Tuesday, August 18, 2009

What does it mean to be Jewish?

Daniel Goldfarb, a playwright, has written a play called The Retributionists. It is a story based on a historical event - a plan by a group of Jews in 1946 to take revenge on the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

You can read more about the play here at the Playwrights Horizons site.

Goldfarb has written other plays, all examining the question of what it means to be Jewish in the world today.

An interesting article about both the play and the playwright appeared in the NY Times this past Sunday. You can access it through the link here - At Ease In His Own Pigeonhole

The last paragraph of the article reads as follows:
"He said his goal is not to provide answers so much as raise questions. When pressed to take sides [about the characters in and subjects of his plays] he demurs: 'I am a big proponent of: Write what you're confused about. Being Jewish provides endless confusion.... If you are in the process of trying to figure out what it means that you're Jewish, then you're Jewish.'"

What a wonderful quotation to bring to our students in high school and perhaps middle school.

How to do this? Please share your suggestions here so we can all learn from each other.

Jewish Thoughts on War and Peace

It happens that this week's parasha, Parshat Shofetim, includes some guidelines for behaviors in war. The Israelites are given certain limits, including the requirement to invite a peaceful surrender before initiating battle, and restrictions on destruction of both people and, interestingly enough, of trees. You can read the text in Deuteronomy Chapter 20 at this link: Mechon-Mamre.
I found this particularly interesting in view of a speech President Obama gave recently, in which he referred to the war in Afghanistan as a necessary war. His words:
"This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity," Obama told the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars conference -- cautioning that the insurgency would not be defeated overnight. "Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which Al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans." (from the LA Times, reporting on a speech given Monday, August 17, 2009)
This speech can serve as a trigger for discussion of what those words - "war of necessity" - mean in the context of Jewish thinking.

Big Idea:
Jewish wisdom can be a way of understanding the world around us

Essential Questions:
  1. Why does President Obama consider the war in Afghanistan a war of necessity?
  2. In what way would Jewish wisdom support or not support his description?
Learning Activities:
  1. Read Obama's speech. It is quite long, so you may want to divide it into sections for your students to read. Discuss what he said, focusing on his reasons for considering the war in Afghanistan a necessary war.
  2. Read the articles at these links below.
Compare and contrast Obama's thoughts on necessary war with those of the Jewish thinkers in the articles you read. Your students may choose to create a chart, have a debate, or express their understanding in another way. The important outcome is that they understand that they can apply Jewish thinking to the world in which they live.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Challenge of Change

Reading yet again about the challenge of changing our health care system in the United States it occurred to me that there is a parallel to Jewish educational improvement here.
The health care system needs change.
The Jewish educational system needs change.
Change is difficult.
Systems resist changing.
Change is messy.
Meaningful change needs constituent buy-in.

And here is the BIG QUESTION!

In the case of an educational system that exists within a fundamentally conservative setting, which I would suggest Judaism is, I believe that the necessary constituent buy-in is much more likely to support change that is incremental than that which is system-wide.

And I really believe that this incremental change can be meaningful in improving outcomes.

What can you change in preparing for the school year that can improve student learning outcomes?
What can you change about your teaching throughout the year to support improved learning outcomes?
What can you change about your class?
What can you change in your school?

Take a few minutes to reflect on these questions now, before the school year starts. You may find yourself on the way, one step at a time, to valuable change.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jewish Values at the End of Life

Paul Root Wolpe is the first chief bioethicist for NASA. It is his job to think through some of the the ethical challenges that occur in space. He was interviewed about his role and offered some interesting examples of the kinds of issues he faces in this article that appeared in the NY Times on August 11.
Interestingly, he is also quite knowledgeable about Jewish ethics. He explains in the article how he was able to offer advice after the tragic crash of the Columbia space shuttle, and how the Jewish laws encouraging speedy burial had to be balanced by the impossibility of identifying all the remains of the astronauts (who included Ilan Ramon, the first Jewish Israeli person to fly in the space program)

If you are teaching a course about the Jewish Life Cycle
  • Behrman House offers the following textbooks Life Cycle
  • Torah Aura Publications includes these
  • Ktav has a selection as well that you can see at this link
  • There are many on-line resources about Jewish life cycle

No matter which textbooks you use, you may want to supplement your classroom learning with current news articles and on-line material which can engage your students in thinking about how what they learn in your classroom is reflected in the world around them.

Big Idea: What do you want your students to remember after they have forgotten everything else?
  • There is Jewish wisdom that can guide our behavior in making decisions in our lives.
  • We should consider Jewish wisdom relevant in our everyday lives.

Essential Questions: What will your students have to be able to answer in order to show understanding of the big idea?
  1. What does Judaism teach about death and dying?
  2. Why is it important to know what Judaism teaches about life cycle?
  3. How can you find out what the Jewish perspective is in addressing the challenges inherent in living life?
Learning Activities: What can enable students to learn the information that can help them answer the essential questions

These activities are suggestions, not detailed lesson plans. Please use them as a guide for making your plans for your class. Keep in mind students' age, level of maturity, and the context in which you teach.
  1. Read the section of the interview with Paul Wolpe about the situation after the Columbia crash. What questions do you have? How can you find the answers?
  2. Read the chapter(s) in your life cycle text about death and dying. What appear to be the big ideas?
  3. Invite the Rabbi of your congregation to talk to your students about Jewish values expressed in the customs and laws concerning death and dying. What did you learn that you didn't know before?
  4. Most synagogues have memorials for members and relatives of members who have died. Go to visit these memorials as a class and examine them. Who is memorialized? How are they remembered? How does having a memorial fulfill Jewish values?
  5. If there is a chevre kadisha (Jewish burial society) in your area invite a representative to come and explain the rituals involved in preparing a body for burial. What did you learn?
  6. There are a number of videos available that explain the Jewish rituals associated with death and dying. They are available for rental or purchase at Alden Films www.aldenfilms.com/
  7. Read the Mourner's Kaddish with your students. What does it say? What does it not say? What conclusion can you draw?
  8. Listen to the memorial prayer, El Mole Rachamim on YouTube. (there are several different versions). How does it make you feel? Find a translation of the prayer in a siddur and read it. How does the music enhance the meaning of the words?