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!)

Leap of Faith

What a week!

I had the privilege of spending much of this week up at Camp Ramah Darom with our Middle School on its annual retreat. What an experience.  I certainly know my middle schoolers better than I did before the trip – and I may know a few of them better than I ever wanted to!  I cannot think of a more powerful and important experience to offer our teens than an opportunity to break out of the walls of the school to spend time together creating community, forging relationships, pushing comfort zones, and interacting with each other in ways we never could in school.

Is it worth giving up almost a week of school?  Without question.  The momentum and memories will infuse the quality of learning to exponential levels.  The ability to work more closely together and with greater trust will only enhance our ability to achieve.

Is it worth the personal and institutional expense?  I hesitate to speak for other people’s pocketbooks, but from the school’s standpoint: Yes.  Each dollar was well spent.  Any family who needed help received it and the energy that goes into raising those funds comes back to us tenfold.  Traveling as far as we do is necessary not just to provide the activities.  It is precisely the being-so-far-from-home-ness of the experience that lends it some of its power.

Risking sounding overly hyperbolic, this experience changes evermore the energy of a group.  Watching some of our exuberant eighth graders (literally) embrace some our shyer sixth graders simply would not happen if not for the retreat.  It validates the time and energy dedicated to inculcating Jewish values when you see it come to life before your very eyes.  Those moments stick.  They live on in the classrooms and the cafeteria. Yes, sometimes intimacy breeds contempt, but sometimes it breeds even-deeper intimacy and this was certainly the case for us.

We prayed together out in God’s grandeur.  We studying and explored Jewish values through creative, informal educational programs.  We sang around the campfire.  We engaged in ropes courses and other team-building activities.  We shared meals and cabins.  And yes, we went down the river and took a collective leap of faith as our boats went over the waterfall – there can be no more power symbol of our faith in each other than sharing those exhilarating 45 seconds together.

We trusted in each other and safely navigated our boats over the waterfall, through the rough currents and into calm waters.  So it was in Georgia.  So it shall be back at school.

We shall use this experience to catapult our year forward.  I, for one, will use this experience to better reach my students because now I know them much better.  The other teachers who were there feel the same way.

I am already thinking about next year’s retreat and how amazing it will be.  Fifth Graders beware, the waterfall awaits…but your middle school friends and teachers will be there with you ready to take that leap of faith together.  Hold on to your paddles!

iJew

I have an iPad.  It is pretty awesome.

I use it for a variety of purposes – some of them are even work-related!  I carry it on my class walk-throughs so that I can write notes about what I am seeing.  I take it to meetings.  I can check my email and keep up with all the social media that I still sometimes find overwhelming.  It is an incredibly versatile tool.

I also use it for all sorts of other things – organizing books, staying on top of my fantasy football teams, movies, music, pictures, games, etc. – things that simplify my life and allow me instant access to the things that I am interested in.

There is little question that an iPad, like many of the other technological tools we now use without thinking, can serve an a means for connectedness.  I can use it to stay connected to people as close as the room next door or as far away as another continent.  I can interact with the blogosphere and twitterscape at a moment’s notice.  I am constantly connected.

But I have been thinking a lot about the quality of that connection and about the “i” in “iPad”.  That connection was made explicit to me last night at our Middle School Open House.  We had a wonderful Open House – parents had an opportunity to hear from teachers, view their blogs, watch some innovative student-created videos, etc.  The overwhelming message – as is that of the name of this blog – is that we are charged with the task of providing maximal individual attention.  We must know our students as individuals and lovingly inspire them to reach their individual academic (and spiritual, and emotional, and social, etc.) potentials.  I, I, I, I….

There is no “i” in “Jew”.

Judaism has strong communitarian leanings.  We are encouraged to see ourselves as a community, not as a collection of individuals.  That is why , for example, we are required to pray as a group – the minyan.  This can create tension in an American Jewish Day School, especially one such as ours, which seeks to be be a place of interaction, not assimilation or separation.

For us, as a Solomon Schechter Day School, we do not seek to subsume our Jewish values to American values (or vice-versa), nor do we presume we can live as bifurcated people, switching personalities and viewpoints depending on whether we are functioning as “Jews” or as “Americans” as a matter of context…as if that can be done.  No – we believe that children (and adults) are human beings who are capable of bringing their American and Jewish selves together in healthy holism.  As much as we focus on the “I” in “AmerIcan,” it is important sometimes to focus on the “we” in “Jew” (okay, you have to spell it backwards, but it is there).  Luckily just such an opportunity comes knocking on Monday…

I am headed off to Camp Ramah Darom in Atlanta next week with our Middle School on its annual retreat.  I am beyond excited – camping is in my blood and it will be a remarkable opportunity for us to take what we do here inside the walls and make it come alive in an awe-inspiring natural setting.  I look forward to sharing that experience with you upon our return.  For me, the Middle School Retreat will be important for restoring balance to the “i-centrism” I have been discussing.  This retreat is all about “we” – and we are going to have the times of our lives.

Marching With Fruits & Vegetables

I love Sukkot!  Talk about “A Floor, But No Ceiling”!

This is absolutely my favorite holiday of the entire year.  There is nothing else like it on the Jewish Calendar – sitting outside in a sukkah

you built yourself (or in my case built by handier Jews than I…which is just about anyone), with handmade decorations from your children, enjoying good food with friends and family in the night air, the citrusy smell of etrog lingering and mixing with verdant lulav – this is experiential Judaism at its finest.

But here is a sad truth: Even though our school will be closed on Thursday and Friday for Sukkot, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of our students will not be found in synagogue enjoying what is known as zmn_wmctnv.gif or “The Season of our Rejoicing”.  But many or most were certainly in synagogue last weekend for Yom Kippur.  So when it comes to “atoning” we have a full house, but for “rejoicing” we have empty seats?

If our children – if we – only experience the Judaism of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and not the Judaism of Sukkot, we are not exposing them to the full range of beauty and joy our tradition has to offer.  So why, in fact, is this what typically happens?

I’m not entirely sure, but I think it has to do with the exotic nature of the holiday.  As someone who did not grow up celebrating this holiday, upon coming to synagogue as an adult and watching a congregation march in circles waving fruits and vegetables – well this was not the Judaism I knew!  Truth be told, there are surely pagan accretions to the way that we honor the harvest roots of this holiday which may seem alien to the typical prayerbook service.  But for me, that is precisely what makes it so unique, special and not-to-be-missed!

No one likes to feel uncomfortable and adults especially are wary of feeling uneducated or unprepared.  I know how I felt encountering Jewish ritual for the first time as an adult – it was scary.  I, however, was lucky.  I was pursuing a degree in Jewish Education and, therefore, had all the support and resources I needed to learn and grow.  I realize that most adults coming at Jewish practice for the first time are not so lucky.  The amount of “stuff” Judaism asks of us to do – building the sukkah with precise specifications, shaking the lulav and etrog in the proscribed way, chanting less-familiar prayers, coming to synagogue on unfamiliar days – can be overwhelming.  (And why I am offering “Parent University” beginning next month…plug, plug!)  But don’t lose the forest through the trees…I’d simply ask you to consider this: When building your child’s library of Jewish memories, which memory feels more compelling and likely to resonate over time – sitting in starched clothes in sanctuary seats or relaxing with friends and family in an outdoor sukkah built with love and care?

You don’t have to choose just one, of course, that is the beauty of living a life of sacred time – there is a rhythm to the Jewish calendar, evocative and varied.  Come to synagogue for the High Holidays, to be sure.  But don’t miss out on Sukkot (or Simchat Torah or Shavuot or “Add Jewish Holiday Here”).  Let this Sukkot truly be the season of our great rejoicing.  I hope to see many students in synagogue this Sukkot.  I hope to see many parents push themselves out of their comfort zones and join the parade.  Pick up your fruit and vegetables and march with us in a circle.  Chag sameach.

“Teaching by Being”

Dear God,

teach me to embody those ideals

I would want my children

to learn from me.

Let me communicate

with my children – wisely

in ways

that will draw their hearts

to kindness, to deceny

and to true wisdom.

Dear God,

let me pass on to my children

only the good;

let them find in me

the values

and the behavior

I hope to see in them.

Those are words of prayer written by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov from his Likutey Moharan (2:7).

They feel particularly appropriate to me writing, as I am, the morning of what will soon be Kol Nidre and the beginning of Yom Kippur.  ‘Tis the season for the most personal of reflections and the most profound hopes for the future.  Mine are encapsulated in the words of Rebbe Nachman above.

I read those words of two minds – as a parent of two and a principal of many.  It serves as the reminder for why in each of my teacher’s Preplanning Week binders they found this quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (for more, please see my prior blogpost “A Place in Time“) saying that “We need to have more than textbooks, we need text-people”.  We can have the best books, most well though-out curriculum, and the most sophisticated technology – and hopefully we either do or will soon – but without the right people what does it really amount to?

Another of our traditions during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur includes the act of teshuvah – the complicated act of acknowledging past wrongs, correcting past mistakes, promises of changed behavior, etc.  For my part, here in the most public of forums, please allow me apologize to all those I have wronged or hurt, intentionally or unknown over the past year.  It has been a remarkable year in the life for me and my family as we have transitioned our jobs and locations; moved far from family and friends; and have tried to keep from our children all the stresses felt.  It has not always been easy on those around us.  I look forward to working on myself to be the best “me” I can in the upcoming year.  For me, my wife, my children, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my teachers, my students and their families – I hope this year to live up to the words of Rebbe Nachman and Rabbi Heschel.

Easy fasts for all who do so…meaningful reflections for all who feel the need.  I welcome your sharing the thoughts, prayers, and quotes that speak to you during this time.  I welcome you joining the brave few who do comment on these blogposts…I wager I learn as much or more from you than you do from me.  Join us.