Archive for the ‘education’ Category

Good Bye, Vassar Temple

June 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Though I started working at Vassar Temple five years ago, I first heard about the place two years before that from my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Shoshana Hantman. “They’re a really nice group of people,” she was fond of saying about Vassar Temple.

With only a few exceptions, she was absolutely right.


Artistic gifts from students and teachers adorn my office door

And I say that having observed or consulted to hundreds of schools on five continents (soon to be six!). In fact, when I would tell my colleagues where I was working, the single most consistent response mirrored Rabbi Hantman’s remarks: “That’s a nice congregation,” frequently followed by a kind reference to Rabbi Arnold and Rabbi Golomb, and, most recently, Rabbi Berkowitz.

As I look back on five years, I certainly don’t want to minimize our technical accomplishments together. We built a thriving Hebrew school that draws members from neighboring congregations. We quadrupled the size of the post-bar/bat mitzvah Wednesday evening program. We grew the overall school by eight percent year over year when most religious schools are losing students.

Those feats, noteworthy in themselves, are also good for the financial heath of the congregation: good for the Jews and good for the bottom line, one might say. Or, as Rabbi Stuart Geller observes: the religious school is the financial engine that pulls the synagogue train.

So I don’t want to make light of bringing in new members or of increasing enrollment. But neither are these statistics the things that stand out most in my mind.

Rather, I remember non-tangible manifestations of a holy community.

For example, when our last Hebrew-school session of the year for grades 5-7 came to an end at 6:00pm on the Wednesday before Passover, the nearly 20 students in attendance refused to leave. Instead of bolting out of the school — as children so often do in other settings when class ends — they stayed behind, savoring a few final moments with each other and their Hebrew teachers. Surely this is what the Rabbis had in mind when they inserted the line into our morning liturgy, “make the words of your Torah sweet to us.”

When four Sunday-school teachers called in sick at the last minute last year, the remaining, healthy teachers jumped into action to run a constructive program together. One high school-aged teacher offered to teach a different class, improvising as she went. Another agreed to teach alone, though she had planned to work with a partner. And so on down the line. Though extreme, that day was hardly atypical, as teachers regularly volunteered to help each other out, never losing the smiles that came to symbolize our time together on Sunday mornings. What better way could there be to realize the Rabbis’ hope that we serve God together in joy?

converted PNM file

Good-bye selfie

The list goes on: Sixth graders who eagerly anticipated their opportunity — though at least two years away — to teach in the school. Middle- and high-school students who insisted on starting each class with, “How was your week?” Grade-school students who were so proud of their work that they begged me to come into their classrooms for a closer look. Students who complained when I canceled class for snow that never arrived. Teachers who focused not just on what we were teaching but even more on who we were teaching.

In Pirkei Avot — “The Sayings of the Ancestors” from almost 2,000 years ago — Rabbi Shimon declares that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, service to God, and kindness. Later, still in the spirit of groups of three, he enumerates three crowns: the crown of monarchy, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of Torah. Then, having listed three, he adds a fourth, a crown that outweighs the other three: the crown of a good name.

More than a millennium later, Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bartenura wrote about this, suggesting that the crown of a good name refers specifically to a good reputation for doing good deeds.

Taken together, Ovadiah and Shimon tell us that being known for the right things is more important than royalty, more important than religious leadership, and even more important than Torah itself.

And this is what I will remember from my five years running the school at Vassar Temple: students, parents, teachers, leaders, and rabbis who in overwhelming majority are deservedly known for the way, through personal example, that they model the three things upon which the world stands: Torah, service to God, and great kindness.

Blessed is God, who crowns us with glory.

[An abridged version of this piece first appeared in the Vassar Temple June, 2016 bulletin.]

Categories: education, Judaism, religion

On Camp Eisner, Seeing the Future, and Combating Bullying

July 19, 2015 2 comments

A trip to Eisner offers a glimpse into a glorious future framed by the perspective of our past. What else can you call it when hundreds of children, teens, and young adults from around the world gather in unpretentious worship to sing ancient words as given new voice with modern melodies?

PullQuoteI arrived for Shabbat morning services, held indoors, this time, in deference to the threatening weather. The predominantly musical morning was punctuated by short interpretations of Torah, each one presented by a group of three campers, and each one addressing the topic of promises.

A theme emerged: the promise not to bully. I happen to know that a sign in the dining room proclaims Eisner a bully-free zone. I didn’t know that campers, as part of a pledge they sign when they arrive, promise not to bully.

It seems that the plague of bullying is a modern one. There’s no ancient Jewish discussion of it. There isn’t even a Hebrew word for “bullying.”

But our sages were well aware of the power of words. Gossip, even based in truth, is likened to a capital offense in Judaism. You’re not allowed to speak ill of people behind their backs.

Equally, our tradition forbids unwarranted hostility, proclaims the absolute value of human dignity, and decries enslavement of any sort. Bullying aggressively boxes people into an ignoble cage of powerlessness. The Rabbis — who insisted that even if no one else is behaving well, you must strive to — would have been revolted. So like new melodies for timeless words, Eisner’s campaign against bullying is a new passion born of timeless values.

Visitors often want to bring home the beauty they find at Eisner. The campers at Eisner have suggested a first step: take an Eisner-like anti-bullying pledge.

Giving Students a Jewish Future: Three Clichés for Summer

July 3, 2015 1 comment

A child visits our Sunday religious school planning to stay as briefly as possible. Once in class, she finds she likes school so much that she begs her parents to let her stay until the end.

A Hebrew school student on Wednesday afternoon spontaneously covers the whiteboard with graffiti: “I love this class.”

A student e-mails me to lament a canceled class.

A student guesses the password to my computer because I used a Hebrew word, and he knows it thanks to the effectiveness of his teachers.

A group of students asks if we can please extend the school year because they don’t want classes to end.

These are a few scenes out of many that remain prominent in my mind as I look back on the year now ending. They are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg.

I know. It’s a cliché. And “good writers” don’t use clichés. But I like clichés, because they tend to encapsulate important truths. In this case: the part you see is supported by a much larger part that you don’t.

Much of my job is putting in place the parts of the school-iceberg that you don’t see. The staffing (rare for a religious school, we have a waiting list of teachers who want to teach here), the training, the ambiance (treat everyone with respect), the policies (only make rules about things that matter), the materials, the schedules, the vision. It’s on my mind, because summer is when I focus most on these things.

I’ll meet with the heads of the textbook publishing houses to ask, “what’s your absolutely best material?” I’ll plan content that best matches our faculty and student body. I’ll ask what I can learn from the other religious schools that I’ve visited during the past year. I’ll revisit everything that didn’t work to see if we can do better. I’ll solicit direct feedback from students, teachers, parents, and the leadership. I’ll apply my experience and training to make sure all of our ducks are in a row.

I know. It’s another cliché. But three paragraphs later, I still like clichés. In this case, it may not matter which way any particular duck faces, but they do have to be aligned (for travel and for sleep, it turns out). In terms of our school, we face dozens of seemingly arbitrary decisions, but even though each one admits of many successful resolutions, they still have to work together to further a single vision: “Giving students a Jewish future.”

For instance, there are lots of good 4th-grade text books. And lots of people available to teach 4th grade. But there are fewer successful combinations of books and teachers. Our incoming 4th-grade, too, is unique, different from last year’s or next year’s; its particular nature further limits our choices. And the 4th grade has to take its place in a progression from kindergarten to 12th grade; that limits the choices even more. The 4th-grade school duck has to line up with all the other ducks.

In this regard, it’s important to focus on the vision — giving students a Jewish future — and ignore the Siren song of programming.

Yes, I did it. Another cliché. The fabled Greek Siren, half bird and half woman, sang beautifully sweet songs that lured sailors off their safe sailing paths and into destructive island reefs. Many new programs are the same. Though individually attractive, their value is dubious if we let their beauty distract us from our vision. Or to look at things differently: Does a new program bring us closer to giving children a Jewish future? If not, our resources and energy are probably better spent elsewhere.

So even though I’ll examine dozens of new ideas, my enthusiasm will be reserved for a tiny fraction of them — the few programs or undertakings or materials that support the iceberg that lines up our ducks that point away from the Siren song. As I work on next year this summer, that will be my litmus test.

(Okay. So it’s four clichés.)

Originally published in the Vassar Temple monthly bulletin.

Categories: education, Judaism

Chasing Mediocrity

May 8, 2013 Leave a comment

I think that mediocrity is easy to measure while excellence is not, which creates a dilemma in the current era of objective assessment: when we insist on objective metrics of success — grades (for children), evaluations (for teachers), quarterly profits (for companies), recognized rules of writing (for authors), etc. — we motivate people to chase mediocrity.

For example, high schools in this country have been on a steady path toward more objective standards (starting with “No Child Left Behind”), while university professors, once they achieve tenure, are essentially accountable to no one. As a result, I believe, U.S. high schools fare terribly compared to the rest of the world, while our universities are arguably second to none.

Indeed, Forbes reports that “70% of engineers with PhD’s who graduate from U.S. universities are foreign-born.” These engineers come to the U.S. only for the education system that has no objective metrics of success, and, similarly, U.S. high-school students are unprepared for graduate work after their educational path based on test scores.

In the completely different realm of fiction, best-selling author Lee Child critisizes the writing industry for focusing on objective criteria of good writing, starting with the most well-known rule: “show don’t tell.” Writers follow the rule, Child says, because they’ve been “beaten down.” They are chasing mediocrity.

The now-defunct Bell Labs had a well funded department of researchers whose only job was to tinker; they were not required to demonstrate that they were earning their salaries. The department developed the transistor, the solar cell, the laser, and the first communications satellite, among many other innovations. Freed of objective metrics of success, the researchers were able to thrive.

The highly coveted MacArthur “genius” grants, officially the “MacArthur Fellowship” stipends, come with no strings attached and make no reporting obligations on the fellows, because, the foundation believes, the fellows “are in the best position to decide how to allocate their time and resources.” They don’t want to push their fellows toward mediocrity.

The catch is that I think there’s a place for mediocrity, because sometimes the alternative is ineptitude. Or to look at it differently, “mediocrity” is sometimes “competence.”

I’d rather have a mediocre airplane pilot than an inept one, for instance, so I’m glad the FAA requires (14 CFR 121) pilots to undergo “check rides” to demonstrate their continuing competence.

So we seem to have two approaches: an objective-assessment model that pushes people from ineptitude up to competence, but also pushes people down from excellence to mediocrity; and a more flexible model that allows people to excel but also to fail.

The trick, I suspect, is knowing when to apply each one.

Content, Connection, and Compassion: Three Steps to a Productive Religious School

January 5, 2012 1 comment

At a National Jewish Book Award ceremony not so long ago, an award recipient took the stage, smiled broadly, and told the audience that “it’s nice to get a prize.” Then she added, “the last time I got a prize was in Religious School…” — for what? — “…for being quiet.”

Yes, she was awarded a prize for simply being quiet, the bar in her school sadly having been set so low that by doing nothing she was already outperforming her peers. (Rabbi Larry Milder expresses a similar sentiment in his song about his experience teaching Religious School: There’s a Riot Going On in Classroom Number Nine.) Equally unfortunately, most of the audience at the award ceremony chuckled in solidarity, probably remembering their own not-so-different experiences in Religious School. Some of them may even have thought, “so you’re the goodie-goodie who got us all in trouble when we were pasting our yarmulkes to the wall.”

How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Many Religious Schools seem like case studies in institutional bipolar disorder: children must attend but nothing should be required of them; or everything should be required of them and there should be no consequences for not fulfilling the requirements; or the consequences should be so severe that everyone hates being there; or loving Religious School is so important that the school is turned into a playground where nothing is taught; and so forth.

Hidden in this list of institutionality-disorder symptoms are three of the elements that I believe are crucial to a productive Religious School: content, connection, and compassion.

I think we have an absolute obligation not to waste the time of the students who show up to Religious School. After all, they aren’t allowed to leave. If I go to a lecture and I’m bored, I can walk out. But we don’t give children at Religious School (or public school, for that matter) this prerogative, so I think we have to make sure that their time in class is well spent by giving them challenging and engaging content.

Having fun also seems like a good idea. And some people believe that the best way to have fun is to turn learning time into game time. But I disagree, because, fortunately, children naturally love learning. So I think that by providing a stimulating environment we will also create a place where children enjoy themselves. Schools that dumb down their curriculum to make the place more enticing have it backwards.

Having fun also contributes to my second element of Religious School: connection. If the only point of the school were to convey information, we could distribute textbooks, offer a yearly exam, and do away with the weekly gatherings. But Judaism is not merely a collection of facts to be learned. It is also a sense of connection — to our history, to each other, to the Jewish people, to Israel, and to the synagogue.

Thirdly, I think our school has to offer compassion to people — children and parents — whose lives are increasingly lacking that vital component. Too many parts of our lives are uncompromising and rigid, forcing us to adapt to them rather than letting us be ourselves. Our school can offer an island of relief against this troubling trend.

Taken in isolation, any of these three aspects — content, connection, and compassion — can lead us astray. If we focus only on content, our Religious School will lose its soul. Connection by itself won’t work, because we have to offer something to be connected to. And compassion alone threatens to make the school irrelevant to people who are already thriving.

But in combination, I think these three goals can help provide the foundation of a school worthy of the collective energy we all invest in it.

[Reposted from the Vassar Temple Blog, in turn reprinted from my article in the Vassar Temple January, 2012 bulletin.]

Why I Allow Cell Phones in my Classes

June 30, 2011 14 comments

In addition to my academic work and other writing, I teach children in the afternoon. And I let them use their cell phones during class.

Here’s why. (You may also want to start with a summary.)

Setting the Stage

Turning a cell phone off can be more distracting than keeping it on.It seems to me that the three questions to ask regarding any policy are:

1. What are the benefits?

2. What are the drawbacks?

3. Is the trade-off worth it?

Just to be clear, what I let my students do is use their phones for anything except actually talking: text messaging, Facebook, Internet, etc. are all allowed, because these activities, unlike talking, do not interfere with other students. And the phones have to be set to “silent.” (“Vibrate” doesn’t quite do it. On a metal desk, a vibrating phone can practically be heard throughout the building.)

Having discussed this issue with dozens of school principals and other educators, I know people have strong gut reactions to cell-phone use, and they often have misleading intuitions. So in addition to my own experiences, I’m including an extensive list of research-based resources that provide insight into the benefits and drawbacks of cell phones, and, more generally, technology and multitasking.


Many of the perceived drawbacks of cell phone use come from misunderstandings, so I think it makes sense to start there.

Read more…

Categories: education

Why I Allow Cell Phones in my Classes (Summary)

June 30, 2011 Leave a comment

This is a summary of a longer post about why I allow cell phones in my classes. That post contains extensive references to research, supporting information, and many more details. And that post, unlike this summary, also has comments enabled. So if you want to weigh in — and I hope you will! — that’s the place to do it.

My basic point is fourfold:

Most of the perceived drawbacks of cell phones are based on misunderstandings or partial understandings. Cell phones are not generally distracting for the children who use them — certainly adults tend to be more distracted by multitasking than children — and the phones may even make it easier for children to concentrate on class.

Second, letting children use their cell phones in class demonstrates an appreciation of who they are. They feel validated. They feel accepted. And this creates a better learning environment.

Third, cell phones augment the social experience of being in class. We don’t usually isolate children on purpose, but keeping them away from their phones is a kind of isolation.

Finally, cell phones are fun. Why wouldn’t we welcome this sort of enjoyment in class?

At any rate, I have more in the complete post, and I’d love feedback.

Categories: education

If your school were a country, which one would it be?

June 17, 2010 1 comment

Different countries work differently, both in theory and in practice. I think we can learn from these differences.

Just for example, the Russian approach to hostage situations assigns top priority to killing the hostage takers. This is why, in October of 2002, Russian forces pumped poison gas into a Russian theater that Chechen rebels had taken over. Even though the theater contained hundreds of innocent civilians, including some very prominent Russians, the decision was made — in keeping with Russian policy — to do everything to kill the offenders.

By contrast, the U.S. approach would have assigned higher priority to getting the civilians out alive.

Similarly, the center traffic lanes in Moscow were reserved for high-ranking political officials, while in the U.S., everyone has to yield to emergency vehicles: the well-being of American citizens is (supposed to be) more important than the luxury of the ruling class.

More generally, the United States is — at least in theory and, I think, largely in practice — devoted to democracy, openness, transparency, and human rights. (I know there are exceptions.) Other values seem to include self-sufficiency, individuality, and the right to become rich. And having an independent and critical media seems pretty important.

China, by contrast, places more emphasis on societal rights than on individual ones. Toward this end, China exerts more control than the U.S. does over what its population has access to. This is one reason that the Chinese government censors the Internet.

Iran goes even further, censoring almost everything in its attempt to control the population. Creativity is discouraged and conformity is rewarded.

For that matter, I know people from corruption-ridden countries who lament the bureaucracy in the U.S. “At least back home,” goes one complaint, “you can bribe someone if you’re in a hurry. Here you have no recourse.”

Most people I know laud the U.S. approach and criticize China and Iran for their lack of openness.

Yet I frequently encounter Hebrew Schools that contain elements of what seem to be Chinese or Iranian principles: The Internet is censored or otherwise restricted. Cell phones are banned. (I understand the cell-phone issue is more complicated.) The collective good in the form of quiet and order trumps individual students’ needs.

In many schools, classroom environments are designed for the comfort of the teacher instead of the well-being of the students, just as the Soviet Union offered convenience to politburo members at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Most schools discourage independent, critical observation, and have nothing that plays the role of the media.

So here’s my question: if your school were a country, which country would it be? And are you happy with the answer?

Categories: education

The Role of Transliteration in the Synagogue

December 9, 2009 3 comments

Hebrew TransliterationCongregations across America are struggling with the issue of transliterated prayerbooks, and of transliteration in general.

On one hand, many people feel that if transliteration is available, worshipers will have little or even no incentive to learn Hebrew.

On the other hand, if transliteration is not available, there’s a concern that people may (rightly) feel left out of worship and other activities.

“If it seems that transliteration makes people not want to learn Hebrew, the transliteration is exposing a flaw, not creating one.”

The dilemma is highlighted in services designed for children, because frequently those services are part of a Hebrew instruction program. If the transliteration is available — some think — it will undermine the Hebrew school.

In response, even congregations that use a prayerbook with transliteration often produce a special non-transliterated one for use in the school.

But I don’t think that hiding the transliteration is the solution.

Once people know that transliteration is available — anywhere, whether in their prayerbook, another prayerbook, or at another congregation — the cat is out of the bag. They know that you don’t need to learn the Hebrew alphabet in order to pray.

And I would go one step further: even if you do know the Hebrew alphabet, it’s all but impossible to know it well enough to keep up with prayers unless you’ve practiced them; and once you have practiced them enough, again you don’t need to know the alphabet.

So even without transliteration, it’s hard to make the claim that Hebrew is required for praying.

Furthermore, not all that many people love services enough that the goal of full participation will be enough to prod them to learn Hebrew. Faced with the option of learning Hebrew and praying versus not learning Hebrew and not praying, many people will choose what they see as the win-win solution of not studying and not going to services.

I think that similar concerns apply to bar/bat-mitzvah training. Children all know that they can (and often do) learn their Torah and Haftarah portions from a recording, so they know that they don’t need to learn that alphabet to become bar/bat mitzvah. They also know that even if they learn the alphbet, they still have to memorize their Torah portion, because there are no vowels in the Torah.

It seems to me that all of these observations point in the same direction: the purpose of learning Hebrew has to be more than the facilitation of certain activities. If the only reason to learn Hebrew is to pray, or to have a bar/bat mitzvah, or to chant Torah, I think that most people will either (a) find an easier way to achieve those goals; or (b) give up on them.

In short, if it seems that transliteration makes people not want to learn Hebrew, the transliteration is exposing a flaw, not creating one.

Why, then, should people learn Hebrew? And why do we insist that children learn it before bar/bat mitzvah?

The answer used to easy, because learning Hebrew was the same as becoming literate. Now, literacy in connected to (in North America) English; and purely in terms of practical literacy, I would put Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic ahead of Hebrew.

Though answers are harder to come by now, they are, if anything, more important. It seems to me that every educator, teacher, and lay-leader should have a clear answer to why Hebrew is important.

Here are some reasons I can think of:

  • Hebrew is part of our heritage, and learning it helps this generation form a connection to its past.

  • Hebrew is part of the eternality of the Jewish people, and this generation has an obligation not to break the chain. A time will come when the world will no longer speak English as a lingua franca, just as Greek and Latin have all but disappeared from daily life, and German and French are waning. But Hebrew, which predated those languages, is still around, and learning it is part of long-term literacy.

  • Hebrew forms a connection with Israel, and can be a stepping stone to a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

  • Hebrew is fun, particularly for children. Children like puzzles, and decoding Hebrew is a marvelous puzzle. (If Hebrew isn’t fun in your school — if the joy of decoding a puzzle and learning something new have been masked — I think that problem needs addressing right away.)

  • Study for its own sake is part of our heritage. Even if Hebrew had no other purpose at all, it would still be valuable simply because learning is valuable.

So I’m all for transliteration. It has an important role to play in creating inclusive environments.

And I’m also all for teaching more Hebrew, because it’s part of who we are.

Categories: education

For $12.17 you can have the best school in the country.

October 28, 2009 2 comments

TD Bank is the best bank in the country. Here’s why, including how I think we can use the information to build better religious schools.

About a year ago, while I was in the process of refinancing my home, I had a small line of credit from TD Bank; it, too, was secured against my home. I only needed the line of credit for a month or two until the paperwork was completed on the refinance, and I only used about $3,000 of the line.

After the first month I got a bill for $12.17 in interest, which I promptly paid online from my Citibank checking account. Unfortunately, Citibank didn’t process the transfer (I still don’t know why), but also didn’t tell me until the day I was about to leave the country, which was also the day the payment was due.

Knowing I would be paying off the loan in a month or two anyway, I had already (foolishly) thrown away the mortgage statement, so I didn’t know who to call about the loan. I didn’t even know my mortgage number. I started to panic. I had visions of a destroyed credit rating, foreclosure proceedings, and who knows what. Certainly I would be unable to refinance the house with a loan in default.

The only phone number I had was the TD Bank branch where I signed the papers.

So I called them. Could they accept payment by credit card? No. Could they take a check over the phone? No, not from Citibank. How about an electronic transfer of some sort? No, only between accounts at TD Bank. I explained the whole story and pleaded for help.

The woman at the other end of the phone gave me a solution. She would pay the $12.17 from her own account. Then, when I returned from traveling, I could stop by the branch and pay her back. Now, I didn’t have a TD Bank account. I was going to be paying off their loan. I lived 30 minutes away by car. And the women had never met me. But she gave me $12.17.

And the result is that I’m writing a blog entry about how good TD Bank is, and, when I can, I’m going to move my accounts there.

Here’s my question: how does your religious school measure up to TD Bank?

After all, wouldn’t it be truly awful if a bank gave an anonymous customer better service than schools give parents, teachers, and children in what is supposed to be a holy community?

More specifically:

1. Do you require dues to be paid in full before children can attend school, or do you let children attend and hope that parents will want to pay for a job well done? What about bar/bat mitzvah?

2. When parents say that their schedule doesn’t permit them to bring their child to a particular class/event/service, do you try to accommodate them or do you chastise them for not caring enough about Judaism?

3. When children say they don’t feel well, are you more likely to believe them or to assume that they’re trying to trick you?

4. Is it the school’s policy to pay teachers as much as possible, or to get away with paying them as little as possible?

5. Is your school an example of the best possible customer service?

Categories: education