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  • February 28, 2011

With no outs in the top of the 6th inning of Game 7 of the 1955 World Series, Duke Snider — who’d hit four home runs in the pre­vi­ous six games — laid down a sac bunt to move PeeWee Reese to sec­ond. After Snider reached on an error, the next bat­ter, Roy Campanella, laid down another bunt to move Reese to third.

So the record books say that Gil Hodges had both the Dodgers’ RBI in that game. But maybe they should also note that the Dodgers’ sec­ond run came as a result of the MVP (Campy) and the run­ner-up in MVP vot­ing (the Duke) bunting over a run­ner who Hodges drove in with a sac fly. Can you imag­ine such a thing in today’s game?

Let me put a fine point on it. For his career, Duke Snider had 11 HR, 26 RBI, and 21 runs in 36 World Series games. (He’s the fourth best in WS his­tory.) This was the final game of a sea­son in which he had 42 HR, 136 RBI, 126 runs, and an OPS of 1.046. And this is the guy you want bunting with no outs in the sixth?

Darn straight. RIP, Duke.

(By the way: There are seven mem­bers of that team in the Hall of Fame. Or eight if you’re like me and you count the radio announcer.)

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  • December 28, 2010

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.

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  • May 20, 2010

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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  • February 23, 2010

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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  • October 14, 2009

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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