deuteronomy 4:9: "Make them known to your children and to your children's children!" In our day, that might include helping parents pay tuition for Jewish schools, camps, and youth groups for their grandchildren. Grandparents can feel good about doing that, but not too good because it is not an especially generous act on their part; it is their Jewish legal duty!

 Grandparents, though, can and should have a much more direct and personal influence on their grandchildren. I have been a member of admissions committees for rabbinical school for over forty years, and time and time again applicants mention their grandparents as a major Jewish influence on their lives. Not every Jew should become a rabbi, of course, but this illustrates the immense affect that grandparents can have on the Jewish character of their grandchildren's lives. 

Following the lead of my friend, Dr. Alvin Mars, I now Skype with my nine-year-old grandson who lives across the country in New Jersey each week. We study D'varim (Deuteronomy) together for fifteen or twenty minutes, and then we talk about all kinds of other things. This not only deepens our personal relationships; it also communicates my own commitment to Judaism, and it helps him think about his own Jewish life. Aside from that, it is a sheer delight!

This becomes even more important when your children have married people of other faiths. How do you model your own Jewish commitments to your grandchildren so that they know about them and seek to figure out their own Jewish identity as they grow? Rabbi Charles Simon, Executive Director of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, and a number of people working with him have produced wonderful materials to help grandparents do that, including Let's Talk About It - A Book of Support and Guidance (on talking with your members of your family who are intermarried) and Intermarriage Concepts and Strategies. Check out the FJMC website to order those materials here.

May we all grow to be grandparents and, if we are lucky enough to be as Joseph was, even great-grandparents, and may we take that role seriously by fulfilling our duties as Jewish educators for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Shabbat Shalom.

Those interested in more on this may be interested in Elliot N. Dorff, Love Your Neighbor and Yourself: A Jewish Approach to Modern Personal Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003), especially Chapter Four, "Parents and Children."
Elliot N. Dorff, Rabbi, Ph.D., is Rector and Anne and Sol Dorff Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the American Jewish University, Visiting Professor at UCLA School of Law, and Chair of the Conservative Movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. Author of over 200 articles and 12 books on Jewish thought, law, and ethics, and editor of 14 more books on those topics, his most recent book is For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law.
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What If the Model Isn’t Broken?
Using the Congregational Religious School
as it was intended to be used

Lynn Lancaster
Lynn Lancaster is Education Director at the Forest Hills Jewish Center. She is also one of the sharpest Jewish educators I have ever met. We became friends when we both were invited to be mentors in the Leadership Institute. And today she was faster than me. She found this excellent article on eJewish Philanthropy and sent it off to me before I even looked at my e-mail. Well played, Lynn!

I agree with nearly everything Steve Kerbel says. And he makes a key point: the success or failure of any model of Jewish education rises and falls on the commitment of the parents. If we are successful in helping them to make Jewish learning and living as a part of a sacred community a priority, then everything will work and the opportunities for us to be spectacular increase. 

Many who want to blow things up seem to think that doing so will allow us to reach more adults and help them choose to prioritize things in this manner. Others suggest that doing so is giving up on getting most folks to prioritize Jewish living over suburban (or urban) life in general, and so we might as well make it as attractive as we can so we can get at least some of their attention.
In either case, I think Kerbel is refocusing the conversation in a manner that makes sense. 

What do you think?


Steve Kerbel

What if the model isn’t broken?

by Steve Kerbel

I have spent my adult life, even when pursuing other career choices, involved in Jewish education. I spent twenty years on the informal side, staffing and writing study materials for youth groups and Jewish camps, teaching in religious schools, tutoring b’nai mitzvah, and eventually teaching in day schools and leading two congregational religious schools for the last 18 years. I am a product of two excellent day schools, USY and several fine Jewish summer camps.

A few weeks ago, on a Shabbat morning, events converged in the sanctuary of the suburban Washington, DC congregation where I now work that lead me to believe that the congregational model of education might just work, if it’s used properly. Like any tool, you get different results if the tool is in the hands of an experienced craftsman versus a weekend warrior. Allow me to expand the thought.

Two smachot occurred, an auf ruf of a couple who met in the 4th grade of our religious school, and a bat mitzvah of one of our students. This was not the ordinary student, by any definition. She is gifted with a beautiful voice, she is poised and mature. But she has also been in synagogue most shabbatot since she was two weeks old. Her family welcomes Shabbat every week, builds a Sukkah and invites guests to share in its use, her father blows shofar on the High Holidays. When this family’s younger son had a conflict between weekday religious school and his Tae Kwon Do class, it was the Tae Kwan Do that yielded to religious school, not the other way around. The children in this family attend a Jewish content summer camp for four weeks every summer.

I contend that this is the right way to use the Congregational religious school model. You participate in services and activities, you take a role, you bring your Judaism into your home and you carry it out again, sharing it with others. This student led all of Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday evening, led the Torah service, read all 8 aliyot and led the congregation in Musaf. Not a typical suburban bat mitzvah. This was a religious school student, not a day school student. To me, it was a lesson in what can be, when we put a product to its best, intended use.

There is a lot of discussion and dissent in the education and lay communities that the model is failed, its failing most families, its tired, I’ve even heard that it needs to be blown up. The model as designed has the potential for success; to create comfort, confidence and community. The model can create committed, literate, striving Jews who integrate Jewish rhythms into their daily lives. We can connect our people to our living texts, we can teach about the sanctity of people and the sanctity of time, we might even improve the quality of our families’ lives. The cost is family buy-in and involvement. If you commit to raising a serious Jew the same way you commit to a serious musician or athlete, it takes what all these people talk about: participation, cheering your kid on, modeling healthy behavior, and yes, as any concert musician or Olympian will tell you, sacrifice. All those athlete profiles we watched from London this summer moved our emotions about how the athlete’s families have to sacrifice for the success of their child. I think we have to create this same expectation for our families if they want to commit to raising successful Jews.

The problem, however, is that the vast percentage of families involved in congregational education are the equivalent of those who take music lessons or participate in a sport and do not become, nor do they have any aspirations to become, concert musicians or Olympians. What models can we adapt or create to attract and retain these families as active, engaged and continuing participants in Jewish communal life?

The ‘model is broken’ conversation comes from the growing acceptance that, although we know what could work, we have been unsuccessful in convincing our audience. We are constantly in the position of the salesman who ‘successfully’ sells the car except for one small problem – the customer doesn’t buy it. The search for alternatives to the current model is driven by a desire to find the formula that will somehow break through this conundrum. We are without a doubt in a period of searching, transition and change. It may be that the formula I describe will remain as a viable option for some families within a larger community-driven set of alternatives. But for now, the search for the right context and mix goes on.

I’m not certain there is an exact formula that will work for everyone, and even the highest quality tool doesn’t produce the highest quality result every time. Perhaps the right investment by the consumers in the product, and quite frankly, better modeling and instruction by education professionals, can make a big difference in making something that may not be working for everyone work better for more people in an affordable, accessible way.

Steve Kerbel is Director of Education at Congregation B’nai Tzedek, Potomac, Maryland, is the current chair of the Education Directors Council of Greater Washington and a national officer of the Jewish Educators Assembly.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nevermind Oscar, Tony,
Emmy and Grammy...
Check out the Eddies!

This afternoon I received an e-mail from the folks at EduBlogs. Edublogs is a platform for teachers, students and administrators to blog about their world.  There are some really amazing sites among the 1,508,550 blogs hosted there. And the Eddies are the Edublog awards for outstaning educational blogs in a variety of categories.

Now I am not going to recommend that you look at all of the blogs that have been nominated and vote in each of the individual categories (not that that would be bad). I am going to be a little more narrowly focused (self-serving?).

From time to time, I have been asked to serve as a guest scholar with groups of teachers and synagogue educators, often to talk about technology in the Jewish classroom and in the educator's professional tool box. Sometimes, people just want to know what is out there for them to use and to share some ideas about how to use it. Other times it is about helping veteran teachers -digital olim (immigrants) and tayarim (tourists) get comfortable with the idea of incorporating some digital tools in their repertoire. Sometimes it is both and more. In each case I share a link to my spreadsheet of tech tools and invite them to add tools they find - and to evaluate the ones on my list. It is a massive exercise in crowd sourcing and I learn from it regularly. You are now invited as well. Click here.

So when Edublogs published their list of nominees, I knew the crowd had hit the mother load! Now all of the nominees are blogs, not tools themselves per se. Many of them are blogs about connecting people to the tools that are becoming available on a daily basis. One of my go to blogs is Free Technology for Teachers, Richard Byrne's outstanding blog. He finds the coolest stuff, often before I have ever heard of the category. And the obvious applications from the general ed world to Jewish education are easy. So I have added the nominees as a second page to my list. I encourage you to check some of them out. Please share reviews of what you find here or on the spreadsheet. And go to and see what they have to offer. Or click on the image above and vote!