From the J-Vault: Jewish Language and Culture in Public Schools

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Perhaps you've followed recent controversies in the Jewish and secular media surrounding Hebrew language charter schools, which accept public funds, charge no tution, and teach Hebrew without (theoretically) any Jewish religious instruction. (For background, see this article, this blog post, and the Hebrew Charter School Center.)

As always, however, a peek into the J-Vault reveals that the latest innovation, and the controversy surrounding it, have been foreshadowed by generations past.

This week, from the J-Vault: Teaching Yiddish in a Public School (1916)

The Milwaukee Yiddishe Folkschule was a free Sunday morning school which taught Yiddish, Hebrew, and Jewish history from a secular perspective. When the school began to use the space (after hours) of a public school classroom, however, critics charged that the school was an unacceptable violation of the separation of church and state, and also a purveyor of ethnic particularism instead of a healthy assimilation. (Naturally, these critical voices came from within the Jewish community.)

Read more...

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From the J-Vault: Disconnected Jewish College Students

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This week from the J-Vault, and from the Department of the More Things Change, Etc.: The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle: University of Wisconsin Student Gives Ideas on Problem of Jews at University (1924)

A college student writes a letter to a Jewish newspaper to argue that Jewish organizations are failing to be relevant to the new generation's needs. "There are certain things which appeal to the young Jew of today and these things are necessary to hold his attention," writes Norman De Nosaquo, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Jewish communal servant should "put himself in the student's place and look out of the window besides looking in."

On a positive note, De Nosaquo also congratulates "the broad-minded people of Illinois for their interest in the students and their institution of the Hillel Foundation. Let us hope it will be a success, as it will."

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Jewish Camping: Cohen's Comments

In the latest installment of Cohen's Comments, BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen says two new studies prove the benefits of Jewish camping, both for overnight camps and for day camps. Watch below, or on YouTube.

Jewish Jews Need Jewish Friends - Cohen's Comments

BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen says you just can't "do Jewish" without a Jewish social network. Any opportunity for young Jews to make Jewish friends is ipso facto a critical component of Jewish education.

Watch the video below, or on YouTube.

Next month, BJPA will be partnering with New CAJE in presenting a webinar on this topic:

More Jewish Friends: the Key to a Jewish Future
Wed., March 16, 2011 - 6:30 pm EST

More information will follow as the date of the webinar approaches.

Proliferating Hebrew Language Charter Schools

The Jewish Week has two separate stories on Hebrew language charter schools today, covering one in Bergen County and one (proposed) in Harlem.

It is easy enough to find reasons for being concerned about this trend; how can Jewish religion be kept from creeping into the curriculum, tearing down the wall between church and state? If, on the other hand, that wall is somehow well-maintained, then will not Jewish children whose parents choose the schools as free alternatives to Jewish day school find that their children’s education is far less complete than that offered at a day school, bereft (as it must be) of Jewish values, ideas, messages and meanings?

In an exchange in the Forward in February 2010, Richard D. Kahlenberg raises precisely the former objection: “Using public funds for schools that cater to specific groups dangerously undercuts the unifying purpose of public education,” he writes. In the same exchange, Rabbi Irving Greenberg raises the latter objection: "The problem with charter schools,” he writes, “is that to qualify for government funding, the community must strip out the Jewish content, religion, values and advocacy from the educational program. I fear that such schools will fail to transmit Jewish identity.” Rabbi Greenberg does concede that these schools might “succeed when supplemented with Hebrew school education or Jewish camping. Therefore, I favor this experiment.” Still, he concludes, “the most likely outcome is that charter schools will teach language but lose the identity battle.”

Peter Deutsch, founder of the Ben Gamla Charter School, writes (in the same exchange) that

A Hebrew-English charter school education is not a day school education. However, a student completing a K-12 Hebrew-English charter school would have a strong, deep and intellectually based Hebrew language, history and culture education. That student would also have had the opportunity to easily enhance his or her religious education outside the public school setting.

I think these schools are tremendously exciting. Jewish education has many components, but if one component had to be chosen as the keystone and crown jewel, surely Hebrew language skills must be it; Hebrew opens the door to the vast majority of all other Jewish learning. Rabbi Greenberg is right that a Hebrew education would be an incomplete Jewish education, but think what texts could be presented in a supplementary school (or camp) if the students came in with solid, practiced Hebrew reading skills. That there is a significant trade-off cannot be denied, but life is full of such choices. Different families and sectors of the community will face them differently, which is one more reason to include this new choice on the menu of options.

Consider also the benefits to the Jewish community of having a significant number of non-Jewish students learn Hebrew and Jewish history and culture. Non-Jewish parents, meanwhile, will have the opportunity to see their children learn a legendary language with a fascinating literature, the classical form of which is of massive importance to Western history – a language which was once (in earlier, stuffier eras) de rigueur for the complete education, alongside Latin and Greek. The idea that such schools, as Kahlenberg puts it, “cater to specific groups” is certainly true in the sense that Jews are primarily advancing such schools, and Jews might primarily take advantage of them. But non-Jewish students would have their academic and intellectual lives enriched just as surely by such schools as would Jewish students.

Another aspect of the potential benefits of these charter schools is indicated by the work of BJPA Director Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein of Tel Aviv University in a chapter in the new volume 5 of the International Handbook of Jewish Education. The chapter, entitled Jewish Identity: Who You Knew Affects How You Jew, argues

that Jewish education, like all forms of education that take place in a social context, exerts its impact in part by creating, sustaining, and reinforcing Jewish friendships. And we need to recognize that Jewish friendships, apart from Jewish education, exert an independent effect upon adult Jewish identity outcomes... The impact of Jewish education can be augmented by the creation and sustenance of strong Jewish social networks. If so, then mere Jewish association... can play a valuable role in building Jewish social networks, Jewish community, and lifelong Jewish engagement... These circumstances, then, argue for a broadening of the very concept of “Jewish education” to embrace the formation and bestowal of Jewish social networks.

If Cohen and Veinstein are correct, then the mere fact that Hebrew language charter schools will attract substantial numbers of Jewish students will have positive effects not only upon Hebrew skills, but upon Jewish identity as well -- even if Jewish identity is studiously never "preached." Furthermore, Jewish parents who want their children to have a genuinely diverse group of friends would be able to choose a school that included substantial numbers of Jews, and substantial numbers of non-Jews, serving the students' Jewish and American/democratic identities simultaneously.

What do you think? Can Hebrew language charter schools satisfy the demands of living in a diverse democracy? For Jewish families, will these schools supplement Jewish religious education, or destroy it by being treated as a replacement?

Doing Good Well

Repair the World's new report on their short term Jewish service learning programs takes on the efficacy question from the other side: Instead of asking if the programs are doing Jewish well, it asks whether they're doing good well.

In that sense, it's an interesting counter-point to studies like the Cohen Center's 3 part set on the Break New Ground Jewish Service Learning Initiative. The Second Year: Evaluation of the Break New Ground Jewish Service Learning Initiative  In their second year report, for example, "researchers examined characteristics of participants, their reactions to fundamental components of the BNG program, and the impacts of BNG on participants’ development of a Jewish perspective on service, commitment to volunteerism and social action, and connections to Jewish life." Contrast that to Repair the World's study, which "was designed to capture how a host community’s experience with short-term IJSL programs affected the community from the perspective of the leaders of the community based organizations/non-governmental organizations (CBO/NGO) in those communities."

Short term service/volunteering programs have been subject to skepticism, both inside and outside the Jewish community. For example, earlier this year, the Human Sciences Research Council issued a scathing report  about the "thriving industry of AIDS orphan tourism": even when the orphanages in question and their needs are legitimate, hosting volunteers increases overhead significant overhead costs to the orphanage, crowd out local workers, and subject the children to a continual formation and dissolution of caregiver relationships and the attendant psychological costs.

Nevertheless, Repair the World's study found that it is very possible to run a short term service program that brings both short and long term benefits not just to participants but to the host community itself. Some benefits they identified included:

  • Projects can jump start residents into participating in the service.
  • Projects are opportunities for host communities to develop local leaders.
  • Host communities receive resources that they would not otherwise have.
  • Host communities enjoy and feel they benefit from cultural exchange with volunteers.
  • Host community members build individual relationships and make meaningful connections with the volunteers.
  • Participation in short-term IJSL projects can also contribute to a shift in community self-identity — an enhanced belief among community members that they have the inherent capacity to be strong and vibrant moving forward.

Interestingly, they also found that the fact that the service programs were Jewish made a much bigger difference for Jewish host communities than non-Jewish ones.

Through qualitative interviews, they identified challenges of running a good short term program and tactics for running it well. Certain organizational elements must be in place in both the host community and the organization running the short term program, and they must share a common understanding of the possibilities and limits of a short term program.

Repair the World's report and the Cohen Center's reports on the Break New Ground program often complement one another and reinforce each-others' findings. For example, the Cohen Center found that

The most frequent answer to an open-ended survey question about the greatest disappointment with their BNG experience was the service work itself, cited by 24% of respondents. As one participant explained, “the community service work we did wasn’t real work and wasn’t really beneficial to the community.”

...and Repair the World makes the following recommendation:

 The short time frame of these IJSL [intensive Jewish service learning] programs means that only some projects are appropriate. Within these time limits, host community representatives say it is important for both the volunteers and the community to be able to see the result of their work. IJSL organizations and host communities are mindful of this when planning a project.

With the popularity of service learning programs apparently growing, it is frankly a relief to hear that the Jewish community is not (necessarily) working to build Jewish identity in a way that harms other communities and that our programs can and do bring both short term and lasting benefits to others. At the conclusion of the report, Repair the World offers a series of best practices and recommendations for short term programs (and Repair the World itself). Most of these are not specifically Jewish and should be of great use to any organization planning service projects - as research on the ground is regrettably slight across the board. Kudos.

Jewish Nonprofit Management > Jewish Communal Service

Earlier today, the HUC-JIR school of Jewish Communal Service was relaunched as the School for Jewish Nonprofit Management. EJewish Philanthropy reports that

it is the only graduate program of its kind that is embedded within a Jewish institution of higher learning and enjoys a special partnership with its neighbor, the University of Southern California. Students at the SJNM receive a cutting-edge education in nonprofit management grounded in Jewish history and values, as well as the opportunity to earn one of five dual degrees at USC.

Earlier this year, HUC-JIR student Carly Brown submitted her thesis, "Informing a Branding Strategy: A Competitive Analysis for the School of Jewish Communal Service" in which she analyzed three other, competing, dual-degree Jewish studies nonprofit management studies programs (including our own here at NYU Wagner). Her study included a detailed consideration of the naming/branding issue.

SJCS needs to pay particular attention to how it markets and brands its new name to potential Social Work students so that they do not feel alienated by the term “management.” In speaking with current SJCS students, who were also enrolled in the dual degree Social Work program at USC, many of them felt that the term “management” did not encompass the skills that they were aiming to obtain in their graduate program.

In an earlier blog entry, I explored whether the Jewish fundraiser was the new Jewish social worker, in terms of the Jewish community's concern about educating and nurturing these communal professionals. The renaming of HUC-JIR's academic program for Jewish communal professionals certainly seems to support the idea that the Jewish community is moving from a social work focus to a management orientation.

Predictably, perhaps, Brown found that "Generally, students in favor of the name change were dual degree students at USC earning an MPA, while those who were more tentative about it were dual Master students at USC in the School of Social Work." In fact, some students expressed strong distaste for the language of 'service':

She was turned off by the use of “service” in the title of SJCS; she felt that it reminded her of “servitude” and made her think of “the Federation worker, but not so much the person who is going to run the institution.”... [A community influencer] further explained “the words themselves, [referring to the name SJCS] are seen as being a servant, or diminishing,” and that the new name would be great for the school if it was “truly indicative of a new focus” and not just a cosmetic change.

 Of course the Jewish community needs, and has always needed, managers and non-managers and HUC-JIR is continuing to offer the programs to train both.

Whether the new name is indicative of a new focus or a cosmetic change, is moving from the discourse of 'service' to 'management' good for the Jewish community? Is it actually a positive expression of Jewish values? Will it bring greater professionalism to Jewish communal organization, or just greater commercialization? If someone's working on a thesis on this question, please send it our way!

JData: Welcome aboard!

Today was the official launch of JData.com, a Brandeis Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and Jim Joseph Foundation  project designed to democratize the collection and distribution of data on Jewish educational institutions in the United States.

Schools, synagogues, community centers, and agencies set up profiles with any demographic and institutional data they choose to share. In return, they get access to the (anonymized) data of other institutions. For example, a part time school that has entered data about its student enrollment and funding can run a query that compares itself to other part time schools with a similar student body size. It can generate reports on comparison, and internal, data to share with its board or funders. Agencies and philanthropists can run searches to find out how the majority of children in their community are being served, in what size institutions, what class sizes, and so on. Parents can run searches for part time schools with resources for special needs students or social justice emphasis. Researchers can easily identify institutions and contact people for studies.

JData, like BJPA, is attempting to leverage modern technology to serve the needs of Jewish community leaders, scholars, and organizations. As a community, we love to study ourselves, and talk and read about ourselves - bookstores tend to have Judaica sections all out of proportion to the ratio of Jews in the larger population. And yet, basic information can be suprisingly hard to access. At the launch, Professor Leonard Saxe noted that almost a day doesn't go by when he doesn't get a query from a Jewish journalist about schools/enrollment, etc, in a particular area, and when he can answer, it's never without caveats about the accuracy of the data. We are just starting to set up infrastructure to collect, store, and make information accessible. And the investment is considerable - about 1.5M has been invested in the project so far.

The website is aesthetically and functionally very user friendly, but its usefulness depends on the choice of Jewish educational institutions to enter, update, and share their data. Confidentiality of data is a priority, but with restrictions, most of the data will be accessible to anybody, institutionally affiliated or not (a free registration is required). The hope is that institutions will find the site useful enough for their own internal purposes that they will keep their information accurate and up to date.

This new technological age is revolutionizing the possibilities access to information and data, and the potential impact on Jewish community and education work is, I think it's fair to say, incalculable. BJPA is glad and proud to be part of that movement alongside JData, and thankful for the visionary support of funders like our own, the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Foundation and the Revson Foundation, as well as the Jim Joseph Foundation who are behind JData.

NYU's Unnecessary Apology

Yesterday morning, I received an email from the New York University Office of Public Affairs. (I am a grad student at NYU.*) The email read:

We apologize that John Sexton's memo to the NYU community about Academic Year 2010-11 was sent out after sundown on Friday, September 17.  We were aware of the start of Yom Kippur and had intended to be sure it was distributed early on Friday; however, because of technical problems and miscommunications, the memo was mistakenly sent on Friday evening. Please accept our apologies.

Upon receiving this email I was -- and I remain -- completely baffled, genuinely perplexed about what NYU had done for which it needed to apologize. What on earth is the problem?

Both NYU's student newspaper and the Jewish Telegraph Agency have covered this email and apology as news. (The NYU student newspaper I understand. As for the JTA... well, the fact that they covered these two emails can be seen either as a testament to the JTA's outstanding thoroughness, or as a sign of the Jewish community's obsessive naval-gazing, depending upon one's general mood.) But neither story clearly identifies what, precisely, NYU theoretically did wrong.

The JTA article cites "poor timing". But why, pray tell, was the timing "poor"? The story doesn't say, leaving the matter entirely to the reader's speculation. NYUNews.com notes that, "According to the customs of the holiday, those who observe the Jewish holy day must refrain from eating, drinking and using electronics from sundown on Sept. 17 to sundown on Sept. 18." But the story fails to identify how, specifically, NYU's sending an email runs afoul of Yom Kippur observance. There are a number of possible answers, but I hope to demonstrate below that all of them are quite ridiculous. Let us take each of these potential objections in turn:

Objection #1: NYU broke the laws of Yom Kippur by sending the email.

Response #1A: NYU is not Jewish, and so is not obligated in the laws of Yom Kippur. (NYU is also not a person for that matter, but set that aside, because if NYU were a Jewish institution, most Jews would probably still expect it to observe Yom Kippur. However, NYU is a non-sectarian university.)

Response #1B: NYU also breaks Shabbat all the time. This email went out at 10:36 on a Friday that happened to be Yom Kippur, but what if it had been an official email on a Friday in December, at 4:30 pm? Every winter, when Shabbat begins during the standard business day on Friday, I imagine official NYU emails go out on Shabbat with some frequency. Then consider Shavuot, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Pesach, which frequently occur on business days, and on which I am confident NYU sends out copious official emails. If we're going to complain about emails being sent when Jews are forbidden to work (which, I maintain, we have no business doing in the first place), then we should at least be consistent, and complain all year long.

Objection #2: The individual who sent the email might be Jewish, and broke Yom Kippur by sending it.

Response #2A: The email went out under the name of NYU President John Sexton, who (despite the fact that his late wife, Lisa Goldberg z"l, was Jewish) is Catholic, at least if his Wikipedia page is to be trusted.

Response #2B: Even if it was a Jew working for NYU who pushed the send button on Yom Kippur, that was her/his personal choice to desecrate the holiday. While I am saddened that any Jew would choose to work on Yom Kippur, I am not the least bit "offended" by NYU as an institution, which has still, under this scenario, done nothing wrong.

Response #2C: We don't have any specific reason to believe that it was a Jew who sent the email. Are we taking a position that anytime a secular institution which employs Jews does something electronically on Yom Kippur, it is a problem because a Jewish employee might be involved?

Response #2D: And if we do have a problem with NYU doing anything at all on Yom Kippur because a Jew might be involved, see Response #1B: shouldn't we say the same of Shabbat, and all holidays?

Objection #3: NYU caused Jewish students and staff to break the laws of Yom Kippur by receiving the email.

Response #3A: Is there some hidden verse of Torah about Yom Kippur email which I've never heard before? ("It is a sabbath of solemn rest unto you, and ye shall afflict your souls; it is a statute forever. Neither you, nor your household, nor the stranger who is among you, nor your laptop, nor your printer, nor your fax, nor your Google account, shall do any manner of work...")

Response #3B: No, nobody broke Yom Kippur by receiving the email. Yeshivas Ohr Sameach, a right-wing Orthodox outreach institution with excellent bona fides in halachic stringency, notes (in the name of Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg) that it is completely permissible for a Jew in New York to send an email on Friday to a Jew in Jerusalem, where it is already Shabbat. Presumably, implicitly, there is no problem at all with that Jerusalem Jew retrieving the email after Shabbat, even though it arrived in her inbox on Shabbat. Receiving emails on Shabbat or Yom Tov is like setting up your lights on a timer; it is an automated process that doesn't break the solemnity of the day because you don't actually do anything to control it on the day of rest itself.

Objection #4: By conducting "business as usual" on Yom Kippur, the University sent the message that Jewish students are marginal and their highest holy day doesn't matter.

Response #4A: I think in order to have this response you need to be actively looking for things to be offended over. In which case, can we consider turning our energies toward matters of important substance instead?

Response #4B: What actually matters is that observant Jews have full access and ability to participate in NYU without compromising their religious life. This email does nothing to hinder Jewish participation in NYU life. So what's the problem?

Response #4C: The apology email went out at 11 am on a Sunday, which many Christians consider the Sabbath, or Lord's Day. Christian interpretations differ as to the necessity or nature of work restrictions on Sunday, but many denominations are quite strict, and some Christians might find this official apology email offensive coming, as it does, on the Christian Sabbath. Should NYU send out a new apology email about that? Or should we instead simply recognize that NYU is a huge and diverse university, with a large number of religions represented in its staff and student body?

Those are the four potential objections I can think of, all of them baseless. So am I missing something else? Is there some other reason a person could be offended by an email sent by a secular institution on Yom Kippur? Let me know.

So why do I bring this up, and pay a trivial matter more attention yet? Because the sad fact is that NYU wasn't being paranoid when they issued an apology for this non-transgression. There probably are Jews who managed somehow to be offended by (horror of horrors) the timing of an email update.

My fellow Jews, I say this with great love: we are a difficult bunch. We are so opinionated, so bold, so diverse and so eager to fight the good fight with all the righteous indignation we can muster that the Gentile world could be forgiven for feeling that, no matter what they do, some of us will be offended.

And let me add, I love those qualities of our people. These qualities gave us what it takes to smash idols and proclaim God's justice, to make enormous contributions to world ideas and culture, to stand up for our rights and for the rights of others. It takes difficult people to do revolutionary things.

I'm just saying: let's make sure our righteous indignation is focused on things that matter most. Iran is on course to build a nuclear bomb. There are millions of people enslaved, and millions more in crushing poverty. There are terrorists bent on destroying Israel and America, and extremists bent on destroying civil liberties. Are we really, really getting offended about emails being sent four hours into Yom Tov?

For some perspective, let's take a look back through the BJPA archives to another High Holiday season: September 1958. Albert J. Weiss of the ADL, writing in the Journal of Jewish Communal Service,discussed quotas and other forms of outright admissions discrimination against Jews at many hundreds of American universities. If anyone can read this piece, and then still manage to be in a huff about EmailGate, then I quite simply marvel at their superhuman powers of huffery.

 

*In the interest of full disclosure I should note that, in addition to being an NYU student, as an employee of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner, I am on the University's payroll, and indeed, my contributions to this blog are in that capacity. I should also note that I am the recipient of a fellowship named for University President John Stexton's late wife, Lisa Goldberg, zichrona livracha. All that being said, however, I promise that I wrote this posting on my own behalf, based on my own true reactions and judgments, which I believe to be fair, despite my ties to NYU.

On Digital Word Clouds, Ancient Manuscripts, and the Privilege of Living Today

I just stumbled across Sixty-Six Clouds: Visualizing Word Frequency in the Bible, a site that has generated a word cloud for each of the 66 books of the Christian Bible (39 "Old Testament", 27 New Testament).

In case you're unfamiliar with the concept, a word cloud is a computer-generated image of many words of different sizes, which gives you, at a glance, a picture of which words are used most frequently in any given text: a newspaper article, or a political speech, or an author's oeuvre, or -- in this case -- the Word of God. The more frequently a word is used in the text, the larger it appears in the word cloud, allowing the viewer an instant and visceral appreciation of word frequency, and, one hopes, some new insight as to the content of the text. Sixty-Six Clouds (henceforth SSC) generated their Biblical word clouds using Wordle.net, a free online service that lets users enter any text to create instant word clouds. For their source text, SSC used the New International Version of the Bible.

I found the Old Testament section of SSC simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. On the fascinating side, it was neat to see prominent themes at play in various books of Tanach represented with such visual simplicity. For example, you can see at a glance that one or the other (or both) of the names "God" and "Lord" (standing for Elo--him and the Tetragrammaton, respectively) tends to dominate each book of Tanach, with the arresting and much-noted exception of Esther. You can also see the prominence of "father" in Genesis, of "Moses" in Exodus, of "offering" in Leviticus and Numbers, and of "land" in Deuteronomy. Less obvious themes also appear: I was surprised to see that "gold" seemed to be just as large in the Exodus word cloud as was the word "Israelites". And the enormous stature of the word "king" in the book of Esther, dwarfing all other words, lends special resonance to the famous midrashic view that instances of the word "king" in the megilla are hidden references to the King of kings, despite the lack of any plain-text reference to God.

On the frustrating end, seeing these images only makes one wish for a similar treatment of the Masoretic Hebrew text itself. For the record, Wordle.net does allow users to create word clouds using Hebrew text, but in quite a useless way. The same verb in different conjugations is counted as two different words. For example, I gave Wordle, in Hebrew, the famous verse Lamentations 5:21, "make us return/repent to you, God, and we will be returned/repented; renew our days as of old," and, sure enough, it created a word cloud that counts "make us return/repent" and "and we will be returned/repented" as different words. Prefixes and suffixes wreak similar havoc, rendering Wordle useless for Hebrew text. (Does  anyone know of some equivalent Israeli site for Hebrew text?)

Despite this limitation, I found SSC to be quite an interesting exercise. It got me thinking: what would Ezra, or the Rambam, or the Vilna Gaon, have thought of this kind of analytical technology and possibility? Would any of them object to the instant gratification factor, or to the surface illusion of instant understanding? Or would they have sanctioned the use of such tools as a supplement to (without being a replacement for) traditional study?

My own view is that, whatever drawbacks there may be to the digital age (and these drawbacks may be real), I feel profoundly blessed to live in it. The BJPA's resources on the topic of technology reveal that the Jewish community is expanding its capacities in many incredible new directions. Read, for example, this exciting glimpse into how the Center for Online Jewish Studies is making high-quality photographs of original ancient manuscripts available to everyone, everywhere. (And check out the Great Isaiah Scroll from the Dead Sea Scrolls, in beautiful photographic reproduction of the original.)

We at the BJPA aim to be part of this exciting and important trend ourselves, making available Jewish policy documents from across a great and growing range of time, space and topic.

Imagine what the great Jewish scholars of the distant past could have done with these tools and resources. If we who live today fail to become the great Jewish scholars of the present and future, it will not be for lack of tech support. This incredible good fortune should give us pause, and inspire us to take advantage of these opportunities.

Adventures in Pluralism, Part 2: Jewish Education Beyond Denominational Boundaries

In Adventures in Pluralism, Part 1, we found that issues of Jewish conversion and Jewish peoplehood in Israeli governmental context seemed to be immune to pluralism, because there are well-populated positions on the Jewish denominational spectrum from whose perspective the application of pluralist concepts to these issues would be impossible -- that is to say, to acquiesce to pluralism would constitute an abandonment of these positions on the spectrum.

Yet there are other pluralistic activities, taking place across Jewish denominational divides, which appear to be more successful. Many of these are educational institutions, from yeshivot like Jerusalem's Pardes, to community day schools like New York's Heschel school.

It is easy to see why education might be the ideal setting for pluralism. After all, education seeks knowledge, and knowledge can be separated from values and judgements. To know something is not to endorse something, and so people with divergent values can learn together, even if they disagree about what they are learning. Writing in  the summer 2005 issue of Contact: the Journal of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundarion, Rabbi Arthur Green quotes Rabbi David Hartman on the potential for pluralist, trans-denominational Jewish learning: "As long as we are learning, we can all be together. As soon as we start davening, we go off into separate rooms." This quote comes from R' Green's article about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, "the first full-time, trans-denominational Rabbinical school in Jewish history", of which he is Rector. "Rabbis will be better trained for having sat in classes alongside others who disagree with them on almost every issue imaginable," writes R' Green. "How better to sharpen your understanding, to hone your own point of view, than by looking at the sources in a mixed group, where opinions and readings diverge across a wide spectrum?"

The same issue of Contact contains an article by Dr. Bruce Powell, Head of School at the New Community Jewish High School in greater Los Angeles, on the success of the community day school model. "[C]ommunity schools are about ideas," writes Powell, "not ideology. They are about an honest and open dialogue on Jewish practice, philosophy and history... [W]hereas denominational schools might mandate a particular mode of prayer, a community school... might offer multiple minyan options where students can explore a plurality of spiritual modalities."

But is pluralism in education really so picture-perfect? How far apart can learning and values be pulled before one or the other is weakened? To their credit, both R' Green and Powell acknowledge that education, especially in a religious context, involves values as much as ideas. Both also describe approaches for meeting these challenges. R' Green writes:

Don't rabbis have to stand for something...? And doesn't that mean that my viewpoint is  right and yours is wrong?... Yes, a program of rabbinic studies does have to stand for something, and we clearly do. Ahavat Torah, the love of wisdom and the pursuit of Jewish learning, is the hallmark of our program. We find that it brings us together, even as we argue over the meaning of a passage... [T]here are two more areas where denominational differences have little place. One is in the growth and development of spiritual life... The same is true for activism. There is little difference between Jews when it comes to what are called mitzvot beyn adam le-havero, the good deeds we do toward our fellow humans. We all believe in reaching out to the poor, the sick and the needy. We care about the elderly and the disabled, and want to help.... Learning, spiritual work and human kindness. (Might one call them Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Hasadim?) These are areas where our rabbinical students, for all their diverse viewpoints, can work together and build a single Jewish community.

Powell writes:

Creating a non-denominational school is rife with challenge. Among the first questions we must ask ourselves is, “Upon what do we agree?” Creating a single track for prayer is hopeless; setting standard policies for the wearing of kippot, Shabbat observance, kashruth, student attire and modesty, and holiday celebrations stretches the notion of inclusivity often to a point of vagueness and uselessness. Board agreement on admission policies, especially regarding “who is a Jew” and whether or not non-Jews (whoever they may be) ought be admitted, breeds tension, at best, and dissolution in the worst cases... [T]he greatest advantage of a Jewish community school is also its greatest challenge: how to avoid trying to be everything to all and ending up with nothing — no strong views, weak knowledge base, vagueness of purpose and mission, blandness of identity, and graduates without a place to go...

The community school faces a tough order. It needs to establish clear goals and missions across a broad fabric. It needs to have a sharp and clear identity without alienating its constituents, yet be true to its pluralistic macro purpose. It needs to create trans-denominational Jews who are comfortable in their own Jewish skins and who can move with comfort and competence throughout the rich diversity of Jewish secular and denominational life. This Jewish community school challenge is, from my view, the single most invigorating and transformational moment in recent Jewish memory. It forces those of us dedicated to this awesome business of “touching the future” to once again become “God wrestlers,” grapplers, idea entrepreneurs. It causes us all to sharpen our visions, to ask if and how we ought to disturb the universe.

Both authors acknowledge, then, that Jewish education requires the articulation and promulgation of values. Interestingly, though, both also write that the way for a pluralist Jewish educational institution to meet this challenge involves the creation of something new -- in R' Green's words, to "build a single Jewish community," and in Powell's words, "to create trans-denominational Jews".

And this begs the question: if something new is being created, then is this model really a pluralistic cooperation between groups, or is it simply the creation of a new group?

Creating a new group does not require the dissolution or abandonment of the old denominations, nor the establishment of a new one. Rather, it means drawing a new line, a line that cuts across denominations, between those for whom denominational differences exist, but can be surmounted, and those for whom denominational differences are so great, and so important, that they make cooperation impossible. Those "inside the line", no matter to what denomination they belong, are members of the new group.

The mechanism used to draw this line is self-selection. Only rabbinical students who already believe in this pluralist form of learning and community will choose to enroll in Hebrew College's rabbinical program. Only families who believe in (or at least, do not object to) this kind of pluralism will enroll their children in community day schools. This element of self-selection is critical in explaining why these institutions are so conducive to pluralism while issues of peoplehood and conversion in context of Israeli policy are not: the group of Jews who wants to be involved with the state of Israel is much broader than the group that believes in pluralistic approaches to these issues. In other words, pluralism is only more "successful" in these educational contexts than in the Israeli conversion context because self-selection excludes the group for whom pluralism is impossible.

This kind of pluralism really does bridge divides between groups to some degree. But it also exposes pre-existing divisions within groups, and creates a layer of new groupings which overlaps the old.

"New Thinking on the Day School Affordability Crisis"

In this newly published article, Allen Selis and Elena Weinstein, self-described "loyal supporters of Jewish day schools," offer two main suggestions for dealing with the cost of day schools:

  1. Bail faster - get more money into Jewish day schools
  2. Focus on where it matters - if  twelve years of Jewish education are not affordable, focus on the six years of middle school and high school

 

I wonder - who is this funding really for? Is our goal universal day school education or is it to create a cadre of educated, committed Jews who will be in the position to provide leadership to their communities?

The conventional wisdom is that Jewish day school education has a positive impact on future Jewish commitment, which seems plausible even though so far the research on the ground is thin: A Study of the Effects of Intensive Jewish Secondary Education on Adult Jewish Lifestyles: Secondary School Graduates, Philadelphia, PA, 1976-77.

Even if so, it seems that children of parents so highly motivated as to choose financially lucrative careers *and* to choose to spend their remuneration on day school are the most likely to be able to take advantage and reap the benefits of what Steven Brown called 'other forms of gateways into Judaism'. If liberal and modern orthodox communities (because right wing orthodox communities are already the most successful at achieving universal or close to universal day school education) really believe in the day school system as the solution to creating 'mass', continuity, it doesn't make sense to direct our attention to already highly invested families - where is the public relations campaign to marginally affiliated families? Where is the theoretical work on what it would mean for American Jews to segregate themselves out of the public education system?

Are we in a chicken and egg situation, where, given the high expense of day school, we've just given up on the possibility of persuading rank and file Jews to invest in Jewish educations, yet as long as there's not broadbased participation, we'll continue to lack the funding to make a day school education attractive and feasible for that same community?

The authors offer anecdotes of parents who are highly motivated to send their children to day schools and willing to make significant financial sacrifices to do so. The implication is that such families shouldn't be excluded from the benefits of the day school system. But what about children whose parents don't care that much?  In an admittedly different financial climate, Yosef Abramowitz suggested that day schools get funding by borrowing against future Jewish giving (Federation endowments) on the bet that increased funding for day schools now will increase donations later. Yet even in that article, the 'progressive' school financial aid policy to not permit cost to be a barrier to Jewish education leaves his family in the position of not saving enough for the future, which is acceptable to him because "the investment we're making in our children's souls is priceless." I don't see that balancing equation easily finding broad universal acceptance among less affiliated Jews.

The funding option that seems to offer the most potential for broadbased participation in Jewish education by families who don't already prioritize their children's religious education over their retirement funding is 'school choice', government funded vouchers for private religious schools. As it is, however, Jewish political support for public funding for religious education is found, nearly exclusively, in the same elements of the Jewish community that already spend their own assets on day schools. It will be an uphill battle to persuade the broader liberal Jewish community that not only are vouchers for religious schools not problematic from a religion and state angle but that it is also in their own interest. Again - where is this theoretical and persuasive material? Where are standards of 'affordability' and 'accessibility' that will feel progressive to parents not willing to consider jeopardizing their vacations, let alone their retirement, for a Jewish day school education for their children?

The reality underneath the rhetoric seems to be that a relatively small portion of the liberal Jewish community is working very hard to create and fund a Jewish educational system that is capable of creating a Jewishly-educated elite drawn from families that are already (at leas t mostly) on the wealthy side of the spectrum (some families don't have vacations or luxuries to give up) and already highly committed to Judaism and full time Jewish education. In fact, there's nothing wrong with that. It's possible that that is in fact the way forward to getting the most efficient return on investment in full time Jewish education. It would be nice to have an open conversation about what that means, and how day schools and the communities that support them could best be organized to get maximum benefit from that model.

 For more information, see the BJPA materials on day schools, the YU Institute for University-School Partnership resources on day school affordability, and the PEJE series on affordability.

All the World's a Sage: Do-It-Yourself Rabbinics

In this world of Wikis and Tweets, of Digging, of Stumbling, of Flickring, YouTubing, and of endless Facebookery, it is no surprise that Jewish text study is getting into the social media game.

To wit: The New Jerusalem Talmud, and the JPS Tagged Tanakh.

The NJT is essentially a discussion forum for hot-button religious, political and other issues. It describes itself as "a set of websites devoted to multi-dimensional presentation and commenting on the world’s biggest controversies... a better-than-wiki resource for you to discover the full and fair view of the most important issues facing our planet." While it does not begin from the traditional text, its format imitates the traditional layout and structure of the Vilna Edition Talmud. The NJT begins each "Daf" ("page") with a "Mishnah" (created by in-house scholars), and then collects input from readers on a blog, vetting and compiling these in order to create a "Gemara", which will eventually (says the NJT website) be printed. (Editorial scholarship that sorts and curates user-generated content makes this process "better-than-wiki", the NJT website states.) "Rashis" on one side of this "Gemara" are notes providing  background, support, documentation and context. "Tosafot" on the other side provide interesting side points and tangents. While the site seems quite new, it will be interesting to see if it manages to live up to its impressive aspirations.

The Tagged Tanakh, a project of the Jewish Publication Society, is also rather new, currently operating in a sort of beta-test. It defines itself as "a collaborative platform... that joins vetted content and user-generated commentary around the Jewish Bible. The words of the Torah create the foundation of this dynamic database. These words can be cross-referenced, annotated, and connected-tagged-to other forms of media, including videos, maps or games." Unlike the New Jerusalem Talmud, the Tagged Tanakh does center primarily on a traditional text. Like the NJT, however, the user-generated content is the main attraction being offered.

This is the feature which differentiates these sites from their counterparts in online Jewish study, and it is what makes them social media. Many sites provide traditional Jewish texts in a user-friendly online format, whether in Hebrew, English translations, or both. But these sites above hope to create new texts  / sources, presumably to be studied later by others. In a sense, the idea is to "democratize" text  study and religious deliberation -- to allow all comers to become, as it were, a Jewish sage.

But both these sites differentiate themselves from other user-driven social media platforms by vetting and curating content. This will (hopefully) prevent digression and co-option, and increase the quality of the product, while maintaining an open door for new ideas.

Is this kind of "democratization" a good thing? I have ambivalent intuitive reactions: positive, because it may cause Jews to become newly interested in Jewish text study; and negative, because there may be a danger that a focus on user-generated content will come at the expense of focus on traditional texts, and because this focus may confirm and legitimize my generation's narcissism.

Daniel Sieradski, an artist and cultural documentarian, would be disappointed in my views on "do-it-yourself-ism". Writing this February in the journal Sh'ma ("A Jew-It-Yourself Mini-Manifesto"), Sieradski wrote:

Through creative interpretation and experimentation, the "Jew-It-Yourself" generation has introduced a reframing of social, cultural, religious, and political views through a series of inter- and extra-institutional initiatives that are slowly transforming the Jewish world, making it accessible and relevant for new generations...Though it sounds selfish, self-indulgent, or narcissistic to some, this radical subjectivity is nevertheless a core tenet of our faith. Rav Kook wrote in HaOrot that "all our endeavors in Torah and scientific studies are only to clarify whatever comprehensible words it is possible to distill from the divine voice that always reverberates in our inner ear."

I am not sure I agree with Sieradski's reading of Rav Kook as endorsing subjectivism; if our studies in Torah, and in science (as Rav Kook mentions) can clarify our inner grasp of deep truths, then perhaps it is because these studies contain processes or content which are authoritative. Either read of this quote is possible, I think.

Writing in the same journal, Rabbi Steven M. Brown outlines a history of technological innovation in text study ("The Text and Technology"), likewise endorsing technological change:

The technology of learning has been changing throughout history, and its impact has been profoundly important in the democratization of learning and the access to knowledge by the masses. The move, for example, from parchment scroll to books was an enormously powerful intellectual change. It physically represented the change from linear, sequential narrative to random access. Rolling a Torah scroll quickly from Genesis to Deuteronomy to check a parallel passage is far more difficult than checking a bound Chumash.

But Rabbi Brown, writing in 1999, is dealing only with new platforms for the delivery of traditional texts, not the creation of new texts for religious study. Indeed, when defending new technologies, part of Rabbi Brown's argument seems to be that new delivery methods need not be feared when, and explicitly because, they do not offer new content: "In an age when the methods of delivery of knowledge and information are rapidly changing, we must not confuse the medium with the message, the technology with the content." It would be interesting to hear how Rabbi Brown's views may have developed today, since social media has so thoroughly transformed the concept of web connectivity from presentation to communication.

Ultimately, despite my reservations about these user-generated content projects, I think they deserve support. The Talmud (you know, the old dusty Babylonian one) says (Pesachim 50b) that a mitzvah performed out of an ulterior motive can come to be performed for the right reasons, in time.

What do you think? Are these user-generated text study tools the greatest innovation since the printing press? Pure narcissism? Both?

Is the fundraiser the new social worker?

In an earlier post, I surveyed some of the history of the development of Jewish communal service as a profession and of the institutions of learning developed in the service of that profession.

That was then, this is now. In her recent piece in Contact Magazine, The Elusive Fundraiser: A Complex Situation with Simple Solutions," Amy Sales discusses the causes of the shortage - increased demand for fundraisers; high turnover due to low job satisfaction, high burnout, and professional poaching; and a lack of organizational understanding of how to work with a development professional - and offers simple - and familiar sounding - solutions.

"Increase the talent pool... Support for continuing education and professional development"

2010, Sales: Increase the talent pool. With support, Jewish communal service and professional leadership programs could train more students for careers in development. Funded scholarships for advanced degrees with a specialization in development would attract and prepare more professional fundraisers in the Jewish community. Their degrees would put graduates on a level with other executives and accord them the respect and power they merit and need in order to do their jobs. Funded internships would give Jewish young adults an opportunity to try out a career in development, gain experience and skills, and build their resumes...
1958, Arnulf Pins, The Jewish Social Work Student: Some Research Data About Him and Their Implications for the Shortage of Jewish Community Center Workers: Do whatever possible to increase the quality of our service and the competence and compensation of our present professional staff. This will help attract and keep professional staff. 2. Provide meaningful and well-supervised work experience for our summer and parttime staff. This will do more than anything else to recruit people for our field.

"Build support" - helping organizations develop a "culture of fundraising"

2010, Sales: ..the network of colleagues is perhaps the greatest benefit of the program. Indeed, development directors have little contact with others in their profession and few trusted people to turn to for support and advice when the going gets tough (as it frequently does). In this vein, much could be done to create communities of inquiry, a professional association or regular gatherings of development professionals in the Jewish community 1975, David Dubin, The Social Work Function in the Jewish Community Center: 6) The JCC should clearly define its social work function, identify its social work staff clearly, and project this in­ formation to the center's constituency. 8) Social work principles are reflected in the administrative relationships and procedures which govern the delivery of social work services. 10) Membership and participation in appropriate professional associations should be encouraged. 13) The Center should encourage social work staff to develop and maintain communication with other social work­ers in the community.

"Change the mindset"

2010, Sales: ...executive directors and boards of trustees of Jewish organizations need to understand that fundraising is everyone's job, not just that of the development director...Changing the mindset also entails the study of Jewish teachings that underlie the work of the fundraiser. Study reminds the development professional and top leadership of the importance of this work and its profound purpose and meaning.
1975, David Dubin, The Social Work Function in the Jewish Community Center: 1) JCC's should require that all social workers, includign the agency executive director and assistant executive director carry ongoing direct practice responsibilities with  members (Boards, committees and supervision are not direct practice!)... 8) Social work principles are reflected in the administrative relationships and procedures which govern the delivery of social work services.
1981, Bernard Reisman, The Jewish Component in the Training Programs of Jewish Communal Workers: Values are important in all professions both to provide guidelines for the work of the practitioner and to engender confi­dence by the recipients of the service in the judgment of the professional. A value orientation is particularly vital in Jewish communal work.

So - did whatever we did before work? Is it time to do it again? For fundraisers?

Strong-Arming the Denominations

A new education grant that is forcing inter-denominational collaboration for teacher training on the MA level raises some interesting questions.

Tablet magazine reported on a recent Jim Joseph Foundation grant that requires the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform universities whose Education MA programs it supports to fund collaborative joint-teacher training endeavors. Meaning that for at least some portion of their education, future Orthodox-trained, Conservative-trained, and Reform-trained educators will themselves have studied and trained together.

The danger for the liberal Universities is that as their ideology seems to move closer and collaboration increases, the distinction between them and need for distinct organizational structures and identities weakens. For Yeshiva University, the threat seems to be more of brand dilution and credibility within the larger, more splintered orthodox world. According to Tablet's characterization, Richard Joel,head of Yeshiva University, "took pains to minimize its significance in an interview."

Economically difficult times do and always have lead to compromises (and hopefully innovation). The current wave of research, articles like,

The Unfolding Economic Crisis: Its Devastating Implications for American Jewry and Doing More With Less: Can Jewish and Other Nonprofits Turn Crisis Into Opportunity? (2009)

echoes over and over again: 

Jewish Communal Service and the New Economy , Managing Jewish Communal Agencies in Difficult Times: Cutting and Coping (1992),

A Jewish Communal Response to the Current Economic Crisis (1983).

The Foundation seems to be using its economic leverage to (attempt to) bring Jews, or at least Jewish educational institutions, closer together. Personally I think that's a good thing, but it is another example of the power of money to set the agenda for Jewish organizational life.  I do think it's ironic that after what seems like so much angst and ink spent on the impact of the 'new trend' of independent minyanim on the established denominations, apparently anti-establishment pressure can come from arguably the most established place of all - wealth.

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