Friday, January 15, 2010

Odds and Ends, Thoughts and Ideas, Challenges and Questions

This post is longer than usual, but I hope you will find many things to think about.  And tonight is Shabbat, so you should have plenty of time to do your thinking!!
Please share your thoughts with the rest of the reading community so we can learn from each other.

From Michael Tucker, in the AARP Bulletin, January 1, 2010 edition on-line.

"Pen Man"
"You’d think that Indianapolis teacher Dan Stroup would have major writer’s cramp by now. That’s because every past and present student of his eighth-grade Bible class receives a personal, handwritten birthday letter from him every year. “I wanted them to know that I not only cared about them in the classroom but outside the classroom,” says Stroup, 54, who teaches at Heritage Christian School. Stroup figures he’s penned about 33,000 letters to 2,500 students over 25 years, using regular pens and tablets of lined paper. “If students know I care about them, they’re more open to what I teach,” he says."

What a wonderful idea - and what a valuable suggestion.  Can you think of ways to show your students  that you care about them?  How about helping them learn their Hebrew birthdays through a lesson on the Jewish calendar, and using that as an opportunity to both reinforce their connection to Judaism and to let them know you are thinking about them.  Just a thought.

from Jeffrey Rosen, NYT Magazine, January 8, 2010:  Prisoners of Parole
Rosen writes about a pilot project to reduce parole violations, and through that reduce jail time, in Hawaii.  He writes that
"...a variety of recent research suggest[s] that people are more likely to obey the law when they view law enforcement as fair and legitimate."
While Rosen focuses on law enforcement and ways in which that can be more effective, surely the same ideas are relevant in the classroom.  The words that appear over and over in articles about classrooms that work include the following words:  fair, firm, consistent.  That is the big idea of Rosen's article, and it is a big idea in teaching and learning.
from John Tagliabue, NY Times, January 5, 2010:  Rising Price of Faith in France's Shrinking Parishes
France has a problem with its churches.  The population is less and less active in religious practice, the number of priests is a fraction of what it once was, and the cost of upkeep of the admittedly beautiful buildings is higher and higher.  The solution in some towns has been to continue to support the traditional buildings, while in others the decision has been made to demolish what have become underused and increasingly expensive structures and replace them with modern and more efficient buildings.
"In other countries, notably England and Italy, disused houses of worship have been converted into homes, stores or museums. In France, there is an emotional resistance to the practice, though in Dijon, an abandoned church now serves as a theater, and in Alsace, also in the east, former synagogues now serve as museums."
Why am I bringing this article?  In my opinion the fundamental problem is inability or unwillingness to think seriously about the future.  For our institutions the questions we must ask include the following:

  • What is the infrastructure that is necessary to support a future that may look very different from today?  
  • Do our buildings meet the needs of tomorrow's Jewish populations?  
  • Do our institutions support creative and innovative programs that engage people whose connections to Judaism are based on a variety of different forces?  
  • Are we encouraging platforms for developing community that are realistic for today and tomorrow?

These are really important, really challenging, really tough questions.  We need to begin to answer them now.
Footnotes in Gaza is a new book by Joe Sacco, reviewed on December 27, 2009 in the New York Times Book Review.  It suggests that the reason for Palestinian hatred of Israel can be traced to 2 incidents in 1956 during which Israeli troops massacred Arab residents during one of the many wars between Israel and her neighbors which have taken place over time.  Two letters to the editor of the NY Times challenge this assertion.
Choosing an arbitrary date on which to begin a historical narrative ignores what came before.  In the case of the Middle East situation one can hardly claim seriously that the conflict began in 1956.  How the author/illustrator does this is one thing - how the reviewer repeats this ridiculous accusation is even worse.
from David Brooks, January 12, 2010: The Tel Aviv Cluster
If you want to feel really proud of being Jewish and having Israel 'in the family', read this article.
If you are teaching about the Holocaust, or even if it is not a part of your regular curriculum, please take time to note with your students the death of Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank in Amsterdam and saved her diary when the Frank family was deported to Auschwitz.  A detailed obituary is available at .  You can find a good resource for learning about her and about World War II at the following website: .  There are lesson plans appropriate for grades 4 - 8 on that website as well.
If you are looking for a Jewish source of information about Righteous Gentiles, this link to the Jewish Virtual Library website is a good resource.  It does not mention Ms. Gies, but it does mention several others who risked their lives to save Jews during the Shoah.

Monday, January 11, 2010


This parasha (summary here at My Jewish Learning, full text here at Mechon Mamre) continues the drama of liberation from Egypt.  Most of us are familiar with the story line, having heard it many times as children and as adults either in studying Torah or in celebrating Pesach around a seder table.
I have a few questions for you to think about:

  • Moshe is 80 years old when this part of the story begins.  I wonder, in today's society, when things change at a greater rate than ever before in history (as this story, Old Fogies in their 20's , shows quite dramatically) how do we relate to our elders?  In what ways is it possible to respect the wisdom of age while at the same time valuing the importance of change?
  • Does it matter to you that there may be a natural explanation for the plagues, as explained here in an article entitled "A Skeptic's Guide to Passover", by Michael Lukas published in Slate last spring?
    • What if there is a scientific explanation?
    • What if there isn't?
    • Is there a relationship between the way we remember the story of Hanukkah and the way we remember the exodus from Egypt?  Can you compare and contrast these two stories in terms of the role of God, in terms of miracles, in terms of how we celebrate?
  • How can you reconcile the idea of Free Will, a basic understanding of Judaism, with the story of how God "hardened Paro's heart" in this parasha?
    • There is a traditional saying in Hebrew:  "One mitzvah leads to another, one sin leads to another."  How might this apply to Paro's actions?
    • If Paro didn't have a choice about his actions, should he have been punished?
  • Is there a  traditional Jewish attitude toward people who are oppressed?  Toward slavery?  There were Jewish slaveholders in this country before the Civil War, as you can read in this article from
    • How does it make you feel to know there were Jewish slaveholders?
    • Why do you think Jews who lived in the north were mostly opposed to slavery, while those who lived in the south mostly supported it?
  • Do Jews have any special responsibility to confront injustice in the world?
    • If you answered yes, explain why you think so.
    • If you answered no, explain why you think not.
  • Do you think that the Hebrews who were living in Egypt in slavery thought about leaving before Moshe and Aharon came to talk to Paro?  Why?
  • Why do you think God insisted on so many plagues?  Couldn't God have rescued the Jews more quickly and without so many bells and whistles?

What are the big ideas you think we can learn from this parasha?