Teach for Right Now

This post about short-term goals versus long-term outcomes was published in eJewishPhilanthropy. I believe if we focus on why Judaism should matter at each stage we are teaching it, we will be more successful. Of course, the implication is that we have to address the current needs of adult learners in the present, not project ahead to what their children and grandchildren will look like when we are teaching them as high schoolers.

The conversation around evaluating Jewish education programs often turns to this claim: “We won’t know if our programs are successful for ten to twenty years, when we see if the children we are teaching raise their own Jewish children or live Jewish lives as adults.” This mentality is misguided. We are not preparing future Jews in our educational programs, formal or informal. Every student we teach is Jewish now. They deserve a more meaningful life enriched by Judaism today. That is the rationale for Jewish education, plain and simple. If your school or camp or youth program can offer that, you will have a compelling case for the added value of participating and the program and community will be better for it.

For example, why have worship services during religious school? It is not to prepare the child to lead services at the age of bar or bat mitzvah or to participate in services as an adult. We have worship services for second graders because second graders are spiritual beings who need an outlet for their own hopes, thoughts and prayers. Services during religious school look different when informed by this philosophy. Furthermore, they do a better job of preparing a child to participate in services as an adult. What is the reason so many adults don’t feel comfortable in services – because they can’t read the Hebrew fluently, or because they don’t know how to relate to the idea of God, prayer and quiet reflection in a communal setting?

This mindset also helps direct the choice of content taught, which is so important given our limited time with students. For this reason, I’m not a fan of model seders or mock weddings. They tell a story of “what Jews do,” when in the case of a seder, many of our students will have a chance to actually do it, and we could be focusing on how to make that ritual meaningful, and in the case of a wedding (Jewish or otherwise), we have no way of knowing if our students will have one or what it will look like. In any case, unless a member of the school community is actually getting married, the simulation doesn’t have much relevance. On the other hand, when we teach values, they have immediate relevance. One thing that is so powerful about camp is that when you learn about being part of a community, standing up against bullying or being a mensch, you’re likely to have a chance to enact that value in the next 24 hours. Similarly with Jewish ritual.

Another example of the application of the “teach Judaism for right now” mentality is teaching Jewish text. The study of Jewish text is not meant to be solely an academic exercise. Our educational settings need to have a mission that is distinct from say, a college Jewish studies program. One can get a PhD in Jewish Studies with a fondness for all things Jewish, a deep knowledge of Jewish text and history and fluency in Hebrew without actually being Jewish. Our emphasis needs to be on being Jewish and exploring what that means, not learning about Judaism. To return to the idea of text study, Jewish students need to be taught how to interpret Jewish texts, engage with them, relate to them, and teach about them. Students shouldn’t be spending most of their time listening to the stories of the Torah, or even listening to drashot from the rabbi. Jewish educational settings should give students a chance to think about the stories and interpret them. Practicing this habit translates into the immediate relevance of our sacred texts as well as good practice for a bar or bat mitzvah speech and a lifetime of meaningful engagement with text.

When we focus on what a life enriched by Judaism actually looks like for our students of all ages, we have a way of assessing if we are reaching our goals. Do the students ask good questions that get to the heart of the stories, rituals and history and try to relate them to their lives? Do their behaviors reflect Jewish values? Do they have a community to turn to when they have struggles or celebrations? Do they help each other out when they see someone in need? Do they want to come to religious school? Do they have Jewish friends? Do they know whom to ask when they have a question about how to behave or the meaning of some challenging circumstance? If these are our questions, we can change how and what we teach to find out the answers. Asking these kinds of assessment questions can help us improve Jewish education and the way we relate to every member of the community.


Mission Possible: Setting Realistic Goals For Congregational Schools

What is a mission statement for? Is the mission of your congregation or educational program so expansive that you can never hope to fulfill it or assess your success? Here’s my take on this problem, published in The Jewish Week.


Does your synagogue’s religious school have a mission statement? In my years serving as a congregational educator and a consultant to synagogue schools, I’ve seen a few that look like this:

“At Temple Olam HaBa, we teach the values of Talmud Torah (study of sacred texts), Avodah (worship), and G’milut Chasadim (ethical behavior). Our students develop a deep love of Israel, a habit of lifelong learning, and a commitment to the Jewish people. We grow menschen who know how to treat one another and make the world a better place.”

Sound familiar? I like the sound of it, but given that virtually every Jewish topic could arguably fall within the above mission, it doesn’t offer much guidance.

The function of a school’s mission statement is to guide educators and volunteer leadership as they make decisions about what is taught and how. Synagogue schools need this guidance because they operate with a very limited number of hours and resources. Take, for (a generous) example, a three-hour-a-week Sunday program that meets during the academic year for 28 Sundays. In one year, students who attend every session will get the equivalent contact time of 14 days of public school. If they attend from third through seventh grade, they’ve got just over three months of schooling under their belts. So, how exactly is the school going to achieve the goals outlined above?

Let’s compare this mission to those of youth soccer leagues, which — due to their popularity, scheduling demands and families’ seeming tendency to prioritize them above religious school — are the bane of many Jewish educators’ existence. Here’s the AYSO (American Youth Soccer Organization) mission statement:

To develop and deliver quality youth soccer programs, which promote a fun, family environment based on our six AYSO philosophies (EBOPSP): Everyone Plays, Balanced Teams, Open Registration, Positive Coaching, Good Sportsmanship, and Player Development.

This statement is short, sets clear priorities and outlines ways of fulfilling them. The endeavor is focused on things that families value: fun, family, social behaviors and healthy habits. In the 2005 book Blue Ocean Strategy, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne describe an alternative to competing with similar businesses in your current industry, allowing you to find an untapped market. One of their “paths” is to look across alternative industries, rather than focus on rivals within your own industry. Consider what kids and parents are getting from those activities that often take them out of religious school — good habits, sound values, friends and fun.

What if a religious school, or rather, all of a synagogue’s youth programming, were, like soccer leagues, designed around a few simple concepts? First, there would be a focus on developing the skills, vocabulary and habits to live a meaningful Jewish life, not only in the future, but right now. This would involve some basic familiarity with Jewish ritual and Hebrew as well as a positive disposition towards participation in Jewish life, and a sense that there is more to be learned and that pursuing that learning is enriching, relevant and meaningful. For that message to be communicated, we need relevant Jewish experiences for children, and we need adult role models who are leading meaningful Jewish lives, pursuing Jewish learning, trying new Jewish practices and being recognized by the community for doing so.

A second area of focus, although not second in importance, is building friendships. Ron Wolfson’s new book Relational Judaism has renewed our interest in this priority, but we have long known, through the work of researchers such as Sylvia Barack Fishman, that Jewish friendships in youth are a factor in whether an adult chooses to raise children Jewishly. Fishman has also demonstrated that participation in Jewish education helps create Jewish friendships (“Generating Jewish Connections,” 2007).

I use this thought experiment to validate the importance of friendships and community: If you were uninspired by the rabbi, but had friends at the synagogue, would you quit or remain a member? What if you didn’t like the cantor’s singing, but had friends there? What if you thought the school was mediocre, but had friends there? What if you were transfixed by the rabbi’s sermons, transported by the cantor’s singing and thought the school was academically rigorous, but had no friends at the synagogue? Loved the building? You get the idea: We go to synagogue (and stay with it) to be part of a community that cares about us.

Together the priorities of friendship and practical skills shift a school’s emphasis from content to community. The content stemming from this approach is made up of values and rituals that build community, teach us how to live together and enrich our lives. The language of a mission statement around these ideas might still seem grandiose, but the ideas can serve as a practical guide.

When I served as principal of a religious school, one of the teachers expressed her frustration that her students didn’t know Abraham’s father’s name. “What about the name of the child sitting next to him?” I asked her. If we try to cover all of the richness of Jewish tradition and history in the equivalent of three months, we are bound to fail. To meet the needs of today’s Jewish parents and their kids, we need to tighten our mission to build strong friendships and a meaningful connection to Judaism that will last.

Five Selfish Reasons for Inclusion

Our tradition clearly teaches us the value of inclusion. But people often feel it is too hard or effects too few people. My contention is that everyone in the community benefits when people with disabilities are included. Here are five “selfish” reasons for including people with disabilities in your Jewish community.

  1. Inclusion builds a stronger community. When people see that the synagogue and its educational offerings are making accommodations to include people who have special needs, they understand that this is a community that cares for its members. Whenever any one of us has a need, and there will be a time when each of us will need to rely on the community, we can each have confidence that the members of the community will rise to the occasion to help us out. Members know that they are supported and that they should support others when they can.
  2. Inclusion refocuses our values. Whenever I’ve studied special needs education, I have noted that the top priorities seem to be to teach children to 1) get along with others and 2) be as independent as possible, which includes finding a purpose and being of use. These are the great life questions that Jewish tradition comes to teach us how to answer as well. In today’s world where it’s so easy to think that the most important things are high test scores, “résumé builders,” and breaking records, we need to remember that without friends or a sense of purpose, it’s all for naught.
  3. We all have needs. I don’t like when people say this as a way of downplaying (or even unintentionally equalizing) the significant challenges that people with disabilities face compared to the other, more routine ups and downs we all face. But the fact is we all need to be accommodated in different ways at different times. In particular when it comes to Judaism, few of us feel very able at all. For most of us, Hebrew is a language that challenges us when we study or pray. For many of us, the vast majority of the wisdom of our tradition eludes us. Nobody has completed the work of repairing his or her ethical self. Jewish tradition teaches that we have purposely been created imperfectly so that we can do the work of improving ourselves. “All that was created during the six days of creation requires improvement. For example, the mustard seed needs sweetening and the lupine needs sweetening, wheat needs to be ground, and even a person needs improvement.” (Genesis Rabah 11:6)
  4. People with disabilities have contributions to make. By virtue of their experience, people with disabilities and their families have much to teach about patience, perseverance, love, standing up for justice, tenacity, and rising above circumstance. In addition to that, they have unique passions and insights to share. I grew up in a congregation with an extraordinary man (I’ll call him Sam) who lived with cerebral palsy into his 70s. He loved classical music and baseball, and he used to win free tickets to shows and games off of the radio. He would bring congregants and friends with him on these outings who benefited from his vast knowledge, enthusiasm, and excellent seats!
  5. Inclusion pushes us to be our best, in all the ways I’ve mentioned and more. I asked my dad to talk to me a bit about the remarkable couple that was part of our congregation for so many years. The husband Sam I mentioned above. His wife also has cerebral palsy, and they adopted two children with disabilities. My father talked about the things he learned from this family that defied all odds. Sam pushed for his own inclusion in every aspect of synagogue life. When they took a trip to New York to see a Broadway show, Sam called the bus company and got a bus with a chair lift. After the show, he rode his electronic wheelchair around Times Square and met the bus in time to head home. It is because of Sam that the synagogue now has a ramp up to the bima and activated doors. My father reflected, “There really wasn’t anything he thought he couldn’t do.” I thought, “Or that we couldn’t do.”

When people say that something isn’t accessible to a person with disabilities because the disability is too difficult to accommodate, they aren’t understanding the challenges that the disabled person is facing every day. If Sam could eat his breakfast and get to an orchestra performance and raise two children, we could drive him to a Brotherhood meeting or build a new building that was handicap accessible (even if the synagogue was exempt from ADA laws). We can include everyone, and we should. We’ll all be better for it.

A Movement of “Both/And”

There was a great series on NPR last week about young Americans moving away from religion. One of the points they made is that while many young people are moving to the left, organized religion is moving to the right. For the first time, the number of Protestants is seriously dipping. I think it’s time for liberal religious traditions (in my case I’m concerned about liberal Jewish movements) to make a compelling case. Here’s my stab at it.

It seems that to be a religious person today in the United States, one has to follow extremist leaders and their doctrines or focus on the positive aspects of religious communities and traditions while ignoring the rest. You don’t have to make that choice if you are part of a liberal Jewish movement. Liberal Judaism is a faith tradition not of either/or, but of both/and.

  • We both accept scientific fact and believe the stories of our tradition contain existential truths.
  • We are both intellectually curious and spiritually aware.
  • We are energized and inspired by both change and tradition.
  • We value and respect both individual needs and the needs of the community as a whole.
  • We care about both universal causes including hunger and civil rights and have a high concern for Israel and Jews everywhere.
  • We both embrace creative expression, learning and exploration, and we are supported by long-standing Jewish communal institutions.

Being both/and is not trying to be something for everyone. It is not wishy-washy. It is a philosophy for a progressive, integrated and modern Jewish community, one that adapts while still preserving its essential core. Judaism offers us a way to grapple with life’s most challenging and invigorating questions. It gives comfort where there is none. It pushes us to be better than we might. Our tradition is robust, and it is relevant to the issues we face today. The more people who seriously participate in its evolution, the stronger it becomes.

What would you change? Do you think people could get behind this? Whom do you know that is making a compelling case for liberal Judaism?

Our Jewish Podcast, Episode 1

Here’s the latest experiment, a first try at a collaborative podcast. My friend and colleague Rabbi Molly Kane and I are the hosts of Our Jewish Podcast. This first episode features:

  • God Help Us: A segment where we answer letters and give advice from a Jewish perspective
  • This Jewish Life: An interview with a remarkable Jew, this time my friend and epic bike rider, Rudy Van Prooyen.
  • The Puzzle: A Jewish trivia question from our renowned Puzzle Master, Jerry Kaye.

If you like the music, check out Ben Lapidus’s album Herencia Judía.

The podcast is about 15 minutes long. Take a listen and tell us what you think here or at ourjewishpodcast@gmail.com.

A Growth Mindset is Key to a Culture of Learning: A Case Study

It’s easy to get frustrated with the challenges of Jewish schooling, particularly supplemental schooling. It’s tempting to write off parents and children who miss school by saying their priorities are mixed up or they just don’t care enough about what we do. We could play down the curriculum, asking what can possibly be taught in the existing format with so few hours. In tough economic times, many congregations are cutting education budgets, including staff and days of school. A different option is to take a hard look at what families are choosing and what they need, and then take that information to to learn and grow. For a case in point, see this blog post I wrote for eJewishPhilanthropy about Barnert Temple and how they’ve thought about reinvisioning their school.


Imagine you are in the leadership at a large, successful suburban congregation. Your religious school has a good reputation and the students who come give positive feedback. Recently, a consistent group of sixth graders have stopped attending altogether on Sundays. What is your reaction?

When this scenario played out at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, the rabbi met individually with each family to asses where the congregation was failing to meet the needs of those families. Then they created a pilot program to better suit them. In an email their educator sent out following the meetings, she wrote, “Thanks to your honesty, we believe that Barnert is going to move into a new era that will offer all families a more accessible, relevant and meaningful Jewish experience.” This episode is a window into the culture of ongoing learning at Barnert Temple. I believe this culture is directly linked to the prevailing mindset in this community, what Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset.”[1]

In her writing, a growth mindset is contrasted to a “fixed mindset.” In a fixed mindset, people believe their strengths and weaknesses are a given. In a growth mindset, people believe that they can develop their abilities through hard work. A person with a growth mindset is open to feedback, seeks out challenges and learns from mistakes. A person with a fixed mindset is constantly concerned with proving him/herself and therefore shies away from any challenge in which s/he may fail. People with a fixed mindset also surround themselves with others who make them look good, while those with a growth mindset want to be around people who push them to think differently and improve.

For an example from Jewish tradition, we can look to Hillel and Shammai. Take the famous story of the potential convert who challenges each rabbi to teach him the Torah while he stands on one foot. (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 31a) Shammai chases the convert away. We guess his thought process was something like this: This person is ignorant. He has no respect for the depth and breadth of Judaism. He would only dilute and corrupt Judaism if he were converted. He is making a fool of me and all that I stand for. This kind of thinking comes out of a fixed mindset. When faced with the same challenge, Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” What mindset does this reaction reveal? The whole Torah on one foot? Now that’s an interesting challenge! I’ll give it a shot! This man is showing an interest in Judaism. Once he is attracted to Judaism and its philosophy, he will be able to learn more and become a true student of Torah and member of the Jewish community. This is the thinking of someone with a growth mindset, particularly revealed in Hillel’s concluding statement, “Go and learn it.” Hillel believes that learning is possible, even for this person, and that it will be transformative.

As Dr. Dweck explains, organizations can operate under either a growth or fixed mindset as well. In order to learn more about Barnert Temple’s culture and approach to learning, I interviewed eight people in the leadership, including both Rabbi Elyse Frishman and Rabbi Rachel Steiner and the Director of Lifelong Learning Sara Losch. The five volunteer leaders I interviewed (three women and two men) all are part of a self-study in the area of education. This group has been convened in order to look at trends in Jewish education as well as patterns and challenges of Barnert’s education offerings and then make recommendations for improvement. Through my interviews, I found that the growth mindset pervades their work and that this approach has a ripple effect through the congregation.

By highlighting the characteristics at this growth mindset congregation, I hope to show how other organizations can adopt this approach, becoming learning communities with an eye towards evolving and improving.

  1. Group process, not groupthink. Carol Dweck warns that when a CEO has a fixed mindset, “Everything starts revolving around the boss.” (123) When all that matters is boosting the boss’ ego, critical thinking goes by the wayside. In contrast, growth mindset leaders surround themselves with people who give meaningful feedback and represent different perspectives. The education self-study is just one in a series of think tanks and learning efforts devoted to improvement, including a worship think tank, identity think tank, groups to create vision and mission statements, and a recently created strategic planning committee. In the words of the lifelong learning chair, “We tend to like these kinds of participatory, soul-searching processes.” One of the most veteran members of the congregation involved in the self-study told me, “I think one of Barnert’s strengths has always been its willingness to approach self-examination.”
  2. Diverse voices. Central to the group process is representing a wide range of opinion and experience. The people on the task force came from a wide cross-section of the membership. In addition to this large group, focus groups and individual interviews were conducted. A task force member told me, “One of the untapped resources in our congregation is the background, knowledge and skills of our congregants in terms of education…. We once counted 300 people involved in committees at the synagogue.” What allows the senior leadership to open up major synagogue policies and philosophies to such a process? Rabbi Frishman told me, “As I think the work we are doing is really on the cusp, there are no answers to the questions we are answering, so if you invite the right people, they are going to have ideas that I haven’t thought of.” The growth mindset believes in the potential of honest searching and learning to yield meaningful answers. As growth mindset leaders do, Rabbi Frishman has built a team of people who are different than she is: “I love that. The team has to be different. We often make each other uncomfortable, but I’m really OK with that, because we really bring different things to the table.”
  3. The senior leadership sets the tone. As you can see, a big part of an organization having a growth mindset is a leader with a growth mindset. “People in a growth mindset don’t just seek challenge, they thrive on it. The bigger the challenge, the more they stretch.” (20) Rabbi Frishman in many ways embodies a growth mindset. “Do you always take the same road home?” she asked me. “I don’t. I like to always try a new way. I could just get in my car and ride through a new area.” Elyse came into a congregation that did not look like the current one. Although she credits the search committee with taking a forward-looking risk by hiring her, she had to work tirelessly to change the culture against significant resistance from veteran members.
  4. Mistakes are learning opportunities. Therefore, the leadership is open to critique. A mother of two described to me two challenges and how the leadership responded. “Whatever the issue is, they welcome it, they attack it, and they bring it to the forefront. There’s nothing hush-hush. For example, when my kids were in preschool, a lot of things happened by word of mouth, and working moms weren’t getting the word. When I didn’t hear about my son’s performance, I called the school office pretty upset. What did Sara do? She held off the play until I could get there. Then she met me at the door with a coffee. Another time one of my sons didn’t want to go to Hebrew school because he didn’t believe in God. So, I called. The staff responded by developing a whole unit on questioning, explaining that it’s part of Judaism. They taught it to the whole grade.” A culture marked by a growth mindset means not only that people feel comfortable coming forward with critiques and concerns, but also that leaders feel supported in taking risks which ultimately move the organization forward. As Sara Losch told me, “I don’t have to hit a home run every time at the plate.”
  5. Change is the only constant. People with a growth mindset thrive on challenge. They seek out opportunities for growth. More than once, people told me Barnert Temple was not a place that “liked to cruise.” As a result, members of Barnert Temple have learned to be comfortable with change as a mark of learning and evolution. One man I interviewed described his reactions to recent staff changes, explaining “Everything remained the same at the temple where I grew up. We felt we were looking for a solid, no change experience and were a little bit shocked by a change. It took a year to get used to it. I don’t know what else could possibly change, but we’ve seen over the past three years a significant amount of change, and it’s good change, and it feels like we’re growing the temple and the temple management and clergy are not just sitting on their laurels. They’re constantly trying to adapt and move the congregation forward.” Rabbi Frishman has a unique outlook when it comes to evaluating her success: “People look at our congregation and say: It’s not broken, and we say: You don’t see what’s going to happen in ten years. We know for sure based on everything we’re reading, this is not where we’ll be in a few years. If you don’t work on it, it’s going to disintegrate. I’ll know I’ve been successful if the children here join synagogues, or if synagogues don’t exist, they are connected to the Jewish community some way.” This is a stark example of the remarkable attitude a growth mindset provides. Rabbi Frishman’s openness to growth and the possibilities of change allow her to consider a world with no synagogues and still envision a successful outcome as a synagogue rabbi in that world.
  6. Learning is ongoing and for everyone. Here is where the growth mindset meets the learning organization. Carol Dweck writes, “Seymour Sarason was a professor of mine when I was in graduate school. He was a wonderful educator, and he always told us to question assumptions. ‘There’s an assumption,’ he said, ‘that schools are for students’ learning. Well, why aren’t they just as much for teachers’ learning?’” (201) Barnert Temple is a place where the staff, adults and children all engage in learning. Sara described to me a calendar full of learning and professional development opportunities for herself. In fact, she said that when she wasn’t initially going to conferences due to personal health reasons, “there was disappointment from Elyse and my chair.” A man I interviewed said he remembers the congregation where he grew up as a place with a lot of activities for kids, but that the plethora of adult learning opportunities at Barnert Temple sends a message about the ability of adults to grow as Jews. Rabbi Frishman models this; “I don’t see how we can ask people to grow if we don’t grow. People have to know that I’m always growing. I say it to members all the time. I am a better human being because of my partnership with them. I expect the same from them.”

The good news about a growth mindset is that anyone can learn it. You can change your mindset, and you can change your school or organization to be a place that encourages a growth mindset. To return to our ancient rabbis, while Shammai may have been more accurate to insist that the Chanukah lights diminish, Hillel embraced the challenge and potential of a new reality. Each Chanukah we broadcast the message of the growth mindset: embrace change, learn from challenges, and light increases.

[1] Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006. (All references in the article are to this book.)

For more about Barnert Temple, visit barnerttemple.org.

To learn about Carol Dweck’s mindset and find tools to teach the concept, go to www.mindsetworks.com or mindsetonline.com.

Emphasize Bar and Bat Mitzvah MORE

Here’s a blog post I wrote after attending the Speakers’ Lab panel entitled, “Is Jewish Education Broken?” Amid all the talk of re-imagining bar/bat mitzvah, I think we need to remember this is one of the few Jewish life cycle events that people still observe. Jewish weddings may or may not happen. Brit milah is up for debate. Jewish funerals occur, but shiva is often truncated. Are we sure we want to mess with this?

At a recent Speakers’ Lab event sponsored by the Posen Foundation, scholars and educators Zvi Bekerman, Benjamin Jacobs, Jonathan Krasner, Tali Zeklowicz and Jonathan Woocher tried to answer the question: Is Jewish Education Broken? The issues raised left me with a surprising conclusion: we need to emphasize bar and bat mitzvah more, not less.

Zvi Bekerman made a compelling case about “doing Jewish.” He pointed out that “Most Jews throughout Jewish history knew nothing about Judaism and were still Jews. It’s about doing.” He criticized liberal Judaism for its emphasis on feelings and beliefs about Judaism. What then is left that helps a Jew act as a Jew in the public sphere? Later on in the conversation, the speakers turned to the topic of bar and bat mitzvah, saying synagogues have been held hostage to preparing children for this ceremony without ever “interrogating” this life cycle event for its educational value. The contradiction jumped out at me—here we are intellectualizing one of the few Jewish rituals that many American Jews still embrace. Yes, there are options for non-synagogue based rituals, but that’s just a testament to the demand for a way to mark this life cycle event in the context of Jewish tradition. People still want to do this. And I mean do it. Not talk about it. Not experience positive feelings about it. Not reflect on it. They want to do it, and they want to celebrate it, and both should be embraced. That is what community is for—bringing people together and acknowledging significant steps on a collective and individual journey.

But where is this journey headed? Currently, bar and bat mitzvah is a big dead end. The problem is not primarily what comes before, but what comes after. Tali Zeklowicz made the strong point that everyone in the room had evolved their sense of Jewishness as recently as the last five years. And yet, apart from the occasional reference to college students, the conversation about Jewish education in North America focused entirely on the structures and methods we use to educate children. We cannot keep relying on children to perpetuate Judaism as children. Adults opt out of Jewish life, by and large, until they have children, and then they focus on a Jewish education and context in which to raise their children.  Judaism is a sophisticated and robust culture, theology, philosophy, outlook and way of life for adults.

Reflecting on my own role models, I realized I watched my mother prepare for and celebrate her bat mitzvah (in 1981), as well as my college roommate (in 1991) and a graduate school friend (in 1998). Now I’m watching my husband prepare for his, to take place in 2013. That means since I was 9 years old, every 10-15 years I have seen an adult (when I was a child) and a peer (as an adult) embark on a course of serious study and mark it with a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.  How about this as a model? Every 13 years, an adult engages on a new course of serious Jewish study and marks it publicly. She or he experiments with incorporating new Jewish practices. As a community, we celebrate and acknowledge adult Jewish learning, and we hold up individuals as examples.

Currently the demand for high quality, sustained adult Jewish learning in the liberal Jewish community is pathetically low. If we want to fix a broken Jewish education system, we need to start with ourselves.

Today’s “former congregant”

The world is a different place than the one that created today’s synagogue structure, and the would-be congregants of today are different than the congregants of days gone by. I wrote about this for my friend Arnie Samlan’s blog. Click the link or read on here. I’d love to hear what you think!


I recently learned the phrase “the former audience,” a term used to describe people who react to and act in a story as it unfolds rather than observing it. People today are empowered. “We did it!” Dora the Explorer sings from my TV to my preschool kids. (Talk about a “former audience”– now you have to talk to the TV instead of just watch it!) Today we can organize with like-minded individuals for a few minutes or many years, in person or online. We can raise money for our own causes and communicate with massive amounts of people through extensive networks.

Might leaders of synagogues think about “the former congregant”? As my colleague Rabbi Arnie Samlan points out, people don’t want to only receive services any more. They want to be a part of something bigger and take an active role in determining its direction.

Here’s my start at a chart comparing the former congregant of today to the congregant of generations past.

Jewish Congregants of Days Gone By Jews Today: The Former Congregant
Had limited options for taking part in the Jewish community (either affiliated or unaffiliated) Can be part of many Jewish organizations, self-organized groups, or networks of friends targeted to their specific needs and interests
Had limited options for donating funds to Jewish organizations (synagogue, Federation, JNF) Can choose from a myriad of organizations with specific causes and political leanings
Identified with a Jewish Movement Doesn’t find messages of large institutions compelling or clear, may feel equally comfortable or uncomfortable in a variety of Jewish settings
Turned to Jewish professionals located inside institutions for information and services Has access to a wealth of straightforward information as well as independent experts available for hire
Exposed to a more didactic model of Jewish education May have been taught to interpret Jewish tradition and own it, exposed to a range of models of Jewish learning in camps, day schools, or family education settings, for example
Had fewer things competing for attention and leisure time Can play a game on a hand held device, talk to a friend or send a message to a network in the middle of a service, class or conversation

There are two crucial reactions for today’s Jewish leaders given this reality.

  1. Figure out what your organization’s added value is. What do you have to offer that “former congregants” can’t do or find themselves? This can be anything from quality conversational Hebrew instruction in a community of friends to ongoing opportunities to make a meaningful contribution to the local community. It can be spiritually uplifting worship or a place that stands for counter-cultural values. Decide why people would need or want to be a part of your organization, and do that well.
  2. Share. Adopt a generous attitude towards resources, partnership, information and leadership. Holding your cards close to your chest is a sure way to find yourself alone at the table while the rest of the gang has left to join a pick up game of basketball. Instead, practice “open source Judaism.” Allow leaders to emerge, help them to implement their ideas and bring together their networks.

Yesterday’s congregants have changed. Today’s congregations have to.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Twenty-five years ago, I joined the cause to free Soviet Jews. Now I have Russian speaking children. Lately I’ve been reflecting on what this cause has meant for me not only personally but also as a Jewish professional and leader. Here’s the blog post I put together for my colleague Rabbi Hayim Herring. Click on the link or read on. I’d love to hear what you think!

On December 6, 1987, I joined 250,000 others in a March on Washington to free Soviet Jewry. Seventeen years later, almost to the day, I met a man from the FSU who became my husband. This cause played a big part in my youth, but I didn’t think about how it had changed my adult life and the lives of so many others until I stopped to reflect on the march and the movement that surrounded it. Much about the Jewish community, the world, and the way we organize has changed, but I think some truths about leadership and contribution have stayed the same.

What has stayed the same? People want to be part of something that matters. The Washington Post article I saved from December 6 mentions that “many ‘grass-roots’ Jews who never before have carried placards in pro-Soviet Jewry rallies, or even been members of Jewish groups, will be taking part today, including some who are traveling long distances.” The cause was compelling, and people wanted participate. Clay Shirky calls this “the plausible promise” – “a message framed in big enough terms to inspire interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence.” (Here Comes Everybody, pp 17-18) In 1987, people needed to show up on the National Mall to send a message. For some people, this was harder than others, but they did it, and they were counted.

What has changed? Now it’s a lot easier for people to quickly self-organize behind a cause. Living in an area affected by Superstorm Sandy, I saw this unfold over the past month. I’ve seen calls to help victims of Sandy in the following places and more: the local Starbucks drive-through, my gym, an online mom’s group, my childrens’ music classes, individuals on Facebook, Donors Choose, The American Red Cross via ABC television, synagogues, Federations, JCCs and smaller Jewish organizations. I’ve also read about people frustrated that they couldn’t find a place that needed their help. It wasn’t a coordinated effort, and the question still stands as to whether or not it was or will be more effective, but it is a good example of how people today come together around a cause.

There are some lessons here for Jewish leaders. Today’s Jewish organizations must be nimble enough to respond to issues and organize immediately, without being bogged down in red tape or outdated policies. They have to put the power back in the hands of the people in order to stay responsive and relevant. Otherwise, people will do it on their own. They will use the technologies and networks they have at hand and respond right away. That’s how people are making a difference today.

The metaphor that comes to mind is the sukkah. Although it appears fragile, it has persevered as part of our tradition. The walls are flimsy and permeable (if not absent) for the weather to penetrate. The spirit of the holiday teaches us to invite people in. At the same time, the frame is solid enough to offer some structure, and through the roof there is a vision of a higher truth. Finally, it can be constructed or taken down in a matter of hours. Jewish organizations need to be able to respond to the world while providing a vision and a framework to direct the energies and passions of the people.

More important than the organization is the purpose. “Save a Soul…March on Washington.” This message outlines the cause and what people can do about it, all on a button. Could your organization’s cause fit on a button? Do people know what it is? Can they explain it to others? Jewish organizations must be able to formulate a compelling, straightforward and achievable message. Recently a friend from the FSU learned that I had been at the rally in 1987, right around the time when her family emigrated to the US. “I didn’t know you did that,” she said. “Thank you. It made a difference.” In the end, isn’t knowing you made a difference all that really matters?

Open source Judaism

Android has an open source system that allows for anyone to write apps and programs for their devices. My husband created this cool Kaddish tutor app for Android after his mother died. With his programming expertise, a field to play on, and a desire to help others who might find themselves in his situation, a Russian immigrant created a teaching tool for Jews everywhere. People all over the world  have downloaded it. Access to information and the ability to connect to other people with similar needs and interests has created an open source world. While expertise is still valued, there is also the realization that each person has an expertise and experience to share. The gates to Jewish knowledge and practice are open in the same way. People can access information about Judaism without being a Talmud scholar. They can congregate and practice any way or place they choose. These facts should be embraced. Judaism is a democratic religion, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Each of us has the ability and responsibility to carry out mitzvot. In today’s Jewish world, everyone is both learner and teacher.