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.”

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:


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!


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?

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.

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!

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.

November Dilemma? December Opportunity.

Chanukah in Jacksonville gives “Festival of Lights” a whole new meaning for me!  This is the time of year when many rabbis and Jewish educators dust off their “Christmas Dilemma” sermons or lessons.  It isn’t difficult to understand why.  Advertising for Christmas begins before Thanksgiving these days and in Jacksonville, where the Jewish presence is (relatively) small, Chanukah rates barely a mention.  This is not the time to lament that Chanukah, a minor rabbinic holiday, has been elevated into a major holiday in order to protect the North American Jewish psyche against the annual Christmas bombardment.  It is appropriate, however – especially for a Solomon Schechter Day School – to take a moment to see what light this so-called “dilemma” sheds on how one deals with the dissonance between our shared cultural heritages.  Because like it or not, Christmas, is not (only) a religious holiday, but an American holiday, and as such it helps us refine our understanding of what it means to have an “integrated” curriculum.

Integration in the Jewish day school has been and continues to be a topic of which there is much discussion, but little consensus.  I agree with the late, renowned Jewish educator Joseph Lukinsky when he stated that “the opposition is not between Jewish and general studies, and that the first task is not how to find some way to integrate or synthesize them”.  His description of the status quo in 1978 remains apropos in that there remains two prevailing attitudes towards general studies in the day school curriculum: rejectionist (most applicable to the non-liberal day schools) and “Judaizing” – the felt need to apply a Jewish view to every general studies topic otherwise risk students will view general studies as the more relevant.  [A third attitude, not prevalent during the beginnings of the day school movement, one could call assimilationist—where Jewish studies as defined in the school’s mission clearly takes a backseat to the general and any clash between values is left unmentioned and unexplored.]

Christmas is almost an unfair example to take because regardless of which attitude a Jewish day school takes, it surely isn’t going to integrate the ideas and values of Christmas into its curriculum.  However, if you take one aspect of Christmas in America—consumerism—you can see how complicated integration can be.  Consumerism with its focus on individual material attainment is not consonant with Jewish values.  So what is a Jewish day school to do with Chanukah in today’s America?

Being “Jewish” and being “American” is not the same thing.  However proud we legitimately ought to be of both our identities, we are not being intellectually honest if we claim they are identical and never in conflict.  Please keep in mind that the choice not to choose between is itself a choice.   Celebrating the consumerist aspects of Chanukah without acknowledging their conflict with Jewish values is to claim that such a conflict does not exist.  Here at the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a proud Solomon Schechter school, we are neither rejectionist nor assimilationist.  Nor do we feel so threatened by general society that we have to make everything Jewish.  We strive to be interactionist—our philosophy which can be seen in everything from our curriculum to our bulletin boards—seeks to allow the Jewish and the general to interact naturally as it does in the real world.

So please, celebrate the historical and religious significance of  Chanukah with joy, festivity, and yes, presents.  But this Chanukah, let’s not forget our Jewish values of tzedakah (charity) and kehillah (community).   Along with your normal gift-giving, consider donating a night or two of your family’s celebration to those less fortunate than ourselves.  By doing so we send a powerful message that there are times when our Jewish values command us to reject the values of secular culture and that not only is that okay, but sometimes it is both necessary and appropriate.

Happy Turkey Day & Chanukah from my family to yours!

The Trouble with Transferability

I was proud to spend today (and yesterday) at the FCIS (Florida Council of Independent Schools) Conference, here in Jacksonville, having a chance to kvell at having the most teacher presenters of any other school and to do some good old-fashioned networking. Then during my last session, during a moment of smalltalk,  someone asked me what I thought is the greatest challenge facing Jewish education today?  And I said to myself, “Guess who wrote himself this week’s blogpost!”

Here’s my answer:

As an opening caveat, I must limit my discussion about issues facing Jewish education and the Jewish people to that of North American Diaspora Non-Orthodox Judaism.  That is the milieu of which I am both product and practitioner and is the only setting that I feel somewhat capable of speaking about with any measure of authority or credibility.  And even that limitation leaves a field too large for one person to see clearly, but having had an opportunity to work in a variety of positions and geographies, I am convinced that the single greatest challenge in Jewish education is identifying the vehicles of transferability from powerful experiences to meaningful Jewish choices.  Although I am partial to Jewish camping and Jewish day school as the two most likely candidates to produce said experiences, I have participated in amazing supplemental school classes, transformative youth group retreats and excellent adult education seminars.  There are opportunities abundant in Jewish education for creating connections – connections between people, connections to history and ideas, and connections to God.  What I consider to be the missing link, so to speak, is linking those experiences to an ongoing engagement with Judaism between and after the power of those peak experiences fade.

Havdalah seems to be a transcendent highlight for kids attending Jewish summer camps (I know it was for me).  It is amongst the most powerful events that take place at camp…and for many Jewish children takes place exclusively during the summer.  Same is true for daily/weekly prayer, Shabbat observance, kashrut (of some form or another) observance, etc. – for many Jewish children these rituals only exist during the summer months when they are not only viewed as normative, but as ultimate.    Similarly for (non-Orthodox) day school kids, kashrut, blessings, prayer, speaking in Hebrew, study of Jewish text, etc. – these activities are imbued with meaning and purpose within the confines of the school walls, but for many end with the closing school bell.  The power in these experiences and others lie in their ability to make normative, or even better “cool,” Jewish rituals and practices that are anything but in children’s regular lives of family, synagogue and Jewish communal life.

Havdalah with your parents at home on a Saturday night with your friends waiting for you to meet them at the movies cannot hold a candle (even a braided one) to havdalah under the twinkling stars in a redwood retreat, arm-in-arm with your newfound closest friends, and guitar strumming away.  Needless to say, the day school student who cannot use his/her Hebrew outside of school with friends and family will only find it so meaningful for the long term.  Not mention the difficulty of replicating a magical sukkah experience at a home lacking one.  The dissonance between what is preached and lived in Jewish educational settings and the family is well-known and is as difficult to breach now as it has been for the last half-century or more.

As the Head of a Jewish Day School, I consider myself to be on the front lines of this conversation.  Although there is a percentage (typical in a non-Orthodox school) of families whose primary concerns are Jewish Studies, many of our families are enrolled in our school because they are looking for a topnotch secular academic program.  The fact that it also comes with a high-quality Jewish Studies program and is housed in a Jewish setting emphasizing Jewish values is anything from “also important” to “nice” depending on the family.  So even in the Jewish educational setting where families are arguably the most invested, we still struggle to find the motivation and vehicle for transference.

For me it begins with admissions and carries through to graduation.  During initial family interviews, I am candid with parents about our school’s agenda for the inculcation of Jewish ritual and practice.  It is really no different than the agenda we have for the inculcation of any other facet of our program.  I want our children to go home from school excited about everything they are learning and seeking to find meaningful ways of incorporating lessons learned into lives lived.  Unlike math or reading, however, we need to reach into families’ lives to provide encouragement and education to bring the Jewish Studies curriculum to life.  Nurturing the relationships that allow that process to occur is, perhaps, the most important, fulfilling, and sacred aspect of my work.  Finding the way to sow the seeds for Jewish journeys is my work’s greatest challenge.

Postscripts from PEJE

I just spent the last few minutes scrolling through my “handwritten” notes that I emailed myself from my iPad from this year’s 2010 PEJE Assembly for Advancing the Jewish Day School Field.  Here, for example, is a page of handiwork:

Besides serving as evidence as to why my “Handwriting” grades in elementary school were always poor and why I failed “Board Writing” in grad school, this particular page of notes served as a reminder to something that seems obvious, but actually requires a lot of planning – and at our school both a paradigm shift and an investment in faculty.  The reminder is that schools that are serious about teaching students how to work well in teams need to dedicate time to allowing (and sometimes coaching) teachers to work in teams.  Like so much else of what we preach, the message is best received when we practice – in Hebrew we say we are serving as dugmaot, exemplars.

The third part of my rudimentary equation deals with the financial ramifications for committing to such a philosophy.  They say your budget is your most honest reflection of your values, putting your money where your mouth is and all.  In our school where the majority of teachers are less-than-full-time, this is a very significant issue.  If we believe that our students ought to participate in high-quality cooperative learning experiences and that in order to do so our teachers need the time to plan high-quality cooperating learning experiences by planning together cooperatively, then we need to dedicate time for our teachers to cooperate.  (How’s that for a sentence?)  Time that cannot come out of their teaching time.  Time that cannot come out of their prep time.  Yet additional planning time – and that time will cost money and that money has to be reflected in the budget.  And so the circle of life continues…this is a challenge we shall be exploring in the future months.  Stay tuned.

And that was from one page of my twenty-seven handwritten notes!

I have twenty-six other pages of thoughts and doodles that sparked or will spark other thoughts and ideas that will find their way into the lifeblood of our school through the conversations and programs they will generate.  Ideas about alumni programs, development issues, effective communication, team-building and more.

In addition to the new ideas and people I was exposed to at the conference, it was also an opportunity to reconnect to old friends and colleagues and to take stock of where I am in the field and where our school sits in the marketplace.  Since this is a professional blog and not a personal blog (God bless those who have the time to do both!), suffice it to say that I am in a happy place.  More importantly for this forum, our school seems to be in a happy place as well.  There is so much more for us to do and to be – and I think the group of us who went together all came back similarly validated by what we do well (21st Century Learning, Website Marketing, and Governance for examples) and energized for the challenges ahead (Alumni Relations for example).  We are heading upwards and onwards into the future.  We, too, have a firm floor, but no ceiling on hopes and dreams.

I tried to make good on my promise to explore the power of Twitter by both tweeting on a much more regular basis and by lending my voice, through Twitter, to the general conversation that both was and is taking place through the #pejeassembly “hash-tag”.  If you follow that last link you can view the collective wit and wisdom of all those who had something to share from the conference and if you have a Twitter account you can join in the fun.  As I began to explore in my last blogpost, these conversations are part of the public record, as are all the tweets ever tweeted on Twitter (say that five times fast!).  As always, I invite your comments and contributions to that and any other conversation in whatever way you find most comfortable.

In the meanwhile, I will enjoy a well-deserved restful Shabbat and will try very hard to care about the Florida-Georgia game, even though I left my heart in UC Berkeley.

Go Gators?!  (Go Bears!)