A recent arti­cle on Foward​.com high­lights a demo­graphic study by Leonard Saxe that offers some new insights on the national Jewish pop­u­la­tion and might even con­tra­dict some of the generally-accepted-as-gospel research on the mat­ter. In the Forward arti­cle, Saxe talks about the sticky prob­lem of “iden­ti­fi­ca­tion”:

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Instead of writ­ing some fancy intro­duc­tion, I’m going to just start by telling you that the the­sis of this blog post is that the entire con­cept of the “December dilemma” is a myth. I’m going to explain why, and then I’m going to sug­gest what we (the Jewish com­mu­nity, and per­haps more specif­i­cally, those of us who serve in
lead­er­ship roles in the Jewish com­mu­nity) should do about it.

So with that totally trans­par­ent intro­duc­tion, you can click if you’re inter­ested in read­ing more.

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  • October 28, 2010

People seem to get all up-in-arms when they per­ceive that peace-loving, mod­er­ate Muslims don’t do enough to con­demn the acts of vio­lent extrem­ists with whom they hap­pen to share (kind-of) a reli­gion. When any­one tries to point out that the vast major­ity of Muslims abhor of vio­lence, and that vio­lent rad­i­cals are choos­ing to empha­size only those parts of the Quran which jus­tify their hatred (and that extrem­ists com­mit heinous acts in the name of other reli­gions, too), the response is that if Muslim mod­er­ates want peo­ple to see them as peace­ful, then they should stand up and con­demn their vio­lent co-religionists. The prob­lem is, peace-loving Muslims con­demn vio­lence all the time. Maybe we’re not lis­ten­ing. Or maybe we just bury their state­ments ten para­graphs down.

From the AP’s story about Farooque Ahmed, the guy who tried to help some under­cover FBI agents plant a “bomb” in the DC sub­way:

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Ahmed arrived in the U.S. in 1993 and became a cit­i­zen in 2005, offi­cials said. He wor­shipped at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, which is known for its main­stream Islamic con­gre­ga­tion. Leaders there have decried vio­lence and were quick to call for Ahmed’s pros­e­cu­tion. He was not a mem­ber of the soci­ety, said board mem­ber Robert Marro.

He wor­shiped at the mosque. He never stuck around long enough for the reg­u­lars to get to know him. And when they found out that he’d been arrested for plot­ting vio­lence, the mem­bers of the mosque said he wasn’t a mem­berspoke out against vio­lence and called for him to be pun­ished. In other words, they said, “He’s not one of us, and we despise what he stands for.”

That’s con­dem­na­tion if I’ve ever heard it.

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  • October 24, 2010

1. I’ve flown over 200,000 miles (domes­tic) on air­planes in the last two years. Not once have I been scared because of “peo­ple who are in Muslim garb” or peo­ple who “are iden­ti­fy­ing them­selves first and fore­most as Muslims.” The only peo­ple who scare me on air­planes are the ones who are overly ner­vous, overtly anx­ious, or rude and obnox­ious. It seems to me, based on my expe­ri­ence, that none of these behav­iors are exclu­sive to a par­tic­u­lar reli­gion, eth­nic­ity, race, or creed.

2. It’s clear that the most of the peo­ple who loudly bashed NPR in the wake of Williams’ fir­ing weren’t par­tic­u­larly fond of pub­lic radio (that bas­tion of the elit­ist lib­eral media) to begin with. What’s ironic is that NPR (and the rest of pub­lic radio) is actu­ally the only main­stream media out­let that seems to have refused to be over­taken by blow-hard pun­ditry, sen­sa­tion­al­ism, or both.

3. NPR was right to fire Williams, and they shouldn’t hes­i­tate to tell it like it is: He wasn’t fired because the rules of “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” deemed his com­ments on O’Reilly’s show to be offen­sive. He got fired because real jour­nal­ists (and “news-analysts”) have to be fair and unbi­ased. That means they can’t behave like loud­mouth pun­dits. End of story. Williams can spout off say­ing that he got fired for “telling the truth” or “speak­ing his mind.” But that’s only half the story. He got fired because he wanted to get paid for being a jour­nal­ist, but then he also wanted to go on O’Reilly and spew what­ever “truth” he wanted. You can’t have both, buddy.

4. This week, I made a dona­tion to my local pub­lic radio sta­tion. You should too.

My friend Ira recently got me riled up. On his blog, he posted about a “Mindset List” recently pub­lished by Hillel.

In case you’re unfa­mil­iar: Beloit College, a liberal-arts school in south­ern Wisconsin, puts out this thing every year called the Mindset List. A few human­i­ties or social sci­ences pro­fes­sors sit around and list a whole bunch of cul­tural ref­er­ences that, while famil­iar to adults, are not famil­iar to 18 year-old fresh­man.

Professors will teach by refer­ring to cul­tural infor­ma­tion for pur­poses of anal­ogy or illus­tra­tion,” Beloit College human­i­ties pro­fes­sor Tom McBride, one of two who devel­oped the list, told the AP a few years ago. “But the kind of infor­ma­tion they’re using may sim­ply not be rel­e­vant to 18-year-old minds.”

This year, Hillel joined in on the fun by releas­ing a “Jewish Mindset List” of their own. Theirs is titled, “What Are Jewish First-Year Students Thinking?” and it’s intro­duced with the line, “Here, then, are the Jewish ideas that are kick­ing around in the minds of today’s first-year stu­dents.”

The entire con­cept of a “mind­set” list is stu­pid. Here are four rea­sons why:

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  • June 7, 2010

Almost 15 years ago, the school had just been renamed “Milken” and they’d never had a base­ball team. Our jer­seys, ordered before the name change, said “Stephen Wise.” We were a pretty rag­tag bunch, the first ever team the school had fielded. The coach knew a bit about base­ball and a lot about yelling, the assis­tant coaches were for­mer Chatsworth base­ball coaches who spent most of their time mak­ing fun of us, and most of us would have no busi­ness play­ing on a “var­sity” team at any other high school.

We had a mis­er­able first few games, but we some­how — by the skin of our teeth — man­aged to win a few games and make the play­offs that first year. For a school that (at least ath­let­i­cally speak­ing) prided itself on its bas­ket­ball and water polo teams, the base­ball team mak­ing the play­offs was a big deal. Who cares that we got crushed in the first round?

The base­ball pro­gram now looks like a seri­ous thing. The team is grad­u­at­ing six seniors this year, and most of them have racked up some respectable career stats (99 stolen bases for one, a pair of con­sec­u­tive no-hitters for another). Even bet­ter, they made it to the Southern Section Division 7 cham­pi­onships. They got beat, but they seem to have played a respectable game.

I don’t know any of these play­ers, and my only con­nec­tion to them is that I was the start­ing sec­ond base­man 15 years ago, when we man­aged to not suck just enough to make the play­offs. Nonetheless, I’m still proud of the 2010 Milken Wildcats, Southern Section Division 7 runners-up. Way to go, gen­tle­men. You’ve come a long way.

My friend Cantor Yonah Kliger pointed me to an inter­est­ing arti­cle in this month’s Reform Judaism Magazine. It’s a thought­ful dis­cus­sion (a sort of point-counterpoint) from two rab­bis about whether Reform syn­a­gogues should have kosher kitchens.

On one side, Rabbi David Frank argues that kashrut is a legit­i­mate and valid form of Reform Jewish prac­tice If Reform Jews are going to be made to feel like they are free to make that choice, their syn­a­gogue needs to be a place where they can freely prac­tice this part of their Jewish life. As he puts it, “If our Movement truly con­sid­ers kashrut a viable option for indi­vid­ual Reform Jewish obser­vance, then our syn­a­gogues might indeed provide a means to expe­ri­ence it.”

On the other side, Rabbi Jeff Marx explains that keep­ing a kosher kitchen is out of sync with the lifestyles of the over­whelm­ing major­ity of Reform Jews. If none of the mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion keep kosher, then why should the syn­a­gogue have a kosher kitchen? If we, as Reform Jews, have made a con­sci­en­tious choice to not keep kosher (and, per­haps, have actu­ally made the choice to be food-conscious in other ways), then shouldn’t the kitchens in our syn­a­gogues reflect these val­ues? As Rabbi Marx explains,

Reform Jews should keep kosher, but not the kashrut of the past. Kashrut for our time needs to be con­cerned with food qual­ity (real foods free from harm­ful chem­i­cals and addi­tives), meat con­sump­tion (weigh­ing the envi­ron­men­tal and per­sonal health impli­ca­tions asso­ci­ated with eat­ing red meat), humane treat­ment of ani­mals (when we do eat them), organic foods (to avert health risks asso­ci­ated with pes­ti­cide spray­ing), and employ­ment prac­tices (fair wages and safety for those involved in food pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion).”

Our kitchens, Rabbi Marx believes, should reflect this cur­rent form of “kashrut,” not some tra­di­tional sense of keep­ing kosher that doesn’t res­onate with our cur­rent val­ues.

This debate is funny to me because I think I fall squarely in the mid­dle.

On one hand, I very much agree with Rabbi Frank. I believe that kashrut can be an impor­tant part of an individual’s choices of Reform Jewish prac­tice. As such, con­gre­gants who might make these sorts of choices should (a) be empow­ered to do so by their syn­a­gogue, and (b) should be able to eat in their own syn­a­gogue build­ing.

On the other hand, I’m loathe to sup­port the instal­la­tion of tra­di­tion­ally kosher kitchens in Reform syn­a­gogues for one big rea­son (and it’s a rea­son that Rabbi Marx fails to men­tion): rab­bini­cal author­ity.

Here’s the prob­lem. If you’re going to main­tain a tra­di­tion­ally kosher kitchen in a com­mu­nal build­ing, then you need tra­di­tional rab­binic super­vi­sion of the kitchen. Someone needs to make sure that cook­ing imple­ments des­ig­nated as meat and dairy main­tain their kosher sta­tus. Someone needs to check to make sure that all ingre­di­ents brought into the kitchen have proper kosher cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Someone needs to make sure that only certified-kosher cater­ers may use the kitchen. And ulti­mately, “tra­di­tional super­vi­sion” and “tra­di­tional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion” means Orthodox.

And there’s the rub. I think it is totally incon­sis­tent with our Reform Jewish val­ues to accept that our kitchens need to super­vised and cer­ti­fied by an Orthodox author­ity. In fact, I think that accept­ing Orthodox super­vi­sion of our kitchens is an affront to Reform Judaism. It accepts that our rab­bis aren’t good enough, and by exten­sion gives into the Orthodox canard that Reform con­verts aren’t really Jewish and that our rab­bis (espe­cially the women) are unfit to per­form rab­bini­cal duties. Furthermore, to pay for Orthodox super­vi­sion and cer­ti­fi­ca­tion (and to insist on the use of only prod­ucts that carry this cer­ti­fi­ca­tion) is to provide finan­cial sup­port for the very Orthodox estab­lish­ment that asserts (in deed, if not nec­es­sar­ily in word) that our move­ment is not a viable expres­sion of Judaism.

I guess this leads me to accept Rabbi Frank’s assess­ment that we ought to be pro­vid­ing avenues for viable forms of Reform Jewish prac­tice within our syn­a­gogues, but to take issue only with the notion that we should have “tra­di­tion­ally” kosher kitchens. I am not advo­cat­ing for the cre­ation of some “Reform kashrut.” Rather, I’m say­ing that syn­a­gogues should find ways to cel­e­brate dif­fer­ent Jewish lifestyle choices while affirm­ing the via­bil­ity and author­ity of our own Jewish prac­tice.

For the past three years, a big part of my job has involved fly­ing around the coun­try to work with syn­a­gogue school edu­ca­tors and teach­ers. As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time on planes. And since my nat­u­ral predilec­tion is to be geeky about these sorts of things, I’ve become some­thing of an air­plane nerd who now feels at home among com­mu­ni­ties of fre­quent trav­el­ers.

As part of my geek­i­ness, last year I had the oppor­tu­nity to meet a spe­cial pilot, Captain Denny Flanagan, who flies for United Airlines. Captain Denny, as he is affec­tion­ately called by the fre­quent fly­ers who adore him, has become a celebrity among road war­riors for his amaz­ing ded­i­ca­tion to cus­tomer ser­vice. He’s an expe­ri­enced air­line pilot who goes out of his way to make the com­mer­cial air travel expe­ri­ence pleas­ant (gasp!) for cus­tomers.

I’ve read a lot of accounts of the big and small things that Captain Denny does to make air travel bet­ter. He’s an incred­i­ble ambas­sador for the entire indus­try and for his air­line. (You can read some of these accounts here, here, and here.) If you’ve been on an air­plane recently, you prob­a­bly know that the air­li­nes could use a lot more peo­ple like Captain Denny.

Recently, it occurred to me that Captain Denny isn’t just an exam­ple for peo­ple who work in air travel. In fact, it’s clear to me that — although he is not Jewish and not an edu­ca­tor — he actu­ally has a lot to teach Jewish edu­ca­tors about how to carry our­selves, and about how to be lead­ers. This, I fig­ure, is the per­fect oppor­tu­nity to find a nexus between two things I love: Jewish edu­ca­tion and air­planes. So, with a tip of the hat to Carol Starin’s Let Me Count the Ways, here are six lessons in Jewish edu­ca­tional lead­er­ship that I’ve learned from Captain Denny:
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Geoffrey Canada is an inspir­ing edu­ca­tor and activist. If you watch 60 Minutes, lis­ten to This American Life on the radio, or pay atten­tion to American Express com­mer­cials, you’ve heard of Canada’s brain­child, the Harlem Children’s Zone, which seeks to use the edu­ca­tional sys­tem to “break the cycle of gen­er­a­tional poverty” in a small neigh­bor­hood in New York. What makes Geoffrey Canada’s vision unique and rev­o­lu­tion­ary is that he doesn’t focus on help­ing fam­i­lies break out of poverty. Rather, he accepts that it is almost impos­si­ble to pull young and poor par­ents out of the cycle, but that the chain of poverty can be bro­ken if resources are poured into chil­dren. The Harlem Children’s Zone is a cradle-to-college pro­gram that starts work­ing with moth­ers before their chil­dren are even born, and works with chil­dren from birth through pre-school, ele­men­tary school, mid­dle school, high school, and col­lege. Geoffrey Canada believes that the key to a neighborhood’s redemp­tion is its chil­dren.

This week is a spe­cial Shabbat, called Shabbat HaGadol, a spe­cial day that always falls on the Shabbat imme­di­ately pre­ced­ing Pesach. To mark the occa­sion we read a spe­cial haf­tarah, an excerpt from the book of Malachi. The haf­tarah par­al­lels the story of redemp­tion from Egypt with a nar­ra­tive about Messianic redemp­tion, but it’s the final verses that really reminded me of Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone.

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If the 1960s Hebrew school is really a thing of the past, then 1960s text­books need to be a thing of the past, too.

Cross-posted to TAPBB.

My wife and I went to see the Coen broth­ers’ lat­est film this week­end, A Serious Man. For me, it was a double-whammy must-see. First, I’m a huge fan of their movies. (“We’re talk­ing about unchecked aggres­sion here, Dude.”) Second, the movie pur­ports to be about rab­bis, Jews, and Judaism, and well, I’m a Jewish edu­ca­tor and my wife is a Jewish edu­ca­tor and soon-to-be rabbi. So suf­fice it to say that we were excited.

The film lived up to expec­ta­tions, and then some. It’s a deep and fas­ci­nat­ing look at Jewish life in 1960s mid­dle American sub­ur­bia, com­plete with a Job-esque exam­i­na­tion of a father’s quest to find mean­ing in his life. It’s rich with cul­tural and reli­gious allu­sions, and has a lot to say about the rela­tion­ship between Jews and Jewish lead­er­ship (espe­cially rab­bis).

But I have to admit I paid extra atten­tion to the Hebrew school sce­nes.

Twice in the movie we visit Danny Gopnick sit­ting bored in his Talmud Torah class. It’s as old-fashioned a class­room as you can imag­ine. The teacher is try­ing to show the stu­dents how to prop­erly con­ju­gate the Hebrew word for “to go,” dron­ing on “Hu holekh habayta, hi holekhet habayta, anahnu holkhim habayta…” The stu­dents are totally unen­gaged, they have no idea what’s going on, and their answers to the teacher’s ques­tions sug­gest that they don’t under­stand any­thing he’s been try­ing to teach them. They each sit star­ing at their books, totally con­fused at the mean­ing­less for­eign lan­guage printed in front of them.

(As for me, I sat there dur­ing that scene pray­ing. “Please don’t let it be a Torah Aura book…” Thankfully, the prop folks went with books from a dif­fer­ent pub­lisher. Whew.)

In a sec­ond school scene, the teacher tries to teach the stu­dents to say, in Hebrew, that they want to plant a tree in Israel. Not only are they all bored, but it’s clear that they have no idea what’s going on, they don’t care, and there’s vir­tu­ally noth­ing mean­ing­ful, worth­while, or redeemable about the entire enter­prise. The non-Hebrew-speaking audi­ence has no idea what’s going on either, which seems to be a very inten­tional choice by the film­mak­ers. As Naomi Pfefferman points out in the Jewish Journal:

The Coens chose not to sub­ti­tle the Hebrew lesson sce­nes in “A Serious Man” to help enhance the fic­tional classroom’s dron­ing sense of ennui.

Pfefferman is a gifted writer, and her choice of the word “ennui” is per­fect.

Ennui is “a feel­ing of list­less­ness and dis­sat­is­fac­tion aris­ing from a lack of occu­pa­tion or excite­ment” (thanks, New Oxford American Dictionary).

Jewish edu­ca­tion has come a long way since 1967, when the film takes place, and I’m proud to say that I’ve worked with and in many schools whose stu­dents, I can con­fi­dently say, never feel a “dron­ing sense of ennui.”

Schools are doing some amaz­ing things to make Jewish learn­ing excit­ing, engag­ing, and mean­ing­ful: expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing, fam­ily edu­ca­tion, flex­i­ble sched­ul­ing, and rethought cur­ric­ula. The entire idea of a sup­ple­men­tary (ahem, “com­ple­men­tary”) edu­ca­tion has under­gone a com­plete re-imagination (for the bet­ter!) in the past decade.

So if few of today’s class­rooms look like the one in A Serious Man, why are too many text­books designed for edu­ca­tional set­tings where chil­dren sit sto­ically at their desks as teach­ers attempt to mind­lessly drill facts and Hebrew read­ing skills into their heads? (And lets be clear: Computer games that mind­lessly drill facts and skills are just as bad. Being com­put­er­ized doesn’t remove the ennui.) We’re not sure why these sort of text­books still exist, but we know that we want to be part of the solu­tion.

Here are four sug­ges­tions for improv­ing the qual­ity of Jewish edu­ca­tional pub­lish­ing:

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