Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A Transformative Summer Experience

They may not yet have a plan for educating their children (see "Who will teach the kids of Hadar?"), but boy, they sure have adult education in hand! Hadar has just announced that they are opening an 8-week long, full-time Yeshiva program this coming summer (June 3 - July 27, 2007). The program will offer 15 fellows:
"an intensive program in the heart of Manhattan's Upper West Side . . . Yeshivat Hadar will combine traditional text study, egalitarian prayer and social action with a special focus on personal religious growth. Yeshivat Hadar will create a community of learning which will include seminars, havruta (paired learning), and individualized projects. Students will complete the program equipped with greater textual competence and broader knowledge of the Jewish tradition as a whole. Students will commit to bringing lessons from their summer experience to their hometown community.

"In recognition of the intense time and energy commitment required by the fellowship, Yeshivat Hadar is pleased to offer a generous stipend, intended to cover the cost of tuition and living expenses. For more information (including student qualifications and a tentative schedule with course descriptions), and for the full application, please visit For any questions, feel free to email us at"

Sunday, November 26, 2006

New NYC Reform Jewish Social Action Newsletter

The Reform Jewish Voice of New York State (RJV), a committee of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, has launched a brand new e-Newsletter.

RJV e-Newsletters will provide updates on matters of concern in New York State as well as ways to become involved in statewide advocacy. Many issues of importance to the Reform Jewish community are being debated in our state legislatures, and we hope that you will help bring our Reform Jewish values to Albany through RJV.

Over the past few years, RJV has advocated on several important issues, including: support of same sex marriage, raising the minimum wage, providing emergency contraception and funding stem cell research, including embryonic stem cells. Additionally, we have opposed the death penalty and tax credits for private education. We expect that these issues will continue to be important advocacy issues next session as well as others!

The first issue is a little short on content, but future issues are expected to be a major route by which the Reform Movement will broadcast its legislative agenda and provide opportunities for activism. What I'd like to know is, what exactly are the "Reform Jewish values" that they plan to bring to albany?

Friday, November 24, 2006

Will Left Behind be left on the shelves?

Released in time for Christmas, the apocalyptic Christian-themed video game that stirred up the Jewish Week (see "Jewish Week not Pleased to be Left Behind") isn’t exactly receiving rave reviews.

Citing game-play design problems, the need for too much micromanagement, and weak graphics, rates it a 5.9, “Mediocre:”

In any case, the controversy about the game's message has been overinflated somewhat. Given the wide range of games that are inspired by religious, mythical and supernatural beliefs, it's interesting to see a game that presents the concepts of a modern religion like Christianity as core components of gameplay. True, the very idea that converting non-believers is the central activity in the game is likely to alienate some people but it really shouldn't be much of a surprise to people that a game with a picture of an angel and a warning about the antichrist on the box is going to have a Christian slant.

Underground Online gave the game a more generous B+ rating, finding it repetitive and a little dull:

When you give an order to your units, almost half of your Friend and Recruiter units' responses will be "Praise the Lord!" Which can get annoying to hear 50 times a minute.

This review also pointed out one of the more bizarre aspects of the game - rappers and heavy metal musicians are the enemy! (sorry, Corner Prophets. Well, I guess Ismar Schorsch might enjoy the game...):

As we mentioned before, the streets are filled with rappers, and anyone in your Force has to steer clear of them. Any person who walks too close to a rapper will hear their rap song, and anyone who hears a rap or heavy metal song will have their Spirit level lowered. So if you see a rapper or heavy metal musician, you can either shoot them dead to protect your people's faith, or counteract them with your gospel singers or other spiritual warfare units, who raise people's Spirit levels.

Finally, Just Adventure rates it a C+ but their review does offer a concise summary of Christian eschatology.

I'll make it fast in case we're running out of time...

Sue Fishkoff, the Jewish world's leading journalist on all things 20something, poses the question in the JTA today: Can the market sustain so many "New Jew" publications?

This year was particularly fecund for new print publications, with the arts quarterly Guilt and Pleasure launching in early 2006, American Jewish Life (formerly Atlanta Jewish Life) in September, and PresenTense in late October.

But some people wonder whether there’s a market to sustain all these ventures. One kid with a PC who doesn’t sleep much can run a blog, but a print publication — or an extensive Web presence sustained by advertising — requires real money.

Okay, full disclosure here: I have no intention for New Jewish Education to develop a huge web presence or create a print publication. But nevertheless, I wouldn't mind it if a few other insomniac kids with laptops would help share in the work, er, I mean, the JOY of updating the content here.

In any case, best of luck to you, Zeek, PresenTense, Nextbook, and the rest of you. May you live to one hundred and twenty.

Two quick web resources for teaching Israel

Just learned about each of these sites - they may be old news to you.

1. The website Maps of War hosts a 90-second Flash animation called "Imperial History of the Middle East" that summarizes with reasonable accuracy the rise and fall of imperial empires in the region, from Egypt through the contemporary era.

2. The photo-sharing resource Flickr hosts a variety of groups that are terrific for showing off contemporary life in Israel. For example, the Israeli Street Art group features over 1,000 photos of graffiti, stencils, and other forms of street art as seen on the streets of Israel, while the Florentin group has photos taken in this hip Tel-Aviv neighborhood. For thousands more options for photos from Israel - nature, cities, people, the war in Lebanon - check out The Israel Project group, or simply do a search for "Israel" in Flickr groups. Oh, and in the photo below, the Hebrew reads "love your neighbor as yourself" [Leviticus 19:18].

photo of Israeli street art

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rethinking the Jewish Cultural Renaissance

The November issue of Sh'ma, on Jewish Literary Culture, includes a piece Stephen Hazan Arnoff and I co-authored. Entitled "Producers and Consumer: Rethinking the Jewish Cultural Renaissance," we suggest that

If the first step in the current expansion of the Jewish cultural landscape has been establishing modes for producing and delivering the work of culture makers to engaged consumers, the next step is expanding the nature of Jewish cultural production so that a much fuller range of the community is empowered to build a richer and more vibrant Jewish world.

In the same way that many educational programs are increasingly moving away from the model of frontal education (that places the learner in a passive role and assumes that he or she will benefit from the expertise of teachers) in favor of an active-learning approach (that encourages exploration, experimentation, and problem-solving), we believe cultural programs should adapt the approach of workshops, think tanks, and chevrutas – creating environments in which every participant contributes as both a producer and a consumer of learning and culture.

As Sh'ma does not have a direct method for responding to the articles they post, Stephen and I would be delighted to read any feedback posted here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Will the JCC Host Steinhardt's New Jewish Day School?

The Nov 13 issue of New York Magazine features an article "Building the New Dalton" that discusses the demand for new private schools in New York City and the huge number of new schools opening in response. The article outlines the challenges of starting a new private school in Manhattan: The lack of real-estate, the need to get the support of a community of parents, and most importantly, the high costs. If you're looking for a quick-get-rich scheme, apparently investing in private education is not the path.

The whole article is terrific, as it shares the struggles of three new schools to become viable: the Harlem Academy (start-up costs: $500,000), the ideal School ($1.5M), targeted to have a 75/25 ratio of inclusion of students with special needs, and the top-shelf Wall Street area Clairemont school (a staggering $40M), whose head of school is Irwin Shlachter, former headmaster of the Rodeph Sholom Day School.

The article also follows the story of Michael Steinhardt's attempts to start a new school:

Steinhardt’s particular vision is a Jewish-inflected high school that would educate nonreligious Jews in their culture and heritage, but whose intellectual rigor would appeal to non-Jewish families as well. Hebrew would be taught, in the same way Latin is taught at schools like Dalton, “as a classical language to better understand history and literature,” he says. The student body would be one-quarter non-Jewish, possibly more.

Steinhardt struggled for ten years to get the school started, but with no luck. The article goes on to explain that

...the school became mired in debates over its mission — would putting Jewish and non-Jewish teenagers together lead to more interfaith marriages? — and eventually Steinhardt’s co-backer, who was planning to match Steinhardt’s contribution of more than $10 million, withdrew his financial support.

But the story is not over for Steinhardt's dream:

Instead of launching a high school, he is now pursuing the less ambitious plan of piggybacking an elementary school on an existing nursery school. Steinhardt approached the 92nd Street Y with the idea; it seemed like a perfect fit—an organization that bills itself as a New York cultural and community center first, an association created by and for Jews second.

But Steinhardt says his vision was “too Jewish” for them. He was worried that the Jewish Community Center would be hesitant to commit for the opposite reason: because his school would be primarily secular. But discussions with the JCC are progressing, and if they are able to come to an agreement, it would allow Steinhardt to start his school with a significantly smaller financial burden.

“If the school starts as an outgrowth of the JCC’s nursery school, and we begin with a kindergarten and a first and second grade and slowly grow it from there, it would not be an overwhelming cost, perhaps a couple million to start,” he estimates.

The not-exactly-for-the-proletariat New York magazine is actually a surprisingly good source for articles on the NYC education scene, or at least the upscale part of it. Some of their recent features include a round-up of the most influential people in NY education, a (somewhat leering) look at teen sexuality and the "cuddle puddle" at Stuyvesant High School, and an (adulatory) article on private investment in a public school in Queens (using the controversial "Success for All" curriculum).

Sunday, November 05, 2006

So NFTY really IS a cult after all?

I stumbled across this article by Daniel Rose at the Informal Jewish Education page of (an amazing resource for informal education and life-long learning - well worth browsing). The article ("the world of the jewish youth movement") describes the differences between a "youth movement" and a "youth club."

Broken down to its most simple elements, a youth movement is an organization that has a strong ideology, and focuses its activities and educational content towards that ideology. Every decision made in the movement, from programming to recruitment policies, publications to catering plans, first and foremost must centre on the ideology of the movement. In contrast to this, a club or organization has the participant at its centre, and their needs are first and foremost, even though there may also be an underlying, implicit agenda that runs the club, such as the development of good citizenship, or providing a Jewish social context for its participants.

Figure 2: The Pendulum Model of Youth Organizations[The above figure] describes various organizations and their members, and where their personal ideologies vis-a-vis the movements’/organizations’ ideologies are. Each x represents a member, with the arrow leading from the x, their personal ideology. This suggests that a true movement verges on a cult, and all the negative connotations that go with that. Conversely, an organization where each member tries to lead the organization on their own path, lacks dynamic leadership, growth, and “movement”.

This model, called the pendulum model, suggests that each organization oscillates between these positions, rarely finding themselves at the extremes. Classical Jewish youth movements would find themselves generally towards the right side of the pendulum swing...

OK, I eggagerated a bit in the header. NFTY isn't really a "classical" Jewish youth movement (along the lines of the Zionist movements of the last century, which the paper is really about), and of course the Reform emphasis on autonomy and personal choice somewhat mitigates the emphasis on a common ideology. But my parents certainly thought I was being brainwashed.

Anyway, I think the pendulum model is a helpful way to think about the natural development of Jewish organizations more generally. Founded by ideologically driven individuals seeking to actualize their own visions, over time either the ideology becomes institutionalized or various individuals try to push the organization in different directions. In either case, the organization can quickly become irrelevant - a successful one must manage the polarities of authority and choice. An organization without a unified sense of purpose provides no basis for affiliation, but one that fails to account for the needs of its stakeholders will lose its membership. A good, enduring, organization (like, say, the Jewish people as a whole?) will reflect upon - and rethink itself - in light of the demands of both collective vision AND the individual needs of participants.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Get paid for being Jewish!

That's more or less how the JTA described the rapidly-growing initiative Moishe House in this article:

"Say you’re a few years out of college, living with friends and working in a low-paying job for some do-good organization. You don’t go to synagogue but you miss the camaraderie of your college Hillel, and you like to invite people over for Shabbat meals.

"Imagine if someone was willing to pay you to keep doing it?"

Moishe House is a project of the forest foundation, who describes it as:

"...a collection of homes throughout the United States that serve as a hub for young adult Jewish community (with an emphasis on ages 18-28). The Forest Foundation provides a rent subsidy and a program budget for a handful of young, eager, innovative Jews to live in and create their vision of an ideal Jewish communal space."

The project embodies the pluralistic approach to Judaism that may rapidly be becoming the new norm for 20somethings. Moishe House Boston got a shout-out on Jewschool this week for its two-table approach to kashrut at shabbat pot-luck dinners - one table for hekshered food, the other for vegetarian. As the agenda is driven largely by the interests of its residents, some of the houses are more oriented towards social-action, while others organize poker parties, book clubs, and film nights.

So, what are you waiting for? If you would like to start a Moishe House in your area or believe you are a good candidate to live in a Moishe House near you, download the Moishe House Application Form.

What does a Jew - or a human - need to know?

For those who ascribe to an essentialist view of knowledge – in other words, that we could make a list of what is truly important to learn – here are two fascinating websites attempting, through consultations with experts, to map out the entirety of human knowledge and of Judaism (website in Hebrew).

On the first site, the links for detailed information exclusively attach to Wikipedia entries (there's no original content), but the map itself is interesting - although to my mind it privileges Western thought and religion in a strange and unnecessary fashion. On the Judaism map, there's no further description of any of the headings, although there is an explanation of the rationale behind the map and several published chapters of an upcoming book that go into considerably greater detail.

I won't keep you in suspense. Here, according to the website, are the content areas of Jewish knowledge:

  1. Philosophical and Theoretical Foundations of Judaism (if I understand correctly, focusing on such questions as "What is Judaism?" and "Who is a Jew?")
  2. Jewish Religion (including, for example, Torah, rabbinic writings, prayer, and mysticism)
  3. Jewish Culture (such topics as Hebrew literature and music)
  4. Jewish Society (such as folklore and demographics)
  5. Jewish Geography
  6. Jewish History

Of course, there is a great deal of overlap between these headings, with certain topics appearing under several headings. I'm not sure how the project will be able to sort this out in a useful way, but it is certainly an interesting start.

More immediately applicable may be their page on the question of "What is Judaism?" which identifies 8 different models for answering this question, incorporating definitions of Judaism as a religion, a culture, and as a people.

While we're on the subject of essentialist curriculum, it is also worthwhile to spend some time on E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum website, which hosts a huge reference library of related articles and a variety of FAQs on such questions as "isn't it elitist to suggest a body of content?"