|March 03, 2014||Educational Insight from One of Our Own: Carolyn Gerecht||no comments|
|December 30, 2013||Slinging Mud from the Ivory Tower: the Academic Boycott of Israel||2 comments|
|November 11, 2013||There is a Skew to Pew - Told You!||no comments|
|October 25, 2013||A Very Few Words About Pew||no comments|
|October 16, 2013||And Now for Some Good News about Jewish Identity: Early Childhood Education Improvement||no comments|
|October 04, 2013||Mastering Jewish Communal Service: Pittsburgh's Professional Development Infusion for its Jewish ...||no comments|
|September 25, 2013||The Consecration Ceremony: A Sweet and Sacred Jewish Educational Moment||no comments|
|September 03, 2013||Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Parents and Their Watchful Kids during the High Holidays||no comments|
|August 16, 2013||Do It Wrong, Takes Twice as Long: Congregational Education “Quick Fixes”||no comments|
|July 11, 2013||Safety at Camp: Balancing the Risk with the Reward||no comments|
The boycotts are part of a larger political protest movement known as BDS, which stands for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, that is intended to put pressure on Israel regarding its treatment of Palestinians by convincing universities, religious and other associations, and corporations to cease business and relationships with any Israel-based entity. BDS has had some impact on Israeli relationships in Europe but has historically gotten little traction until now in the USA. These few academic actions endorse boycotting any interaction with Israeli universities although not individual Israeli academicians. So why am I highlighting this recent event here on a blog about Jewish education? Because Israel is part and parcel of Jewish education, and how our people, especially our emerging adults on campuses, observe such efforts impacts their own sense of Jewish identity.
Let me say that I understand the motivations behind boycotts/divestment/sanctions in general. They are a powerful tool to right wrongs. Consider the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950's or the divestment movement from Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s or the recent international sanctions against Iran. These were critical to making real change for the social good of all. However, I cannot see the same logic in the actions against Israel. Those efforts were against singular national wrongs; Israel is surrounded by an entire region of countries whose governments mistreat their own citizens far worse than Israel does the Palestinians. Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the list goes on. All of them regularly and lethally persecute their own people over land, beliefs, ethnicity, even gender. I understand that Israel is not completely innocent and that the treatment of the Palestinians has been an ongoing issue for over two generations. But compared to the human rights records of its neighbors, it seems mighty hypocritical to pick Israel to boycott when there is no BDS movement for the other middle east nations. It especially seems hypocritical to me when an academic organization takes a measure like this boycott without a logical basis. The proof of that hypocrisy came right from the president of the ASA, Dr. Curtis Marez. When an interviewer pointed out the discrepancy in human rights records in the middle east, Dr. Marez "did not dispute that many nations, including many of Israel’s neighbors, are generally judged to have human rights records that are worse than Israel’s, or comparable, but he said, “one has to start somewhere."
As an academic in my own right, I would never accept that kind of half-assed validation in an academic dialogue for the simple reason that it lack reasoning which is a hallmark of university-level thinking. The defender of this vote say that the association was exercising its academic freedom. I, and many others, counter that academic freedom is based on intellectual fairness and logical processing of even emotional issues. The ASA and the others who have taken similar votes cannot argue with a straight face that their actions to boycott Israel are based in reason and logic if they have not taken similar action against academic institutions of other nations as well. I am glad to note that this hypocrisy was not ignored by some of our leading institutions; four universities withdrew their membership in the ASA and fifty five others lodged strong disagreement with the vote. That message on the campuses of this country is an important one. It not only ensures that academic freedom is not used as an large-scale excuse for political agendas, but it tells American Jewish students that Israel, while not perfect, is a kindred nation they can be proud of as one that takes human rights seriously.
Basically, if I am reading him right, Dr. Sasson is pointing out that Pew's distinction between "Jewish by religion" and "Jewish with no religion" without factoring in the known reality of the Jewish intermarried population gives the impression that the number of Jews with no religion is increasing which suggest a spiritual or religious dissatisfaction. However, his analysis of the raw data seems to indicate that the adult children of intermarrieds are in fact identifying as Jewish but not necessarily by religion but rather by culture and ethnicity. Therefore Jews are not dropping away from religion as much as a specific and significant sub-group is actually expressing its identity by different definitions of itself. This may seem like a small distinction to some but it a)ripples out in the statistical analysis of the rest of the study and b) raises a flag that our community is no longer going to be able to retain this growing segment along the lines of "outreach" we have been following before and that it will need new and dynamic ideas going forward. As Dr. Sasson says at the end of the article about Millennials,
"A new round of panic will serve the community well if it addresses the real challenge we face going forward. It is not how to make Judaism relevant to a younger generation that rejects religion—or even how to connect committed secularists to the treasures of Jewish (secular) civilization. These are worthwhile aims, but to the extent they are meant to appeal to Millennial Jews of no religion they will miss the mark. Instead, the challenge is how to engage the growing population of young adults who grew up in intermarried homes. This is a population that feels itself a part of the Jewish world but typically knows little of it. How Jewish organizations address this challenge will determine—more than any inexorable laws of demography—the future character of American Jewry."
I couldn't agree more. This will be a major challenge for our community but one that we are up to meeting if we put our heads together. As Dr. Sasson's cogent read of the data proves, keeping those heads cooler with productive analysis of the data will help us formulate the best ideas for the long run too.
We are a lucky community!
On Monday, the Spertus Institute of Chicago will be granting ten of our communal professionals a Master's Degree in Jewish Professional Studies. Let me explain how this whole concept developed. Several years ago, Rabbi Scott Aaron, the Community Scholar at the Agency for Jewish Learning, raised the idea of this Master's Degree program with Ed Frim (of the AJL), Brian Schreiber ( of the JCC) and me. As we all thought about it, we realized that we have amazing, talented, motivated staff within our agencies. I would go so far as to say that Pittsburgh is blessed with the very best professional staff in the Jewish world! And we all thought that, as our immediate Past Chair Lou Plung likes to say, "we are good, and we can get better".
Working in and for the Jewish community takes more than drive, motivation, people and organizational skills. It takes Jewish knowledge. There are skills in working with lay leadership, forming a vision, public speaking, conducting effective and quality meetings and building consensus. This Spertus program was designed to help grow our professionals from being good professionals into being great “Jewish professionals”.
The program took well over two years to complete. The workload was heavy, especially as our professionals were simultaneously working full time. Classes were held here in Pittsburgh with some study in Chicago.
The program was underwritten generously by the Fine Family Foundation and several other local anonymous donors. In addition, each participant and each agency with a participant paid a piece as well. Everyone had “skin in the game.”
You can read a little more about the program and the participants by clicking here. You are all invited to join the graduation ceremony on Monday night at 7 pm at Rodef Shalom. Two honorary degrees will be granted. One will be given to our very own David Shapira, who I know needs no introduction. The other will be given to John Ruskay, my counterpart from the UJA/Federation of New York. John has been one of the most prolific writers and thought leaders on Jewish communal issues during his long career. look forward to hearing both David’s and John's thoughts. By the way, John is a proud alum of the University of Pittsburgh.
We are a lucky community!
The link in the text above is to an article in the Chronicle about the program and Monday's graduation. We are indeed lucky to have had this educational opportunity here in our community and I look forward to starting our second professional study cohort in the near future!
The fall holiday cycle ends this week with Simchat Torah, which celebrates the beginning of the Torah reading cycle for the new year of 5774. Simchat Torah is the only one of the fall holidays not mentioned in the Torah itself and is thought by scholars to be an innovation of the ancient Babylonian Jews to insert meaning in to the second day of Shemini Azteret which suffers from not having a clear purpose for its existence in the Torah and was beginning to lose adherents. Re-purposing it as a celebratory holiday of joyous dancing and feasting brought its popularity back up in the eyes of the Jewish people and it remains an anticipated event each year even today. (The two holidays are actually celebrated on the same day in Israel but that is a whole different discussion as to why that is the case.)
In America, Simchat Torah is also the day many congregations celebrate Consecration. Consecration is a concept that extends all the way back to the Torah. Something that is set aside for G-d is consecrated. The Hebrew word for consecrate is Kiddush which we often translate as sanctify but that is a synonym for consecrate. In the Torah we sanctify sacrifices, kings, alters and many other things. In modern times we sanctify new synagogues, cemeteries, Torahs and even people; Brit Milah and Simchat Bat are both ceremonies where newborns are consecrated as part of ritual. In fact, the modern consecration service on Simchat Torah is a uniquely American ceremony that was initially developed as an alternative to circumcision. Back in the late 19th century, the leader of what would be called Classical or Eastern Radical Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Einhorn, proposed the Consecration ceremony as a replacement for ritual circumcision which he argued was an antiquated ritual that was more barbaric than sacred. From his perspective, modern Jewry placed more value on intellectual acquisition than ancient ceremony and thought that sanctifying the beginning of a child’s Jewish education was more in keeping with modern values than sanctifying the child through circumcision. While his reasoning was not persuasive over time (the vast majority of Reform Jews still circumcise their sons in accordance with the tradition), the Consecration ceremony became very popular with American families whose sent their children to congregational schools and has even gone beyond the Reform movement to many Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations as well. It now includes girls equally with boys and is marked in day schools as well as supplementary schools.
There are varying practices to the ceremony depending on how a congregation defines beginning one’s Jewish education, so it can be a life cycle event from Kindergarten through third grade depending one where one attends religious school. The children are often given small paper replicas of a Torah or an age-appropriate prayer book as a momento, and they are blessed by parents and rabbis and teachers. The children will often sing songs as a class or perform a dance they have learned as part of the ceremony too. Of course, since it is also Simchat Torah, there is usually candy, fruit, cookies and celebratory flags involved and the kids that stay for the later Torah dancing and parading carry their paper Torahs alongside the adults. All in all, it is a happy memory for most kids and another life cycle moment in the growth of young families. It is one of those moments that families join synagogues to experience, to know that their kids are continuing as Jews and to know that as parents they are fulfilling family traditions of Jewish education and celebration. For interfaith families, consecration also becomes an accessible marker for the non-Jewish parent and extended family to understand what values are central to Jewish life and belief and to know it is recognizable as a growth experience in Jewish life the same way a first communion might be for a Catholic child or a child baptism might be for children in certain Protestant denominations. When I was a toddler, my parents asked our Rabbi, Nathan Zelizer z”l when it was worth while to bring a child to the synagogue. He gave them an educational answer that is still on target today; bring your child as soon as they are able to observe what is going on around them. He told them that if all a child initially knows is that they get a brownie and a kiss from the rabbi after services then that is enough to create a positive association with synagogue until they are ready to tackle something more substantial. Consecration is a celebration of our children being ready for something more substantial and it is truly a sweet and sanctified occasion for the whole family.
Jewish education has made great strides in reaching developing learners where they are at through the use of youth services aimed at specific age groups. Many congregations even have staff members and clergy who are specially trained to reach children and teens at their appropriate developmental stages. However, we as a community need to remember that the ultimate teacher is the parent and your children learn the best about Jewish life and community and, yes, prayer by participating and observing what we do and how we do it.
For example, I grew up as the product of a mixed marriage. My mom was raised 1950s Classical Reform and my dad was raised 1950s Conservative. That meant my mom was used to services with almost no Hebrew (and she was not taught any) and my dad was used to almost all Hebrew which he could follow along with too. They decided to raise my sister and I in a Conservative congregation because my dad didn't want to go anywhere where "they don't wear kippot" and my mom gave up the customs she enjoyed such as instrumental music and English singing as a result. The high holidays thus became a compromise time where we made sure we were at services usually just in time for my mom to see the Torahs come out of the ark, hear the sermon and the shofar, and we stayed as long as my dad thought was sufficient. I know now that my mom was engaged by the things she could access there - the visual and auditory symbols and the only part of the service she could actually understand intellectually. She also like the social component and the fashion show that comes along with services in big congregations. My dad, on the other hand, liked fulfilling his obligations and being a part of a greater group all engaging in fulfilling those obligations at the same time. He always complained about the parking and the rush for seats and the financial appeals, but he knew that was where we needed to be because on the holidays Jews gather together and share the experience.
My parents modeled rationalization for congregational participation for my sister and me. Was it what the tradition said was supposed be motivating us all to be there on the sacred days? Not really but they were valid motivations nonetheless and I suspect ones shared by lots of people in our congregation and around the country. I recall my father singing the prayers as best he could despite not enjoying singing and my mom, who loves to sing, trying to join in the unfamiliar Hebrew as best she could. I recall them lifting my sister and I up to see the Torahs and the Shofar blower, and I recall Dad letting us play with the tzitzit on his tallit and my mom snuggling us up when we were getting restless. Neither my sister nor I enjoyed the children's services or play areas which often felt like Hebrew school without any structure, and instead wanted to be with our parents. We did not learn piety from them and they did not emulate the intensity the rabbis mandate for those days, but they modeled accessible commitment, motivated belonging, patient participation and familial and communal togetherness.
I believe as a parent and as an educator that the best thing we can teach our kids on the holidays is to be a part of the whole community. That means being together as a family at least part of the time in shul, engaging them about the sermon, the Torah portions, prayers or what ever else might catch their interest, joking with them about when it gets boring or uncomfortable, and just being present with them as a family. We parents can teach our kids how to belong to a congregation, and we can best do that by being with them there at least part of the time. Are the youth services better than they were in my day? Absolutely and they should be taken full advantage of by families to develop that side of the child's Jewish experience too. But the time we take to just be together in shul is what will remain in their memories and when we are gone is what they will draw upon with their own children and grandchildren. I take some comfort this year knowing that one of my sons is spending Rosh HaShanah with my parents and my other two will be with my mother in law here in Pittsburgh, but I will be away from them at a pulpit and miss this year's special time with them together in shul. G-d willing, next year.
Shana tovah u'metukah!!
This summer has been busier than most for me both in terms of work and family and I cannot believe that the High Holy Days are just around the corner! I am trying to close out the season as it winds down and while going through some back e-mail I came across an interesting piece by the new head of congregational education for the Conservative synagogue movement, Rabbi Jim Rogozen. Rabbi Rogozen comments on the constant cry for change in congregational education and the tendency to look for quick fixes to long-term problems. He observes, rightly in my opinion and experience, that congregational school problems are more often rooted in the congregation than the school itself.
“The realities of synagogue life these days dictate a fast-tracked decision making process. It is very tempting, therefore, to latch onto the latest program or innovation and believe that the “new model” will transform student learning, if not the congregation as a whole. While there is pressure to “change” and “break the mold” there needs to be equal importance given to mission and vision. As the Japanese proverb states: ‘Vision without action is a daydream; action without vision is a nightmare.’” My wife's Jewish grandmother expressed the same thing a bit less poetically but just as true: "Do it wrong, takes twice as long."
He goes on to argue that there needs to be a slowing down of this tendency to think that we can treat the symptom with expensive and experimental medicine without really focusing on the underlying illness. In the case of our congregations and their schools, he argues, that underlying issue is to maintain focus and commitment to a congregation’s mission and vision. His call echoes my own experience; I have found in my own work here in Pittsburgh as well as through my teaching that this is a persistent problem that in the end wastes time, resources and most importantly, windows of opportunity to keep families of school-age children positively inclined towards congregational life. I refer you to his article for the specifics on his suggested steps towards vision alignment but I wholeheartedly endorse his call for stepping back and slowing down to get a handle and a focus on the big picture. It can make a real difference in the entire congregation and not just its school.
Pittsburgh has successfully adapted the NESS program from Philadelphia for our community to create the Congregational School Improvement Initiative (CSI) that follows a simple but methodical process. A comprehensive, multi-layered assessment of the school is done first. This is not a graded evaluation but a snapshot/ mirroring of the school as it is now from various angles including the children, the teachers, the administration, the parents and the congregational leadership. Then a team of educational experts reviews the assessment. The team has people with various skill sets so that there is a well-rounded cadre of talent at the table rather than people who will only look at the issues from one perspective. A lead specialist is assigned to the congregation who presents the assessment results to the congregation and helps it organize lay leaders and professionals in the congregation in to working groups on curriculum, school structure, teacher training and development, and other areas that the assessment shows would benefit from attention. Most importantly though, there is always a working group on the school’s vision and the group has representatives from all aspects of the congregation. What has been found in almost all cases is that the school’s vision cannot be useful if it is in line with the congregation’s vision, and in many cases neither one has been examined in many years and are often found to be non-aligned or even non-existent.
The process has often led to larger vision processes for the congregation at large and these processes are not easy to do given the many stakeholders in any given congregational community. It has happened that once the mirror was held up, there was no wherewithal to do the necessary visioning work and the process ground to a halt. The school and the congregation stayed stagnant. I suspect this is because of a phenomenon that has been explained by my colleague Ed Frim as the difference between suffering and pain. Suffering, Ed says, is knowing something is wrong and doing nothing about it, while pain is doing something about it and not knowing the outcome. Simply put, it is easier to suffer than risk pain even if it may lead to improvement. That is as true for congregations as it is for people in my experience, but the congregations that have put the real work in to the process have really benefited by aligning their vision to their work. In some cases that has led to real changes in the school and in some just some minor tweaks but what ever the result it is consistent and current to the congregation's will.
Rabbi Rogozen points out that this time of the year right before the High Holy Days is a period where we Jews are supposed to undertake a heshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our soul, in preparation for the New Year. Many of us, me included, have stood up in synagogue on Yom Kippur and recited the al Chet prayer for our transgressions and we all know, me included, that some things we vow to change each year are really hard so we never really try even though we know we should. Rabbi Rogozen is calling on those of us who care about congregations and congregational education to stop treating our suffering with the latest over-the-counter pain relief and to really focus on addressing the problems. A vision process is doing just that and this time of year is a perfect one to really risk the pain.
Recent tragic events involving the injury and death of campers and staff at Jewish residential camps have been in the news of late. Both Camp Tawonga and GUCI campers and staff suffered with a tree just falling over at one (something painfully familiar to the Pittsburgh Jewish community) and lightening striking on a clear day at the other. I’ll leave the sad details to those who want to Google it for themselves but suffice it to say that both events were “freak accidents” or “random acts of nature” depending on how you look at it. What neither appears to have been was foreseeable and the responses of the camp staffs to the unforeseeable was nothing short of heroic. Still, the distress lingers.
I recently spoke to a close friend whose kids are at a camp in the southeast with their father. She told me that (to paraphrase) while she knows that logically these were unforeseeable accidents based on what we know now, she still worried about the safety of her kids at camp when she heard about them. She couldn’t help it; the parental instinct is to protect your kids and camp is supposed to be safe space in every sense of the word so when that sense is altered the protective instincts kick in. I totally get this as a parent and an educator and I am sure camp directors around the country have taken calls from nervous parents wrestling with that instinct ever since these accidents hit the news. I can empathize with that instinct, but I want to share here what I told my friend and what I know myself as I prepare to drive my own kids to camp next week.
I have worked in and around camps for decades. I have been a camp director and trained camp staff for safety and health emergencies and prevention. That preparation is probably the biggest part of the job. You train for burns at campfires, cuts in the woods, allergic reactions to stings, broken bones on the ropes course and a myriad of other events. You make sure your staff are CPR and first aid trained and that they have memorized the emergency procedures. You give a safety briefing to the campers and have the bunk staff reinforce it in the cabins. You close the pool in bad weather. In short, you prepare as best you can for any eventuality you can short of wrapping each camper in bubble wrap and not ever letting them outside of the dining hall. But, no matter how much civilized preparation is done, camp by definition takes place in nature. Life in nature is not fully predictable or preventable; it is a force beyond our human selves and what we think we can control through technology and civilization. In fact, that exposure to nature and the forces within it are part of the experience of camp and why we take our kids out of their urban/suburban settings of concrete, kilowatts and bandwidth to expose them to parts of the natural order that run on their own schedule and whims beyond our control. Both of these recent accidents were tragic and both caused great pain to people and communities, but they were probably not predictable. It is only natural that some tree will fall and lightening is going to strike somewhere, but where exactly is difficult if not impossible. So, as parent and as educators, we weigh the risk of random acts of nature against the powerful experience of camp and we prepare the best we can while making camp the life-affirming experience that it is for its participants.
I have also heard rumblings that someone must be at fault for these tragic events and that someone must have been negligent somewhere and needs to pay for it. I get that too. We are a litigious society and we often handle our anger and pain at what we could not control by taking control through litigation. However, this was not a situation of a lifeguard not being at his post at the waterfront or the director ignoring the fire safety inspector’s warnings after a poor inspection. This was nature and even the most airtight liability insurance policy has an “act of God” clause to address unforeseeable acts of nature. Also, and I cannot stress how important this is in the big picture, we need to remember what worked when unforeseeable tragedy struck these camps. Counselors immediately administered first aid and CPR as they were trained to do. 911 was called right away and followed pre-set emergency plans for speedily accessing the camps. Other staff took campers who witnessed these events away from those places so they would not be further traumatized themselves nor in the way of first responders. Mental health professionals and clergy were rushed to camp to help the larger camp community process the trauma of these events. Support of every kind was offered to the families of those victimized by these accidents. In short, all of that training of staff for G-d-forbid situations kicked in when there actually was a G-d-forbid situation. That needs to be credited and appreciated as much as trying to assign blame in these cases.
Our American Jewish community suffered a real shock to our systems from these tragic events and for many parents I think their sense of security about sending their kids to camp has been called in to question. That is a natural reaction. But it should not stop us from looking at the greater good for our kids and our community from camp alongside the risks inherent in nature. We also need to have faith that we put our kids in the hands of real professionals who know how to do their jobs and take the responsibility of our kids very seriously. I think this excerpt from a Torah commentary for parents by my former classmate Rabbi Marc Covitz, GUCI’s Executive Director, on the portion for the Shabbat following the camp’s frightening encounter with lightening expresses that commitment really well. Commenting on a verse from Numbers, he says what is true in my experience for every camp staff in the country:
“Build towns for your children and sheepfolds for your flocks, but do what you have promised.” The message is simple enough…take care of your children before all else. It’s a message that resonates with us here at camp, as I know it does with you, the parents. There are many different parts to the mission of Goldman Union Camp: summer fun, Jewish education, creating and enhancing friendships, the development of personal Jewish identity as well as a unique Jewish community. But no part of our mission comes before this – take care of your children.
One additional thought for nervous parents: Camps that take safety seriously follow the guidelines of the American Camping Association and undergo a regular inspection by them to insure they are compliant. Ask your camp's Executive Director about their inspection and what their procedures are to be in compliance in addition to the camp safety policies you are given as part of the registration process.