Today, a new orga­ni­za­tion called B’nai Mitzvah Revolution announced itself to the world.

I’ve been priv­i­leged to serve as the webmaster/tech-guru on the project. Working with the team behind BMR — notably the co-directors and their col­leagues at HUC-JIR/RHSOE/ECE and the URJ — has been an amaz­ingly ful­fill­ing and insight­ful expe­ri­ence. I’m thank­ful to Isa for giv­ing me the opportunity.

Check the site out. I’m incred­i­bly proud of it (though, truth be told, a lot of the con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion and tweak­ing came from the entire team).

Viva la revolution!

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  • February 24, 2012

In this arti­cle, which ran in today’s Ha’aretz, my col­league Alex Sinclair sug­gests a par­a­digm for how we can take the next steps in Israel edu­ca­tion. As is typ­i­cally the case with Alex’s writ­ing, it’s very impres­sive and (more impor­tantly) thought-provoking. So I’m shar­ing it here.

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For par­tic­i­pants in the iCen­ter pre­sen­ta­tion how-to that I taught today, I’ve uploaded two files:

• Extensive notes, as promised.
Presentation Primer — Notes & Sources.pdf

• My slides. (They’ll only make sense if you were there, naturally.)
Presentation Primer — Slides.pdf

In my role as direc­tor of con­gre­ga­tional learn­ing at Temple Isaiah, I’ve been work­ing on ways to effec­tively use tech­nol­ogy to improve the learn­ing expe­ri­ence in the reli­gious school class­room. This post is the first in a series on ideas to make it happen.

What is it?

AppletvhandApple TV is a box you con­nect (via HDMI) to a tv or pro­jec­tor, and you log it onto your wire­less net­work. Once it’s con­nected, the Apple TV can play YouTube and Vimeo videos and stream Netflix con­tent. Even bet­ter: Using a tech­nol­ogy called AirPlay, it can play music, videos, and photo slideshows from any com­puter (Mac or PC, as long as it has iTunes installed) or any iOS Device (iPad, iTouch, iPhone) on the same net­work. Also, cer­tain iOS apps take advan­tage of the same tech­nol­ogy to have video from the device (like a news video from the CNN app, or a radio seg­ment from the NPR app) dis­play via the Apple TV up on the attached projector/television.

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From Dahlia Lithwick’s excel­lent d’var torah arti­cle, “The Fifth Passover Question: Who’s going to lead the Seder?

Passover is really the only Jewish hol­i­day in which most house­holds tap some layper­son to be pro­fes­sional clergy for a night, and—as my friend Lisa observed yesterday—it’s thus apt that this hol­i­day cel­e­brates one of the most reluc­tant lead­ers in all of bib­li­cal his­tory. Here is poor Moses, beg­ging to be relieved of the respon­si­bil­ity of Sherpa-ing his peo­ple from one dusty place to another—pleading unfit­ness, a speech imped­i­ment, and the absence of mean­ing­ful lead­er­ship qual­i­ties. And here we all are, thou­sands of years later, plead­ing unfit­ness, per­for­mance anx­i­ety, and the absence of mean­ing­ful lead­er­ship qualities.

Stop me if this is start­ing to sound familiar.

Maybe the real les­son of Passover is that nobody—in any generation—feels fit to lead a bunch of other peo­ple, but they do it any­way, because in the end some­body has to. Maybe it’s not just the story of the Exodus we are pass­ing down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion, but the trick of lead­ing, when all you ever wanted to do was follow.

Hmm.

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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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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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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