Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jews and God, and VaYechi Redux

I just watched Julia Sweeney's one-woman show "Letting Go of God" on Showtime.  She is a very funny comedian who was raised Catholic and has become a proud atheist.  The monolog is funny and engaging, and if you are interested in seeing it you can either watch the first 15 minutes or so on YouTube or, which I recommend, the entire show on Showtime (if you have it).  The schedule is here  - just go to "more airings" for the times and dates.

The first time I was the show I missed the beginning, and just watched the last portion.  What struck me was her description of a conversation she had with someone after her father died, and when she had already decided she was sure there was no God.

Her friend said to her, not exactly in these words, but close:  "You know you're Jewish."

Sweeney was surprised, and asked what was meant by that comment.

The answer was that what she was doing - struggling to understand God - was a particularly Jewish thing.  Almost obligatory, if I remember the exchange properly.

And I loved that comment.  We do struggle to understand God.  And we have room in our Jewish community for many ways of understanding God.  And that, to me, is one of the most wonderful things about Judaism.

Jewish thinking is questioning - not simply memorizing and repeating.  We know that, and we need to help our learners - whatever their ages - to learn that.

On her blog,, she wrote the following:
I am thinking about some of the questions that people have asked.  Some people worry about having meaning in a world without god in it.  I don't have the best answer for that yet (I am mulling on that one) but I remember once being at a convention with Daniel Dennett (such a hero of mine) and he said (Dennet is a philosopher and scientist at Tufts and has written several books, some of which really impacted me) and anyway, he was talking to someone else and he said, "People say to me, 'You're a philosopher, what is the meaning of life?' and I say, 'I don't know but I do know the secret to happiness.  Find some subject that you love and spend the rest of your life studying it from every angle you can.  That is the secret to happiness."
 My personal opinion is that God is precisely what helps me find meaning in the world.  I do, however, appreciate the statement about finding some subject that you love and studying it for your entire life.  That subject will be different for different people.
In fact, if we look back at Yaakov's blessing of his sons we can understand them as recognizing and celebrating the various talents of each one.  Jewish wisdom?  Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligences?  Learning Styles?  Myers Briggs?

It's a wonderful day when there is overlap between what I learn in the scientific world about thinking and what I learn in the world of Jewish thinking.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Parshat VaYechi

The end of the book of B'reisheet, this parasha is also the end of the stories of the avot and imahot - the founding generations who were the source of the Jewish people.  The book is called B'reisheet - In the beginning - because of the first word of the first parasha, and refers to the beginning of the world, to the creation.  I would like to suggest that it is also an appropriate title for the entire first book:  B'reisheet - In the beginning of the creation and development of the People of Israel.

A big section of this parasha is devoted to the blessings Yaakov/Yisrael gives to his sons.  There are many ways to understand these blessings.

Before reading any of the commentaries, I urge you to look at the text of the blessings and see if the text raises any questions for you.  B'reisheet Chapters 48 to the end of the book.
Here are a couple of thoughts to get you started:

  • Why does it take a third party to let Yosef know his father is sick, and to let Yaakov know Yosef is coming?
  • Why does Yosef bring his sons?  Why doesn't Yaakov (here referred to as Yisrael) recognize them?
  • Why do you think Yisrael reverses his hands when he blesses Yosef's sons?  What does it remind you of?
  • What do you expect Yisrael to say to all his sons?  Why?
  • What surprises you about the blessings of the sons?
  • Do you think Yisrael has changed during his lifetime?  Explain why you think so.
  • Why do you think Yisrael wants to be buried in the Cave of Machpelah?  Why not with his favorite wife Rachel, who is buried in Bethlehem?
  • Why do you think Yosef had his father embalmed?
  • Why do you think the Egyptians mourned Yisrael?
  • Why do you think Yosef's children and animals remained in Egypt, in Goshen, when Yosef and his brothers went to bury Yisrael?
  • What do you think about the brothers telling Yosef what their father supposedly said to them before he died?  What does it tell you about them?  What does Yosef's answer tell you about Yosef?
  • In what way does this parasha satisfy you (or not) as the end of the first section of Torah?

The following commentaries suggest a few interesting interpretations, but don't answer all the questions above.

  • Yaakov 'opens his tent' to the diverse natures of his sons.  This commentary from Rabbi Kerry Olitzky builds on that thought
  • Aish HaTorah describes in detail the blessings of each of Yaakov's sons.  Go especially to the sections which are entitled Blessing the Tribes and The Future Leader for some traditional insights into the blessings.
  • Rabbi Elyse Winnick talks about the blessings at in an article entitled All in the Family.  I think she raises some thoughtful ideas about the tension between community and individual that are particularly relevant to our lives today.
Can you come up with your own interpretation of any part of the parasha?

Hazak, Hazak, VeNitchazek!

Friday, December 25, 2009

VaYigash II

Just some more thoughts on Yosef before Shabbat -
As I read the text describing Yosef I can't help but think of all the adolescent and post-adolescent Jewish kids who have separated themselves from the Jewish community.
Think about it.

  • He lives in Egypt, among the Egyptians.
  • He dresses like them, talks like them, marries the daughter of one of their priests, even names his firstborn son a name that means (according to at least some commentators) "the one who causes me to forget my background) and - according to this blog I was reading - isn't even a Hebrew name!
  • He has so carefully hidden his identity as a member of the family of Yaakov that his brothers don't recognize him even after more than one meeting and extensive conversations with him.
Is this the person one would expect to fulfill the role of savior of the descendants of Avraham and Yitzhak?  I wouldn't think so.

So maybe one lesson here is not to write anyone off - not the one who quits religious school the day after his Bar Mitzvah, not the one who refuses to join Hillel in college because it's not important to her, not the one who chooses a mate of a different religion.

Because if we look at the Torah, the text which defines us as Jews, it seems even the least likely candidate may come to play a key role in our future.

And if there is a lesson for us - as Jewish educators - perhaps it is that we need to go out of our way to create powerful emotional moments that remain a part of all who share them, since we can never be sure which of these moments will be brought to the surface at a time we least expect it.

After all, if Yosef hadn't become who he became, if he hadn't provided sustenance for his family during the famine, if he hadn't been willing to forget the harm and remember the good associated with his relatives, the story might have been quite different.

Monday, December 21, 2009


Today's questions are based in large part on "Teaching Torah", by Sorel Goldberg Loeb and Barbara Binder Kadden, one of the must-have resources for anyone who teaches Torah to learners of any age.  Here are some of the issues raised in the chapter on VaYigash:

  • We remember how the brothers felt about Yosef, caused, we agreed in our conversations, by his father Ya'akov's favoritism.  It seems from the text that Binyamin has taken Yosef's place as his father's favorite.  What evidence do we have about their feelings toward Binyamin?  
  • Yehudah is to become a prime ancestor of the Jewish people - even his name and the name of his tribe are to be the name of the people in the future (Yehudah/Yehudim).  How has he grown into this role through the story until now?
  • Teshuvah is a big part of understanding this parasha.  Which of the personalities has (or have) done teshuvah?  What is the evidence?
  • Some stories are told multiple times in this parasha and in those preceding it.  Are they exactly the same each time they are told?  What are some of the reasons a story changes with retelling?  How do we define "history" if the story changes over time?
  • The people of Yosef's family are to live separately in the area of Goshen, not totally integrated with the Egyptian population in the rest of the country.  Do you think this is an accident or is it part of a plan?  Explain why you think so.  How does living apart affect a group?  Why do some people choose to live mostly with people who share their identity (homogeneous community) while others prefer a more heterogeneous community?  
  • Serach is a granddaughter of Yaakov.  I have a friend who recently added the name "Serach" to her own name.  I invite you to read about Serach and try to figure out why she may have done this.  Serach Bat Asher is a study guide from which, while intended primarily for use around Pesach, is a thorough examination of this character.  Serach is Model for Jewish Memory  is an essay by Rabbi Neil Gilman of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
I urge you to share your thoughts about these questions with other readers by posting a comment.  We learn best when we learn together.

Monday, December 14, 2009


First, in case you missed it, the video of Senator Orrin Hatch's Hanukkah song.  You just can't make this stuff up!!
Hanukkah Song

And one of my personal all-time favorites as well:
On to the parasha:
Most all of the commentaries I came across talked about the relationship between parashat Miketz and the holiday of Hanukkah.  Since the parasha is always read on the Shabbat of Hanukkah, it is not surprising that this connection is a focus of attention.

  • Rabbi Perry Netter speaks about Joseph's assimilation in this video clip.  It is easy to see the similarity between Joseph's assimilation into Egyptian culture and ours in the majority culture of our country.
  • One of the themes of this parasha is Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers for what they have done.  Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers an interesting discussion of forgiveness in this podcast which highlights Jewish thinking about forgiveness.  It also explains the difference between Jewish thinking on forgiveness and Christian thinking on the subject.  I believe it is important for our students to know that "Judeo-Christian Theology" is not an accurate title.  There are real differences on some issues.  This is one of them.
  • Here's a cartoon that may make you smile.  Do you think it is appropriate for students?  Explain your thoughts.
  • Please take a look at the G-dcast video which, as usual, presents the issues in this week's parasha in a way that our learners can relate to their own lives.  
I hope you are enjoying Hanukkah, and that these resources give you some new ideas and provoke some new insights.

Here are a few questions you might like to think about:

  • At what point do you think Joseph sees the 'big picture?'
  • What about his family?
  • What is your opinion of the way Joseph acts in this parasha?
  • Describe the evidence that Joseph is changing.
  • How do you think your students view Joseph?
  • Why do you think this story is so long and detailed, in contrast to the other stories in B'reisheet?

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah - Holiday of Lights and Ambiguity

I miss the Hanukkah I knew when I was young.
I miss the absolute truth I knew about the Maccabees and their fight for religious freedom.
I miss the unalloyed pleasure in lighting the hanukkiyah, singing the brachot and songs, and opening the presents each night.

Why do I miss these long-ago celebrations of Hanukkah?  Because my understanding of this holiday has been impacted by what I have read and learned since those days, and because it is more difficult to unpack complex ideas than to absorb simple ones.

Big Ideas:

  • Hanukkah was about the preservation of Jewish practice according to the halacha as interpreted by a particular group of Jews of the time
  • Violence can be justified if your enemy threatens your existence
  • History is written by the winners
  • Historical context and events have a powerful effect on the way we understand the world
Essential Questions:
  • Who were the Maccabees?  What was their mission?
  • What is a "just war"?
  • How are we like both the Maccabees and the Hellenists in our lives today?
  • How does the story of Hanukkah impact the various ways we understand our Jewishness today?
  • How did such a minor holiday get to be so important to us?
Learning Activities:
  • Read the article in My Jewish Learning about The Maccabee Revolt for a summary of the story of Hanukkah
  • The Jewish Way of War is a brief summary of some of the rules governing war in Jewish tradition
  • The following quotation from President Obama's speech in Oslo is here:
..."The concept of a "just war" emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence...."  You may want to read Obama's entire speech here 
  • Gary Rosenblatt has written a thought-provoking article about today's Maccabees
  • Yosef Yerushalmi, a leading Jewish historian who died recently, suggested the following:

" ... Zakhor, still Yerushalmi’s best-known book, contrasts the study of history—in which the historian first marshals the facts, then interprets what they mean—with collective memory, in which the meaning of the story precedes and determines the events related. Yerushalmi argued that before the modern era, memory structured the stories Jews told about themselves. ..."
  • The Eighth Day is an excellent trigger for a conversation about tradition and change in the context of the era of the Maccabees.  It is available from Ergo Media
  • Finally, The Jewish Week has a special section it calls Text Context and the articles are a valuable aid to understanding what it means to be Jewish in America (and Israel) and how Hanukkah became what it is to us today.
Such a lot to read about what I already described as a minor holiday.  I can only suggest you read what you have time to read, and think about the issues the articles raise.  I am confident that you will look at Hanukkah differently, but please continue to enjoy the lights, the brachot, the songs and the presents.

Monday, December 7, 2009

VaYeshev, Part II

He was groomed for his role from early childhood, doted on by his father and prepared for the future in many ways.  He was good at what he did, and focused on what was ahead.  He even dreamed about it.

As an adult he achieved fame and wealth, as well as the attention of at least one woman (probably more) who - for whatever reason - was attracted to him.  Was it his position?  His looks?  His proficiency at his task?

How could one not talk about Tiger Woods in connection to this week's parasha!?!  I have heard the opinion that for a person in his position it is impossible to resist the temptations all around him.  Money, power, fame - all strong attractants, it seems, to groupies.  Is it even possible to keep track of all the famous men who have - just within the past year - been exposed as "players"?

How did Yosef resist the temptations that these men gave in to?  Did he understand that his role was too important to jeopardize with a personal scandal?

Is this why we call him Yosef HaTzadik - Yosef the Righteous?

I have it on good authority that sixth graders are quite familiar with the current saga of Tiger Woods, so I would not hesitate to use the story as a trigger for discussion of this week's parasha.

Does Tiger Woods need a lesson on Jewish values?
And by the way - what would be appropriate teshuva for these public figures?


The stories of Yosef, well-known and often-retold in religious school classrooms, contain more detailed narration than any other of the stories of B'reisheet.  There is more description of peoples' feelings than anywhere else.

A few thoughts:

  1. The brothers of Yosef seem to have little love or affection for their "baby" brother.  What is it about the family dynamics that leads to their actions?  Who do you hold responsible for the situation?  Whose responsibility do you think it was to improve the situation?  Explain your answer.
  2. What do you think we are supposed to learn from the encounter Yosef has with the "man" when he is looking for his brothers?  What does the story tell us if the "man" is simply a man?  What if the "man" is actually God's messenger?  
  3. Where do you think Reuven was when the brothers decided to sell Yosef to the Ishmaelites?  Whose idea was it to do this?
  4. Does Reuven seem to know what has actually happened to Yosef?  Does your answer to this question affect how you feel about him?
  5. Skipping over (for the moment) the story of Yehudah and Tamar, what are your thoughts about Yosef's behavior in the house of Potifar?
  6. What kind of person do you understand Yosef to be from what we read in this week's parasha?  If you didn't know what comes next, what might you imagine at this point?
  7. Back to Yehudah and Tamar - what is this story doing here?  How can you connect it to the story of Yosef?  To the bigger story of the development of the Jewish people?
Some interesting commentaries that may help you shape your thoughts:
  • God Was In That Text
  • G-dcast - take a look, click on and read the lyrics, and note how much is not in the original Torah text.  What do you think about adding this additional material?  Does it change the story?  Does it make it clearer?  Does it confuse the issues?  Explain your response.
  • Divine and Human "Nudging"on the Path of One's Destiny is written by Jill Minkoff, a student at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  What is the tension between "destiny" and "free will" that she describes?  How can you know if your decisions are the decisions God would want you to make?  What is "bashert"?  

Monday, November 30, 2009

Social Networking before the Age of Twitter

What Facebook Can't Give You, a fascinating article that appeared in the November 25th issue of Wall Street Journal, describes a group of approximately 20 men, of whom 75% happen to be Jewish, who have been meeting together since 1957.

I recommend the article as a good read, but also for the following paragraph, which appears somewhere near the end.
'Daddy's Ideas'
'The men had hoped their sons would create an adjunct group that would one day assume the Wednesday 10 mantle but none took the initiative. "Daddy's ideas are not the ones children tend to take on," says Mr. Menschel.'
 Does that mean those ideas were not good?  Of course not.  I think it means that the founding generation cannot expect those that follow to necessarily value what they value.  Or, at the least, cannot expect the next generation to express even the values that are shared in the same ways.

As this is true for those 'movers and shakers' in the Wednesday 10, it is often true of our institutions.  It is the reason that to be successful going forward institutions have to be willing to re-invent themselves, to welcome the new ideas of those who come after the founders.

And this is particularly challenging in the context of a religious institution.  Because most religion is by its nature conservative, and Judaism is no exception, there is a need to preserve the values, practices and wisdom of  the past.

How we do that in a popular culture that often seems to look ahead, with little regard for the past, is one of the most difficult tasks we face.

Meaningful Assessment

How do we know if our learners have learned?  Sometimes we ask them outright:

Baby Blues Nov 29

And sometimes we get meaningless answers!!
There are better ways to assess learning.
A good article - Why Every Student Needs Critical Friends, by Amy Reynolds, describes one way of involving the learner in assessment.
Understanding formative and summative assessment is the subject of this clearly written article in the December 2007 issue of Educational Leadership.  It urges the teacher to help the learner answer these three questions:
  1. Where am I going?
  2. Where am I now?
  3. How can I close the gap?
A list of possible assessment tools is part of this extensive learning module from edutopia, a reliable source of good information for educators.
Developing valuable and meaningful assessment is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching and learning.  I urge you to find out more.  I also urge you to try different types of assessment in your classroom, knowing ahead of time that some will work better than others in helping your students answer the 3 important questions above.  And remember, if they can't answer question #1, they can't begin to answer the other 2 questions.
It won't be perfect when you start, but if you are serious about evaluating learning and helping your students do the same I am sure you will get better at it as you go along.


As I typed the title to this post I thought about the column in yesterday's NY Times Magazine about Camel Case, a term I had never heard before but which describes the practice of capitalizing letters within a word (as in the hump of a camel!).  Just a note - when I do this, it is to emphasize the use in Hebrew of attached prefixes and suffixes.  Not really important, except I hope it helps the reader differentiate the prefix or suffix from the word.

And now to the parasha:
There are several stories in this week's parasha.  Yaakov is told by God to return to Canaan.  Knowing his brother is there, and more than a little nervous about meeting him after all these years, he devises a plan to send messengers ahead.  The rest of the summary is here at My Jewish Learning, with some questions you can think about .  As we have seen each week, there are some aspects of this story that are troubling to the 21st century reader.

[By the way, I recently read in a sixth grade textbook that all this took place in "Palestine", with no mention of the land of Canaan.  Strange, since the country was not named "Palestine" until the Roman conquest.  One wonders who is writing (or editing) social studies textbooks.] is a site that offers a short (usually about 4 minutes long) cartoon video about each parasha of the Torah.
In its video of Vayishlach the creator of this week's commentary suggests that the "man" with whom Yaakov wrestled was neither an angel nor himself.  Watch the episode by clicking on the link and consider whether or not you agree with the conclusion.

The rape of Yaakov's daughter Dinah is another of the incidents described in detail in this parasha.  Many of you have read The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant.  This novel based on the incident described here has been widely discussed, particularly in women's groups - the audience to whom the book seems to be addressed.

  • Do you think it is appropriate to rewrite stories from the Torah today?
  • Why might one want to do this?
  • Why do women today often react negatively to stories in the Torah?
  • In what way might this story sound different to girls [and women] than to boys [and men]?  How might your teaching acknowledge this?
I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Thanksgiving, an "American Holiday," is a feast in which my family and I participate with pleasure every year.  Because it is a holiday we share with all Americans - at least potentially - it is a day in which we might give some thought to what it means to be Jewish and American.

Big Ideas:

  • Jewish identity is complex, and means different things to different people
  • Maintaining separate identity within a culture that encourages shared identity is challenging
  • Developing and transmitting identity can take various forms
Essential Questions:
  • What is Jewish identity?
  • What is the difference between "acculturation" and "assimilation?"
  • In what ways does identity develope?
  • What are the challenges involved in maintaining religious identity within a culture?
Learning Activities:
Four articles appeared this week that seemed to illustrate both the challenges and the outcomes of maintaining identity.
Three Clergymen Three Faiths, One Friendship, by Laurie Goodstein, is the story of a minister, a rabbi and a sheik who have developed a relationship across their religious differences, and who speak as a group to audiences of all faiths.  They suggest that their relationship is strong because they believe:
"..not [in] avoiding or glossing over their conflicts, but by running straight at them."
 According to the rabbi in the group, the following statement is how they see each others' religious beliefs:
"This is the truth for you, and this is the truth for me."
Does this sound Jewish to you?  Can something be 'true' for me and something different 'true' for someone else?  What does this mean to you?

How to Say Thanksgiving in Mandarin by Scott Simon describes his family and many others in the world today.  He writes about the diverse religious and ethnic identities in his own family and in those around him.

  • As Jews, how do we define our identity?
  • What is the "Jewish people?"
  • What is "Am Yisrael?"
  • What is "Jewish food?"
  • What is the meaning of Israel in your life?
  • How do you celebrate the Jewish holidays?  

The answers may be different for different Jews, because being Jewish has many aspects.  Reading this article may encourage you to articulate what your identity means to you.

The Other Education by David Brooks talks about his realization that Bruce Springsteen had a powerful impact on the way in which he sees the world.  While Springsteen may or may not be the influence we as Jewish educators are waiting for, several statements by Brooks certainly say something important to us:
"...It's generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious..."
"The uplifting experiences alone were bound to open the mind for learning."
"I do think a message is conveyed by the way he  [Springsteen] continually  situates himself within a tradition."
What do these statements tell us about the experiences we need to be providing for our learners?
How can we maximize the emotional learning that Brooks talks about in his column?

A Tradition that Cherishes Poker, not Pumpkin Pie is a whole other story - it describes a community, or at least a portion of a community - that has decided, for a number of reasons, that the celebration of Thanksgiving involves a trip to Mohegan Sun rather than "over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house.."

  • What happens when a group develops its own customs that are not aligned with those of the majority culture within which it lives?
  • Why might it be difficult to maintain this separation in succeeding generations?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of having unique ethnic and/or religious customs?


  • Create a collage that expresses your Jewish identity
  • Write a short description of your Jewish identity
  • Share an anecdote about your family's Jewish celebration of a particular holiday with a partner.  Compare and contrast the ways in which your family celebrates with those of your partner's family.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Teachers Selling Lessons

You may have read the article in the NY Times about teachers buying and selling their lessons on the internet.

The article is interesting, and even more interesting are the responses from readers.  As an educator I believe strongly in collaborative effort, and in my opinion teachers can often learn as much or more from their colleagues as they can from "experts" who drop in for a session or two and then leave.

On the other hand, one of the worst lessons I ever taught was one that I had participated in as a learner and then attempted to present to a different group as the teacher.

What is the significance of these two seemingly opposing threads?

  • I believe that good teaching ideas should be shared.
  • Some people are fortunate enough to be paid by publishers to create lessons that will be sold to other teachers as books.
  • Some people are fortunate enough to teach in institutions in which the culture provides time and support for sharing ideas with colleagues.
  • All good teaching requires time for preparing lessons - whether or not one starts with a template provided by a teachers' guide, book or on-line site.
  • Anyone who attempts to teach someone else's lesson without taking the time to make it his or her own will probably not be successful. is the website referred to in the Times article.  I looked to see if there were Jewish educational lessons available, and found some on the Shoah, one on the lunar calendar, and little if anything else.

There are, however, on-line sites that can be very helpful to Jewish educators. 

I suggest you type the words Jewish Lesson Plans into your search engine and see what comes up.  You may be surprised at the resources you can access.

Just remember - no one should try to teach some else's lesson without making it his or her own.


And so the drama continues - and our ancestors continue to act in ways that challenge us to see them as models upon which we will structure our behavior.

There are a number of interesting commentaries you can access at My Jewish Learning.  I particularly enjoyed this one - I Have a Dream, by Rabbi Ed Rosenthal.  And yes, the use of Martin Luther King's words is an intentional part of the essay.

Rabbi Melissa Crespy writes about the complicated family dynamics evident in this parasha and suggests they can help us better understand our lives today.

There are, however, a few questions that occurred to me and to which I wasn't able to find answers in the commentaries I examined.  Perhaps you can help figure out some answers:

  1. In 28:11 Jacob is described as taking stones to rest his head on.  Sorry - but couldn't he find something more comfortable to put under his head?
  2. Is there a relationship or comparison between the tower in Bavel and the ladder in this parasha?
  3. Why does the text identify Avraham as Yaakov's father rather than Yitzhak?
  4. In 28:14 the Hebrew reads:  Yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh.  What is the reason for the word "yesh?"  The translations seem to be uniform as saying "God was in this place",  but you don't ned the word "yesh" if that is the translation.  It seems to me that a better translation would be "There is God (or perhaps 'godliness') in this place.  Does that change the meaning for you?
  5. Verse 28:22 has Yaakov making a deal with God - if...then...  What can it mean that Yaakov promises to accept God if God provides certain material necessities?  Is there a rationale that states we only accept God if God provides for and protects us?
  6. Verse 31:53 - The English translation reads,  "... the God of Avraham and the god of Nahor..."  But Hebrew doesn't use capital letters, and the phrase in Hebrew uses the identical term for both "gods".  What's that about?  Does the god of Nahor exist alongside the God of Avraham as an equal in this text?
Perhaps you have answers to these questions - they certainly suggest rich discussions you can have.  Perhaps you can share your answers with the rest of us.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Jewish Wisdom in the Workplace

Shayla McKnight wrote an article about her workplace where, unlike many other workplaces we are all familiar with, gossip is not tolerated.  In fact, when she began working there, she was told explicitly,  "There's no back-stabbing here, and no office politics.  Gossiping and talking behind someone's back are not tolerated."

The interesting thing is that it works!  The employees actually do not gossip, and if someone breaks that rule, s/he is called out on the issue and reminded about the policy.

We often have rules in our classrooms stating that lashon hara and rechilut are not acceptable, but in my experience we rarely go the extra step by following up and holding not only our students but ourselves to the high standards we articulate.  Maybe we need to state the policy as part of our induction process for new teachers as well as new students and their families.  And everyone would certainly benefit if we insisted on taking the policy seriously.

There is another section of the article that helps to explain why there is a real feeling of community in this workplace, and I believe it has possibilities for the classroom as well.
"There's a mix of personalities in any company, and rarely does everyone in a workplace like one another.  but I believe that half the battle is in how people communicate.
 When employees are hired here, they're given a communications assessment, a commercial program that the company uses to pinpoint a person's dominant communications style.  the styles are linked to colors that identify how each employee likes to communicate.
If someone is a "red," for example, he or she appreciates when others are direct and state the facts quickly.  A person who's a "blue" enjoys having all the details, and time to process them.  A "yellow" is spontaneous and likes a personal connection.
I'm a "green"  That means I'm sensitive and like to be approached as courteously as possible;  greens tend to be compassionate and supportive. 
Nameplates on our desks have a color bar to identify our styles, ...  This system lets everyone know how co-workers prefer to be approached and it goes a long way in promoting harmony."
What if we gave our students the same courtesy this company gives its employees?  What if we really treated our students as individuals?  We know about multiple intelligences, and varied learning styles.  We know about multiple assessment tools which give our learners the opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned in different ways.

What if we also allowed them a voice in defining the way in which they communicate - with each other as well as with us - so they would feel safe and respected in our schools.

I'm willing to bet that the atmosphere in our classrooms would be different - in a very good way.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Twitter in Teaching?

Many years ago, when CAJE was a young organization, I went to my first CAJE conference.  Returning home I could hardly wait to share the innovative ideas that surfaced there with the principals and teachers in my congregational school.  I still remember the response of the principal:
"Who needs Alternatives to Jewish Education?" he asked.
I corrected him.
"It was the Conference on Alternatives IN Jewish Education," I said.
I'm not sure I convinced him.

We've come a long way, I hope, in looking at innovation in learning.  One example is a website, jlearn2.0 which highlights leading-edge thinking in this area.

I want to recommend you read this post at jlearn2.0 entitled Why My Students Were Texting in Class... and Learning.  It is an exciting window into use of what might be seen as distractions to advance learning.  We need to use all the tools available to engage our students.


Of all the Torah portions in B'reisheet this may be my all-time least favorite.  Each year I struggle with the character of Ya'akov as it is expressed in his actions here.  I remind myself that this text is here for a purpose - as I believe all the text in the Torah is - and wonder once again what God wants me to learn as I read and re-read the descriptions of the actions of all the players here.

  • Yitzhak, whose relationship with his father Avraham had to have been affected by the experience at Har HaMoriah.  He loves his wife, he loves his eldest son, he doesn't really trust his own judgment.
  • Rivkah, who left her immediate family to become the wife of a distant relative, who was unable to bear children until her husband intervened with God, and who appears to believe she has the right to manipulate the people around her to further her goals
  • Ya'akov, who didn't show much initiative as a youngster, who went along with his mother's ruse and outright lied to his father about who he was in order to receive his father's blessing
  • Eysav, who - on the surface at least - seems the most innocent of all the actors in this play.  He hunts, he tries to please his father, he gets taken advantage of by those more clever than he.
So what are we to learn from this?
Are these the lessons?
  1. It's OK to lie to your parents if it gets you what you believe you deserve.
  2. The ends justify the means.
  3. Jews aren't supposed to be good outdoorsmen
Somehow I doubt these are the lessons we're supposed to learn from this section of Torah.

Here are some ideas I prefer:
  1. Food can be an expression of love and part of an important experience.  That's the idea in David Kraemer's commentary here
  2. Rivkah has amazing clarity about God's Big Ideas.  She knows what the overarching plan is and does what is necessary to advance it.  That thought is expressed in The Women's Torah Commentary in the article by Rabbi Beth J. Singer here
  3. Today as in the time of the Bible water is the key to survival.  We have a responsibility to treat the land and its resources with care and respect.  That idea is connected to this week's parasha in the commentary by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow at the website of Canfei Nesharim
How do you understand this parasha?  What Jewish values do you see here?  What do you think God wants us to learn from this portion?

Please feel free to share your ideas as comments to this post.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Our Most Important Job

Helping students learn to evaluate available information is more important today than ever before. In the past, we as teachers were in the business of conveying content. We had the 'truth', and we chose the books that had the 'truth.'

In today's world there is more information at our learners' fingertips than there used to be in entire libraries. Unfortunately, much of that information is misleading at best and totally inaccurate at worst.

This article about the Dead Sea Scrolls is an example of how information on the internet can be manipulated by anyone with the desire to do so.

By sharing this article with your students you may help sensitize them to the possibility that what they read must always be read somewhat skeptically - and to introduce them to reliable sources of review, such as and which carefully evaluate content.

A learner who develops critical thinking skills is a learner on the way to life-long learning.

What's Really Important?

We know that people learn what they perceive as important. Our challenge as teachers is to find out what that is for our learners. Here's an example from medicine that may bring a chuckle, but ultimately may help you realize the importance of motivation in learning.

Big Idea:
People learn what is important to them

Essential Question:
What is already important to your learners?
How can we make that which is important to us important to our learners?

Activities teachers can do to support uncovering the Big Idea:
Read what they read, watch what they watch, listen to their music. (I don't suggest you abandon your interests in favor of theirs, but you have a responsibility to be familiar with their cultural context if you are going to craft learning experiences they can relate to)
Provide time in class for students to talk about what they are interested in - to each other and to you.
Listen to your students.

Assessment: How will you know this is working?
Your students make more personal connections to the content of the learning.

Remember - your ultimate goal as a Jewish educator is to help your learners reach a level at which their Jewish knowledge, belief and practice are an important part of their lives and identities; a level at which what they are learning and doing is important not only to you as their teacher, but to them in their lives both within and outside the institution in which they learn.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hayei Sara

We have been reading the parashot this year through the lens of language - the power of words.

Big Idea #1:
  • Stories can change depending on the storyteller and the audience. That there are different versions does not necessarily mean one is true and others are not.

In Nechama Leibowitz' discussion of this parasha she compares the words Avraham uses in talking to his servant with the words the servant (Eliezer) uses in describing the task to the family of Rivka. You can read the commentary here. What are the similarities? What are the differences? What do you think explains why certain words or phrases are different in the two versions?

Essential Questions:
  1. Have you ever told a story more than once?
  2. Does it always sound the same?
  3. What might be the reasons the story changes from one occasion to another?
  4. Is there a person in your family who is the "custodian" of family stories? Who gets to say, "That's not how it happened!"
  5. How does your position in the family affect your "ownership" of the family stories? How are family stories preserved?
Big Idea #2
  • People differ in the way they respond to life experiences.
Essential Questions:
  1. What are some of the experiences Sarah had in her life?
  2. Do you know people who have had the same concrete experiences, either good or bad, but whose response to those experiences is different? How can you explain this?
  3. How can the way one responds to an event affect what comes afterward?
  4. What are some lessons in Torah, in Jewish wisdom and thought, which can help us respond appropriately to life events?
Big Idea #3
  • Not all important ideas or events are broadcast loudly and clearly. Sometimes they are not so obvious at first glance
Essential Questions:
  1. According to the Torah, who buried Avraham?
  2. What, if anything, surprised you about this?
  3. Do you believe this incident symbolizes a reconciliation between the brothers? Explain your opinion.
  4. What are some occasions in family life that might lead to separation? to reconciliation? What are some ideas we can use to encourage shlom bayit, peaceful relationships within a family?

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Jewish Music in Popular Cultural Settings

Matisyahu - Jewish/rap/reggae performer - has written and performed the soundtrack for a commercial about the Vancouver Winter Olympics you can see here.

His original song is here.

Great opportunity for compare and contrast:

What is the big idea of the lyrics as used in the commercial? Why do you think the creators of the commercial chose this song? This segment of the song?

What do you think is the big idea of the lyrics in the complete song?

Does the segment reflect the entire song? Explain your answer.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Two Lenses: Jewish and Educational

I. JNF is sponsoring Project Baseball, an effort to create up-to-date baseball fields for kids in Israel to play on. I can't think of a better fit for a tzedakah project for someone who loves baseball - especially now, after the excitement of the World Series!

Can you picture a donation made by your class in honor of the Yankees to Project Baseball?

After all, although "you don't have to be Jewish", as Levy's Rye Bread famously stated, but on the other hand, it's possible to be both Jewish and a fan!!

II. Ron Blomberg, former Yankee, wrote a book about his experiences titled Designated Hebrew, an allusion to the fact that he was both the first designated hitter in the American League and also a Jew. Your baseball fanatic (5th grade and older) might enjoy reading it.

III. While we're on the topic of baseball, what about how fans feel about Alex Rodriguez now? Can this be a trigger for discussing teshuvah with our learners? Did A-Rod do teshuvah after his having used steroids? What is your evidence? Was it complete teshuvah? Explain why or why not.

IV. If you didn't see it already, Zits on November 3rd was as perfect as possible a recommendation of hands-on learning. Doing, not listening, is the answer for many of us and probably most of our learners.

Monday, November 2, 2009


We learned a lot about the power of words in the first few portions of the Torah. We learned that words can create whole worlds, that they can harm, they can confuse, they can clarify, they can be a source of unity or of divisiveness. This parasha can be seen to expand on that theme.

Words can change the world, as suggested in this commentary from the Jewish Coalition for Service.

Words can be only the surface - real meaning involves deeper listening, as you can read here. What does it mean to really listen?

Words can be misunderstood, as suggested in this commentary from United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. What if Abraham didn't hear God correctly?

Finally, back to the power of words, what can we learn from the use of the phrase "lech lecha" here, when God is telling Abraham to take his son to Moriah? Haven't we heard this phrase before? Where? Compare and contrast the two places it is used.

Once again we are faced with a parasha which could easily be studied over the course of weeks. If you are teaching parshat hashavua in you classroom, which of the stories in this parasha will you choose? Why?

Better Jewish Educators=Better Jewish Education

Arne Duncan, secretary of education, has some interesting ideas about the problems in teacher education.

Susan Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College in Massachusetts, offers some suggestions in this article.

As you read the article at the link, think about which of the ideas might be relevant to the improvement of Jewish educational practice.

I certainly agree that "...future teachers should continue studying the subject they hope to teach, ... It makes no sense at all to stop studying the thing you want to teach at the very moment you begin to learn how."

And surely it would be wonderful if "...young teachers, like young doctors, [could] work side by side with skilled mentors, getting plenty of feedback, having plenty of opportunities to observe and taking on greater and greater responsibility as they improve."

What if "...young teachers [were encouraged] to record their daily encounters with their classrooms and then, with mentors and peers, have serious, open-minded conversations about what’s working and what isn’t."?

And who could argue against the suggestion that "Teachers must also learn far more about children"?

Few of our schools have the size or resources to "... hire these newly prepared teachers in groups of seven or more" to create their own supportive community. But we know from other sources that collegial reflection and learning among teachers is one of the most important roads to improvement, and I'm sure that it doesn't have to be a community of only new teachers to be effective.

We in Jewish education don't have to re-invent the wheel. The wheel exists. It's been 'rolling around' for quite a while now in general education. Some wheels are expensive, but some just take a few people with initiative and motivation to bring them into a school.

What we are doing as Jewish educators is important. Let's act as though we believe that.

What are we teaching? What are they learning?

Although I'm not sure I understand the metrics of the study, it is still interesting if the Big Idea is that those students majoring in social sciences (including anthropology, economics, human geography, history, linguistics, political science, psychology, and similar disciplines which examine the social life of groups) are likely to be less 'religious', however one defines that, at the end of their studies than when they begin.

The summary of the report on this study in the Education Life section of the NY Times on November 1 suggests that the cause is "postmodernism, the staple of humanities classes, with its notions of relative truth (opposed to religion's absolute truth and questioning authority."

How does this relate to what we are teaching in Jewish education? Are we teaching absolute truth? Are we encouraging questioning? I believe the answer to the first question is more 'no' than 'yes', and I sincerely hope the answer to the second is resoundingly 'yes'.

Let us hope, then, that our students will not find that higher learning negates what they have learned while in our educational settings, but rather will see themselves as continuing to use the critical thinking skills that they have already exercised while learning with us.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Jewish Thinking - Ahead of the Curve

Most of us are familiar with the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara in Jewish thought. Most simply, these are translated as the 'good inclination' and the 'evil inclination'. And yet they are considerably more complex than that. It is said that without the 'yetzer hara' - the 'evil inclination' - no one would have the ambition to do anything productive. You can read more about this idea at My Jewish Learning.

Recently, scientists have been studying dopamine, a molecule in the brain that brings pleasure. The New York Times Science Section wrote about it on October 27.

And as I read the article, all I could think about was how like the 'yetzer hara' this dopamine seems to be!

I don't know about you - but for me it's another example of the modern implications of Jewish wisdom.

Isn't it great when science gives us an opening to mention traditional Jewish thinking?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Lech Lecha

Reading B'reisheet, I always think, is like reading a fast-moving adventure novel. Things happen, one after another, so that you hardly have time to think about all the ramifications of one story line when another catches your attention. Within this week's single parasha there are:
  • God's command to Avram to leave and go somewhere - destination unknown (at least to Avram) at the time of the command
  • Famine in Canaan, and Avram and Saray's side trip to Egypt
  • Division of the land between Lot and Avram
  • War among kings in the area resulting in the kidnapping of Lot and his household, and Lot's redemption by Avram
  • Meeting of Avram with Melchitzedek, king of Shalem, generally understood to be the first mention of Jerusalem in the Torah
  • Foreshadowing of the Egyptian exile, and God's promise to ultimately redeem the people
  • Hagar's first separation from the camp of Avram and Saray, and her return
  • Birth of Ishmael to Hagar
  • Change of name of Avram and Saray to Avraham and Sarah
  • Command to circumcise every male in the group
  • Promise that Sarah will give birth
  • Mass circumcision in the camp of all males.
Surely there is enough here to plan lessons for a semester, if not a year, and we have one week if we are teaching parshat hashavua and need to keep up with the calendar. Lucky it's the month of Heshvan - no holidays coming up!!

Big Ideas: There are so many you'll have to choose. Here are a few suggestions. Fortunately, some are more appropriate for younger learners, some for older students. And, in most cases, we have more than one year to help our students learn Torah. Just be sure that you're not teaching the same thing last year's teacher taught.
  • God chose Avraham for reasons we can only imagine to be the inheritor of God's blessing
  • It may be necessary to stand apart in order to do what God wants of us
  • The path toward following God is not always straight or clear
  • People - even fundamentally good people - do not always behave admirably
  • Names are significant
  • Following God's commandments is not always easy or pain free
  • What are some stories you know about Avram's childhood? Why do we have midrashim about Avraham's childhood?
  • Why do you think Avram had to leave his country, his clan, his family in order to obey God? Which do you think was most difficult for him?
  • What do you think about the story of Avram and Saray in Egypt (Chapter 12)? In what way is your opinion of Avram affected by the story?
  • What can be the reason for the detailed description of the war among the kings in the area (Chapter 14)
  • What two covenants does God make with Avraham in this parasha (in chapter 15 and in chapter 17)? What do they have in common?
  • What do all the story segments in this parasha tell us about God? About Avraham? About Sarah? About the land of Israel?
Learning Activities:
  • The language in this parasha is not terribly difficult, although some of the stories certainly are challenging. There are a number of phrases that have become basic Hebrew idioms, and you may want to learn them: Debbie Friedman wrote a beautiful song around the words "Lech lecha" which is sung in many religious schools. You can hear it here. Kum v'Hitalech BaAretz, by Yoram Taharlev, is a beautiful song which builds on the words in chapter 13:17 - Kum hit'halech ba'aretz. You can get to Taharlev's website in Hebrew here and there is a an English translation. To hear the song, go here and click on the arrow pointing to the lyrics. For an English translation of the lyrics, look here. What do the words to this song tell you about the lyricist's feelings about Israel?
  • If you have the time, and if you have the patience and the interest, please read Noam Zion and Steve Israel's incredibly rich treatment of Avraham, The First Jew, a Journey Begun with a Fateful Choice, from the Shalom Hartman Institute. (This is the same source institution that has brought us A Different Night, an outstanding Haggadah for Pesach.) You will almost certainly not be able to use this in its entirety, but I promise that if you read it you will find pieces that will add to your understanding of Avraham, and will probably give you some ideas for activities in your classroom.

To Save One Life

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has donated $1,000,000 to HIAS, the organization which helped him and his family leave the Soviet Union and settle in the United States. He has said that without their help he could never have achieved what he has.

Most of us owe our existence in one way or another to the help of others. Tennessee Williams, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had his character say, "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers." As Jews we have other foundations for our obligation to help others - whether they are strangers or friends.

Here are some suggestions for learning more about how and why Jewish organizations helped Sergey Brin and his family, along with countless others.

Big Ideas:
  • All Jews are responsible for one another - Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh
  • Help those who need help - Ozer dalim
  • Do not stand by when others are threatened - Al ta-amod al dam re'acha
  • You must redeem the hostage - Pidyon sh'vuyim
  • You must pursue justice - Tsedek, tsedek tirdof

Essential Questions:
  • What is HIAS?
  • How did your family come to live in the United States?
  • Why do so many hospitals have Jewish names?
  • What programs does your local Jewish Federation Agency support?
Learning Activities:
Use the following websites to find out more about HIAS, Jewish Federations, and other agencies supported or founded largely through Jewish donations:
  • Find out if anyone in your family has benefited from any of the above organizations. Create a presentation that explains how.
  • Choose one or more of the Big Ideas and explain how it influences or has influenced one or more of the agencies or organizations you learned about
  • Find out what agencies/groups/organizations there are in your community that help others. Choose one or more and explain which of the Big Ideas they illustrate.
  • Pick one of the Big Ideas and plan a way in which you can help support it in your own community

Monday, October 19, 2009


What a treat to be immersed in the "easy to read and explain" narrative of B'raisheet!! Here are the stories we all know and love - the ones we remember from the picture books of pre-school and the simplistic Bible stories of the primary grades. Isn't it so much easier to teach stories our students already know?!?

Thought for the teacher: If you are teaching the same 'story' year after year, are you really surprised that at some point the learners are bored? Or that at the end of their formal Jewish educational experience they distance themselves from the childish knowledge that is the extent of what they have been exposed to?

Let's continue to try something different. And let's begin by updating the challenge we faced in teaching B'raisheet
Here's the challenge -
  • how do we make the 'old' story of Noah and the Flood and the Tower of Babel 'new' in the eyes of our students?
  • How can we transform a narrative that our learners have been reading and hearing forever into something they find important?
  • How can we get from "How did the animals get onto the ark" to some really big thinking about what the point is in studying Torah?
  • How can we help our students answer the fundamental question I think all learners should be able to answer, "What did you learn today/this week/this month that is important?"
Big Ideas:
  • Not all the important ideas in Torah are stated outright.
  • Filling in the blanks in Torah is really important for understanding its message to us.
Some Important Questions:
  • What do we know about Noah from the text?
  • How do we know about Noah from the text? Who is telling the story?
  • What did you learn from Noah's experience that is important to you in your life?
  • What lessons are there for us in the story of the Tower of Babel?
Learning Activities:
  • Read the story of Noah line-by-line, stopping at the end of each verse, as if you have never seen or heard it before. Each time you stop, try to describe what you have just read. Also, try to predict what will happen next. Did anything you read surprise you? Explain.
  • The first word of Chapter 6 verse 16 is "tsohar". This word is called a "hapax legomena". You can read more about this here in an article from the Jewish Encyclopedia. How can we understand a word that appears only once in the entire text? Why is that a problem?
  • Read the comments about the word "tsohar" here in the post on October 27, 2006. What did you learn? Is it important information?
  • Read the story of the Tower of Babel the same way you read the story of Noah, and go through the same process. Do you think God punished the people or rewarded them in this story? Explain your thinking.
  • The United States is a country made up of many diverse populations, coming from or descended from hundreds of native countries, with hundreds of native languages spoken by its population. How is this a good thing? How is it a problem? How is your thinking influenced by the story of the Tower of Babel?
  • What new understanding of Torah in your life do you have as a result of these activities?
  • What important ideas have you uncovered in studying this parasha?
  • What else are you curious about that we have not studied together - and how might you learn more?

Teachers Need...

You may have noticed that the lesson ideas posted here are not prescriptive. In other words, they offer suggestions and choices to the teachers using them, along with a structure for thinking about what is important in the teaching and learning.

This is intentional. It is not that I couldn't present a script for direct use - first say this, then that, and finally the other - but rather that I don't believe that is a best practice.

Teachers should be treated with respect - respect for their motivation, for their knowledge, for their abilities. Requiring the use of a script presumes that without one the teacher would be unable to work effectively. I just don't think that is the case.

I do not believe lessons should be, as is sometimes recommended, 'teacher-proof', as if anything other than word-for-word lessons leads to inferior learning.

What I do think is that teachers need support in getting better at what they do; they need opportunities to work together to improve their practice; they need the time and space to reflect on their experiences and challenges; they need to be treated as the professionals they are.

You may want to read the article in Education Week at this link: Stress, Control and the Deprofessionalizing of Teaching for more thoughts on this topic.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Doing Jewish

Jewish text does not have a monopoly on wisdom or ethics. It does, however, contain both in great abundance. One of the valuable lessons our learners ought to take with them forever is that the foundations for what many see as universal values are embedded in Jewish thinking. Some of the greatest ideas of our civilization are in large part based on the great ideas of Judaism, and we can take justifiable pride in that concept.
This post is a suggestion for using media and popular culture to support learning of Jewish ideas.

Big Ideas:
  • People have the capacity to choose freely between good and evil
  • Everything one does is part of who s/he is
  • Jewish wisdom insists we take responsibility for our decisions and actions

Question our learners should be able to answer:
  • What evidence do we have in Jewish texts to support these ideas?
  • Which of the stories below is, in your opinion, the story of a hero? What supports your opinion

Learning Activities:

A book has just been released in which Capt. Sulllenberger tells the story of his life and the events we know as the "Miracle on the Hudson", the safe landing of the jet he was piloting and rescue of all aboard.
One of the statements quoted in the Wall Street Journal's article by his co-author has within it the following quotation.

'Sully has heard from people who say preparation and diligence are not the same as heroism. He agrees.

One letter ...came from Paul Kellen of Medford, Mass. "I see a hero as electing to enter a dangerous situation for a higher purpose," he wrote, "and you were not given a choice. That is not to say you are not a man of virtue, but I see your virtue arising from your choices at other times. It's clear that many choices in your life prepared you for that moment when your engines failed.

"There are people among us who are ethical, responsible and diligent. I hope your story encourages those who toil in obscurity to know that their reward is simple—they will be ready if the test comes. I hope your story encourages others to imitation."

Sully now sees lessons for the rest of us. "We need to try to do the right thing every time, to perform at our best," he says, "because we never know what moment in our lives we'll be judged on."'


Dr. Tina Strobos is 89 years old and lives in Rye, NY. During World War II she lived in Amsterdam and was part of a family that saved many Jews by hiding them in their home. You can read about her here.

Why would she take such gambles for people she sometimes barely knew?

“It’s the right thing to do,” she said with nonchalance. “Your conscience tells you to do it. I believe in heroism, and when you’re young, you want to do dangerous things.”

'... such an outlook has an origin, what Donna Cohen, the Holocaust Center’s executive director, calls “learned behavior.” Dr. Strobos comes from a family of socialist atheists who took in Belgian refugees during World War I and hid German and Austrian refugees before World War II. Dr. Strobos had close Jewish friends and, for a time, a Jewish fiancé, Abraham Pais... . '


Here are some quotations from Jewish sources to read and think about. What does each quotation mean? How are they similar? How are they different? Choose one and use it to explain why Captain Sullenberger and Dr. Strobos did what they did.

from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers:

"Hillel says that in a place where there are no 'humans', try to be 'human'"
,ו ובמקום
שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש.

from Proverbs:
י בְּנִי-- אִם-יְפַתּוּךָ חַטָּאִים, אַל-תֹּבֵא. 10 My child, if sinners attract you, don't follow them.

כז שֹׁחֵר טוֹב, יְבַקֵּשׁ רָצוֹן; וְדֹרֵשׁ רָעָה תְבוֹאֶנּוּ.11:27 One who seeks good will find it; but one who searches for evil, it will come to him.

Culminating/Assessment Activity

Create a bulletin board on which you post articles which illustrate any and all of the 3 quotations you learned. For each article be sure to specify which idea it illustrates, and a short paragraph explaining why it does so.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Assessing Outcomes

We often say that one of the problems in Jewish education is that we can't assess outcomes until many years after the end of the programs we are attempting to evaluate.

This article, Generation Z appears in the on-line magazine Tablet. It describes the college years of several people whose names are familiar to us now, and I believe it also raises some interesting questions for us as educators:
  • What was it about their college experiences that led to the ongoing involvement of these people in the Jewish world, and in Israel particularly?
  • Beit Ephraim still exists, and has a website at which you can learn more about it. What do you think are its strengths? What might be its challenges?
  • In your opinion, what kind of student might be attracted to a place like Beit Ephraim?
  • What kind of prior Jewish educational experiences do you imagine might lead a college student to be interested in such a program?
  • In what way are the curricula and programs of our Jewish educational systems geared toward building the kind of youth who are looking for serious Jewish involvement in their college years?
  • How can we do our job better?
I'd love to hear your ideas about this.