Transliteration and Translation

September 24, 2015

Joel Lurie Grishaver

More than 160 years ago my father was Bar Mitzvah at Temple Ohabai Shalom in Boston. It was a Reform Synagogue with a traditional leaning. My father never learned a letter of Hebrew, he read his Torah Portion off of a sheet of transliteration. He never did learn a letter of Hebrew, but he did OKAY in the Union Prayer Book universe. He was a Youth Leader, a Temple Treasurer and a board member of the Brotherhood and the JCC. In those days, the Reform movement only ran a Sunday School. No Hebrew involved.

Given the apparent motivation and Jewish reality, those days seem to be returning.

Read the rest of this entry »


Not All Hebrew Schools Suck, Part II

May 29, 2012

Attached to a link that read Should We Send Our Kids to Hebrew School?the website Kveller leads us to an article called “Finding My Jewish Community, or Making it Myself” by Logan Ritchie. The story is that of a homemade religious school created by a number of families in Atlanta called the Jewish Kids Group.

In praise of this camp style school we are told:

…my boy learned the Shema in sign language, sang “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in Hebrew, and got slathered in a Dead Sea mud bath. Since then he has taught my dad how to play Simon Says in Hebrew, been serenaded by a Jewish American Idol contestant, created a map of the Negev desert in Israel, played with Hebrew puppets, and created his own Hebrew alphabet book.

It is hard to fault any of this learning. It is also hard to say that much unique (other than the mud bath) took place here. You will find most of these activities at most Hebrew Schools. Often fear is worse than the reality. When you create your own Hebrew school it tends to be very much the same.

The author explains: “I want my rabbi bearded, wearing a tie-dye tallit, and playing guitar. I want my son to grow up to be a thoughtful, spiritual, civic-minded, Jewish man.” Not everyone wants a “Hippie” rabbi but most people and most schools work towards “thoughtful, spiritual, civic-minded, Jewish people.”

The families involved did not have to step outside the synagogue system to get this education for their family and their child. They did (as they point out) save on synagogue dues. We know that no one should have to support the Jewish community.

If you want to see just as innovative a school happening in a Synagogue Setting, see Mayim—The Elementary Community at Temple Beth Shalom. They are not so hard to find.

Home-cooked food is often better than eating out. I am not against home cooking and will never oppose parents who work hard to creating a learning process for their children. The Hawthorne Effect virtually guarantees their success. I am all for innovation, because it makes for more involved practitioners and participants. Viva the revolution! Every ten years or so there is the need to invent new educational jargon and reject the methodology of the past. I have done that, too. Now I am the past. For my birthday Jane took me to Bouchon, a Thomas Keller restaurant. It was better than any home-cooked meal.

Bible Story

Let’s study some Torah. We learn between Numbers 11:27 and 11:29:

A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” Joshua son of Nun, who had been Moses’ aide since youth, spoke up and said, “Moses, my lord, stop them!” But Moses replied, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Eternal’s people were prophets and that the Eternal would put God’s Spirit on them!”

We, the previous generation of Jewish innovators, are being told that our work is outdated and that newer innovation is all around us. We need to respond like Moses, “Would that all of Jewish schools were innovative.” It doesn’t matter if the innovations aren’t all that new. It doesn’t matter if not all these innovations work. And, it matters less if these innovations are replicable. What matters is that the very investment in innovation will just about always make things better; when parents are part of the innovative process—how much the more so.

Synagogue Schools

Jonathan S. Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA and heads its Lippman Kanfer Institute, an Action-oriented Think Tank for Innovation in Jewish Learning and Engagement. Dr. Woocher is the author of the book Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews. In his book he argues that synagogues are a dying institution that will be replaced by JCCs and Jewish Federations. As I see it, the new growth in Jewish life is mainly in religious institutions, such as independent minyanim and reboot. Dr. Woocher is probably North America’s leading voice for innovation. Not surprisingly, the most touted innovations on the scene are mainly non-synagogue in origin. Many, many Jews are seeking synagogue alternatives. Education isn’t different. Think tied-dye tallit.

There are a few things I worry about when we talk non-synagogue education.

  1. I don’t want it to cover only the bar/bat mitzvah prep years. Gaps and meta-message scare me. I don’t like any education done just for a coming of age ceremony. I want life-long learning or the possibility at least. I care about the before and the after.
  2. I worry about the Bermuda Triangle of Jewish Engagement: the summer camp, the youth group, and the Israel experience. While alternatives do exist, they are usually not as content rich and as accessible as Synagogue/Movement connected experiences.
  3. I want real Jewish life. I love storefront synagogues that struggle with the whole family. I don’t like Hebrew school in a garage that knows neither brit nor funeral.

So far, synagogue schools seem the best way of doing that for the majority of the community. And we live with the truth that says, “the better the synagogue, the better the school.”

The Godfather of Jewish education in North America was Samson S. Benderly. He hated the Sunday School and called it, “the shande school,” He built communal secular alternatives called the Talmud Torah. These were matched with a system of Hebrew Colleges that extended Jewish education through high school and college and had a system of Jewish teacher training. Almost all of the Talmudai Torah are out of business (St. Paul and Minneapolis are an exception) and most of the surviving Hebrew colleges are negotiating mergers with secular universities to stay in business. This was a failure of civic Judaism and the world is not better for it. What has survived is the synagogue school, day schools, and a few high school experiences. I believe that we have to work with what we’ve got. While the leading alternatives are not synagogue connected the majority of students are.

Gaps Damage Jewish Engagement

I know that changing schools is not a good thing. The greatest loss in Jewish education is between Jewish preschool and continued Jewish schooling, and the gap between Jewish pre- and post- bar/bat mitzvah school is almost as big (see Demography and Jewish Education in the Diaspora… by Sergio DellaPergola and Uziel O. Schmelz ). What none of these alternative strictures offer at the moment is anywhere to continue (see Re-Designing Jewish Education for the 21st Century). Most synagogue schools have two way connections with the before and the after. What I know is that promotions are better for Jewish survival than graduations.

The End Game

American Education changed dramatically with No Child Left Behind Teaching relationships were no longer important, caring about and knowing each student was secondary, only student test scores matter. Government now demands that teachers teach for the test in order to survive. If you read my blog entry on Gary Marcus’ Guitar Zero you will see a very different model of teaching where excellence involves knowing when and how to challenge each student and when that student needs help. Knowing the right way of helping is equally important. I have regularly argued that Jewish teaching needs that kind of intimacy (see my book Teaching Jewishly).

I suspect that a lot of the anger directed at the Hebrew school is deferred anger from the secular schools who are mechanically score oriented and are a harder target. Believe me, public and private school teachers and administration get a lot of flak, too. But, they seem better able to survive it.

Innovation is in the air. Our lives are now literally in the clouds. My cheer-leading for synagogue schools is not regressive—it simply an acknowledgement of an anti-synagogue bias, and an acknowledgement of reality. Everyone should innovate and share those innovations. We should grow the entire interface between Jewish learning and Jewish learners. To embrace technology we need not abandon eye-contact. To applaud innovation we need not denigrate the journeymen who are still working in the mines.

John Dewey wrote Experience in Education in 1938 that is the foundation of today’s Experiential Education trend. In that book he argues against the “straw dog” he labels “traditional education” in order to forward innovation. He speaks as if there are “traditional schools” where all is bad and “progressive schools” where all that is sunshine and light. The same dichotomy has been used pitting “Hebrew Schools” against “innovation.” Not fair and not true. We are all concerned with the survival of the Jewish people and the growth of Judaism. Some places do that well in traditional settings and some places do it poorly and shallowly in the name of “innovation.” Our goals are complex. The population is diverse. The funding at a minimum. And Rabbi Tarfon says, “The Master continues to be demanding” (Pirke Avot 2:21). Remember, not all Hebrew Schools suck.

End the Drop-Off Soccer Practice

March 9, 2011

soccerrJust as all parents “know” that Hebrew School are failures; all Jewish teachers “know” that Soccer is to blame for that failure. I want to write in praise of Soccer.

Soccer is probably less successful than Jewish schools. Fewer AYSO participants grow up (especially in America) to be professional soccer players than Jewish students grew up to affiliate with Jewish institutions. The Passover Seder is probably more repeated item in adult Jewish lives than the corner kick.

But, Soccer is really good at teaching some things and instilling some values. Soccer is really good at teaching players that they have obligations to their teammates. Youth soccer is really good at dealing with diversity and drilling in the acceptance of less successful players. It does teach the value of practice, the importance of conditioning and the thrill of victory (sometimes). Any questions about the good of sports, watch The Bad News Bears.

Ironically, if there is one criticism of Youth Soccer is that it is a drop-off activity that doesn’t involve the family. Like the Bravermans’ on Parenthood, we probably need more times when the whole family plays sports together.

Perhaps the only significant criticism of Youth Soccer (and the other drop-off activities) that our students participate in comes from Joseph Chilton Pearce who criticizes the adult involvement and control of organized sports. He teaches, “Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” He is the parenting philosopher who best gives voice to the teachings of Vivian Gussin Paley.

Here is the bottom line: Soccer manages to be compelling while Jewish studies rarely play as well in the elementary years. (Very few Jewish preschoolers have negative experiences). The drop-off part of the experience is more a parental complaint than a destructive force. Drop-off is not a reason to end Jewish schooling, though teaching about belonging as well as soccer teams do is a worthy goal. It remains our challenge to make students’ time in Jewish schooling as “rewarding” (notice I didn’t say “fun”) as soccer.

If I was going to choose the number one sport activity it would be skateboarding for its affirmation of individuality and its goal of progression. But, the simple truth is this, I no more choose our students leisure time activities than I do their media use.

My truth, I don’t want Jewish learning judged on the leisure time scale, any more than I do real school. Compelling, individual, affirming and caring is the goal of all learning. Our job, is not the corner kick, but doing those things well.

Remarketing Jew Education

January 26, 2011

We are at an interesting moment in the world of parenting. This parenting chaos directly impacts the way we present ourselves as Jewish “schools.”

The first voice is Amy Chua, author of  “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,”  who says give your child no room to do anything but succeed. The other voice is Wendy Mogul, whose long overdue second book, “The Blessings of a B-Minus,” cajoles us to accept our child as human beings. Both books are now coming to prominence. One is about high achievement, the other is about resilience. Both take a swipe at the long over emphasized issue of self-esteem.

Chua wants us to be tougher on our kids and demand “perfection.” Mogul understands that “failure” is a useful growth opportunity. Both of them wind up as commentary on new reports about the failure of American schools to even teach the difference between facts and opinions and the overall failure of American Universities to make any impact on the learning of many of their present students. Richard Arum, lead author of the study, “Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” (University of Chicago Press) came out in January, too, is the third voice putting the foundations of the way we parent at risk.

Believe it or not, all this comes back to the role and optics of Jewish schools, particularly Jewish supplemental schools. Who we are as a school has a lot to do with what our parents believe a school is.

We are simultaneously being told be like regular schools and become technological. At the same time we are being told, don’t be like a school at all (we’ve had enough of that) be a camp or a program or something interesting (and do that using a lot less time). What is common knowledge every where but in our classroom, is the universal belief that the present Jewish schooling system is a total failure.

Here is a radical idea. We ought to play to our own strengths. We know that the Jewish tradition centers on learning how to close-read texts. (Think reading comprehension!) That we use a thing called “Talmudic Logic” that teaches you how to evaluate evidence, reason, and know the difference between fact and opinion.

Jewish schools can and should do camp pretty well. We need to get better at technology. For sure, our tradition centers on building both self-esteem and resilience. But, what Judaism really is good at is learning—deep learning.

In the future, when the alternative (for example) is 10 minutes of Skype a week plus one informal event a month probably involving families, we will brag:  “We help our students become better learners.”

Camp will do camp better than we do. Other schools will always have more money to spend on technology than we do (and Web 2.0 apps only go so far). But what we can really brag about is “let us teach your children the Jewish tradition and they will do better in life.”

We will incorporate the camp selling point: “You children will make friends to last a lifetime.” We will have the technological appeal: “We allow your children to remix the Jewish tradition.” But our unique promise is about learning skills. Right now we teach not language but mechanical reading. Language provides useful insight. Mechanical reading is self-serving. We are geared to teach names and facts, but “meaning” and “insight” are what are precious. We have to work to make our classrooms both challenging and responsive, and those are goals we can achieve. It is perhaps the only truth that will keep us in business.

To stay on the weekly schedule, to make it worth the carpool time, Jewish Schooling has to have advantages. The good thing is that we own them: Friends, Remixing, Creativity, Resilience, and Academic Excellence. We know how to do this—we simply need to become good Torah teachers and not a pale imitation of secular schools.

Do I Need to Put a Mezuzah in My Flying Car?

January 4, 2011

The 1939–40 New York World’s Fair was the first exposition to be based on the future, with an opening slogan of “Dawn of a New Day”. It allowed all visitors to take a look at “the world of tomorrow”. According to the official New York World’s Fair pamphlet:

“The eyes of the Fair are on the future – not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines. To its visitors the Fair will say: “Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world. These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made. They are all interesting and much effort has been expended to lay them before you in an interesting way. Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.”

This world’s fair not only began the “cult of the future,” it was the first time we were promised the Jetson’s vision of a flying car. The flying car is the one part of the great promises of 1939 that has not come true. We have the robots, the stainless steel kitchens, the computers, televisions and more. But we still don’t have the flying car. Not even Top Gear has gone there, but we are being promised one.

Honestly, my concern is more mezuzot than flying cars. Jewish education is presently locked into the “cult of the future.” We have forgotten the lesson of the Trylon and Perisphere – (the futuristic symbols of that World’s Fair) – that “Familiarity with today is the best preparation for the future.” I want build a shining future. I think that our dreams are important. But, I am also concerned with the present.

I know that someday classrooms will have three walls of smartboards like on the CSI shows. I know that every kid will have tablet textbooks that whir and spin and do flip-flops. I envision personally creating an interactive Rashi program that teaches process rather than content. And, I have a suspicion that Jewish classrooms will come with bunk-beds to better recreate the camping experience because the future is not only technology.

My favorite educational future can be found in a Philip K. Dick novel, Martian Time Slip. In his future Mars all hands are need for work so a series of teaching machines care for the children. School is an arcade of cyber personalities. You can hang out with Plato, Albert Einstein, and Abraham Lincoln, etc. Each of these machines is interactive. They build relationships with the students and come to know what each student needs. I fantasize the Jewish version, being able to learn with Akiva, Maimonides and Rashi (all in kid friendly versions). The fantasy extends to early members of Hovevei Zion, Rick Recht and Martin Buber telling child friendly versions of Hasidic Tales.

I am not afraid of Skype Bar Mitzvah tutoring but I am concerned about the reduction of Jewish connection to ten minutes a week and one shabbaton a month. Because I believe in cognitive dissonance I believe in carpools and time spent together.

I went to one of the last of the Urban Hebrew schools. I walked there, spent between a half[H1] -an-hour to forty minutes to hanging out, fooling around (all but unsupervised), while waiting for class to begin. That free-form time spent together with other students is my strongest memory and the real bond in my Hebrew School experience. It is no different than pizza before Hebrew High. What Philip K. Dick understood is that students and teachers, even with teaching machines, need to build relationships. As my friend Danny Siegel says in one of his Psalms, “…they know you well enough to know you.”

Right now I know that electronic textbook technology is not ready for affordable use, so I got to do the best I can to make ideas jump off printed pages. I know that a few non-day schools have a smartboard or two, but it is not a technology we can expect. Even access to video projectors is limited. I have been to several workshops that have told teachers that social networking is the future, but few of these teachers are paid for training or preparation, let alone updating their profile.

I want to dream about the future, and talk about it and work on it; but I also want to know about the best contemporary best practices. As long as most Jewish education takes place in classrooms with teachers, I still want to work on making those settings better. Jewish education is about the future, but it is also very much about the now. In between our dreams and experiments (“It’s Alive!) we still need to worry about being effective this afternoon.

We will have smart-classrooms and remote learning, but right now most Jewish learning takes place on whiteboards and I want them to be used well. I want to maximize family education, continue to create powerful Jewish experiences, and not give up on youth groups.

First we need the flying cars, then we can worry about whether or not they halakhically need a mezuzah. We can give up on the present when the future is ready. We need to build all kinds of alternatives but not abandon improving the normative until they are ready.

Combating Bullying

October 25, 2010

Over the past couple of weeks at least seven gay, lesbian, and transgender students have committed suicide ( The biggest response has been actualized by the Trevor Project ( a hotline for LGBT teenagers. The issue has been one of bullying. I may have missed it, but I have seen no Jewish response to the situation. If I haven’t seen it, please let me know about it.

In 2002, after the shooting at Santee, California, one of the rash of school shootings that popped up as a response to bullying, echoing the massacre at Columbine High School. I called the material Agents of Peace . Not the best name for the material in hindsight. I was interested in teaching the idea that it is a communal responsibility to put an end to bullying—and that the Jewish tradition offers some clear strategies that echo the popular literature on bullying.

Ask any kid and they will tell you that telling the teacher makes no difference. The first thing all of the anti-bullying literature will tell you is “tell the teacher.” The teacher needs to know, but if the teacher does his/her job well, no one else will know about it. The research shows that while some victims are shattered by having been bullied, the bullies are those most at risk for negative futures.  When we bring teachers into the equation and open the possibility of counseling and other help, we protect the victim and can help the victimizer.

This set of materials we designed began to work on three basic Jewish skills:

  • Doresh Shalom/Rodef Shalom (Seeking Peace/Being an Agent of Peace) being will to go out of one’s way for peace—and being will to give up for the sake of peace.
  • Someykh Noflim (Lifting Up the Fallen) going out of one’s way to comfort anyone who is hurting.
  • Tokhekhah (Constructive Negative Feedback) mastering the ability to help people see their flaws and work on fixing them.

If we can transmit these—we can do things to make schools safe in a way that policement, locker searches, and metal detectors can never hope to do.

The things that additional research says:

  1. A school culture that examines and rejects bullying can make a difference.
  2. Confronting bullies is not a sure behavior. It may end the behavior or it may make the person who confronts the bully the next target.
  3. Boys tend to bully through name calling and physical intimidation. Girls tend to bully through exclusion and through embarrassment in front of peers.
  4. Supporting the victim can help to mitigate the damage and hurt. We can train students to support those being bullied.
  5. Bullies play to audiences. Breaking up the “gang” that stands behind the bully can extinct the bullying.

All of these insights can be connected to Jewish roots.

The sermon! Jewish schools should take responsibility to train their students to be “agents of peace.” This means that should teach that not only is bullying wrong (and should never happen in a Jewish setting) but that being a Jew means supporting and helping anyone who is wrongly victimized.

Two stories in the early 2000s I work with a number of high school students using my anti-bullying material. Two moments stand out. One youth group told me about the system they have in place to always target students who were being ostracized and oppressed and not only to (a) invite them to eat lunch with their crew, but to (b) interview them, find their interests and match them up with people in their group who shared those interests. I was inspired. A few weeks later I worked with another group. In the midst of the conversation I told them about the first group and they responded: “We can’t do that, if we did, we would be targeted.”

Here is a simple bottom line, “Building sacred community means building social responsibility. Social responsibility sometimes happens in our schools and not in poor African countries.” How are you going to help your students to help?

If We Were Rulers of Hebrew School World

September 28, 2010

This blog entry is a four year old document created after the CAJE conference in St. Louis. Give the recent flutter of postings on the “failure” of Hebrew school, I believe that the time has come to repost it. It is really long, so I will post it in four parts during Sukkot. I invite you to come into my virtual sukkah and engage in a conversation with colleagues on what may be the most important issue we face.

– Gris

Part Four: Final Thinking

In putting together this model we have tried to do two opposite things. The first is to make little structural change in the ways schools operate. We still have grades, classes, blackboards, textbooks, and the like. We have not asked for radical change from teachers. They still get to plan lessons, use traditional teaching strategies, and manage their classrooms (when needed) in a professional manner.

The second is to get maximal impact by enhancing the traditional classroom with the opportunity for group work and camp-style relationships. Teachers give up nothing by working in this style. They only gain greater flexibility and greater support. The price they pay is the mastery of a few skills that will enrich what they are already doing. The hardest of these is re-envisioning their classrooms as changed but not changed.

Ten Models of Madrikhim-Led Activities

  1. The class divides into Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai and prepares for a debate. One madrikh helps each group prepare. They read two pages of material, rehearse arguments, and pick speakers for a mock Sanhedrin.
  2. The teacher gives the class texts to study in hevruta (dyads), The students find a partner and read through the texts, answering the questions. The madrikhim shepherd their groups, sitting among them and facilitating the process. Then, at the right moment, the madrikhim gather their flocks and debrief the hevrutot in groups of eight.
  3. Three groups go off with their madrikhim. Each group prepares a play about a different event in Sarah’s life. They then come back to class and perform.
  4. The class is working on the blessings before the Haftarah. Groups of five are formed. The teacher takes one group: so does each of the madrikhim.
  5. The teacher asks the class to read chapter seven and work on the questions at the end. Each table works through the questions with the madrikhah. There is no writing, but there are excited small-group discussions.
  6. The first grade is doing a synagogue scavenger hunt. Each table goes off with their madrikh, looking around the entire building for the eight things that they need to find.
  7. The seventh grade is sent into the library to do research on their reports. Each madrikh huddles his table, talks over the task, assigns jobs, and sits in the middle as the students bring books to him, asking, “Is this okay?”
  8. The teacher sets up her room in learning stations. A madrikhah sits at each station and works individually with the kids as they rotate past.
  9. The teacher announces that there will be a Hebrew vocabulary quiz and a prize for the table that has the best collective score. The kids dive across their tables, whispering and huddling as their madrikhim serve as their coaches, training them for the upcoming challenge.
  10. The teacher asks each student in the room to work individually. The teacher and the two madrikhim work the room, checking on the progress of each student. The last madrikhah sits with the two kids who would not successfully work on their own and leads them through the material.

For the school there are costs, too. And we are in a day and age when costs matter. There are two or three or even five years more of teachers because students are studying through twelfth grade not seventh or ninth or tenth grade. There is supervision and training for both madrikhim and teachers. There is salary money for the madrikhim. And (I’ve heard principals worry about this) there is the cost of a set of T-shirts.

But let’s look at the benefits.

We keep more kids in the building and as part of the learning process longer—though it may take a few years to build into this model. We provide students with a warmer and more personal school experience.

Teachers have a great series of successes and have partners in their enterprise.

The school builds a deeper connection with families, and families become part of a group that bonds them to the synagogue.

A system of role models is established that leads more and more students to continue their Jewish education through the end of high school.

More and more Jewish teachers are trained and created.

The bottom line is that all of this leads to greater fulfillment of the Jewish mission.