Saturday, October 28, 2006

December means Eco-Retreats at Isabella Freedman

Two exciting and innovative retreats on the relationship between Jews and the environment are being held next month at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut. (IFJRC is the home of the innovative Adamah Fellowship that integrates Jewish learning and spirituality with organic farming.) How I wish I could attend!

Sustainiable Zion: An Exploration of Israel’s Environmental Crisis and Our Spiritual and Personal Connection to the Land will be held from December 1st – 3rd, 2006 and is targeted to 20 - 36 year olds [so I'm too old to participate anyway, ah well]. It is co-sponsored by the Green Zionist Alliance and the Conservative movement [one of the less ho-hum outcomes of the elections for the World Zionist Congress last winter]. Tuition (all inclusive) is only $100, with additional scholarships available for those on extremely limited incomes. More details can be found here.

Then, from December 14-17 will be From Latkes to Lattes: Hazon’s Conference on Jews, Food, and Contemporary Life, which will examine the intersection of Jewish life and contemporary food issues. The family-friendly conference will include "hands-on" cooking sessions, "a diverse and inclusive Shabbat and Chanukah celebration" and "delicious, kosher, organic food." More info and registration, right here.

While we're on the subject of food, my graduate thesis from the Davidson School, Teaching Birkat Hamazon: The Grace After Meals, is available on-line as a .pdf file thanks to the Lookstein Center. In it, I tackle how the prayer expresses connections between Judaism, food, spirituality, and the environment - an idea brought to fruition in a series of lesson plans written by Daniel Rose that are also available through Lookstein.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Jewish Week not pleased to be "Left Behind"

If last month's report on computer games on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict wasn't sufficiently weird for you, then this article entitled "Jews in the Virtual Cross-Hairs" from the current Jewish Week might satisfy:

Based on the wildly popular Evangelical “Left Behind” book series, which details the struggle between good and evil once the Rapture occurs and true believers in Christ are whisked away to heaven, the game is due out early next month and poised, some industry analysts say, to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. As members of the Tribulation Force, the game’s protagonists, the player must roam the streets of a carefully rendered Manhattan and interact with passers-by, many of whom come equipped with “life stories” stressing their biography and spiritual state.

New York being New York, a large number of these computer-generated characters are Jewish. One of the game’s major goals is to convert as many of these characters, winning them over to the side of good. Although the game doesn’t mention Christ or Christianity specifically ... [it] offers, as a reward for completing each level, the opportunity to be directed to a Christian ministry’s Web site.

Being the computer geek that I am, of course I had to see how the game is described on Gamespot, a major site for reviews and insider previews of computer games. You can get a pretty good feel for the vibe of the game from the offical trailers, but their preview notes some unusual features of the game, such as:

  • "Like many real-time strategy games, Eternal Forces features a variety of resources that you need to accumulate to build units. One of these resources is your spiritual rating, which measures how good or evil you are. If your troops kill civilians and innocents, your spiritual rating drops, and if it drops too much, you may see your units defect (each unit has his or her own spiritual rating), and if drops too far, demons will show up."

  • "The game will feature biblical facts between levels, accompanied by tracks from Christian rock groups" (with in-game links to let players buy songs from iTunes).

  • "While you will play the single-player campaign from the perspective of the good guys, the multiplayer will let you play as either side. This will raise some eyebrows among some of the game's audience, but Left Behind Games felt it was important to represent both sides in the game."

The note that this is a "game that most people will have an opinion about, even if they never play it" is borne out by the user comments, which make the Ha'aretz discussion groups look tame (see the next article, below). The game is due to ship in mid-November. PS: I love the Gamespot mention that the game includes "Biblical facts."

Ha'aretz: Censorship on behalf of public discourse?

What happens when public discussion forums get a little out of hand? The English-language website for Ha'aretz has offered one approach with the publication of new guidelines for certain "talkback" articles. Bradley Burston explains:
In theory, the virtual no man's land of cyberspace affords a unique chance for common ground. But no. If anything, the Internet has become a powerful new weapon, widening to the ends of the earth the dimensions of the battleground in the Middle East conflict, exacerbating tensions and sparking new bloodshed with incendiary footage of atrocities real and doctored.

On a day-to-day basis, the battle is joined with gladitorial abandon, fervor, and bloodletting in the arena of the Talkback. More's the pity, since it is in the forum of the Talkback, more than anywhere, that a meeting of well-intentioned hearts and minds could truly take place.

In practice, Talkback forums have all too often served to provide a platform for the bully, the snide verbal abuser, the lockstep ideologue with no tolerance for the opinions of others. The reader sincerely interested in communicating with the other side may well refrain from responding, repulsed by the crude remarks of respondents who have found in Talkbacks a satisfyingly larger potential audience than they would have, had they scrawled the same thoughts on the side wall of a public toilet.

Writing that "censorship will be unapologetic" but that "political orientation will have absolutely no bearing on whether a comment is posted or rejected," criteria for deletion include racist remarks and slurs, comparisons of either Israeli or Arab policies with those of the Nazis, profanities directed at others in the forum, advocacy of violence, and "use of the phrase: 'There are no Palestinians' or derivatives thereof."

From my perspective, this seems to be a reasonable way of trying to create a forum for dialogue. There is a role for facilitation by a moderator, after all -- even if just to prevent a conversation from being dominated by one contributor. I have, for example, had no hesitation when deleting comments left by contributers that consist of nothing more than links to spam sites and do nothing to further discussion of, really, anything at all. Nevertheless, I'm curious whether readers of this blog see this form of Net censorship as a postive step or as overly intrusive.

I spoke too soon (and I'm glad)!

In an earlier entry (Who will teach the kids of Hadar?), I wrote that NYC's one-day-of-learning program "Lishmah" was now defunct. Apparently I spoke too soon: The program is continuing this year, now under the auspices of Alma NY. It will be held all day Sunday, November 19, at the Bronfman Center at NYU.

However, this change in leadership may still support the original concern that I raised - that it is tough (perhaps impossible) to mantain volunteer-driven programs without professional support.

You can get more information about Lishmah, including a list of the presenters and performers, right here. The cost is $18 for adults and $15 for students, including refreshments -- what a bargain!

Join us for: “Lishmah 2006” - a one-day celebration of the Book of Creation. Alma NY, in partnership with Storahtelling and the Bronfman Center, invites you to continue the tradition and join us for the 2006 Lishmah event. Lishmah is a day dedicated to highlighting the depth and breadth of Jewish learning. By creating an extraordinary one-day experience for Jews from across social, political, and denominational lines, Lishmah aims to inspire a revival in Jewish learning that touches the entire community. Lishmah means "for its own sake," a traditional concept that celebrates learning for the sheer love of learning.

Join Alma NY for a celebration of Jewish knowledge. Study, shmooze and have fun throughout a unique day of lectures, films, music and performances all focusing on Jewish texts. Top educators, artists and performers from New York and Israel will present an innovative, multi-disciplinary and intriguing approach to the Book of Genesis. “Fall for Genesis” is a day celebrating the fall season. We invite you to huddle with us at this time of year, not under blankets, but under another canopy – that of Jewish text and culture - thus creating a learning community. In the “spirit of Alma ” we will engage in learning which “dances” between Jewish text and other forms of culture and art.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Who will teach the kids of Hadar?

With all the attention being given to the success of independent prayer and study communities of 20 and 30 somethings, one cannot help but wonder how things will look several years in the future if these communities continue to thrive. Presumably, increasing numbers of the participants will become parents, and children will play an expanding role in the life of these communities.

Currently, when “independent minyanim” talk about learning, they mainly think about how to sustain and expand the study opportunities for their adult membership (see, for example, Hadar’s meeting notes from January 2005, outlining it's 3-5 year vision). I think it is not too early to ask: how will the next generation of children of the non-synagogue world be Jewishly educated?

This blog entry is intended to open up an ongoing discussion about this question and an examination of the different possibilites for Jewish education for the children of these independent minyanim. I hope that you will respond by challenging any of the assumptions or conclusions presented and by offering new insights into the topic.

Here's a sketch of the major options, as I see them:
  1. DAY SCHOOLS: Probably the majority of the parents will send their children to Jewish day schools, and the number of pluralistic/community schools are already growing at a tremendous pace. Many day schools already have a population spread over a number of synagogues, and adding a few independent minyanim into the mix will be no real change.

    This is probably, for the most part, good news for the day schools: Participants in these independent minyanim not only bring a culture of participation and volunteerism, but are also often Jewishly knowledgeable and strongly committed. A key concern to address here will be the high cost of day school education and making sure that financial aid will be available to those among this population who need it.

  2. SYNAGOGUE SCHOOLS: Some families will, of course, join synagogues so that they may enroll their children in their schools (especially synagogue nursery schools), participate in their “tot Shabbat” programs, or for B’nai Mitvah. Parents will have to weigh how to balance between their participation in the synagogue community and in the minyan. However, as the independent minyanim do not offer all of the services (worship and otherwise) that a synagogue provides, many of their participants may already affiliate, at least loosely, with a congregation.

    Certainly, a number of synagogues are moving to pluralistic models of community that can provide a home for those who attend independent minyanim. The fee for synagogue membership will be an issue, and synagogues may be reluctant to make it possible for non-members to attend their schools.

  3. INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS: There have always been alternatives to the synagogue school programs. For example, Workman’s Circle/Arbeter Ring still runs a number of secular Yiddish cultural schools (my mom went to one), and Chabad runs nursery and supplementary schools that target a diverse , unaffiliated population. Parents who attend these schools that want their children to become bar or bat mitzvah can either organize it privately or through a synagogue.

    An opportunity may exist here for the building of non-denominational and non-secular schools that would speak to the parents of independent minyanim in a way that cultural or Chabad schools would not – the question is, who would fund such a venture?

  4. GROWING THEIR OWN SCHOOL: Could the independent minyanim found their own schools as was done by, for example, by Kolot Chayeinu or Brooklyn Jews? Starting up an educational-program is complicated. Most of these minyanim are volunteer-driven; while folks may be willing to volunteer to lead a session at Limmud, most educational programs rely upon at least a few paid professionals. Could a part-time, volunteer-driven school model work, with perhaps a “community organizer” as the only paid position?

    Such a venture would take a lot of dedication and a lot energy on the part of the members of the minyanim, which might be difficult to sustain. On the one hand, these are to some degree the same folks who volunteer at Lishmah, Limmud, and other adult-learning opportunities, so they already have the experience and the know-how; on the other hand, the all-volunteer-driven Lishmah only endured for two years.

  5. What about alternatives to formal schooling altogether?

  6. TUTORING: An ever-increasing number of parents have their children tutored privately at home, often in small groups. Generally such programs (such as Partners with Parents) offer tutoring in academic subjects and test-preparation as well as Hebrew, Jewish studies, and bar and bat mitzvah preparation. This model allows for greater individualization of the curriculum, personal attention, and flexibility in scheduling, and enables the building of multiple-year relationships between teachers and families. Success is often predicated on the charisma of the teachers (although this may not be any different from any of the above models).

    A major concern here is the high cost of private tutoring. However, one advantage for participants in independent minyanim is that they may not need to worry about private tutoring being an isolating experience, as they already have a worship community.

  7. HOME-SCHOOLING: Certainly, a good number of the parents within the world of independent minyanim have the knowledge-base to provide their children with a Jewish education without needing to rely upon outside sources. Children in many of these families will learn about Shabbat, Jewish holidays, life-cycle events, and so on the “old-fashioned way” – by doing them.

    Already, websites like provide a good starting point, and there are both websites and active yahoo groups (often started by parents) in order to support one another. There’s plenty of technology available for home-based and individualized Jewish learning (for example, as in the JBOP software from JeMM.

    Finding the useful resources, however, can be a challenge, and once again, volunteer and amateur efforts (and those of small production companies) may be difficult to sustain. Another opportunity may exist here to provide parents with centralized resources and guidance. The participation of professionals and experts as community organizers and curriculum developers may be critical for the success of this do-it-yourself approach.

  8. “INFORMAL” EDUCATION: Programs such as youth groups, Israel trips, and summer camps are generally thought of as an add-on for a child’s Jewish education, and certainly could round out any of the above approaches. Could such programs build upon their successes and organize year-round, family-oriented opportunities, or would this diffuse their effectiveness at what they are already doing?

The good news is that there’s no lack of options already available for the families of the independent minyanim. The challenges, as I see them, are twofold.

On the one hand, the models that are built around a professional staff (such as day schools, supplementary schools and tutoring) can be prohibitively expensive. Families with a modest income may need financial assistance or the programs may require new kinds of funding in order to make them affordable to the full spectrum of the Jewish community. Could donors within the Jewish community make it possible for every Jewish child to have a free education, just as Taglit-birthright Israel provides trips to Israel?

On the other hand, models that are built around a volunteer base (such as home-schooling) are difficult to sustain and may require an expertise that not all parents share. Could the independent minyanim - or the larger Jewish community - provide easily accessible and inexpensive support for those parents and institutions that need the resources – both in curriculum and in community organization? And who would fund such initiatives?

I look forward to reading your thoughts!

Opening for Tenure track position at Davidson School

This just came in off the Davidson school alumni listserve:
JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY announces a tenure track position in the Department of Jewish Education. Specialization is open but scholars with expertise in educational leadership and philosophy of education are particularly encouraged to apply.

The Department of Jewish Education forms the core of the Seminary's William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. The Davidson School, the largest school of Jewish education in North America, prepares educators for teaching careers in day schools and universities as well as for leadership positions in synagogue schools, community centers, camps, and other informal settings.

The successful candidate will teach a range of courses to graduate (MA and EdD) and rabbinical students. A record of research and publication or evidence for potential is a must. Rank is open. Candidates already tenured at another institution may be considered for a tenured appointment to JTS.

Please send a cover letter and C.V. by November 21, 2006 to the Chair of the search committee, Prof. Barry W. Holtz, Department of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway, New York, NY 10027.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Kinky Friedman . . . Good for the Teachers!

Kinky Friedman, the Jewish cowboy/folk-singer/mystery-novel writer and independent candidate in the Texas gubernatorial race, was quoted in The Pine Log (Austin State University's newspaper) as advocating the legalization of gambling in Texas in order to raise teacher's salaries. Staff writer Jesse Williams writes:
He said teachers had the most important job but are paid $6,000 below the national average. Friedman said gambling would bring $8 billion for teachers. Texans must go out of state to gamble. "We invented Texas Hold'Em, and we can't play it," he said.
Besides teacher's pay, he also said that what teachers instruct students should change. He said that Texas is one of the richest states but has the poorest student grades. Friedman said students should be taught things other than what's on the TAKS test. "We've created a generation of kids who don't know if the Civil War was here or in Europe," Friedman said.

With the campaign slogan "why the hell not?," it is hard to imagine how any dissatisfied Texan voter could resist voting for the man who wrote "They ain't making Jews like Jesus anymore." But if you'd like to be convinced a little more, check out one of his cartoon campaign messages on myspace.

UPDATE (10/3): Thanks to BZ for alerting me that Kinky might not be an all-around ideal candidate -- I'm not so comfortable with certain remarks that he claims were made satirically about Katrina refugees, for example, and he has some disconcerting views about illegal immigration and school prayer.

Of course, one might find the idea of using gambling proceeds as a way to pay for teacher's salaries troubling in the first place.

But should teachers be scared of the Zune?

Mike Elgan, writing in Computerworld, explains why Microsoft's new Zune mp3-player "scares Apple to the core." Available in the US beginning in mid-November for around $250, the Zune will have a 3 inch screen, an FM tuner, and a variety of other nifty features. Elgan notes that the new player will have a seamless interface with Windows, the Xbox, and Soapbox (their version of YouTube), a screen that can be turned sideways (to landscape) for watching movies, and that Microsoft has deals for video and television content from just around every studio you could name.

The most intriguing part, though, is the Zune's peer-to-peer wireless capabilities, making it possible for users to share songs, photos, and other data with other Zune users within Wi-Fi range. Users will be able to choose a "ZuneTag," which is a unique user name that others will see on a kind of "buddy list" when they connect via Wi-Fi. The device will have a "Community" menu from which users can select an item called "Nearby" to display all Zunes within range.

Elgan writes:
"Tweens, teens and twentysomethings have acquired the habit of feverishly sharing videos and songs. Today, they mostly have to wait until they get home and use their PCs to do so. With the Zune, students will be free to share music, videos and photos right there in class. They'll be able to pass notes to one another. The Zune isn't just a solitary music player. Think of it as a portable, wireless, hardware version of MySpace."
Wait . . . Pass notes to one another? In class?

With NYC schools already banning mobile phones, are schools going to need to become technology-free zones? How should teachers monitor student use of this technology?

Monday, October 02, 2006

Funding for Day School Technology Initiatives

This just in from the Lookstein Announcements list:
AVI CHAI is looking for new and innovative ways to apply technology to enhancing the teaching of Judaic studies in day schools. To that end, the foundation is providing seed funding for a diverse range of projects with the ultimate goal of learning about and identifying promising educational technology initiatives for Jewish education.

As a first initiative in this area, the foundation has allocated funding to support technological solution to pedagogic challenges. Competitive grants of $2,000 to $10,000 are available for those educators who have identified and developed innovative approaches to using technology in their teaching. Proposals guidelines and forms are available at and are due by November 25, 2006. For more information, go to, and follow the Educational Technology Experiments icon on the home page.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Breaking News from the JTA!

I just have to say that I love living in a world where this article is posted as "breaking news" by the JTA:

Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen substitutes Hebrew for Kazakh in his satirical movie “Borat.”

The anti-Semitic Kazakh television personality, one of several satirical creations by Cohen, a British Jew, for his “Ali G” show, appears in his own movie next month.

In it, Borat takes leave of his ancestral village, telling one resident, according to the subtitle, “Doltan, I’ll get you a new arm in America.”

In fact, Cohen says in Hebrew, “I’ll buy you some kind of a new arm.”

Borat also parries with his wife in Hebrew.

Appalled by the success of the character, Kazakhstan’s government has launched a counter-campaign extolling the Central Asian nation’s virtues.

New Graduate Programs for Day School Educators - Summer 2007

Two new graduate programs in Jewish education that are primarily based around summer study are being offered in Chicago starting Summer 2007.
The Jewish Education Leadership Institute (JELI) and the Loyola University Chicago Graduate School of Education are pleased to announce the inauguration, in the summer of 2007, of two separate Master of Education programs, specifically designed for day school/yeshiva teachers and administrators, which will be offered simultaneously.

The M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision comprises thirtysix hours of graduate courses over two summers followed by an independent study and practicum in the fall following the second summer. Each course in the program is oriented to the special interests and needs of a Jewish Day School/Yeshiva administrator and is open only to those accepted into this specialized program. In addition, the M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision coursework satisfies requirements for State of Illinois Type 75 Administration Certificate Endorsement.

The M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction comprises 30 hours (10 courses) of graduate courses over two years with intensive summer classes, on-line classes the first academic year and the final academic year involved in action research in the students' classrooms. Moreover, each course in the program is oriented to the special interests and needs of a Jewish day school teacher. Candidates who complete this program will earn a Master of Education degree from Loyola and a Master Teacher Certificate from JELI.
The full text of the posting, including a description of the course-work, can be found here as a .pdf file.

JELI is also the home of an international job bank for day school/yeshiva jobs, organized by regions.