Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Talking with our children about tragic events

This is what I shared with the Religious School community at Temple Emanu-El after the events at Tree of Life Synagogue:

Dear School Families,

During Religious School on Sunday and Monday, we did not explicitly raise the tragic events at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with our students. We know that every child is different, and each family must choose to handle the situation in its own way. Yet, we also know that many of our children have questions and fears that we, as their parents, want to address – not to mention our own, adult concerns.

I want to share with you the guidance I gave our faculty, which holds for parents as well:

  1. If the children bring up the topic, don’t shut it down. Listen attentively to what they have to say -- their concerns and their questions, their thoughts and feelings -- and let that drive the conversation.
  2. Try to answer questions factually without adding unnecessary details. Don’t assume that your questions and concerns are theirs.
  3. Reassure the children that Temple Emanu-El is a safe place; we are a sanctuary for all people seeking comfort and support. Here at Emanu-El, there are many adults who are looking out for them and who know exactly what to do to prevent emergencies of all types from happening. A good example is that when there is a fire drill, we all are trained to respond quickly and safely. There are other things that the kids don’t know about that we, the adults, are doing to keep them safe.
  4. Let them know that an important part of what it means to be Jewish is that when we hear about tragedy, we want to respond. That is why Emanu-El is participating in city-wide vigils (both to express our emotions and to demonstrate our solidarity) and why our Philanthropic Committee and Student Council are already talking about what we can do to help the people of the Tree of Life Community.
  5. Remind them that there are always many more people trying to be good than to do harm, of all religions, backgrounds, and nationalities. Unfortunately, it is so much easier to be destructive than to build, and bad news always gets the headlines – but remember, although there are some dangerous people in the world, nearly everyone you meet is a kind, generous, loving person like yourself.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Golden Age of Religious School Education

I wrote this article for the March-April 2018 edition of the Temple Emanu-El Bulletin.
The challenges of Jewish education are largely the same as they were more than a century ago, when the first generations of American Jews began attending supplementary schools. Forced by these challenges to be inventive and resourceful, the best educators integrated innovative approaches and cutting-edge practices. And yet, because we are in an era of unprecedented collaboration, I believe we are now in a “Golden Age” for religious schools.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Where have all the Teachers Gone? A Collaborative Community Response

This article about the course I will be teaching this semester, authored by Dr. Evie Levy Rotstein, appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy on September 14, 2017:
Each year the challenge seems to grow. Jewish educators are frantically searching for qualified teachers to fill open positions in their religious schools. Research for many years has indicated that there is a shortage of well-trained teachers in Jewish settings, exacerbated by the challenge of retaining strong teachers for these part-time positions. (Westheimer, 2007). This past summer, though, the problem was particularly striking: I received more requests than ever for graduate students to fill multiple empty positions in the New York metropolitan area. Is this problem intractable, or can something be done?
Last winter, a group of seasoned NYC educators that form a peer network group hosted by the Jewish Education Project in Manhattan began to explore this very issue. They discussed how they might collaborate to offer high level professional learning to encourage current religious school teachers to become teacher leaders. One of the educators, Saul Kaiserman, teaches our “Laboratory in Teaching in Learning” course to rabbinic, cantorial and Masters in Religious Education students at HUC-JIR New York School of Education. What would happen if these educators could offer their faculty members such a course for graduate credit at a highly subsidized tuition fee? What if the congregations themselves paid for the course and then offered the teachers a salary bonus upon the completion of the course? Might avocational teachers begin to consider a career in Jewish education? There was significant back and forth as the group hammered out what they would want in such a course, whether their teachers would realistically attend such a course, how many transferable credits it would be, and ultimately if the finances would be feasible.
And behold a strategy for change was born. HUC-JIR made the bold decision to offer students enrollment at an incredibly subsidized rate, similar in cost to the introductory course for the Executive Master’s Program. The professor offered to teach the course gratis, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York agreed to host the course, and all of the congregations were willing to provide the funding for the tuition. At the time of writing, teachers representing congregations across NYC have applied for a spot in this course
This is a story of community collaboration and the desire to address the challenges of the teacher shortage and retention. We as leaders in the field of Jewish education must continue to find ways to recognize and validate the fact that our teachers need to continue their own growth and learning to keep them from leaving the field. We know from the data, that teachers who do not participate in ongoing professional development are less effective in the classroom and less likely to meet the emerging needs of students, administrators, and the field of Jewish education. Our hope is that this course may be the catalyst for teachers to seek a graduate degree and ultimately a full time career in Jewish education. We also need to think about the future of Jewish education leadership. 
If you are interested in learning more about the course please follow this link or contact Dr. Evie Rotstein at

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Talking with our Students about the Election

I want to share with you the email that I sent to our school faculty at Temple Emanu-El:
Dear School Faculty,

Several of you have spoken this week with either Jackie or me about the outcome of our presidential election. You have expressed a particular challenge it poses to us as Jewish educators. The question I’m hearing is something along the lines of, “how can we teach our children what it means to be a good and morally righteous leader, if I think the president-elect is a terrible role model?”

Clearly, that is not how all of our congregants, or faculty, or even a great many of those who voted in this election feel. Yet, we do know that throughout his campaign, Donald Trump used hurtful language in an unprecedented fashion, with rhetoric that was explicitly racist, misogynistic, and just plan mean-spirited. How do we explain to our students that it is unacceptable for them to use such language, if our president does?

As Jews, we believe the Torah can be a guide for our behavior. When we study the stories of our ancestors, we see how their actions serve as examples for us today. And yet, even our greatest leaders were imperfect. Side by-side with their hospitality, compassion, and righteousness we find selfishness, arrogance, and even cruelty. In truth, from their stories we not only learn what to do, but also what NOT to do.

It is our responsibility to help our students (and their parents) decide for themselves which values lead to a loving, just and peaceful world and then together build a community in which they can act upon those values -- even when they are in opposition to those values espoused by our leaders. We need to be able to stand up to oppression wherever we encounter it. And most importantly, we need our school to be a place of sanctuary for all of our students and families, in which all feel safe to be wholly themselves.

While we always encourage those who have made mistakes to seek forgiveness and improve upon their past actions, we should not excuse or minimize bad behavior, no matter how prestigious the person engaging in it.

As always, both Jackie and I make it our top priority to help you think about your teaching and your individual students. Please don’t be shy about reaching out to us to think an issue through – on this topic, or for any other reason.

We are strong, getting stronger, getting strength from each other.

For more reading on this topic, I recommend the op-ed by Emily Bazelon in today's New York Times, Bullying in the Age of Trump. And here is a great set of resources from Border Crossers.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Moving Past Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit

Here's something that I wrote back in 2008, together with Rachel Brumberg, Danny Mishkin, and David Wolkin for the "Mentor's Voice" column of the (now defunct) Leadership Institute for Congregational Educators

Anyone who has been involved in a change initiative has probably encountered the phrase “low hanging fruit,” those targets or goals which are easily achievable and which do not require a lot of effort. There are any number of reasons why it is advantageous to focus change efforts on low hanging fruit at the outset.  But what then? 

At Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, in a series of departmental retreats, we identified new challenges that arise as low-hanging fruit is picked, and how we might respond to those challenges.  Here is a summary of the thoughts of our Department of Lifelong Learning full-time staff:

1. What do we mean by “low-hanging fruit?”
  • Things that require little work and can be done easily
  • Things that can be successful more quickly (even if a lot of work)
  • Things for which it is obvious what success would look like
  • Things that may not require systemic change – can stand alone, can be handled departmentally and autonomously, are perhaps less threatening or non-threatening
2. Why focus on low-hanging fruit at the start?
  • To build confidence and trust in leadership & change process though early successes
  • To respond to the hunger for change and for deliverables – start with a bang!
  • To create buy-in and to build trust among stakeholders – people want to see results!
  • To build the morale of the team
3. What new challenges arise as low-hanging fruit is picked?
When the low hanging fruit is used up –  what then?  How will we know what to tackle next?  How can we prepare for future challenges? 
  • There is the possibility of addressing symptoms but not causes. As a result, the changes we make may only be superficial and the solutions may only work for a limited duration. 
  • Any new interventions or program changes require systems, structures, and staffing that must be coordinated, managed, and supervised -- they don’t run themselves!  Managing the increased workload resulting from new initiatives, and developing new systems and procedures, can become so time consuming that no further initiatives can be developed.
  • We don’t necessarily learn the skills (or help others learn the skills) that will enable us to tackle more challenging problems or projects.
  • Because this work doesn’t require people to get out of their comfort zones, it does not require us to create an environment in which conflict and debate is effectively managed and resolved.
  • The expectation can be developed that we will continue making positive change at the same pace, even though further changes would be more challenging to institute.
  • If all the work done is done internally and departmentally, it does not build a collaborative environment or shared sense of accountability.  Therefore, changes may not develop the deep roots that enable them to endure beyond the efforts of the change-makers.
4. What should we do to respond to these challenges?
  • Be willing to shake the tree!  Take risks!
  • Climb the tree: Think strategically and long-term. Set priorities that will have deep impact and stick to them.  Build consensus and shared accountability around these priorities. Be strong and resolute in face of opposition. Learn to say “no” by sticking to our priorities.
  • Focus on infrastructure and build systems.  Use what we have learned so far to develop procedures and routines to handle day-to-day tasks – especially high urgency, low importance and low priority items.
  • Broaden and deepen our relationships with members of the community (including families, faculty, and staff in other departments).  Provide volunteers with real responsibilities, an active voice, and the ability to directly impact the program. Continue to build and deepen buy-in among our stakeholders, not merely as lip service, but because we see their participation as critical to the long-term success of the endeavor.
  • Clarify our expectations (for participation, achievement, and so on) and publicize them widely.  Where our language is vague, clarify what we really mean.  Establish a culture of commitment and responsibility.
  • Think about our legacy – what do we want things to look like once we are gone, and how can we make our changes stick?

Saturday, November 05, 2016

Aspiring to "Failure" (from the Jewish Futures Conference, 2015)

With the next Jewish Futures Conference just around the corner, I realized I had never posted this video of my presentation from the 2015 Conference

The theme was "radical empathy," and my presentation, "Failure," was on my experience as a teacher at the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan

Here's the punch-line: "If I'm a better teacher now, it's because what I've learned is that being a great teacher...isn't about being a great teacher. It's about helping the kids to be great students."

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.