Re-Visioning the Jewish “Coming of Age” with post-B/M teens

I can’t remember how long ago I came to the conclusion that the Jewish community was doing itself a disservice by continuing to celebrate Jewish adulthood at the age of 12/13, however it is something I am quite passionate about.  I have blogged about this previously (At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism? and The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate) and have presented on the topic at several Jewish professional conferences and adult learning experiences.  I was asked to put my resources into a text study sheet for a 2013 Jewish Futures Conference (download  How have Text and Tradition Shaped the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Experience?)

Recently, a group of 8th grade students asked me to help them understand the history, meaning and purpose of the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony (they had no idea my ideological leanings).  After leading them through the text study guide, I asked them to pretend they were in charge of determining the future of the milestone in which young adult Jews commit to Jewish adulthood.  They determined the following framework (facilitated by me, but not ‘forced’ by me):

They unanimously agreed that the Age of Adulthood in 2017 is NOT at 12/13.  They debated for a while and determined:

  • A ceremony should happen when they are finishing their senior year of high school (certainly no younger than 16) [although one teen was adamant is should be in mid-20s]
  • Each emerging adult should be asked to make a commitment to their future of Judaism (the act of opting-in)

They collectively agreed that moving the ceremony to the end of high school would reduce the number of kids and families that drop out of synagogue life when the child is in 7th grade.  They also agreed that it was much more realistic for young people to make a concientius commitment to their future when they are older.

The teens debated what Learning Experiences are Required Prior to a Ceremony. They agreed that there wasn’t a “test” on these content areas but a check-list of having learned them:

  • Jewish History
  • Jewish Holidays
  • Jewish Values
  • Home Rituals
  • Reading (decoding) Hebrew  [some made a case for conversational Hebrew]
  • Israel History
  • Exposure to a variety of Jewish scholarly works
  • Parshat Shavua with a deep knowledge of at least one portion
  • Broad knowledge of mitzvoth with ability to recite 10 Commandments

 

The articulation of what The Ceremony would look like ended up including:

  • Embedded in a service tied to Shabbat [equal preferences articulated for Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat morning and Havdallah]
  • A L’Dor v’Dor Torah Passing Ceremony where each adult passes words of Jewish wisdom as they pass the Torah
  • A L’Dor v’Dor Family Ritual Item Passing Ceremony  (i.e. kiddish cup, tallit, candlesticks, mezuzah) where each adult shares their connection with that item as it is passed
  • Each teen delivers a speech about his/her commitment to Judaism and how they intend to live Jewishly

 

The teens determined that Jews were making the following Adult Commitments after the ceremony:

  • A pledge to engage in on-going volunteer work AND tzedakah as a regular part of their adult lives
  • A commitment to participate in a minyan when needed/asked
  • An attempt to engage in as many holiday worship services and/or home rituals as possible (to make it a priority)
  • Fasting on all “major” Jewish fasts (their knowledge of most fast days was limited)
  • A promise to hang a mezuzah on their doors

 

Discussion points that stood out to me as the most fascinating:  they didn’t want to include a trip to Israel as either a pre-cursor to the ceremony nor as a post-ceremony commitment; they were able to articulate the connection to the Hebrew language but didn’t demonstrate that same commitment to prayer as part of the knowledge nor as part of the ceremony; and they held onto the idea of fasting (particularly for Yom Kippur) as a way to demonstrate adult commitment to Judaism.

But perhaps what was the most interesting is they felt that there was no way that modern Jewish leaders would ever change the current ceremony.  They said that despite the fact that it had been altered and evolved several times over many centuries, that it was somehow now set in stone.  I would love to prove them wrong and show their voices and input could be helping shape the future of Judaism.

 

 

Is “Passover Break” for Day School Families a “Break from Judaism”?

I dread Passover every year. In 2010, I wrote a blog about it in which I said:

I hate Pesach. I think it is a true experiential learning opportunity (and not just the Seder) … but I face the cleaning, the changing of dishes, the cooking, the family tension around the Seder table, the week feeling cabin feverish (because I don’t eat out at all and can’t get that out-of-the-house social interaction with many friends), and lastly the shopping, as my own personal slavery. Let’s be honest, observing Pesach in the most strict of ways is a total pain in the ass.
(check out the full blog entry)

Every year I feel the same way and this year I looked for a way to compromise with myself.  I knew I couldn’t afford a true Kosher for Passover resort or camp experience (single occupancy exceeding over $2500 plus transportation) and I knew I didn’t have the energy to kasher my house, so I  began to explore what it would to take to create my own KFP Resort.  I considered that beach condos are cleaned before you get there – the refrigerator is completely empty and wiped out, the oven and microwave have been cleaned, the pantry is empty (or 99% empty). So I decided that if I could find a relatively inexpensive beach condo within a 7-hour drive of Atlanta, that I could load up my KFP supplies (disposable cooking pans, plastic storage containers, food, etc) and take it all with me (along with a supply of sunscreen, beach towels and trash entertainment magazines).

I hit the jackpot with a cheap condo right on the beach in Hilton Head, SC and made plans to leave first thing the morning after first seder (so I could spend that with family friends).  By  4 p.m. that first day, all my supplies had been unloaded, the frig now full of my KFP food, and I was on the beach with a cooler packed with my first of many Pesach picnics.  It was a great week.  Sure I had to cook for myself, but once the sun went down and I didn’t couldn’t be on the beach any more, I used the nights to make dinners and prep picnic lunches for the next day.  There were a few times during Chol haMoed when I hit a shopping area that the smells wafting from the local restaurants taunted me – but for the most part, it was one of the easiest Pesach observances I have had.

As I sat on the beach posting my own pictures to FB (I’ve shared a few here), I also started noticing the flood of photos many of my other FB connections were posting – from cruise ships, from Mexican resorts, from JazzFest in New Orleans, and from a variety of restaurants in beach cities around the country.

And then I started to realize that many of these were coming from friends whose kids are at Jewish day schools and some from the professional colleagues who work at them.  As my friends’ kids have reached day school age and as my own business has extended into day school communities, I have become much more aware of the lives of day school families (primarily in Reform, Conservative and Community affiliated schools).

So I started to wonder:  since day schools typically don’t have a Spring Break and only have Passover Break – are families feeling forced to choose between some semblance of Pesach observance or a family vacation?  Do they feel that it’s a zero-sum game and that unless you are at an incredibly expensive KFP Resort that there’s no way to have your “pesadecha cake and eat it too?”

I brought this thought up to a friend and this debate/discussion evolved to me taking to my FB page to ask – “If you are a day school family and you don’t keep Kosher for Passover (or avoid chametz) … is it because it’s your “spring break” or is it because it isn’t an observance your family connects to? Meaning – if you were in school/work/town for Passover would you be more likely to observe it as a family for the week?”

I received a few responses confirming my suspicion that some families are choosing to forego any kind of Pesach observance in order to have a true family “Spring Break” vacation and that those same families would indeed keep a level of Passover dietary restrictions if they were home during the break.  A few people responded that their families were on vacation but rented apartments with kitchens (instead of hotels) in order to cook their own meals and take picnics around the city they were visiting.  One friend messaged me that if they were to go somewhere like NYC or LA they could see doing that, but if they were going to a resort town in Mexico there is no way they would consider that as viable.  Another messaged me that any week they have to cook and do dishes isn’t a vacation and they would never consider that an option.  None said that Passover dietary observances just aren’t the choice of their family regardless of where they are.  (Note: as someone who has held many various kinds of observances for all Jewish holidays, I have no judgement on the choices people make for themselves and their families – these are only observations.)

So here we have families that are making a major financial commitment (averaging $15k per child per year) to immerse their children in Jewish education and community, and yet they are opting out of one the three most “important” holiday observances in Jewish life because it means missing out on (what they consider) a real vacation.  In turn, we are raising a generation of ‘committed Jews’ who won’t know how to “make Passover” for themselves as adults or a future family.

So this leads me to ask – what would it take for Jewish day schools to be in session during Chol haMoed Pesach? What opportunities does that actually offer in terms of education and community building.  Here are a few ideas:

  • an opportunity to partner with a local kosher caterer (so they don’t have to kasher the school cafeteria)
  • 2nd night community seder where the kids lead (and opportunity to embed into the curriculum and showcase more than the Four Questions)
  • a chol hamoed BBQ picnic and sports night
  • an opportunity to have a fundraiser where families can purchase KFP dinners that are sent home with kids at the end of the day only need to be reheated at home  (encouraging KFP observance in the homes but easing the burden on the parents)
  • field trips during the days where the kids take boxed KFP lunches with them (to ease the cafeteria situation)
  • opportunities for older grades to go to the kitchens of the kosher caterers and learn how to prepare certain KFP meals that are then served to their fellow school mates the next day for lunch?  (experiential education at its best)
  • a family retreat/camp out for the last two days of chag

The great thing about being a consultant is I often get to point out a problem/challenge and make some recommendations for solutions, but I am often not responsible for implementation.  So I just leave this all here for you to consider:  if you are a day school parent would you prefer to have a different Spring Break from Passover?  Who in your school community could you go to to start a conversation about the separation?  If you are a day school professional, do you feel as though your students and their families would benefit more from being in session during Passover? What steps could you take to create a proposal for the leadership?  If you aren’t a day school family nor staff member … well I just say to you – maybe there’s an open condo next to me on Hilton Head for 2017!

(If next year can’t be in Jerusalem, then it might as well be in the sand somewhere!)

Colbert and Mark Feuerstein Unleash my Pet Peeve

I was watching Colbert and the Late Show the other night and he had on actor Mark 475786614-actor-mark-feuerstein-visits-aol-build-at-gettyimagesFeuerstein (check him out on IMDB) as a guest.  I’ve been a long-time fan of MF’s – going back to Caroline in the City but not a “serious fan” in that I don’t watch everything he is in.  Apparently his current show – Royal Pains is beginning its 8th and final season therefore his press junket on Colbert.

Anyway, Colbert and MF are chatting and Colbert brings up MF’s being “re- bar mitzvahed.”  BAM!  Right in the sweet spot one of my biggest Jewish education pet peeves.  First, I shout at the TV “UGH! you don’t get bar mitzvahed, you become bar mitzvah.”  No one was listening on the other end.

Then it gets worse as MF continues to explain that his father says to him (at age 30) “Hey your Torah portion is coming back up in Temple and you can read it again.”  At which point I yell at the TV “reading Torah is NOT the mark of a bar mitzvah ceremony, the aliyah is!”  No one was listening on the other end.

Then MF continues to say that he was walking around town listening to his Walkman (yes, he jokes at how old this story is as proof of the artifact) so he could “hear the song” over and over again so he could re-memorize “the song.”  At which point I yell at the TV “it’s not a ‘song’ it’s Trope, and if you didn’t learn to read it in the first place, you shouldn’t be ‘memorizing’ it again – that’s not the point of ‘reading’ Torah!”  No one was listening on the other end.

You might first respond by saying, “Robyn, no one was listening because you were screaming at a TV of a pre-recorded show.”  But the truth is that I have been ‘screaming’ at Jewish educators, Jewish leaders, rabbis, cantors and ritual directors of years – and no one is listening.

We continue to perpetuate all that is wrong with everything MF said – and he said it not only to Colbert, but to the millions of viewers watching.  He shared misinformation because we – Jewish education leadership – continue to perpetuate the misinformation surrounding bar/bat mitzvah:  that it’s something that happens to a kid, that as an adult you can ‘have’ one, that it’s okay to memorize a tune and some words that have no meaning to you and can just get up and recite the “song” and not actually read from Torah.  Not to mention that the reading of Torah isn’t the actual part of the ceremony that marks the bar/bat mitzvah – but the aliyah.

Some might wonder why do I think this is an important issue to even “scream” about.  One of the biggest reasons is because the entire supplemental religious school system has been mostly reduced to this prepare young Jews for this event which is incorrectly perceived to be ‘required’ in order for someone to be a bar/bat mitzvah.  Because the education we give the kids is focused on this faux performance of reciting a memorized ‘song’ instead of connecting them to deep meaning with our ancient texts with modern lessons. They (parents and young Jews) are missing the point because we are letting them.  They are missing an important opportunity because we are perpetuating the problem.

What do you do when an entire adult community within a society has all the wrong information and continues to perpetuate it because the education leadership of that society refuses to shout from the mountain tops that we have had it all wrong.

When will someone listen?

 

(If you want to watch the full exchange, here is the link to the Colbert episode.  MF comes on after Anderson Cooper at 30:40)

Route Recommendations

Route Recommendations are monthly tips and tidbit advice from JewishGPS. Check back here monthly for the latest.

May 2016

Dusting Myself Off.
Trying to emerge from “narrow spaces” (mitzrayim).

As Pesach 2016 comes to a close, I am reflective of the narrow space I feel I have been trapped in for a long time.  I can’t believe that I have allowed two years to go by without blogging.  Those two years have been filled with a lot of heart ache and struggle due to my depression (refer to this blog post for the original story: here).  A constant questioning if I will ever find my old self again – and the truth is – I am still not sure.  But here is what I do know – that when I am in the moment of “doing my thing” – whether it be presenting a workshop/training, facilitating visioning, mentoring staff, or teaching teens – I am happy.   I still gut check myself to ask “Am I still in the right field for me?  Do I still have a passion for Jewish education?  Do I still want to wake up every day and do this work?”  And the answer is still “100% yes” – on the days when I can wake up and get out of bed or off the couch.  It is so important that we not be afraid to ask ourselves these core questions on a regular basis.  If there comes a time when you sit and reflect on your passions and the way you embody them in your career and you don’t feel a connect or congruence, then it might be time to change careers – no matter how old or young you are.

May/June 2014

First of all, I want to acknowledge the overwhelming support I received after my last blog post.  The gratitude I feel is immense.  With over 1000 hits to the blog and hundreds of notes, emails and texts that I received in support, I know that I can be open and honest in all my future dealings.  We are on the verge of a culture shift, but each need to engage in due diligence to let our employees and lay leaders know that we operate “safe zones” for those battling mental health issues.  Consider partnering with your local Jewish Family Service organization to provide some information at staff training and board meetings.  Be explicit that you don’t want your employees to hide these health issues and that you will do everything you can to guarantee their job security – as with other illnesses.  Provide options in your employee benefits for true “mental health” days – understanding that for some people it means a random break from the pace of the job and for others it’s a pillar of steadiness that will help them get through the next hurdle without feeling guilty.  So many people have approached me in the last month to share about their personal battles and far too many are still afraid to let their co-workers and lay leaders know what they are facing.   This culture change will require many allies to help make the shift.

April 2014

There will not be an April 2014 Route Recommendation.  Instead, please read this blog post about being a professional dealing with depression. 

February/March 2014 Route Recommendation

How many assumptions do we make around Jewish celebrations?  That all b’nei mitzvah experiences are joyous family events and that Purim is fun for everyone?  I have heard some recent stories about family trauma surrounding brit/simhat bat, weddings and b’nei mitzvah.  Think about the bride/groom who walks down the aisle without a parent because s/he lost that person young … or the bar/bat mitzvah family who buried a grandparent only days before the simcha …. or the family who is in constant battle because of a divorce trying to come together for a brit.  What role does the community have in supporting these people/families in a unique way during these otherwise joyful occasions?  Who teaches us how to support them?  And what about the recovering addict who wants to celebrate Purim or Pesach in a sober, safe and supportive environment?  With so much emphasis on alcohol during these chagim (and even Shabbat kiddush), what words and option might we offer in order to be a compassionate community.   Consider what kinds of awareness programs your organization might need to put into place to support people through what the rest of us assume is a “joyous occasion.” 

January 2014 Route Recommendation:

Sometimes, it just all can’t get done.  This Route Recommendation is coming 11 days later than I normally post them because I have been sick with the flu for two weeks now and wasn’t feeling great even before that.  So much work has fallen behind as a result.  This situation has three great lessons for us buried within it.  The first, one that I often struggle with, is that not everything can get done right away.  Sometimes we need a “parking lot” for big ideas that come to us and often we need to re-prioritize the to-do list based on what our current organization realities are.  The second lesson is about admitting when we can’t do it all.   Sometimes we – as individuals or as organizations overcommit- which I also struggle with.  When we find ourselves in over our heads, sometimes the best solution is just to admit it.  Another lesson – which can be a solution for this – is to ask for help.  I think often organizations hesitate to call other organizations to ask for help.  Maybe it’s for something easy like asking to use a copy machine when yours is broken before a big meeting; or maybe it’s more complicated like asking to share an entire facility during construction.  While this item of the Route Recommendation on my to-do list loomed above me while I was sick, perhaps the best solution would have been to ask one of my amazing colleagues to “guest blog.”  

December 2013 Route Recommendation:

Much has been written about the “art of welcoming” but when is the last time your organization did a “Welcoming Audit?”   Did you read this article about the pastor of a church who disguised himself as a homeless man and went into his own church to see how people would act?  It’s kind of like an episode of Undercover Boss.  Here’s a chance to get dressed up in disguise or send in an undercover spy  (a “secret shopper” of sorts).  Do people get welcomed throughout your building? What does ‘welcoming’ mean in different spaces/areas of your physical building?  What does it mean if your organization is holding an event outside your walls? Are guests “welcomed” on the way out – meaning are they invited back or told that your organization hopes they return soon.   Spend a day as a spy in your own organization and see if the Jewish value of “Haknassat Orkhim” is alive and well in within your culture.

November 2013 Route Recommendation:

Partnerships are a two-way street.  Sometimes we engage people as “partners” but we never ask what we can do to help them, we are always thinking about how the partnership will benefit our organization.  What strengths, skills, capital, assets, etc does your organization have that you could “loan” to another organization?  Before approaching a potential partner to join you in something you are doing (or want to do), ask yourself what you might bring to that organization in the deal.  Even if the exchange isn’t immediate, by including it into the conversation you are validating the other organization and demonstrating that you care about them/their success and not just your own.

October 2013 Route Recommendation:

Every time I am lost in a subway station in Manhattan, I think that I should offer the City Planning folks a tour of the city through the eyes of a tourist.  I think this would help them with signage, maps, etc.   Because, honestly, what is there stinks and is less than helpful!  As someone who is a guest in a lot of institutions, I often think the same thing – that the “regulars” think that everything is obvious but as a guest, I can tell you it isn’t. Have you recently walked through your institution with the eyes of a new person who has never been there before?  I encourage you to take a day and pretend you have never been to your building before.  Not only will this help you understand how your guests perceive your building, but it will also help you in your on-board plan for new employees.  If you feel your “sight” will be too “blurred” by your own comfort of the space, invite a colleague who has never been to your facility to spend a day with you being your “eyes.”   This might help you not only understand what signage might be helpful, but what physical space adjustments might make your organization more welcoming.

September 2013 Route Recommendation:

I was sitting at dinner the other night with the digital strategy director of a local Jewish organization.  We were talking about how our two organizations (well, both of mine and hers – so three) utilize social media and integrate it into a larger communications plan. We were discussing how advantageous it would be if Jewish organizations in the same community made an agreement (call is a brit) to re-tweet and to share on Facebook each other’s events and announcements.  It sends a true message to the Jewish community when the organizations which serve as its infrastructure work together for a greater good.  Reach out to the other social media professionals in your city for a community-wide gathering.  Offer some professional development, share some ideas, and make that covenant.  As we approach 5774, may this be a time for renewal for all of us.  Shanah Tovah U’Metukah.

August 2013 Route Recommendation:

Consider a new twist on how you market your organization. Make a list of the 10 things your organizations does best. Ask 15 potential clients/members what 5 things they look for in an organization that does work similar to yours (whatever meta-category you fit into). Are there places those two lists cross-over? What would it look like for your organization to provide training, information or programming out in the community based on those topics? For example, if you are a JCC and are great at kids’ day camp, consider opportunities to run 1-day mini-camps all over community – at festivals, at the Jewish hospital for older siblings of newborns, at day schools during breaks, etc. If you are a Foundation or a fundraising organization, consider offering family philanthropy workshops in locations around the city. Make them geographically accessible and make the program about the content, and not a sales pitch for your organization. Once you have made first contact with people, on neutral turf and with a service they can use, you then have laid the foundation for a new kind of relationship with those potential clients/members. Follow up later with an informational enews related to the topic and then further down the road, invite them into your organization/building for another taste of what you offer. It takes time to build relationships and finding unique marketing opportunities will help you in that endeavor.

June/July 2013 Route Recommendation:

When people ask me about my approach to social media, I am confident to share that I have built my business off the back of Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and LinkedIn. Sometimes I am pressed to pinpoint a specific moment or strategy that tipped the scales. It’s an easy answer: live-tweeting conferences. If you have yet to venture onto Twitter, I apologize upfront for the lingo I am about to use and not explain – but perhaps it will encourage you to Google it or to just jump in.

The benefit of live-tweeting conferences is multi-fold:

  • Hashtags get you noticed by people who don’t follow you. Nowadays, every conference or large meeting has its own hashtag. Not only can participants in the event keep track of the tweets coming from the event, but it allows those who are not able to attend to jump into the conversation.
  • Which brings me to my next point. By offering those who can’t attend your live-tweets, you are providing a valuable free service to people. Oftentimes you can be come their voice in the room – asking questions they submit via Twitter. You provide them with a “Cliff’s Note” version of the content of the conference.
  • Twitter offers you the ability to showcase your otherwise “private” thoughts in a public forum. During a conference session or a meeting (when it’s appropriate) you can also provide quick op-eds for the content that the speaker is offering. You don’t have to wait until you get home from a conference to share your thoughts. You can share the powerful snippets the speaker shares, you can offer your commentary, you can engage in a discussion about it – all live and in the moment.
  • Retweets. When someone sees your live-tweets, commentary, etc and it resonates with them, they can re-send it out to all of their followers with a quick click of the cursor. Sometimes even the hosting organizations will retweet your postings. Now you have multiplied your exposure infinitely.

So, if you are trying to get noticed on a national platform for the value you bring to the field, try live-tweeting the next conference you attend. Then sit back, and watch your connections grow.

May 2013 Route Recommendation:

Webinar overload? In the last month, I have been on three webinars and given two. Sitting in front of our computers with 1000 other things to do often leads to significant multi-tasking. It’s so easy to dis-engage from a webinar because we don’t see ourselves as active participants. A piece of feedback I received from one participant in one I gave last week is “this is the first webinar where I didn’t ‘zone out.'” So, what might have been different between the one I gave and the countless others this person has signed up for? Participation. How often do we log into a webinar to only be spoken to and shown static slides for an hour (or more)? If we are lucky, there is an open chat box where people can introduce themsleves and if there are great people also on-line we can interact with the other participants (sometimes the BEST learning/collaboration takes place in that chat box!). Every once in a while, a presenter uses a poll (maybe one or two) during the course of a webinar. My best webinar experiences have come when the software used allows for break-out rooms and participants are given time to tackle an issue together in small groups and then are brought back to the main conversation to share and process. So this is a technique I try and utilize each time the software allows for it. Consider – is there a way to capture information from the participants ahead of time that you can use in the conversation? For example, use a survey software for registration and ask additional questions of registrants related to your topic and use the data within the presentation. This way, the webinar directly reflects the participants’ work and opinions. If there is a whiteboard where participants can mark-up a document or contribute to the creation of something, then use it. Showing movies, using audio clips, and embedding other multi-media tools all raises the quality of a webinar. Clearly, some of these techniques are reliant on the capabilities of the webinar software used, so be sure your organization has invested in the best they can. There isn’t a perfect formula, however, the more interactive you can make the webinar you are giving or hosting (just like any presentation), the better.

April 2013 Route Recommendation:

How many people showed up? How much did it cost us to run that program? How often are the programs you run being evaluated on one or both of these questions? How often are the top goals of your program about the numbers? Jewish education and Jewish living are about meaning-making, not about quantifying – and yet we consistently measure success by the numbers, doing a complete dis-service to our participants, our staff, and our stakeholders. In putting an emphasis on qualitative assessments, we open the doors to better understanding WHY our programs are successful (or not). Just evaluating a program based on the numbers never gets us to understanding what motivates our participants, what impact we had on their lives, and how our plan and vision came to life. In the last two years, I have spent a lot of time training groups on a unique approach to evaluation which ensures that staff, lay-people and stakeholders (i.e. funders and board members) assess the vision of the program, the process of implementing the program, and the meaning and the relationships the participants derive from the experience. Check yourself the next time you ask a colleague “How many people showed up?” and consider what other questions you might ask to assess success.

March 2013 Route Recommendation:

Self-reflection isn’t easy. Being honest with ourselves is even harder. Recently, I have encountered several education leaders who are taking the following stance … “I know my program/school isn’t as good as it can be, but there’s nothing to change, I’m doing everything right. It’s ‘them.'” Really? How can this possibly be true? There is no doubt that these leaders have sustained passion and commitment for Jewish education, what I think they are lacking is the ability to be totally honest with themselves. Change isn’t easy – it often gets roadblocked by fear of loss. In these cases, it might be that these education leaders fear loss of their jobs if they take too big of a risk and make too many changes and they don’t work. It could be that these education leaders fear the loss of their jobs if they admit that they let things go for too long. It’s critically important in a change process to be honest in self-reflection and include in that an admission that sometimes we get in the way of change due to our fears.

February 2013 Route Recommendation:

Be a practitioner. Often I interact with amazing education leaders who work as administrators, conveners, and consultants at large organizations – central agencies, Federations, JCCs, institutions of high education and national agencies. The number of professionals who spend time as practitioners is abysmally small. As a consultant and a doctoral student it would be extremely easy to not ever interact with children, teens, adults, and families in a Jewish education learning environment. However, the time I spend as a practitioner is extremely rewarding and more importantly, serves as grounded “research” for the consulting I engage in. Being a practitioner lends credibility for all of the suggestions I make to others. I have on-the-ground proof of what works as well as my own lessons-learned for what might not work. It’s time for education leaders to make a serious commitment to getting out of their offices and meetings and into the “classroom.”

January 2013 Route Recommendation:

The cost of doing business. I was recently speaking with a young professional who is heading a small Jewish non-profit for the first time. In going over the expenses she would encounter in the day-t0-day work of her job (i.e. driving all over the city to meet with volunteers, meeting volunteers for coffee/breakfast/lunch, picking up/transporting supplies to various locations, engaging in a lot of post-hours email communication with lay leaders, etc), this dedicated professional was shocked when I told her that the organization should be paying for all of these things. She said she couldn’t ask the organization to reimburse her for mileage (at least gas), for business meals, for her home internet … I am trying to coach her that this isn’t HER asking THE BOARD to pay her back for something this is THE ORGANIZATION LEADERSHIP ensuring that the cost of doing business is covered in their budget. As professionals, it is important we advocate for ourselves. Many of us in non-profit work make a lot less than our corporate counterparts – and trust me, they have company budgets for business meals and mileage. As lay leaders, it’s really important for us to think about what expenses our professionals will have as a result of conducting the business of our organization and committing to a budget that covers these expenses. I recommend that lay leadership ask their professionals to sit WITH them and review the budget in comparison to the actual dollars the professional is spending on the organization out of pocket and then work together to revise the budget and make a fundraising plan that will cover those expenses.

December 2012 Route Recommendation:

Intention. It’s a powerful word and an even more powerful concept. When we do things carelessly or haphazardly or even just in a routine way, the product we put out there often shows it. Even if on a subconscious level, consumers respond to intention in a very positive way. When planning a curriculum, it is important to be intentional about everything from pedagogy, to set inductions, to environment (room, mood, physical, social), to pre-communication about the program, post-learning reflection, and materials used. All too often, education leaders focus on the core content but aren’t focused on being intentional about the delivery of the content and especially not intentional about the “trappings” that surround the delivery and the content. This concept is important to transfer to staff meetings, celebrations, recruitment events, fundraisers, PR/marketing …. well, everything.

November 2012 Route Recommendation:

Sometimes, you just need to throw out your planned curriculum and help your learners process current events via our Jewish framework. As we begin November, we are focused on two distinct issues and then where the two converge: The Election, the impact of Hurricane Sandy and how this natural disaster might impact the election. Many Jewish education agencies have put forth response curricula on these topics. Even if they aren’t written with your target age audience in mind (i.e. if it is written for teens but you teach adults, or it’s written for elementary learners and you teach teens), the source texts themselves are applicable and the discussion questions and learning activities can be easily adapted. Here are some links to a few materials: 2012 Election, Responding to Crisis and some secular resources for teaching about Sandy.

October 2012 Route Recommendation:

As we usher in October with Sukkot, what lessons can we learn from our holiday customs? Ushpizin. During Sukkot we learn that we invite the souls of the seven great leaders of Israel – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David – to leave Gan Eden and to partake in the divine light of the earthly Sukkot (Zohar – Emor 103a). It is said, that each day of Sukkot, all seven souls are present, but each takes his turn to lead the other six. Collectively these transcendent guests are known as Ushpizin, the Aramaic word meaning “guests.”

There is a culture built into the Limmud programs around the world in which everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner. Titles (Rabbi, Dr., Cantor) aren’t used – aren’t even visually present – and each person is acknowledged as having the skill and talent to teach every other person at some point. The Limmud International website even boasts, “One of the key principles behind Limmud is that we all have something to contribute and can learn from each other.”

What does the leadership in your organization look like? Is it top-heavy? Is there a strict hierarchy or is it more of a team environment? Who leads staff meetings? Who leads staff training days? The concept of the Ushpizin taking turns leading each other can remind us that we need to take time in our organizations to learn from and lead each other. We need to acknowledge the unique skills that each person has and provide them with a platform to showcase their talents and leadership.

September 2012 Route Recommendation:

About eight years ago, I attended a conference where I was introduced to scholar and researcher Dr. Amy Sales, professor at Brandeis University. At that conference, she shared with the group her take on “surprise and delight.” I had never heard of this concept before (Google it, there’s a ton from the marketing world), but it really stuck with me. She explained that in her research of Jewish summer camps, one element she found to be the most dynamic was this concept of “surprise and delight.” She writes,

“Camps run on unbridled creative energy. This energy explains how the camp environment
generates fun, risk-taking, and constant invention. Indeed, camp is full of surprises
(Sales & Saxe, 2004). The field as a whole needs to
embrace this same creative spirit and continue to surprise the community…”

When I present on “High Impact Learning Methods,” I often integrate some basic ideas to bring “surprise and delight” into the learning environment. What do you do to integrate “fun, risk-taking, and constant invention” into your learning environment?

August 2012 Route Recommendation:

August is back-to-school (or education program) month for many of us. Which means a lot of new faces, new classes/groups, and a lot of introductions. A typical first day is a “go around the room, give us your name, what school you go to (or where you live), and your favorite Jewish holiday (or favorite Jewish food).” By the time you are on to the fourth person, the 20th person in the circle is bored out of their mind and completely disengaged. Instead of this method, consider several small group games in which you, as the education leader, participate in them. For example, if you have 30 kids in your class/group – make three groups of 10. Design three different kinds of activities each lasting 10 minutes that take place simultaneously. The games rotate through the groups so they all get to play all three games and you spend 10 minutes with each group. Consider the educational themes of the year for your class/group. Integrate those themes into the content of the games. Remember, the first impression the learners get of their education leader is “boring” if the introduction is boring. Instead, give them a little energy, surprise, and enthusiasm.

July 2012 Route Recommendation:

Someone recently asked me about why they should join Twitter. Social Media has been one tool I have used to build my business and particularly brand recognition. There is a lot of advice on the internet about how to best use Twitter. But what is missing here is the “free p.r.” a person or organization gets when they successfully “live tweet” an event. In that moment, you become a journalist – reporting your observations of your experience. My professional network grows by leaps and bounds each time I am at a conference and “live tweet” the sessions I attend. First of all, people who don’t follow you but follow the hashtag all of the sudden know you exist. Second, many people engage with you in a discussion about at least one of your tweets – here is a chance to show off your knowledge. Third, colleagues will come to know that you are a reliable source for information at conferences they cannot attend. Here is some professional advice on live tweeting (you will probably note that I only follow some of it).

June 2012 Route Recommendation:

What does your library look like? What resources do you have at your fingertips? Building a professional library is a career task that should not be overlooked. You might not even read a book you purchase right away, but you never know when you will go back to it. Sometimes you may only use one portion of the resource immediately and discover later other gems within the volume. The internet has been our recent go-to for information, but there’s nothing like cracking open a book you pulled from your own library. While it can sometimes break the bank, the investment is well worth it. One way to help get it paid for, is when negotiating your contract, build in a book line item; pre-negotiate that these are yours to keep when you leave. Whatever isn’t covered buy your organization’s budget, is tax deductible as a business expense. So keep those receipts.

May 2012 Route Recommendation:

In several areas of my work, the conversation around Jewish families and engaging Jewish families sits at the forefront. Before we can begin the work of building family engagement systems, we must ask “What is a Jewish family? Who’s in it?” The Jewish family began to change a while ago (or we just started to acknowledge that there is diversity in what a Jewish family looks like), but we are still not reflecting these changes in our marketing materials. Do an inventory of your website and your most prominent printed PR pieces: How many Jews of Color or Multi-Racial Jews are depicted? Are you sending the message that Jews with special needs have a place in your community? Do LGBT families have an image in your marketing that they can identify with? Does the single person feel their needs for family are being met by your organization? Does a multi-generational family know that their unique necessities for Jewish living are cared for in your community? How can they all get this message by your PR?

April 2012 Route Recommendation:

Sometimes when we are trying to impress others, build a business, network, etc we are afraid to admit when we don’t have a particular strength or skill. I am often asked to consult in areas for which I know are not my passion nor my strength. Could I do these activities (i.e. fundraising and quantitative evaluation), yes. Will I if a client asks me to, no. It’s really important to be authentic in your skill ability and to stick to it. Instead of looking at is as a short-coming, consider it as an opportunity to be a successful connector. Be sure your professional collegial network has in it people who have skill where you have weakness, and then refer them to your clients/boss as needed. Making a successful connection (shidduch) is much better for your career than attempting to fulfill a request you know isn’t in your core skill toolbox.

March 2012 Route Recommendation:

When we all became accustomed to the 140 character limit of Twitter, we began to push ourselves to communicate in concise ways that we never had before. As a presenter, I am now often asked to not only provide a full session description but also to craft a 140 character description for social media use. It’s an interesting challenge and if you haven’t ever pushed yourself to pare something down to the core essential message, the Twitter-method is one way to accomplish this. In the beginning of February, I participated in The Covenant Foundation Project Directors’ Meeting (held in NJ). The opening session was facilitated by the very talented Larry Smith who created and launched Smith Magazine. The core work is to capture Six Word Memoirs – what seems like a basic frivolous idea has boomed into niche concepts for business people, teens, Jewish community and more. There are table games and contests. There are books and customizable tshirts (I just bought one!). The entire concept is to boil your story down to six words. The stories our organizations have to tell are critical to our brand, our PR and our messaging, but all too often we either don’t tell our story enough, or we wordsmith them to death. Try distilling your organization’s story down to six words. I’m still working on one for JewishGPS. Here’s one example: Pushing organization boundaries. Changing Jewish Education.

February 2012 Route Recommendation:

I find myself often having conversations with both professionals and lay leaders/volunteers on the challenges of a) recruiting volunteers and b) tapping out the same volunteers repeatedly. While I can provide hours of consulting in helping organizations develop a highly efficient volunteer program, I wanted to share some pithy advice here. First, treat your volunteer structure as you do your entire organization structure – with organization charts, job descriptions and clearly defined expectations/guidelines. Second, invest time and money in volunteer training. Providing volunteers with the confidence to fulfill a volunteer role is half the battle. Many times they don’t feel they have adequate skill or knowledge to take leadership positions within your organization. Third, break down tasks into tiny, tiny pieces (did I mention “tiny?”) – spreading the responsibility (and therefore the ownership) and decreasing the overload factor.

January 2012 Route Recommendation:

Handwritten notes – are they an artifact from the past? Email and twitter are accepted modes of professional communication (and even Facebook depending on the transaction). But when is the last time you hand wrote a note and slapped a stamp on the envelope to communicate professionally? The time you take to go that step will not go unnoticed. Consider having two kinds of note cards printed for this use: a more formal one with your logo and contact information on it and a more casual one with your favorite piece of text quoted on it. Different occasions might warrant a different tone. Did a colleague or a lay person who you know personally do something to help you? Drop them a Thank You on your casual note cards. Because they have a text quote on them, it still keeps the note framed in your work. If a professional business contact reached out, follow up with a more professional card – but with your personal touch in the note.

November 2011 Route Recommendation:

I saw this on Twitter and think that it’s great advice: @joelleab: My new mantra RT @jonathanlev: If you find yourself in a situation where u are neither contributing nor learning-move somewhere else #jnets. It was posted as part of the twitter feed coming out of the Schusterman conference NetWORKS: Exploring the Power & Possibilities of Networks in the Jewish Community. This sentiment is really about self-awareness and self-reflection. Earlier, a participant posted this article http://bit.ly/JewishGPS_assetmap where the core sentiment is “The only thing you really need to do to be great at networking is to be as helpful as possible to as many people as you can.” Both of these concepts emphasize taking responsibility for your role in your professional learning and professional networks and the ultimate intersection of the two. Establishing and actively participating in a Professional Learning Network (PLN) can be the most powerful tool in moving your career forward.

October 2011 Route Recommendation:

When is the last time you attended a Jewish professional conference that is outside of your area of expertise? outside of your network? We tend to return again and again to the same annual conferences that are specifically related to our movement’s education network, or our niche area’s national conference. While it is important to connect with our networks face-to-face on an on-going basis, it is also important to cross-pollinate, step into a field that might be foreign to you, and expand your knowledge and networks simultaneously. This might take the form of attending a secular conference or it might take the form of Camp Directors attending a Family Education Conference and a Family Educator attending a Teen Philanthropy conference or a Teen Educator attending an Adult Education training. What you learn in this “alternate” environment could have drastic impact on your work and your career.

September 2011 Route Recommendation:

In a renewed age of collaboration, we often find ourselves in partnerships with organizations that are a part of a different movement than the ones we work within or with organizations that come from a communal position. Pluralism is difficult (and isn’t the same as post-denominationalism). People strive to create pluralistic environments where they claim to want to make “everyone” comfortable. Pluralism (and I wish I knew who to quote on this) is about everyone being uncomfortable. How uncomfortable are you willing to be in order to create a space where someone else feels comfortable and included?

August 2011 Route Recommendation:

Are you solving the right problem? or just the problem that is presenting itself? Sometimes we jump quickly to solve what immediately presents itself as a trouble spot but more often than not the REAL problem is buried underneath the surface. If you only solve the presenting problem, you will keep running into the REAL problem – just in different manifestations. Think of an iceberg … are you melting what is above the surface or are you taking out the “titanic sinker” below the surface?

July 2011 Route Recommendation:

In the work that you are doing, what are the “uncommon connections” you can make with other organizations or professionals either in collaboration, or in advice-seeking? What are some “unintended influences” that you could uncover? Consider making a mind-map of your work. Take out a giant sheet of butcher paper and give the work (program, initiative, idea) a name. Draw a circle around it. Making spokes around it consider who could be involved, how others can get involved, what aspects of the program could be collaborated on, when is the work ideally done, where are some locations the work can be done. Be creative. Once you have the outer bubbles, begin to make spokes of bubbles off of each one of those. Are there places where two bubbles could intersect? Is there anything that surprised you that came out of this exercise? Are there any assumption you made that could be challenged? Are there barriers you put on yourself that could be taken down? Consider asking others to add to your mind map (or do their own and then compare/contrast the the versions). See where your mind takes you!

June 2011 Route Recommendation:

In a recent training session with Adam Shames (www.kreativity.net), he reminded me of the importance of “yes, and” in the creativity and innovation process. Just like in improv theater work, it is imperative to not shut down your colleagues’ thoughts during the ideation process. Say, “yes, and” instead of “yeah, but.” This will spur more creativity and not stall your group’s thinking. A critical piece of the innovation process is uncommon connections and outside voices/perspectives. Bring in unlikely people. Additionally, remember that creativity, innovation and growth take time. Invest in patience.

May 2011 Route Recommendation:

Michael Fullan, is a leading scholar on education change management. In his book, Six Secrets of Change, he emphasizes the importance of organization leaders working to “connect peers with purpose,” (Fullan, 2008, p. 41). Reflect on how well you know your fellow staff members and how well you think they know each other. Be deliberate about creating meaningful connections amongst your staff members. One way to do this is to create an environment of play. Physically, is there room for play in the workplace? Do you build it into staff meetings? Do you take days out of the office to play together (i.e. bowling, putt-putt golf, whirlyball, a visit to the zoo, etc)? These shared experiences create a strong foundation for connecting peers to each other.

April 2011 Route Recommendation:

When having meetings, use the time wisely. Circulate “reports” ahead of time via email, GoogleDocs, or wikis. Save the meeting time for problem-solving, collaborating, and decision making. If you feel the need for your team to check-in often, try a stand-up hallway meeting each day at a set time. By having a check-in standing up, people will speak quickly and succinctly – so they don’t end up standing a long time. By the time your team gets to a sit-down meeting, everyone will already be caught up on the reports, and you have time for the teamwork!

March 2011 Route Recommendation:

True innovation and change requires a safe environment for risk, asking hard questions, critical self-reflection. Before embarking on a “change project” take stock of you (and your organization’s) commitment to these tasks. If you/your organization aren’t willing to be bold in your experimentation and internal honesty, you probably aren’t ready for true innovation and change. Think about this quote from Kevin SmithFailure is success training.”

February 2011 Route Recommendation:

Learners thrive when they feel connected to a community. Creating a community in your “classroom” (or camp cabin, or youth lounge, etc) needs to be an intentional part of your curriculum and program planning.

January 2011 Route Recommendation:

When visioning for new education initiatives, try avoid using the words school, membership, teacher, student.

Zeh Lo Pashut – This is Not Simple

It’s rare that I am become tongue-tied and inarticulate, but I have spent the last seven days trying to figure out the most poignant way to communicate this message. As it turns out, the only way is to just say it:

I have been diagnosed with clinical moderate depression.

It is a new diagnosis as of November 2013 and something I have just recently shared with my family and closest friends in the last few days. Why did it take me so long to share this information? Because mental illness is still taboo.

It’s really easy to keep up a façade of the outgoing, “together,” motivated person – for a while. I managed to do this for about a year … posting all sorts of fun things on Facebook, Tweeting about hobbies and interests, contributing to professional dialogues, traveling around the country to various conferences and professional meetings. But keeping up the façade is exhausting and contributes to the deepening of depression while behind the scenes the following is going on:

A backlog of unread and unreturned emails.

Voicemail which is full. Phone calls not returned.

Projects for clients not turned in.

Not talking to friends on a regular basis.

Cancelling plans at the last minute.

Failure to work on a dissertation.

Avoiding the “to do” list.

That’s when you can’t ignore the problem any longer. People start to ask if you are “okay” via emails and phone calls you don’t return because you can’t bring yourself to say, “No, I’m not okay. I am not myself. I’m sinking.”

So I first had to admit it to myself and then seek help from medical professionals. Mental illness is still taboo and therefore it took me over a year to be able to take those two critical steps.

As a result, I have a lot of fences to repair – both social and professional – as I work through to a healthier place.   I owe a lot of apologies and need to ask for an overwhelming amount of forgiveness.   I can’t expect it, but I am hopeful.

I decided to “come out” publicly because I want to be a part of a cultural change around issues of mental illness.   I want to live in a society that I can tell colleagues and friends that I have depression as easily as we tell them that we have the stomach flu. I want to live in a society where colleagues and friends are able to support people with mental illness with the compassion they care for those with cancer.

It’s not Yom Kippur, but I am seeking forgiveness from all of those I have hurt, disappointed, confused, frustrated and angered these past 18 months or so.

Al Chet: For the mistakes I committed before my community through wronging a friend.
Al Chet: For the mistakes I have committed before my community through denial and false promises.
Al Chet: For the mistakes I committed before my community refusing to accept responsibility.
Al Chet: For the mistakes I committed before my community through confusion of the heart.

Will the real anti-Semite please stand up?

When I opened my eJewishPhilanthropy this morning, I scanned all of the snippets and headlines as I do each morning.  Typically, I make a mental note of what articles I want to come back to later in the day, but today, one snippet not only caught my eye, but stopped my heart:Screen Shot 2013-10-11 at 9.23.24 AMSo, I clicked on that “Read more” link and found myself face-to-face with one of the most offensive things I have seen in a long time.  As if I wasn’t already offended enough by the assertion that Limmud would bring about “tragic consequences for Anglo Jewry,” the rest of the letter this pull quote came from has me seething enough to jump into blog-mode.  Here is the text authored by the former head of the Beit Din of London and several other high-powered rabbis and judges:

Pluralism is the “political correctness” of the theological world.  The upshot of this is that even though opposing philosophical viewpoints are espoused, no one is deemed to be wrong.

As religious Jews, however, our fundamental bedrock is that there is only one truth – the Torah B’ksav and Baal Peh which is of Divine origin.

Limmud and similar organisations espouse the ethos of pluralism. Participating in their conferences, events and educational endeavors blurs the distinction between authentic Judaism and pseudo-Judaism and would bring about tragic consequences for Anglo Jewry.

As such, we strongly advise any Jew whose heard has been touched by the fear of G-d and who wishes to walk upon paths which will be viewed favourably by the Ribono Shel Olam, not to participate in any activity which is under the auspicies of Limmud or similar organisations.

Anti-limmud_edit

In the recent weeks. American Jewry – of all different beliefs – raged against Hobby Lobby because a staff member, at one store in a chain of hundreds, said “we don’t cater to you people.”   The indifference to Jewish holidays from the corporate office enraged people  more and the blogosphere and social media alit with calls to boycott Hobby Lobby.   People generously threw out the term “anti-Semitic” to label both the employee and the corporation.

But what that one employee said out of ignorance is nothing in comparison to the blatant anti-Semitic statements authored by these seven religious leaders.

I teach the teens that I work with that when one Jew calls another Jew a “JAP” or a “big-nose greedy miser” or “kike” that it is just as anti-Semitic as if a non-Jew said it.  I teach them that we can’t allow people inside our community to say things to us we wouldn’t allow someone outside K’lal Yisrael to say.  Not only are the terms still hurtful and not only are they still driving stereotypes, but it sends the message that these things are okay to say and we role model to non-Jews this unacceptable behavior.

I would NEVER allow a non-Jew to call me a “pseudo Jew” and I certainly wouldn’t let a non-Jew accuse me, and the organizations I affiliate with as the cause for the demise of the Anglo Jewry.  So how can I sit back and read this statement published by the some of the highest Orthodox leadership of London and not say something.  How can we send dozens of letters and reach out the media to call for an apology from Hobby Lobby but just turn a cheek to this situation before us?

So, Rabbis and various religious leaders of in London, I demand an apology. I demand for you to rescind your statements accusing any Jew who is not like you for being a “pseudo Jew.”  I demand that you recognize that Judaism has not only taught us about One G-d, but also about questioning all aspects of our texts and tradition.  It has taught us to turn Torah again and again because there is always something new in it.   Judaism has taught us about Kavod – respect and about Shalom Bayit – peace in the home.   Every word of your letter violates these middot.  In deep contrast, Limmud (and organizations like it) teach these values.  It teaches us that each of us should question and explore our heritage;  it teaches that there are many ways to ‘turn Torah’ – through art, music, nature, chevruta, worship;  it teaches us to have deep respect for all the people who live in the house of the Jewish people even if they are different than us.   So quite opposite to the demise of Anglo Jewry, Limmud is fostering the future of Judaism – and doing a great job of it!

Paying it Forward

Over the past few months, I have been asked by many young professionals in the Jewish communal field to provide them career advice. Some have been in the field for 2-5 years, others are just graduating from a Bachelor’s or Master’s program. They have asked questions about degrees they should pursue (yes, get a Master’s degree!), networking, job descriptions, negotiating financial packages, career trajectory, and much much more. It really thrills me to be able to “pay it forward” what many of my mentors did for me – providing me that guidance and opening doors for me with their networks. However, my conversations left me incredibly frustrated – and not with the young professionals.  The conversations have left me frustrated and bewildered with our organizations.  Here are a few common themes that emerged:  

  • our professional training programs (schools conferring Jewish degrees in education, communal work, etc) are not doing a great job of preparing their graduates for this process. I was really shocked to hear from several of these young professionals that they were not put through mock interviews, they were not provided sample contracts/letters of agreement, and did not receive advice on what they should expect/demand in a package.
  • in several cases institutions relied only on Skype/GoogleHangout for the entirety of the interview, not ever investing in in-person meetings.  They offered jobs to people they had never sat in a room with.  They expected candidates to accept jobs for positions where they had never seen the facility or even the city. 
  • many of the institutions have incredibly unrealistic expectations.  They want to hire Master’s level candidates, but don’t want to pay for house-hunting trips or relocation expenses, and they want to pay them in the low 30s to low 40s.
  • it seemed that many organizations consider the interview only for their benefit and that it is not a mutual process.  Time was not set aside to allow for a back-and-forth dialogue about the position, the organization, the goals, etc.  Interview times were so tight that they only questions being asked were from the organization to the candidate. 

If you are looking to hire someone and you aren’t prepared to invest in them (and the process) by paying for in-person interviews, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.  If you aren’t prepared to offer a job and then invest in a house-hunting trip for your new employee, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.  If you aren’t willing to spend between $3,500-$10k in moving expenses, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.  It’s simple.  You can’t buy a Porsche if your budget is a Saturn. 

If you want someone with a Master’s degree, don’t insult them, their investment in their education, or their experiences by offering them less than $50k (or as Mark Young expressed, $54k).   It’s simple.  You can’t buy a Porsche if your budget is a Saturn. 

During the interview process, remember, it’s the candidates interview too. It is incredibly important that candidates feel empowered to ask questions and be given time to reflect, develop new questions, and then process their thoughts before giving you an answer.  They have a right to see the facility they will work in and meet potential work colleagues and lay leaders.  If you can’t make that happen, then don’t accept out-of-city candidates.

There are many other things you can do to exhibit your commitment to them as professionals.  Be sure to invest in their on-going professional development, professional network dues, journal subscriptions, and professional books.  Don’t expect them to use their cell phones if you aren’t willing to subsidize the plan.  Don’t ask them to front expenses – you are assuming they can afford to float those dollars; get them an organization credit card, petty cash or a pre-paid card.

I’m very lucky.  When I was 25 years old and decided to enter the Jewish professional field, I had an amazing executive director who facilitated the interview process.  Through his actions, he set a very high standard of expectations for me that I have stood by throughout my career.  He flew me in for an interview.  He paid for a house-hunting trip.  He paid for my move in its entirety.  He gave me a commitment letter outlining the terms which included 100% of health insurance, a life insurance policy equivalent of my salary, short term and long term disability, matching 403B funds, etc.  He gave me an organization credit card.   I’ve moved across the country three times for career positions, each time expecting and receiving the same high quality experience I had when I was 25 (when I didn’t yet have a Master’s degree). I’ve turned down plenty of possible interview opportunities and job offers because they don’t meet these standards and I have no regrets.  

As a leader in the field, I feel it’s my responsibility to help the new generation of young Jewish communal professionals learn and demand the standards they deserve. I feel the need to encourage the professional degree program directors to institute colloquia that will help prepare the new professionals for this process.  It is important that I hold my colleagues doing the interviewing and hiring accountable to this standard.  I feel an obligation to pay-it-forward.

 

The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate

Every once in a while, a celebrity or politician gets misquoted or a sound byte is used out of context and ripples begin to infiltrate that person’s career for a while until it all gets cleared up.  While I am not a celebrity, I was recently mis-represented in Patrick Aleph’s Blog on Kveller.com entitled “Ban the Bar Mitzvah: A Rabbinical Student Rethinks The Time Honored Ceremony.”  Since I do have an incredibly strong opinion about eliminating the b’nei mitzvah ceremony, and am very vocal about it (even blogged about it in August 2010 entitled “At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism?“), I thought I would summarize and clarify my opinion today.

Over the past two years, I have presented on this topic in several milieus and will be doing so again in a few weeks President’s Day Weekend at Limmud NY in a session titled, “You are Cordially Uninvited: The Case for Eliminating the Bar/Bat Mitzvah Ceremony.” In addition, I have provided some educational content to The Jewish Future’s Conference: The Role of Bar and Bat Mitzvah in America Today being held February 27th, 2013 in NYC.

So how was I misrepresented? and what is difference of the dialogue I have been facilitating and what was eluded to by Mr. Aleph?  He stated: “I did not realize the degree of disengagement that the bnei mitzvah process causes until I saw a presentation by Jewish education consultant Robyn Faintich from JewishGPS…”

At no point in my presentation did I say it was the process that causes disengagement (although if asked, I would say there are elements of the process for many – not all – that do turn young Jews off of formal Jewish learning).  In my presentation, I first laid out the the traditional texts and historical information that shaped the modern day experience. This helps participants understand that bar/bat mitzvah is not only NOT Torah commanded – a common misconception –  but that the age set out in Torah for the age of maturity is different than that Talmud describes (20 vs 13).  I also framed that the bar mitzvah ceremony was intended to be about public acceptance of obligation and challenged that 12/13 year-old teens today aren’t in a place to make that commitment – to CHOOSE Judaism in that way.  I emphasize that the language of “getting a bar mitzvah” is problematic in that we haven’t educated our communities to understand that you don’t get “bar mitzvahed” rather you become Bar Mitzvah without a ceremony at 12/13.  Then I shared the current statistics of post-b’nei mitzvah drop out.   Then I shared what I thought could potentially be done with the significant dollars that families spend on the b’nei mitzvah process, ceremony and party (average is $15-$30k) if those dollars were instead funneled directly into Jewish education. I conclude my presentation by asking the participants to engage in visioning what kind of new ritual we could develop as our teens go off to college that would, in fact, legitimately mark the first time they will be independently responsible for choosing their Jewish lives.

I provide the cliff notes version here today because for a more complete version I would mostly enjoy people attending my session at Limmud NY or engaging with the content that will be published by Jewish Futures  (which I can publish a link to once it’s posted) or by hiring me to come to their community to facilitate the same dialogue (I modify the session slightly when facilitating it with adult learners vs facilitating it for educators/rabbis).  In addition, I hope that this makes the distinction between what I said the day Mr Aleph was in attendance at my session versus what he eluded I stated.

As I have spent a lot of time today reading the numerous responses to Mr. Aleph’s blog, responding to direct messages to me, commenting on friends/colleagues Facebook postings of the blog, I have found myself focused on the following few issues:

  • Not all pre b’nei mitzvah experiences are horrible.  Not all b’nei mitzvah education programs are drop-off and only engage the teens themselves.  Not all b’nei mitzvah teens are “forced” to learn.  Not every ceremony is rote and meaningless.  Not all religious schools are places of extreme dread.  Yes … AND … I do believe that the supplemental/part-time/complementary system is broken resulting in 82% post b’nei mitzvah drop-off and most (not all) congregations are afraid to take the boldest risk needed in order to re-imagine it for fear of loss of membership and subsequently educator/rabbi jobs.
  • As a the project director for Shevet: Jewish Family Education Exchange and a member of it’s faculty, I am all for family education initiatives and spend a lot of time providing professional development to educators, lay leaders and rabbis on the topic. I do however, object to a “Family B’nei MItzvah” in terms of the language use (same reason I don’t think we should have “Adult B’nei Mitzvah). My objection is that we negate the fact that Jews become Bar/Bat Mitzvah at 12/13 regardless of a public ceremony and confuse people by the terminology.
  • While I applaud the URJ for convening a national thinktank and engaging pilot congregations in the re-visioning of the b’nei mitzvah process – programmatically called The B’nai Mitzvah Revolution –  I by no means agree that the outcome is a “revolution” but rather an “evolution.”   To me, a revolution hits hard, hits fast and revolutionizes an organization/culture/industry/product.  The work that the URJ leadership and participating congregations are doing is incredibly important self-reflection, adaptation, experimentation, dialogue, etc.  Even self-admittedly by its leadership this change will take a few years to be fully adopted – a few years is not a revolution.  From my understanding, the program still makes 12/13 the age of demarcation and still results in a congregation-based ceremony that is the culmination of an experience the teen had.   Again, it’s an evolution of the current ceremony and current learning that takes place leading up to that ceremony – but in my opinion, not a revolution.

This conversation about the role that the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony plays in Jewish education and in Jewish life is robust and fired up.   Just a few days ago my colleague/friend Wendy Grinberg, educational consultant who founded Jewish Education Lab, wrote this piece “Emphasize Bar and Bat Mitzvah MORE” in response to a recent panel discussion held in NY (the recording of which can also be found on that same page).  As I stated before, The Jewish Futures Conference is facilitating a dialogue about this at the end of February and the URJ will continue to do it’s work with B’nei Mitzvah Revolution.  I am sure these are just a few settings in which this is/will be discussed.

What I know is that there will not be one definitive nation-wide or even klal yisrael-wide decision on how we as Jews in the 21st Century should be approaching the role this ceremony plays in our educations systems and in our lives.  However, the dialogue and debate is healthy and productive – as long as we are all quoted and referenced appropriately and accurately.

Being a Part of the “Organized Jewish Community”

It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back … the tweet that pushed me right over the edge (or just to finally write this blog!):

If you are wondering why @buberzionist would even ask this question (I’m making an assumption), and why I would even respond the way I did, it’s because so many of the Jewish identity/engagement/participation/attachment studies in the Jewish world use certain checklists (survey questions) to determine how the Jewish population is behaving “Jewishly” and @buberzionist and I don’t fit neatly into these checklists.

Here are a few examples:

In A Tale of Two Jewries: The “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews (2006) Steven M. Cohen writes on pages 6-7 about the “attachment to well-established Jewish organizations” and proceeds to share the statistics about belonging to Jewish organizations (other than JCCs and synagogues), Jewish Federation campaign giving. JCC memberships, synagogue memberships, and then moves on to ritual behaviors. On page 7 there is a table called “STABLE LEVELS OF RELIGIOSITY, 1990-2000”:

The 2008 study and report that Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman authored entitled Uncoupled:  How our Singles are Reshaping Jewish Engagement was completed on behalf of The Jewish Identity Project of Reboot of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies.  Charts in this report continue to explore these similar themes of synagogue and JCC membership, Federation donorship, as well as ritual and holiday participation .

In the 2011 study and report Camp Works: The Long-Term Impact of Jewish Overnight Camp, Evidence from 26 U.S. Jewish Populations Studies on Adult Jewish Engagement, authors Steven M. Cohen, Ron MIller, Ira M. Sheskin and Berna Torr do a meta-analysis of 26 studies.  Here is a snapshot of one of their analyses which highlights behaviors a bit more diverse, but that still includes holiday candle lighting, synagogue membership, Jewish Federation giving, and synagogue attendance:

So why is this problematic?  Well, let’s just take me for example … if you were to judge my Jewish identity/engagement/participation/attachment based on the repeated characteristics in these studies, you would end up labeling me as under-engaged with a low identity threshold.  I don’t belong to a synagogue, I don’t belong to a JCC, I have not made a donation to a Federation in over two years, I don’t light Shabbat candles on any regular basis, I skipped Rosh haShanah services this year and Yom Kippur services the last two years (other than showing up for Yizkor), I typically forget to light Hanukkah candles and rarely attend synagogue services.  So for example, in the Camp Works graph’s High Impact section, I fail on three out of four criteria.

So why is this problematic?  Come on, my business is called JewishGPS and when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them that I’m a “professional Jew.”  I live/breathe/eat Jewishly 24/7/365.   So what criteria might be more appropriate to survey?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Presence of Jewish art/artifacts in my home
  • Percentage of books with Jewish content in my home or office
  • Owns and consistently wears jewelry that is Judaic in nature
  • Jewish holidays/events on my calendar
  • Time spent in personal Jewish study
  • Sharing links to articles of Jewish content on the internet
  • Tweeting from or about Jewish events
  • Time spent teaching Judaism (in camps, schools, synagogues, programs)
  • Time spent as a volunteer in a significant leadership role in a Jewish organization
  • Time spent leading other Jews in Jewish behaviors (internal or external to a Jewish organization)
  • Observation of Kashrut on some level in and/or outside my home
  • Knowledge of Jewish communal resources available
  • Knowledge of Jewish practices of Jews unlike me (and the origins of those practices)
  • Participation in conversations that are Jewish in nature (politics, ritual, social, identity, etc)
  • Feeling a strong connection to a self-made community of Jews

So @buberzionist (and everyone else), if you are reading this … how would “rank” in this list of criteria vs. the ones that likely prompted your tweet?

I am curious what other criteria readers of this blog might suggest be the foundation for assessing Jewish identity/engagement/participation/attachment. I have the pleasure of personally knowing a few of the social scientists mentioned in this blog and respect them for their brilliant minds and contribution to our Jewish community; I encourage them (and the others not mentioned) to consider how they might use these new criteria in future studies.

p.s. In the last decade (plus a little) the inclusion of social connections to other Jews, repeated trips to Israel, an emotional connection to Israel, and in-marriage have been included in these studies – which is an improvement I wanted to acknowledge.

Formal Learning at Informal Limmud

This blog was originally posted on the BJELA website.

Anything that happens at camp is informal education, right?  And everything that happens in a classroom is formal education?  Seems easy, but not so quick.  Over the past few years, this buzzword of informal education keeps popping up, but unfortunately is often misused (as is experiential education, but that’s a different conversation).

Buzzwords can be a trap. We get ensnared in the connotation we think they express; putting forth the false front that our product is better because it’s labeled with a buzzword.  They make leaders appear to be knowledgeable in what consumers want and what the latest trends are.  As educators, we need to be honest brokers of our educational goals and of our educational products.  Throwing the word “informal” at a learning experience does not make it better or trendy – and we better be sure we are tossing the right word at the target.

The confusion first sets in when we mistakenly interchange education settings for education methods.  There are commonly accepted formal settings (classrooms, lecture halls, meeting rooms) and informal settings (camps, youth lounges, coffee shops) but there are also formal methods (lectures, structured research and tests) and informal methods (games, project-based learning, collaborative exploration).

In an upcoming book about experiential Jewish education (Torah Aura Productions; Dr. David Bryfman, editor) I authored a chapter called  “Get Glue”: How Good Jewish Educators Use Curriculum and Pedagogy to Hold it all Together.  There are several places in the book where the different terminologies are explored in depth, and in my particular chapter, I introduce a few differing opinions about what informal education is. According to educators and authors Tony Jeffs and Mark K. Smith, “…informal education is the lifelong process in which people learn from everyday experience … and non-formal education is organized education activity outside of formal systems (Jeffs & Smith, 2010, p. xiii). In looking to also inform our definition of informal settings, I look towards the on-line resource infed: the Encyclopedia of Informal Education.  Since infed contends that informal education is “the education of daily living,” one can conclude that informal settings are all the places you live your daily life:  home, community, grocery store, library, shopping mall, restaurant, etc. (n.d., sec. 2, para 5).

Confused yet?  You aren’t the only one.

Back in December 2011, an article appeared in eJewishPhilanthropy entitled The Limmud Phenomenon Rekindles the Global Jewish Flame. The article highlights that Limmud programs throughout the world have reached over 30,000 Jews engaged in learning.  Phenomenal.  But what gave me great pause was this sentence: “‘The Limmud International Study: Jewish Learning Communities on a Global Scale,’ released today, demonstrates the value of self-motivated, informal and intensive Jewish learning,” (n.p., para 2).   In another article published in March 2010 in eJewishPhilanthropy entitled Limmud in the Context of Informal Jewish Education, the author, Dr. Dmitry Maryasis, writes, “The very structure of the conference is built on the basis of informal approach to formal issues. … the goal of a lot of lectures is to impart knowledge… the knowledge he [the participant] gets at the lecture will contribute to his internal growth and personal enhancement, which is… the very goal of informal education,”   (n.p., sec 4, para 1).

Hold on a minute, Lecture=Informal? Limmud=Informal? Again, not so quick.  This is a clear example of confusing settings and methods.  As an active volunteer and a consultant to Limmud ATL+SE and LimmudNY, I can wholeheartedly say that I believe Limmud to be an amazing vehicle for Jewish education – and perhaps one of the most robust.  However, to label it as wholly “informal” is just not accurate.

While every Limmud around the world is different (some are one-day, some are multi-day, some are held on college campuses, some in hotels and some at retreat centers/camp sites), they are very similar in the culture and kinds of experiences Jews encounter.  Examining the different types of education and settings that one can be a part of at a Limmud is a terrific exercise in understanding the differences between settings and methods – informal, formal and non-formal.

Right off the bat, we exposed that the settings in which Limmudim take place are vast – some are formal (college campus classrooms) and some are informal (campsites).   Limmud ATL+SE holds its yearly LimmudFest at Camp Ramah Darom in the gorgeous North Georgia Mountains.  A few weeks ago (Labor Day Weekend) over 200 Jews – mostly from around the Southeast – converged for 3.5 days of living and learning.   But that learning was far from purely informal.  Let’s take a look at a few components (not even close to all) of LimmudFest to see how you might assign them into this rubric:

  • T’filah:  Worship experiences at LimmudFest are so diverse and range from traditional, frontal-led, siddur-driven davening in a “sanctuary” to yoga in an open-air pavilion by the lake.  Prayer options included hiking, social action, and music.
  • Learning Sessions:  Limmuniks were treated to Torah learning via improv comedy and rapping; engaged in social action projects and art projects; participated in hands-on eco-education; banged on drums to explore spirituality and ritual; and also sat through 75-minute lectures and PowerPoint presentations (with Q&A, of course).
  • Mealtimes:  Meals are a special time at LimmudFest when the entire community stops to come together for nourishment – physical and social.  Over Shabbat meals, each table is encouraged to lead its own rituals (all optional) of singing, handwashing, blessing children and spouses, Kiddush, haMotzi, and Birkat haMazon. The diversity of experience is as rich as the diversity of the Jews in the room – representing the spectrum of “Just Jewish” to Orthodox.  While some people participate directly in the rituals, others watch and experience something for the first time.   Some bring siddurim or benschers in to guide their rituals and others create their own.
  • The Porch: At LimmudFest, The Porch has become the central gathering space.  (It’s literally a long porch outside the dining hall lined with rocking chairs and a few tables).  At any given moment on The Porch, you will witness people quietly reading and rocking, others participating in a pick-up game of dominoes, while some people are strumming instruments for impromptu sing-a-longs.  At night, adult beverages emerge and The Porch doubles as The Bar.  But at all times, no matter day or night, no matter the activity, you will overhear many conversations of people processing the sessions they attended, sharing their personal Jewish stories, and building Jewish community.

So what is it? If we reflect back on Jeffs, Smith and the infed definitions, we can clearly see that LimmudFest offers informal and non-formal learning encounters. It’s held at a camp but frontal/formal lectures and rituals take place as part of the experience.   (Without a doubt, I could do this same exercise with any Limmud program and expose informal learning methods taking place in a college classroom setting as well.) Limmud becomes to us a fantastic illustration of how we need to be careful to differentiate when using these terms and not be so quick to label a learning experience exclusively one way or another  (or simply with a buzzword to garner attention) – that each component of what we offer should be examined for both the setting and the method – and with intention.  It would seem Limmud best-labeled as a non-formal education system, held in both formal and informal settings, in which both formal and informal methods are utilized.

___________________________________________________________________________

http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-limmud-phenomenon-rekindles-the-global-jewish-flame/

http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/limmud-in-the-context-of-informal-jewish-education/

http://www.infed.org/i-intro.htm

Jeffs, T., & Smith, M. K. (Eds.). (2010). BASW Practical Social Work: Youth work practice. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan.

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