Tag Archives: Jewish education

Building the Embracing Jewish Community for Tomorrow (and Now)

Earlier this month, a dozen of the leading educational directors from synagogues across Broward County, FL joined in this year’s opening meeting of their network, housed and staffed at Orloff Central Agency for Jewish Education. Joining with us was a representative of Jewish Federation of Broward County, who challenged the group with the following: What is the best way for the community to invest its money to build the reach of synagogues’ educational programs?

It’s a huge enough question, yet it only touches on part of the challenge that we, as a community face. For many in our Jewish community, the question isn’t “where in the Jewish community should I connect?” but “how does connecting with a Jewish community add value to my, and my family’s life?” This question is not unlike the questions raised by the best-selling author, Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, bemoaning the decline of communities and their attraction. We can curse the darkness, blaming this decline on generational factors, synagogue and organizational dues, the online world, financial considerations and more. But, as one of our insightful educators pointed out, we have also failed to recognize that the nature of what a community is (or should be) has changed drastically.

Based on recent writings and research that I’ve perused, I would like to humbly suggest that we, who are invested in Jewish communities, consider the following as part of a plan:

Stop and listen to the folks that you would like to engage. Do it before jumping into action with marketing and outreach. Can they identify something missing from their lives? What are they asking for that we aren’t providing? What are the causes that do engage them? What are the things they will leave their digital lives for? Are you noticing generational differences in these answers? Once you get answers, identify how you can change your community in ways that meet the needs of today and tomorrow.

Welcome everybody. We’ve opened the doors to community, but we need to continually open the doors even wider. Are you sure that your organization doesn’t put obstacles or fail to meet the needs of the broadest possible number of participants? Can everyone find programs and a chevra (smaller, more intimate community) within your community: Singles, childless adults, empty nesters, LGBTQ members, Jews of color, non-Jewish members of families in which there is a committed Jew? You don’t need to be everything to everyone, but we do need to work together as a community to identify where everyone has a place and offer opportunities to those who may not find their place in our own chevra.

Put membership on the back burner. I still remember with astonishment the synagogue welcoming committee that came to my door in one community and handed me membership forms and information about cemetery plots (!) before asking us whether we needed anything in our new home. Create value and relationships first. Do the ask much later.

Bring resources, people and organizations together. The competition is not between one synagogue or Jewish organization and another. The competition is between Jewish organizations and opting out entirely. Recruiting? Join forces with other synagogues and organizations. The people opting out aren’t interested in the subtle differences between one brand and another. They want to know why they should be engaged at all. Let’s band together and show them what a Jewish community can do for them and for their world.

Community building is not on its face the goal of a Jewish educational organization, but in reality it is what we do. Yes, we offer an incredible variety of educational programs, opportunities to grow and work with other Jewish professionals to expand access to learning in Broward County, but what we really do is make sure there is a place for every learner in our community. For those that are curious about the basic, for those that are looking for something more advanced, for teens who aren’t sure what they are looking for – we are offering them a chance and a place to learn and connect. We are offering them a chance at community.

Let’s band together and show what a Jewish community can do for all Jewish people and for their world.

The Quite Necessary Death of “Kiruv”

Back when I was a young Jewish communal professional, I would often ask others in my overall field what their career track was. Some answers were predictable:  rabbi, teacher, principal, social worker, Federation professional, JCC professional, youth worker. But in those days, a whole new career track was beginning to rise in Orthodox communities: “kiruv work“.  That work, which sometimes meant being paid by mainstream Orthodox organizations to encourage more people to adopt Orthodox Judaism, also became a job title for those working in young, new organizations. Some of these were youth organizations, some were yeshivot, some were adult learning programs, and there were even a few day schools that considered this to be their primary focus.

Unfortunately, what began as a well-intentioned set of attempts to bring individuals to a life that would be lived in accordance with Orthodox understandings of Torah, led to abuse. Many of these kiruv organizations were deliberately vague in stating their goals. Some insisted that their success stories not only had to become better and more observant Jews, but that they would have to adhere to a subset of practices and beliefs that was unique to a particular minority group within the Orthodox community. Intellectual dishonesty became commonplace, and some of my colleagues even passed along correspondence showing that they were encouraged to misstate facts if it was necessary in order to bring an individual into Orthodoxy. More recently, an individual involved in this type of work stated publicly that he had “made thousands of people religious”, as though one person could “make” another person accept certain beliefs.

Among the other actions I’ve witnessed or heard of are denigration of other groups within Judaism, and even within the relatively small Orthodox community. Modern Orthodox Judaism often receives the scorn of “kiruv professionals”. Some kiruv groups actively discourage adherents from secular education or learning. Other discourage support for the state of Israel. And most seem to encourage followers to disrespect the Reform or Conservative Judaism that, for many of them was what educated them to a point where they would engage with a kiruv organization to begin with.

In short, kiruv work has moved from what could have been a legitimate path to engage and educate Jews, and to bring them closer to the Jewish community, to become part of a sales force designed to sell a particular approach to Judaism and to distance followers from the vast majority of the Jewish community. This needs to end for the sake of k’lal Yisrael, the greater good of the Jewish people.

The job of bringing people closer to Torah wouldn’t end with the end of the kiruv movement. After all, the Mishnah in Avot says that we are to “be like the followers of Aaron: loving peace, actively pursuing peace, loving humanity and bringing them closer to Torah”.  Notice that the love of peace and of humanity is what is linked to kiruv, bringing people to Torah, not the disparaging of others and of others’ approaches.  And it is the entire Jewish people that is responsible for helping to bring others closer to Torah.

The best vehicle for this is Jewish education. And the best Jewish education adheres to these principles:

  1. The teacher, be it a rabbi, youth worker, classroom teacher, or friend, is a guide to the world of Judaism, not a salesperson. Every individual has the right and obligation to choose his/her path.
  2. Truth is found in many places and some truths may very well contradict others. Reconciling the Genesis story with scientific findings isn’t a new challenge. Even Rashi wrestled with the question of a 7 day creation. Judaism can stop taking away my dinosaurs and get a grip on a world that has complexity and contradictions.
  3. Television, social media, rock and roll and hip-hop music and movies are, unquestionably, tempting distractions. And most of the prophets and ancient rabbis were engaged with the social and communal life of their times. So, don’t believe anyone who says that you must have an all-or-nothing relationship with the dominant culture and its expressions.
  4. Real Jewish education doesn’t candy-coat. There are real challenges that confronted the rabbis of the Talmud and post-Talmudic era and that confront us. They were as troubled as we are by the Torah law that commanded an act of genocide [against Amalekites], which is why they found ways to effectively disable that mitzva. They couldn’t fathom a religion that put people to death for so many crimes, so they effectively disabled the death penalty. Real Jewish education challenges us to deal with the Jewish texts and practices that drive us crazy, and to figure out what to do with the challenges.
  5. One size doesn’t fit all in Jewish education and in Jewish life. Indeed it is the diversity of Jewish beliefs and practices that have sustained us. And sometimes what was viewed as heretical in one generation became mainstream in another. Example: in most Jewish communities today, significant values of the Hellenists of ancient time were adopted by Jews and by Judaism (minus the idols). So, if you can’t teach one set of beliefs without dissing another, you’re in the wrong game.
  6. Intellectual honesty requires that we apply the same critical thinking to our Judaism that we apply to other areas of knowledge. If we accept the “miracles” of our tradition, then we have to admit to the possibility of “miracles” in that of others’. If carbon dating is good for science class, then it has to be good for the Torah class. And so on.

There are probably a good many other principles that should guide our practice of Jewish education today. I hope that those who comment on this post will add theirs.

And, as the Mishnah suggests, may our Jewish education work always be based on peace and on loving others.



Educating the Post-Denominational Post-Ashkenazi/Sephardi Jew

According to a number of recent population studies of American Jewish cities, the fastest growing segment of the our Jewish community is not Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative. The largest increase is “just Jewish”. While some view this with trepidation, others, myself included, see this as a positive thing for the Jewish people. In either case, it is a reality that the Jewish community needs to address.

Distinctions like denominational movements or the differences among sub-communities, such as Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Edot HaMizrach, have always existed among the Jewish people. In biblical times, the distinctions were often based on identification with the tribes that made up the people Israel. Those differences sometimes resulted in separate governments, competing holy sites and even outright civil wars. In the early post-biblical era, there was disagreement on how Judaism needed to organize itself, with Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and many smaller groups each believing that it should lead the Jewish people into the future. Even when the Pharisees captured public opinion, the approaches of HIllel and Shammai resulted in groupings with distinctive practices.

With the dispersion of Israelites into lands across Europe, Asia and Africa, each land had its own communal norms, which became grouped as Ashkenazi, Sephardi or Edot HaMizrach (eastern communities). Later, we saw among European Jewry the gap caused by the birth of the Hasidic movement, which was met by a response of people who called themselves mitnagdim, opponents. The categorization resulted in excommunications at one point in history. In my Chicago childhood, I remember vividly hearing of one congregation in which the question of following Hasidic or non-Hasidic customs on a Pesach (Passover) night resulted in an actual fistfight in one congregation.

Modern times saw the rise of denominations — Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox — based on theology. Another set of distinctions, prominent in the early 20th century, was the conflict between Zionist and anti-Zionist forces.

What the “just Jewish” respondants to population studies are saying is: the categories of Jews that have served to give individuals a sense of group identity and affliliation within our Jewish communities no longer works. There are a number of forces that have led to this situation:

  • The religious movements are increasingly diverse. There is less and less uniformity of beliefs and practices among congregations even within an individual movement. Want a Reform temple where most people wear kippot and tallitot, and in which kashrut is observed? Looking for an Orthodox congregation in which the Artscroll prayer book is used, men and women sit separately, and both men and women may read Torah?  I can find those communities for you.
  • Israel in general, and the Israeli Army in particular, has brought about a merger of backgrounds. Unlike the first generation of Israelis, the young generation socializes and marries across different countries of origin, bringing all the different customs (and foods) to the table. The army even distributes a siddur (prayer book) that is an amalgam of the texts of different Jewish communities.
  • Communications today, including the internet and social media, have given Jews access to knowledge of each others’ practices. The result, in a democratic, individualistic society, is that each Jew feels empowered to reach beyond his/her subgroup to build a Judaism that meets his/her needs.
  • Jews do not identify as much with their earlier countries and communities of origin. America’s and Israel’s Jews are more American or Israeli than they are Eastern European or North African or Yemenite. So the Ashkenazi / Sephardi / Edot HaMizrach designations have faded somewhat.
  • Growing numbers of people have joined the Jewish people as naturalized Jews (some prefer the term “converts”). To them, the distinctions that are based on where one’s ancestors originated are irrelevant.

Given all of the above, we need to educate the new generation of young Jews for a different type of future, one in which the groupings of the past will matter far less, and quite possibly one in which different groupings may emerge. Some thoughts:

  1. Educate towards k’lal Yisrael, the inclusive people Israel. Greater emphasis should be on the commonalities among the groupings, rather than the distinctions.
  2. Encourage flexibility among approaches. Back in the day, you were required to take off your kippah when entering a Reform temple. Thankfully, those days are long over (see above about the flexibility within movements). We also need to move away from insisting on people following each and every local custom that originated in the “old country”, and work towards more of a consensus model of Jewish practice.
  3. Teach a Judaism that lowers barriers to participation and inclusion.
  4. Give our learners, of all ages, the problem solving, community building and critical thinking skills needed to shape a Jewish world that will look markedly different than ours. And recognize that they may, in the process of shaping that Jewish world, end up creating new distinctions and subgroups of Jews, but based on contemporary considerations, rather than on historical ones.

What are your thoughts?  Would love to hear ideas from colleagues as well as from the overall Jewish community.

Did You Miss The Point of the Women’s Tefillin Exercise?

A few weeks back, traditional Jews across social media had a field day responding to a news story that Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Ramat Gan, Israel, had a group of students who designed tefillin for women http://www.jpost.com/landedpages/printarticle.aspx?id=393300. The project was not intended to deliberately tamper with a mitzva, a religious requirement, but was in a response to a challenge to reengineer something ancient. And the students did just that.

In truth, there was a sensitivity expressed by the students involved towards feminism as well as an embedded critique as to how traditional Judaism has viewed women. The mistake made by those who criticized the project was misunderstanding education today.

This project falls in the wonderful area between a few major ideas in education: Constructivist Education, a theory that we construct knowledge and imbue it with meaning based on our experiences; Co-Creating, in which students and teachers are partners in creating the curriculum and learning activities and the Maker Movement, in which learning takes place through the activity of creating “stuff”.

And those theories and practices were exactly what the students at Shenkar were asked to do: Create meaning-based knowledge, co-create a learning plan and make something that demonstrates learning. And they did just that.

The project was successful educationally. Students encountered the Jewish past and present and imagined what a Jewish future might be like. In so doing, they encountered the opposition of a conservative approach to religious life that suggests that tomorrow’s Judaism will look just like today’s. Or that the future needs to be limited by the past. The students clearly challenged those assumptions.

What about us, as Jewish parents and educators? Are we challenging our children and students to imagine what tomorrow’s Judaism and Jewish community might look like. Gidi Grinstein, in his outstanding book, Flexigidity, suggests that one thing we know about the future is that Jews will be lighting Shabbat candles in it. But, what he doesn’t address is the fact that even Shabbat candles have changed over the years. In my childhood, it was mostly the women of the house who lit the candles. That looks different today when same-sex couples light candles, or when bachelors light candles, or when young girls are encouraged by some groups to light candles. So even within the sameness of a mitzva, the mitzva changes.

The same ideas that the students at Shenkar reached need to be expressed in today’s Jewish education: we need to not only challenge students to co-create and to build meaning in general science and math. We need to challenge them to create the Judaism and the Jewish community in which they will live in the future.

Our curriculum, whether in day schools, synagogues, summer camps, youth organizations or even at home, must include tools of building meaning (as well as building “stuff”). I am extremely humble as a Jewish educator: I know that I am educating kids towards a world and a Jewish community that may look little like today’s. And that means that I need to teach them tools, processes, creativity, empathy,and critical thinking even more than I teach content matter.

What will YOU do to challenge your students and children to build new Jewish knowledge for the future?

Jewish Life Coaches for Jewish Schools

Envisioning a Rav/Jewish Life Coach for Jewish Day Schools

Jewish day schools should create Jewish Life Coach positions, and, in many cases, incorporate Rav Bet Sefer and Jewish Life Coach positions.

A number of streams led to this proposal:

  • In the 19th century, the Musar movement within Judaism was founded. It emphasized personal growth of the Jewish soul
  • As part of the Musar movement, many yeshivot created positions of mashgiach ruchani, rabbis whose role was to serve as spiritual life guides for students
  • In the late 20th century a number of American day schools created positions of rav bet sefer, which often included serving as the official rabbi of the school, as well as student advisor or counselor, along with curriculum and teaching responsibilities
  • In the late 20th century, day schools became more than simply schools. Schools increasingly saw education of the whole family as part of its mission. Education was no longer confined to the classroom as day schools initiated experiential programming, social events and other approaches
  • Whole person learning and social and emotional learning gained importance to the point of being almost universally recognized purviews of education today
  • The Emanuel school in suburban Syndey, Australia created the position of Jewish life coach
  • As life coaching became more popular, a number of coaches and rabbis began to blend Jewish values and insights with the practices of coaching

Last week, a conversation on Twitter led to a more serious discussion of what the practice of Jewish Life Coaching (which could overlap with the Rav Bet Sefer role in many cases, but need not be) in a Jewish day school would look like.

These first thoughts are meant to be the beginning of a discussion among those involved in Jewish day schools to flesh this out.

A Jewish Life Coach in a day school would feature the following components (with gratitude to Deborah Grayson Riegel for her valuable ideas):

  • Working with individual students, groups of students and families in mapping out their Jewish life journeys, in a modern iteration of the mashgiach ruchani
  • Helping students and families to make informed Jewish life choices, with an emphasis on individual Jewish choices, rather than an orientation towards a specific set of authoritative Jewish practices or approaches
  • Using approaches such as that of the Positive Psychology movement to strengthen students and  families – an approach that builds on the existing strengths of students and families, rather than on a medical model that identifies illness or dysfunction
  • Coaching students and families in developing lives of meaning built on Jewish spirituality
  • Educating students, faculty and families in how to use Jewish wisdom, texts and insights in approaching their complex lives and challenges
  • Interfacing and leading the faculty in orienting learning towards growth of each child’s neshama, so that s/he is better positioned for lives in which s/he makes a difference in the community and the world
  • Coaching of faculty in developing their personal and professional lives, and could be a corollary to career coaching [distinct from coaching of teachers in their teaching practice, which is already part of many schools]
  • Coaching of school leadership to become more effective as Jewish leaders

Some rationale for the use of coaching in day school education (and I am grateful for the contributions of Maxine Chopard of the Emanuel School:

  • Coaching is a natural fit for the type of whole person learning that is part of Jewish day school education
  • A coaching approach, unlike many counseling approaches, supports students’ growing autonomy, recognizing their abilities
  • Because Jewish day schools run on a Jewish life platform, a coach is able to draw from the strings of students’ rich cultural/religious tapestry and use them to help students weave their paths
  • Coaching in a Jewish day school would give the opportunity to use metaphors and language from Jewish religious and cultural traditions and texts in helping students and families in responding to challenges and in shaping their life journeys
  • Coaching can be a powerful tool in the work of social and emotional learning and growth that is an important part of (Jewish) education

This is the beginning of a conversation about a coaching model for Jewish day schools. Please join the conversation by leaving comments here.

Jewish Life Coaching: The Future of Jewish Education

The future of Jewish education IS Jewish Life Coaching.

Now the explanation. In my work, Jewish Life Coaching is helping folks to reach goals that they want to reach in their lives, using Jewish frames of reference.

For example, one person I worked with wanted to overcome perfectionism in personal and professional areas. In a very short term coaching situation, we used the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple compound ruins, as a visual representation of something that is imperfect, yet special and holy. If a destroyed wall can be holy, then an imperfect project (or lesson plan or layer cake) can also be just fine. We worked on visualizing the Kotel whenever there was an incomplete or imperfect situation as a means of moving to a better way of seeing things.

Another way of using a Jewish frame of reference in life coaching is the parent who is looking to improve communications with children. Making Friday night into family dinner night, and framing it as a Shabbat experience, provides the opportunity to bring busy family members to the table and to have at least one good family conversation during people’s busy lives. How a family chooses to do Shabbat dinner – whether as a home cooked traditional meal or around a table at a pizza place – is not the point. The idea is to use Jewish language and concepts to help people reach real life goals.

Oh, and this isn’t just about adults or families. I learned about what one Jewish education professional, great guy named Andrew Paull, was doing at Larchmont Temple (NY). He’s taking small groups of teens out for coffee and helping to guide them on their Jewish life journeys. This model is catching on, and is a totally different way of looking at how we educate teens, using coaching as a model.

What makes coaching different than how Jewish education has worked until now?

  • First of all, Jewish education has generally had educational goals that were set by synagogues or schools. It could be Hebrew fluency, prayer literacy, commitment to Israel and the like. Coaching takes a different approach. It begins with the proposal that we all have goals that we want to reach in life. And, in my model, rather than “Jewish” being the desired outcome, it becomes a means to an end.
  • Jewish education has tried to define the “ideal Jew”. In a coaching approach, it is the individual, family or small group that defines the end goal and the Jewish path that helps to get one there.
  • A Jewish Life Coaching approach is remarkably non-judgmental. It plays to the strength of the person, family or group, and to their existing commitment, rather than pointing out the deficits that need to be filled.
  • In my model, the learner – whether an individual or a family – does not even have to be Jewish, making this approach great for interfaith families. All that is needed is a commitment to working towards goals, and an agreement to value Jewish perspectives and language in the achievement of those goals.

I’m already using this model in working with individuals. This summer, I will also use elements of Jewish Life Coaching in working with teens. And I’m waiting for the first congregation or school to bring me in to experiment with using Jewish Life Coaching as a better way of providing family education, whether in person or via Skype.

There’s a standing offer from me for a free session of Jewish Life Coaching, to see if it would work for you as an individual. I’m ready to expand the offer to any family or group that would like to try it on for size.

Regardless of whether you avail yourself of my offer, I am assuring you that coaching approaches are the future of Jewish learning. And, in my opinion, Jewish Life Coaching is a great strategy towards building the Jewish connectedness, which I believe is the goal of all Jewish education today.


Jewish Connectivity: The Goal of Jewish Learning Today

Over the past few weeks, this blog has promoted the idea that connectedness must replace membership or affiliation as a measure of success in all that the Jewish community does. Today’s connectedness to all things Jewish cannot be measured in dues payments to organizations. Today’s realities, as well as those of the future, are more exciting, complex and challenging.

If connectedness is the goal towards which we strive as a community, then all Jewish learning must be directed towards giving learners the capacity and the motivation to be connected. Hence, this venture’s name: Jewish Connectivity.

Back in the day, all Jewish learning was geared to increasing the content to be learned. One could master Tanach, the Bible. Or the Talmud. Or Hebrew literature. Or Jewish history. You get the idea. Then along came the Information Age. We were still going to master the content. But now we would be helped by written anthologies and eventually computer software and websites that would put all the content into convenient places, cross referenced and hyperlinked.

Something interesting happened in the information age, though. As all this great content became easily accessible, more and more content kept appearing. And with that, the realization that nobody was going to be able to be the kol bo, the person who could master everything. What to do?

The answer was a simple one: enlist partners. The new wisdom became: since you can’t know everything, even with what’s out there using technology, stop trying to know everything. Instead, know more people. And learn to fill in the blanks using your own knowledge, technology, and your network of people. And let the network of people you know fill in the blank spaces.

In practical terms, I know a lot about Talmud and how to apply texts to real life dilemmas. But I am history-challenged. If I need the context that tells me why a certain ancient rabbi ruled on an issue in his way, I can crowdsource it. Someone in my network will know the historical context that might tell me that this particular rabbi lived in a place of persecution and had to be cautious in his rulings.

And what about our students? Well, they, too, will never master all the content that they need to lead exceptional Jewish lives, especially with challenges of time, educational budgets and such. But, what they can master, are the skills and motivation that will link them to all Jewish knowledge and Jewish wisdom.

And that, in my humble opinion, is the goal of Jewish learning today, for all ages: to building the connectivity, the capacity that will empower Jews to connect to other Jews, to Jewish families, to Jewish community and to Jewish wisdom and knowledge.

In the coming weeks, more on how we might define Jewish connection. And more about what the building blocks of the connectivity might be.