A “Top 10 List” Too Good to Passover!

I can’t help it!  It is 5:10 PM on Friday before headed into Passover Break and it has been such a wonderful and exhausting week that I lack all original thought…so, when in doubt…a Top 10 List (borrowed and adapted from sources too numerous to mention):

Top 10 Ways

To Improve Your Seder

The Passover Seder is the most widely observed Jewish ritual throughout the world.  Yet, many sedarim are spent with families sitting around the table with books in front of their faces, until Uncle Henry asks, “When do we eat?”

The Seder is a wonderful opportunity for families to spend time doing something they might not otherwise do—talk with one another!  The Seder was designed to be an interactive, thought provoking, and enjoyable experience, so now it is up to us to ensure that really happens.  Here are my top ten suggestions on how to make your Seder a more positive and meaningful experience:

1.  Tell the story of the Exodus

The core mitzvah of Passover is telling the story.  Until the 9th century, there was no clear way of telling the story.  In fact, there was tremendous fluidity in how the story was told.  The printing press temporarily put an end to all creativity of how to the story was told.  We need not limit ourselves to the words printed in the Haggadah.  Feel free to be creative in the way in which you tell the story.  This could be done by means of a skit, game, or informally going around the table and sharing each person’s version of the story.  If there are older members at the table, this might be a good time hear their “story,” and perhaps their “exodus” from whichever land they may have come.

2.  Sing Songs

If your family enjoys singing, the Seder is a fantastic time to break out those vocal cords! In addition to the traditional array of Haggadah melodies, new English songs are written each year, often to the tunes of familiar melodies.  Or just spend some time on YouTube! Alternatively, for the creative and adventurous souls, consider writing your own!

3.  Multiple Haggadot

For most families, I would recommend choosing one haggadah to use at the table.  This is helpful in maintaining consistency and ensuring that everyone is “on the same page.”  Nevertheless, it is also nice to have extra haggadot available for different commentaries and fresh interpretations.  Encourage your guests to bring to the seder any unusual haggadot they may have collected over the years.  Consider starting your own haggadah collection, it is never too late!

4.  Karpas of Substance

One solution to the “when are we going to eat” dilemma, is to have a “karpas of substance.”  The karpas (green vegetable) is served towards the beginning of the seder, and in most homes is found in the form of celery or parsley.  In truth, karpas can be eaten over any vegetable over which we say the blessing, “borei pri ha’adamah,” which praises God for “creating the fruit from the ground.”  Therefore, it is often helpful to serve something more substantial to hold your guests over until the meal begins.  Some suggestions for this are: potatoes, salad, and artichokes.

5.  Assign Parts in Advance

In order to encourage participation in your seder, you may want to consider giving your guests a little homework!  Ask them to bring something creative to discuss, sing, or read at the table.  You may suggest that your guests come in costume—dressed as their favorite plague!  All you have to do is ask, and you may be pleasantly surprised with the response.

6.  Know your audience

This may seem obvious, but the success of your seder will largely depend on your careful attention to the needs of the seder guests.  If you expect many young children at the seder, you ought to tailor the seder accordingly.  If you have people who have never been to a seder before, be prepared for lots of basic questions and explanations.  Do not underestimate your guests; if you take the seder seriously, they will likely respond positively.

7.  Fun Activities

Everyone wants to have a good time at the seder.  Each year, try something a little different to add some spice to the evening.  Consider creating a Passover game such Pesach Family Feud, Jewpardy, or Who Wants to be an Egyptian Millionaire?!  Go around the table and ask people fun questions with serious or silly answers.

8.  Questions for Discussion

An adult seder ought to raise questions that are pertinent to the themes found in the haggadah.  For example, when we read “ha lachma anya—this is the bread of affliction,” why do we say that “now we are slaves?”  To what aspects of our current lives are we enslaved?  How can we become free?  What does it mean/what are the implications of being enslaved in today’s society?

We read in the haggadah, “in each generation, one is required to see to him/herself as if s/he was personally redeemed from Egypt.”  Why should this be the case? How do we go about doing that?  If we really had such an experience, how would that affect our relationship with God?

As you read through the Haggadah, push yourself to ask these type of questions, and open them up for discussion.

9.  Share Family Traditions

Part of the beauty of Passover, is the number of fascinating traditions from around the world.  Encourage your guests to share the traditions they remember about Passover as a child.  Some families begin their own new traditions as well.  One family I know likes to go around the table and ask everyone to participate in filling the cup of Elijah.  As each person pours from his/her cup into Elijah’s, s/he offers a wish/prayer for the upcoming year.

10.  Preparation!!!!

The more thought and preparation given to the seder, the more successful the seder will be.  Don’t expect to just “wing it,” and hope that everything will fall into place.  A thoughtful, creative, and enjoyable seder takes time to prepare.  We often get caught up preparing for the meal, that it is easy to forget about the content of the seder.  Spend the time, and you won’t regret it!  Don’t forget to have fun.

 

And for one final quote to get you in the spirit to take action this holiday season…I leave you with:

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote, “History, Judaism says, cannot move or progress without the individual. God waits for man if there is something to be done.  God does nothing until man initiates action. God waits for man, for a single person, to accept responsibility and initiate the process of redemption.”

The story of Passover is a dramatic example of this.  While there is no question as to the divine authorship of the Israelites’ deliverance, freedom had to wait for Moses – for just one person – to see a burning bush, hear a call to service and answer…

“Hineini – here I am.”

Testing, testing, 1-2-3…

I spent an hour yesterday working with our Academic Resource Specialist trying to decide exactly which set of scoring results will make the most amount of sense for the battery of standardized tests our students have now completed.

One hour.

What should be cross-checked with what and which version should be sent to whom?Longitudinal data over how many different data points in which sections from when to when?  Do we err on the side of sharing too much information and run the risk of overwhelming and confusing the parents?  Do we err on the side of sharing too little information and run the risk of appearing to have something to hide?

What exactly is the value of standardized testing and how do we use the information it yields?

It sounds like such a simple question…

My starting point on this issue, like many others, is that all data is good data.  There cannot possibly be any harm to knowing all that there is to know.  It is merely a question of how to best use that data to achieve the fundamental task at hand – to lovingly move a child to reach his or her maximum potential.  To the degree that the data is useful for accomplishing this goal is the degree to which the data is useful at all.

Standardized tests in schools that do not explicitly teach to the test nor use curriculum specifically created to succeed on the tests – like this one – are very valuable snapshots. Allow me to be overly didactic and emphasize each word…they are valuable – they are; they really do mean something.  And they are snapshots – they are not the entire picture, not by a long shot, of either the child or the school.  Only when contextualized in this way can we avoid the unnecessary anxiety that often bubbles up when results roll in.

Like any snapshot, the standardized test ought to resemble its object.  The teacher and the parent see the results and say to themselves, “Yup, that’s him.”  It is my experience that this is the case more often than not.  Occasionally, however, the snapshot is less clear.  Every now and again, the teacher and the parent – who have been in healthy and frequent communication all the year long – both look at the snapshot and say to themselves, “Who is this kid?”

When that happens and when there is plenty of other rich data – report cards, prior years’ tests, portfolios, assessments, etc. OR teacher’s notes from the testing which reveal anxiety, sleepiness, etc. – it is okay to decide that someone put their thumb on the camera that day (or that part of the test) and discard the snapshot altogether.

Okay, you might say, but besides either telling us what we already know OR deciding that it isn’t telling us anything meaningful, what can we learn?

Good question!

Here is what I expect to learn from standardized testing in our school if our benchmarks and standards are in alignment with the test we have chosen to take:

Individual Students:

Do we see any trends worth noting?  If the overall scores go statistically significantly down in each area year after year that would definitely be an indication that something is amiss (especially if it correlates to grades).  If a specific section goes statistically significantly down year after year, that would be an important sign to pay attention to as well.  Is there a dramatic and unexpected change in any section or overall in this year’s test?

The answers to all of the above would require conversation with teachers, references to prior tests and a thorough investigation of the rest of the data to determine if we have, indeed, discovered something worth knowing and acting upon.

This is why, beginning this year, we will be scheduling individual meetings with parents in our school to personally discuss and unpack any test result that comes back with statistically significant changes (either positive or negative) from prior years’ testing.

The results themselves are not exactly customer friendly.  There are a lot of numbers and statistics to digest, “stanines” and “percentiles” and whatnot.  It is not easy to read and interpret the results without someone who understands them guiding you.  As the educators, we feel it is our responsibility to be those guides.

Individual Classes:

Needless to say (but you just said it!), if an entire class’ scores took a dramatic turn from one year to the next it would be worth paying attention to – especially if history keeps repeating.  To be clear, I do not mean the CLASS AVERAGE.  I do not particularly care how the “class” performs on a standardized test qua “class”.  [Yes, I said “qua” – sometimes I cannot help myself.]  What I mean is, should it be the case that each year in a particular class each student‘s scores go up or down in a statistically significant way – that would be meaningful to know.  Because the only metric we concern ourselves with is an individual student’s growth over time – not how s/he compares with the “class”.

That’s what it means to cast a wide net (admissions) while having floors, but no ceilings (education).

School:

If we were to discover that as a school we consistently perform excellently or poorly in any number of subjects, it would present an opportunity to examine our benchmarks, our pedagogy, and our choice in curriculum.  If, for example, as a Lower School we do not score well in Math historically, it would force us to consider whether or not we have established the right benchmarks for Math, whether or not we teach Math appropriately, and/or whether or not we are using the right Math curriculum.

Or…if we think that utilizing a 21st century learning paradigm is best for teaching and learning then we should, in time, be able to provide evidence from testing that in fact it is.  (It is!)

So…the bubbles have been filled in, but the fun has just begun!  Here at MJGDS, we eagerly anticipate the results to come and to making full use of them to help each student and teacher continue to grow and improve.  We look forward to fruitful conversations. That’s what it means to be a learning organization.

You may put your pencils down now.

Mentor in a Speedo

I have seen a lot of tweets, likes, and comments to this March 30th NY Times op-ed article, “What I Learned at School” by Marie Myung-OK Lee.  In light of the heated national conversation about education and teachers currently taking place – those of us who care about education feel compelled to make the case in a variety of ways.  The most personal way is to share stories.  Sharing stories is amongst the most unique and special things human beings have to offer each other and the world.  I was asked this week to share a story about a day school teacher who touched my life…which I cannot do because I am not a product of the day school world.  [See my prior blog posts here and here for a more intimate look at my Jewish upbringing.  See here for my thoughts on current events.]  But I have been deeply influenced a particular mentor in the field of Jewish education and I thought in the spirit of the moment, I would write about that relationship.

[As a side experiment, I have looked up my mentor on Google, but have not contacted him in at least five years or more.  I’ll be curious to see if this blog post finds him…and even more curious if he appreciates the portrait I have painted!  In the spirit of transparency, I’m taking risks and naming names!  If I hear anything, I’ll update the post.]

[As an aside to the side experiment, I am going to forgo blogging convention and not muddle the portrait with a zillion links to the websites of all the organizations I am about to shamelessly namedrop.  They can all be researched should you wish to know more.]

[As a postscript to the aside to the side experiment, I’ll return next week with some thoughts about adventures in standardized testing and getting ready for Passover…probably not in the same post.]

 

I have many fond memories of my foremost professional mentor, Dr. David Ackerman, but unfortunately the one that leaps out is the image of him sporting a Speedo at the pool or on the beach during the two and a half weeks we traveled together in Israel during the summer of 1998.  At the time, I was the Director of Teen Programs for the Bureau of Jewish Education-Greater Los Angeles, and as such responsible for the BJE-LA Ulpan Summer-in-Israel program.  Dr. Ackerman was my immediate supervisor at the Bureau – a relationship that had already repeated itself in a remarkable variety of work and educational settings over just three years.

My first memory of Dr. Ackerman was on my tour of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, where I was applying for a Masters in Education.  Truthfully, I was really only there because I was already in town applying for the same degree at Hebrew Union College (HUC).  Not to repeat myself and to make an exceedingly long story as short as I can, I had been raised in the Reform community of Fremont – a suburban town in the East Bay of Northern California.  My parents were (and are) committed liberal Jews who prided themselves on synagogue affiliation, attendance and participating, but found ritual practice largely unnecessary.  I followed in their footsteps as an active member of our NFTY chapter, avid Reform summer camp attendee, and then as I moved into college, Reform summer camp staff person.  During my senior year at UC Berkeley, I decided that I enjoyed engaging in Jewish activities not only during the summer and that perhaps it would be a fulfilling career indeed to become a Jewish professional.  After a wilderness year, I decided that Jewish Education was the career for me, and then began to think about graduate school.  Hebrew Union College was the logical destination as the Reform movement’s graduate school, so application and interviews for HUC-LA were made.  It was only as an afterthought that I decided to visit LA’s other Jewish seminary, the University of Judaism which was more closely aligned with Conservative Judaism.

And so, straight out of mid-90’s liberal Northern California, I arrived on the campus of the University of Judaism.  I went small “c” conservative by wearing actual pants, putting my long hair back into a ponytail, and opting for studs instead of hoops in my multi-pierced ears.  I had only been paying mild attention to events until it was time for my one-on-one with Dr. David Ackerman.  He was in his first year as the Dean of the UJ’s Fingerhut School of Education at the time and what struck me most in our first meeting and has stayed with me ever since is his incredible capacity for inflicting calm.  His demeanor is almost always mild-mannered and unassuming.  I would learn later as colleagues that there is a degree calculation in his affect, but that came later.  In his calm way, in the course of a thirty-minute meeting, he convinced me to leave my comfortable Reform surroundings behind and embrace the risk, challenge, and excitement of living and learning a completely different way of being Jewish.

Over the next five years, Dr. Ackerman was there to mentor me academically, personally, and professionally.  I was the only student in my class to have Dr. Ackerman as his or her student teaching advisor.  I was placed in the school he had most recently run before assuming the deanship.  As I struggled to fit in at the UJ, he was there to smooth out my many, many rough edges.  He used to regale us with stories of crazy students and out of control parents from his former professional life and again and again impressed upon us the need for maintaining outward calm in the face of all sorts of chaos.

We were the only class that Dr. Ackerman recruited and graduated in his too-brief time at the UJ.  Fortunately, for me, upon leaving the UJ, Dr. Ackerman took a position at the BJE in LA and promptly hired me in my first full-time position in the field.  And that is how I found myself amused to see my mentor strutting on the beach in Tel Aviv in a Speedo.  It is also how I got new insights as to how he really thought and worked.  I got to see moments of candor, episodes of anger, and the occasional profane word or story.  They were all object lessons that I would try to bring into my own work in the field.

Time went on and I eventually left the BJE to move to New York and began the career that led me here to Jacksonville, with five wonderful years in Las Vegas sandwiched between.  Occasionally during my time in New York, I would check in with Dr. Ackerman – David, I guess by now, for advice on this issue or the other.  He helped me decide on my next educational step and even provided thoughts on possible dissertation topics.  If I ever write a book, he is sure to get a shout-out on the dedication page.

We have very different personalities to be sure.  But whenever in my career I am confronted with a difficult parent or a challenging student or concern over enrollment bubbles up or when board members worry over lack of fundraising (none of which, of course, happen here!), there is a piece of Dr. David Ackerman instilled in me that allows me to channel an outward calm that would otherwise not be there.  It doesn’t always come through and it doesn’t always work, but when it does, I think about him and silently thank him.  And hope he has moved on to more appropriate swimwear.

One Blog Fits All?

Time is a zero-sum game.

Whatever time is available for one thing automatically makes less of it available for something else.  The time I spend consulting with other schools (which is now beginning to happen with some small measure of regularity) is time I am not sitting in my own classrooms.  The time I spend writing grants, planning conference presentations, and dreaming dreams is time I am not collaborating with teachers.  The time I spend Tweeting and blogging is time I am not personally sharing vision and building relationships with parents and students.

It takes a significant amount of time and energy just to read the Tweets and blog posts from the variety of people I am eager to learn from.  There are so many valuable resources that already exist that I chronically feel behind the conversation as a follower!  It takes even more energy to think constructively about how I want to use Twitter, my blog posts and other social media to contribute to the conversation without simply retweeting for the sake of retweeting or blogging just to blog.  I look at the volume, quality and the variety of the Tweets and cross-platforming of blogs that some of my colleagues put out there and I become astounded (and envious). Who has time to do that?  I sometimes (snarkily) wonder when they have time to actually run their schools or their classrooms what with the Tweeting and the blogging and networking and whatnot.

So…how do we do it all?  How can smaller schools like ours find the time and resources to live up to our most basic responsibilities while still finding the time to publish and share what we do with the larger world?  In a 21st century mindset how do you balance “in-reach” with outreach?

The best answer I can think of is to answer those questions with other questions (this is a Jewish Day School after all): How can’t we?  Or are those even the right questions in the first place?

The truth is that as we have redefined our mission to include the vision of 21st Century/Curriculum 21 education, the values of “transparency”, “collaboration”, “reflective practice” are now becoming part and parcel of how we do business.  In the same way that a fifth grader’s motivation is raised as is the bar for his/her work as a result of knowing that the world is watching, so too is the quality of my reflections.  In the same way that a teacher’s practice is improved by the collective feedback of his/her peers, so too is mine.

I have to retrain myself in the same way we are retraining our teachers in the same way they are training our students…

…21st Century Learning/Curriculum 21 is NOT something extra to do on top of what we already need to do.  It is HOW we do what we do.  It is certainly way easier to say than it is to do.  But to truly embrace the paradigm shift it is what must be done.

And if doing it for the right reasons wasn’t enough…

…it has not gone unnoticed that there is a relationship between the amount of attention focused on us from the larger outside world and the perceived quality of our school from our most primary stakeholders.  For example, we showed our board a clip from Alan November’s TEDxNYED 2011 session in which he specifically referred to a classroom in our school, its teachers and students as the living example of how a 21st century classroom should be run.  Can you imagine how powerful it is for our parents and board members to view this?  Can you imagine how useful this kind of recognition is for attracting donors and grants?

In a further attempt to share our vision for 21st Century Learning with the world, I humbly offer a video put together by Talie Zaifert, our amazing Admissions & Marketing Director, of some greatest hits from a parlor meeting we had for our local community about 21st Century Learning at our school.  The presentation was largely prepared by Silvia Tolisano, one of our 21st Century Learning Specialists, and facilitated by the two of us.  It mixes basic background information along with specifics about our school – prepared for a local audience, but in the spirit of openness, available to all.  We welcome comments and feedback from all…

 

UPDATE – We just got another very powerful shout-out (about six minutes in) from Heidi Hayes Jacobs at the ASCD 2011 Conference:

A Life in Rhythm

It is very important (to me) that my kippah be color-coordinated to my outfit.  This is my issue and if you know me it comes as little to no surprise.  Today, I wore a light green tie and, to match, a kippah with many shades of green.  No big deal.  Whilst performing my greeting ritual during morning carpool, some small number of people remarked that they appreciated my green.  Why?  Today is Ta’anit Esther – the Fast of Esther…what does that have to do with the color green other than the fact that I am slowly turning it as the day goes on without eating or drinking?

Then I realize that it is also St. Patrick’s Day…

…and spend the rest of the day worrying that the Head of the Jewish Day School will be perceived as having cared that it was St. Patrick’s Day and chose to wear green in its honor when it fact I had no idea and would have had no idea had I picked a different tie this morning in the closet.

That is a very banal example…but there are other confluences that are trickier to navigate.  With today’s minor fast we are setting the emotional stage for the excitement, fun, revelry and joy that is Purim.  I wrote in last week’s blog post about the dangers of “Pediatric Judaism” and how Purim often is its example par excellence.  But I acknowledge that there is also the very real world that we live in and it is reasonable to wonder how to celebrate when Japan sits on the brink of disaster on top of disaster.  Is it okay to dress in costume, sing, dance and make merry in light of all the suffering?

Judaism says “yes”.  Emphatically so.  Now and always.  There is a time and place for everything…we can learn about disasters, debate nuclear power, and donate to those suffering on Friday AND put on a costume, shake a gragger, and sing and dance with our children on Saturday (night).  For that is what it means to live a Jewish life in rhythm.

Here’s another example:

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are important and meaningful holidays.  But they ought not be the only ones we experience each year.  And if they are…we run the risk of believing ourselves or conveying to our children that what it means to be Jewish is to sit in synagogue for a long time in starchy clothes and sometimes to not eat and to not drink which might make you grumpy.  Which sometimes it does.  But it also means singing and dancing and drinking and eating and playing and wearing costumes and enjoying being part of a community, being in the presence of friends and family and sometimes just being alive.  And we should seek to make the most of all those moments, because that is what it means to life a Jewish life in rhythm.

There are moments to remember and moments to cherish.  There are moments we plan and moments that simply happen.  In this maddening March month of monumental moments, I leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being:

God

A Soul

And a Moment

 

And the three are always there.

 

Chag Purim Sameach…Happy Purim to all!

A Purim Prescription for Pediatric Judaism

When we think about Purim as parents, we probably think most about this: What shall I dress my children as this year for Purim?  In this case, we dressed up Eliana a few years ago as Elmo and it gives me a shameless opportunity to show a cute picture of her.  But in our family, the question isn’t what are we going to dress our children as for Purim. In our family, we ask ourselves what are we going to dress as for Purim?

I would wager a bet that no more than 10-15% of families attending Purim services and/or carnivals this year will come in costume.  Why?

The phenomenon is often referred to as “pedicatric Judaism” and I find that Purim is its paradigmatic Jewish holiday.  I Googled “pediatric Judaism” to see who should get credit for its coinage and the best I could come up with was the following from a Reform Judaism Magazine article:

Why, then, the emphasis on what Rabbi Larry Hoffman, professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, calls “pediatric Judaism”? “We have planned for our children only,” he wrote in 1996. “In our understandable anxiety to pass on Judaism as their heritage, we have neglected its spiritual resources for adults, leaving ourselves with no adequate notion of how we too might draw sustenance from our faith as we grow up and grow older.”

That sounds about right.  Far too often, even those who are the most engaged – the ones who actually do affiliate with synagogues and do try to provide their children with Jewish educational experiences – we work to ensure our children experience and participate, but neglect to include ourselves.

When as a graduate student, I first attended a synagogue in which adults participated in Jewish holiday celebrations as adults – active, joyous and engaged – it was almost surreal. This was not a Judaism for children – costume contests, parades, pony rides and candy (although that may all have been there as well) – but a Judaism that adults took seriously for themselves.  They were not lining the walls watching the children within; they were celebrating the joy of being Jewish for themselves.

What’s the danger of “pediatric Judaism”?  For me it is the perpetuation of the idea that being Jewish, or perhaps more accurately doing Jewish, is something that is only for children.  We are our children’s most powerful role models and teachers and they are surely paying attention.  When they can see that we take something seriously, it is a signal to them that they ought to as well.  Children learn how to be an adult by watching our adult behaviors.  We understand this as parents and so we think carefully about how we behave in front of our children, what kind of language we use, and what kind of values we express and try to live by.  So, too, it is with being a Jewish adult.  Our children are looking to us to see what adult Jews do and it presents us with a big opportunity and a huge responsibility.

I don’t wish to pile on parents.  Jewish schools and institutions play a part as well.  If Rabbi Hoffman is correct that adult Jews do not see in Judaism a resource to find their spiritual needs met, we have to be willing to ask the difficult question of why?  What programs, classes, experiences, outreach, etc., have we not successfully offered or facilitated that have led to this situation?

We will all need to do more if we are ever to cure ourselves of pediatric Judaism.  In our schools and our synagogues, we need to reach out to parents and provide them with the support, education, experiences and love they will need to find the courage to try on new ideas and behaviors.  We will need to present a Judaism worthy of the education and sophistication of our parents.  Luckily, Judaism contains within it all that and more.

So this year…what are you going to be for Purim?  Don’t let your children have all the fun…and don’t let them think that the fun of Purim is only for them!

From my family (and that lady over our shoulders) to yours…Happy (Early) Purim!

UPDATE:

After reissuing this blog post as an email blast in 5772, I am pleased that so many more parents came this year to Purim in costume.  And to prove that I can put my mishloah manor where my mouth is, here is a much different “Happy Purim” from my wife Jaimee and I from an (adult) Vashti’s Banquet this year!  What will I come up with for 5773?

Watching Wisconsin

Achoo!

I have been suffering through allergies here in my new hometown of Jacksonville and the sleepless nights have provided me a window to watch an inordinate amount of cable news.  The budget fight in Wisconsin, whatever you may think of it, has shined a spotlight on the teaching profession in America and I have been astounded by the degree of hostility being displayed towards teachers and the fundamental misconceptions of what teachers actually do.

I am biased.

I am married to a public school teacher.  My mother was a public school teacher.  I went to public schools and attended a public university with the intent of becoming a public school teacher.  But as much as this particular debate is to do with the costs of public education, the brush being painted of the teaching profession tars all – public, private, charter, and alternative.  And I think it does real damage.

To me this is not terribly complicated or at all political.  If we ever want to get serious about new forms of education (not reform, but new forms) we will need to hold the teaching profession in high regard.  I don’t know how tearing it down can lead to anything productive.  No one goes into education for the money.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t well-compensated educators (and by the by, why would there be something wrong with that?), but those whose sole purpose in choosing a profession is making money surely do not choose to be teachers.

Teaching is noble, but not all teachers may be noble.  I am not naive.  There should be accountability in teaching and I don’t pretend to know how to address that in public schools with union contracts because that simply is not my world.  It is hard enough to do in a private school.  But I do know that whatever legitimate frustration there is about a lack of accountability in the public sector ought not delegitimate the entire profession.

I wrote in an early blog post of my belief that teaching is a sacred profession.  I mean that literally; I believe that teaching is a religious act.  I believe this to be true of all teaching – not the teaching of religious subjects or by religious people – that an inner-city math lesson is as much a religious act as is a Rabbinics Class in a Jewish Day School.  Because so much of teaching is relational (with your students, your parents, your colleagues, etc.) and because in order to relate you must acknowledge the divine in others, I really believe that teaching is in and of itself “religious”.  [You can substitute “spiritual” if it makes you more comfortable.]  I do not think it is an accident that many teachers consider their work a “calling” and not a “career”.

And so to the teachers who have been called and the parents who partner with them, I offer words from one of my most favorite books on teaching:

“One of the great sorrows in human life is the discovery, too late, of our own beauty and of the beauty of much that we do.  Such is often the case with teachers, as we contemplate ourselves and our vocation.  At the deepest level, every teacher wants to become a better teacher, even a great teacher; in moments of insight, every teacher is aware of hidden gifts of creativity and imagination.

“But often the pressures, deadlines, and exigencies of dailiness keep teachers from standing back and viewing their work with the care both they and their work deserve.  Often when there might be times at faculty meetings or on in-service days, demands for the newest, the latest, and the updated can get in the way and preclude the possibility of standing back, of being still and recalling the excitement and lure which drew us to teaching in the first place.

“We need an arena, a context, and an occasion to contemplate our teaching and to recover, if we have lost them, the dreams and the hopes, the vision and the grandeur that lie at the core of teaching.  We need an opportunity to rediscover the creative, artistic teachers we are and were meant to be.” – Maria Harris, from Teaching & Religious Imagination.

I hope teaching on our faculty provides such an opportunity…

 

 

A Loop in the Chain

I have been thinking a lot about family recently…

There is a bag of very old, not suitable for use, tefillin sitting on the top of one of the bookshelves in my office.  They belonged to this man:  He was my paternal great-grandfather Alexander Mitzmacher.  I never met him and other than the very few anecdotes that have been shared with me over the years by my family, I know almost nothing about him other than the fact that he had a set of tefillin.  I can’t even say for sure that he treasured them or that he ever in fact wore them.  I only know that my grandfather of blessed memory had them in his possession and when I became the first person in my family since (at least) Alexander to put on tefillin they were given to me as just about the only masculine heirloom we have.

We talk often about “Jewish continuity” and “links in the chain” as if there was a natural and smooth transference from one generation to another.  As a parent and educator, I need to believe that we have the ability to influence, guide and mentor the next generation to value and practice that which we consider important through education, experience and the making of memories.  As the observant grandson of Morris Mitzmacher, who jumped out the cheder window in 1922 and never looked back…well, I know that life is a bit more mysterious and unpredictable.

A story:

During my sophomore year in college there was a huge fire burning in the hills of Oakland and Berkeley near my apartment.  I was working on a paper, keeping one eye on the computer screen and the other out my window tracking the fire’s progress.  My mother called to see if I was okay and to see what I was still doing in the apartment.  Most of my neighbors had fled the area, but I was young, stubborn, and had a due date.  She called twice more, my father called once, but still I remained.  Then they called in the big guns.  My phone rang, I heard my grandfather’s voice, and I was out of the apartment in a manner of minutes.

I am an only child (explains a lot, doesn’t it!) who only had one living grandfather and was that man’s only grandchild.  Let’s just say that we were exceptionally close.  He was equal parts proud and bemused by the Jewish journey that led me to a life of Jewish education and ritual observance.  He lived long enough to dance the night away at our wedding.  He died three years before our first daughter, Eliana, was born and six years before our second daughter – his namesake – Maytal joined the family.

I think of him often and marvel how the boy who escaped Judaism grandfathered the head of a Jewish Day School.  I wonder all the time what he would have made of this:

This is Maytal last year “reading” from a siddur.  Or this:

Eliana just a few weeks ago braiding challah for her Kindergarten Shabbat Dinner.

Morris Mitzmacher, Jimmy to his friends, was born in 1914.  Having sat at his knee rapt with attention to hear the stories of his life (not to mention the stories of his imagination) since I was a child, I feel as if I knew him as the classically trained piano prodigy who decided it was much more fun to chase girls than to practice scales.  I feel I knew him as the rebellious preteen who jumped out of that window during cheder and never looked back on his Jewish education.  I knew him as the terrifically bright high school graduate too poor to go to college.  Like many men who came of age during the Great Depression, college was a luxury, work was a necessity.  I knew him as the man who courted my grandmother Esther.  I knew him as the family man, the business man, and the father.  I have heard the stories of his legendary temper, although I never witnessed it myself.

He took incredible joy in the simple things in life: a fresh cup of steaming hot coffee, warm apple pie, a tuna fish sandwich, a Broadway musical, bocce at the clubhouse on a hot summer’s day, a dip in the pool, poker games on Tuesday nights, a weekend in Atlantic City, a perfect meringue, the Sunday New York Times, books, conversation, gin rummy, shameless flirting, a Jersey tomato, his friends, and his family.  Up until the time of my grandmother’s passing, my grandfather had never lifted a finger for a domestic task.  He knew nothing of cooking, laundry, or housecleaning.  He knew nothing about being alone or about starting over.  Those were dark days, but they did not last too long.  Already an “old man”, my grandfather reinvented himself.  He learned how to cook – he was especially proud of his recipe for sweet potatoes – he took pride in the laundry and he kept a clean home.  He learned how to take care of himself at an age where many men would have simply given up.  He renewed his love affair with life and with people.

But he never again stepped foot inside a synagogue again save for my Bar Mitzvah and my wedding.  And all the while he continued holding onto a frayed bag of ancient tefillin.  For all those years, he neither threw them out nor gave them to his son (who would have found them equally unnecessary).  Why?

I never got an answer the one time I asked and he was gone before I could ask again.

And so they sit on my bookshelf and watch me go about my work.  They tell a cautionary tale – perhaps had my grandfather had a more meaningful Jewish education he would not have jumped out that window without so much as a regretful look back.  They are humbling – we cannot ultimately control the choices our children make.  They are inspiring – it is never too late to join a Jewish journey, begin a Jewish education or try on a new Jewish practice.  The tefillin were present even when we were absent.

What are the artifacts sitting on your shelves telling silent stories?  Write them down, or better yet, tell them to your children.  For by doing so we can do our part to ensure that despite the links and loops life brings us, the chain can remain unbroken.

Samson and Delightful

Oh the joys of your dedicated blog-writing time being a Friday afternoon headed into a three-day weekend!

I thought I would do something fun – at least fun for me, something I found fun to write; whether you will find it fun to read is an open question – and share three autobiographical short stories from my personal faith journey.  They aren’t necessarily the most important stops on the trail, but they were three moments I enjoyed writing about.  Beyond indulging my frustrated literary ambitions, I hope you will find them humorous where intended and, thus, provide you a little window into my soul.

I promise next week to stop talking about myself and to return to the more important topics of secular and Jewish education.

 

A Friendship Bracelet from God

The God of Religious School was an intellectual idea.  The God of Camp was alive.

We moved to California from New Jersey when I was eleven.  Jewish identity took on a new meaning once we found ourselves outnumbered.  Perfunctorily enrolled in Hebrew School on the East Coast became intentionally enrolled in Jewish summer camp on the West.  I had to be sent away to find community.  And find it I did.  I found my people at a Reform Jewish summer camp in the mountains of Santa Cruz.  (I was twenty-three years old before I realized that a guitar-led friendship circle was not one of the commandments.)  Early-adolescent longing became intertwined with spiritual longing.  “Fitting in” at camp meant exactly the opposite as it did back home.  At home, I wished I could be more like that guy or the other one.  At camp, I wished I could be more like me.

The God of Camp was a verb.  The Jon of Camp was its direct object.

Samson and Delightful

The call to a life of Jewish education came on a lake in Maine.  The answer came in a hair salon in Berkeley.

After yet another summer at yet another Jewish summer camp, I realized that one could live a life infused with Judaism for more than three months a year.  That and the fulfillment I had always felt from my forays into Jewish education set me on my future path.  I informed everyone I thought one informs in such a situation – parents, friends, girlfriend, etc.  I was feeling pretty good until I discovered that there was one more person left to tell…my hairdresser.  Should I cut my hair in order to maximize my professional and academic possibilities?

This was no small decision.  It had been four years since my last haircut of consequence and my entire college experience was written in the curls that hung past my shoulders.  During that time I had developed a pronounced Samson complex – all success attributed to the symbolic persona I had so carefully cultivated through my tresses.  (Not to mention being a delicious source of irritation for my father.)

My hairdresser was not so supportive.  After a tumultuous four years together she was more than just the woman who did my hair, she was both advisor and confidant.  When I sat down in the chair I became tongue-tied.  After all we’ve been through, was this really the end of the longest relationship I’d ever had with a woman outside my family?  Who else stood by me during that first year as my hair climbed higher and higher steadfast that what must go up must come down?  Only her.  Who else understood my heroic battles against humidity and convertibles?  Her alone.  But the call was strong and I was resolute.

Our conversation resembled that which I imagine takes place between a rabbi and a potential convert.  That is, she refused me at least three times as a test to my seriousness.  “I have some big news,” I began.

“What is it?” she replied.

“I’m ready to cut it off.”

“No.  I cannot.”

“What do you mean?  I think it’s time to cut it off.”

“This I cannot do.”

“I sort of thought it was my choice, you know.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?  You can’t change your mind later.”

“I know.  I’ve really thought about it.  But, I’m ready.”

Finally she acquiesced.  She gathered all my hair into one last ponytail of biblical proportion and cut it off with a huge pair of shearing scissors.  I went on to graduate school in Jewish education.  My hair went on to become a wig worn by a cancer survivor.

I think we both turned out okay.

Pigskin

There is a picture above my desk at home of the last time I ate a bacon double cheeseburger.  It was at a Carl’s Jr. somewhere off Highway 5 in central California in the summer of 1996.  If I try real hard I can still taste every charcoal-seasoned bacony bite.  When your favorite foods are pork and shellfish, the decision to keep kosher is not trivial.  The decision had been made that spring at another Carl’s Jr. off Highway 5 (I had a thing for Carl’s Jr.) while returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area for Passover.  I was sitting down for lunch and I had the chapter from Danny Gordis’ yet-to-be-published God Was Not in the Fire on keeping kosher in one hand and said cheeseburger in the other – an epiphany waiting to happen.

I had spent the preceding months wrestling with God and losing badly.  I was well into my first year studying at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the indoctrination was beginning to kick in.  I had done my best to resist it.  In fact, the culture shock I had experienced during my first semester was so strong that in response I moved farther to the left than I actually was.  I couldn’t just go and eat my pork off campus because that would have been an admission that eating it was wrong.  No, I had to make a statement by bringing my pork to campus and eating it in full view.  On Shabbat.  While wearing a Walkman.  With my hair fully grown back out and my earrings back in place.

The situation was of my own doing.  I mean it had been my bright idea to pursue my Master’s at an institution whose style of Judaism was completely foreign to me.  The plan was to learn everything I could about, what was to me at the time, “traditional” Judaism and then head back home more fully able to make the autonomous decisions about Jewish practice which was my responsibility as a Reform Jew.  It never crossed my mind for a second that I would actually decide to do any of it myself.  No way.  God certainly had more important things to worry about than what I ate for lunch and did on Saturdays.  I was there as kind of a participant-observer, an anthropologist if you will.  At the time I still felt like I did when I was younger and my synagogue took us to Los Angeles on a trip.  I remembered driving through a Jewish neighborhood and pointing at Jews who wore kippot as if they were animals in a zoo.  I had no intentions of becoming one of them.

Rabbinical students drink beer, watch sports, and go on dates.  That may not come as a surprise to you, but it sure as heck did to me.  I was living on a floor with all rabbinic students and the fact that they were normal guys doing normal guy stuff while at the same time wearing kippot, donning tefillin, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat completely blew my mind.   The decision to live on the campus of the University of Judaism forever changed the path of my life.  The combination of communal study – I’m the kind of guy who falls head over heels for Talmudic hermeneutics – and ritual observance, all in the comforting bosom of camp-like idyllic isolation was just too much for my poor unobservant heart to take.  They got me.

The next few months were spent slipping down the slippery slope of greater and greater observance.  It didn’t take long because I have a black and white personality.  Grey is not my color.  (I’m more of an autumn.)  First I began to wear a kippah during class, but not outside.  Then I started staying in on Friday nights, but going out on Saturdays.  Slowly, but surely, the scope of my practice expanded.  I spent many hours arguing with any rabbi or professor who’d take me on.  I could not escape the logical progression of my belief.  Namely, if I believed in God (I did) and if I believed in the divinity of the Bible (I did in a vague convoluted way) then the logical conclusion would be to do what the Bible said.  Still considering rationality a virtue, I found myself ready to accept almost any of the commandments, except one – kashrut.

“IT MAKES NO SENSE!” I screamed to Danny Gordis on an April afternoon.  “Shabbat makes sense.  I totally get wearing a kippah, putting on tefillin, davening and all that stuff.  But kashrut?!  It’s totally and completely arbitrary.  There is no reason why I can’t perform the values that underlie kashrut with a cheeseburger.”

“That’s true and it is equally true that kashrut makes no sense.  That’s the whole point,” Danny replied.

“Excuse me?”

“Why does everything have to make sense?  Religion is not science.  You take it on faith not proof.  If you want to know the value of kashrut, keep kosher.  You cannot rationalize something that is not rational and you cannot understand the value of a practice you’ve never practiced.  Stop talking and start acting.  Embrace the irrational.”

So three months later I did, with a picture for posterity.

 

Notions from #NAJDS

What a week!

I flew back from Los Angeles on Tuesday after having participated and presented at this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference [#NAJDS for those inclined to Twitter].  It was a wonderful conference from every perspective.  As has been our experience at each conference our staff and I have had the privilege to present at (PEJE, FCIS, JEA, etc.) or to host at our school, you come away invigorated at having met other trailblazers treading a similar path towards the future and excited by how far along that path you, in fact, are.

And let me unabashedly state for the record: We Are.

The story of how a (relatively) mid-sized K-8 Solomon Schechter Day School in Jacksonville, Florida stumbled into the eye of the 21st century learning hurricane continues to inspire all of us – parents, students, faculty, donors and community supporters – to keep the ball rolling.  We are onto something special here and I grow ever-confident each day that is only a question of when, no longer if, that will translate into all the dreams dreamt once upon a time nearly 50 years ago by those who birthed this school into existence; dreams nurtured with love and care by generations of administrators, clergy, teachers, parents and students; dreams that a Jewish Day School would not only offer outstanding Jewish Studies, but could be a model of rigorous, future-thinking (now “21st Century Learning/Curriculum 21”), and the highest-of-quality secular academics; dreams on their way to coming true.

Those dreams have not yet been realized; we are not that school yet…but each day we work our hearts out to grow one day closer.

Here’s a fantastic example of our team at work:

How awesome is that?  I can talk about “Curriculum 21” and what it means to be a school dedicated to “21st Century Learning,” but nothing beats seeing it with your own eyes!  [If you want to add a “quality comment” of your own click here!]

So…what else is going on?

If you have visited my blog before, you will see that I have added my latest obsession, Shelfari, to the blog.  What a gift to librophiles!  But beyond love of books, it actually allows me to begin to share with teachers and parents (and students) some of the foundational Jewish, Jewish educational, and educational books that have shaped my personal Jewish journey, that impacted my thinking about education, and as an added bonus, serve as the source texts for my weekly Parent University course here at the school.  At least parents can be reading along as we go along.  [My long-awaited “Parent University” blog post is coming soon!]  In the meanwhile, I have created a (largely) professional Shelfari profile you are welcome to peruse.  (NOTE: There are some number of fiction novels on the shelves.  I have been careful about the appropriateness of titles, but there are books that deal with mature themes and may include mature language.  Be forewarned should you let your child browse.  I realize I have made this sound so much more interesting that it actually is.)

Happy reading!