The State of the Obvious

February 23, 2016

Joel Grishaver

koren_matovu_062909_380pxHebrew School is supposed to teach Hebrew. For a short period after the 6-Day war and in sporadic occurrences Hebrew Schools have tried “Modern Hebrew.” Now Hebrew has mainly meant “Prayerbook Hebrew.” The most recent, most successful, and currently popular of these modern Hebrew programs came out of Cleveland (thank you, Nechama and Lifsa) is called Hebrew Through Movement and is pedagogically sound. However “Prayerbook Hebrew” is still granted most favored nation status and there is a logic to this.

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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.

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Redemption or a Service Industry

September 5, 2014

ballroom dancingThis started as a phone call. As part of the redefinition of Torah Aura Productions, I now spend three days a week calling educational leaders. I am speaking to a Director of Education. In a response to a simple “How are you?” I get, “Today is one of those times when ‘Service Industry’ seems to be winning. You know what I mean? I didn’t, but I listened.

“Most of us when we go into Jewish education think we are entering a redemptive process. We really believe that our work will make for a better world. That vision get wipes out when we deal with parents who believe that we are actually working for a local service industry.”

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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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Jewish Education—Zero Defects

January 4, 2013

To create the kinds of school-family partnerships that raise student achievement, improve local communities, and increase public support, we need to understand the difference between family involvement and family engagement. One of the dictionary definitions of involve is “to enfold or envelope,” whereas one of the meanings of engage is “to come together and interlock.” Thus, involvement implies doing to; in contrast, engagement implies doing with.

Ferlazzo, Larry “Involvement or Engagement?”
in Educational Leadership May 2011, Volume 68 Number 8

Zero Defects

Thirty years ago the hippest book in America was In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. It was a time when American Industry looked towards Japanese business practices to improve our own. Two of the innovations from that period have a great potential to effect Jewish education today.

The first is the Zero Defects movement. Zero Defects was a quality control program originated by the Denver Division of the Martin Marietta Corporation (now Lockheed Martin) on the Titan Missile program, which carried the Project Gemini astronauts into space in the middle to late 1960s. It is one of the postulates from Phillip Crosby’sAbsolutes of Quality Management.” The idea here is simple. It is easier to go for zero defects than it is to reduce defects for six to four percent. Striving for perfection gets the best results.

The second is Quality circles. Quality circles were informal gatherings of managers and works that brainstormed ways of improving production excellence.

Observers of American Jewry have noted the seismic shift during the 1980s away from communal policies mainly designed to foster Jewish integration toward a survivalist agenda. Communal leaders became less preoccupied with fostering the socio-economic advancement of Jews, and instead set themselves a new challenge: How do we help Jews maintain a strong connection to Jewish life? (Wertheimer, Jack. Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today)

Engagement and Jewish Education

In secular education, (The World of Educational Leadership) “engagement” has come to mean “family involvement.” (Kein Yehiyah Ratzon—May it be God’s Will). In Jewish education it has taken on more of the “involvement“ meaning. Simply put, involvement is not enough.  Engagement as “participatory” involvement isn’t enough, either.

For the Jewish people to survive, we need students who will in some way join the Jewish people. Jews who grow up with an inner-sense of Judaism are not enough. A person who brags that they are one-fifth Jewish isn’t enough. Neither is having a family meal and calling it a Seder, What we need are Jews who connect regularly with other Jews and together seek to build a Jewish future.

Directly put, the primary objective of Jewish education needs to be membership. By Membership I am as good with a major gift to federation as I am with participating in a small minyan that meets in an upper West Side apartment. We need to teach belonging. Community and Leadership need to be major parts of our curriculum.

Zero Defects and Quality Circles

I think his name was Glenn. He got thrown out of his Hebrew school class virtually every day. He wound up hanging out in my youth room. I never knew how he got there. But, part of my policy as a youth director was to provide sanctuary. I got the word that he had dropped out of the Hebrew School and his parents had quit the synagogue. I made arrangements to take him out to lunch. We ate together. I put on no pressure. I just said good-bye, because I thought that someone at the synagogue needed to. It was my version of zero defects. It would probably better be labeled “an exit interview.” I just thought that someone needed to say good-bye if there was to be any hope for a “hello” in the future.

Zero Defects in Jewish Schooling means that we let no one quit, no one leave. It means that we have to fight to retain every family. And fighting to keep every family means that we need to listen and we have to change. This, by the way, doesn’t mean we have to give up our standards though we may have to rethink our method.

Quality circles is the second part of the formula. Whether it is families or students, you need to give your clients a voice in the process. Lots of synagogues and schools have already done this in programs like S2k and Imagine (etc). And while there is an old chestnut about putting people who complain on the committee, this is not that. Here, you honestly start with the question, “What can make what we do more effective?

Here is what you are thinking. If you are not worried that they will want you to fire half your teachers and cut a day a week out of the school—then, you are think that there is no way you can get them to show up. You can figure out how to get them there—I know you can. I also know that first you listen, then you think about change. You will need to change—but you know that already.

Getting Engaged

Let’s assume that engagement is a maximal word rather than a minimal world. If we read the educational literature, it is more than experiential. It is experiential with a connection; ideally a family connection. This means that we have to do a lot more than run a few “station” events for families—it means we need to engage in a real partnership with them. Partnerships involving sharing responsibilities (we have to get them to take some). And partnerships mean sharing control. Think zero defects and quality circles. But, most of all, we need to teach Jewish community by creating Jewish community. There are a lot of businesses out there that are now trying to take over synagogue schools. If we think of education as a product, then we might as well let them take over. But, we have it in our power to do a couple of thinks they can’t do. Families that want to “buy” an education (or a Bar/Bat Mitzvah prep) can now do so on the internet. We can offer them two things they can’t buy with a iPad. First we can be a great synagogue. Second we can be the great interactive school that synagogue offers. That is the only way we can achieve out central goal of membership.


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.