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?