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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May 4, 2015

The FutureIf we are going to look at the future of Jewish education, at some point we are going to have to stop talking about technique and look at the content. My assumption is that not only are we going to be teaching in a host of new ways, but that we are going to be teaching for very different ends. If the student of the future demands a whole new approach, then the school of the future grows very different skills.

We know that the child of the future will enter with a very different set of skills and a very different learning context. We know that the families of the future will practice their Judaism in very different ways: synagogues will be less central, Israel less overarching. And ethnicity will be the strongest Jewish connections. Parents will be making very different demands. We know that (a) there will be few content demands, (b) Hebrew will not make any more of a difference that we can give to it, (c) life cycle will be more brief (think of shiva as “one” and not “three”) and (d) seeing as parents feel that they learned nothing (and are just as good for it) their worries about their children’s knowledge will be less so. And witnessing those who show up, (e) intermarriage is not the apocalypse.

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Kohlberg Was Wrong: A Book Review

September 10, 2012

Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics aThe Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidtnd Religion. USA. Pantheon Books

I was raised in an education world where Jean Piaget was the sun. In that universe, Dr. Lawrence Kohlberg was the monarch of Moral Development. Much of my own work in Jewish values was predicated on Kohlberg. This essay is, in a way, a chance to begin again.

Jonathan Haidt is a moral psychologist who studies the way the brain actually makes decisions. His new book, The Righteous Mind, is a look at ethical decision-making in light of brain science. The book is built on three metaphors. The first of the three is “The mind is divided like a rider on an elephant and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. Think the evolved brain resting on the crocodile brain.

Kohlberg suggested that children are moral philosophers who construct from idea of “harm” (that they experience as bad) to a concept of justice. Piaget watched children construct rules for playing marbles and concluded that children were rule makers. Rules went through growing complexity as children aged. Kolhberg applied Piaget’s developmental model to make the development of ethics a series of stages. Haidt debugs that and presents research that suggests that people ultimately make gut decisions about right and wrong. Thinking comes later. He says, “The elephant chooses its path” and reason, “the in-house press secretary,” (the rider) rationalizes those decisions. To firmly establish this he points out that morality shifts by culture.

This is the thinking-brain working with our primitive crocodile brain.

Judaism as a Civilization

Mordechai Kaplan wrote Judaism as a Civilization. Kaplan had a vision that understood that Judaism was a culture, a civilization—not merely a religion. He focused on those things that brought Israel together. He said that “we were a choosing people rather than the chosen people.” The nature of this community, their shared practices and values, were central to Kaplan’s understanding.

An individual is a person, when and because he knows himself as such; a group is a people, when and because it knows itself as such. (Mordechai Kaplan, Future of the American Jew, 1948)

While it is strange to expand an understanding of Kaplan by quoting his academic opponent Abraham Joshua Heschel, it is their confluence I want to show.

A few years back, Barry Shrage showed me a quote from Heschel that read, “The two words I never want to read again are ‘Identity’ and ‘Survey.’ Neither has anything to do with anything Jewish.”

“Who is a Jew?” A person in travail with God’s dreams and designs; a person to whom God is a challenge, not an abstraction. He is called upon to know of God’s stake in history; to be involved in the sanctification of time and in building the Holy Land; to cultivate passion for justice and the ability to experience the arrival of Friday evening as an event. “Who is a Jew?” A witness to the transcendence and presence of God; a person in whose life Abraham would feel at home, a person for whom Rabbi Akiba would feel deep affinity, a person of whom the Jewish martyrs of all ages would not be ashamed.

While Heschel is always theological and Kaplan sociological, what they hold in common is a dynamic and complex understanding of Judaism that is anything but reductionist. It is Judaism not as information, not as collection of individual practices, not as the right percentage of answers to a survey—but, Jewishness as a dynamic communal culture.

Identity, Continuity, Engagement and Less

Let’s talk about “Goal” words. Goal words are the way that people concentrate and express their targets. Goal words in Jewish life have always been interesting. Federated Jewish life has gone through a steady decline in the scope of these words. What began as “enculturation,” became “identity,” then “continuity,” and now is “engagement.” “Enculturation” is being wrapped in the blanket of a full culture. “Engagement” is little more than eye contact. Given smartphones, eye contact may be a lot to ask for.

The lesson of The Righteous Brain is that culture and ethical decision making are intertwined. If, you care about Jewish ethics (and not just liberal ethics with a Jewish quote) then it has to come culturally. They come with mitzvot, Biblical literacy, Hebrew poetry, food, and a whole host of other factors. Think of how a Passover Seder screams “freedom.” This doesn’t mean that Jews have to become religious, but they have to be wrapped snugly in Jewish culture. Hayyim Nahman Bialik got this when he and Ravnitzky created Sefer Ha-Aggadah whichis an all-encompassing collection of rabbinic stories.

The simple truth is that less is less when we come to Jewish education and that despite fiscal and physical needs that make keeping the doors open, we have some questions to face about diminishing returns. When is too little not enough?

I am not standing on the top of the mountain here, and looking down. I want to make it very clear that I too worship at the altar of practicality. What I write today is not the same as what I once would have written. The changes I make are influenced by the choices made on the frontiers of Jewish life. I don’t get to decide what schools look like. I don’t directly face the Jewish people and I deal only indirectly with their desires. I don’t have a stack of pink phone notes and dozens of angry e-mails when I read my desk in the morning. I have learned to accept that there are things over which I do not have power, but in the darkness of night, in the edge of sleeplessness, I still wonder about my own actions. I worry about what is left after I have minimalized it.

Metaphor Two: Morality is Like Taste

Jonathan Haidt introduces the term “WEIRD”–Western Educated Industrial Rich Democratic. Until recently, almost all experiments in moral development were conducted within the WEIRD. And, unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, most of our students (and their parents) are WEIRD, too.

Haidt’s second metaphor is that morality is a lot like taste. Just as we have a number of different taste receptors on our tongues (sweet, sour, salty, umami, and bitter). Most liberals use only the first two of these receptors (that Haidt calls “the Foundations”). Conservatives tend to use all six. So do most people who are non-WEIRD.

These foundations are:

  •  care/harm
  • liberty/oppression
  • fairness/cheating
  • loyalty/betrayal
  • authority/subversion
  • sanctity/degradation

Care/Harm. The Jewish tradition (both Jewish law and the lessons of Jewish history) is committed to the care/harm foundation. This is very key to Kohlberg’s Moral Development. It stems from “one who saves one person is like one who saved the whole world.” It is all of our Tikkun Olam goals.

Liberty/Oppression. Liberty is a value that Jews have come to adopt. I am honestly not sure where the Jewish origins of the liberty connection are, despite “Proclaim liberty throughout the land (Leviticus 25:10).” Passover is the Egypt/anti-slavery foundation. We buy heavily into that value area (but we have our own language for it) . We are very anti-oppression. It is all wrapped up in the word “Egypt,” then shifts to “Haman” and “Holocaust.”

Fairness/cheating. Fairness/cheating is also a big Jewish value complex. This is also the bridge foundation that liberals buy into but nowhere as strongly as conservatives. For Jews this is in a file drawer labeled “fair weights and scales.” It is why we are so strong on business ethics. If you worry less about welfare cheats and more about getting help to those who need it, you do not have this foundation as a central value. (I don’t either!)

Loyaty/Betrayal & Authority Subversion. Theloyalty/betrayal foundation and the authority/subversion foundation also have deep Jewish roots. Traditional Judaism felt it was wrong to ever turn a Jew over to a non-Jewish court. It was a loyalty issue. We label it a “Jewish People” thing. But, while these values still have root (sometimes inappropriately) in the extreme Orthodox community, they have less application in the Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative communities. If these foundations don’t make sense to you, think about the fuss over Obama and a flag pin. It was an American version of the intermarriage issue. These two foundations are where Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan did much of his work. It is the heart of the JCC movement where you pay to work-out next to other Jews. Kaplan invented the JCC, theHavurah, and a lot of other communal processes.

Sanctity/Degradation. Sanctity/degradation can better be understood as holy and profane. These are core religious values that are very at risk in the WEIRD world. Since 9/11 there have been some interesting changes to Western religiosity. Conservatives reacted by saying that “Islam was anti-peace.” This got modified by liberals to “Moslem Fundamentalist are evil.” This soon became “all fundamentalists are all evil.” And in for many of our kids as, “all religion is evil.” “The New Atheists,” Sam HarrisRichard DawkinsDaniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens have grown in popularity. This is where Bill Maher likes to dwell. It is the heart of Religulous.

Fewer of our kids now believe in God than have believed in God in a long time. 9/11 put us in a post-post-modern context with belief in, and a rejection of, science—both at an all-time high. The real challenge here is to get our students to perceive the category of the sacred. Or as Lawrence Kushner once taught, “It is not so important to ask our students if they believe in God, but to get them to share one timewhen they felt close to God.

Metaphor Three: Morality Binds and Blinds

Haidt’s last metaphor is: We are ninety-percent Chimp and ten-percent Bee. Simply put, chimps have no sense of cooperation. They may mate, but they are loners. Bees have the “hive mentality” thing. People are “Homo Duplex,” they function alone but also can seriously do the “group thing.” Most often the group thing functions as “we vs. them” (Go Red Sox), but it need not go that far. Humans have what Jonathan Haidt calls a “hive switch” where the power of being a group member overcomes our usual preference for individuality.

Haidt says, “Religion is a team sport.” We know that already. That is why Jewish community and classroom community need to be such a big deal for our schools. We need for our students to be together (1) long enough and (2) in such a way that they bond together.

We get the Homo Duplex thing, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am only for myself, what am ‘I’? And If not now, when?” (Hillel, Pirke Avot 1:14)

Haidt suggests that religion is a triad:

Righteous Mind Triad of Believing, Belonging and Doing

We also get that. Judaism is a combination of the three. When we work on belonging, we are building a path towards the other two. We need to move our clients from aloneness to friendship, and then from friendship to belonging. That is the path to Jewish survival.

The Three Metaphors

The lessons from The Righteous Mind are locked in its three metaphors:

[1] The Brain is like an Elephant with Rider. Reason is the rider, gut feelings are the elephant. The elephant decides where it is going; the rider tries to keep it out of trouble. We decide most things in our gut and then our reason rationalizes them. The major way to influence the decisions the elephant makes is to wrap them in culture. Our schools need to provide a rich, unique culture.

[2] Morality is Like Eating. The tongue has five different kinds of taste buds. Our morality has six kinds of foundations. Liberals only use two and a fraction of these. People who are not WEIRD or who are conservatives use all six. Our job is to expand our students’ ability to taste. We are to treat them with experiences from the other four other foundations. The “sacred” is the most important of these other receptors. Non-fundamental holiness is our challenge.

[3] Humans are Ninety-percent Chimp and Ten-percent Bee. People are individuals, but they have a “hive switch.” If we can flip this switch by building community, we create an import part of the belonging, believing, acting triad. For Jews, action is the second step. When we act as a community we build faith.

This is a great book. I learned a lot from it. I really recommend it. There is a lot that Jewish educators can learn from it.

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.

Guitar Zero

March 9, 2012

typingI saw The Artist this weekend. It is the story of a publishing company in the age of technology. I also learned how hard it is to get text for an article off my Nook. E-books, for the most part, can’t be down loaded into a text file, so you have to retype them. I tried photocopying the screen to get a hard copy. Simple to say, it was a failure. That left me typing off the screen. The bad news is if you have to retype text from the screen that screen dies if you don’t touch it—which is rather hard if you are typing with two hands.

Guitar Zero by Gary MarcusBut, this is about a book that went from an article in the New York Times to my hands in under two minutes. That’s one for technology. The book, Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus is a play on Guitar Hero, the video game that got the author believing that he might learn play guitar after all. Dr. Marcus, a professor of cognitive psychology, who is an expert in neurobiology, writes about his own successes and failures at the guitar in those contexts. He took a year’s sabbatical to learn to play. It becomes “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning”.

For our purposes, there is a lot of correlation between learning to play guitar and mastering the sounding out (decoding) of the Hebrew Language. Dr. Marcus’ book can teach us a lot about that part of our enterprise.

So let’s start with the problem: K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist, says that it takes “10,000 hours” of practice to become an expert. Expert, in our terms, means reading out loud a blind Hebrew text fluently. Dr. Marcus explains that while there are prodigies who can achieve success with less, but ten years of 1,000 hours of lessons and practice is what it takes most people to succeed.

Not surprisingly, look at what Gary Marcus defines as a good teacher:

A good teacher is not only a good diagnostician of course, but also a good motivator. Had my teacher urged me to go home and simply practice alternating short notes and long notes, I would no doubt have been bored out of my mind…The truly talented teacher diagnoses the problem and then proposes a treatment that is both fun and rewarding. It the larger literature on teaching and training…studies consistently point to the abilities of the teacher to motivate their students, to understand their particular needs, and to come up with exercises that are neither too easy nor too hard (shades of the principal of proximal development.)

As I write this, I can see the heads shake. We all know that two parental commandments stand in our way:

  1. Thou shalt not take up too much of my child’s time.
  2. Thou shalt not give homework.

I know the problems, but let’s look a little more are what Dr. Marcus has to say about teachers:

Why do we need teachers at all? The most obvious answer is that teachers know things that their students don’t.…Another reason, of course is that teachers can serve as motivators…either through carrots…or through sticks.…Good teachers can also impose structure, helping to know what to practice and when. It is not enough to say, “Go home and practice; a good teacher says what to practice, and how: the most skilled teachers aim to help their students practice efficiently. Beyond all this, the most important role of a teacher may be to help the students pinpoint their errors and target their weaknesses. Beginning students especially are often too busy trying to make music.

His model of good teaching does come from private lessons, but it makes some powerful challenges. He suggests that the most important teaching skills are (a) diagnosis of problem, (b) appropriate individual remediation, and (c) provide motivation.

Dr. Marcus credits his willingness to pick up a guitar and to start learning to a video. Guitar Hero made over $2,000,000 in a year at its pick—and still its producer, Activision, decided it wasn’t profitable enough and discontinued manufacturing the game. We in Jewish education can’t hope for the kind of development money that was involved. Dr. Marcus makes it clear that while Guitar Hero was great motivation and helped him get over his fear of music making, it still took teachers to empower and motivate his actual playing of the guitar.

Here is one more piece to look at—the parents role in the students mastering of guitar or piano:

She knew that kids would only practice at home if doing so was pleasurable. What most impressed me about Michele was the immense pains she took to make sure her student’s parents were well instructed, especially in the art of making practice a happy and regular part of every day’s routine. The single point that Michele was most adamant about was a rule for when parents should correct a child’s mistake: never, ever, until the child had made that error at least three times.…If practice with Mom or Dad got to be a drag, the whole game was lost. Michele made sure that never happened, sprinkling her weekly parents-only night class with sound techniques for wanting their children to excel right away and being patient enough to foster a happy learning environment.

Imagine parents coming to a weekly class about how to be the parent of a music student. Now, push the idea forward to Hebrew school. That is really partnership with parents. The takeaways from this book are the following. When it comes to teaching Hebrew decoding:

  1. Video games do have a role in motivating and empowering student mastery of Hebrew.
  2. There is a point where human teachers need to take over the teaching role.
  3. As we hire and train Hebrew teachers the focus needs to be on (1) diagnosis, (2) remediation and (3) motivation.
  4. To get practice to happen we really need the trust and support of parents.

At the moment, and Torah Aura has been working on it, there is a call for experiential education. Among the things that Experiential Education asks is that: (1) learners take responsibility for their own learning, (2) that learning builds community, and (3) challenge is involved.

Learning a musical instrument involves students taking responsibility for their own learning and a challenge is definitely involved. Hebrew can do the same. You can add to it a family component (but that is an essay to come). The simple truth here is that Hebrew learning can be experiential and can involve teachers and technology. It is not an all or nothing question. But, let’s not leave the teacher out of the equation. In Dr. Marcus’ words:

What may be more important is whether they are equipped to listen well and give feedback that is simultaneously constructive and enthusiastic. It is not about the technique, it’s about the teacher.

Jewish education has been quick to adopt the summer camp metaphor that leads us through informal education and towards experiential education. It is time we realize that it needs to be meshed with the music lesson model and affirm great teaching along with camp counseling and code writing.

Rashi and Executive Function

January 9, 2012

This article is the logical extension of the work we have done with executive function. We want people in Jewish education to say that “Going to Hebrew School will make your child into a better student.” And, we want to suggest that “brain science” can help us to create more successful and impactful Jewish education.”


We started with Adele Diamond and her work on the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that is involved in mediating conflicting thoughts, making choices between right and wrong or good and bad, predicting future events, and governing social control.

According to Adele Diamond executive function breaks into three key areas:

  • Inhibitory Control. This includes self-control, self-censorship, delayed gratification, impulse control, and the development of discipline. It is the part of the brain that does reflection and evaluation. Its functions include: Being able to think before you act. Being able to learn something new that conflicts with what you usually do. Acting appropriately when tempted to act otherwise. Paying attention despite distractions.
  • Working Memory. This is the manipulation of information. This is imagination, problem solving, creativity and that whole arena. It includes: Being able to consider things from different perspectives. Being able to relate one idea to another. Being able to perform a set of instructions in sequence. Being able to monitor one’s own thinking.
  • Cognitive Flexability. This is the ability to leave one task and focus on a new one. It is all about mental focus. “Mindfulness” is the popular Buddhist term. It includes: Being able to pay more attention when necessary. Being able to think ‘outside the box.’ (Metropolitan State College of Denver Tools of the Mind)

We then met Ellen Galinsky who wrote a book called Mind in the Making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. She takes Neuroscience and breaks it down into material manageable by most parents and most teachers. She takes executive function and breaks it down into seven simple skills. This is pre-frontal cortex stuff that weaves together our social, emotional, and intellectual capacities.

  1. Focus and Self-Control. This is our ability to pay attention, to not be distracted, and it where we remember the rules.
  2. Perspective Taking. This is where we develop empathy and view things from different points-of-view.
  3. Communicating. This involves not only language skills, but our ability to grasp what images, metaphors, points-of-view will best communicate our insights to others.
  4. Making Connections. Making Connections involves figuring out what is similar and what is different. (“One of these things is not like the other.”) Figuring out how one thing connects to another. This is associative and comparative thinking.
  5. Critical Thinking. This is our ability to evaluate and to decide what evidence we are going to use to make decisions.
  6. Taking on Challenges. According to Dr. David Bryfman, challenge is a definitional part of Experiential Education. Here is our ability to tackle the new and the difficult.
  7. Self-Directed. Engaged Learning. Self-Direction is also an element of Experiential Education. It is where that which is demanded is transcended by that which were want to seek.

The Focus

Classical Jewish learning involves pairs of learners (hevrutot) who work with Jewish texts. They rehearse the text in preparation of a class wide lesson. Sam Heilman, a participant observer who has looked into the dynamic of Jewish text study, defines the lernen (classical Jewish text study) process as having four steps or moves, recitation, translation, explanation, and discussion. In his book The People of the Book he explains:

  • The first of these consists of an oral reading of the text, usually by one person who is cued or echoed by the others who are with him…
  • Translation, the second step, became necessary when Jews no longer were fluent in the primary languages…but it was always part of the necessary expansion of the sketchy text…
  • Explanation, the third move, is the effort to briefly clarify the meaning of implications of what has been recited. During explanation, learners define questions and refine answers. They organize a text, determining where one object or inyan ends and another begins. They frame matters, detailing what the Talmud (text) is trying to do. Finally, they provide short glosses or footnotes to what they have just recited…
  • Discussion, the last move, allows for the broadest possible consideration of the text. Mirroring the give-and-take of the sages… (they) evaluate the signficance of what they have read and debate its conclusions, digress to tell stories or ask and answer questions… The students’ concerns and words merge with the issues and language of the Talmud (text) they reviewed. This the ultimate step of the process, the point at which life and lernen become one.

In the remainder of this article we want to show how studying Rashi (doing text oriented Jewish study) we expand executive function and increase the learning skills of our students.

The Proof

Here is Rashi’s comment on one verse, Genesis 18.23. Here Abraham is just about to argue with God about the destruction of Sodom. This Rashi is dense and takes a lot of unpacking and decoding.

The Torah says, “And Abraham drew near (Gen. 18.23) Drawing near can mean preparing for battle: “And Joab drew near…” (II Sam. 10.13). Drawing near can mean pleading: “And Judah drew near…” (Gen. 44.18) And drawing near can mean praying: “Elijah drew near…”(I Kings 18.21) Abraham did all of these, he battled, pleaded and prayed.

Before we even begin to work on this Rashi, we need to form a Hevruta to begin work. This process of starting with a partner, begin the reading, and committing to finding a “translation” and working out “a solution”—plus developing personal meaning.

The very act of beginning involves, “focus,” “taking on challenges,” and “self-directed, engaged learning.” We are making two assumptions about this process. First, that the learners have some previous experience with decoding Rashi and working in hevruta. This means that students have already had success and reward from facing the “challenges” involved in this kind of text study.

Students begin to read to each other and decode (translate).the text by expanding it through logic (“critical thinking”) and making using context (“making connections.”)

(1) Let’s look at the beginning of the text. It begins, “And Abraham drew near (Gen. 18.23). The first questions that automatically comes is, “Draw near to what or Who?” The answer comes from reading ahead. Next Abraham is in the middle of an argument with God over saving Sodom. Therefore we know that Abraham drew near to God.

(2) The next question is “How do you draw near to God?” (Here “perspective taking “ comes into play. This question could be one generated by the students, (“self-direction”) or it could be found from reading more of the Rashi.

(3) The first thing you learn about Rashi, that we are not teaching in this lesson, that needs to be part of the back drop to this lesson, is that Rashi is always answering questions, but Rashi rarely verbalizes the question. Rashi is a game of “Jeopardy.”

(4) If we look ahead we see that Rashi gives three answers: (1) “And Joab drew near…” (2) And Judah drew near…” and (3) “Elijah drew near…” Here comes the question, “How does one draw near to God” and Rashi finds the answer by knowing that the Bible gives us three examples of how people draw near to God.

(5) Next “self-direction” is really required. We will not understand this Rashi unless we know what each of the three did to draw near. Rashi (or actually whoever annotated Rashi) gives us the chapter and verse of the three incidents. (Depending on the edition of Rashi, there may also be footnotes or other hints to how the three drew close to God). “Perspective taking” tools have already clued us that Abraham will draw near in all these ways—and that we, too, have the capacity to draw near to God in the same way.

(6) Our research shows us:

  • “And Joab drew near…” shows us that Drawing near can mean preparing for battle. The rest of passage teaches us: (II Sam. 10.13) and then (he) went out and defeated the Syrians.
  • “And Judah drew near…” shows us that Drawing near can mean pleading: The rest of the passage teaches us:” (Gen. 44.18) and then begged for Benjamin’s life.
  • “Elijah drew near…” (I Kings 18.21) just before he out-prayed the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel.

(7)`Next comes out need for “perspective taking.” We need to understand the connection between these events and Abrahams forthcoming debate with God over Sodom.

Rashi says: Abraham did all of these, he (1) battled, (2) pleaded and (3) prayed.

Next comes the Heilman final stage, the discussion. Here is where we personalize. This is the place we use “communication.” Either with our partner or with the whole class we answer two questions:

  • How did Abraham “draw near” to God in these three ways at this moment.
  • When do we need to battle,  plead and pray to get close to God.

By the time we are done, the passage from Rashi comes out:

We want to know what it means to “draw near to God” if God is everywhere? Obviously, “drawing near” is an emotional or spiritual place, not a physical one. Here are some examples: Drawing near can mean preparing for battle: “And Joab drew near…” (II Sam. 10.13) and then went out and defeated the Syrians. Drawing near can mean pleading: “And Judah drew near. . .” (Gen. 44.18) and then begged for Benjamin’s life. And drawing near can mean praying: “Elijah drew near…”(I Kings 18.21) just before he out-prayed the priest of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Which of these kinds of drawing close was Abraham trying to do? He was prepared to do whatever it took, to speak harshly, to plead, and to pray. There are indeed many ways of reaching God!

We have hit all the elements of executive function in puzzling out this one passage. Students will do as much as she can on her own—then the teacher will help them complete the process.


In a recent NYTimes story “A Silicon Valley School that Doesn’t Compute” there is a focus on the Waldorf school in Silicon Valley. Paul Thomas,  a former teacher and an associate professor of education at Furman University, says:

“Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

My friend Idie Benjamin taught me, “I tell a parent that their child has trouble focusing.” They respond, ‘You should see the hours he spends in front of the computer.” The right question is, “Can they focus without the computer.”

Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft. He has three children in Waldorf schools. He says, “Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers.”

I will not argue against technology, I am now reading books on my Nook. But, I will argue that somethings are better done in person. Jewish schools can build important learning skills if they focus on being Jewish schools—places that work in Jewish ways to use Jewish texts to explicate the human condition.

Jewish Education and the Food Revolution

June 9, 2011

If you are in anyway a “foodie” you know the words “local and sustainable.”

Jamie Oliver is a British Chef who is very much part of the local and sustainable movement. He is also an upstander who has changed the nature of the food served in British State Schools, opened a restaurant where he trains and employs at risk teenagers, and in a reality TV show – Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution – has come to America to try to teach American’s about healthful eating.

His first season was in Huntsville, Alabama – the most overweight city in America – where he made some significant impacts on school lunches among other things. This year he came to Los Angeles and was pretty much defeated by the local ennui. His one big accomplishment was to get the Los Angeles School district to agree to remove flavored milks. Flavored milks (common practice in American public schools) are seen “as the only way to get kids to drink milk” have three times the sugar content of most soda and are probably significantly responsible (with other villains like pizza and fast food) for the dramatic escalation of diabetes in children.

Last year I wrote a probably incoherent tweet about Jamie Oliver being a fabulous role model for Jewish education—having the fortitude and skill to induce people to do what is right even if it isn’t the easiest or most fun choice.

Recently I sat at a conversation to discuss the future of the complementary school. I don’t know what the complimentary school is except that it is the hip-term now used by federated culture to indicate what most Jewish parents describe as “Hebrew School” and “Sunday School.” It joins Religious Schools, Religion Schools, Supplementary Schools, Torah School and Congregational schools in the list of euphemisms for what started life as the Talmud Torah.

All I can figure out is that a complementary school is a place where you get a lot of positive feedback. I hope it doesn’t mean that we are an accessorizing secular education.

Among the people participating in this discussion of the future of majority Jewish schooling was the local communal camp director. His comment was: “We had a school group out to camp for a retreat and at the end of the year the school voted the camp experience their favorite experience of the year.”

Chocolate and Strawberry milk always score highly when students evaluate their food choices.

Let me make two things absolutely clear:

  1. I am NOT saying that camp and camp-style learning present a clear danger the way that flavored milks do, and
  2. I am NOT saying that schooling should not be “fun,” but, I will continue to quote the mission statement drafted by the Brookline High School faculty, “We believe that education is an addiction to the tart and not the sweet.”
    (Quoted by Tom Peters in A Passion for Excellence.)

What I am saying is that good Jewish education should be “local and sustainable.”
By “local” I mean, that Jewish education should take place within the dynamic of a living Jewish community. Judaism that cannot be lived can’t be all that functional. Likewise, those who teach should be part of that Jewish community. This does not mean that one can only hire members to be teachers—BUT RATHER—communities need to work hard at making faculty feel invited to participate.

By “sustainable” I am meaning that Jewish Education should lead to future Jewish living. It is impossible for me to define what is adequate learning to sustain Jewish life. For me, it includes a lot of text literacy and tools for “making-meaning” out of primary Jewish sources. These are the tools to remix the Jewish tradition. But, I am more than willing to admit that adequacy has a lot to one’s definition of Jewish living.

I fully believe that the community built at a camp retreat is a useful and highly functional expression of the community that creates “local,” but I doubt that it transfers a lot of sustainability. I know that you can’t teach until you have engaged. That makes engagement necessary, critical, and probably achievable, but it isn’t sufficient to the task of continuity.

We no longer live within the physics of “if you teach them they will come” but I can’t support reduction past the point of sustainability just to achieve demographics. My tradition teaches me that sha’ar yashuv. We will be sustained by a surviving remnant.

Unflavored milk is best for kids even when it isn’t their first choice.