Tag Archives: synagogue

When You Say “Jewish Community,” Who are You Talking About?

Image

The largest collection of open-ocean animals found in an aquarium

Who is in your Jewish community? Really, start to define who you consider a part of your community.

Do you get a static or lively impression? Are there people of all ages and religious movements in your community? Or is it limited to who belongs where you belong?

What I’ve written about here, is that often “membership” dictates who is in your community. Whether it’s synagogue or JCC, ‘belonging’ seems to define who is in your immediate Jewish community.  Gone from that definition of community are those individuals who have not signed up right along with you, those who tend to be on the fringe.

Not a great way to teach teens that the Jewish community is a fluid, open-networked concept.

With today’s networked world, we really can move beyond the boundaries of walls to begin to define who we are.

I am not saying that belonging is bad, it’s a very good thing to be part of something greater than yourself.

But if your only connection to the Jewish community is where you hold a formal ‘memberships’, you might be missing out on meeting others who haven’t ‘joined’. What are ways that you might connect to the larger Jewish community?

What if every city had a portal to Jewish life, with links to all things Jewish in the area—one that was interactive, and came with a live chat option with a ‘Concierge’? How great would that be? That helpful person would help you navigate through the many options available to you, no matter what your age.

From a pluralistic point of view, that means that everyone gets represented in the community stew.

And your Jewish community just expanded into an open, fluid, and networked concept, just right for the web 3.0 world.

 


Read what one teen says about teachers

Timken Roller Bearing Co., calendar, September...

From the 1950’s, but great teachers create impact no matter the year

This summer I’m working with an intern through a program that combines work experience with college preparation. Great idea, no? I’m fortunate that this person has also been a part of our school for years, and is somewhat familiar with the world of blogging (and has his own gaming site blog!).

I asked him about his experience in our Jewish community high school, and to be a guest blogger.

“Something I really find a need for in Jewish education is good teachers. I hear my friends complaining a lot that their teachers are uninteresting, and they may find hebrew school, or any religious school for that matter, a waste of time or boring.

I don’t entirely disagree with that. If a teacher cannot find an interesting way to teach a subject or at least a way to keep the students interested, then they won’t want to learn, and they won’t care about Jewish education.

As a highschool student myself I find that the only reason I really keep coming to hebrew school now, is the great teachers and the friends I have made. The teachers that I have found to be the best are the ones that don’t just teach the subject. They know how to really engage us into the topic.

These special teachers have been able to not only get my attention, but to really make me think.

They have been able to start great class discussions that weren’t even meant to happen.  I also think it is better when the teacher treats us like an adult, like we can handle more mature topic matters.

I have had teachers in the past that would break every subject down—spoon-feeding us the material, and would tone down the maturity level simply because we are teenagers.  There was not thinking involved. The best teachers I have had may have provided us with more detailed information, but they do it for a reason, and they would end up explaining why that method was used.

Overall the best teachers make the best Jewish education experiences. If the teacher is really good, they could get any student interested and understand anything.”


From Jewish Camp to Synagogue: Five No-brainers

Stanford Sailing Summer Camp in session in Red...

The more things change, the more …..well, you can fill in the blank here. This is on my mind as we approach the summer and thousands of Jewish teens anxiously await the beginning of Jewish camp.

I thought that by now there would be some changes in the synagogue world.  I’m not even talking about broad, sweeping, systemic change.  Or the changes suggested by some 15 teens a few months ago. Incredibly, I have been hoping for one small specific change ever since I was about 10 years old and attended a Jewish summer camp (which I did for 6 years after that and for 9 more in assorted roles from teacher to Assistant Director).

That change is maximizing campers’ experiences when they arrive home to their synagogue communities.  Specifically, at services (I so dislike that name for what we’re looking to experience during that time of prayer).  The disconnect I experienced then still holds true in most synagogues now. Jewish teens have described it to me.

Summer camp is exhilarating for our Jewish teens. For most, living Judaism 24/7 and not as an ‘add-on’ like Hebrew school, is a powerful new experience for them.  Their weeks have the rhythm of Shabbat in camp that usually doesn’t occur at home. They’re also 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.

That’s why many Jewish Federations around the country and the Foundation for Jewish camping are trying to get our kids to go there through incentive scholarships.

Okay, let’s get back to focusing on the one thing: services.  At camp? Not boring at all. Sure, they’re tired in the morning, can barely keep their eyes open, but their peers are usually in front of the room leading the group, and this already makes things rather interesting. Plus, there’s a lot of interactivity and singing.  Do you have this mental picture?  Good.

Let’s switch now, to what they experience at their home synagogue. If it’s hard for you to keep a connection to services comprised of ‘readings’ interspersed with cantorial singing, how might they feel after just experiencing what they did for weeks in the summer?

It might not be too harsh to say that experiencing ‘services’ at their home synagogue amounts to listening to someone else chant—-like in a production where you buy tickets and wait for the entertainment.

If guests go up to the bimah (raised platform), it’s usually to offer a reading. Yawn.  But what about synagogues that hold a camp Shabbat honoring those teens who attend Jewish summer camps? Oh that? Yes, that’s when most often, campers are invited to lead prayers but not asked to bring their style of prayer to the “Jews in the Pews”. Usually the reason given is that people like to sing/read/chant what they already know….it’s comfortable. (I’m not making this up, I’ve been told this very thing).

It’s frightfully a sad state when there are no links, bridges, and supports from one experience to the other. There may be programs working on this, but I haven’t encountered any.

So, here we have Jewish teens who spend the summer being energized about a Judaism that is alive, pulsing, vibrant, and changeable, coming back home to experience a sterile, cold, inflexible environment. And again, I’m just talking about services. What should we do about it? Here are some suggestions for using the talents of our teens:

#1.  Mentor a group to begin a ‘camp style’ minyan (quorum) at your synagogue, even once a month for starters.  Or ask them to duplicate a service one Shabbat evening or morning.

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

#3.  Give the teens a goal to incorporate one new and different thing from camp into synagogue programming for your youth.

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

#5.  Get these teens in front of your younger students to share their experiences and keep the legacy of Jewish camping a presence at your synagogue.

I bet you’ll notice a change. Even if it’s a really small specific one.

Related articles

Photo credit: Wikipedia


Hiring Jewish teen aides? Five things to know

The title of this post offers you some tips, however first, I’d like to ask you for some advice…..to 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 save money 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 put Rachel in the position of having had a Bat Mitzvah, and 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 that 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.


‘Wow, You’re Soooo Jewish!”

What image comes to mind when you read the headline?

Is it the consummate Jewish nebbish, portrayed here by Woody Allen?

The words “You’re soooo0 Jewish”, said in that tone of voice, from one Jewish teenager to another, is not meant as a compliment.

So, what does it mean?

Really, take a minute.

What would it mean to you?

 

To this teenager, it meant that his Jewish friend was taking Judaism seriously, too seriously.

Not only was he Jewish, he was acting Jewish.

Forget that being ‘so Jewish’ is a little like being a human. You either are or you’re not.

But that’s not the point.

The comment was meant as a put-down, a derogatory statement about identity.

Clearly, there is no ‘cool’ factor when it comes to Jewish education for these students.

Okay, you’re wondering, what is it that this student is doing that makes his peers say he’s so Jewish?

He attends a supplementary high school program two days a week.

He’s in 8th grade, and says that he wants to graduate the program in 12th.

He belongs to a youth group.

He sometimes attends synagogue on Shabbat. And he sometimes studies with a Rabbi.

Okay, by now you’re probably convinced that his Jewish involvement is unusual, and you might be shaking your head.

Years ago, this student would not have been labeled ‘SuperJew‘.

On the contrary, that’s what thousands of teens were doing. Then.

Before their lives got so busy, complicated, college-focused and pressured. Now, based on today’s new realities and priorities, our expectations have changed. So, is the student I described s00000 Jewish, or have we bought into diminished standards?

What Jewish involvements are too much? Too little?

How do you feel about the term s0000o Jewish?

What I will say, is that the one thing, the Jewish identification thing, that will help Jewish teens be more grounded before they run off to college is the thing that tends to get low priority.

Unless of course, you’re “SuperJew” and one of the kids who is “sooooo Jewish.”


Why some teens ‘get it’ but their parents don’t

I just came back from visiting a synagogue with an enviable number of teens in their Confirmation Program.

What number, you ask, counts as being worthy of envy? About FORTY.

I was talking to them about continuing their Jewish education and framing it in the context of choices they make.

For example, I asked and the majority answered, that they play sports or a musical instrument.

I asked them if faced with a choice about whether to practice scales, do drills, or go to the movies, what they would choose.

Most chose the movies. No surprise there.   I then asked which activity they thought was the most important.

The answers were very rich and textured.

They mostly all opted for the drilling and practicing. They talked about those activities as building character, teamwork, responsibility, and doing something for their future.  The felt it was time well spent.

Interesting no?

I then facilitated a conversation with them about how being involved in continuing education might be a little like that.  Like it would build character and identity. Things that would make them better people, but that take some time.

They GOT IT.

Do you think their parents get it?  When thinking about how or what these teens might say to parents about what we just talked about–continuing their Jewish education—-I wonder how many parents will say:

“Wow, that makes a lot of sense” or what I often hear instead: “How can you possibly do one more thing, you’re already overbooked!”

What do you think the parents you know would say?


Jewish Teens Need Us to Work as a Team

English: Students cheer their team on Sports DayI have resisted writing about the following for some time. But I can always tell when I’ve reached my own ‘tipping point’: it’s usually when I get tired of hearing myself repeat the same thing over and over to different people.

Secretly, I hope they’ll do something about what I’m telling them, but that hasn’t happened yet.  So, here I am, blogging to you. At least you can listen and perhaps share my frustration, and who knows? Maybe things will change.

First, we need to cooperate more. We are not working as a team on behalf of our teens.  I’ll define a teen team player as anyone or any organization that has the teen’s best interest at heart for involvement in Jewish life. Period.

That team, the teen team, has a shortage of players which is why we’re losing the Jewish identity game.  Here are some reasons:

  • There is little to no list-sharing among providers of Jewish educational experiences, both formal and informal.  What about privacy you ask? Well, how many groups even ask if their teens might want to have their names shared with other teen non-profit groups (non-profit stressed due to obvious reasons). How many teens do you know that would not want to be with as many other Jewish teens as possible?
  • Since groups wish to maintain their “members” and teens’ time is limited, there is little collaboration among groups, fearing that teens might ‘defect’ if exposed to the other group. (I could have said ‘leave’ but I’m making a point here). This plays out among synagogues, youth groups, interest groups, educational providers, and camps. Yes, there are joint programs out there, but often they partner with  ‘their own’ of the same denomination. I have experienced too many anecdotes about this that would curl your ears, if your ears could, in fact curl.
  • So, the takeaway for teens, though not intended, is that “membership” dictates who is in your community. How’s that for teaching teens that the Jewish community is a fluid, open-networked concept?
  • The above mentioned groups feel no guilt about deciding destiny. So, for example, if a teen belongs to a movement-affiliated synagogue, the chances of finding out about other options are pretty limited. If a synagogue is affiliated with a movement, only that youth group and camp are promoted.
  • Synagogues often want their teens ‘on-site’ as if keeping them physically in one place assures commitment (it doesn’t). Those teens may end up defining Judaism very narrowly. In fact, they do just that when they get to college. How can Judaism be more relevant to them if their experience of it is primarily synagogue-based? I am not referring to those teens who seem to straddle multiple worlds, and who are natural networkers. And I’m also not saying that synagogue/youth group/movement camps are not a good thing, we know they are. I’m specifically talking about those teens, for whatever reasons, are the minimally engaged to begin with and not making those choices. What are the options for other Jewish connections that we’re giving them?
  • The above does not apply to broad-based efforts, like the Foundation for Jewish Camping, that make a point of going beyond those limitations in awarding grants by saying in effect: “we don’t care which camp or where, just pick one!” We should all be taking that cue regarding Jewish youth involvement: we don’t care which program or where, just do something!
  • How about other open groups you ask? What about groups like teen philanthropy, teen fellowships, gender-based groups? Those are defining Judaism more broadly, but are there bridges to other programs which could increase identity building? Many times, those connections are left for each teenager to figure out. The connections must work both ways: to and from other organizations and synagogues.
  • How are we doing those teens a favor? Shouldn’t we be giving them a better sense of Jewish communal collaboration before they get to college? How can we, as a Jewish community, talk about pluralism and Klal Yisrael when we don’t really act that way ourselves. Could it be that we are modeling the very behavior they can’t relate to? Is this close-mindedness a contributing cause for the fact that most college students see no need to affiliate denominationally in college? I’m not saying that youth movements don’t work as leadership preparation for the future. I’m saying that we need to rethink our strategies and behave in ways that model collaboration or cooperation. We can’t be on the teen team if our organizations are based on a scarcity model.  

We have to decide if we are playing on an organization’s team or the teen’s team. If we’re on the same team, then we need a shared mission of youth leadership.

We’re in need of players for the teen team if we want to win this.  It’s like we’re in the 9th inning, with no runners on base. Will you step up?

I’d love to hear about collaborative models that defy these descriptions. I’ll post and share your responses so we can learn from each other.

Image via Wikipedia


Jewish Teens Reinvent the Synagogue

I’m so lucky.  We Jewish educators trudge uphill a lot of the time, just to keep pace. Yet, every week I get inspired from the Jewish teens I work with. Last week I asked a group of 10th and 11th graders how they would reinvent the synagogue:

Synagogue construction, Baron De Hirsch Trade ...

“Your goal is to insure that people will be active, engaged, and interested. There are no limits. What will you create? What type of organization will speak to you?”

They had a hard time with this initially, not being able to get past what they experience now.  That surprised me. They first offered: more music, shorter services, more comfortable seats.

When I prodded further, they pushed the boundaries a little more.

Welcome to the synagogue as seen through the eyes of a group of Jewish teens: branding abounds, with lots and lots of food available (did I mention that there are mostly boys in this class?).

Someone piped in: “We could have a Manishewitz wing!” Another student shot right back: “Yeah,why not? Companies could be sponsors of the synagogue or even sponsor events.”

“Even Bar/t Mitzvahs I asked?”

“Yea, why not,” they responded. That way, they wouldn’t cost so much.”
Hmmmm. Interesting.

Unanimously, they all agreed that there needs to be more food.  Then they began to dream big, envisioning a cafe-type set-up, with lots of  informal places to sit–like a lobby in a hotel.  Oh, they were also big on sports options.  Basketball and racketball courts and pools. Places to sleep when family comes into town for b’nei mitzvahs. Why not a spa?

What they talked about resembled a newly configured JCC/Synagogue/Restaurant/Hotel.

I told them that they will be the ones to do this, and that we’re depending on them.

Though I don’t see a Rokeach-sponsored Bat Mitzvah anytime soon, I can see the ‘Awesome Osem Auction!’ with these teens in charge of things.  Just maybe we need to take some cues from these young leaders and simply lighten things up a little. Oh yes, and have some food.

Image: Synagogue construction, Baron De Hirsch Trade School, South Jersey Colonies, Carmel, NJ (Photo credit: Center for Jewish History, NYC)


A young and energetic Hebrew School teacher writes….

This is the e-mail I received today:

 Hi Ruth!  How are you? I hope all is well! As my mom told you, I am now teaching at a local synagogue near my college. I am enjoying it a lot so far, but I’m having trouble coming up with new and creative lesson plans apart from the teacher’s guide. Can you recommend any good books on Jewish lesson plans that I could use for my class? I would really appreciate it!  

Isn’t this a really great e-mail? I love to hear from our graduates. Here’s why I think this e-mail is so wonderful:

1. the writer graduated our program with honors, received a teaching certificate and is doing precisely what we hoped she’d do–teach in a synagogue school while in college.    

2. She obviously enjoys what she’s doing and has a commitment to her students.

3. She is aware of what specific tools and resources would help her be a more successful teacher.

4. She is asking for assistance. 

So, now the bad news:

1. She may not be receiving any supervision at the synagogue school.

2. Whether or not she is, she doesn’t feel a comfort level in asking for help.

3. It doesn’t seem like there are peers who could help each other work this through, or even mentors assigned to her in her first, very important year.

4. Many of our best and brightest work in synagogue Hebrew Schools. They get little help.

5. We may lose her and her energy in a year or two, and this experience may even impact her years later. 

This e-mail is not unique, and I’ve heard similar anecdotes before.

I know there are some programs and initiatives now to tackle some of these issues, however most focus on day schools.

I just don’t know if they will reach THIS young woman.

Several months ago, I  crafted a proposal for a web-based support system for college-age teachers in supplementary schools that was submitted to a foundation.

It didn’t get funded.


what I learned about marketing from working at a Jewish Community High School

You would think it would be easy to market a product that has intrinsic long-term value, is priced well, offers tremendous flexibility, is an intellectual challenge, offers social experiences and networking opportunities, and even looks good for college.

You’d be wrong.

Welcome to my world where marketing a great product  is a struggle.

Here are just a few reasons why, with more to come in future posts:

1. The ‘point of sale’ is often at a synagogue Hebrew school, where we present options for further Jewish education. Need I say more?

For these 7th grade students, they’re in a year bursting with Bar/t Mitzvah invitations and parties.  Peeking over the horizon they can see the glimmering opportunity to be ‘outta here’ (as some  parents have promised them)…well, you get the point.

2. If students decide to come on board in 8th grade, it might be because they feel compelled  (internally or externally) to continue their Jewish education.  The choice to attend a community school could mean there were either no appealing options for further education at the synagogue (which may or may not have Confirmation Programs ending in 10th grade) or this student is really, really motivated.  Synagogues who have their own Confirmation programs  work very hard to keep their students there.  More about Confirmation programs later.

3. The ‘product’ we’re offering is impossible to explain to these students.  It’s like describing what college is like to a high schooler. You just don’t get it until you go.  Which is precisely why so many colleges have figured this one out a long time ago and created pre-college programs for 11th graders. The ‘try it, you’ll like it’ programming through free visits and orientations works.

4. Aha! you say, what about Orientations and Open Houses?  These programs do help when conducted at our school sites and both programs capitalize on the fact that potential students need to experience how great it is to sit in on classes, feel the ‘vibe’ at break time, have Q & A opportunities (mostly questions related to their fear of  ‘fitting this in’ ), and meet tons of teens who have made the choice to continue and are obviously happy.

5.The difficulty is getting the word out about these options. Synagogues that have their own programs can’t promote it. There are no advertising dollars to spend. Federations, straddling both the synagogue and communal worlds, can’t really get in the middle of this either.

6. Back to Confirmation programs, instituted as a life cycle ritual by synagogues to retain students after the infamous Bar/t Mitzvah drop-off year…all with good intentions.  What’s happened though, is that the end point has just been moved up, but it’s rare at that point for students to continue to 11th and 12th grade (for exceptions, read here).  Yet, that is exactly the time when teens are ready to engage in Judaism with some maturity, insight, intellectual rigor and curiosity.

7. When these students think that they’ve gone beyond all expectations in continuing even to this point, up to Confirmation…..imagine how hard it is to ask them to sign on for two more years?  This is also precisely the time when they are also at their busiest, participating in gobs of outside activities and prepping for college.

More school anyone? How about on a Sunday morning?

Yet, we’re doing quite well despite the above. Go figure.

I believe in what we have to offer–strongly–and as a result, marketing and promotion have become part of my job.

Imagine what impact we could have if we didn’t have such an uphill struggle.

How would you deal with any of these challenges? I’d love to hear suggestions, ideas, or expert marketing advice.


News Flash! A Collaborative Model in the Jewish Community

Circle Design
A tightly knit collaborative circle. Image by matley0

I’m by nature an optimistic  person (I’m a Jewish educator, after all). But, there’s no doubt that when I consider the topics I’ve written about the outlook seems a little gloomy, and the word ‘kvetch’ comes to mind.

The process of change seems to tug along slower than a cruiser trying to glide through oil.  

Even though I tell myself that what I’ve observed and written about is true  and some would say it’s in the best interest of the Jewish community for me to point these things out, the overall vista is more than gray. “Kvetch” is still the word stubbornly sticking around.    

Since the month before Rosh HaShanah is a time of introspection, I decided to get back to my optimistic core and write about a program that works as a model of collaboration on behalf of Jewish teens. 

I recently spent time during our evening program with over 45 students in 11th and 12th grade who are making an incredibly serious commitment to the Jewish community.  They are amazing, many will be our future leaders, and I owe it to them to talk about what they’re doing. 

In partnership with the URJ, local synagogues, and a Jewish community high school, Jewish teens participate in a win-win situation. 

Students work in their synagogues one day a week as classroom aides, and attend a second day (YES, a second day) taking classes which complement their experience and add to their repertoire of teaching techniques. 

In the final year of the program, students take a freshman college course in Foundations of Education (child development, multiple intelligences, classroom dynamics, lesson planning…) plus a college level Bible course.  

“Training Students to Become Jewish Educators”  is an article I co-wrote which is relevant here and outlines only some of the benefits of the Education course.

In this arrangement, synagogues get the benefit of classroom assistants who are role models for their school, but not only as paid staff, but as students who are making a continued commitment to their own Jewish education

Working to make this program successful are local Reform Jewish Educators, Rabbis of the reform synagogues, administrators and educators at the Jewish community high school, plus parents who encourage and support their teens in the program.  When I think about this program, the word optimistic fills the space in my mind, as the word kvetch silently skulks off stage.


“(any name here)……A Synagogue You Can Believe In”

Sinagogue from Brasov, Romania

Image via Wikipedia

I kid you not.  The headline is exactly what the large billboard sign posted on the edge of the synagogue’s property said, proclaiming that I can now believe in a building. 

If I hadn’t been driving, I would have taken a picture.  Was I the only one experiencing the message as spiritually arrogant?  

Obviously, someone went through a lot of trouble to make that sign, and it probably had to pass several committees for approval. Who knows, maybe there was even a zoning issue or two involved. The billboard must have been the result of a well conceived membership campaign.

What happened? When did we lose sight of belief and instead become enamored with the impermanent: social halls, cushy chairs, plush carpeting and the oh so many naming opportunities?

A  friend of mine told me that she went to a membership orientation night, and after waiting 40 minutes past the start time, members were taken on a TOUR of the building!  No preliminary niceties or ice breakers, no interactive exercises, no discussion of what members find  meaningful in a synagogue experience.  Yet, amazingly, she joined.

If you’re thinking right about now “what does this have to do with Jewish teens?”  the topic is not as far off as you might think.  Teens get that we talk about connectedness, but aren’t really doing it in our sacred spaces. 

I’m not suggesting that we pray outside, in the cold, without shelter.  And I’m not, G-d forbid,  intimating that we not gather together.  What I’m saying is let’s not forget the reason that we built these things  in the first place: to become a community before G-d. Everything we do, every interaction we have, should stem from that one purpose.


My Experience with In-the-Box Thinking in the Jewish Community

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I read the article “Employees are faster and more creative when solving other people’s problems” by Daniel Pink with fascination. It turns out that we think more creatively and abstractly for others than for ourselves.  

The solutions are more concrete when working on things that affect us personally. 

What does this have to do with Jewish education?

Plenty,  it turns out. I’d like to share just two experiences with you:

1. Recently, a group of four synagogues wanted to brainstorm solutions for their Hebrew schools’ declining enrollment.  Among them, there are about 30 students in the 6th grade (daled) class.  The brief summary is that after several meetings they were unable to generate any alternatives. Why? Because each one did not want students to go to another location.   While discussions are still taking place, they did  agree to joint programming several times a year (locations to be determined).

2. Two synagogues down the road from each other recently joined efforts to create a ‘collaborative’ Hebrew High school, which sounds like a very good solution.  Because each one did not want students to ‘leave the building’ they alternate locations every six months.  The programming definitely seems creative.  At the outset this seems  like a terrific compromise between two ‘competing’ synagogues.  Except for the fact that less than 500 yards down the road sits a Jewish community high school. The school was never brought into the conversation, and the conversations leading to this change were facilitated by the community’s Jewish education agency.

Based on the study Pink quotes, he recommends disassociating ourselves from the problem when trying to solve it.  How would this work in the Jewish community?  How would the scenarios above play out differently? What if we could really think creatively?


Classroom and Community: Making It Real for Teens

courtesy of katerha's photostream

Recently I was teaching a class the Jewish value of G’milut Hasadim (acts of loving kindness). I asked them to think about a time when someone (friend, family–anyone) did something for them that they would define as an act of G’milut Hesed so we’d have an example of how the value is applied to real situations.  This is a class of intelligent and outspoken students, grades 8 and 9, who attend public and private schools in a suburban area. No hands shot up. I waited and gave some examples in case they didn’t understand the concept yet, suggesting that it was a difficult question and to take as much time as they needed. Still nothing.  Not one student had anything to say.

I discovered that the way  they experience kindness is through gifts or exchanges of things.  At this point we brainstormed about what they could do for others.  At first, they also thought about things: buying someone lunch, buying them an itune, etc. It took some work to move beyond that, but we did.

I don’t know if this lesson will ‘stick’, or if its ramifications will affect them in any way. But it stuck with me.

I learned that this is pretty much their world.  It’s not that gifts are bad (which we talked about). It’s just that in their experience there seems to be little in the way of true community at work.  In a non-Orthodox Jewish community it is really hard to build that into Jewish life.  I didn’t hear anyone talk about their synagogue or their youth group in this context, let alone the public arena.  This is the setting in which community and classroom have to go together.  The classroom needs to be the vehicle to put G’milut Hesed into action and any other value that we try to teach.   We need to make it real.