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!


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


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.


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!

My Ningdom for an Eighth Day of the Week!

What a whirlwind the last few weeks have been!

I successfully avoided the blizzard that hit the Northeast weekend before last by skipping out a tad early from the Jewish Educators Assembly 59th Annual Conference.  This conference, for Conservative Jewish educators, was titled  “From Sinai to Cyberspace” and I had an opportunity to present on “21st Century Learning” to my colleagues.  The whole conference was enriching and validating – it is always nice to see the excitement from your colleagues for the work you are doing.  It was a positive experience all around. [Check out the Twitter feed from the conference here!]

I beat the snow and was rewarded by the unique opportunity to watch my Fourth & Fifth Grade students sing with Barry Manilow!  How fantastic is this:

My reward?  The flu!

And at the WORST possible time because I missed our Professional Day!  Thank God we had done the prep work and one of our 21st Century Learning teachers, Andrea Hernandez, stepped in to facilitate a great day of reflection and collaboration for our teachers.  The topic of the day was “Putting Your Cards On The Table”…which if it sounds familiar, was the topic of a prior blog post of mine.  Teachers had their opportunity to reflect and share their personal educational philosophies as a means towards developing a consensus moving forward.  Many teachers utilized our school’s ning as the vehicle for sharing.

The ning is a private, closed conversation, but I wanted to share with you my [edited] comments to the teachers from my “ning blog post” (confused yet!) because it will help you understand why it will have been well worth closing school for a day…

“Shalom Chevre!

I just spent the last hour reading through the blog posts many of you have put up about your own individual teaching philosophies and the comments that have been flowing back and forth.  How wonderful it is to read your words and see your passion for children, for learning, and for this profession we have all chosen to dedicate our lives to!  To say I wish I had been there, is an understatement.  I was devastated to have missed it and indebted to Andrea for taking the lead on what from all accounts was a nourishing and meaningful day of reflection and sharing.

I take to the ning blog not to share my vision or philosophy of education because I have done so already on my professional blog.  I take to the ning blog for the purpose of connecting some dots…

We have worked hard together these few months together, so hard, and it is both appreciated and making a real difference in the lives of our students and school.

Dot #1: Benchmarks & Standards

Our most tangible achievement has been the first drafting of “Benchmarks & Standards”. This is what we believe our children ought to learn/know/be able to do by the end of each year.  Next steps?  Pulling out strands (Mathematics, Science, etc.) and ensuring they truly flow vertically from Grades K-8.

Dot #2: Educational Philosophy

Beginning with our school’s mission statement, my initial blog post, and now with all your entries and comments, a consensus of sorts is forming.  We believe in differentiated instruction.  We believe in individualized attention.  We believe in “A Floor, But No Ceiling”.  We believe in the dignity of children.  We believe in the dignity of teachers.  We believe in building bridges with parents to form partnerships.  We believe in depth over breadth.  We believe a Jewish Day School can offer a rigorous, private school secular education through a 21st century mindset while still providing the highest-quality Jewish education available – all during one very action-packed school day!


Let’s connect some dots…

…we now know what we want to teach and we know how we (ideally) want to teach.  We now have to decide which materials and books are the best ones to do this.  Recognizing that no textbook is perfect and that ANY substantive change in curriculum is likely to REQUIRE teacher training, this is the time to have that conversation, do some research, and make…decisions.

The cards truly are on the table…and now they are waiting for you to pick them up and play a hand.

Kol tuv, Jon”

And so the next couple of months will continue our exciting adventure as we make sure that the books and materials we use in our school are the right ones to teach what we say we are teaching in the way we say we believe children learn best.

And we could all probably use an eighth day of the week to get it done!

I’m off to Los Angeles on Sunday for the North American Jewish Day School Conference. The topic for the conference is “The High Performance, High-Tech Jewish Day School of the (Very Near) Future” and I am thrilled that I will again have an opportunity to present on “21st Century Learning” and some of the exciting things we are doing here in our school.  As always, I will do my best to tweet from the conference.  I am taking fistfuls of echinacea so that when I get home from this conference, I’ll be right back at it!



Putting Your God Where Your Mouth Is

One quick note before I dive into weightier comments…

…I was equal parts delighted and mortified when my last blog post became fodder for a Seventh Grade Language Arts lesson in my own school.  On the one hand, I am glad that my topic was interesting enough that it was worth our seventh graders’ time (that’s a tough audience!).  On the other hand, I was not expecting them to come back with notes!

Not only did I have have spelling errors (since corrected and re-posted) but I may (or may not) have mistakenly used an image I did not have permission to use (research continues).  It is now part of a fascinating ongoing conversation in the Middle School, integrated between many topics, about fair use of copyrighted images on blogs and web pages.  [Hopefully it will not lead to any legal action!]  It serves as yet another powerful reminder of what happens when you marry technology, collaboration, and student interest.  All of this serves as preamble to this blog post…not that I hope this blog post is full of spelling errors to be corrected, I’ll surely do a better spell-check this time, but I hope that my own students (CAN YOU HEAR ME EIGHTH GRADERS?) might take a peek at this one as well.

I have three very different opportunities to teach in our school on a weekly basis.  One that I have described before, but have not done due justice yet on the blog, is my weekly “Parent University” course for parents in the Day School.  A lot of what happens in that class informs my blog and vice versa, and I will (promise!) soon dedicate some blog space to articulating more clearly, with more detail, and with lots of links what happens during the class so that parents, supporters and any interested party who is unable to be with us physically can be part of the experience.  Additionally, I also have the pleasure of teaching tefillah (prayer) once a week to our First Grade.  Finally, each Wednesday I have an opportunity to teach our Middle School (as part of a rotation of teachers) about tefillah.

I love teenagers.  Really.  I love their honesty, their searching, their shyness, their cynicism, their brashness, their posturing, their rebelliousness, their humor – the whole package.  I really do.  So you can imagine how much fun it must be talking to teenagers about prayer first thing in the morning!  What topic do teenagers enjoy more than prayer?  Exactly.

In my sessions with them this year we have been exploring the idea of God.  We have been debunking childish theologies and trying out more adult vocabulary.  They share what they believe and what they don’t believe.  We talk about how what we believe about God does or does not impact how we live and practice as Jews.  And I work really hard to keep them awake…not always with great success, but I do my best.

I realized this week that in my attempts to give them space for communication, privacy for reflection, and safety for exploration, I never force myself to take a position.  I know a lot more about what my students believe about God than they do of me.  That doesn’t seem fair.  If my teachers have to blog, I should have to blog.  If my 8th Graders have to talk about God…well so should I.

So without further ado, I offer my own modest statement about God…this is one blog post I would be thrilled to receive notes from my students about (hint, hint):

Jon’s Personal Theology

When I think of Heschel’s term “radical amazement”, the first image that pops into my head is that of a havdalah circle under the stars.  A cliché to be sure, but for many (I would even venture to say most) Jewish professionals and leaders of my generation, our first feelings of radical amazement were nurtured in the enclosed bubble of the Jewish summer camp.  There we were free to experience the transcendence of Jewish irrational behavior – kashrut & Shabbat – safe from the cynicism and doubt of our day-to-day, secular lives.  I also believe that the farther away one dwells from the world of ritual observance, the more radical one’s amazement by it can be.  I know that for me, as a young Reform Jew growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, as dedicated to tikkun olam (social action) Judaism as we were, nothing could have been more radical than having been moved by the experience of Jewish ritual.  But there I was, me and a hundred of my equally nonobservant friends, arms around each other under the stars in the redwoods, singing the havdalah blessings with as much profound joy as any mystic in Safed ever did.  My experiences of the divine through the vehicle of mitzvot (although not exclusively so), shapes the direction of my personal theology.

I start with revelation, rather than with a personal image of God, because my understanding of revelation drives my image and not the reverse.  I start with Heschel’s view of revelation because it speaks to me as a (now observant) Jew living and working in Conservative Judaism.  He expresses my contradictions more eloquently than I can.  As a mystic, Heschel wants to hold onto transcendent experience.  He appeals to my desire to believe in a personal, supernatural God who participates in human history.  He appeals to my intellect when he posits that any God worth believing in can hardly be described in human language.  As a Jewish educator I share Heschel’s encouragement of Jews to engage in Jewish ritual behavior.  I too feel the need to actualize my beliefs through a halakha (literally “the way”, Jewish Law) that is divine in nature, if not content.  Finally, if as great a thinker as Heschel is ultimately unable to put it all together in a coherent package, then I feel no compunction in making my own messy attempt.  However, enough said about Heschel.  Time to pony up.

I believe in a personal, supernatural God.  God cannot be adequately described, but can be experienced.  I believe this despite all the evidence to the contrary – herein lays my existentialism.  I understand literal, anthropomorphic descriptions of God to be elaborate metaphors.  God revealed at Sinai, but it is our experience of that revelation which forms the Bible.  Revelation included content – specifically God’s “will for Israel”.  The Torah, therefore, describes what it is that God wants from us.  Even if we cannot state what it was that God commanded of us in the original revelation, something was revealed.  That “something” over thousands of years now resides in Rabbinic Judaism, specifically in its halakhaHalakha is enacted in behaviors and deeds – mitzvot. The existentialist in me wants people to perform mitzvot as a response of their “radical amazement” to God’s world, not out of a sense of legal obligation, but how does one legislate transcendence?

As an observant Conservative Jew and as a Conservative Jewish educator I believe in the power of mitzvot.  One of my leaps of faith is my belief that the mitzvot, however filtered they may be, not only reflect what God wants us to do, but that they can be vehicles of transcendence.  The problem is that existentialism by nature cannot be universal.  Havdalah may provoke “radical amazement” in me, but boredom in another.  This is not a problem for my theology, but presents a great challenge to my profession.   The simple truth is that divine authority no longer speaks to most people in a way it might have in earlier times.  They will likely only adopt mitzvot if they have a positive experience in their performance.

It has been my experiences in Jewish education, which provided me with a path from non-observance to observance.  I was encouraged to experience Shabbat in order to know its power.  I experimented with kashrut to learn its significance.  These, and other experiences, led to my belief that the path to God is experience as mediated through mitzvot.  In working with others, you can only enable people to embrace religious ritual and feel its transcendent power.  My challenge, professionally, is to create an environment where others may experience mitzvot as I do.   The religious part of my job, in essence, is to persuade children and families to buy into the idea that the performance of mitzvot can be transcendent.  That they will, given the right circumstances, I take on faith.

So there you go…have it Eighth Graders!

I’m off to Philadelphia this Sunday to participate and present at the Jewish Educators Assembly Conference!  Philly in January…and who says there’s an “East Coast Bias”?!  As with most conferences, you (the select few following me at Twitter) can look forward to a spike in tweets.  I’ll be presenting about “21st Century Schools” and I am sure I’ll share that experience as part of my next post.

Shared Dreams

“My people were brought to America in chains,” Martin Luther King Jr. told the American Jewish Congress’ Biennial in 1958.  “Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe.  Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselvs of bondage, but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

This passage is from a 1999 book entitled Shared Dreams: Martin Luther King, Jr. & the Jewish Community written by Rabbi Marc Schneier from the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.  As the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School prepares to honor the legacy of Dr. King with special programming and content this month, I am reminded of how important it is that we prepare our students to live in the world outside the Jewish community.

It is not that diversity is absent in the Jewish Day School.  One typically finds a range of national origins, ethnicities and social classes within the walls of the school and students have ample opporunity to learn how to get along in a diverse community.  However, when it comes to racial diversity, I feel the Jewish Day School has a special responsibility in light of the historic relationship between the Jewish community and the civil rights movement.  Although we make an effort to expose our students to the larger world around them, the simple fact is that they do spend most of their days in a wholly Jewish environment.  However, the Jewish values of kehillah (community) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) extend beyond the Jewish community.  Our educational responsibility is prepare our students to be citizens of the city, state, nation, and world in which they live.

You’ll find this reflected in our choice of library books and posters in which we do our best to present a range of cultures.  You will see it expressed in the “hidden curriculum” by how we devote school time in both general and Jewish studies to learn about, experience, and commemorate the wonderful holidays of our shared cultures.  As we study the life of Dr. King and his continued impact on our society, we are reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah (42:6-7), “I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have appointed you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and from the prison those who sit in darkness.”  May this holiday be a reminder that we live in a world still in need of healing and an opporunity to do our small part in its repair.

Leap of Fact

There they are…these are some actual members of our current Class of 2023.  All the talk and rhetoric about what we could be, what we ought to be – it is all for these children. They are not an educational theory to be debated; they are flesh and blood children to be educated.  What we do now matters not in the abstract realm of philosophy, but in the practical realm of whether these girls and boys will be prepared for success in the 21st century in all the ways academic, social and Jewish that can be defined.  They – and all of the children in our school – are what it is really about.  They are the reminder and the inspiration; the goal and the promise.

January this year brings us a wonderful confluence of events – the publication and mailing of enrollment materials for the 2011-2012 academic year and the Jewish holiday of Tu B’Shevat – a holiday celebrating, among many things, the planting of seeds and the harvesting of fruits.  I always marvel when the rhythm of Jewish living intersects with the rhythm of school life – it never fails to create meaningful and new connections.

And so the time has come to see how well we have sown the the seeds of confidence and competence; love and caring; rigor and renewal; energy and enthusiasm – have we begun to deliver on the rightfully lofty academic, spiritual, emotional and social expectations our children and parents have for us?

Those who study the phenomenology (I hear I am supposed to include at least one word per blogpost that requires being looked up.  I linked it for you this time.  This time.) of religion often refer to Kierkegaard‘s (OK, I may be showing off now) so-called “leap of faith” describing what is necessary for someone to become a believer.  The “leap of faith” is predicated on the notion that one cannot really know (at least in scientific terms) religious truth and so in the end it is a matter of faith.

As enrollment packets find their ways into parents’ hands all across America, all of us involved in the sacred and holy task of educating children look to this time of year and hope we have nurtured the seeds we have sown with success.  We are not looking for parents to make a leap of faith and enroll their children in our schools.  We are looking for parents to make a leap of fact and enroll their children in our schools – confident that our school is the right place for their children to receive the education they want and deserve.

The seeds were planted during the summer.  They were watered and nurtured during the fall and into the winter.  As winter moves on (even in Florida!) and slowly moves towards spring, the faculty, staff , lay leaders, donors, supporters and administration of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School look forward to a rich and satisfying harvest.

We look forward to many, many leaps of fact.

[Want more facts?  Check out this podcast with Alan November, interviewing our teachers and students!]


Wordle Up!

The smell of crispy latkes and sugary doughnuts is starting to slowly recede from the building as another Chanukah has come and gone.  We are now in that unique window between Chanukah and Winter Break – when both student and teacher eagerly anticipates a much-needed vacation after all the hard work and effort that has been poured into a most exciting and successful beginning to our year.  A few interesting threads are coming together at a moment when our secular calendar affords us an opportunity for reflection. (The nice thing about a shared identity is that we have plenty of holidays, new years, and chances to reflect!)

Under the leadership of our 21st Century Learning Team of Silvia Tolisano and Andrea Hernandez we hosted a conversation of local (and not-so-local) Technology and Curriculum Coordinators this past week at our school.  [The meeting grew out of our recent experience at the FCIS (Florida Council of Independent Schools) Conference of having so many of our teachers present on how we are utilizing a 21st Century Learning approach at our school and receiving such positive feedback.]  We are proud, especially for a school our size, to play a leadership role in our local community.  So…the thread of “21st Century Learning” and “Curriculum 21” was made more explicit for me this week.

Another thread has been the beginning of our formal observation period.  I am in the midst of observing and conversing with all our teachers about the work that they do.  It is amongst my favorite (and, yes, time-consuming) tasks because we get to focus in on what we all are here for – teaching and learning.  So far I have been pleased with what I am seeing and enjoying the opportunity for dialogue.

I am also finishing up the first “semester” of my “Parent University” class for parents of students in our school.  It has been a wonderful first experience and I promise that I am learning at least much as I am teaching.  I am looking forward to continuing to study with my two groups and hopefully adding some new people after Winter Break.  Another thread…

What I will use to tie it together will be a Wordle

I realize that I am late to Wordle, but having seen a few teachers make use of it during their observations, I’m discovering it for the first time and loving it.  In a nutshell, Wordle (through an algorithm only it knows) takes any piece of written text and represents it graphically in a way which highlights frequently-used words.  It is a fantastic device for visually summarizing the essence of a written text.  What is great about it, is not only can you cut-and-paste in any written document, you can type in blogs, websites, etc., and it will go back and search them for content, add it all up, and spit out a Wordle representing the sum of  all its written content.

So…as an experiment in the spirit of reflection, I created a Wordle of this blog:

How awesome is that?

Is it a perfect reflection of the blog?  Probably not (mine has “Christmas” larger than “Chanukah”!), but it hits most of the high notes.  It helps me realize what I’ve been emphasizing (or over-emphasizing) or what is missing that perhaps I thought was there.  Either way it really gets you thinking…

Of course, I immediately thought of a thousand fun ways to use Wordle – should I check every classroom blog that way?  My dissertation?  The Torah?  Our school’s Behavior Code of Conduct?

How fun!

So…let’s Wordle Up!  Find a text that is meaningful to you, create a Wordle, and find a way to share it.  The wordle is waiting!