What Makes Prayer at Camp So Special?

Open your heart. Open to Me. Let My Presence rest on you.

The question of what makes prayer at camp so special has peppered both camp and synagogue innovation literature over the past few decades. There is an apocryphal tale of the camper returning home and insisting they could not celebrate Havdalah without a lake. Sales and Saxe (2004) suggest a few ideas: campers taking leadership roles, the presence of the Torah, creativity and kavannah. My own take comes out of the observations I have been able to make working at URJ Eisner Camp these past two summers; I came as someone with a background in Jewish education with an interest in the phenomenon of camp as well as someone who did not grow up at a URJ camp or any other Jewish overnight camp except for a few years in elementary school.

Recently I have had a new insight into this question. This is just a personal reflection; I invite your reactions on whether or not this resonates with your experience. Of course, prayer at camp is not always a positive or impactful experience. But when it is, it seems transcendent.

Camp has given me the opportunity to participate in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s educator initiative, Educating for a Jewish Spiritual Life. Through this experience over the past year, I have learned that cultivating an open heart is a core concept of Jewish mindfulness. Through our practice we explore how an open heart feels, physically and emotionally. We pay attention to the behaviors and attitudes which open our hearts, such as awareness and gratitude. An open heart leads to authentic prayer, genuine empathy, equanimity, and a capacity to love one’s self and others.

It seems to me that camp primes one’s heart to be open. The environment of camp, when it works, is one of safety and love. Campers move about confidently and freely. They know they can be themselves, whatever that means to them. Rules about how we treat others are front and center. Lifelong friendships are formed. Counselors offer unconditional love and care to their campers. In this environment, we can enter prayer with an open heart. Perhaps this is what Splansky (2006) is getting at when he says, “The sense of community precedes the praying.”

Jewish mindfulness also cultivates the capacity to provide a loving and safe environment for one’s self. As we sit, we concentrate on the phrases inspired by the Priestly Benediction, “May I be loved. May I be safe.”, as we envision those feelings and the people or places who have contributed to experiencing those feelings in our lives. This capacity is especially important when we face something unpleasant. When we have negative feelings, we try to hold ourselves with compassion through the experience. Similarly, there are times that camp life is dramatic or difficult, and camp holds you in those moments and helps you recover.

In my experience, the meaningful power of camp prayer comes through the elements of love, safety, and holding with compassion; the setting, music, and logistics of the services alone do not have the power to open one’s heart. In these crucial ways, camp exemplifies what we try to do for ourselves through Jewish mindfulness practice.


Sales, A. L., & Saxe, L. (2003). “How Goodly Are Thy Tents”: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences. Hanover: Brandeis.

Splansky, D. M. (2006). Creating a Prayer Experience in Reform Movement Camps and Beyond. In A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping (pp. 151-172).

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean

I recently went looking for this piece I wrote back in 2006 because of the mention of Leon Wieseltier, and his quote is still the best part of the essay, I think. You can find the archived article here, but since I’m not sure how much longer it will be there, and I might want to find it again one day, I’m posting it here. Since I wrote this, I think I’ve become a bit of a relativist, embracing multiple expressions of Judaism, from knishes to Maimonides to many less stereotypical expressions, but that message to “Get into the fight” still seems to be a compelling and succinct rationale for Jewish education. Enjoy as we prepare for Passover, when we read this verse in the Haggadah.

Ki Tavo concludes the litany of laws reiterated to the people as they await entrance into the land. Details of a ceremony that must take place upon their entry into the Promised Land are given. In elaborate, even excruciating detail we learn about the reward for adhering to the covenant and the extensive, harsh rebuke for abjuring it.

Our parashah begins with a description of the offering the first fruits to be performed once the people enter and settle in the Promised Land. Approaching the priest in front of the altar, each individual recites a formulation with which we are familiar because of its appearance in the magid (telling) section of the Passover haggadah:

You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean.’ (Deuteronomy 26:5)

Is this statement a claim to a biological lineage or an exercise in religious imagination? This question is addressed in the Mishnah, which asks if a convert should recite the statement. While the prevailing conclusion is that they should not, Rabbi Judah argues that Abraham, “father of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:5), was also a convert and “father of all non-Jews who chose to become Jews” (Jerusalem Talmud, Bikkurim 1:4 in Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, Vol. 3, 160). Maimonides agrees with Rabbi Judah in a response to an inquiry from the famous convert Obadiah. Maimonides tells him, “You should recite all the prayers just as they are formulated in the liturgy. Change nothing! …[E]veryone who accepts Judaism until the end of all generations…is a descendant of Abraham…There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between us and between you” (Cited in Fields, 161).

The open and unequivocal embrace of converts has implications for our understanding of what makes someone Jewish. Clearly, if one can become Jewish, Jewishness is not a factor of blood, race, ethnicity or lineage. This means that we cannot rely on our last name, physical characteristics or hereditary diseases to define us as Jewish. Nor can we rely on those who hate us and discriminate against us based on these things. Who would want to, you may ask. There are many Jews who are Jewish simply as a condition of their birth, like being short or left handed, it is a situation they must deal with, sometimes bringing pleasure and sometimes pain. Even if they are proud of their Judaism and association with the Jewish people, it is still a passive association, something they are rather than something they each day become.

What is Judaism, then? Is it a nationality, with a language, history and cuisine? The modern state of Israel has given new life to this line of questioning, including the claim that a full Jewish life can only be lived in Israel. But history does not support this assertion. Judaism is multi-dimensional and transcends any single category or definition. Having such things as a language and a country mean that Judaism is more than a religion.

On the flip side of our openness to conversion, it is hard to leave the Jewish people. “The Talmud, the fundamental source of rabbinic Jewish law and lore, does not recognize the possibility that a Jew might ‘convert’ to another religion and thereby cease to be a counted among the people of Israel. The covenant between God and Israel is seen as a contract binding for all time upon the descendants of those who stood at Sinai….” (Washofsky, Jewish Living, 47-48). But as we learn in Ki Tavo and others, there are conditions to this covenant.

If we follow God’s injunctions, we are rewarded and our lives are enriched. If not, the gruesome consequences are described in this week’s parashah. Perhaps there are more subtle consequences of leaving our rich tradition behind, of being ignorant to the requirements and rituals of Judaism. In an interview with Abigail Pogrebin, Leon Wieseltier rails against this ignorance. “Owing to the ethnic definition of Jewish life, there has occurred a kind of internal relativism among all things Jewish,” he says. “If we’re just a tribe, if we’re just an ethnic group, then all of our expressions are equally valuable, they all delightfully express what we are. ‘I like Maimonides, you like knishes, but we’re Jews together!’ Right? The philosophy, the food, it’s all a different way of being Jewish. … So in America now it is possible to be a Jew with a Jewish identity that one can defend and that gives one pleasure—and for that identity to have painfully little Jewish substance” (Stars of David, 156, 157). Wieseltier defines Judaism within the context of covenant, and that covenant comes with obligations. He challenges us:

“…[T]he Jews are a people, the Jews are a nation, the Jews are a civilization—but they’re all that because they are first and foremost a religion. That’s the source of the whole blessed thing. Except for our religion, we would not be a people. When Jews come to me with perplexities about the meaning of Jewishness, I say to them: Judaism. Just go to it; check it out, study this, study that, try this, try that, humble yourself for a while before it, insist upon the importance of having a worldview, develop reasons for what you like and what you don’t like, get into the fight. Get into the fight.” (Stars of David, 167)

Let us resolve to take up the fight, to engage with Judaism and play an active part in defining it.

Purim: We Have Been Here Before

As we approach the holiday of Purim and find ourselves deep in this year’s bizarre election cycle, I find myself thinking back to different times. The article I wrote below was originally published in a weekly Torah commentary by the URJ back in December 2000 and is archived here.
Four election cycles ago was a different time entirely. On the other hand, we have heard these stories before. Jewish people have risen to positions of prominence and power even as a minority, Joseph and Esther being the two most obvious Biblical examples.
This year, in addition to a woman and a Jewish man seeking the presidency, a new Haman has emerged, a person whose ego makes him a demagogue and whose ability to incite hate makes him terrifying.
While things have changed, the last questions I raised give me pause today: “There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?”
I’m interested in your thoughts, so please tell me what you think in the comments.

Joe and Hadassah Lieberman: Viceroy of Egypt and Queen of Persia

The narratives of the Bible are in many ways archetypal stories of the human condition, repeated throughout history. This year, a Jew, Senator Joe Lieberman, was nominated as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Who could be more suited for this position in history than two people who bear the same names as our only biblical role models to have achieved levels of prominence in non-Jewish governments, namely, Joseph and Esther (whose Hebrew name was Hadassah)? Let’s explore these two models with regard to some specific issues raised in both the Tanach texts and in this year’s presidential race.

Piety

Joe Lieberman tends to refer to God in his speeches. In Parashat Miketz, the biblical Joseph constantly mentions God. When asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph replies: “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare!” (Genesis 41:16), and in the course of the interpretation provided him by God, he mentions God three times. This piety so impresses Pharaoh and his advisers that Pharaoh chooses Joseph to supervise the food reserve (an ironic parallel to the issue of our budgetary surplus) because of Joseph’s relationship with God, and Pharaoh even refers to God twice as Elohim, the same way that Joseph does.

In contrast, God is not mentioned even once in the entire Book of Esther. Mordecai tells her: “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?” (Esther 4:14), hinting that God directs the course of human events. How different or similar are Esther’s and Joseph’s approaches? Which one do you think is better suited for a politician in the U.S. today?

Family Values

Joe Lieberman was praised for his frank condemnation of President Clinton’s sexual infidelity and dishonesty. In rabbinic literature, Joseph is often referred to as “Joseph the Righteous,” having earned this title for refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, who then falsely accused Joseph, resulting in Potiphar’s having him thrown in jail.

There is a parallel story of an attempted rape in the Book of Esther. When Esther revealed to the king Ahasuerus that Haman was plotting to kill the Jews, the king stormed out and returned later only to find “Haman…lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined.” (Esther 7:8) Do these two biblical stories serve to warn us that as Jews in a non-Jewish society, we run the risk of having the core of our identities violated?

Assimilation and Intermarriage

Both Joseph and Esther married non-Jews. Although each of them assimilated into the majority culture, they were both forced to confront their roots. When Joseph’s brothers arrived in Egypt, they didn’t recognize him. He swore by Pharaoh’s name (Genesis 42:15) and had called his “firstborn Manasseh, meaning, ‘God has made me forget completely…my parental home.'” (Genesis 41:51) Esther, too, hid her Jewish identity, and without Mordecai’s prodding, she would probably not have approached the king. On the other hand, each week parents bless their sons, expressing the hope that they will be like Ephraim and Manasseh, who, rabbinic tradition teaches, embraced Judaism even in Egypt. How does a Jew who has attained a position of prominence in the U.S. today affect the identity of other American Jews?

Cycles

Finally, we can speculate about how this year’s events might be viewed in the course of Jewish history. There were many times when Jews achieved levels of acceptance only to face later expulsion or worse. The tale of Joseph is a story of such a cycle—from favored son to slave and prisoner to the viceroy of Egypt. While Egypt, Mitzrayim in Hebrew, became the site of years of bitter Israelite slavery, it is also the place from which we were redeemed and led out to the Promised Land. Is this cycle destined to repeat itself throughout history? What is its end? Where in that cycle are we now?

When School Doesn’t Look Like School: Applied Judaism

Here’s my latest article in eJewishPhilanthropy. Looking forward to your responses.

 

Logo Matzah Ball MenschesThere is a lot of talk about changing the name, the times, the locations and the format of synagogue schools. But calling something experiential, changing the hours or even inviting the parents is not enough to make deep change in religious school. What is needed is a change in thinking.

Is school the right model for what we are trying to do in our synagogue education programs? Why do they exist? There is a lot for students to learn in order to be knowledgeable in Jewish practices, values and traditions. But children who can “get an A in Judaism” are not our ultimate goal. A person can become an expert in these areas without even being Jewish. Our goal is mastery of “applied Judaism,” demonstrated by students who are part of a Jewish community and can face the challenges of this life in a Jewish way. Let me give you an example of what this can look like within the bounds of a typical third grade Sunday morning religious school class structure. Here’s how the teacher described it:

In the synagogue kitchen, nineteen third graders gathered around the stainless steel island upon which was heaped bunches of leeks, onions, carrots, turnips, parsnips, and bundles of parsley and dill. On the stove behind them, four free-range chickens were simmering in big soup pots. Mamma Barbara, grandmother to one of the students and the guest of honor for the morning, stood at the head of the island, handing out peelers, instruction, and encouragement to eager hands. Within minutes, the floor was a mess of carrot tops and parsnip shavings that missed the compost bags. The smell of chopped onions brought tears to some sensitive eyes.

A sense of community, sometimes so hard to foster in a classroom setting, was everywhere one looked in this overheated kitchen. Kitchen tools were shared without a teacher’s guidance. One child held a hardto-cut vegetable for another to chop, while, across the way, another student warned his new friend to “be careful of the splashing soup” as she put her cut up celery into the pot.

Cleanup over and soup gently simmering on the stove, the class climbed the stairs back up the classroom, where Mamma Barbara told them the story of the recipe, passed down from her own great-grandmother through the daughters of her family, from a Russian shtetl to the suburbs of New Jersey. The soup (“Jewish penicillin,” Mamma Barbara called it) would now be strained, frozen, and ultimately delivered to the ill in our community by the sixth graders of our synagogue as part of their bar or bat mitzvah projects.

More than a kitschy hands-on activity, this effort coordinated by Jessie Losch at The Barnert Temple Congregation B’nai Jeshurun of Franklin Lakes gets to the heart of what applied Judaism in a school setting looks like. A few key components:

1. The school is not separate from the greater community.

In our scenario, students function as a class community within the context of the synagogue community. Mamma Barbara brought her family recipe and became part of the effort. In addition, the students planted chicken soup herbs in the synagogue garden to harvest for their soup under the direction of a synagogue member who is also a master gardener. Another group of expert adults facilitated the students in creating a Matzah Ball Mensches logo which will adorn the labels of every package of soup. As a mitzvah project, a sixth grader will serve as the liaison to the caring committee, coordinating delivery. K-2nd graders will create cards to go with the soup.

2. Judaism is not confined to a time of the week or a room of the synagogue.

The boundaries that often segment children’s Jewish life (Sunday mornings at the synagogue) were permeated by people and activities around making the soup and delivering it. Community members and older students joined in. The sick people who will receive the soup are not necessarily third grade classmates. Deliveries will occur on different days and in other places, and cooking and planting took place outside of the classroom, albeit on synagogue property.

3. Jewish values are put in action to solve real problems.

Students learned about taking care of the earth, dietary laws, and preventing the suffering of animals and then discussed how to make the soup in an ethical way. They studied Rabbi Akiva’s teaching on the power of visiting the sick: “He who does not visit the sick is like a murderer!” A connection to Jewish history and heritage was made real through Mamma Barbara’s recipe and family story. Empathy and care for the sick went from theoretical to real as eight year olds did what they could to help and provide comfort to those in need.

4. There are widening circles of involvement.

This project has grown since it was first initiated. The excitement of participating in real and meaningful Jewish acts that make a difference is contagious. Director of Lifelong Learning Sara Losch has invited other classes to be a part. Now the fifth grade class is involved in creating a book that will tell the story of this project to the recipient, including the mitzvot it teaches and the recipe for chicken soup. Students become teachers to community members and spread their learning.

Under the direction of Senior Rabbi Elyse Frishman, this synagogue has been in a constant cycle of experimentation, assessment and improvement. That being said, this experience of applied Judaism did not require a full restructure of the synagogue school. Jessie understands the world of her classroom as a part of a greater Jewish community. She incorporated the enduring understandings that were articulated for her class and asked herself: What would a student who integrated these ideas know/do/understand in the real world? Others were able to get involved and see how this project could connect to their efforts as well.

Applied Judaism is my term for a way of thinking about Jewish learning and its purposes. Judaism is not a subject matter to be mastered in our schools; it is a salve for the human condition. At the heart of Jewish education is a belief that being Jewish, living in a Jewish way, makes life more meaningful, more enjoyable, and more beautiful. With the right approach, children can experience this and enrich the whole community, even within the context of a conventional Sunday morning program.

A New Age for Adult Learning

This post that appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy suggests we need more adult learning for the last of the Baby Boomers, ages 50-70, and that we should adopt a transformative adult learning approach. What do you think about the demographic and the theory?

 

Who is engaged in adult learning at your synagogue? Much of adult learning in synagogues is targeted at retirees and happens during the day, when other people are at work. In addition, there are programs for parents of children in the religious school, often on Sunday mornings. It is time to focus on another demographic, the last of the Baby Boomers (ages 50-70) – people who have different demands and time schedules but who are also at a crucial transition point and ripe for adult Jewish learning.

The number of adults engaged in adult Jewish learning is greater than ever before, as adult Jewish learning has experienced a kind of boom in the last few decades, but there is evidence that today’s learners are looking for more than additional deposits in their knowledge bank. This demographic in particular is facing a transition in their lives that puts an emphasis on finding purpose and meaning-making. Evidence of this trend can be found in the secular culture: There’s a series in the Huffington Post based on “The Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50″ that describes different people who have reinvented themselves. Websites like Encore.org teach people how to find purpose in their “second acts” and promotes The Encore Career Handbook, “a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts guide to finding passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life.” Whether their situation is financially dire or not, this demographic faces the question of how to make the second half of their lives significant.

As further evidence of this change, the study of mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual discipline, is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Mussar is more than “Jewish self-help.” Stone’s website describes “a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of mussar into daily practice and daily life.” The focus of our adult learning should be towards individual transformation with an ultimate community purpose in mind. I am not suggesting a further focus on self at the expense of community, but for its ultimate benefit. I am suggesting a critical reflection component to adult learning that results in integrating Jewish values and knowing one’s self better within the context of Judaism, ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

Adult learning should not be helping learners know more about Judaism or Jewish topics without taking the learning to heart. The Haggadah’s “wicked child” asks, “What does all of this mean to you?” The question is inappropriate because our tradition takes for granted that meaningful Jewish learning means we must always see ourselves as a crucial part of the learning. Applying the learning to our own lives, our own growth, is core. Adult Jewish learning is not an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline.

In order to meet these goals, we have to change our teaching methodology. In her thorough book Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning Theory and Practice, Diane Tickton Schuster noted that “The literature on adult religious education draws heavily on work in the fields of cognitive psychology and adult learning. To date, the insights from these disciplines have not been applied to the experiences of Jewish adult learners.” (p.103) Despite her compelling argument, not much has changed. On the whole, our teachers of adults are still largely untrained in adult learning theory. Rather, they are experts in their subject, much like academics in universities. Because we are reaching not towards a degree but to the transformation of belief and behavior, we need to put resources towards training our teachers of adults in a different way of understanding learning and teaching. A promising move in this direction is that the leaders of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are currently in the process of creating an asynchronous orientation to Melton and teaching Jewish adults, inclusive of a session on transformative learning, that all new faculty will be required to view prior to teaching.

As Schuster points out, transformative adult learning theory is directly relevant to what adult Jewish learners are seeking in our settings. This approach defines adult learning as a process by which learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world. Critical reflection is an essential component of transformative adult learning. In transformative adult learning, techniques that educators can use for reflection include both rational and “extrarational” approaches, including creative expression, intuition and imagination. Teachers who subscribe to transformative adult learning theory function much more as a guide than an expert, and they provide avenues for learners to reach inside themselves, better understand their own beliefs and assumptions, ask questions and formulate new ways of seeing the world and being in it. This means that developing a curricular path for adult Jewish learners should not be our top priority. People seek out learning when and where they are ready, and the teacher cannot bring about transformation in the learner. Rather, the teacher sets the stage for this kind of learning to take place.

Making a meaningful contribution to the greater community is potential next step and byproduct of transformational adult learning in Jewish settings. If we help learners to explore their own sense of purpose and we provide avenues for them to express that in meaningful ways, both the learner and the community can benefit. Take this model from the Encore.org site: “Encore Fellowships are designed to deliver new sources of talent to organizations solving critical social problems. These paid, time-limited Fellowships match skilled, experienced professionals with social-purpose organizations in high-impact assignments.” How might our synagogues look different if we accompanied adult Jewish learners on their path for making meaning and finding purpose, and we matched their passions and talents with places in the synagogue they could contribute their expertise and ideas? Not everyone wants to be on the board or a committee; passionate experts can make contributions in time-limited, project-focused ways.

Today access to knowledge is unprecedented. There are a myriad of reputable, comprehensive and highly trafficked websites, instructional and educational videos and podcasts that can teach someone about Judaism, Jewish history, life and practice. If a Jewish learner comes to a Jewish environment to learn, it is likely the learner is seeking more than information and is ready to think about how they might be different as a result of the learning, sharing and reflecting. They may also be looking for a way to get involved and make a difference. Adult Jewish learning in Jewish settings should not be organized around numbers of hours clocked or years of intensive coursework. Rather, we should acknowledge that adult Jewish learning is intensely personal and potentially transformative, both for individuals and communities. The time is right to reach out to adults in their 50s and 60s, people who are in transition and open to both receiving and contributing to our tradition and community.

Specifically, Jewish agencies and foundations can:

  •     Convene teachers of adults and train them in relevant adult learning theory.
  •     Provide online classes with trained teachers. (Transformative learning can happen even in a distance learning setting when facilitated by the right teacher!)
  •     Fund congregational or organizational fellowships for expert adults who can make a difference in our organizations.

Synagogues can:

  •     Value teachers who understand adult learning and education as much as Jewish subject matter.
  •     Be creative in considering timing and format of adult learning.
  •     Explicitly reach out to those adults in the 50-70 year old demographic and create opportunities for them to explore this transitional phase in their lives.
  •     Consider adult learning offerings and develop them around the explicit goals of meaning-making and responding to a search for purpose and direction.
  •     Match adults’ passions and skills to opportunities to contribute to their Jewish community.

Teachers of Jewish adults can:

  •     Articulate a goal of transformation and meaningful learning for adult learning experiences.
  •     Share experiences and techniques which have been successful in this approach.
  •     Act as facilitators, mentors and journey companions rather than experts.
  •     Share your own searches, passions and the meaning you find in Judaism.
  •     Listen to learners and give them voice.

Adult Jewish learners can:

  •     Reflect on what and why you are seeking.
  •     Share your ideas, thoughts and passion.
  •     Be open to opportunities for change as well as rational and extrarational learning experiences.
  •     Help shape future adult learning offerings.
  •     Seek out opportunities to contribute your talents and continue to grow.

Who is engaged in adult learning at your synagogue? Much of adult learning in synagogues is targeted at retirees and happens during the day, when other people are at work. In addition, there are programs for parents of children in the religious school, often on Sunday mornings. It is time to focus on another demographic, the last of the Baby Boomers (ages 50-70) – people who have different demands and time schedules but who are also at a crucial transition point and ripe for adult Jewish learning.

The number of adults engaged in adult Jewish learning is greater than ever before, as adult Jewish learning has experienced a kind of boom in the last few decades, but there is evidence that today’s learners are looking for more than additional deposits in their knowledge bank. This demographic in particular is facing a transition in their lives that puts an emphasis on finding purpose and meaning-making. Evidence of this trend can be found in the secular culture: There’s a series in the Huffington Post based on “The Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50″ that describes different people who have reinvented themselves. Websites like Encore.org teach people how to find purpose in their “second acts” and promotes The Encore Career Handbook, a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts guide to finding passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life.” Whether their situation is financially dire or not, this demographic faces the question of how to make the second half of their lives significant.

As further evidence of this change, the study of mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual discipline, is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Mussar is more than “Jewish self-help.” Stone’s website describes “a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of mussar into daily practice and daily life.” The focus of our adult learning should be towards individual transformation with an ultimate community purpose in mind. I am not suggesting a further focus on self at the expense of community, but for its ultimate benefit. I am suggesting a critical reflection component to adult learning that results in integrating Jewish values and knowing one’s self better within the context of Judaism, ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

Adult learning should not be helping learners know more about Judaism or Jewish topics without taking the learning to heart. The Haggadah’s “wicked child” asks, “What does all of this mean to me?” The question is inappropriate because our tradition takes for granted that meaningful Jewish learning means we must always see ourselves as a crucial part of the learning. Applying the learning to our own lives, our own growth, is core. Adult Jewish learning is not an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline.

In order to meet these goals, we have to change our teaching methodology. In her thorough book Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning Theory and Practice, Diane Tickton Schuster noted that “The literature on adult religious education draws heavily on work in the fields of cognitive psychology and adult learning. To date, the insights from these disciplines have not been applied to the experiences of Jewish adult learners.” (p.103) Despite her compelling argument, not much has changed. On the whole, our teachers of adults are still largely untrained in adult learning theory. Rather, they are experts in their subject, much like academics in universities. Because we are reaching not towards a degree but to the transformation of belief and behavior, we need to put resources towards training our teachers of adults in a different way of understanding learning and teaching. A promising move in this direction is that the leaders of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are currently in the process of creating an asynchronous orientation to Melton and teaching Jewish adults, inclusive of a session on transformative learning, that all new faculty will be required to view prior to teaching.

As Schuster points out, transformative adult learning theory is directly relevant to what adult Jewish learners are seeking in our settings. This approach defines adult learning as a process by which learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world. Critical reflection is an essential component of transformative adult learning. In transformative adult learning, techniques that educators can use for reflection include both rational and “extrarational” approaches, including creative expression, intuition and imagination. Teachers who ascribe to transformative adult learning theory function much more as a guide than an expert, and they provide avenues for learners to reach inside themselves, better understand their own beliefs and assumptions, ask questions and formulate new ways of seeing the world and being in it. This means that developing a curricular path for adult Jewish learners should not be our top priority. People seek out learning when and where they are ready, and the teacher cannot bring about transformation in the learner. Rather, the teacher sets the stage for this kind of learning to take place.

Making a meaningful contribution to the greater community is potential next step and byproduct of transformational adult learning in Jewish settings. If we help learners to explore their own sense of purpose and we provide avenues for them to express that in meaningful ways, both the learner and the community can benefit. Take this model from the Encore.org site: “Encore Fellowships are designed to deliver new sources of talent to organizations solving critical social problems. These paid, time-limited Fellowships match skilled, experienced professionals with social-purpose organizations in high-impact assignments.” How might our synagogues look different if we accompanied adult Jewish learners on their path for making meaning and finding purpose, and we matched their passions and talents with places in the synagogue they could contribute their expertise and ideas? Not everyone wants to be on the board or a committee; passionate experts can make contributions in time-limited, project-focused ways.

Today access to knowledge is unprecedented. There are a myriad of reputable, comprehensive and highly trafficked websites, instructional and educational videos and podcasts that can teach someone about Judaism, Jewish history, life and practice. If a Jewish learner comes to a Jewish environment to learn, it is likely the learner is seeking more than information and is ready to think about how they might be different as a result of the learning, sharing and reflecting. They may also be looking for a way to get involved and make a difference. Adult Jewish learning in Jewish settings should not be organized around numbers of hours clocked or years of intensive coursework. Rather, we should acknowledge that adult Jewish learning is intensely personal and potentially transformative, both for individuals and communities. The time is right to reach out to adults in their 50s and 60s, people who are in transition and open to both receiving and contributing to our tradition and community.

Specifically, Jewish agencies and foundations can:

  • Convene teachers of adults and train them in relevant adult learning theory.
  • Provide online classes with trained teachers. (Transformative learning can happen even in a distance learning setting when facilitated by the right teacher!)
  • Fund congregational or organizational fellowships for expert adults who can make a difference in our organizations.

Synagogues can:

  • Value teachers who understand adult learning and education as much as Jewish subject matter.
  • Be creative in considering timing and format of adult learning.
  • Explicitly reach out to those adults in the 50-70 year old demographic and create opportunities for them to explore this transitional phase in their lives.
  • Consider adult learning offerings and develop them around the explicit goals of meaning-making and responding to a search for purpose and direction.
  • Match adults’ passions and skills to opportunities to contribute to their Jewish community.

Teachers of Jewish adults can:

  • Articulate a goal of transformation and meaningful learning for adult learning experiences.
  • Share experiences and techniques which have been successful in this approach.
  • Act as facilitators, mentors and journey companions rather than experts.
  • Share your own searches, passions and the meaning you find in Judaism.
  • Listen to learners and give them voice.

Adult Jewish learners can:

  • Reflect on what and why you are seeking.
  • Share your ideas, thoughts and passion.
  • Be open to opportunities for change as well as rational and extrarational learning experiences.
  • Help shape future adult learning offerings.
  • Seek out opportunities to contribute your talents and continue to grow.

– See more at: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-new-age-for-adult-learning/#sthash.s9rE8krn.dpuf

Who is engaged in adult learning at your synagogue? Much of adult learning in synagogues is targeted at retirees and happens during the day, when other people are at work. In addition, there are programs for parents of children in the religious school, often on Sunday mornings. It is time to focus on another demographic, the last of the Baby Boomers (ages 50-70) – people who have different demands and time schedules but who are also at a crucial transition point and ripe for adult Jewish learning.

The number of adults engaged in adult Jewish learning is greater than ever before, as adult Jewish learning has experienced a kind of boom in the last few decades, but there is evidence that today’s learners are looking for more than additional deposits in their knowledge bank. This demographic in particular is facing a transition in their lives that puts an emphasis on finding purpose and meaning-making. Evidence of this trend can be found in the secular culture: There’s a series in the Huffington Post based on “The Year of the Boomer – 2014 is the year the youngest Boomers turn 50″ that describes different people who have reinvented themselves. Websites like Encore.org teach people how to find purpose in their “second acts” and promotes The Encore Career Handbook, a comprehensive, nuts-and-bolts guide to finding passion, purpose and a paycheck in the second half of life.” Whether their situation is financially dire or not, this demographic faces the question of how to make the second half of their lives significant.

As further evidence of this change, the study of mussar, a Jewish ethical and spiritual discipline, is experiencing a revival in the 21st century. Mussar is more than “Jewish self-help.” Stone’s website describes “a community of learners dedicated to transforming themselves, their relationships, and their institutions by fully integrating the values of mussar into daily practice and daily life.” The focus of our adult learning should be towards individual transformation with an ultimate community purpose in mind. I am not suggesting a further focus on self at the expense of community, but for its ultimate benefit. I am suggesting a critical reflection component to adult learning that results in integrating Jewish values and knowing one’s self better within the context of Judaism, ultimately to the benefit of society as a whole.

Adult learning should not be helping learners know more about Judaism or Jewish topics without taking the learning to heart. The Haggadah’s “wicked child” asks, “What does all of this mean to me?” The question is inappropriate because our tradition takes for granted that meaningful Jewish learning means we must always see ourselves as a crucial part of the learning. Applying the learning to our own lives, our own growth, is core. Adult Jewish learning is not an academic exercise; it is a spiritual discipline.

In order to meet these goals, we have to change our teaching methodology. In her thorough book Jewish Lives, Jewish Learning: Adult Jewish Learning Theory and Practice, Diane Tickton Schuster noted that “The literature on adult religious education draws heavily on work in the fields of cognitive psychology and adult learning. To date, the insights from these disciplines have not been applied to the experiences of Jewish adult learners.” (p.103) Despite her compelling argument, not much has changed. On the whole, our teachers of adults are still largely untrained in adult learning theory. Rather, they are experts in their subject, much like academics in universities. Because we are reaching not towards a degree but to the transformation of belief and behavior, we need to put resources towards training our teachers of adults in a different way of understanding learning and teaching. A promising move in this direction is that the leaders of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning are currently in the process of creating an asynchronous orientation to Melton and teaching Jewish adults, inclusive of a session on transformative learning, that all new faculty will be required to view prior to teaching.

As Schuster points out, transformative adult learning theory is directly relevant to what adult Jewish learners are seeking in our settings. This approach defines adult learning as a process by which learners challenge previously held perspectives, become more open, and revise their beliefs and understandings of the world. Critical reflection is an essential component of transformative adult learning. In transformative adult learning, techniques that educators can use for reflection include both rational and “extrarational” approaches, including creative expression, intuition and imagination. Teachers who ascribe to transformative adult learning theory function much more as a guide than an expert, and they provide avenues for learners to reach inside themselves, better understand their own beliefs and assumptions, ask questions and formulate new ways of seeing the world and being in it. This means that developing a curricular path for adult Jewish learners should not be our top priority. People seek out learning when and where they are ready, and the teacher cannot bring about transformation in the learner. Rather, the teacher sets the stage for this kind of learning to take place.

Making a meaningful contribution to the greater community is potential next step and byproduct of transformational adult learning in Jewish settings. If we help learners to explore their own sense of purpose and we provide avenues for them to express that in meaningful ways, both the learner and the community can benefit. Take this model from the Encore.org site: “Encore Fellowships are designed to deliver new sources of talent to organizations solving critical social problems. These paid, time-limited Fellowships match skilled, experienced professionals with social-purpose organizations in high-impact assignments.” How might our synagogues look different if we accompanied adult Jewish learners on their path for making meaning and finding purpose, and we matched their passions and talents with places in the synagogue they could contribute their expertise and ideas? Not everyone wants to be on the board or a committee; passionate experts can make contributions in time-limited, project-focused ways.

Today access to knowledge is unprecedented. There are a myriad of reputable, comprehensive and highly trafficked websites, instructional and educational videos and podcasts that can teach someone about Judaism, Jewish history, life and practice. If a Jewish learner comes to a Jewish environment to learn, it is likely the learner is seeking more than information and is ready to think about how they might be different as a result of the learning, sharing and reflecting. They may also be looking for a way to get involved and make a difference. Adult Jewish learning in Jewish settings should not be organized around numbers of hours clocked or years of intensive coursework. Rather, we should acknowledge that adult Jewish learning is intensely personal and potentially transformative, both for individuals and communities. The time is right to reach out to adults in their 50s and 60s, people who are in transition and open to both receiving and contributing to our tradition and community.

Specifically, Jewish agencies and foundations can:

  • Convene teachers of adults and train them in relevant adult learning theory.
  • Provide online classes with trained teachers. (Transformative learning can happen even in a distance learning setting when facilitated by the right teacher!)
  • Fund congregational or organizational fellowships for expert adults who can make a difference in our organizations.

Synagogues can:

  • Value teachers who understand adult learning and education as much as Jewish subject matter.
  • Be creative in considering timing and format of adult learning.
  • Explicitly reach out to those adults in the 50-70 year old demographic and create opportunities for them to explore this transitional phase in their lives.
  • Consider adult learning offerings and develop them around the explicit goals of meaning-making and responding to a search for purpose and direction.
  • Match adults’ passions and skills to opportunities to contribute to their Jewish community.

Teachers of Jewish adults can:

  • Articulate a goal of transformation and meaningful learning for adult learning experiences.
  • Share experiences and techniques which have been successful in this approach.
  • Act as facilitators, mentors and journey companions rather than experts.
  • Share your own searches, passions and the meaning you find in Judaism.
  • Listen to learners and give them voice.

Adult Jewish learners can:

  • Reflect on what and why you are seeking.
  • Share your ideas, thoughts and passion.
  • Be open to opportunities for change as well as rational and extrarational learning experiences.
  • Help shape future adult learning offerings.
  • Seek out opportunities to contribute your talents and continue to grow.

– See more at: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/a-new-age-for-adult-learning/#sthash.s9rE8krn.dpuf

An Experiment in Congregational Education: Teacher as Researcher, Student as Theologian

I’m proud to share an article here that I wrote with my friend and colleague Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, published in the Winter 2014 issue of the CCAR Journal. I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments.

 

Is spirituality educable, or do teachers need a different approach altogether to cultivate spiritual development? Would it be worthwhile for high school students to explore their own ideas about God and existential questions in a supportive, student-directed series of conversations? We believe that more than being taught about God, people come to their own conclusions through a series of thought experiments, conversations and experiences, testing out theories until they find one (or more) that speaks to them. Since people’s ideas of God often change over time, it may be more important to give students the skills to revisit and revise their ideas rather than to instruct them in a particular theology.

The topic of this issue of the CCAR Journal was the impetus for the two of us to work together to explore an approach to talking about God with teenagers. We had worked together as a rabbi and an educator on the same synagogue staff from 1998-2001. Today we live in close proximity in a different state. Joel works in a congregation, and Wendy consults to congregations in the area of education.

Method

We turned to early childhood education for a methodology. In the Reggio Emilia approach, teachers use documentation to measure student learning; share progress with students, teachers, parents and administrators; and make decisions about the next steps in their curriculum. Thinking about spiritual education has evolved: David Hay and Rebecca Nye have described an approach to children’s spiritual development that honors the individuality of each child.1 Because it is likely neither possible nor desirable to outline a series of spiritual steps through which the teacher expects each child to progress, we thought applying the documentation/reflection model to this subject matter and this age group would be appropriate and instructive.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Shire describes “three elements of curriculum design [that contribute] to religious development in Jewish education: encounter, reflection and instruction.”2 Rather than try to provide all three of these experiences in this limited framework, we focused on reflection. Reflection is a chance for students to discuss “religious questions of meaning.” In this phase, teachers act more as counselors and active listeners. Our suspicion was that while high school students may have had both opportunities for encounter and instruction, they may have had less of a chance to reflect and refine their own spiritual ideas.

Our questions were: Can we extrapolate the principles of early childhood documentation and apply them to older children in a curriculum about God and spirituality? What will happen if the teacher takes the role of observer/researcher and the students take the role of theologian? How will the students document their growth and questions, and can we use this documentation to determine what material and discussions to introduce to the class?

We should explain that while we did some research to understand the Reggio approach to documentation, we were not concerned with being purists regarding the theory or method. First, we were extrapolating the idea and applying it to high school students. Second, we think it is important to note that we are not researchers primarily but teachers, and we want to encourage others in our situation to experiment with different approaches to spiritual education that resonate and that might be fruitful for both student and teacher.

Therefore, we designed an experimental elective class for high school students wherein students would discuss their ideas about God and how God acts in the world, while Joel as the teacher would primarily record their thoughts. Later, he would reflect their ideas back to the students. Six students enrolled in the class, and attendance was inconsistent. The class met for five sessions (one that was planned had to be cancelled due to weather). In planning the class, we anticipated the students playing a larger role in their own documentation. We felt this was an important adaptation of the documentation methodology for older students. At the beginning and end of each class, Joel asked the students to reflect on a text and/or question. He asked them to think if the discussions had changed their ideas in any way.

We thought that students might use technology like video diaries or online communal conversation tools to share their reflections, but in practice, while students sometimes submitted their reflections via their phones, mostly they used pencil and paper to record their thoughts. We think this was mostly due to the fact that students did not put much time into this class outside of the classroom, so they used what was most efficient and at their disposal during class time. We should also note that this use of technology would have been new and unusual for both the teacher and the students. We could have been clearer and more insistent about the need to incorporate these reflections and how to do that.

In between each class, we (the instructors) met by phone to review the students’ comments and plan the next class. This collaboration time is an essential step to the documentation process as envisioned in Reggio. While the teacher spends a lot of time observing during class time, he/she should review the observations with a colleague after class to analyze progress and plan the subsequent class. This was a crucial part of the process for both of us. Insights about the material and the class became clear as a result of this collaborative reflection time. Wendy had a unique perspective, not having been to the class but reviewing the notes most of the time. On the other hand, when she did substitute teach, the roles were reversed. Having notes and reflection time allows the teacher to take a step back and analyze the learning taking place during class. The colleague provides insights that come from reviewing notes and listening to the teacher reflect. (We speak more about how this worked in the “Lessons Learned: Collaborative planning and reflection” part of this article.)

We spoke at length to plan the approach to the class, as it was a departure from conventional teaching. We outlined the best way to explain the methodology to the students. Joel explained the class was a place for the students to talk about their ideas about God. He told them that the class was private, but that it was also a research experiment for this article. He explained that students would share their ideas, and he would reflect back to them in the hopes they would see how their own thinking was developing as a result of the class sessions. His role, he told the students, was to guide, help them reflect, ask quiet students to share and make sure nobody monopolized the entire discussion.

After this explanation of the approach, Joel asked the students to write a reflection on the questions: What do you believe about God, and why? What’s your big question about God you hope we’ll talk about? Then he shared a simple translation of Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. The students discussed the text in a sort of free-flowing, self-directed discussion, during which Joel for the most part quietly recorded their comments on his tablet. For the final five minutes of class, Joel asked the students to write a reflection on how they were feeling about the discussion at that moment. Our goal for the first class was to introduce students to the method and get some feedback from students about our first experimental session. Student journals showed that four of the students felt the class discussion meandered, but that two thought it was still interesting.

We planned for some communication between the students and Joel in between sessions. There was one student in particular who sent his thoughts, but other than that, this did not happen. Students did hand in all of their reflections from each class, and Joel wrote comments on them which he then returned to them in the subsequent class.

In the students’ reflections and in reviewing their classroom comments, we thought there might be a discrepancy behind the idea of God that had been taught to the students in school (particularly God as a character in Biblical stories or as a subject of prayer) and the way that the students experience or don’t experience God in their everyday lives. Therefore we formulated the following question for the second session: How is the God of the Torah the same, and how different, than the God you experience? This was the focus of the second session’s discussion. At the end of the class, Joel asked the students if their opinions had changed. Four of the students said they had not changed their views, but one said, “I’m more open.” The other two students used the reflection to explore the idea of miracles and how God may act in the world. One student wrote additional reflections to the rabbi after the first and second classes. After this class he wrote: “Tonight I feel that a lot of opinions changed in the group. …In theology there can be many answers that are correct… I believe that all questions can have multiple correct answers. Scientists want everything to be all black and white, but in truth there are all different shades.”

For the third class, Joel asked the students to write a response to this question: It is said that God revealed the Torah in every language in the world. What does that mean to you? For the self-led discussion, the students considered different ways of understanding God: the Creator who no longer intervenes, a puppet master, a conscience, nature, or the One who metes out reward and punishment. The discussion included a debate about God’s gender and the language we use to describe God, as well as if or how God intervenes in the world. There was also a discussion about the truth of different faiths and whether religion was a force for good or a source of conflict. At the conclusion of class, students revisited the initial question and reflected on the discussion.

In the fourth class, we wanted to steer the students away from generalizations about God as real or not real or religion as good or bad, to focus on their own experiences. We started with the questions: What is the evidence of God in your life? What proof is there that there is no God, if you don’t believe? We were careful in our formulation to include a non-judgmental option for someone who did not believe or was not sure of his or her beliefs. For the text, we read this selection from Harold Kushner’s When Children Ask About God:

“To ask ‘when is God’ suggests that God is not an object, but a quality of relationship, a way of feeling and acting that can be found anywhere, but only if certain things (study, gratitude, self-control, helpfulness, prayer, etc.) are in evidence at that particular moment.…

“Where, then, is God? He is not everywhere. He is potentially anywhere; when people act and treat each other in certain ways, so that the Spirit of God flows between them, we can say that God is then present.”3

Again they were asked to reflect for the last few minutes of class in writing. Wendy substituted for Joel during this week of the class. Her experience was slightly different because she had no relationship with the students. Also, the students didn’t have a text in front of them but instead had it read to them. When the conversation stalled, Wendy asked probing questions. One student, we’ll call him Tom, who had been rather outspoken about his lack of belief in God as well as his belief that religion was a source of wars, voiced the following sophisticated theological idea towards the end of class. It seemed that he was struggling with the idea of free-will and a distant, abstract God. When another student said, “God could be like hope.” Tom replied, “If there’s a parent who doesn’t take care for you or give you anything, then it’s not really a parent. So if you don’t have faith in God, and God never did anything for you, I don’t really believe in God.” Another student shared how her thinking was developing as a result of our discussions in her journal reflection: “This conversation made me think about how God isn’t a Creator, but maybe a creation.” At the end of class, Wendy asked the students to prepare a presentation for the last session that showed how their thinking had developed over the course of the class.

In the final session, students watched a slide show prepared with Prezi that synthesized some of the ideas they had expressed throughout the course. You can watch the Prezi here. In synthesizing the comments from the previous classes, we saw that student thinking was around the nature of God, how people relate to/believe in God, the balance of power and control in our lives, and the nature of evil. Students also had a chance to present their own reflections on how their thinking had developed over the sessions. Some of the students had written reflections which they read; others spoke from notes or extemporaneously.  Here are a few of the students’ final reflections on the class:

“I think the experience has been different. I like not just being taught to… God is such a complex and open topic that it’s good to not just be taught about it. I came to see more of the arguments for and against believing God is real.”

“Before this, I didn’t really believe in the whole God thing, and even though the class was a good experience, my views didn’t change. We did have deep conversations though.”

“Before I took the class, I believed, but I didn’t have an official—a formulated vision of Him. Now I understand Him more, a strong force between people when we pray, the still small voice, and I think that God can work miracles. There are many. We just don’t notice them. I think that there can be an infinite amount of interpretations of the Torah and an infinite amount of manifestations of God.”

“The class itself was helpful. If you want to ensure your beliefs, it was a helpful way to develop those ideas.”

“Taking this course has definitely changed the way I think about God. This class made me realize that everybody has very different views and opinions on God. … When I was younger, I thought of God as a man with a long white beard and a large white robe who sat on a cloud and looked down upon his people. But then my thinking shifted—God was a tree, a lamp, a chair, the sky, God was everything all around us. God helped us to make the right decisions. My thinking shifted again once I started taking this class. I now realize that no matter what, you should rely on God. You can put your faith in God, or turn to God when things are hard or you need somebody to listen. But you should never assume that every bad decision, every wrong-doing thing is God’s fault. … Now I believe that’s what God is: something to listen, something to pray to, something for people to believe in.”

Lessons Learned

Documentation

Joel felt that being put in the position of researcher, documenter and listener above all else was an incredible experience as a teacher. He was required and prepared to truly sit and listen to what the students were saying. This practice allowed him to listen more carefully for patterns, deeper questions, and significant insights. He also learned to trust the students, realizing that they could be responsible stewards of the conversation and that they were perfectly capable of carrying on a wonderful, often intense conversation without needing a teacher to manage it in any significant way. It allowed the students to practice respectful discourse and listening to one another—crucial skills for teens and young adults. This practice redefined what a teacher is for both students and teacher: not only someone who purports to have all the answers, but also a partner with a different perspective, someone who can offer reflections, invite deep and extended thinking, and learn from that interaction what might best serve the students going forward.

Taking notes during class allowed Joel to notice things that happened in the class that he had forgotten or missed completely. Wendy noticed that in reading over the notes, her perception of the class session changed dramatically. Often our impressions of the success of a class are not based on data; documenting student ideas gave us as teachers something concrete to help us evaluate students’ growth. We think students also responded well to this process; writing down their ideas, and especially reflecting them back in the final session, legitimized those ideas and the exploration of different opinions in a Jewish setting. We believe it helped the students to feel heard when they saw their thoughts presented on screen. Because we want the students to continue to engage in dialogue with us during this critical time in their spiritual development, it was probably more important to us to communicate an openness and acceptance than to instruct them in theology.

Student journaling

Requiring students to write reflections at the beginning and end of the class allowed the students to be reflective, notice things about their own views and how they changed. It allowed them to express things in writing that was hard for them to figure out how to say out loud; and it allowed them to say things privately in writing to Joel that they might not otherwise ever have shared out loud. On their own, more than a few of them were able to name their own growth patterns throughout the class. Others felt their beliefs were reinforced by class discussions. In addition, they seemed to remember and relate to material from previous classes in a much stronger way then they likely would have had they not been given the opportunity to write from class to class.

For example, one of the students (we’ll call her Rachel), took the class at the same time she was preparing her speech for her bat mitzvah. Initially, she brought a draft of the speech that seemed insincere. In the course of a meeting with Joel, he realized that she was expressing doubt in her belief in God and a hesitation in expressing that, both to Joel and perhaps to her parent. In the meeting, Joel told her that sometimes the most devoted Jews ask the toughest questions. It seemed to him that the conversations in class and the conversations in bat mitzvah preparation were complementary, even one in the same. As Rachel volunteered with victims of domestic violence for her mitzvah project, she questioned why she should believe in a God who commands us to honor our parents while there are abusive parents in the world. In one-on-one meetings, Joel was able to introduce texts in which the rabbis struggle with the definition of honor. Because of the two sets of conversations, Rachel seemed more open to acceptance of different interpretations of God and eased her fury against a God who would ignore this suffering. In the final session, she said, “I didn’t believe in God before, and I still don’t, but now I understand how people might believe, especially when you’re struggling.”

As the teacher, Joel felt having their writing was immensely helpful as he tried to gauge what they were and were not internalizing, what they were and were not learning from each other, and what they were and were not “getting” from the texts. It also allowed Joel to write to the students privately after class. This served many purposes: responding to individual questions and thoughts, extending the learning beyond the short number of in-class hours, legitimizing the students’ ideas and pushing them to think even more deeply, and building the relationship between the students and the rabbi. We would like to explain these last two points with a few examples.

By writing on the student journals, Joel was able to affect the class dynamics. In the first few sessions, the boys tended to dominate the conversation, while the girls would sit more quietly. After discussing this in our reflection/planning meeting, Joel decided to address this in his written notes to students. He was able to privately invite the boys to make room for other voices to be heard and at the same time strongly encourage the girls to make their voices heard.

The chance to build a relationship with a clergy person and role model at this stage in one’s spiritual development seems very important to us. When Wendy substituted, she noticed that the student who had been most engaged in discussions and had written to Joel in between classes approached the director of education before class. He asked if he could switch to a different class! After class, Wendy stopped the student, explained what she had observed, and asked why he wanted to withdraw. He said that he took the class to study with the rabbi, but that many of his friends were in a different class. We believe that this illustrates how the significance of building strong relationships with clergy in Jewish educational settings cannot be overstated.
Collaborative planning and reflection

For both of us, there was a critical value to debriefing and reflecting with a colleague during the process. These discussions gave Joel an opportunity to be self-reflective about his role in the classroom and, as we mentioned, gave us real data to consider in planning future sessions. Since Wendy only had the benefit of notes, she was able to see the big picture of what happened in each class and tie together themes that had arisen over a series of classes. Together we decided what the next session should look like. We were also able to discuss class dynamics and ways to respond to individual students and issues. The class was able to evolve over time, and had we had more students and more sessions, we believe we would have seen an even more fruitful, deep and varied discussion among the students, with different students challenging different ideas. Having experienced this kind of collegial reflection, Joel now intends to incorporate this practice more often in all of his teaching. No doubt this will benefit Joel as well as the teachers with whom he collaborates.

Future Experiments

We would be excited to see this experiment replicated in different settings. There are a few changes we would suggest to the methodology.

Certainly, this was a small experiment, both in terms of the number of students in the class and the number of weeks that the class ran. We would expect to see more development if there was a more critical mass (making it harder for a few students to dominate the discussion) and if the class met more often and over a longer period of time. It was also somewhat challenging to have seventh graders and tenth graders in the same room. They are, obviously, at very different stages of their own personal and spiritual development, and there were times when those different stages clashed—sometimes the older students had questions that the younger students could not even comprehend, and sometimes the youngest kids asked questions that the oldest kids were challenged to allow for. For example, one student introduced a thought experiment about sacrificing one life to save three others, and if God participates in making such judgments and sacrifices. A younger student chimed in after a while with: “Why is everyone saying ‘He’? How do you know that God is a boy?”

The topic of God and God’s role in the world is also rather broad. We think the class could be improved with a clearer focus on the topic, although we hope that the teacher would allow for discussions to evolve organically. With more time to plan, the teacher could choose texts that honed in on the specific theme of the class, bringing different perspectives on that theme to each setting.

We would also like to see the students play a greater role in their own documentation. This is somewhat dependent on the culture of the institution, how often the group is meeting and how much time students can be expected to focus on this content outside of classroom hours. In this vein, we suggest that the teacher devote time to writing responses to each student after each class. Joel started doing this about halfway through the course, but he feels it was one of the most successful parts of the experiment because it allowed students to deepen their own thinking and for him to individualize his responses to each student. It would also be interesting to introduce other creative opportunities during the class sessions for student reflection, different modalities that would include art, writing, and oral reflection. Video diaries would allow the students to see themselves expressing their ideas at the beginning, middle, and end of the process. As this is just a snapshot of the students’ development, and we want the process of reflection and testing out of spiritual ideas to be ongoing, we would like to figure out ways to follow up with students after the classes have ended. Perhaps a segment of the synagogue or school blog could include reflections and stories of experiences, and students could be invited to contribute from time to time. We would like some way to check in with them after a period of time elapsed, to see what they have retained and how they have grown.

Other Applications

This experiment has caused us to ask some questions in general about religious education. The most valuable parts of the class were collaboration and listening. In our supplementary schools, when so many feel the pressure of limited time and the need to “cover” material, how would the experience be different for teachers and students if teachers felt their role was that of a guide and observer, with an emphasis on “uncovering” student beliefs? What would the effect be if teachers were assigned colleagues with whom to reflect and co-plan their lessons?

We are reminded of this tale:

“A man lost his way in a great forest. After a while another lost his way and chanced on the first. Without knowing what had happened to him, he (the second) asked (the first) the way out of the woods. ‘I don’t know,’ said the first. ‘But, I can point out the ways that lead further into the thicket, and after that let us try to find the way together.'”4

In the area of the mysteries of God, can we be partners with our students on a journey, like the two Jews in the tale? Perhaps our spiritual learning communities can be strengthened with a greater emphasis on listening, asking, and learning about and from one another.

Notes

1. David Hay with Rebecca Nye, The Child as Spiritual Being, rev ed. (London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006).

2. Michael Shire, “Nurturing the Spiritual in Jewish Education.” HaYidion. (Winter 2010): 13.

3. Harold Kushner, When Children Ask about God (New York: Schocken, 1995), 54, 55.

4. Rabbi Hayyim of Zans, in Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1948), 213.

Teach for Right Now

This post about short-term goals versus long-term outcomes was published in eJewishPhilanthropy. I believe if we focus on why Judaism should matter at each stage we are teaching it, we will be more successful. Of course, the implication is that we have to address the current needs of adult learners in the present, not project ahead to what their children and grandchildren will look like when we are teaching them as high schoolers.

The conversation around evaluating Jewish education programs often turns to this claim: “We won’t know if our programs are successful for ten to twenty years, when we see if the children we are teaching raise their own Jewish children or live Jewish lives as adults.” This mentality is misguided. We are not preparing future Jews in our educational programs, formal or informal. Every student we teach is Jewish now. They deserve a more meaningful life enriched by Judaism today. That is the rationale for Jewish education, plain and simple. If your school or camp or youth program can offer that, you will have a compelling case for the added value of participating and the program and community will be better for it.

For example, why have worship services during religious school? It is not to prepare the child to lead services at the age of bar or bat mitzvah or to participate in services as an adult. We have worship services for second graders because second graders are spiritual beings who need an outlet for their own hopes, thoughts and prayers. Services during religious school look different when informed by this philosophy. Furthermore, they do a better job of preparing a child to participate in services as an adult. What is the reason so many adults don’t feel comfortable in services – because they can’t read the Hebrew fluently, or because they don’t know how to relate to the idea of God, prayer and quiet reflection in a communal setting?

This mindset also helps direct the choice of content taught, which is so important given our limited time with students. For this reason, I’m not a fan of model seders or mock weddings. They tell a story of “what Jews do,” when in the case of a seder, many of our students will have a chance to actually do it, and we could be focusing on how to make that ritual meaningful, and in the case of a wedding (Jewish or otherwise), we have no way of knowing if our students will have one or what it will look like. In any case, unless a member of the school community is actually getting married, the simulation doesn’t have much relevance. On the other hand, when we teach values, they have immediate relevance. One thing that is so powerful about camp is that when you learn about being part of a community, standing up against bullying or being a mensch, you’re likely to have a chance to enact that value in the next 24 hours. Similarly with Jewish ritual.

Another example of the application of the “teach Judaism for right now” mentality is teaching Jewish text. The study of Jewish text is not meant to be solely an academic exercise. Our educational settings need to have a mission that is distinct from say, a college Jewish studies program. One can get a PhD in Jewish Studies with a fondness for all things Jewish, a deep knowledge of Jewish text and history and fluency in Hebrew without actually being Jewish. Our emphasis needs to be on being Jewish and exploring what that means, not learning about Judaism. To return to the idea of text study, Jewish students need to be taught how to interpret Jewish texts, engage with them, relate to them, and teach about them. Students shouldn’t be spending most of their time listening to the stories of the Torah, or even listening to drashot from the rabbi. Jewish educational settings should give students a chance to think about the stories and interpret them. Practicing this habit translates into the immediate relevance of our sacred texts as well as good practice for a bar or bat mitzvah speech and a lifetime of meaningful engagement with text.

When we focus on what a life enriched by Judaism actually looks like for our students of all ages, we have a way of assessing if we are reaching our goals. Do the students ask good questions that get to the heart of the stories, rituals and history and try to relate them to their lives? Do their behaviors reflect Jewish values? Do they have a community to turn to when they have struggles or celebrations? Do they help each other out when they see someone in need? Do they want to come to religious school? Do they have Jewish friends? Do they know whom to ask when they have a question about how to behave or the meaning of some challenging circumstance? If these are our questions, we can change how and what we teach to find out the answers. Asking these kinds of assessment questions can help us improve Jewish education and the way we relate to every member of the community.

Mission Possible: Setting Realistic Goals For Congregational Schools

What is a mission statement for? Is the mission of your congregation or educational program so expansive that you can never hope to fulfill it or assess your success? Here’s my take on this problem, published in The Jewish Week.

 

Does your synagogue’s religious school have a mission statement? In my years serving as a congregational educator and a consultant to synagogue schools, I’ve seen a few that look like this:

“At Temple Olam HaBa, we teach the values of Talmud Torah (study of sacred texts), Avodah (worship), and G’milut Chasadim (ethical behavior). Our students develop a deep love of Israel, a habit of lifelong learning, and a commitment to the Jewish people. We grow menschen who know how to treat one another and make the world a better place.”

Sound familiar? I like the sound of it, but given that virtually every Jewish topic could arguably fall within the above mission, it doesn’t offer much guidance.

The function of a school’s mission statement is to guide educators and volunteer leadership as they make decisions about what is taught and how. Synagogue schools need this guidance because they operate with a very limited number of hours and resources. Take, for (a generous) example, a three-hour-a-week Sunday program that meets during the academic year for 28 Sundays. In one year, students who attend every session will get the equivalent contact time of 14 days of public school. If they attend from third through seventh grade, they’ve got just over three months of schooling under their belts. So, how exactly is the school going to achieve the goals outlined above?

Let’s compare this mission to those of youth soccer leagues, which — due to their popularity, scheduling demands and families’ seeming tendency to prioritize them above religious school — are the bane of many Jewish educators’ existence. Here’s the AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) mission statement:

To develop and deliver quality youth soccer programs, which promote a fun, family environment based on our six AYSO philosophies (EBOPSP): Everyone Plays, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, Good Sportsmanship, and Player Development.

This statement is short, sets clear priorities and outlines ways of fulfilling them. The endeavor is focused on things that families value: fun, family, social behaviors and healthy habits. In the 2005 book Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne describe an alternative to competing with similar businesses in your current industry, allowing you to find an untapped market. One of their “paths” is to look across alternative industries, rather than focus on rivals within your own industry. Consider what kids and parents are getting from those activities that often take them out of religious school — good habits, sound values, friends and fun.

What if a religious school, or rather, all of a synagogue’s youth programming, were, like soccer leagues, designed around a few simple concepts? First, there would be a focus on developing the skills, vocabulary and habits to live a meaningful Jewish life, not only in the future, but right now. This would involve some basic familiarity with Jewish ritual and Hebrew as well as a positive disposition towards participation in Jewish life, and a sense that there is more to be learned and that pursuing that learning is enriching, relevant and meaningful. For that message to be communicated, we need relevant Jewish experiences for children, and we need adult role models who are leading meaningful Jewish lives, pursuing Jewish learning, trying new Jewish practices and being recognized by the community for doing so.

A second area of focus, although not second in importance, is building friendships. Ron Wolfson’s new book Relational Judaism has renewed our interest in this priority, but we have long known, through the work of researchers such as Sylvia Barack Fishman, that Jewish friendships in youth are a factor in whether an adult chooses to raise children Jewishly. Fishman has also demonstrated that participation in Jewish education helps create Jewish friendships (“Generating Jewish Connections,” 2007).

I use this thought experiment to validate the importance of friendships and community: If you were uninspired by the rabbi, but had friends at the synagogue, would you quit or remain a member? What if you didn’t like the cantor’s singing, but had friends there? What if you thought the school was mediocre, but had friends there? What if you were transfixed by the rabbi’s sermons, transported by the cantor’s singing and thought the school was academically rigorous, but had no friends at the synagogue? Loved the building? You get the idea: We go to synagogue (and stay with it) to be part of a community that cares about us.

Together the priorities of friendship and practical skills shift a school’s emphasis from content to community. The content stemming from this approach is made up of values and rituals that build community, teach us how to live together and enrich our lives. The language of a mission statement around these ideas might still seem grandiose, but the ideas can serve as a practical guide.

When I served as principal of a religious school, one of the teachers expressed her frustration that her students didn’t know Abraham’s father’s name. “What about the name of the child sitting next to him?” I asked her. If we try to cover all of the richness of Jewish tradition and history in the equivalent of three months, we are bound to fail. To meet the needs of today’s Jewish parents and their kids, we need to tighten our mission to build strong friendships and a meaningful connection to Judaism that will last.

Five Selfish Reasons for Inclusion

Our tradition clearly teaches us the value of inclusion. But people often feel it is too hard or effects too few people. My contention is that everyone in the community benefits when people with disabilities are included. Here are five “selfish” reasons for including people with disabilities in your Jewish community.

  1. Inclusion builds a stronger community. When people see that the synagogue and its educational offerings are making accommodations to include people who have special needs, they understand that this is a community that cares for its members. Whenever any one of us has a need, and there will be a time when each of us will need to rely on the community, we can each have confidence that the members of the community will rise to the occasion to help us out. Members know that they are supported and that they should support others when they can.
  2. Inclusion refocuses our values. Whenever I’ve studied special needs education, I have noted that the top priorities seem to be to teach children to 1) get along with others and 2) be as independent as possible, which includes finding a purpose and being of use. These are the great life questions that Jewish tradition comes to teach us how to answer as well. In today’s world where it’s so easy to think that the most important things are high test scores, “résumé builders,” and breaking records, we need to remember that without friends or a sense of purpose, it’s all for naught.
  3. We all have needs. I don’t like when people say this as a way of downplaying (or even unintentionally equalizing) the significant challenges that people with disabilities face compared to the other, more routine ups and downs we all face. But the fact is we all need to be accommodated in different ways at different times. In particular when it comes to Judaism, few of us feel very able at all. For most of us, Hebrew is a language that challenges us when we study or pray. For many of us, the vast majority of the wisdom of our tradition eludes us. Nobody has completed the work of repairing his or her ethical self. Jewish tradition teaches that we have purposely been created imperfectly so that we can do the work of improving ourselves. “All that was created during the six days of creation requires improvement. For example, the mustard seed needs sweetening and the lupine needs sweetening, wheat needs to be ground, and even a person needs improvement.” (Genesis Rabah 11:6)
  4. People with disabilities have contributions to make. By virtue of their experience, people with disabilities and their families have much to teach about patience, perseverance, love, standing up for justice, tenacity, and rising above circumstance. In addition to that, they have unique passions and insights to share. I grew up in a congregation with an extraordinary man (I’ll call him Sam) who lived with cerebral palsy into his 70s. He loved classical music and baseball, and he used to win free tickets to shows and games off of the radio. He would bring congregants and friends with him on these outings who benefited from his vast knowledge, enthusiasm, and excellent seats!
  5. Inclusion pushes us to be our best, in all the ways I’ve mentioned and more. I asked my dad to talk to me a bit about the remarkable couple that was part of our congregation for so many years. The husband Sam I mentioned above. His wife also has cerebral palsy, and they adopted two children with disabilities. My father talked about the things he learned from this family that defied all odds. Sam pushed for his own inclusion in every aspect of synagogue life. When they took a trip to New York to see a Broadway show, Sam called the bus company and got a bus with a chair lift. After the show, he rode his electronic wheelchair around Times Square and met the bus in time to head home. It is because of Sam that the synagogue now has a ramp up to the bima and activated doors. My father reflected, “There really wasn’t anything he thought he couldn’t do.” I thought, “Or that we couldn’t do.”

When people say that something isn’t accessible to a person with disabilities because the disability is too difficult to accommodate, they aren’t understanding the challenges that the disabled person is facing every day. If Sam could eat his breakfast and get to an orchestra performance and raise two children, we could drive him to a Brotherhood meeting or build a new building that was handicap accessible (even if the synagogue was exempt from ADA laws). We can include everyone, and we should. We’ll all be better for it.

A Movement of “Both/And”

There was a great series on NPR last week about young Americans moving away from religion. One of the points they made is that while many young people are moving to the left, organized religion is moving to the right. For the first time, the number of Protestants is seriously dipping. I think it’s time for liberal religious traditions (in my case I’m concerned about liberal Jewish movements) to make a compelling case. Here’s my stab at it.

It seems that to be a religious person today in the United States, one has to follow extremist leaders and their doctrines or focus on the positive aspects of religious communities and traditions while ignoring the rest. You don’t have to make that choice if you are part of a liberal Jewish movement. Liberal Judaism is a faith tradition not of either/or, but of both/and.

  • We both accept scientific fact and believe the stories of our tradition contain existential truths.
  • We are both intellectually curious and spiritually aware.
  • We are energized and inspired by both change and tradition.
  • We value and respect both individual needs and the needs of the community as a whole.
  • We care about both universal causes including hunger and civil rights and have a high concern for Israel and Jews everywhere.
  • We both embrace creative expression, learning and exploration, and we are supported by long-standing Jewish communal institutions.

Being both/and is not trying to be something for everyone. It is not wishy-washy. It is a philosophy for a progressive, integrated and modern Jewish community, one that adapts while still preserving its essential core. Judaism offers us a way to grapple with life’s most challenging and invigorating questions. It gives comfort where there is none. It pushes us to be better than we might. Our tradition is robust, and it is relevant to the issues we face today. The more people who seriously participate in its evolution, the stronger it becomes.

What would you change? Do you think people could get behind this? Whom do you know that is making a compelling case for liberal Judaism?