Saturday, December 14, 2013



What follows is a beautifully written azkara and notice of the death of a young boy I only met once. I am connected to his mother almost exclusively through online connections and the fact that their family is friends with my sisters' family. I am sharing it because it is beautiful and in case any of you are connected to Sam's family and did not get the information.  

Goodbye Sam. You left an indelible mark on the people who loved you and on those of us who knew of you. 

Rebecca, thank you for sharing your words. So many of us have none.



by Rebecca Einstein Schorr on 14 December 2013 @ 11:53 am
SAS zl
And Samuel died; and all Israel gathered together and lamented him
(1 Samuel 25:1)

Sammy. Sweet Sammy has died.
He is dead.

His parents haven’t “lost” a child.
They would never…could never…be so careless.
He didn’t “pass” or “pass away.”

We pass a driving test or a kidney stone.
We don’t just pass through life.
Sammy didn’t just pass through life.

He lived.
And at 12:33am, in the still solitude and with his beloved parents surrounding him with their love, Samuel Asher died.

And on Monday, December 16, 2013, all Israel will gather together and lament him.
Funeral services will be held at Am Shalom, Glencoe, IL at 1:00pm.
Tenderly, we will return his body to the earth and tuck him in for his eternal rest following the service at Shalom Memorial Park in Arlington Heights.
Shiva will be observed in The Crown Room at Am Shalom: Monday through Wednesday, 5-8:00pm, with a minyan service each night at 7:00pm.

We will not celebrate; we will mourn. Together. As we always have.
He is not in a better place because how could there be any place better than in his parents’ embrace?
And God didn’t want Sammy with Him; God weeps with us in our time of sorrow.

Baruch Dayan HaEmet.
Blessed is the Eternal Judge of Truth.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

JEDLAB and the Buber:
A conversation on I and Thou

December 29, 2014 - Due to some foolishness on my part, the images of the I and Thou Conversation were deleted. Since the Internet is forever, I was able to retrieve them! Sorry for the inconvenience and thanks to Ken Gordon for spotting the problem!

Long time followers of this blog may know that I was one of fourteen fellows in a program at the Lookstein Center funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation. Our brief was to create online communities of practice. Some of us were more successful than others. Some CoPs are still going strong, others have served their purpose and are but memories.

And then came JEDLAB! There has been a lot written about it and by those involved. It is worth reading some of it. More importantly, it is something you should join. Unlike CAJE of blessed memory or any number of conferences that have grown up in recent years (and may they all thrive and grow), it is an ongoing 24/6 conversation about Jewish education and the things that educators want to talk about, learn and teach one another. I try to check in at least once a day, and occasionally find I have something to say.

To join JEDLAB you need to be on Facebook. That is the central platform on which the community meets. (We do have the JEDLAB test kitchen on Google+ and we love to have ad hoc connections in a variety of places as well). And it is a community, currently 2,220 strong. Some write. Many read. And it crosses all lines: geography, movement, professional setting and methodology, relationship to Halacha, etc. Everybody plays, and no one can so you can't play (Thank you Vivian Gussin Paley). Just click on JEDLAB and ask to join. Or become my friend on FB (if we are not already) and ask me to put you in. Or ask anyone in JEDLAB to do it. It is worth your time. (If you are not on Facebook, you should join just for this. Set privacy settings so the kids from your 3rd grade class can't find you if you prefer.)

Ken Gordon, the founder of JEDLAB proposed a book group on Martin Buber's I and Thou. Not a light undertaking. He opened the conversation in a way that drew me and others in and if you follow, he moderated with a very light touch. Our first 36 hours of conversation is below. I think you will find it interesting and invite you to join in - preferably in FB at JEDLAB. If you comment hear, I will transfer your thoughts - in your name - to the group.

This is hopefully the first stop in a traveling blog carnival. That means that other bloggers in the group will hopefully pick up the thread of the conversation on their blogs in turn. I will put links in the comments section. (Note: Permission was given by the participants in the discussion before I posted this. JEDLAB is a safe place for conversation!)

Please enjoy and join us in JEDLAB! Consider this your present for the last night of Chanukah!


Since the image above is a .jpg of the Facebook conversation you can watch the video with this link:

Sadly, the Mechon Hadar document is no longer available.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

I've Got Sunshine!

Me and Barb at a
NATE Leadership meeting
Barb Shimasky, a wonderful educator at Temple Sinai in Milawaukee who blogs at – and a former student of mine (oy.) – nominated me for a Sunshine Award. It is an interesting award, since there is no actual competition. If you are nominated, all you need to do to win is to accept. And that is where the catch comes in. You have to follow the five rules.
  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers. They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

Responding to something like this is not strictly speaking why I maintain this blog. I began it three years ago to create a conversation about Jewish Education and to crystalize my own thoughts.

Doing this feels a bit self-promotional – not my favorite thing. So I gave it some thought before deciding to accept and follow the rules. And it seems to me the best reason for doing to is to introduce anyone reading my blog to 11 of my favorite bloggers who write about Jewish Education. So I am going to start by listing those bloggers (in order of the individuals’ first names) because that is the important stuff. The rest is just because I want to honor the spirit and intention of the awards which require me to share something about myself. Feel free to skip all of that and just visit the 11 blogs listed.So let's talk about what these bloggers are talking about!

Blogs I am nominating and hope you will visit (in addition to Barb’s):
  1. Community Organizer 2.0 – This is Deborah Askenase's blog. Her main gig is as a digital strategist, non-profit executive, and community organizer. She occasionally writes about Jewish education, but I think every educator can learn from her organizing and digital repertoire.
  2. eJewishPhilanthropy – Dan Brown (not the author of several best sellers) lives in Jerusalem and does a remarkable job of collecting articles from a wide variety of people on a wide variety of topics: Jewish philanthropy, Jewish education and Jewish Peoplehood to name a few.
  3. Jew Point 0  – This is the blog of Darim Online, which includes Lisa Colton's brilliant team. 
  4. ayekah — where are you? Conversations about how we respond to the world through a Jewish lens – Rabbi Fred Greene of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell, GA is a great friend and colleague. And I love the way his mind works.
  5. The Gris Mill – Joel Lurie Grishaver's Blog. Joel was one of my inspirations to get into Jewish education and is one of my dearest friends. And he has some pretty interesting ideas.
  6. The Torah Aura Bulletin Board – Includes a lot of Joel's writing, but also a group of terrific educators writing about technology, early childhood education, art and other great stuff.
  7. Muse for Jews – Debbie Harris is the director of educational technology at the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, IL and teaches religious school at Lakeside Congregation for Reform Judaism. She is also one of the most gifted at bringing technology to Jewish education.
  8. Itzik's Well – One of my oldest friends, Irwin Keller serves as Spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Shalom in Cotati, CA. He is also founder/performer with the Kinsey Sicks, America's Favorite Dragapella Beautyshop Quartet (
  9. Or Am I – Rabbi Paul Kipnes was one of my classmates at the Rhea Hirsch School of Education at HUC-JIR in LA. He is the Rabbi and Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA and one of the most thoughtful people I know.
  10. Jewish Education Lab – Wendy Grinberg is a terrific educator and consults with Jewish educators all over.
  11. Sects and the City – My bunk mate Rabbi Liz Wood's journey through life and learning.
11 Questions for those I am nominating:
  1. If you had an extra million dollars lying around that had to be spent on Jewish education, what would you do?
  2. What is your favorite holiday and what do you do to make it uniquely special?
  3. If you only had time to visit one place in Israel, where would you go and what would you do there?
  4. If you only had time to visit one place NOT in Israel, where would you go and what would you do there?
  5. What is one piece of advice you would give to someone beginning their first full time job as a Jewish educational leader?
  6. What is the best general release (i.e. not specifically Jewish) film you have seen in the last eleven months and what is one thing you liked about it?
  7. What is your favorite Jewish song (at the moment)?
  8. What made you choose to pursue the career you have chosen?
  9. If you were given a six month sabbatical and more than enough money to fund it, what would you do? Where would you go?
  10. What is the one Jewish food - that if your doctor told you had to stop eating it - you would be most upset ?
  11. What is the best book you have read lately?
11 random facts about myself:
  1. I love to cook, but my son is better at than I am.
  2. Every time I watch a film, I cannot help but look for the scene that will help me teach something Jewish. It is a curse. And a blessing.
  3. I have played quiddich. Really.
  4. A part of me never leaves Jerusalem.
  5. I have too many books next to my bed.
  6. I am very handy with power tools. Habitat for Humanity considers me a skilled.
  7. I believe that latkes are made with grated potatoes. Shredded potatoes yield hash browns.
  8. While I could not keep up with their scientific conversation, I could otherwise hold my own with Leonard, Sheldon, Howard and Rajesh.
  9. I am a member of the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. Not four years, but a lifetime!
  10. I once danced in a paid (not to me) performance of the Twyla Tharp Dance Company
  11. I love what I do for a living.
Answers to Barb’s questions:
  1. What is one change you try to be in the world?
    To be a good father, husband and teacher.
  2. What is your favorite drink from Starbucks?
    Five shot Grande Americano with room (I add some skim milk).
  3. What is the best thing that has happened in your life during the past week?
    Both sons are home for Thanksgiving and they are filling us with joy!
  4. If you had $100 and were required to spend it on yourself, what would you buy?
    Tickets to a Cubs game, a hot dog and a frosty malt.
  5. What was your favorite childhood movie?
    The Great Race
  6. Where is a place you would like to travel that you have not yet had an opportunity to visit?
    England (Incl. Scotland, Wales and Cornwall)
  7. How many tabs do you have open in your browser right now?
  8. What is your favorite board game and why?
    Clue. Professor Plum, in the Dining Room with the Lead Pipe. Need I say more?
  9. What is your favorite website?
  10. What is something that makes you weird?
    To whom?
  11. What size shoe do you wear?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Are you coming to to JEDcamp? I hope to see you there!

I am honored and delighted to have been invited to facilitate a session at the New Jersey/New York JEDcamp seminar on December 18! I hope that you will join us if you are in the area! This evening is designed to give teachers an opportunity to learn about and play with a variety of apps and tech tools. The idea is to add to your repertoire and help you get comfortable with more tools!

The image below is a list of the options! Go to to register!

Come play!

Monday, November 11, 2013

(Not) The Last Pew Reply - Guest Posting

Joel Lurie Grishaver is my teacher, mentor and friend. He is also a titan in Modern Jewish Education, and he freed us from the tyranny of the Stickmen and that holidays could be happy without a semi-fictional character celebrating them for us. He published this today on the Torah Aura Bulletin Board - to which you should be a subscriber. While I think there is a bit more to be learned from the Pew report, I think Joel makes some very important and interesting points - particularly, #2, 4 and 5. What do you think?

The Last Pew Reply  by Joel Lurie Grishaver

MY FATHER (z”l) once designed what he considered to be the ultimate North American synagogue. It had all the usual stuff and only one pew in the back. This was exactly where most people wanted to sit. When it was full, the weight triggered a spring, that tripped a switch, which started a motor, which brought the pew to the front of the hall, exactly where the Rabbi wanted it. Then a new pew popped up in the back.


The Pew Study

Every ten years (more or less on the decade) the Jewish Federations of North America would run a National Jewish Population Study. After a disastrous experience with the 2010-2011 study, the Jewish Federations of North America said that they would never do another such study. This year, because of that void, the PEW Foundation did a national Jewish study of their own.

Virtually every Jew in North America with a keyboard and a place to be read has already written about the PEW study and its finding. I feel like this is the last PEW. If you want to read a good summary of the reported findings read Samuel Heilman. The most important critical article, one that PEW responded to, was written by J.J. Goldberg. You can google the back and forth. I believe that the most important piece was written by Dr. Ari Kelman.

Kelman argues that the most amazing finding of the PEW study and the previous NJPS finding is that while we have developed a very refined language about Jewish religious behavior, we have developed no categories to look at Jewish identity that is cultural and secular. The PEW study found that 70% of present North American Jews fall into this slot. I am basing my piece on Ari’s article.


The Pew Study and Jewish Education 

The majority of North American Jews who presently receive a Jewish education do so in a Congregational School, a.k.a. a Complementary School, a.k.a. a Secondary School, a.k.a. An Afternoon School, a.k.a. The Drop-Off School, a.k.a. the Religious/Religion School, and a.k.a. the Hebrew School. The very insecurity in naming this portion of Jewish education reflects our discomfort with it, hence, our need to constantly re-label it. The most derogatory of these names, The Drop-Off School indicates that all students get to Day Schools and Community schools without parental involvement.

Most Hebrew schools are run under synagogue auspices. Most Day Schools also have religious orientation. Secular orientations/cultural orientations could be found only in the old Talmud Torah system and may be reflected in their namesakes—and in a few/but not all communal day schools.
Most Jewish education is centered in the families we serve—who are synagogue members, rather than reaching towards those we do not—cultural and secular Jews.

We labor under the assumption that Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the golden key to the City of Jewish Life. We shorten and cut everything else and tend to leave prayerbook Hebrew intact. That assumption is good if we want to raise future synagogues Jews and maybe just that which, synagogues want to underwrite. But, if we are going to meet the desires of most Jews—it is just the wrong pattern.

The following is my retelling of a story that Roberta Louis Goodman tells (and we published from the North Shore Congregation Israel Bulletin). Roberta and I disagree over its meaning, but I have included her complete telling in the TAPBB and here use mine for my purposes.

 One day at CAMP@NSCI, her Religious school, a 3rd grader named Leo started playing some piano. Robert compliments his play. He says, “I play guitar, too.” His mother says, “I want him to learn to play some Jewish songs.” Roberta responds without hesitation, “I can make that happen.” She finds a skilled senior from the cantor’s choir to teach guitar (during Hebrew school). By the time the class happens the next week, by telling the story, the cantor telling the story, and the sending of an e-mail, she has ten students and a few more teachers. Now she is preparing to teach Jewish music to more instruments and adding a visual arts option.

When I tell the story I emphasize “Jewish music” and guitar—a secular/cultural option. When Roberta tells the story she labels the program “Prayer Jam” and sees it as another path to liturgy.


Pew and Looking Towards the Future of Jewish Education 

So what would it mean to focus on Jewish educational outreach on cultural rather than religious Jewish Identity? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Decouple synagogue membership from school registration and do not remove community or synagogue support. Think about the old secular Kibbutz Bar/t Mitzvah where a child was dropped in the Negev with a knife and told to find his/her way home. Link Religious and Secular silos.
  2. Add communicative Hebrew to the prayer centric Hebrew we tend to be teaching. I have heard it argued that we no longer have enough time to teach prayer-Hebrew. Two thoughts: (1) what is the problem with compounding failure if we are already bound to fail and can meet some needs in the process, and (2) perhaps with less God we can get some more time. We may be misunderstanding the calls for less as being time centric when in fact they may be religiophobic. Think Canada, think the old LA Hebrew High model, school credit for foreign language studies. Think of Hebrew School with a Hebrew Charter School option. Add a bit of communicative Hebrew to the prayer-Hebrew exclusive and our teachers, our students, and many of our families will be happier.
  3. Piaget teaches that students can’t understand the causality (or sequence) of history before seventh or eighth grade. That took history out of a lot of schools that used to have a 4th, 5th, 6th grade progression. Forget about cause and effect and eliminate any hope of sequence and put history back as a sequence of stories—narrative.
  4. The arts.
  5. Teach an apolitical Israel for a while. Think Humus not Hamas. Real Politick can come later. Israel is a foodies’ dream. It is music, art, cartography, major products, sports, democracy, dance, fiction, poetry, and a lot of great learning that doesn’t deal with chosen, settlements, and God. It is true that we can study Israel via siddur references, but we don’t need to. Desalinization and creative water technologies don’t have to link with terrorism or the territories. Israeli current events can be taught later. A-Zionist need not be Non-Zionist.
  6. It is hip to talk about Jewish Journeys. As schools we believe in many paths. It is time to consider a number of them that meet the needs of the majorities of North American Jews. A perfectly significant Jews life does not take prayer, kashrut and leaps-of-faith. Workman’s Circle was never Ethical Culture. 
I can recommend lots of Jewish options and still be in my synagogue every Saturday morning. I agree that recovery may take a higher power, but Jewish identity does not—unless we insist upon it. All we got to do is look certain results. Steven A. Cohen, Arnie Eisen, and Ari Kelman have been foreshadowing these insights for a long time. I may be in the last PEW, but we get to decide where we will let it wind up.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Give Thanks Now, Plan to Unplug in March!

Very quick post before Shabbat! The National Day of Unplugging is scheduled for March 7 - 8, 2014. I just signed the pledge at, and I urge you to as well. I did it this year and it was AWESOME!!!

When you go there, you can sign the pledge, learn a lot and download the "I Unplug To" sign. Then you can snap a photo like I did and upload it to the site.

No harping here. Just my wish for a Shabbt that is truly Shalom for you and yours. I wrote about it at before the fact, and after at

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

They Will Take us to the Next Level Ch. 3:
A Challenge to Change

And here we are with our third installment of reflections from HUC-JIR NYSOE students.
Yes Virginia, there is hope for Jewish Education!

- Ira

A Challenge to Change

By Arielle Branitsky

In reviewing blog posts from the calendar year thus far, it is clear to me that those who think about Jewish education are thinking about change. There have been discussions about informal versus formal education, religious school versus camp, and new models of Jewish education involving more individualized approaches to achieving goals. There is discussion of multiple intelligences, and the need to offer something compelling.

To me, all of this can be summarized as "what we are doing is not working" and "we need to regroup." Neither of these ideas is new or surprising, but they continue to reinforce the mindset that the system, as it currently exists, is not achieving its goals. Our challenge as a community of educators is to begin transitioning from "needing to regroup" to actually regrouping. Whether we apply ideas discussed previously or think of entirely new ones, we need to experiment with change.

Change is scary. It's difficult. In order for change to occur in these environments, not only do we need to change, but we need to convince others to change as well. We need to inspire our colleagues, the families we serve, and the leaders we partner with to join us in creating this change. Even if all of these individuals agree that change is necessary, inspiring them to join us in creating that change will be an uphill battle. There will be resistance. But despite this, as leaders, it is our job to manage this change and the resistance it might engender.

Jewish education takes place in many different environments. While the Day School model can offer the broadest and most in-depth offering of topical content, other models must spend more time deciding what to teach. I do not think this has to be the case. All Jewish education can and should include opportunities to learn Hebrew, Torah, customs and rituals, Jewish history, and ethics. In the schools that already do this, the question becomes: is it working? Are student actually learning the material or are they merely skimming the surface of it as a means to an end?

There are many educators who are implementing new models of Jewish education in their educational settings. There are religious schools trying Shabbat models and offering alternative options to students, including monthly trips to camp. There are schools shifting their curriculum to an experiential format, and programs are being created to allow the learner to design their own course of learning. However, there are also many who are being held back from trying out new ideas by fear. Fear of the many hours, months, or even years that it might take to change the culture of their institution. Fear of the nay-sayers in their communities and fear that what they achieve will not be any better than what currently exists.

I understand that often big ideas exist in a world of "easier said than done," but as we move through 5774, I offer this challenge to my colleagues: stomp out these fears. If you believe that what you are currently doing is not working, create something new and implement it. Test out your new and improved ideas for Jewish education. The more we test, the more support we can offer for the change we want to see. The sooner we learn what works in our changed models, the sooner we can improve them and get closer to a system that works.

My hope for this year is to learn about the new and innovative things that educators are doing. I hope that when I use the word "unique," I use it confidently, assured that a program truly is one of a kind. I want to know that the field of talented people I am joining is not just one where people talk about their challenges but rather, one where people work towards change and challenge me to join them in making Jewish Education work. 

Arielle Branitsky is in her final year of the Joint Masters in Jewish Education and Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR's New York campus. Arielle grew up in Toronto, Ontario, where she attended Jewish Day School, and graduated from York University with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Communications Studies. Prior to her studies at HUC-JIR, she worked for Hillel at the University at Albany, and was the Ontario Region Director for USD/Hagshama. Arielle is also a fellow in the MA Concentration through the iCenter, and is thinking a lot about Jewish camp and leadership development.

Monday, October 28, 2013

They Will Take us to the Next Level
Ch. 2: Media Portrayals of Disabilities.

Welcome back to a series of posts by Education students HUC-JIR's New York School of Education. I asked the director, Evie Rotstein to provide some context for this next piece:
This is from an assignment in a course on Diverse Learners taught by Rabbi Richie Address; which is the very first course we are offering around this topic.

Choose a text, film, book, play, TV episode that deals with issues related to diversity, inclusion, or disability, What is the dynamic involved? How do you related to it as a rabbi, educator or cantor?
Please continue to comment! The response to Ch. 1 was lovely!

- Ira

Media Portrayal of Disabilities 

Brian Nelson

"About 20 percent of people have disabilities, but only about 1 percent of speaking parts in television portray disability." - RJ Mitte

Walter “Flynn” White Jr., one of the main characters in the television show Breaking Bad, has Cerebral Palsy. From the very outset of the show, Walt Jr. is portrayed as a fairly typical teenager, although one of the earliest episodes depicts him being relentlessly teased while shopping because he has difficulty putting his own pants on in the dressing room. Walt Jr. is clearly upset by the harassment, and tries to ignore it. In that particular scene, Walt’s mother tries to discourage him from responding to the harassment, a suggestion he ignores.

At other various times throughout the run of the show Walt Jr. confronts the limitations of his disability as he lives a typical teenage life. One striking example of this is when he starts learning to drive a car. Walt Jr. struggles to learn the mechanics of driving without the full use of his legs. He eventually masters the task, eventually driving a Mustang.

Ultimately, Walt Jr.’s disability is not highlighted as a major obstacle in the narrative of this television show. Rather, Walt’s disability is portrayed as simply a part of his life, and his family’s life. What’s more, the actor selected to play Walt Jr. is an actor with Cerebral Palsy. According to an interview with RJ Mitte, he was in the right place at the right time to be cast in the role and he considers it as an incredible opportunity to advocate for people with disabilities.[1]

The situations portrayed in Breaking Bad bring to mind the commandment “Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind” because situations on this show demonstrate ways in which a family may remove potential stumbling blocks, instead. In our positions as Jewish Educators it is our responsibility to treat our students with disabilities in a similar way. We must support those in need of help, and do all we can to help them have a typical learning experience.

Brian Nelson is a rabbinic/education student in the New York School of Education with residency on the Cincinnati campus. Brian grew in Minnetonka, Minnesota and attended college at the University of Minnesota where he studied History and Political Science. During and after college Brian worked in the Twin Cities Jewish community at Temple Israel, Bet Shalom, and Mount Zion in a variety of capacities, and spent numerous summers at Temple Israel's summer camp, Camp TEKO, before attending HUC-JIR. This year he is working as an Education Intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

They Will Take us to the Next Level
Ch. 1: Getting to Know Our Students - Really.

I received an interesting e-mail this morning from my friend, colleague and teacher, Evie Rotstein. Evie is the Director of the New York School of Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious in New York. She wanted to invite her students to participate in a national conversation around Jewish education. So she asked a few of the professors to assign reflection papers and asked me to post a few of them here. I will try to post a few each week and we will also post the link to JEDLAB on Facebook and to #jedlab and #jed21 on Twitter. PLEASE COMMENT!! These are some of the people who will be figuring out what's next and what;s vital about Jewish living and Learning in the coming decades. Please join in their education, and more importantly let them see how they are adding to ours.

Remember, from our students we learn most of all!

Our first posting is from Sarah Marion.


Getting to Know Our Students - Really.

By Sarah Marion

Last week, I prepared and delivered a presentation for my Human Development class on systems theory and its role in educational contexts. I wanted to engage the class in a concrete discussion regarding the various systems our learners belong to, and the ways these systems might manifest in the classroom environment. 

I decided to facilitate an activity in which my classmates would receive a series of learner “profiles” and using the profiles, be asked to consider (a) which system(s) their learners belonged to, (b) how such systems might manifest in the religious school environment, and (c) the ways in which we might respond or react to such manifestations. For example, if student x’s family system includes a live-in grandparent, student x might connect especially well to lessons and values on honoring/caring for the elderly, and thus, a teacher might ask student x to deliver a presentation on that same topic.

In preparing for this presentation, my initial intention was to re-construct “real life” profiles of students I have encountered over the years as a religious school teacher in order to make the activity as realistic and relevant as possible. I wanted my profiles to be comprehensive, and thus include information such as family origin, current family characteristics and dynamics, student and family interests and activities, and more. 

But as I thought of different students from various religious school classes I have taught, I realized how little I actually knew about my learners. I couldn’t fill in all of this information, because I had never learned it. I had known who my students were inside the classroom, but I realized I had little or no idea who they were outside the classroom. Accordingly, I ended up constructing “fictional” profiles for my presentation. For example:
Ryan, who is in 8th grade, was adopted from Russia when he was three. He lives with his two moms, and his younger sister, Lucy, who was adopted from South Korea. Recently, Lucy was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Ryan enjoys swimming, and competes on the swim team at the JCC. Ryan’s mom, Kathy, runs a small after school day-care program in their house, and Ryan sometimes helps out with his mom’s business. Ryan’s other mom, Nancy, was raised Protestant and is involved in both her synagogue and church communities.
While writing these fictional profiles accomplished my goals for the presentation, I began contemplating the larger issue of how and why I didn’t fully know the systemic attributes of my students. I wondered if my experience was unique – and realized it probably wasn’t. I wondered - do part-time religious school teachers truly have the time and resources to get to know their students in the fullest sense? What is missed – and what are the consequences - when teachers are not aware of the various systems their learners belong to? 

Perhaps we miss opportunities to better engage and integrate our students into the learning process, perhaps we miss opportunities to connect the material to our students’ lives, perhaps we miss opportunities to inspire students to take ownership of their own learning, perhaps we make incorrect assumptions and hypotheses about who our students are. (For example, the teacher who is aware of student x’s family system will not miss the opportunity to integrate and connect this student’s experience of living with an aging grandparent into a class lesson on honoring the elderly). Therefore, the critical question becomes: how can we, as Jewish leaders and professional educators, inspire and assist our teachers in becoming fully aware of all the systems that impact our learners when they enter our classrooms?

As community-based and value-driven structures and institutions, synagogues are perhaps better equipped for and have more investment in promoting a holistic understanding of learners, in comparison to secular schools. I have been pondering some concrete, realistic ways in which synagogues and Jewish leaders can help religious school teachers become aware of the various systems their students belong to, in order to better understand their learners’ diverse needs and identities.

One idea I have stems from an Education Team meeting I attended a few years ago while working as a full-time youth educator at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. At this meeting, the team discussed the idea of a synagogue-based “Jewish Journey Project” in order to better “track” our students and connect them to the synagogue in meaningful ways. 

I’m not sure if this project ever fully came to fruition (as I left for rabbinical school when the project was in its first stages) but I remember the basic premise. Each student who entered the religious school would receive a Jewish journey advisor who would interview the student and his or her family in order to gather as much information about the student as possible. Interview questions would include family history, demographics, student interests and aspirations, past and current student and family involvement in temple life, etc. This information would then be entered into a database accessible to clergy, synagogue professionals, and other advisors. 

Student profiles would be updated regularly as students matured and became more or less involved in synagogue or other activities, as family dynamics shifted and changed, etc. Ideally, students would meet with their advisor every year to ensure that database information is current and up to date. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, synagogue professionals (i.e. clergy, education director) would share pertinent and relevant database information with religious school teachers.

Of course, this model is quite aspirational and might have some problems in terms of confidentiality. But it prompts us to consider how synagogues can best embody “whole person” learning communities, in which students and teachers are compelled to consider, integrate, connect, and explore the various facets of life that affect learning.

Sarah Marion is a rabbinic/education student at HUC-JIR's New York campus. She grew up in Westchester, NY and graduated from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women's and Gender Studies. Prior to entering rabbinical school Sarah worked as a  youth educator in Boston, and has spent several summers at the URJ's Eisner and Crane Lake Camps, as a counselor and unit head. She is currently interning at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY.