When First Base is as Good as a Home Run

August 20, 2014

Joel Lurie Grishaver

engageIt all started with the word “engagement.” As soon as it was on the table—we began adopting a policy that less can be much more. Engagement as a behavior is little more than eye contact.

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The History of American Hebrew Teaching—How We Got Here

April 7, 2014

Joel Lurie Grishaver

Shandeh School and Talmud Torah

history of HebrewFrom the mid-twenties forward, there were three kinds of Jewish education for most American Jews. Two were dominant and most were somewhere in between. There was the Sunday School (immato et xians) started by Rebecca Graetz. There was the Talmud Torah, a three day a week after school and Sunday community school, championed by Samson S. Benderly. And there were increasing compromises between the two made because of suburban needs. Remember the suburbs always win.

Over simply, Reform kids went once a week, and got “religion” in what Benderly called the “Shandeh” School. Conservative kids went three to five times a week and graduated after Bar and the occasional Bat Mitzvah into Hebrew High Schools. The Talmud Torah schools (the communal ones) also had a network of community camps—both camps and schools were focused on Zionism. Reform and Conservative camps came along, too. So did their focus on Zionism.

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I Wanna Start a Fad

March 25, 2014

Joel Lurie Grishaver

There are a lot of places to look for what is hot in Jewish Education. You can look at JEDLAB and JED21. You can listen to the gate keepers. You can examine the sessions done at education conferences. You can read Educational Leadership and other secular models. You can be part of a conversation of friends. There are lots of ways to look at the new stuff, to think about it, to figure out your own adaption, and to take it out for a spin.

So here is what I know. Experiential Education. Fad! Project Based Learning. Fad! Mastery Learning! Not so much. Design Thinking. Not Yet. The Flipped Classroom. Silence. Hebrew Through Movement. Trending!

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F.A.Q.s or Did You Read Relational Judaism?

March 1, 2014

groupJoel Lurie Grishaver

1. “Why didn’t they come?”

There were forty families in the family class. At the most recent special event thirteen kids and five parents showed. I was asked, “Where was everybody—they love this class and I have been working with them since kindergarten?”

Then came my Q & A:

Q: Did the congregational Rabbi come?

A: No

Q: Was the educator there?

A: No

Q: Were the right families involved in the planning of the event?

A: No families were involved in planning.

Q: Who organized the food?

A: The teacher.

Q: Has anyone read Ron Wolfson’s  Relational Judaism?

2. “Should I buy I-Pads for my “Hebrew School?”

Has anyone asked “What are you going to do with them?

My friend and code-writing genius Russel Neiss says No.” I say, “Yes” and “No.”

I need to ask a number of questions:

  1. Is there an IEP for using them? Is there a reason you need them—or will the reason perhaps follow if you have them?
  2. Is there software you plan on using? There is nowhere near enough Jewish software to validate the costs.
  3. Do you invite Aish and Chabad to teach at your school? Most of what you google on Jewish topics is going to take you to Aish and Chabad sites.
  4. Do you care if your kids watch porn, text, or in some other way blow off your designated use? Don’t tell me you will put filters on the web-link. Any eleven- year-old who can’t hack their way past parental controls isn’t worth keeping.
  5. Do you have enough bandwidth, tech-savvy and other support resources available?
  6. Have your teachers been trained in how to teach with computers or smart-pads in the classroom.

If you’ve answered “yes” to enough of these questions then this magazine confirms that I-Pads will be “the love of your life.” There are lots of perfectly good uses for computer, or rather smart pads, or rather I-pads but do you have a trail of bread crumbs to follow to find them. Do not assume that students and therefore their parents will love you better if you have them.

Some schools are indeed putting technology to good use, but all of those schools have dealt with the above questions. Computers are good ways of doing research (but that means access to the web). There is some Jewish software and more is coming but not enough to support the hardware cost. There are a zillion good ways of using secular apps and sites—but you have to be literate in order to use them in a Jewish context—and you are never going to do as well as secular schools who didn’t manage to put a TV in every classroom. They had the government helping them do so. An episode of Sleepy Hollow that had a golem doesn’t justify YouTube any more than the old X-Files with a golem did.

I-Pads are perfectly useful tools but managing a lot of them is really hard—ask any mother with two kids and three tablets in a doctor’s office.

Besides, has anyone read Ron Wolfson’s Relational Judaism?

If fact, we (Torah Aura) are busy developing e-books, applications and projects all of which put technology to good Jewish use. There is a direction here, but buying the I-pads doesn’t get you there.

3. How Can I Reduce My School to One Day a Week (and still have it work as well)?

In 1981, the year we started Torah Aura Productions and began Torah Aura Bulletin Board, I wrote an essay called “Time Wars” (that had nothing to do with Dr. Who). It was a then reaction to the tendency to shorten three day a week schools down to two days a week because of working mothers having a hard time carpooling their kids. I wrote as if—but didn’t actually know—that it was the beginning of an end. Now most schools are only one or two days a week and still are downsizing. With the demolition of contact hours has come a radical downsizing of expectations. The question is no longer one of achieving less with less, but how much do we still have any right to hope for.

So this rabbi calls me and says that conditions on the ground have made it necessary for them (a traditional Conservative congregations) to condense their program that had been (a) two days a week and (b) a required junior congregation on Shabbat morning. Given the local pressures, the school was going down to one day a week. The Rabbi called me and asked me the best way to do this. I raised a couple of questions and found out that they already had these things covered.

First, I pointed out that neuroscience says that to move things from short term memory to long term memory (that makes learning a second language successful) takes three interventions a week. The Rabbi added that they were adding a second treatment with a fifteen minute a week over the internet class with a teacher. That built them up to twice a week, use of our new PrayerTech application will bring them up to three times a week. Success is again possible.

Second, I talked about Stockholm syndrome (where captives identify with those who are holding them captive). This has frequently turned schools into communities. The Rabbi took my point, saw me with a new congregational informal family program and raised me with a new youth director.

The basic truths here are the lesson. (1) Reducing number of Hebrew sessions per-week increases significantly Hebrew failure (because of the needs of long term memory needs). (2) Jewish futures are built out of the communal bonds built outside of the school experience. If you are going to reduce the shared hours, you have to build up the other communal contact points including youth group, summer camp, and Israel experiences. Reduce the class hours and you have to up group participation in community building experiences.

The Leaning Tower of Pizza

I learned in a high school science class that the Tower in Pisa will never fall as long as the balance point of the tower remains within its based. It is a precise measurement. I studied a lot of science and I used to be sure about a whole number of things. Now I learn Torah and am sure of very little. I no longer know the shape of things to come. Like most old men, I can tell you better what is gone than I can tell you what next will be. I am not saying that “I know nothing,” but I am now rather very much on the curve. I have read Relational Judaism. I have watched all of Metropolis several times, but all the dates that I have known for the coming of the messiah have passed. I don’t know why the leaning tower is still standing—must have been some intervention. I guess I am now more into dreams than visions.


More Effective “Personalization.”

January 30, 2014

I get this e-mail from Ira Wise that is titled: “Your Next Topic” with just a web address in the body of the e-mail. I worry that his e-dress book may have been hacked and the web page will be filled with worms, viruses and other nasty things. I shrug my shoulders and clicked on the site. It turned out to be a good story and the topic of this article.

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Hebrew School: On the Frontlines

October 8, 2013

Joel Lurie Grishaver

This piece was motivated by a new essay, “Yes, Something Can Be Done, A ‘Purple’ Solution to Intermarriage” by Steven M. Cohen. This article, in Mosaic Magazine, is a response to a piece called “Can Anything be done?”

WWII Soldier on the frontlinesWhen I read the Cohen article, I saw the Hebrew School teacher as the hero/anti-hero who hid in the trenches in France/Germany during WWI, who sneaked up ladders to make charges through the rain and fog, over barbed wire, around landmines, dodging bullets, and trying to gain ground. It is an ugly scarred picture. It is painted in greys. And Hebrew school teaching has been a lot like that, not pretty, painted in greys, a rag tag group of Israelis and others, fighting the overwhelming force of Americanization and hoping to drag a few survivors back to the Jewish side.

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How Do You Get Them to Show Up?

August 15, 2013

Joel Lurie Grishaver

parents and childFor the past few years, every time I do a workshop that contains some element of family education, I get a series of questions: “How do you get them to show up?” What if you can’t get parents to read any of your e-mails?” “When they shut everything down, how do you get through to them?” There is a lot of frustration that comes from working with families today. It seems like there is a new physics—like the universe has change. I teach the basics: relationships and teamwork. Anticipating teaching another family session, I’ve done a lot of research about the issue, and this posting is the result.

The Jewish world is now at a moment when Generation X and Y are parenting Millennials. According to some, Gen Y. and Millenials are two names for the same group. We are approaching the moment when Millennials have and will begin parenting whatever group comes next. Gen. Y and Millennials are digital natives, part of a new perception of the world. This generational change calls for new strategies. Children start using devices such as I-Pads before they are two. Because of the reliance on the 2,000-2001 National Jewish Population Study, and the cancellation of all continental studies since, most existing research focuses on Boomers parenting Generation X and Y. We don’t have a clear picture of what is now happening.

According to the last North American Jewish population studies, the Jewish population has increased slightly and synagogue affiliation is also up a little bit. “…day school enrollment, aside from that of the Solomon Schechter schools, has remained fairly stable” (2012-13 Day School Enrollment Data Demonstrate Stability and Commitment. 2013. Avi Chai). We also know that “Children who have older Jewish parents (age 35 and older) are more likely to be Jewish than children whose parents are younger (age 18-34). (Berkowitz, Laurence Kotler, 2005, The Jewish Education of Jewish Children: Formal Schooling & early childhood experiencesUnited Jewish Communities). That age qualification seems to be Gen. X verses Gen. Y. in action.

Starting around 2008 the Jewish world began to see two things: (a) a large number of anecdotal critiques of Jewish Education; and (b) the creation of a set of “entrepreneurial” alternatives to a public system of Jewish education. The two are inter-related. The alleged complete failure of the Synagogue school system means that we need alternatives (that should come from somewhere else). Critiques without research read like this:

“Jewish students don’t like supplemental Hebrew School because, unlike their other academic and extracurricular pursuits, they see no tangible reward for their study….Supplemental Jewish education is almost exclusively informal. It provides educational content of questionable worth….” (GlogauerEliana. 2012. Schley: No surprise that Jewish students stop going to Hebrew School. New Voices.org).

To learn about Gen. Y’s entrepreneurial and private “Hebrew” school enterprises just Google: (a) Hebrew Helpers, (b) Hebrew Wizards, or (c) Shalom Learning.

From the 2000-1 study The Jewish world also learns (a) that most families are connected to supplemental schools, and (b) these students’ participation tends to collapse after 7th grade (Wertheimer, Jack. 2008. A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United States 2006-7. Avi Chai) Using this same data, Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman find that the present disengagement does not represent  “…a distancing from being Jewish, but rather dissatisfaction with the existing options for connecting Jewishly” (Cohen, Steven M., Kelman, Ari Y. 2008. Uncoupled: How our Singles are Reshaping Jewish Engagement. Jewish Identity Project of Reboot).

We have learned as a publishing company that both primary and post-eighth grade programs have little market viability. Jewish preschool materials have some currency but anecdotally we see it hard hit by the recession. It becomes clear that dealing with the children of Baby Boomers (Gen. X) and their children (Gen. Y and Millenials) requires new understandings.

“Rock ’n’ rollers once were snarling rebels or chest-beating egomaniacs. Now the presentation is low-key, self-deprecating, post-ironic, eco-friendly…a colleague of mine would tell his students that they belonged to a “post-emotional” generation. No anger, no edge, no ego….Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kick starter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet. Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration—music, food, good works, what have you—is expressed in those terms. Call it Generation Sell.

Bands are still bands, but now they’re little businesses, as well: self-produced, self-published, self-managed. When I hear from young people who want to get off the careerist treadmill and do something meaningful, they talk, most often, about opening a restaurant. Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship—companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away.” (Deresiewicz, William. 2011 “Generation Sell.” The New York Times.)

We have seen some optimism already from Dr. Steven M. Cohen. Here is more (also based on reworking the 2000-1 study)

“To these phenomena must be added what may constitute a period of cultural efflorescence, as illustrated by developments as diverse as a bourgeoning number of Jewish and Israeli film festivals, widening markets for the work of Jewish crafts people, and the production and consumption of new forms of Jewish music as represented by Matisyahu and his original promoter, J-Dub Records.” (Cohen, Steven M. 2006. A Tale of Two Jewries: The In Convenient Truth for American Jews. Steinhardt Foundation)

Since the 2000-1 study, most new studies about Jewish identification have been local and target specific. The most current study we know about Jewish family needs was done with tens of mothers who have children ages 0-2. While our target is 8 to 12 year olds, there are some things we can learn from it.

“‘Social networks play an important role in parental decision making. Parents’ choices are often influenced by friends – they seek recommendations from peers and go where their friends go…’ When we spoke to the moms, we were struck by their profound desire for intimate peer relationships (they compared finding friends to dating for spouses); their deep interest in experiencing food, ‘fun’ and celebration; and their focus on managing and navigating their challenging transition to parenthood. We heard loudly and clearly that these new parents primary focus is not on increasing their Jewish connections or practice, but on being the best parent they can be and on finding relationships that support them”(Dickstein, Shelly. 2013. “Let’s Get Serious about Relationship Weaving and the Potential for Communal Change in Family Engagement.” e-jewish philanthropy).

Web-weaving (building interpersonal connection at least partially on-line) is part of the latest language in communal life. It is based on the work of Jane Holley (Network Weaver Handbook: A guide to transformational networks. Athens, OH: Network Weavers Press. 2011). Here is another Jewish use of that notion:

“The idea that disparate individuals can come together to become something larger than themselves—whether you call it a tribe, a movement, a people, or a network—has been part of Jewish DNA for millennia. We intuitively understand that banding together gives us not only a practical support system to help us achieve our goals but also enables us to find meaning in life through striving toward shared values, dreams, and identity.” (Fishman, Deborah. On The Foundation of HaReshet. Avi Chai).

The use of web-weaving reminds us that engagement need not be face to face or take place at actual times and places. That is old mortar and brick thinking.

This study of the literature suggests a number of things about the needs we are seeking to fill. Generation Y and Millenials have different access points: (1) Use of technology (for minimal commitment), (2) opportunities for entrepreneurship (aka “remixing” through the creation of their own productions), (3) networking and web-weaving (through the use of social media) and (4) the focus on cultural material—especially food—rather than religious material.

It is harder to be a Jewish educator or teacher today. We could list a lot of factors. But, what is clear, is that to succeed, we still need to build partnerships with parents. We can’t complain about those who do not come. We can’t worry about those who are missing more than we like. Rather, we need to celebrate and build their attendance. We may be dealing with heirs to the sovereign-self (http://www.jcpa.org/jl/vp453.htm), but that is who we must deal with. Yes, we are challenged, but we need to respond to that challenge. We had better do that with understanding rather than anger.


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