Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best. Chanukah. Video. Ever.

The Great Dreidel Spinoff 5771, from Temple Sinai in Dresher, PA.

Hats off (or maybe on, it's a conservative synagogue) to David Monblatt, Director of Congregational Learning.

I also want to give a shout-out to Temple Emanu-El of West Essex, New Jersey, for a video with great photos of their edible menorah competition (more easily viewed on their flickr photo-stream):

Best quote -- Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, on the miracle of the oil: "The Bible is full of miracles [but] this is not much of a miracle"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hebrew Teachers -- Take Heart!

One of the baffling questions Jewish educators in the diaspora face is whether we should prioritize teaching Biblical Hebrew, prayerbook Hebrew, or contemporary spoken Hebrew.  In her article What Kind of Hebrew, Isa Aron observes that while there is overlap between them, each is "different kind of Hebrew, or, more precisely, a different aspect of the Hebrew language," requiring dissimilar methods of study. 

Thanks (once again) to the Lookjed list, I have just learned of a very interesting resource that is on-line – a list of the top 1000 words most frequently appearing in the siddur and tenakh and a comparison of the frequency of their use in modern Hebrew literature (the original source is Prof. Shlomo Haramati, 'Havanat haNikra baSiddur uvaMikra' published by the Jewish Agency, Department for Religious Education and Culture in the Diaspora 1983) .

On the charts, the left-hand column (marked with roman numerals I – V) indicates how often a word appears in the siddur (a I indicates 500 or more times), and in the right-hand column, how often in the Bible (again, a 1 means at least 500 times). The middle column (alef-hey) is how often the word is used in contemporary Hebrew (alef is most frequently).

Now, couple this with Rahel Halabe's assumption that the top 100 most frequently used words actually account for nearly 60% of all the words that are used, and it becomes clear that any word that receives a rating of I – alef – 1 would be an especially useful word for your students to know.

And what are some examples? Yom, Lo, Hu/Hi, Melech, Natan, Aseh, Olam, Shem...

So, if your students manage to learn only 100 useful words over the course of their Hebrew studies, as long as they are the right words, it will actually give them a huge head-start not only in understanding the siddur, but also in reading the Bible and in conversing in Hebrew!

An excellent resource for discussion of teaching Hebrew in the diaspora is the wiki The Hebrew Project.  Of particular note are Avram Mandell's description of his "Derekh Ha-Limmud" program, the Hebrew literacy "manifestos" of Nachama Skolnik Moskowitz and Isa Aron, and Lifsa Schachter's essay on teaching the Hebrew alphabet and decoding.  But there are many other interesting and useful things to discover there.

Lookjed is a project of the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Emanu-El | Weekly Torah Commentary: Balak

I write the Weekly Torah Commentary for the Congregation Emanu-El website about three times a year.  This time, I thought it made sense to share it here.  Shabbat Shalom.

Balak (June 26, 2010)
Numbers 24:2-5
(2) As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him. (3) Taking up his theme, he said: Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true, (4) Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes unveiled: (5) How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!

Excerpted from The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, editor W. Gunther Plaut (NY: URJ Press, 2005). Used by permission of URJ Press,
Original Text:

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

ach week, we in the Religious School begin our worship services with the students by singing the words from Numbers 24:5, “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings, Israel!” These are the words that traditionally begin morning daily worship, said upon first entering a synagogue. The word “dwellings” might also be translated as “sanctuaries,” and it is fitting that we begin our prayers with words of appreciation for the space in which we will offer our prayers.

In their original context, in this week’s Torah portion, these words are spoken by the prophet Balaam, who has been hired to curse the Israelites by Balak, the king of Moab. Balak has seen the victories of the Israelites against other nations as they have traveled in the desert, and he fears that this soon will be the fate of his own kingdom. But Balaam finds himself only able to offer words of blessing, and it is these words of praise, first spoken by a non-Jew, that now are part of our daily liturgy.

When we teach our students about this prayer, we ask them to offer a compelling explanation for what we could possibly mean when we say the word “Israel” in this prayer. Some say that this prayer is a wish for the well-being of the people who live in Israel today, whether Jewish or not. Others note that the prayer also mentions Jacob and argue that this is a prayer for all of those descended from him — all Jews, everywhere. Still others observe that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after wrestling with an angel, so this prayer is a reminder that we must grapple with the Divine when we pray.

This prayer has been a sort of “theme song” for our two congregational family trips to Israel, in July 2008 and this past December 2009 – January 2010. Shortly after arriving, we sang these words while standing on a hilltop in Jaffa, looking out on the city of Tel Aviv. I tried to imagine how all of the people living in every apartment complex and villa are trying to make a good and beautiful place for themselves and their families. A few days later, while visiting a mountaintop kibbutz overlooking the Lebanese border, I looked out towards the houses on the other side of the valley separating the two countries. I thought to myself, if only the people living on each side of the border could look to the other and offer words of blessing: How good, how beautiful, is the place where you live.

On our final night in Jerusalem, just before heading to the airport, we again sang these words while looking out at the Old City, divided into four quarters like the four chambers of the human heart. It is to this spot that we turn when we pray, reminding ourselves that the heartbeat of Jerusalem has kept the Jewish people alive throughout the centuries. Yet, here too is where Jesus walked and, some say, was resurrected; where Muhammad is reported to have ascended to heaven; for Christians and for Muslims, as for us, Jerusalem is the beating heart of a people.

We teach our students that there isn’t a single correct answer as to what we mean when we say “Israel” in these words. But I know that for me, I agree with all three of these answers. I am praying for the beautiful homes of the Jews, my people, my own ancestry. I am praying for the good homes of the people living in Israel, whatever their religion may be. And I am grappling with the Divine and wondering when will the time come that enemies will turn to one another and find themselves only able to offer words of blessing.

Friday, April 09, 2010

My favorite quotes: Ravi Shankar

I have no idea where I came across this quote - or if it is accurately attributed - but I found this in my notes earlier today.  This is the purpose of life in the words of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, founder of the Art of Living Foundation:
"One who knows, will not tell you! And anyone who attempts to tell you, please know that they don't know! But this much I can tell you...this very fact this question has arisen in your mind, you are lucky! Many people just live life without asking what is the purpose of life. This question itself is like tool, a vehicle for you to go deep into life...the quest for reality!"
A statement that I do know is authentically his: "My vision is a world that is stress-free and violence-free where each one of us takes responsibility for our dear planet." Amen, brother.

Monday, March 29, 2010

An Ironic, Post-Modern Passover Anecdote

Since junior year of college - that's more than 20 years ago - I've been celebrating the second seder with friends. Most of us hated our parents' seders - rushed, boring Maxwell House eat-fests - and we wanted something a little more meaningful for ourselves.

For the first ten years, there was only one rule: No parents invited - and then we had to do away with that rule too, as we started becoming parents ourselves. So now there are no rules.

The seder is run as a pot-luck: Everyone brings a dish, a bottle of wine, and contributes some cash towards rental of tables and chairs and such. The amount of text from the haggadah that gets read has declined dramatically as the number of kids at (or near) the table has surpassed the number of adults - although as the median age of our children climbs, I'm sure they'll take a more active role in shaping the evening.

For many years, the seder would be held at whoever's apartment was the biggest - for the past few years, we've been consistently in the same Park Slope brownstone. This year, however, at the last minute (the night before Erev Pesach), we had to suddenly find a new location.

This turned out to be a challenge: Most of our apartments can't accommodate around twenty adults and an equal number of kids, many under the age of two. One couple was traveling back from another country that afternoon, another had just moved into a new apartment and hadn't unpacked, a third was hosting the first seder and then working all day on Pesach, a fourth lived in - gasp - New Jersey.

But here was the most amusing complication: You see, most of us who come to this seder don't keep a kosher kitchen (especially those of us who aren't Jewish). So one couple couldn't host because they had kashered their apartment for Passover. In other words, because their place had been made ready for Pesach, it was no longer possible to have a seder there. If you ask me, that's the irony of post-modern Jewish life.

Don't worry - that friend's mom has come to the rescue, and we're hosting it at her place - if she comes, she'll be the first grandparent we've had at the seder.

Chag Kasher v'Sameach!

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Good Teachers Make a Difference. No, Really?

The NY Times finally tells us what we've all known all along - and does it really, really well. I can even (almost) forgive the writer, Elizabeth Green, for ending a sentence with a preposition:
"When researchers ran the numbers in dozens of different studies, every factor under a school’s control produced just a tiny impact, except for one: which teacher the student had been assigned to."
[The photo to the right is copyright Benjamin Norman for The New York Times.] The article begins by noting that paying higher salaries does help to attract and retain the best and most qualified teachers.  However, it also notes that we need to simultaneously be focused on improving pedagogy and content knowledge through professional development,  because of the vast number of teachers that the education system requires to operate (and especially at a time when the baby-boomer teachers are retiring).

The main focus of the article is Doug Lemov, author of an as-yet-unpublished, 375-page long taxonomy of 49 essential teaching techniques (apparently, he distributes it at training seminars, and it will be available from this spring).  Much of the piece describes effective classroom management techniques that the Times illustrates with videos narrated by Lemov. I suspect that every one of our Religious School teachers would benefit from watching these brief videos - and especially the Hebrew teachers.

The article is on-line as of this morning, and already is getting much buzz around the blogosphere (a term I use derisively, btw.  Nothing better than reading a piece in which the author writes "I haven't finished reading this article yet, but I had to post...").

You'll want to read the whole article so that you can read in context little gems like these:
"All Lemov’s techniques depend on his close reading of the students’ point of view, which he is constantly imagining. In Boston, he declared himself on a personal quest to eliminate the saying of “shh” in classrooms, citing what he called “the fundamental ambiguity of ‘shh.’ Are you asking the kids not to talk, or are you asking kids to talk more quietly?” A teacher’s control, he said repeatedly, should be “an exercise in purpose, not in power.”"
"...One [student] is playing with a pair of headphones; another is slowly paging through a giant three-ring binder. Zimmerli stands at the front of the class in a neat tie. “O.K., guys, before I get started today, here’s what I need from you,” he says. “I need that piece of paper turned over and a pencil out.” Almost no one is following his directions, but he is undeterred. “So if there’s anything else on your desk right now, please put that inside your desk.” He mimics what he wants the students to do with a neat underhand pitch. A few students in the front put papers away. “Just like you’re doing, thank you very much,” Zimmerli says, pointing to one of them. Another desk emerges neat; Zimmerli targets it. “Thank you, sir.” “I appreciate it,” he says, pointing to another. By the time he points to one last student — “Nice . . . nice” — the headphones are gone, the binder has clicked shut and everyone is paying attention.

"Lemov [explains] “Imagine if his first direction had been, ‘Please get your things out for class,’ ” he said. Zimmerli got the students to pay attention not because of some inborn charisma, Lemov explained, but simply by being direct and specific. Children often fail to follow directions because they really don’t know what they are supposed to do."
The article also notes that "content can’t be completely divorced from mechanics" and that different types of knowledge - mathematics, reading, science - require not only general skills but also ones unique to the subject. The implications for Jewish education are clear: There are skill sets that make for effective teaching of, say, Hebrew, that aren't necessarily the same as teaching about holidays or transferable if you can effectively teach French. Teachers need to be able to deeply understand the material and then be able to effectively share that knowledge with a room full of students who have diverse ways of thinking and learning.
"“If I’m asking my students a question, and I call on somebody, and they get it wrong, I need to work on how to address that,” [fifth-grade math teacher Katie] Bellucci explained in February. “It’s easy to be like, ‘No,’ and move on to the next person. But the hard part is to be like: ‘O.K., well, that’s your thought. Does anybody disagree? . . . I have to work on going from the student who gets it wrong to students who get it right, then back to the student who gets it wrong and ask a follow-up question to make sure they understand why they got it wrong and understood why the right answer is right.”"
Interestingly, although Lemov's taxonomy, or a similar mathematics-content-driven approach developed by Deborah Loewenberg Ball at the University of Michigan, can be used as a metric to observe what makes for effective education, there isn't clear evidence that these skill sets can actually be taught.
"Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia University ... favors policies like rewarding teachers whose students perform well and removing those who don’t but looks skeptically upon teacher training. He has an understandable reason: While study after study shows that teachers who once boosted student test scores are very likely to do so in the future, no research he can think of has shown a teacher-training program to boost student achievement. So why invest in training when, as he told me recently, “you could be throwing your money away”?"
Which brings us back to the original point: Now that we may be able to assess what skills are evidence of effective teaching, we need to offer salaries that will attract and keep the most qualified people in the classroom.

I'm encouraging all of my school faculty to read the article, and especially to watch the videos that the Times has posted. This is some good stuff.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The more things stay the same . . .

I thought this was as good a time as any to share with you a few choice quotes from David Resnick's terrific article, The Current State of Research in Jewish Education, which appears in Studies in Jewish Education, Volume III:
"... There is no deep-seated desire on the part of educational consumers to improve educational effectiveness. This is not to say that Jewish parents do not care about their children's Jewishness. Indeed, Jewish education for many American Jews serves as the key expression of their Jewishness, rather than as an instrument of educational mastery. 

"The nature of the dissatisfaction expressed by parents about school programs is usually more about the appeal of the program to the child, than about its failure to achieve particular subject matter goals.

"... Attending school, rather than achievement in school, is the primary, even if implicit, goal of Jewish education  —  at least in its supplementary form... The desire for identification rather than instructional effectiveness characterizes the culture of the Jewish school.

"Furthermore, community preoccupation with a host of other quasi-research issues — censuses of Jewish students; calculations of percentage of eligible students receiving a Jewish education; drop-out rates; retention rates; successful outreach programs — indicates concern with getting and keeping students in the educational system as the primary goal. Enhancing the instructional effectiveness of that system is not a priority.

"... Since failure to achieve even minimal learning levels has next to no social consequences (aside from mastery of Bar Mitzvah skills), there is little need for research related to the improvement of educational attainment. In this regard, it is worth bearing in mind that much of the recent push for excellence in general education has been at the behest of private industry and higher education, both of which bear the brunt of ineffective schools. No comparable institutional demand exists in American Jewish life."
This article was published in 1988.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why my Students were Texting in Class

This story has been making the rounds - I keep hearing people referring to it - so I'm posting the link in case you haven't yet heard this idea for using technology in the classroom from Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed. Here is an excerpt:
In designing my lesson plan, my hope, as a constructivist educator, was to create an active learning experience that would engage the students by using tools that were familiar and comfortable for them. At first my plan was to play a game, something like "Mitzvah Jeopardy." But I needed something different, something new, which would push my boundaries as an educator. Answering a text on my phone in the midst of my planning, I found my inspiration: text messaging in class as a tool for collaborative learning.

"How many mitzvot are there? Let's text a sister, a friend, Dad, as many ‘lifelines' as we want." My students eagerly clicked on their cells, and the numbers started coming in. "Do we have to fulfill all the mitzvot?" A quick yes/no text poll of everyone sparked an engaged conversation about the different understandings of commandment as obligation.

Comments from our lifelines punctuated our conversations: "My mom thinks that the mitzvot we fulfill are about making our lives feel more connected to other people." "My dad thinks we can't do mitzvot that have to do with the Temple." One friend remembered that there was "something about Israel" and how that changed which mitzvot we do.
This original post appeared on the Jewish Education blog of Boston Hebrew College, and thanks to David Wolkin for forwarding this to me in the first place.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

My Favorite Quotes: Steve Lorch

This is from the January 2010 (Vol. 3, No. 4) issue of "Lev Ha'inyan," published by the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan:

...schools are not, first and foremost, academic institutions at all! Cognitive learning is not primary, and physical, social-emotional, and moral-spiritual learning are not an afterthought. No, schools are institutions of healthy human development, which means that they are institutions of learning of every kind, and the way to decide which type of learning should be prominent at any given moment is by carefully attending to the healthy-human-developmental needs of the learner or learners who are participating in that moment.

To subscribe, or read the full article, email