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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?

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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

Tripping Over Words

July 31, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

One of my favorite activities is meeting with pre-bar/bat mitzvah students to talk about their Torah and Haftarah readings.

I recently asked a student, Jennifer, about Parashat Korah, and, in particular, about the sequence of events that involves Korah and Moses. I explained that in her Torah portion, Korah, a prominent Israelite wandering in the desert under God’s leadership through Moses, was unhappy with how Moses was handling things. But rather than try to work things out, Korah instigated revolution. Numbers 16:3 reports that Korah publicly chastised Moses, and then one verse later, that Moses “fell upon his face.” I asked Jennifer if she knew what “fell upon his face” means.

I didn’t expect her to know. How could she? It’s a biblical expression that we don’t have in English, and, in fact, as a translator I wouldn’t even use that odd phrase in English.

But Jennifer surprised me and answered the question with remarkable and unusual insight. She told me she thought that Moses tripped over Korah’s words.

Wow.

In that one answer, the student brilliantly understood what is widely regarded to be the point of the story, and she based it firmly in the larger context of Judaism.

Our words have power. Judaism is clear on that. This Yom Kippur — as we do every year — we will read from Deuteronomy about the power of words. God puts before all of us blessing and curse, commanding that we choose blessing over curse. The point there is not “cursing out” (though that’s probably a bad idea, too), but rather actual curses: saying something bad to make something bad happen. Contrarily, blessings are when you say something good to make something good happen. On our holiest day of the year we remind the congregation that we all have the power to bless and to curse, and that we are commanded to choose blessing.

Of course, the connected notions that our words have power and that we have to choose wisely are not confined to Jewish thought. We find the same sentiments in aphorisms — “The pen is mightier than the sword,” after all, and “if you have nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all.” — and in laws against slander.

We actually have two Torah readings on Yom Kippur. The first, as we just saw, deals with the power of words. The second, generally called the holiness code, comes from Leviticus 19. It’s a detailed description of what to do and what not to do in order to be holy.

Some of the ordinances seem to be particularly innovative and forward looking, as in Leviticus 19:15, which warns against judicial favoritism based on economic position. That’s something we’re still grappling with thousands of years later.

By contrast, Leviticus 19:14, just one verse earlier, seems to prohibit something so cruel that, one would hope, we wouldn’t need a warning not to do it: “Don’t place an obstacle before the blind.” Is that something people were doing? Is that, like favoritism, something we have to worry about?

Yes, says my student, because the obstacle can be our unseen words. When Korah spoke out publicly against Moses, he put an obstacle before him. And because even Moses couldn’t see spoken words, Moses was like a blind man, and he tripped.

Korah’s unkind actions had a short-term and long-term impact, and neither of them was good. First, 250 people died. Then 14,700 more. All because of Korah’s words.

When children think of power, physicality most naturally comes to mind. One of my projects for the upcoming year is to make it clearer that words — of education, praise, consolation, and support, but also of misdirection, condemnation, antagonism, and back-stabbing — all have power. When we open our mouths, we change the world.

I’m going to take my cue from Jennifer who insightfully connected both Yom Kippur readings. There’s the easy part: we shouldn’t make the blind stumble. And there’s the harder part: if we’re not careful, our words can be the instruments of damage. And there’s the lesson from Leviticus: when we fail, the whole community suffers.

I hope you’ll join me in looking forward to a year free of verbal stumbling blocks.

Categories: Bible, education

Summer is for Planning

May 30, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

excerptAccording to Proverbs, summer is a time for preparation: “Who gathers food by summer is wise,” we learn in Proverbs 10:5. Later on in 30:25 we read that, “Ants are not strong, but they prepare their food by summer.”

Although summer is usually counted as the second season, it has a certain feel of finality to it. We’ve made it through another year. The winter has passed. The days are getting longer. The laziness of summer sunshine, barbecues, and summer camps awaits.

For educators in particular, summer is very different than the other three seasons. Because class is not in session, it really is a time to plan. And the first stage of planning is reflection. How was the year? What went well? What worked? What needs improvement? What might need to be completely reworked? And how do we know?

So here are some of my reflections on what we’ve done this year, and some hints of what to expect in the fall.

This year we implemented weekly musical worship services on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Each week, grades 3 and higher met together in the sanctuary for worship, and the younger kids had their own weekly worship program. To judge from the enthusiasm I saw in the sanctuary and the smiling faces on the students, to say nothing of the positive reports I’ve received from parents, services are going very well. The students are learning the prayers, learning how to pray, and even sometimes praying. And I personally look forward each week to hearing over 100 children sing the Shema together.

We expanded the “Hebrew Center,” a forum for one-on-one or small-group instruction. I challenged the Hebrew-Center teachers to create an environment where every student would thrive, and they rose to the occasion. A good classroom teacher usually reaches around 80% of a class. The Hebrew Center is for the other 20%. We require weekly Religious-School attendance of every student, so I think we have an absolute obligation to make sure that each week is worth attending. The Hebrew-Center is one way we do that. (In spite of its name, it’s not just for Hebrew.) It’s important to me to keep in mind the words of my teacher and friend, Rabbi Manny Gold: “No one fails Judaism.” The Hebrew Center of part of making sure that Judaism doesn’t fail any student at Temple Israel.

In addition, the year was marked by numerous special programs, including field trips, holiday celebrations (most teachers offered a model Seder of some sort), guest presenters, art projects, the creation of a music video in Hebrew (it’s on the school website), nature walks, and much more.

We even augmented the food we serve midweek, offering vegetables and chicken in addition to pizza.

Most of the students seem to like being in school. More than once, we had to remind students that their ride home was waiting, and that they had to leave, because frequently they didn’t want to. They were enjoying one last moment of class, or laughing with friends in the entrance, or talking to me or one of their teachers. It’s hard to learn when you’re not having fun, and, I think, the level of joy here is rising.

So what will I work on over the summer?

We have a new cantor coming, which means we’ll be planning a new music program, and better integrating Religious-School services into the broader worship life of the Temple.

Our curriculum needs work, and summer is the time for that.

Grades 7-10 are crucial ages in personal religious development, so I’ll pay particular attention to re-evaluating the programs we offer to those ages. Look for exciting changes soon.

I’m also looking forward to my own learning. My background in linguistics means that I know a lot about teaching Hebrew. And my own teaching experience has given me significant insight into working with older kids. I know less about young children. Fortunately, other people on our staff are strong in that area, and I hope to spend some time with them, learning from their experience and expertise.

“Im ein torah, ein kemach” the Mishnah teaches. If we have no learning, we have no food. This summer I hope you’ll join me in heeding the words of Proverbs and the words of the Mishnah, gathering not just food but also learning.

Categories: education

There’s no SAT in Judaism

March 18, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

I saw a 7th grader studying for a test on the clouds. She had made herself a chart with the various kinds of clouds — cirrus, cumulonimbus, etc. — on the left side of a piece of paper, and qualities such as “appearance,” “size,” “height,” and “rain potential” across the top. She had almost finished filling out her chart when I saw her.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Studying for a test tomorrow,” she answered.

“On what?”

“On the clouds.”

“Are you ready? Are you going to pass?”

“Yeah!” she said with more than a little attitude, as though the answer were obvious. Of course she was ready. She was an A student and she was going to get an A on the cloud test. She had mastered the material and she knew all about the clouds.

I looked out the window, pointed, and asked her a question: “What kind of clouds are those?”

“How should I know!?” she replied.

Oops.

The student thought she had learned all about the clouds. I’m sure she passed the test the next day, so her teacher thought she had learned all about the clouds. Eventually, her parents will think their daughter learned all about the clouds. And the school principal will look at the average test score in the class and conclude that the school is doing a pretty good job teaching about the clouds.

The only problem is that even this A-student didn’t really learn anything about the clouds. She had learned to pass a test on the clouds, but she skipped over the part of actually learning about the clouds themselves.

And that’s the problem with tests. While they can (sometimes) measure what people know, they’re only effective when students don’t study for them. Used incorrectly, though, tests can actually sabotage learning.

Vocabulary tests demonstrate the point.

Make a list of 500 random English words, ask students which ones they know, and you can get a pretty good sense of how many words in total the test-takers know. (The average American high-school student knows about 80,000.) But the system only works if the words are random and if the students don’t study the list ahead of time. It’s the random nature of the list and the proviso that the students don’t study for the test that make the test a good guide to the vocabulary level of the students.

The vocabulary section of the SAT — built around a representative list of English words — is supposed to work this way. But it doesn’t, because the list of test words was made available, so most students study the list instead of expanding their vocabulary, wrongly thinking that there is something magical about the particular words that happen to appear on the test. As students study the list of SAT words, they skew the results of the SAT, and, worse, misunderstand the very nature of their education.

And even worse than that, teachers start thinking that the SAT words are the important words, and they teach for the test, taking up class time and homework time with what is essentially the useless study of random words. The whole process deprives the students of the very education that the SAT is supposed to measure.

We don’t want this to happen in Religious School. We don’t want students to confuse knowledge with how we measure knowledge, and we don’t want them to confuse accomplishment with how we measure accomplishment. Nor do we want their parents or their teachers mixing these things up.

But in synagogues across the country, people have started to think of bar/bat mitzvah as the test toward which the school should be teaching. Of course it’s not, but the more perception becomes reality — the more students and parents and teachers demand that Religious School serve only as preparation for bat/bat mitzvah — the less the school will be able to teach about Hebrew and Judaism.

If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with a bunch of students who can do marvelously at their b’nei mitzvah, but — like the girl who passed a test on clouds without knowing anything about them — the b’nei mitzvah students won’t have accomplished anything of value on their Jewish path of learning.

The bar/bat mitzvah is not the SAT of Judaism. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

Categories: education

Do Not Oppress The Stranger

March 2, 2009 Leave a comment

By Joel M. Hoffman

“Do not oppress the stranger,” the Bible warns us over and over again, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The saga of the Jewish people is to know what it’s like not to fit in, which is why this notion of welcoming the stranger defines Judaism as much as any other central precept.

The English word “stranger” offers us additional insight into what the Bible is talking about, because our word is nicely ambiguous. A “stranger” is someone from another place, but, equally, “stranger” is “more than just strange.” And of course that’s why being from another place is so hard. When you go somewhere new, you think everyone else is strange, and they all think you are. Visitors wonder at our customs just as we wonder at theirs.

So we learn not only that we shouldn’t oppress the stranger, but equally that we shouldn’t oppress people who are strange.

It’s important, for being from a foreign place is only one way of being strange. There are many others. In fact, Scott Dunn teaches that anyone who lives honestly in the world is perceived as a little bit strange. People wear odd clothes, walk crooked, have funny body shapes, listen to bizarre music, say strange things, have silly habits, and on and on. Are we careful not to oppress them?

I know a student with what she calls — having been told to call it so by her doctor — ADD. I understand the ‘A.’ It stands for “attention.” I even understand the first ‘D,’ which stands for “deficit.” She has an attention deficit, which is a not-so-polite way of saying she has trouble paying attention to one thing at a time. A nicer way to explain her situation would be that she can focus on more than one thing at a time, a skill that helps her notice connections that others often miss, and a quality that makes her a consistently interesting interlocutor.

As bad as the first ‘D’ is, though, it’s the second that really troubles me. It stands for “disorder.” What happened to “do not oppress”? When we classify people’s thinking — their natural way of being in the world — as a “disorder,” haven’t we pretty much destroyed any hope of welcoming them?

To be sure, some behaviors and conditions are more conducive to happiness and success than others. Just as I wear eye glasses so I can see better, attention deficit should be dealt with (if possible) when it stands in the way of a person’s goals. By the same reasoning, life-threatening obesity should be managed. And obsessive-compulsive behavior — normally called obsessive-compulsive disorder, once again making it hard to welcome those with the condition — can be a curious quirk or a debilitating disease, and in the latter case treatment seems like a good idea.

But whatever the nature of the oddity, Judaism expressly forbids negative name calling. We are all strange in our own way, and words like “disorder” have no place in our holy community. We can recognize our differences — and even note that some differences are advantageous or disadvantageous — without stacking people up in a hierarchy of normalcy.

This message is a cornerstone of our school. “No one fails Judaism,” Rabbi Manny Gold teaches, “but if we’re not careful, Judaism can fail them.” Part of my job as Director of Education is to make sure that our school welcomes whoever walks through our doors, even though some students will seem strange. After all, we’re all strange. Some of us just hide it better than others.

Purim arrives this month. It’s a holiday that freely mixes silly masquerading with serious messages. It’s also a time when we all practice being strange and, if we’re really doing things right, practice welcoming those who are strange.

“Do not oppress the stranger,” we are taught. This year, let’s use our Purim partying and seemingly frivolous merrymaking as a mental reminder not to oppress the stranger, the strangest, or even the merely strange.

Categories: education, spirituality