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.
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?
Apple 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.
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.
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”:
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.
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:
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:
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.
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: