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:
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: