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By Ellen Rank
We often hear, “It takes a village.” At a recent Long Island Educators Peer Network meeting, Faye Gilman of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills shared the fascinating story of her community coming together to imagine, design, create and implement a new way of learning and building Jewish identity. Faye described how a team of educators, parents, clergy and students have created Project 613, a new digital badging program that extends Jewish learning from the religious school into homes. Part of the process is to continually ask: “Where are our families? Where can we get them to?” Faye underscored that the congregation understands and values experimentation. To learn more about Project 613, visit: www.rtfh.org/Project613
Congratulations to The Reform Temple of Forest Hills for receiving a Covenant Foundation Signature Grant to continue developing and implementing Project 613.
You can learn more about the Project 613 Badge Categories below:
By Rabbi Phil Warmflash and Anna Marx/JNS.org
Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences.
The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also means making the necessary investments to further models that already have proved successful.
On the ground, these new models resonate with today’s learners and their families. Such educa-tional approaches build relationships between families, integrate technology, and move the learn-ing outside of classroom walls. This is big change we’re talking about, and big change takes part-nerships and collaboration across the Jewish community—partnerships with synagogue profes-sionals and lay leaders, educational agencies, funders, and most importantly, parents.
Nancy Parkes, director of congregational learning at the Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., recently offered important recommendations to advance the congregational educational experience. We would like to call attention to two of her suggestions: “stop the negative narra-tive” and “be our partners.” Opting for part-time “supplementary” Jewish education has been a very good choice—indeed, the right choice—for thousands of families. But it’s time to tell a new story. One of experience, of possibility, of real impact. It’s time to work together.
Five Jewish education agencies from around the country—including New York, Cleveland, Hou-ston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco—are engaged in these important efforts through “Shinui: the Network for Innovation in Part-Time Education,” created with the support of the Covenant Foundation. The stories coming out of our communities are inspiring real change that other com-munities can model and adapt.
One example of an innovative model is the Rimon Initiative at Philadelphia’s Temple Shol-om, whose premise is to offer students project-based chugim (electives). One parent comments, “My son retains so much more because teachers now focus on a few core areas for a longer peri-od of time. And the fact that he can choose a chug makes for a more personal experience and gives him a chance to explore a subject that he wants to.”
In San Francisco, Shalom Explorers is a vehicle for families to form neighborhood learning groups and customize individual lesson plans. Now in its second year, the initiative has expanded to multiple sites in the Bay Area. An Explorer parent says, “Shalom Explorers provides parents with an amazing toolkit of resources to bring great lesson plans to life. We were able to select the activities and content that worked for our group of families, and the children were able to learn in fun and exciting ways—through drama, art projects, outdoor activities, and more.”
These stories show that part-time Jewish education presents one of the greatest opportunities to engage, inspire, and connect with families. No longer are students learning prayers and stories simply to “check them off the list.” Instead, educators across the country are wrestling with how the learning experiences they offer can best support children and their families, and make a true difference in their lives. In those precious few hours of part-time programs, teachers are parents’ partners in raising children to become mensches.
With this understanding, more and more congregations around the country are trying new models to invigorate the educational experiences they offer. The Jewish community still must do more to help this change happen in a serious, sustainable manner. Fortunately, many are answering this call, and important changes are happening in Jewish education: learning experiences that involve the entire family, deepen connections to Israel, teach Hebrew in more meaningful and relevant ways, and bring the summer camp experience into our schools.
We see these changes in the Shinui-affiliated communities, and we invite others to be a part of this change—to help build today’s narrative of part-time Jewish education. Together, we can cre-ate and sustain major changes across the country.
By Abby Knopp
I admit it. I have missed camp these past few months since moving from the Foundation for Jewish Camp to serve as Chief Operating Officer at The Jewish Education Project. In fact, it has caused me no small amount of angst as I have come to understand how the ground beneath me has shifted. Merely mentioning what I do for a living no longer elicits knowing smiles accompanied by comments like, “Oh, you have my dream job,” or “I loved camp – what a great way to bring more children to Jewish life.” Now the conversation is much more complicated. Because now I am representing parts of the Jewish educational sector that, though widely viewed as critical to our future, very often engender skepticism. Is the high cost of day school really correspondent to its value? Is it actually possible to provide engaging and inspiring learning in a synagogue setting?
This past week I crossed an important threshold into understanding what is possible in synagogue settings.
That’s because last week I was privileged to sit among a group of parents of elementary age children and listen as they spoke with profound gratitude about their new found love of Judaism and about the strong Jewish community they are building, together with other families and within their synagogue, Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. As participants of MASA, a congregational education model that revolves around the family as the learning unit, these parents agreed to be part of a focus group and to share their experiences. I hadn’t expected to be moved to tears but I was.
There were parents in the room from a variety of Jewish backgrounds. One gentleman acknowledged that he had been raised in a home that distanced itself from Judaism even though he was sent to Hebrew school. He has chosen to become part of MASA so that he and his son can experience Jewish growth together and so that his son can be exposed early to Judaism. Another parent, the mother of an 11-year old girl, talked about the fact that – for her – the time of day when MASA meets (3 – 5:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoons) connects her more closely to the change of seasons and, by extension, to the Jewish calendar. During the winter months, she and her daughter leave for home in darkness and bundled up in hats and scarves. With each passing week, it is just a little bit lighter when they walk out of the synagogue doors and, by the end of May, she said, they’ll join friends for ice cream and look forward to several more hours of daylight.
People often refer to camp as a place where “magic” happens. How true that is. And last week, I was reminded about the many other places where Jewish magic can happen, too. For this group of parents, at least, their synagogue-based communal experience brings together a “magical mix” (their terminology) of Jewish learning, friendship, family, and community. In their own words, they feel “enveloped by Judaism” for the first time in their lives.
And all of this is happening, not at a lake, but on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Sarah Lipsey Brokman is an inspiring educator from Park Avenue Synagogue who actively participates in Titchadesh, a Coalition of Innovating Congregations Peer Network made up of Jewish educators who support innovative advancements in congregational learning. With the support of their peers, the Titchadesh network empowers young, dynamic professionals to experiment with fresh ideas and bring their visions to life. All of the educators in the Titchadesh network are full time educators in congregations. This new staffing structure enables congregations to adapt new models of education – like fully engaging parents as well as children. Our network congregations now have a better capacity to launch programs that fulfill the hopes and dreams of their communities.
As the facilitator of Titchadesh, I have the pleasure of engaging regularly with these young leaders. Through our protocols and shared conversations, I witness the incredible work taking place at our participating sites. To widely share their successes, I recently asked participants to share their stories by submitting a blog post to InnovatingCongregations.org, and I am so thrilled that Sarah heeded this call.
You will enjoy “meeting” Sarah in this post and you’ll gain a glimpse into the amazing model she and her colleagues have built. Here is her powerful story.
– Suri Jacknis, Associate Director of The Coalition of Innovating Congregations
As a kid, I was lucky enough to grow up in a vibrant Jewish community. I loved being in shul and spent many hours of my childhood feeling loved by my shul community. One winter Shabbat, when I was nine years old, both of my parents went home separately after kiddush, thinking that the other parent had taken me home. They arrived home twenty minutes later to realize that they had left me at synagogue. My dad drove back in a panic, sure that I would be sitting outside of the building terrified that I had been left alone. When he arrived, he couldn’t find me because I was inside playing hide and seek with all of my friends. Since I was so comfortable at my shul, I hadn’t even noticed that my parents had left. In the event that I had noticed my parents weren’t in the building anymore, there were a dozen other adults I could have gone to for help. Being connected to this type of synagogue community is why I decided to become a Jewish educator.
Four years ago I began working at Park Avenue Synagogue (PAS) as one of the Assistant Directors in the Congregational School. I walked into an environment of creative innovation and change at PAS, where the leadership challenged me to dream as big as possible. I began to reflect on why I became a Jewish educator and I knew I needed to find a way to create that feeling of “home” for the families of PAS that I had for my home shul. I envisioned a group of families with children in third and fourth grades who were looking for a deeper connection to both the PAS synagogue community and their own individual Jewish identities. The goal would be to bring these families together to share their values, feelings and thoughts about raising Jewish families. I decided to call this group, The Covenanting Group because, I wanted people to know that they were joining a group which honored their brit, their covenant, to their Jewish identities and to the PAS community. I spent the summer reaching out to families and advertising to the whole community. By September, twelve families signed up. Since I had already decided that I would have run the program with five families, this was a huge success!
The first Covenanting Group event took place in the sanctuary with Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove. As Rabbi Cosgrove and I welcomed the group, a shiver of electricity ran through me. The idea had come to fruition. Rabbi Cosgrove asked each family to spread out in the sanctuary and discuss their goals for the year in The Covenanting Group. The families all expressed one common value: community. The group’s purpose became clear. We spent the year learning together and creating a community within our already vibrant PAS community.
As we began to plan for a second cohort of The Covenanting Group, I reflected back on the pilot group’s experience. I realized that we needed to increase the time spent doing Jewish learning – so we partnered with ShalomLearning and made once-a-month online learning part of The Covenanting Group experience. The communal programming was centered on Shabbat and holidays, a decision which helped our group connect to the Jewish calendar in a more meaningful way. The biggest learning from that first year was the recognition that the group needed an immersive experience to culminate the year.
This capstone experience was a retreat that occurred in April filled with learning, food and fun. The adults were able to schmooze, while the kids played and intensified their already strong friendships. During one activity, the families created a “values map” using strips of paper with 15 different Jewish values, which each family ordered according to the importance in their family’s life. These conversations were by no means easy, but the buzz of immersive family learning was one I had never experienced before. After the families finished working with their own values maps, each family shared their map with another family. I watched as a major goal of The Covenanting Group came to life: families sharing their Jewish values with one another. Since we grappled with big questions of Jewish identity, values and meaning, the families were now able share their answers with each other, in hopes of inspiring more meaningful Jewish engagement as a community.
As I work with the 21 families in the third cohort of The Covenanting Group, I remember being a 9 year old child playing in shul. Creating a space within the synagogue community to play, learn and connect is a necessary component of Jewish life. As we look to find ways to keep Jews involved in synagogue and communal life, these connections are at the core. Helping people connect to one another on a deep Jewish level is the most rewarding and important thing I have done thus far in my career. This group is a vehicle for connection, a way for families to find “home” at PAS.
I am fascinated by the intersection of technology and spirituality and, at the same time, feel as though I am in my infancy exploring the space that these ideas occupy. I’m struck by the ways in which so many people work to articulate an intersection of or co-existence of technology and spirituality, and that conversation is what swept me up for my ELI Talk.
For instance, I love the story Martin Buber shares in which “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” It’s a well known and, some would say, a well worn vignette. Nevertheless, it has implications for our relationship with technology.
Kevin Kelly, author of the book What Technology Wants, explains that technology has a responsibility to increase the opportunity for individuals to live a life in which each person is fully herself. As I ask in the talk, what would Annie Leibovitz be without her camera or John Coltrane without his saxophone? When we best interact with technology, technology supports each of us in living our potential. Like Zusya, we will each face the similar question and will each need to answer. Technology provides ever more ways in which we can come closer to answering, “I lived truly as myself.”
I also struggle to make sense of the places where I see spirituality and technology so clearly connected. In the talk, I note patterns of connectedness of both our electronic world and the Jewish mystical map of interconnectedness. Still, it doesn’t stop there. As many of you know, light is understood as both particle and wave. Strangely though, when light is measured as a wave, it behaves like a wave, but when measured as a particle it behaves differently – it behaves as a particle. Our serving as witness to light changes the behavior of the physical world.
Jewish mystical tradition also understands that like when measuring light, when we bear witness, we impact the outcome of life and living. Witnesses change the destiny of relationships when they affix names to a ketubah and impact divinity when bearing witness during Shema. When we serve as witness, we move from passive observer, simply reciting the words or watching a wedding, to active witness, changing the way the universe operates.
Our service as witness in the world asks us to hold both wave and particle or technology and spirituality when we observe. For, there are items in our world that are both spiritual and technological at the same time, just waiting for us to discover both – waiting for us to identify the technological or spiritual or, for the matter, the relational or political. The art of Van Gogh or the prose of Maya Angelou call us to see the artist’s craft and the magic of the art. A sailboat on a gently windswept lake or a child’s reflection in the myriad windows of a beautifully designed building ask us to see the majesty of the boat or building and of the beauty of creation in the same moment.
And perhaps this is where I am now – looking for ways into the conversation that are inherently one, yet can be seen differently depending on what I’m looking at. I hope that in the looking I am asked to step out of my head and into my heart at least some of the time.
I don’t aim to be Polyanna and while, in my ELI Talk I name three potentially positive ways to seek connection between technology and spirituality, I don’t believe technology is all cake and roses for spirituality. I absolutely and strongly advocate that we need to make sure we are present in our intersection with technology and that technology used well can allow each of us to fulfill our spiritual potential in our lives. Now, I’m also struck by those moments in which wonder and mystery and pausing to witness allow us to experience the wholeness of the world and step back with a different understanding of technology and spirituality.
Originally posted at sinaiandsynapses.org
By Cyd Weissman
Mark and Ilene’s suburban home is a hearth reflecting their heart and values. A big kitchen flows into a living area with a fireplace and dining table that seats sixteen and announces, “We’re really glad you’re here.”
Last night, Ilene and Mark hosted potluck dinner for us and eight couples. Common among the couples enjoying soy-gluten-meat-dairy-free food (allergic reactions avoided) were a lot of hyphenated last names. These friendships that have flourished over twenty years. We also share belonging (belonged – ok we’re the exception) to the same synagogue since our children were tots.
Over the past two decades, we’ve witnessed our collective 22 children grow to be adults, some now have their own children. I know the 22 well. Each of them, I report, without hesitation, are menches.
Speaking for myself, and then brazenly for the others at the dinner table – we joined the synagogue for our children to get a Jewish education. We didn’t know at the time, that memberships would lead to friendships with people who would be there for one another in sickness and death, for crises, like 9/11, and for personal traumas, like scary diagnoses. We knew the memberships gave us a place to sit for the High Holidays, but we didn’t know it would include a circle of friends who would dance at simchas and celebrate with songs and flowers.
Back in the 1990’s, optimism and delusion led us to believe, with the right guidance book in hand, and our own cleverness, we could conquer all we would face as parents. We didn’t realize how necessary it is to have adults actively in ours children’s lives to model values of striving and caring lives. Those 22 kids grew to be mensches, in some measure, because of the loving hand and ear these dinner guests give, to one another’s children.
The synagogue, like Ilene and Mark’s home, made space and time for us to really get to know each other and celebrate together. We engaged in learning that bound us with a shared language. Torah helped us express and develop our values in word and deed. We loaded buses to march on Washington, packed food baskets and raised funds for those in need.
The synagogue was like a hearth reflecting a heart – values, enabling surviving and thriving as parents and citizens of the world. In short, when we raised a glass of wine last night, we were toasting a group that has lifted up each other’s families in the good and from the crud. We were toasting people who had encouraged and inspired one another to live more intentionally.
Last night, someone said to me, “Our children’s lives are so different than ours. What will synagogues look like for them?” I’m sorry to say, even though I face that question every day as a professional, I don’t have the answer.
What we know is, our adult children live in a challenging, and possibly more challenging world than we ever could have imagined. All the technology in the universe won’t be enough to help them conquer what’s ahead for them personally or what’s churning on the globe.
One wish, we all hold for the 22 is that they will grow to have a long table of friends to lift them up and navigate our crazy-ass world so they can leave it a little better and they can find wisdom, comfort and laughter. Our wish is for them to inherit their Jewish story, to enrich them, and the world.
What’s the chance? What will it take?
By Cyd Weissman
I’m busy writing mid-year reports for funders – never a fun activity. Yet, I’ve learned forced reflection is a helpful thing. We are so busy doing our work, we don’t always stop and ask:
What did we accomplish? What did we learn? What’s next-adjust?
1. More engaged with less resource.
Since July, the number of educational leaders engaged in the Coalition of Innovating Congregations has doubled-now 100 congregations are actively engaged in their questions around “How do we imagine Jewish leaning that matters in people’s lives?” The Coalition in NY participates in the following programs:
a. Peer Networks: meeting at least six times a year to address self-identified innovation questions
Thank you Suri Jacknis for your leadership
b. I*Express: launching educational pilots within 12 months by adapting new models of education created by educational pioneers
Thank you Rabbi Jen Goldsmith for your leadership
c. Private consulting for innovation needs; webinars; Innovation Boot Camp and In-SITE-ful Journeys (visits to innovation sites)
Thank you Rabbi Michael Mellen, Ellen Rank, Jessica Rothbart, and Susan Ticker for your leadership
This year, we have less staff and funding to support the tough task of re-imagining education. We’ve learned: leaders are propelled by their own needs to make change and benefit from small groups for emotional support and problem solving. Peer networks benefit from facilitation by well trained staff.
What we don’t know: With more self-directed innovation work, less financial and outside professional support, and with increased peer support, at what rate/to what degree will changes in the educational system occur?
2. Harnessing the internet to strengthen impact
Duh: No congregation can do this innovation work alone. The wisdom of each program needs to be shared. So we’ve started documenting the powerful stories of places that have truly re-imagined education. We are working with 12 congregations to capture their stories. What we don’t know is how best to tell the story on line so people are inspired to learn more and to act. We do know people want “little bites,” meaning easy access and quick to implement.
The innovation stories will be accompanied by demonstration of “learner impact and value.” We’ve started parent focus groups to hear: What do parents hope for? What impact do parents see in their children from the innovative learning? By spring, we’ll hear more than 100 parents’ stories.
In the spring we’ll do more testing of documentation work online. Does it spark and spread innovation? How can we do it effectively? Thank you Micheal Mellen, Leah Kopperman, Faigy Gilder, Anna Marx from Shinui, and Catherine Schwartz from NYU for your leadership.
3. Jewish learning Opportunities in non-congregational settings
With a generous grant from the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life we entered a new arena: non-congregational settings. Jewish learning is not just for synagogue members. The educational landscape is changing right under our feet. One size of education fits no one.
This grant enabled us to work with a JCC; a cultural center, a Chabad center, a synagogue offering non membership education, and a parent run co-op for children who attend Hebrew Charter Schools. In a charter school, children learn Hebrew and Israeli culture and history, but cannot engage in religious education because of church state separation. These programs therefore offer the “Judaism” component to kids who speak Hebrew and are connected to Israel.
Each of these sites has engaged parents in “hopes and dreams” conversations. The innovation work is not beginning with “what do we as leaders want for students,” but beginning with the energy and desires of parents. Parents engagement from day one, we believe will bring about greater imagination and impact. This assumption will be tested as we move forward. We are seeing there is great opportunity in these alternative settings. For example, the JCC and cultural centers are prime for experiential-hands on learning. Thank you Rabbi Dena Klein and Tamara Gropper for leading this work.
We’ve done a lot of work. We set up new systems and processes and taken on new challenges. This hard and inspiring work is possible because of a remarkable team that “jumps in and figure it out.” I appreciate the leadership of The Jewish Education Project for creating a place that always asks: What might we?
What did we learn?
The story of Jewish Education is unfolding. May we be blessed to slow down and reflect in June 2015 and write to our funders:
What we accomplished, what we learned, what’s next.
This week many of our consultants were given the chance to read verses from Shabbat on Chanukah and create their own modern midrash, giving voice to either a person or object whose point of view we do not otherwise hear. See some of our creations below and add your own!
From the point of view of the Lamp: The Greeks knocked us over and broke so many things in the Great Hall of the Temple. They left me on the ground, thinking me dead and useless. When Judah Maccabee entered, I was lovingly sat upright and the small cruse of oil was placed in my oil holder. Brighter, brighter – hope it lasts.
From the point of view of the Calendar: On the 25th day of Kislev commence the days of Hanukkah. The calendar asks: Why am I mentioned first? The Torah responds, because just as the calendar was the first commandment God gave the Israelites when they left Egypt, so, too, the rabbis start with the calendar as the first command.
Where did they find the oil? For the Greeks found all the other oil. This cruse of oil was hidden among the Greek statues, for no one would think to look there. A soldier among the Greeks had seen one priest with the oil and taking it for his own had hidden it and was then reassigned. The miracle was in the hiding, in the finding and in the light.
From the point of view of Hallel: Halleluyah! Sing out praises to God for the miracle of Chanukah—for the Hassidim who stood up for Jewish culture and tradition in the face of assimilation. Praise God! For all the individual acts of courage of women and men who dared to be different. May their spirit of courage keep the flame of those who support diversity in our day alive. Amen! Selah.
From the point of view of the High Priest: When I looked at the devastation surrounding me in the Bet HaMikdash I wondered- how can I fail forward? How can we memorialize all the death and destruction to make this moment feel triumphant for posterity? We can light the menorah. the light will bring inspiration and help take away the darkness and bad memories. We can institute the saying of Hallel in gratitude to the Almighty and our brave fighters. Lastly, we need to record and memorialize our triumphs- like The Battle of Emmaus, in which our few men used guerilla warfare to triumph over the mighty Syrian Greek army. (That Battle is still studied at West Point as a perfect example of guerilla warfare!!)
From the point of view of the lamp:
“Hey…it is so dark in here. Oh wait…I think I am about to be lit…”
“…really? That is all you have? This isn’t going to last the night!”
“Hey you…over there…did you get any oil?”
“Wait…so it is all my problem? I have to light up this whole place? We better get use to the dark…”
What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
Activity: Take a minute to read through the text. Then create, a short (2-5) sentence modern midrash from the point of view of someone or something unexpected in the text. (For example: the point of view of the oil.)
By Fred Claar
There are many things to teach about Judaism. Most common are history, holidays, Israel, Holocaust, Hebrew decoding, and prayer. All being taught is good, but none of them are rational reasons to value Judaism.
If Jewish students reaching Bat/Bar Mitzvah could articulate what makes Judaism special and unique, Judaism might become a much more highly valued part of their identity.
The question today’s Jewish students ask is not “How to be Jewish” and not “How to create a Jewish identity”. Rather, they ask, “Why be Jewish” or “Why take being Jewish seriously”. These last two questions often have not been answered.
Most non-orthodox Jews today have a Jewish home experience limited to only several days of involvement per year. That is another vitally important topic in Jewish education. Bringing Judaism into non-orthodox homes is essential to properly educate Jewish students. That important topic is beyond these short remarks, and it is a much more formidable challenge than what I am highlighting here.
No Jewish student should be allowed to graduate from school until they can articulate several unique aspects of Judaism that are special and rational to all of mankind. Below are several of many to make my point and to be food for thought within the entire Jewish teaching community.
We struggle with God. Abraham and Moses argued with God. Jacob wrestled with God. Israel = struggle with God. Some religions require surrender or faith. There can be satisfaction in growth through struggle.
We elevate critics into our scripture. Our prophets severely criticize Jews for not being good enough. We are the only religion to include critics in our Bible.
We are a people and a religion. All Jews are connected. We speak out for others. Some religions are silent on destruction of coreligionists or easily kill other coreligionists. Religion alone could be private, but Judaism is a connected peoplehood.
Our view of human nature. We are born neutral, neither good nor bad. There is a tug of war between our Yatzer Tov (good impulses) & Yatzer Hara (bad impulses). It is normal to have bad thoughts. It is our actions, not our thoughts, which are most important to Judaism.
The five concepts, plus others, very briefly outlined above do not suffice as Jewish education. They are important steps in answering questions about the value of Judaism to any individual, whether Jewish or not.