Category Archives: Jewish Education

Do we own our Jewish history?

 

 

I read something from an unlikely source that struck my deepest core as a Jew, and came to a full stop at a passage from the first chapter of “How to be an Anti-Racist”, a new book by Ibram X. Kendi. I’m sure Dr. Kendi did not intend this outcome, in fact, I feel guilt at even sharing this, because I personalized a phrase he used to illustrate a core issue of his, one that influenced his childhood and his present thoughts about racism.

Perhaps in writing this, I am part of the problem he was writing about: maintaining my narrow vision; not seeing the entire picture he was portraying and co-opting a phrase instead, one that relates to my world. But I am compelled to write this and soon, will return to the book when I can focus my proper attention on the larger issue of racism.

For now, as a Jew, I am not able to move past the part where he writes about how his parents came to their revelatory understandings about Christianity.

Dr. Kendi’s description of his parents’ journey to Christianity was stated so simply and powerfully, and I was struck by its truth and how for me, it applies to Judaism, to our own history. And I wondered why we don’t own our own reality.

Kendi writes about his parents’ college years as Black Americans, when his parents began to crystallize their thinking—defining Christianity on their own terms:

“What is your definition of a Christian?” Dad asked in his deeply earnest way. Cone looked at Dad with equal seriousness and responded: “A Christian is one who is striving for liberation.” …… Receiving this definition was a revelatory moment in Dad’s life. Ma had her own similar revelation in her Black student union—that Christianity was about struggle and liberation.                           

                        

Christianity was about struggle and liberation.

Oddly enough, in the instant when I read that description, it resonated with me. I feel that we share that story, even if not in the same way. It seems to be our story too.

Let me say first, that I don’t want to play the comparison game about who struggled more, blacks or Jews. It’s like asking who suffered more, someone who survived the death camps or someone who escaped from slavery?

Some things defy comparison. Our compassion needs to be for ourselves and others. It’s in our Jewish DNA.

So we can pay attention to our own history, and begin to actually own it.

The Jewish story, our history, could be distilled in that one sentence….Judaism is about struggle and liberation.

From slavery in Egypt/mitzrayim to freedom in the desert/bamidbar—our freedom came with even more challenges.

Throughout our history we struggled to be free.

From the destruction of the First Temple to the riches of Babylonia. From the Crusades to the Golden Age of Spain. From the destruction of the Second Temple to a reformulation of what it meant to be Jewish. From the death camps to Israel.

The times when we were truly ‘liberated’ during our thousands of years of history are minuscule (click on the image below to read our history in more detail).

 

Our very name, Yisrael/Israel is derived from the Hebrew root Yud-Shin-Raysh which means to struggle with, contend with, be upright with—and the ‘with’ is none other than God.

We are truly Children of Israel/B’nai Yisrael when we sit with the struggle. When we challenge and when we obey.

Struggle and Liberation….

And it is often a struggle to come to terms with liberation.

Thousands of years of disgrace, discrimination, and hatred seemed to disappear ….until now. Now, we are dealing with hate speech.  Antisemitism. Death threats. BDS. Academic Freedom. Muggings. Killings.

In North America, it is a struggle to maintain a strong Jewish identity in a free society. It is a struggle to be different. It is a struggle to have faith.

Israel’s challenges are borne in part, from her liberation as a free state, which seems to foment hatred by others.

Freedom has a price. It demands our attention and not taking anything for granted.

May we be strong enough to struggle, may we be able to appreciate our freedom while being strong and bold enough to stand up for ourselves as Jews. May we stay the course, not to survive, but to thrive.


The one summer I chose Israel

 

At different times in my life, Jewish educators would often prompt seminar audiences to describe and prioritize their Jewish identity. The technique used was to ask “Are you an American Jew or a Jewish American”? Responses from the group almost always guaranteed an energetic discussion. I was never able to make up my mind.

Plus, I have to admit that depending on my mood, sometimes my first thought was Really? What will this answer possibly tell me about myself? How is this question even relevant to my life? Why would I ever have to choose?

Well, years ago on a summer trip to Israel, I did choose and though it happened over a decade ago, I somehow forgot about the circumstances of that decision. I put it out of my mind until recently when, in honor of Israel’s upcoming 70th birthday, a workshop leader prompted us to think of stories when our relationship to Israel might have changed–and I remembered.

The year was 2006 and I traveled with other Jewish educators on a 10 day trip that culminated a year and half of study. We knew before we went that this time of year might be somewhat dangerous, because there were flare-ups of aggression in the weeks before our departure. Knowing this in advance did not discourage us, and only one person stayed back.

During our travels, our guides were in contact almost hour by hour with Israel’s security office, making sure that our destinations would be shielded from any conflict. It was a little disconcerting though, as one day we couldn’t go to the North, then we were not able to go to the South. Katushya rockets were landing in Israel on a regular basis. You could feel that things were heating up.

Sure enough, towards the end of our trip, the security office informed our guides that they needed to abort the trip. Israel was at war with Lebanon. Within what seemed like an instant, people began calling family in the United States to tell them they would be making arrangements to come home, and calling relatives in Israel to let them know that they wouldn’t be visiting. There was a flurry of activity. I needed to be alone to gather my thoughts.

I distanced myself from the others to gain some quiet space to think heavily about what I should do and what I felt I had to do. A rational voice inside said “You have a husband at home and two children at home” I shot back, “Yes, but they’re over the age of 18…”. Back and forth the voices went. In the end, I could not leave and decided that I had to stay. I didn’t have a rational reason for what I would say to my husband. All I knew is that I needed to be in Israel and not desert the country I loved.

My father, an immigrant, barely in the United States for two years, enlisted in the army and fought for this country in WWII–but he loved the emergent state of Israel. He would understand.

I braced myself knowing that all at once it seemed egotistical to stay (really, what would staying here accomplish?), but pulled by the feeling that I did not want to leave…just in case I could be of help somewhere, somehow.

When I called home, my husband rightly challenged me with questions that I could not answer. How will you be a help to Israel if you stay? What will you do? Fly a fighter jet? Become a nurse? Go to the battlefield?

I had no answers. When he had no more questions I said “because I have to. I need to.” I stayed for three more weeks until the Lebanon War was over, and then I came back to my second home.

A few years later, after graduating from an ivy league university with high honors, my son told my husband and I that he decided to enlist in the Israeli Army, and would try out for special forces. We were speechless and held each other while listening to him describe his reasons for his decision. I cried on that phone call for his bravery, loyalty, and from a place of total fear. And I cried several times in the weeks that followed. But I understood.


What I Learned About Leadership From An Evangelical Minister

lessons-learned

Here’s what I learned about engaging lay people from an Evangelical minister during a holiday dinner party: a faith community’s goals should be reflected in its paths toward leadership.

Last week I sat diagonally across an intense yet energetic, full-of-spirit kind of guy who gives greatly of his time in his church, and who has subsequently become a minister. In that role, he leads study groups and connects closely with church members, taking on their stories and their pain, and in the process, connects them to their faith on a very personal level. The group studies scripture, but the group isn’t just about studying. Teachings are put into practice right then and there.

One of the members of the group said an elderly woman in the parish didn’t have enough money to pay her heating bill. In very short time, group members found the funds for her, paying her electric bill for the winter. I asked if anyone informed the priest, to see if there was a pathway for things like this to ‘bubble up’ to that level. “No,” he quickly responded, “there was no need, this was within our ability to do, and we took care of it quietly”. I didn’t need to ask for elaboration, what he didn’t say filled a huge space. This was true leadership by lay leaders, taking on responsibility to do what needed to get done. No fanfare. No bureaucratic red tape. They knew it was in the mission of their work to care for other members.

He finds immense spiritual nourishment from this work and engages in it while working full-time, attending to his marriage and his two teenage daughters. It’s what he does, what he feels called to do, and it kind of makes you wonder about your own free time.

It took no time at all for us to find common ground about topics that in other circumstances would cause a lot of eye-rolling and polite excuses by others who would choose to converse about much juicier topics. But, we were at a holiday gathering, and the spirit of the season was seated at the table. We soaked up our differing ideas about faith, belief, the bible, and the role of organized religion in people’s lives. I learned a lot from him, and he from me.

Among the things we talked about was the structure of his church, and how lay people who are so moved religiously, are gently led on a path to leadership. The priest encourages them to receive training–doing so incrementally and slowly, and then, when ready, they provide ministry to others within the church. This is accomplished within a small group model, one person ministering to several small groups, even though the church might have thousands of members.  It keeps things small, intimate, and full of personal meaning.

Certain positions within the church lead to ordination by an Archbishop, like that of Deacon, who after years of study and involvement attains a level respected highly by other church members. I thought about what this means, especially when comparing that to the many synagogue lay leader positions that seem mired in fiscal management, operations and building maintenance, and fundraising.

I know that the entire structure of synagogue life is different, but what can I learn from this? How could my experience of synagogue life be so radically different from the picture of spiritual meaning that I heard? It seems like a commitment to living a Jewish life is not generally a requirement for attaining synagogue leadership roles.  What if there was a pathway of leadership that involved religious and spiritual growth?  Can you imagine that? What if there was a requirement for leaders to be personally committed to advancing their spiritual and religious practice? How inspirational would that be, to see people in leadership roles involved in holy soul-work?

If the synagogue’s goal is to build a faith community, how are we working towards that? We know that there are Jewish spaces that have transformed themselves, and it would be interesting to know if their leadership pathways are reflective of that change. What strategies might we employ to incorporate this kind of thinking?

For example, The Union for Reform Judaism developed a strategy for small group work that might operate on the method mentioned above, though I’m unaware of any evaluative material about the outcomes of that enterprise. There might be other innovative approaches to this as well.

We need to learn together, pulling from as many different sources as we can, to reinvigorate the purpose of creating community.

 


Marketing Jewish Education for Now and Later

downloading-future

 

Sales. Marketing. Branding. Social Media Presence. Analytics. SEO. ROI.

Just a few short years ago, terms like these were absent from board room discussions in the Jewish community, let alone among practitioners in the realm of  Jewish education.

As the world has gotten more sophisticated, nonprofits in general and Jewish organizations specifically, had to respond. Those that deeply understand how social media and marketing influence their constituencies are better positioned to deal with the ebb and flow resulting from this change.

The ‘prosumer’ mentality, just a short time ago labeled selfish and self-centered, has permeated our culture and affects all sorts of decisions. People make choices on multiple factors, but the one that organizational leaders didn’t anticipate was when Jewish involvement became an optional expense.

Paying for Jewish education experiences is not any different for most people than deciding to pay for any other service (pun intended). This makes Jewish education providers work just a bit harder to provide relevant content in formats and venues that people want.

But as long as people base their judgment on the economics of choice, many will jettison long-term goals in favor of the immediate. So, “free” became the new standard as part of the value proposition.

Free trips. Free membership. Free pre-school.

“Free” is a great short-term sales pitch, but tends to devalue what you’re trying to ultimately sell.

Seth Godin, a well-known marketing guru, makes this point:

“If you are selling tomorrow, be very careful not to pitch people who are only interested in buying things that are about today.”

Mostly, Jewish education is not about now.  Character development, Jewish identity-building, leadership training, and critical thinking…are all about how it will impact you later.

Not only are we trying to sell tomorrow, we’ve increased the challenge by selling intangibles. Things you can’t brag about or take a selfie in front of. Nothing real that anyone can update in a post on Facebook.

How are we to market to this new reality?

Well, according to Godin: “Before a marketer or organization can sell something that works in the future, she must sell the market on the very notion that the future matters (bold typeface mine).  The cultural schism is deep, and it’s not clear that simple marketing techniques are going to do much to change it.”

Clearly, the burden is on us. But you already knew that.

The marketplace is the decider, and we have to weigh in with a compelling model of value.

And even more than that, we have to stop fighting each other for a piece of a disappearing pie. What we offer matters, but it has to be about now–and later

In the simplest of terms, offering experiences provides the now, and when infused with educational content, it provides the later.  People will come back for more if they experience real-time growth and change.  

Related articles


From Jewish Camp to Home: Five Easy Things to Do

camp

 

How can your Jewish community maximize campers’ experiences when they arrive home?

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ activity that so often happens on the home front is a powerful experience.  The ways in which it’s different are probably obvious but some still deserve mentioning:

  • Weeks at camp have the rhythm of Shabbat
  • They’re socializing in a “Jewish bubble” surrounded by staff and friends who are all Jewish and who are making a commitment to be together for several weeks
  • They’re being challenged in unique ways that stimulate thinking and growth
  • Many or most of their activities are highly interactive and engaging
  • The adults they interact with are supporting and non-threatening
  • Camp is a socially safe (usually) environment where problems and issues are sorted out in real-time, when they occur.

So, how can we bridge these experiences to foster a deeper connection with Judaism when they arrive back home? 

How can we assist our Jewish teens,  who have just spent the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, return home?

Here are some suggestions for using the talents our teens have gained over the summer:

#1.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ group at the synagogue, or community center. Members may have been to camp, or just be interested in this new offering.

#2.  Put one or more Jewish teens on your committees to infuse it with some new ideas and approaches that they’ve learned at camp.

#3.  Help the teens develop goals to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into experiential programming for your youth.

#4.  Feature these Jewish summer camp experts as part of a panel that explores the ways in which your community can learn and be enriched by their experience.

#5.  Get these teens in front of younger kids to share their experiences and foster motivation for a Jewish summer camp experience.

(optional #6: tell me  how it goes!)

 

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Nine Unexpected Ways That Jewish Culture Fascinates Asians

What if we took our New Year Celebration to the streets?

What if we took our New Year Celebration to the streets?

What are we, as Jews, missing?

Clearly something, since others, especially Asians, find that there is an immense value in our Jewish culture and traditions.  Aspects of our heritage that we either take for granted or deride as old-fashioned provide them with ample areas of study.

Perhaps by reading this (non-definitive) list of specifically Jewish phenomena that they find interesting and worthy of study, we will be inspired to reclaim our own connections. Here is what has been the subject of examination:

  1. Our method of Talmud study, which engages the mind in different ways than other types of learning. I’ve written about this curiosity of the South Koreans several years ago here. About 50,000,000 Koreans have studied the Talmud (in a country where most people are Christian or Buddhist).  If that wasn’t impressive enough, a recent article in the New Yorker called “How the Talmud Became a Best-Seller in Korea” states that every South Korean home has at least one copy of the Talmud. (Reality check–if you’re Jewish and reading this: can you say the same?).
  2. The way in which the bonds of connection is reinforced between the generations through home-based rituals. Our many holidays and celebrations reinforce and strengthen family values…all of which are of interest to a nation that wants to advance, yet hold on to family traditions.
  3. Our penchant for beating the Nobel odds. They are exploring the reasons why at least twenty percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, while Jews represent less than 0.2% of the world’s population. They want to know the ‘secret sauce’ that outdoes statistical expectations. (Much has already been written of the “Tiger Mom” syndrome and how it relates to Jewish mothers’ approach to success, so I won’t go into that here).
  4. Our entrepreneurial success (particularly in Israel, where there are a disproportionate number of profitable tech start-ups relative to the population) and ability to think of ever newer technologies that answer today’s problems successfully. Even though for example, founders may not identify primarily as “Jewish” the fact is evident (an obvious example would be Mark Zuckerberg….who, um, married Priscilla Chan).
  5. Judaism as researched from an academic lens. Since the Chinese nation is in a process of advancement, it sees Jews as another ancient people who have excelled while maintaining a distinct identity.  There are no fewer than ten academic centers of Jewish studies in Chinese Universities across the country, and students often spend a semester abroad, learning more about Jewish history and culture in Israel or the United States.  The deputy director of the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies at Nanjing University, says that the curiosity reflects “Judeophilia” rather than “Judeophobia” .
  6. Trade potential between the Israel and China. Trade has increased over 20000% in the past two decades, and today reaches over $10.8 billion. China is now Israel’s third-largest trading partner, after the United States and the EU. Naftali Bennett, Israel’s Economy Minister has described Israel as “going East” in terms of trade and Research &Development.
  7. The ability to keep languages alive that many thought were doomed to extinction. Hebrew was not a spoken, modern language until the 1940’s and for years the use of Yiddish has been in decline. Chinese state radio now broadcasts in Hebrew.  Jewish experts who China brings as guests for news and business shows are able to speak Hebrew with their Chinese interviewers.  A Ph.D. student recently wrote and performed history’s first Chinese-Yiddish song (you can watch it here) after studying Yiddish and Hebrew in Israel. She stated that “Nowadays, more and more Chinese are curious about Jewish history and culture.” An online news item reported that people living in Russia’s Far East (a territory along the Russian-Chinese border) are studying Yiddish. There, “all schoolchildren learn Yiddish as part of the curriculum, even though students of Chinese and Korean descent often outnumber Jewish ones.
  8. The investment potential of connecting with Israeli companies. Stephanie Lee, founder of Beijing Zion Shalom Cultural Development Company, matches Chinese investors with Israeli high-tech startups stated  “We really want to learn more about the culture, also the religious customs, and see how children are raised”.  In the early part of the decade there was virtually no high-tech funding from China. Just two years ago, within a couple of years, Chinese firms invested $32 billion in Israel.  Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing, invests heavily in Israeli tech and bio-tech, and over one-third of the startups funded by his company is Israeli. China is in second place (after the United States) as a collaborator with Israeli high-tech firms backed by Israel’s Office of the Chief Scientist.
  9. The appeal of Shabbat. A company in Israel, called Shabbat of a Lifetime, arranges a Sabbath meal experience with non-Jewish tourists who want to experience its allure first-hand in homes of traditionally observant Jews. Recently, those who are requesting the program are predominantly from Asian countries.

Please share 🙂  #Israel #startups #JewishCulture #JewishAsianConnection

Further reading on related topics:

Jews With Asian Heritage Pose Growing Identity Challenge to Jewish Establishment

Choose Your Own Identity


Why Be Jewish? Rabbi Sacks Responds With A Most Compelling Answer

This piece is so important to read in its entirety. Please go to the link below.

via Why Judaism? 


Why Jewish Organizations Need To Be More Like The Food Industry

Fresh and Appetizing!

Fresh and Appetizing!

Fortune magazine recently published The Food Issue and I was struck by how the CEO’s of major food corporations are facing head-on the huge loss of market share and consumers. I mean large corporations: Campbell’s Soup, ConAgra, and Hersheys just to name a few. A top analyst in the business stated that the top 25 companies have lost about $18 billion in market share just in the past few years: “I would think of them like melting icebergs, every year they become a little less relevant.” 

Since I’ve been on the front lines, witnessing the many ways in which Jewish education is trying to transform itself, the iceberg analogy above sounded all too familiar to me. The issues we may think are isolated are not endemic to Judaism. It seems that much larger organizations need to restructure, regroup, and refocus. So I read on, wondering how the leaders of these corporations were tackling these difficult issues, and if there was anything Jewish organizations could learn from their approach.

One thing was clear, no corporation was pretending that the loss of market share was a fading or fleeting trend.

There seemed to be very little ego involved in these corporate leaders’ decisions to rework things in order to gain footing. There was also recognition and some frustration that it would take time for an upswing to occur.

So, I took in what they said, and found commonalities in the list below:

  • People want simplicity and the companies are striving to deliver: by collaborating with other food purveyors, buying smaller, successful companies, or developing entirely new product lines to meet the demand. There is an honest appraisal of the company’s strengths and weaknesses, resulting in adaptations that are essential for survival.
  • The consumer’s desire for fresh means that the recycling of old products, i.e. “new and improved” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Customers are discerning and pressed for time. There has to be a new, relevant, approach that appeals to the consumers’ needs for what they want, when they want it. Brand loyalty is not generally a factor.
  • The customer wants authenticity and integrity above all. Slick packaging or as one CEO says “the barn on the package” (referring to the false advertising of wholesome nutrients) doesn’t fool the customer into thinking that the product is all natural. There has to be substance beneath the product.
  • Large organizations, with lots of structural barriers, are at a deficit when they aren’t able to move fast enough to meet the demands of the marketplace.

Many Jewish organizations are in the midst of enacting some of the changes, but many are stubbornly hoping the tide will turn back in their favor. Time in this case, is a luxury that the Jewish community just can’t afford any longer.

Related Posts:

Judaism As A Polysystem.

Praying for Pluralism


The Truth About The Jewish Rite of Passage That Fails Our Teens

Outdated Confirmation rites

The Confirmation Ceremony Might Not Be Relevant Today

 

What were you thinking about when you were in 11th grade? 

Were you thinking about succeeding in school, wondering where you’d go to college, or what your major would be?
Did you think about whether your high school friends would be ‘keepers’ for life, if you’d get along with your roommate, or maybe about college finances and loans?

I doubt you were wondering about your relationship with God. Or what it would mean to be a Jewish adult.

Now that Shavuot is over, I can share what I think Confirmation is in its current form: an irrelevant ceremony, that might even be borderline dangerous. I’m probably not the first person to write about this, but I feel an obligation to do so. I was one of those kids who couldn’t wait to be ‘done’ with Hebrew School.

My parents however, had other intentions. They firmly said that I had to attend Confirmation class for two years! I was not inspired by the class and admit that I was pretty bored, spending quite a lot of time with my girlfriends in the synagogue lounge area (located in the women’s restroom at the time). In 10th grade, I participated in a Confirmation ceremony, held on Shavuot, where everyone in my class had to read something (I don’t even remember if we had to write what we read) to the synagogue community from the Bimah (podium).

This was when my Jewish high school education school stopped. Today, it is a rare synagogue or community program that engages teens beyond the 10th grade, and the one I attended back then did not. Finito. No more formal Jewish education for me. It’s as if I was being told by my synagogue that I knew it all…(really?).

At last, my parents would finally stop bugging me about going to Hebrew school and I could focus on my real school work and getting into college.  Little did I know then that I would later become enamored with our traditions, history, and rituals–proving the point that I was not of an age to complete my education, nor was I in a position to decide not to continue if the opportunity presented itself. (Please read here, or here for why Jewish education in the teen years is so crucial)

Confirmation is a man-made ceremony

Briefly, Confirmation (the name was borrowed from the Catholic faith, and is one of the seven sacraments), is a created ceremony originating in the 1800’s, adopted by the Reform movement  and later by other non-Orthodox movements to have students individually and as a group, affirm (confirm) their commitment to the Jewish people, which is why it’s connected to Shavuot.  The goal also was also to retain students past Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

What is my problem with this?

This ceremony confuses so many people, is it a ritual? Law? It is not connected to any developmental stage. But it is tied to synagogue membership and it does artificially creates a second cut-off for an entire group of teens (if there are no options for them beyond the ceremony) who are, perhaps for the first time, engaging with Judaism in a more adult manner. It creates yet another decision point for parents and teens, who at this point, are usually among the most committed. It offers students a congratulatory award for maintaining a connection with their people, history and heritage. Accomplishment of this often offers an entitlement to go on a Confirmation trip to Israel.

Just think of the opportunities we would have to discuss issues with teens as they approach driving, voting, drinking, and college age.  We are missing out on this, in favor of what?

We have to look at the evidence research provides. In a study conducted by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute, the authors found that “In terms of predicting adult Jewish connection, statistical studies show that every year past the bar mitzvah year “count” more than the year before.” This is stressed even further: Receiving formal Jewish education from age 16 to 17 more accurately predicts adult Jewish connectedness than receiving formal Jewish education from age 15 to 16.”

So, what do studies accomplish if not to drive change? What is the purpose of research if not to inform present practice?   Now, when there are months of planning time ahead we have to wonder what the real reasons are for holding onto this ceremony.  We have to ask ourselves the difficult questions about what are our the true goals. What do we gain? What do the teens gain? What do we need to change? What life stages do we want to recognize? What would be the most relevant ceremony if we had to re-invent one? When we have the answers, we can then work on creating new opportunities for our teens, making sure we involve them in the process.

Perhaps then we can confirm for them, and for us, the purpose of a Jewish education.


Redeem the Passover Seder from Stereotypes

SederBoys

Free these sons from the bondage of labels.

The apocryphal story of the “Four Sons” has been a part of every Passover Seder I’ve ever attended or hosted.

The seder has a unique and beautiful educational premise: how best to involve the younger audience in the story. One way it does so is by encouraging the questioning process about the meaning of Passover. (For ideas on how to involve teens click here).

The picture above is from one of the Haggadahs I inherited from way back when, and depicts the types of questions that are archetypal of the four personality and character traits of those who are/should be asking questions at the seder.

This section comes immediately after the recitation (often by the youngest in the crowd) of the four questions as to “why is this night different from all other nights.”

Translated, the Hebrew descriptions above are:

  1. The Wise One
  2. The Evil One
  3. The Simple One
  4. The One That Doesn’t Know How to Ask (questions).

Credit goes to the artist for keeping gender references away from the Hebrew wording, although the pictures make things pretty clear that it’s the boys we’re talking about.  (Why the text only identifies sons is not a discussion I’ll be pursuing here).

The Haggadah proceeds to relate an example of how each different child asks questions and the adult’s proper response to that question. (You may want to refer to an actual Haggadah. For the content, you can find an example here).

This is where we need to redeem the children from their bondage in the Haggadah.   There is a greater picture here that we shouldn’t miss. Let’s not promote the stereotyping of learning styles but instead think beyond labels toward inclusion.

Contained in the question and answer descriptions are so many possibilities for encouraging an open discussion about values, education, ethics, parenting and more.

They are in themselves, triggers for so many additional conversations:

  • Getting Beyond the Labels (i.e. what is your definition of wise, evil, etc.)
  • Effective and Ineffective Communication Styles
  • What Happens When We Don’t Ask the Questions
  • Parenting Approaches
  • Learning Differences
  • Rebellion vs. Evil Intent
  • Effects of Being Labelled
  • Intelligence vs. Wisdom
  • Prejudice
  • Inclusion
  • Multiple Intelligences

As long as Jewish culture, history, heritage, and values are part of the discussion, any one of the conversation starters above has the potential to engage all participants, drawing everyone into the Seder’s emotional netting. Hopefully, this will bring the original intention of the Haggadah to life.

I wish you and your loved ones a Chag Kasher v’Sameach!

Related content:

Outcome based Parenting

What Does It Really Mean To Be Jewish

Family Values


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things you should know

I promise, keep reading, and you’ll get to my five suggestions. But first, some advice…..for a student named Rachel.

Here are some things about Rachel that you should know:

She absolutely loves working with kids, and has done so for the past several summers at a Jewish camp. The kids love her, parents rave about her as well, plus she has a lot of patience. In addition, everyone says that ‘she’s a natural’. And naturally, she’s thinking of majoring in elementary education. If she went to college, in four years, she would earn a teaching degree, and may even decide to go for an advanced degree. College costs are a real concern for her family, though her parents assure her that with loans, they will be able to handle the tuition payments at a state school. Just last week she was offered  a job as a classroom aide at an after-school program. For her, it would mean a real job and money. Now. She could save some money by living at home, at least for a year, and she could also save for college to show her parents that she is willing to help. Besides, she wouldn’t get to work in a real classroom until her junior or senior year in college and the after-school program really thinks that Rachel will be an excellent role model for the younger students, and taking the job would mean that she could make an impact on those children—-now.

What should Rachel do—work as an aide now or continue her education?

You probably are wondering why I’m asking the question, but please continue reading because you know I have to ask: what is your advice for Rachel?

Right about now, you might be thinking that this is a no-brainer. Would anyone recommend that she forego her own education in favor of the immediate: earning some money even though she’d be using her talents and skills? We know that society places a real premium on an education.

So, let’s take a leap and say that Rachel celebrated a Bat Mitzvah, and is being offered a job at her synagogue’s Hebrew School. What could be wrong with that?

In many synagogues around the country, on a weekly basis, students get paid to work in Hebrew schools at the very age when they should be furthering their own education. Sure, their choice is not necessarily to go off to college to earn a Jewish studies degree, but why is their own education sacrificed in order to hire them as classroom aides? I’m specifically talking about the many students I hear about each year who say that they can’t go further in their Jewish education because they’re working as an aide at a Hebrew school and would be too busy.

Here’s FIVE reasons why synagogues should supplement teen aide programs with an educational component:

#1. Why shortchange a Jewish teens’ education at this important time in their lives when they’re ready to intellectually grapple with Jewish ideas?

#2. Hiring teens creates ‘instant role models’ at your synagogue, but you’re also saying that really, continuing Jewish education isn’t nearly as good as getting a paycheck.

#3. Hiring teens makes the statement that there isn’t much to a professional Jewish educator, after all, someone who has just completed a bar/bat mitzvah is perfectly suited to help out in the classroom.

#4. Students working in these classroom rarely receive the additional support or training to deal with the many issues that come up or the questions they have.

#5. Instead of learning to change paradigms, and thinking creatively about Hebrew school options, students often cycle through the very ineffective system that they experienced.

A recent study regarding the placement and retention of close to 3,000 public school teachers found that when they were student teachers, they should have been considered students, and not teachers in order to get the support they needed. How much more so would this hold true for our Jewish teens placed in classrooms? 

Still, it is really wonderful to have the teens around, as a presence in the school. Additionally, it’s a built-in retention tool for engaging members past the usual drop-off Bar/Bat mitzvah age.

So, what is a Hebrew school to do?

Well, for starters, tell the aides that in order to work in your school they must be enrolled in further Jewish education (online, adult study, Hebrew high school—- something). An additional option is to offer teens a training program, to receive the much needed support I mentioned above.

Unless we do that, I believe we are failing our youth with this practice.


Jewish Teen Engagement: Do We Want to Win or Lose the Game

Place your bets on teens!

Place your bets on teens!

The Jewish community is the throes of change that at times seems to be at a dizzying pace, yet there are still so many obstacles that seem to discourage the participation of Jewish teenagers in Jewish life.  (I’ve written about some of them here and here).

By the time we figure this all out, we might have lost our chance.  The adolescent years is a time for making decisions about identity, but that opportunity gets lost in the wave of programs trying to perpetuate themselves, rather than perpetuating a relationship with the Jewish people.

This is best explained through a case study.

Let’s pretend you’re a teenager who is part of a synagogue community. Your bar/bat mitzvah was a few years ago.  It was a great experience, and as you said in your speech “all the work you had to do was worth it in the end”. Your parents were so proud.

You were glad to ‘be done’ but against all odds, you decided to continue in your synagogue’s Confirmation program. You were surprised though that 50% of your friends dropped out. They were too busy they said (but aren’t you?) or their parents said they weren’t going to  ‘make them’ attend (your friends told you their parents said they didn’t want them to resent their parents later).

So, now, from a class of 25, there are about 12 kids in your weekly class. You really enjoy studying with the Rabbi, and talking about the issues that matter to you. You really are beginning to see the relevance of Judaism in your life. Some of your friends in other synagogues have a different set-up, they work in their synagogue schools every week and earn some money. Sometimes you wonder whether that would have been better, since your parents talk about college expenses so much. But, you do like learning…..so much so, that you might want to continue—-even after the Confirmation ceremony, but the only option is Adult Education, and that would just be too…..uh…..nerdy.  You’ve heard that your friend’s synagogue has a class for 11th graders, but you don’t belong to that synagogue.

If you are lucky enough to find out about a community Hebrew high school that offers programming for 11th and 12th graders (some community schools are seen as competition to synagogue offerings), you’d be one of the few to do so, because by about now, there are 75% less of your friends who would have made this same choice (so now you’re down to about 3 of your friends). Your other friends were too busy (but aren’t you?) and they have college to think about (don’t you?) and get their grades up to speed (don’t you?). And chances are, your synagogue might not have shared this information with you.

If you find a program to attend, you might want to learn conversational Hebrew, or take leadership classes, participate in an internship program, or even take a college course. Little do your friends know that this experience will actually help get you into college, prepare you to think more broadly (your Bio-Medical Ethics class is so issue-oriented), and gives you so many chances to develop your skills in public speaking (you plan programs for the school), attend college readiness programs and establish relationships with teachers….not to mention the ‘street cred’ of being able to handle everything you’re already doing plus this academic program.

But you are one of the lucky ones, and you probably will be among the future leaders, simply because the education and involvement you’ve had puts you there.

So, with you, the Jewish community won. Your friends? Well, time will tell.


Do Jewish Teens Need an Ethical Tune-Up?

cheating

How ethical are today’s teens?

When given the chance to cheat, what would the teenagers you know do?

A recent New York Times article on the subject of Ethics in Life and Business explored the difficulty adults have in making the right choice.

The author says: “The problem, research shows, is that how we think we’re going to act when faced with a moral decision and how we really do act are often vastly different.”

How much more challenging is this for teens growing up in a confusing world of right and wrong?

Months ago, I was surprised to learn how teens defined cheating while defending their behavior.

Since the scandals of the 80’s, businesses and researchers were propelled to give ethics serious consideration and there is now a website devoted to the matter.

As the article states, the difficulty in teaching ethics is that there is a difference between the ‘should’ self (what should be done in a given situation) and the ‘want’ self (wanting to be liked, accepted).

I imagine that with teens, that ‘want’ self is really strong in the adolescent years.

Social media hasn’t made things any easier for them, where there is even more of a pull to be one of the crowd.

Academic pressure hasn’t helped either, with the resultant urge to cheat becoming ever stronger.

Based on everything we know, there is a real benefit to training teens in this area while giving them real skills to succeed in the world of business,

So, how to we hope to teach ethics to teens?

By practice. Repetition. Role-plays. Scenarios where teenagers get to act out their choices.

High schools rarely offer ethics as a subject area.

Monthly programs for teens can not begin to instill these skills, there’s just not enough time to make anything ‘stick’.

Jewish educators who meet with teens weekly have an exceptional opportunity to give them a much-needed tune-up.


For our teens: what does it really mean to be Jewish?

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Is this what it means to be Jewish?

A portion of this post can be a lesson plan for Jewish teens, with the image above as the trigger.

It would be an interesting exercise and not entirely out of context as a beginning to a discussion about Jewish values (that is, if Google defines our context).

The photo came up in a Google Image Advanced Search (free to use or share) for “Why be Jewish?” and struck me immediately as a conversation starter for this topic.

So, if showing this on a projector to a group of Jewish teens, some introductory questions to ask them would be:

What is your first reaction to this image? What strikes you about this picture?

How does this image make you feel?

What does this image say to you about Judaism? Jewish life? (the whole concept of talking about life within the framework of death is a teaching moment in itself). (Psalm 90:12, Psalm 39:5, The Kaddish, etc.)

What are some of your thoughts about Jewish belief?

It might be interesting then, to move from the image toward their personal beliefs about being Jewish.

What defines them as being Jewish? Push hard on this question…don’t accept answers that are superficial and have been called “bagels and lox” Judaism.

For us as parents and Jewish educators, answering this question for ourselves is primary, and not at all an easy task.

List at least seven things that define your identity as a Jew, and you might ask the teens to do the same.

It would make for a very rich conversation.

With that completed, you  might move on to your responses to why should our teens be Jewish?

It’s a basic question that we will need to grapple with for several reasons:

1.     In today’s open society, Jewish values resemble good old-fashioned American humanistic values.

Kindness to animals? Check.

Respect for the elderly? Check.

Caring for the environment? Check.

Social and humanitarian causes? Check.

Well, you get the idea. Our teens are so much a part of the American (Judeo-Christian) value system, that selling them on Jewish values is tough.

Not only that,

2.     Jewish teens don’t perceive themselves as different from their friends, nor do they want to be different.

Then the hard bare reality might hit——many of us don’t want them to feel different either….since we may well remember what that felt like. (So, what do we do with that? )

Among most teens that are not in day school, religion is pretty much a non-issue among their friends. In high school, most kids aren’t staying up into the midnight hours talking theology.

Chem? Yes.

Advanced Physics? Totally.

God? Don’t think so.

3.     Jewish teens aren’t so much interested in doing things that are devoid of personal meaning, and many rituals connected with Judaism have not passed                that test for them.

What’s been missing is context.

Ritual without it is pretty empty, since there isn’t the automatic compulsion to follow ritual for halachic  (Jewish legal) reasons.

You can try this. Just ask them how important it is for them to….say Kiddush. Motzi.

Thought so.  (We’re talking about most Jewish teens here, not those for whom a context has been provided).

4.      Back to the God thing. In high school, Reason is King. They haven’t delved far enough into the sciences to really, really comprehend the mystery of it all, which when they do, (later, in college perhaps) can be an awesome and spiritual experience.

Yes, they’ll talk string theory, and quantum physics, but won’t really be able to absorb all of its implications. (Check out an earlier post: Thinking about Religious Truths and Scientific Lies, ). In short, they’re not there yet.

So, we have a job to do.

Far more than even worrying about Bar and Bat Mitzvah drop-off.

We have to get them to want to be Jewish.  They need to Love Being Jewish. 

The very first step, is making sure our top seven answers are substantive.

Then we need to let our teens see how much we love it. 

Photo credit: wikipedia.org

This post is an updated version of a previous post called “Why should our teens be Jewish?”


Surprisingly Simple Strategies: How a Presbyterian Church Reaches its’ Teens

All Teens Welcome

All Teens Welcome

What might other faith communities teach us, as Jewish educators, about engaging large numbers of teens in religious activities?

We clearly have what to learn, as more and more teens are opting out of Jewish learning past the age of 13, just as they’re beginning their adolescent journeys.

Recently, The Jewish Education Project hosted a webinar called “Interfaith Teen Engagement Exchange” with a team from the Christ Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.  The purpose was for us to hear how they successfully reach teens in a new engagement model.

Briefly, I’ll distill for you what I believe worked for them.

Some of the strategies will not give you an ‘aha’ moment, and even if they did, some would require a more long-term approach, as in building a culture of volunteerism with active lay leaders.

I’ve simplified things a bit by including several related things in one category. Where that was not possible, you can see additional notes at the end. So, here is my take on the three top strategies that help create their successes:

#1. Empower and train volunteers.

There was an entire system of engagement based on the tireless efforts of unpaid individuals. An army of volunteer coaches, mentors, house group leaders, and peer leaders are part of this model. The volunteers are on board with how important it is to give their teenagers a moral grounding both for socialization in high school and to ensure a connection with their faith later on.  All peer facilitators are trained before becoming a leader, and receive support from a coach or mentor throughout.

#2. Make the program goals ‘stick’.

Create a system of credentialing for leaders. The teen peer leaders have to apply for the position, then are interviewed, trained, and supported in their roles. They can, after a period of time and with further training, move on to other roles. Although the program seems informal at first, with a closer look there is a hierarchical structure that supports the structure and gives teens goals to achieve more responsibility (and status). There are requirements of time and attendance that are clear to volunteers and participants alike. In addition, peer leaders make a multi-year commitment to the program.

#3. Relationship-building is part of the program, not a by-product. Move from small to larger groups. 

The weekly program begins with teens participating in small groups (7-10) where they get to know their peers in safe settings. In those groups, they learn a piece of text that their peer leaders have already experienced in their own training sessions. The discussions are informal, but have a purpose: to relate the text to real life experiences. After the small group discussions, everyone moves to a larger session (100 or more teens). The focus is on fun, interactive, and dynamic experiences: a game, simulation, workshop, or contest.

Additional Techniques:

Branding: the levels of responsibility were given catchy names and logos

Getting out of bounds: An important part of the program was to create relationships within small communities. These meetings were held in people’s homes, with House Group Leaders in charge of the program. People willingly open their homes on a weekly basis to host these programs.

Frequency is key: The programs themselves were not that long (1 hour, 15 minutes from small to large group), but are held weekly. Again, relationships deepen when experiences are shared regularly.

Have you found these strategies to work in your settings?

What would aid in the implementation of such a model?

I’d love to read your feedback! Please share below.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org