Wednesday, February 24, 2016

How do we know when Jewish education is successful?

For the past several years, I have been writing about the philosophy underlying my work in congregational education in annual cover-articles for the Temple Emanu-El bulletin. This is what I wrote for Vol. 88, No. 5. As always, I'd love your feedback and thoughts in the comments below.
When Rabbi Mordechai died, his son, Rabbi Noah, took his place as leader. Many of his followers found that in several matters he did not act as his father had, and they asked him about it. “I act,” he said, “Exactly as my father did. He never imitated others, and neither do I!” — Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim 
At Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, we employ two complementary approaches to engage our students in their cultural heritage: instruction and enculturation. While we often emphasize instruction — deliberate and systematic skill building, training and sharing of knowledge — equally important is enculturation — providing our students with a sense of belonging within our community. Our program must show our students what it means to behave as a member of our synagogue and of our people. These values are not only taught explicitly; they also are embodied in our architecture, our music, how we dress, how we treat one another and many other subtle ways.

As adults, we want our synagogue’s youngest members to feel a part of the same vibrant community that is such an important part of our lives. The distinctive elements that distinguish Jewish culture must motivate them to stay engaged with Jewish life. The values that guide us are ones that we hope to share with our children: for example, to be generous in our philanthropy, curious and inquisitive in our study, active in our service to the community at large, and moved by the words of prayer.

These values are reflected in our commitment as adults, respectively, to the Philanthropic Committee, to the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center, to tikkun olam and to our sanctuary worship. Similarly, the education of our children embodies these values in our weekly collection of tzedakah, our Religious School classes, Mitzvah Corps and other service-oriented programs, and in our tefilah and Shabbat Kodesh services. All of these activities, and many more like them, seek to reinforce to our children the things that truly matter to us as adults. The Jewish lifestyle that we model is just as important as the content of the lesson.

For Reform Jews, however, authenticity can’t be judged by how much our opinions or actions resemble those of the people who came before us. Core to the ideology of our movement is that we not merely replicate the past but that we also renew our rituals and traditions to make them meaningful and relevant to the present generation. We therefore face a particular challenge: Because effective teaching can’t be measured by how much our students believe and behave like their parents and grandparents, how do we know when our efforts are successful?

Friday, May 29, 2015

A Joke with a Yiddish Punchline

This past March, the Emanu-El Skirball Center hosted a book release party for "A Fire Burns in Kotsk," a translation by Jonathan Boyarin of Pshishke in Kotzk, written in Yiddish by my grandfather, Menashe Unger. My brother Mark (who is named for my zeidi) and I told stories of his life, and Jonathan read excerpts from the book. In this video, from the Q&A, I share one of his jokes. 


If you enjoyed this, go ahead and watch the full video of the event.

Let me add, my zeidi wasn't the only one to tell jokes in English with Yiddish punchlines. Here's another (perhaps funnier?) one.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Studying our history to build a Jewish future

In May of 2014, I posted a personal vision statement for Jewish education. Previously, I offered two examples of this vision how we have implemented these ideas in our work at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York: In our curricula for tzedakah (which I will here translate loosely as "social justice") and tefilah ("prayer"). This week, I wish to share with you a little of how we have organized our history curriculum for grades 3-6. In so doing, I want to once again emphasize that collaboration is the cornerstone of our methodology, and I am reporting on the intersection between my philosophy and the work we do, not taking credit for our achievements. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts, your feedback, and your critique.

The most important thing you can do for your children, writes New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler, is to tell them true stories about your own family. The more children know about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the greater their resilience in the face of stress. By sharing our childhood memories and the stories of our parents and grandparents, we teach our children that they are part of something larger than themselves, something intergenerational and ongoing. As our children discover that they, too, can be story-tellers, they learn how to make sense of the confusing and sometimes unpredictable world around them.

Stories of redemption -- family narratives that tell of overcoming setbacks and recovering from failures -- are the most beneficial, according to psychologist Dan McAdams. We help our children to be courageous in the face of adversity when we let them know that although we have had both good and bad times, we have always persevered. Telling stories about the times when we endured hardship without losing hope gives our children confidence in themselves and their capacity to succeed. Further, McAdams’ research shows that those who have both this sense of personal agency as well as intimate, caring relationships are most likely to demonstrate a concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations.

Monday, October 13, 2014

From "Repentance" to "Recovery" - a rare NYC performance of Freedom Song

My friends,

The performance of Freedom Song that we’re hosting this Sunday at Emanu-El rises to such a high level, in my estimation, that I feel I need to share it with as many people as I can – and especially, to my friends who are parents of teens, or who work with teens.

I’m pasting the email I sent to the Emanu-El community below. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Beit T’Shuvah, I think you will be amazed to learn about it. Please help me spread the word about this program, and perhaps I will even see you (and your family?) there. Tickets can be purchased on-line at Further, a private session just for educators and youth workers will be held at 3pm; for details email me at

With love,
We went to teen high holiday services, we told the eScapegoat about the things we did wrong...what now?

As I am now in my eighth year at Emanu-El, I have for the first time in my professional career seen the students I met as children grow to be teens and young adults. I couldn't be prouder of the responsible and capable people that you have become and are becoming. Further, I am inspired by the caring and thoughtful parents in this community as I think about how I am striving to raise my own (still little) children.

And, as someone who grew up in NYC, I am very aware of the kinds of challenges with which we teens, young adults, and parents struggle. There is a lot of pressure to succeed and to fit in, and it frankly doesn't get any easier as you get older, it just changes shape.

Which is why it was so important to me, when I first learned of the work of Beit T'Shuvah and their musical Freedom Song that we bring it from Los Angeles to New York City. Beit T'Shuvah is a residential treatment center that approaches addiction and other self-destructive behaviors through Jewish wisdom. Freedom Song, written by residents in recovery, parallels a Passover Seder, with its message of liberation from oppression and internal bondage, with a 12-step meeting. Why? Because, as their Rabbi Mark Borovitz, writes:

"Addiction can happen in every family, no matter what religion they practice and despite any facade of normalcy. If you look at all the things we're addicted to, it's not just drugs, alcohol and gambling - it's a way of living that's become so ingrained in people. We're living in a society where we've forgotten what's important about being Jewish, about what we've brought to the world."

Freedom Song will be performed live on-stage here at Emanu-El on Sunday, October 19th. Doors are at 5pm and the performance at 5:30pm, followed by a talk-back with the cast and then breakout discussion groups led by the performers and our educators. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased through our website, I hope you will be able to join me. This event, run in partnership with the Temple Emanu-El Skirball Center, is open to the general public - so please tell your friends!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part IV)

Tomorrow evening we enter into the sabbatical or shmita year, and so once again I share with you a section from my master's thesis on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. In my three previous posts, I discussed the significance of sanctifying the act of eating, how saying this blessings can help us think about proper nutrition and a healthy diet, and how we should always relate to our food as a Divine gift.

This week, as is only fitting in the days after the world's largest climate-change protest here in NYC, I discuss how saying this blessings can help us to confront our increased alienation from the sources of our food. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education.
Birkat Ha-Mazon is an opportunity to examine where our food comes from, how it is grown and raised, how it is packaged and transported to us, and how it is prepared. In the modern era, most city-dwellers have lost touch with the sources of origin of their food. This is evident in the description of the world in Goldberger’s How to Thank HaShem for Food: “The earth is the most ancient and the most modern food-factory which was created and is constantly maintained by the Master of the Universe” (p. 21). We have become so alienated from the processes of farming and harvesting that in order to provide an analogy that makes sense to the contemporary reader, Goldberger describes the workings of the world in terms of a factory, the strongest symbol of industrialization and the human domination of the planet one could find!

Arthur Waskow analyzes the problem, asking whether “in our own time of earthquake both in the world and for the Jewish people . . . we need to rethink how to make food sacred as deeply as our ancestors did? For them, food was no longer what they grew in a small land by dint of their own labors, but what came to them by ship and camel train. For us, food has more and more become what is manufactured, not just grown: It comes from crossbred and genetically engineered plants and animals; it comes with inserted vitamins; it comes heavily packaged, precooked, frozen, irradiated, invented” (p. 68). Dr. Steven M. Brown asserts the value that Birkat Ha-Mazon can have in responding to this situation, for each time we say a blessing we acknowledge God and the chain of events (human or otherwise) that enabled us to have the gift of food in front of us.

Even when the Israelites experienced the miracle of manna falling from the sky, they still were obligated to collect it every morning, for it would rot if kept overnight (Exodus 16:21). The lesson here seems to be that our sustenance is the result of a partnership between God and human beings. Food is a miracle, but human effort plays a critical role in planting, raising, harvesting, and preparing the food we eat. Ultimately, God is the source of all of our nourishment, but we must also be aware of the humans (such as the farmers, the truckers, and the cooks) which brought the food to our mouths.
    Goldberger, Moshe. How to thank Hashem for Food: Lessons from Birkas Ha-Mazon. New York: Gross Books, 1988.
    Waskow, Arthur. Down-to-Earth Judaism: Food, Money, Sex, and the Rest of Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part III)

Before I share with you this third gleaning from my master's thesis, I want to mention that my brilliant (and pedantic) friend Ori correctly observes that the title of this series is poorly worded, as we do not actually bless our bread. Rather, when we say a blessing we are blessing God, or rather, we are blessing God's ineffable name.

This is, of course, a critical difference. If you arrive late to Shabbat dinner, you are still required to make the blessings over the challah before you start eating. This is because, when we say a blessing over food, the food itself is in no way changed. What was previously an ordinary piece of bread is not made sacred (as is, for example, believed by many Christians to be the case for the communion wafer). Rather, it is our relationship to our food that is altered and made sacred, as is described in more detail in this excerpt. My thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section is after the jump.
According to tradition, Birkat Ha-Mazon was instituted by Moses at the time when the manna miraculously descended to feed the Israelites during their travels in the Sinai desert (Talmud Berachot 48b). Elie Munk, quoting S. R. Hirsch, writes that by connecting Birkat Ha-Mazon to the manna, the rabbis teach us that “every piece of bread eaten now is as much a gift from God as the manna was.” (1954, p. 211). Goldberger, drawing from Talmud Pesachim 118a, asserts that the process by which God “causes a seed to transform earth into food [is] as spectacular as the miracle of the splitting of the sea” (1988, p. 5).

The point of each of these statements is that food is always gift from God, a gift which cannot be taken for granted. The provision of food is a daily miracle, whether it is effortlessly picked from the trees (as in the Garden of Eden) or reaped from the earth through great effort (after leaving the Garden). “The message appears rather clear: When we thank God for giving us food, we are recognizing that there is no intrinsic difference between the manna and the livelihood one wrests from the earth through sweat and hard toil; both are gifts from heaven” (1984, p. 182).

This connection is also made in the blessing said prior to eating bread, “Ha-Motzi.” This blessing thanks God “who brings forth bread from the land.” Bread – not wheat, which would be more technically accurate – to affirm God’s centrality to the entire process of making bread, from the sprouting of the grain to its baking in the oven. As Evelyn Garfiel puts it, “finding his daily bread never ceases to be a Nes [miracle] even to the farmer who toils so hard to produce the grain, for he recognizes its ultimate source to be God’s loving care for all His [sic] creatures. It is God ‘Who brings forth [the] bread from the earth’” (1958, p. 122).

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Why do we bless our bread? (Part II)

Continuing to mine my master's thesis on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals, as we build up to the shmita year, this week I share with you the section on using the prayer as an opportunity to focus on proper nutrition. I won't overstate the analogy, but I believe that just as saying this prayer can be a time for personal and communal reflection on issues relating to food, diet and nutrition, so too can we look at the coming year as a chance to rethink and renew our approaches to these topics. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section is after the jump.
The World Health Organization defines "Health" as balance between physical, mental and social being. Birkat Ha-Mazon reminds us of the need to pay attention to, and strike a balance between, each one of these aspects of our health. Birkat Ha-Mazon is a social activity, as it is often said as the conclusion of a communal meal. Focusing on the text can lead to heightened cognitive awareness of, and encounter with, challenging issues affecting Jews and people in general. Here, I wish to look at the role that Birkat Ha-Mazon can play as a focal point in thinking about the physical impact of food on our bodies, or in other words, for nutrition education.

According to Genesis 1:26, humans are created “b’tzelem Elohim,” in the image of God. Although the interpretations of this are manifold, one generally accepted implication is that any form of self-harm violates Jewish law as it is a desecration of the Divine image. The extent to which this principle is applied varies: Some communities forbid body-piercing based on this idea, while others will not smoke cigarettes. Arguably, a concern for proper diet and exercise should be considered a Jewish obligation.

Birkat Ha-Mazon is a mandatory pause at the conclusion of a meal. We can use this time to make a connection between the food we have eaten and the nourishment it has provided us. This is also an opportunity for us to reflect upon the choices we have made with the foods we have eaten. One might ask oneself questions along the lines of: Did I waste food?  Did I overeat? Was the food grown (or raised) in a manner that fits with my ethics? How did this food get from its point of origin to me? How did the choices I made affect other people’s lives?

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Why do we bless our bread?

As some of you will recall, my master's thesis as a student at Davidson School of Education (15 years ago!) was on Birkat Ha-Mazon, the grace after meals. As we round the corner into a shmita year, I thought I'd take this opportunity to share with you a section of that work. The thesis in its entirety can be found online at the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education. The full text of this section be found after the jump.
A concern for food appears at the very beginning of the Bible. Sustenance for human beings, and for all creatures, is viewed as an intrinsic component of the Divine plan of creation. In God’s first address to humanity, in the first chapter of Genesis, God instructs the humans that they may eat from every plant on the ground and every fruit of the tree (Gen. 1:29). Shortly thereafter, this is qualified with the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:17). Just as babies receive nourishment while in the womb, in the “perfect” paradise of the Garden of Eden, food is provided for humans without any effort on their part.
When the humans are expelled from Eden, a new stage in their relationship with food begins. Now, God admonishes Adam, only “by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Gen. 3:19). This is the first mention of bread in the Bible, which, in contrast to the fruit of the Garden of Eden, requires human labor. In the next chapter, perhaps in response to the anxiety provoked by the responsibility of providing food for oneself, Cain and Abel bring the first sacrificial offerings to God (Gen. 4:3-4). This offering can be seen as a petition, or as a thanksgiving, for successful harvests and healthy livestock.

Arthur Waskow writes of two ways by which the ancient Israelites sanctified the food they ate, which can be traced back to these first four chapters of Genesis. “One major approach they took to hallowing food was to set some aside as sacred, others as forbidden” (23).  The prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge can be seen as paradigmatic of this approach, later reflected in laws of Kashrut, tithing, fasts, Sabbatical years, and so on. The “other process for hallowing food was to take the products of the land to a single place, the Temple in Jerusalem, there to bring God near to them” (24). The offerings of Cain and Abel are the prototype for sacrificial worship, evinced in stories of Noah (Gen. 8:20), Abraham (Gen. 12:7) and so on, and which ultimately reaches its peak in the unified system of regulated sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.
These two dimensions for the sanctification of food -- that of making distinctions between food which may and may not be eaten and that of consecrating food as an offering to God -- will be discussed in great detail in the upcoming sections.  Here, I wish to emphasize that there is a third conception of the sanctification of food. The very act of eating, the turning of physical matter into energy, of the life-force in a plant or animal into one’s own life-force, is in itself a sacred activity.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

How to ask a question (?) (!) (?)

The following is a excerpt from the article "Active Learning in the Halakha class" by Mark Smilowitz, which first appeared in the Lookstein Center's journal Jewish Educational Leadership:
Classically, teachers and students alike tend to view questions as stemming from problems; if nothing bothers you, you don't ask. Even progressive methods devised to make students active learners through questioning seem to view questions as stemming from problems. For example, the "inquiry training" model relies on presenting students with puzzling events that will naturally arouse their curiosity and stimulate their questions. This approach "deliberately selects episodes that have sufficiently surprising outcomes to make it difficult for students to remain indifferent to the encounter.

Perhaps you've seen a science exhibition where they put a blown up balloon into liquid nitrogen, and it comes out shrunk. The kids are naturally stimulated to ask why it does that, because the outcome is surprising. This is precisely the kind of curiosity-generating activity that would kick off a unit in the inquiry training approach.

But let's consider another way to stimulate curiosity. Take a regular balloon, a normal object that doesn't automatically generate questions, and hold it up in front of a classroom as is, and tell students they have two minutes to write down as many questions as they can think of that will help them understand the balloon better. Tell them not to hold back, but to let their imaginations go.

When I do this experiment on myself, I find that I suddenly become interested in things I wasn't interested in before – science questions such as why balloons lose their air after a while, manufacturing questions like how balloons are made, or maybe economic questions like how do they decide how much balloons cost. When one is prompted in this manner, instead of curiosity generating questions, it is the discipline of questioning that generates the curiosity. We might refer to this latter kind of question as a research-oriented question, as opposed to a problem-based question, because asking this kind of question is often the key to researching a topic

My guess is that most students only know about problem-based questions and are never taught to ask research-oriented questions. Neil Postman expressed his “astonishment at the neglect shown in school toward” the art of formulating questions. “All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that question asking is our most important intellectual tool. I would go so far as to say that the answers we carry about in our heads are largely meaningless unless we know the questions which produced them.”

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tefilah: Empowering Prayer Communities through School Worship

As Reform Jews, our beliefs pull us in two directions. On the one hand, we cherish our autonomy: Our freedom to express ourselves as individuals and to make choices that are entirely our own. At the same time, we know the value of community: Our sense of obligation to others with whom we share a history and a destiny. This dynamic tension can be creative and inspirational – or it can be exhausting and alienating. Perhaps nowhere in Jewish life is the challenge of finding equilibrium between these two forces felt as strongly as in synagogue worship. Prayer is an intensely personal experience, yet when we come together for worship as part of a congregation, we often use words written by someone we have never met and in a language we don’t understand.

In our religious school at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, students learn to respond to this challenge by becoming sophisticated and empowered participants in prayer services. Tefilah (worship) is an integral part of our curriculum, comprising as much as 25 percent of the time that students are in school. Students not only learn the skills to pray as part of a Jewish community but also engage in a rich dialogue about the liturgy that helps them to find personal meaning in the words they say. The experience is transforming how our students see themselves, as they become equipped to grapple with their personal relationships with the Divine amidst a congregation of diverse individuals.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Tzedakah: Building a Culture of Equity

Last week, I posted a personal vision statement for Jewish education. Over the coming year, I will offer suggestions as to how this vision can be implemented based on examples from my work at Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York.

In so doing, I want to emphasize that collaboration is the cornerstone of our methodology, and I am reporting on the intersection between my philosophy and the work we do, not taking credit for our achievements.

I begin with a look at how we teach about tzedakah. I think this is something most of us working in supplementary school education get right. This is, to my mind, a clear way to demonstrate the critical role of Jewish education not only to guide value-driven practice and participation in Jewish community (as if those weren’t enough!), but also to offer unique ways of engaging the world.

At Emanu-El, we teach that the Hebrew word tzedakah literally means, not “charity” (from the Latin “caritas,” “altruistic love”), but “justice.” On our website, in our classrooms, and through family programming, we emphasize that sharing our good fortune equitably with others is not only an act of compassion, but a responsibility. We show how our tradition teaches that our achievements are always dependent upon Divine providence, and that with our wealth, we must seek equity. Further, we emphasize how this sense of responsibility has always, and continues to play, a central role in our communal identity.