Unexpected Impact (of my own Israel Education)

When I was 16 and went off to Alexander Muss High School in Israel, I didn’t know that the 8+ weeks studying Israeli history, walking the land and experiencing Israel as a temporary resident would cause me to completely shift my thinking more about my Judaism through an “historic” lens – ancestral and heritage –  rather than through a “religious” lens – faith and God.  The first time on that trip that I stood at the Kotel I kept expecting some life-altering spiritual moment.  It never came.  But weeks later when I encountered the Kotel as an historical place where my alta-Bubbe once stood, I had a significant emotional reaction.  When I visited the Kotel with my parents and brother on the third night of Chanukkah and we watch the ginormous gas Chanukkiah being ignited and thousands of Jews sang the blessings, I had a “Klal Israel” moment while simultaneously having a historical remembrance connection.  These were all unexpected.

When I led a Birthright trip in 2004 (provided by IsraelExperts), I didn’t know that I would walk away with a completely different perspective of residency, citizenship,Screenshot 2019-11-17 19.35.10
Palestinian rights, and Israeli identity. [Heck, I assumed that as staff I wasn’t going to learn much at all.]  Our group had the pleasure of visiting the two intertwined communities of Kibbutz Metzer and their neighbors in the Arab Muslim Meisar village. We were welcomed into the home of a man named Saed where his wife made us lovely tea and treats to snack on.  As the 40 of us sat on the floor we learned from Saed that his family lived in the land – called Palestine – pre-1948 and therefore he sees himself as a Palestinian by heritage.  He is a Muslim Arab.  He is an Israeli citizen who pays taxes and served in the army.  And he is neglected and isolated by “simple things” like the Israeli National Anthem (HaTikvah) which talks about the “heart of the Jew.”  He asked us, “How am I, as an Israeli Muslim solider supposed to sing this song?”   Wow!  This construct smacked me right in the middle of my forehead and has tormented me.

As a a die-hard religion/government separatist in the U.S., how can I feel that another country’s citizens don’t deserve the same rights?  How can I reconcile this with my full-fledged belief that Jews need a safety-net and a country that will forever be “theirs?”   I now struggle with this all the time.

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At some point I came across this image and it really pushed me to reflect on Saed’s words about his family being on this land – Palestine – for generations. Seeing the coin with the name in English, Arabic and Hebrew (and the year 1927) just gives us a clear visual artifact as to the multi-ethnic claim to this land.  It provides for me tangible evidence of “Palestine’s” existence (which many say it hasn’t).  Has it existed as an independent self-governed country? No.  But that does not negate the existence (in whatever form) it has lived.

When I first learned about the U.S.-based summer program called “Seeds of Peace,” I was living and working in Southern California and one of our Israeli Mifgash teens – Amitai – seeds of peace logowas an alumnus of this international peaceful dialogue and conflict resolution initiative.   Learning through him, I came to understand the role that inherited bias and hatred play in perpetuating an on-going conflict in Israel between Muslims and Jews.  I didn’t expect to be driven to consider the imperative for face-to-face (person-to-person) dialogue and that it needs to happen if we are ever to hope for peace in Israel.   As a result, I was then motivated to seek out opportunities for my own engagement in this work.  (... she writes after an afternoon spent with her Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom group).

In 2014, I facilitated a year-long teen learning experience for a Reform congregation in which they chose a justice issue they wanted to explore and we looked for ways to engage in that issue through our own education, through volunteering, advocacy,Amr - seed of peace
philanthropy and community engagement.  The teens chose “Pursuing Peace” and narrowed that down to “Conflict Resolution.”  I decided to network and see if I could secure a Muslim Seeds of Peace alumn to speak to us and ended up securing a 19-year old Egyptian (Amr Hisham) to Skype with us.  The unexpected impact on me was a full-blown eye-opening on the role that media bias (world-wide) plays in perpetuating stereotypes, distrust and hatred.  I have become hyper-aware of headline wording, images used and journalistic integrity.

Last night (November 16, 2019), I had another experience which will forever shape the way I experience the discussion regarding the future of this land and its people. I photo-nov-16-9-00-47-pm.jpg
attended a program where we heard from Ango-Jewish Orthodox “settler” Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Palestinian Arab Muslim Shadi Abu Awwad who work together in an organization called Roots-Shorashim-Judur (a project of Bet haTeotron).  The two live near each other between Bethlehem and Hebron in the territory some call “The West Bank” and others call “Judaea and Samaria.”  Their work focuses on person-to-person dialogue in which they strive to create trust and partnership amongst neighbors. I took so many notes, documenting powerful snippets and heart-piercing quotes and anecdotes (which I need to clean up and find a way to share with everyone), but the unexpected impact for me comes in the form of a new perspective on how “the conflict” may be resolved in a new political vision.

The two of them explained that any division of the land “from the Jordan to the Sea” means that the other must give up ancestral land.  They asserted that “historical land identity is stolen from both sides” (78% or 22% based on current maps) in any current proposal.  Rabbi Hanan said that we must find a “political vision with one land” where “both peoples have full rights and dignity.”   What I came to understand is that in order for both peoples to have full rights and dignity, the Palestinians must be able to live in this land (all of it) called “Palestine” and cannot be governed under Jewish law. But how can that happen and for Israel to also exist?  How can that happen and Jews have full access to the land that is the “true center of our history” (as Rabbi Hanan referred to it)?

During the Q&A, they were asked about political solutions and Rabbi Hanan and Shadi explained that a good number of Roots participants align with a political vision called “A Land for All.”

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Admittedly it will take me a while to research their vision, to understand the nuances, to become fluent in their beliefs – and then to determine if I agree.  But in the meantime, it has me thinking VERY differently.

Here is where my head is now rambling after last night:

1/ Israeli government doesn’t even show respect and dignity for all Jews, much less to people of other faith traditions. There MUST be a shift in leadership and law-making if we ever have a chance at democracy and justice for all which leads to …

2/ A move towards a separation of religion and government is truly needed.

3/ The rise of anti-Semitism world-wide is super scary and there must be a provision of a safeguard for diaspora Jews with the opportunity for citizenship in this land. I am not sure what this looks like when enacted, but I think it’s imperative.

3/  Trinidad AND Tobago.  Turks AND Caicos. Antigua AND Barbuda. Bosnia AND Herzegovina.  I am not mentioning these as a way of advocating for a particular government ideology (all of these have very different government systems – some better than others and some are territories of other countries). But somehow they evolved into geographic entities with AND in their names. Why not Israel AND Palestine?

4/ The international community needs to do whatever it takes to get Hamas and Islamic Jihad out of Gaza and bring those living there into this vision.

At 46 years old, with lots of formal and informal Israel education encounters, I still have so much to learn. I must be open to challenging long-held beliefs and assumptions.  I must continue to pursue new learning opportunities in the many forms they come in.

I encourage each of us to never stop striving to learn new perspectives, to seek new information and to engage in honest, respectful, dignity-lifting dialogue.








Tis The Season… To Be Triggered

I am not even sure where to start … maybe about what this is actually not about:

If you are an interfaith family, honoring multiple holiday traditions in your home, “separate but equal,” this is not what this commentary is about.  

What this IS about is a growing and very troubling (to me) assertion that certain holiday symbols and ritual items are “secular.” It IS about when we try and co-opt each others traditions, each other’s symbols, and ritual items in order to close in the gap of “separate.”  It’s about people’s lack of gumption to hold sacred their own holidays and not be be “jealous” of someone else’s.

A Christmas Tree, a Wreath and Santa.

At the beginning of November, news began circulating that a community (very close to me geographically) was going to ban “all religious symbols” including a menorah from public display in their city center.  At first glance, I am thrilled about this.  As a die-hard religion/government separatist, I fully believe in this (and yes, our currency needs a re-haul).  But at second glance, we learned:

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This of course, launched a community-wide debate on the secular nature (or lack there-of) of these items. The next day, I saw this Twitter exchange between popular Kansas political leader Jason Kander and the former Governor of Wisconsin.

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and I felt compelled to respond to Mr. Kander.  I wrote:

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and in a subsequent tweet to him, I shared what was going on in Dunwoody and explained why this is dangerous. [No response from him.]  Of course, many exchanges ensued with people from all walks of life.  And another Jewish educator responded with the case that no Jewish institution will ever display a tree, wreath or Santa – because it’s NOT secular American by any Jewish understanding.  This is just our reality as American Jews.


Co-opting not Co-existing.

Which leads me to the next part:  it is our reality as American Jews that the Jewish month of Kislev (and therefore Chanukkah) inconveniently often coincides with Christmas (and sometimes Diwali and sometimes Kwaanza and other religious days).  As a result, many people and many businesses have decided that we somehow have to merge these holidays.  That they indeed cannot stand “separate” from each other.  These are just a few items that can be purchased:




Not to mention the influx of “Ugly Chanukkah Sweaters” – many of which, if you look closely are co-opted adapted Christmas greetings  – which ONLY exist because of the calendar colliding of Christmas and Chanukkah.

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And this article and accompanying display from earlier this week just makes my point for me of just how inappropriate this entire situation has devolved to.

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I don’t know about you, but I am entirely fed up and disgusted with us – with American Jews and Jewish business leaders who have perpetuated this, bought into it (YES LOOKING AT YOU MANISCHEWITZ GINGERBREAD HOUSE! and Mensch on the Bench).  And I am disappointed in a large number of Jewish leaders – rabbis and educators – who will not stand before their congregants and learners of all ages and say just how wrong this is.

Years ago I developed a comprehensive curriculum for teens to explore “American Holidays as a Jew.”   In addition to talking about Thanksgiving (originally a religious prayer day), Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Valentine’s Day, we tackle this annual “holiday season” and the co-opting of religious symbols.  We learn about the origins (many of which are Pagan or Nordic mythology) behind Christmas items (wreathes, candy canes, yule logs, etc).  Their favorite is that Mistletoe means “poop on a stick.”  Inevitably, the majority of teens are “okay” with the Chanukah Bush and Blue/White stockings, but the moment they see a Jewish Star tree-topper, a Santa kippah or Christmas dreidel, they lose it.  Pushing them to explore why one construct bothers them more than the other is my role as an educator leading them in critical thinking and self-exploration. So I challenge Jewish communal leaders to find ways to explore this with their learners – children, teens, college students, and adults alike.  And I ask Jewish parents to take a hard look at what is motivating them if they are choosing to join in on this co-opting and blending (again: different than multi-faith families observing multiple holidays.)

A Joy-Filled Chanukkah (Hanukah. Hanukah.)

If Chanukkah – a really minor holiday in the Jewish calendar – fell any other time of year, we would simply celebrate a joyous “Festival of Lights” with a plate of latkes and sufganiyot, and a nice game of dreidel.  We would appreciate the beauty of the lights, celebrate the Maccabee miracle of defeat (or the oil story), and sing some songs of heroes and sages.

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Happy Holidays

And in the meantime, we must also acknowledge (like this company managed to), that there are MANY more holidays that occur during this time of year than just Christmas and Chanukah.  In fact, there are about 30 holidays (some major, some minor) representing at least seven religions that fall from November 1 to January 15.



A proposal to end “adult b’nai mitzvah” as we know them and create anew!

It seems that I am destined to continually revisit the role that bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies play in the life cycle of Jews.  Many blogs have already been written by me about how we should re-think the “adultness” of 12/13 year olds and instead amp up a lifecycle ceremony for our emerging adults as they graduate high school and head off to the world on their own for the first time as an actual adult (gap years, military, college, trade schools, work force, etc).  I still strongly believe in this concept. [I also want to acknowledge that I have yet to come across a congregation that is willing to fully embrace this concept.]

I also may have mentioned in passing how troubling it is to me that we perpetuate the idea that this ceremony is what MAKES someone a bar or bat mitzvah.  When this is 100% false.  In our current rabbinic understanding of the age of majority, a child BECOMES bar/bat mitzvah when s/he wakes up on his/her 12th/13th Hebrew birthday.  No ceremony needed.  And it happens immediately at the mikvah/beit din when someone older than that converts to Judaism.   No additional ceremony needed.    [And worse yet, it is based on a ceremony that itself has evolved and made up through the years (mostly what we experience now has only existed since the 17th & 18th centuries).]

So why did we create this concept of “Adult B’nai Mitzvah?”  What message does this actually send to people?  That somehow they aren’t whole adult Jews because they didn’t have a specific ceremony as a teen?  That until this point they have not functioned as an adult in the Jewish community? Of course not, so why do we perpetuate it with the language we use around it?

If we threw out everything we have been doing and released ourselves to be completely open, what ceremony would we create for adults who wish to stand before their community and make a declaration of Jewish commitment?  (Because at it’s heart, isn’t that what it is?) And what would we call this ceremony?  [Certainly not something with the word “child” in it, right?]

This is an invitation to be completely creative, to dream, to make meaning, to explore with me – and perhaps to influence the future of Jewish lifecycle events. 






Route Recommendations

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


September 2019

The High Holy Days.  Tishrei.  Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur. (and Sukkot and Simchat Torah).  In my doctoral research, I engaged in in-depth interviews with Jewish teens who are 17/18 years old, who went through supplemental Jewish education through to bar/bat mitzvah and then disengaged in organized Jewish life. As we explored together what meaning Judaism still held for them and what they could see observing as they move through to their adult lives, the participants each mentioned some aspect of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur – but it wasn’t consistent.  One mentioned renewal – like New Year’s Resolutions and one mentioned Sweet Kugel for break fast. Another mentioned big extended family dinners and another mentioned his intellectual connection between fasting and world hunger (being thankful he didn’t face that every day).  There was a resounding push/pull from them about missing school for the holy days and none of them mentioned that this issue had even been talked about in their religious education – how to manage their school (teachers, administrators, counselors) in the face of choosing religion over academics for a few days a year.  In considering your curriculum for supplemental schools (and even summer camps), examine how we teach (if we teach) our young people the skills they need to navigate being an American Jewish Teen.   (Note:  the ADL has some good materials for parents on this topic.)

June 2019

Is your board healthy and thriving?  Are you getting everything you need from the individual members and the collective entity?  BoardSource is a fantastic national resource and suggests a full board assessment every two years.  Their resources (for fee) help you evaluate everything from meeting efficiency to leadership culture to organizational impact.  If your board hasn’t had an honest self-reflective check-up in a while, check out BoardSource’s resources here.  For on-going board tips and tricks, follow them on Twitter.  (Note:  This is not a paid advertisement,  I am just always impressed with their information and materials.)

January 2019

Recently, I was lamenting with a friend about a gap in programming within the Atlanta Jewish community.  I explained that there was a great program through our local JF&CS for young adults (up to about age 35) where participants were invited to engage in volunteerism around the community (for Jewish and non-Jewish charities).  But at 45, I have long-aged out of this group and found this kind of expression of Judaism missing in my life.  He challenges me: “So why can’t you just start it?”  In less than 48 hours, I had developed a Facebook group and began populating it with events. This personal life-lesson reminds me of two things:  a) the need for gap assessment and b) Just do it!  Sometimes we spend so much time talking about something, over-thinking it, and processing it, that we miss a great window to just begin something.  UPDATE:  As of February 10 there are over 70 members of the Facebook group, 8 events scheduled for over the next six months, and the first event has already taken place.  Check out Mitzvah MeetUp ATL here.

September 2018

News articles emerged this week about a prominent (very wealthy) mega-donor who had made inappropriate comments to the female staff of one of the major organizations he supports.  The organization removed his name from their board list on their website and a source inside the organization said they will not be returning to this funder for a major on-going grant.  This situation begs us to ask – how do we sustain our organizations financially if a donor’s behavior/words are not in alignment with our values?  One Jewish mega-donor made a statement on Fox news slamming Democrats as ignorant.  This same donor has been known to make misogynistic remarks in mixed company.  On a smaller scale, many pulpit rabbis are fearful of taking an ethical/moral stand on political/justice issues for fear of offending major congregation donors.  So what’s the Jewish community to do? I would like to believe that the high road will ultimately lead us to donors whose values align with our organizations.  The recommendation is to not stand alone as an isolated organization facing these issues. Development professionals and lay leaders need to work together – across organizations – to identify donors whom they can go to together in order to speak about these critical issues.  Open the dialogue, set expectations, and make clear values-driven collective decisions. The power is stronger in numbers and donors will see the collective support and steadfastness behind these core issues if we work together.  

July 2018

Has it really been two years since I have blogged a “Route Recommendation?”  While I have posted several blogs in those two years, I haven’t stayed on top of this monthly commitment to offer tid-bits of advice.  Some of this may be attributed to the depression (original story: here) but some might be because I spent the 2016-2017 engrossed as the Interim Educational Director at a local synagogue and the last 12 months nose-in to my dissertation (still in progress).  So I wanted to share two gleanings, one from each of these experiences.

  • 360 REVIEWS!  During my time as the Interim Educational Director, the concept of 360 reviews came up several times.  The importance of this tool cannot be understated.  It gives the person being reviewed the opportunity to not only hear feedback from a supervisor, but from colleagues, direct reports and clients.  The employee has the ability to choose people from each category as does the supervisor.  This gives balance to the reporting as allies as well as those with concerns can weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of the employee.  Some categories to consider in this review are: Interpersonal Skills; Problem Solving; Motivation; Efficiency and Prioritization; Teamwork; Interpersonal Communication; Time Management; Integrity, Honesty and Truthfulness; Staff Management; and Content Knowledge.  These categories offer a much broader data set than does an evaluation solely based on “goals met.”  Often times, 360 Reviews are facilitated by an outside neutral consultant.  Organizations should prioritize budget dollars to include the cost of an outside consultant to fulfill this important evaluation.
  • GET A COACH!  After staring at my dissertation, largely untouched, for the five years following completion of my coursework, I finally realized that I need a different kind of support and accountability than I would get from my dissertation advisor (who has about 30 other advisees and a full teaching course load).  Hiring a dissertation coach was the best thing I could do to invest in my own success.  Sometimes coaches come to us for various reasons – executive coaching, personal life coaching, fitness coaching.  We should not be afraid to invest in success – of ourselves or our employees – by investing in the cost of a coach.

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.

Signature Pedagogies

As part of my participation in the M2: Institute for Experiential Jewish Education Senior Educators’ Cohort, I was challenged to write my “Signature Pedagogies.”

It was really a fascinating introspection to think about what education strategies I default to and why.   Here is what I developed:

As a commitment to pluralism of ideas, I utilize the concept of Eilu v’Eilu as one of my signature pedagogies. Whether it’s bringing in diametrically opposed texts to demonstrated Judaism’s vast opinions on a topic, or embolden holy debate within a learning space, I encourage discourse which allows for many differing voices and opinions.  One way I deploy this pedagogy is to bring in sources from different movement’s scholars, as well as both ancient and modern texts.  This leads to another signature pedagogy of how I then go about facilitating this exploration.

I believe in serving as a “guide on the side” and not a “sage on the stage.”  I want to empower my learners to struggle with the texts and concepts and – with my facilitation and guidance – come to their own conclusions about how to integrate their learnings into their identity and belief systems.  I believe in empowering my learners – through much self-exploration – to own their process and opinions with the hopes of inspiring their continued curiosity.  One excerpted text which reminds me of this pedagogy is from Maimonides Talmud Torah Chapter 4, Section 2: “The teacher should not sit on a chair, [while] his students [sit] on the ground. Rather, either everyone should sit on the ground or everyone should sit on chairs.”  This is also reflected where God told Moses in Deuteronomy 5:28: “stand together with me – עֲמֹ֣ד עִמָּדִי֒” which implies a sense of equality since God neither sits or stands. These texts set a standard that there is no distinction made between the teachers and the students. Another text which points to a guide taking someone where they want to go is from Genesis 37:15 when the ish asks Joseph, “What are you seeking? – מַה-תְּבַקֵּשׁ”.

As an educator, I am committed to the pedagogy of utilizing mediated and concrete experience-based education techniques–leveraging the text Na’aseh v’Nishma – to do and to pay attention (similar to sim lev translated as “put your heart and mind toward it.”).  One method I use for executing this pedagogy is the use of manipulative materials in all learning. 

 As I believe that people’s need to belong and feel connected outweighs their learning itself, one of my signature pedagogies is kehillah –  to intentionally create community among my learners.  I utilize different techniques to infuse community building with the content. In their 2006 book, Experiential Learning: a Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers Beard and Wilson refer to “ice-breakers and energizers” as “primer activities.”  They explain these activities are designed “to reduce inhibitions or to create trust, empathy, and teamwork…” I look at these primer activities as a critical part of the education experience, and consider how they feed the content learning and how their success or failure impacts the positioning of the rest of the learning.

As I reflect on this writing months later, I am amazed at how well it encapsulates my approach to good education.  When I overlay this document with the hundreds of curriculum pages I have written, you can see these “trademark” pedagogies in each and every lesson.

If you have never engaged in this type of reflecting on your educational practices (and/or management styles), it is worth taking the time too put pen to paper to fully articulate them.

I hope that years from now, the work I continue to be a part of reflects these signature pedagogies.

A #JDAIM Read of Mishpatim

Originally posted on Kolot Ha’Dor

In the parsha Mishpatim, God gives Moses very detailed rules about how the people of Israel should live their lives. The parsha outlines three festive holidays for the people to observe and celebrate: Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, and it lays out the terms of the covenant – a new land in exchange for following these laws. It is when Moses teaches these new laws to the people that we find one particular line that has garnered much fame – Exodus 24:7:

וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃

When we explore various translations of this text we find what seem to be minor discrepancies with major implications, particularly around the words “Na’aseh v’nishma.” Here are a few comparative translations:

And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear.”

And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: ‘All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey.’

Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!”

He took the book of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. They replied, ‘We will do and obey all that God has declared.’

Orthodox Union
Then Moshe took the sefer ha-brit and read it aloud to the people, and they answered: Everything which God has spoken to us – we shall keep and obey.

In our modern and global society, a society with more knowledge and consideration for inclusion of those with different needs, I offer an interpretation based on Sign Language. The sign for “Sh’ma” isn’t the sign for “hearing” – as those with hearing impairments don’t hear – the sign is for “paying attention.” What might this text mean to us with an interpretation of:

Then Moshe took the sefer ha-brit and read it in the ears of the Children of Israel, and they answered: Everything which God has spoken to us – we shall keep and pay attention to.

How does this text change with this different interpretation and intention?

“In the Ears”
The community at Sinai represented our communities today thus God would want us to acknowledge and care for those in our communities who are vulnerable for any number of reasons. So how can those who are hearing impaired hear the commandments? Perhaps this interpretation “in the ears” is different than “read aloud” so that we understand that each person heard it in the way they could. That it was an individual “hearing” directly into the ear of each person.

“Pay Attention”
What if Torah’s intention was for us to really pay attention to the commandments and to our community, to our covenant and to our commitments. The interpretation, as indicated by “pay attention to” encourages us to have a heightened sense of focus on everything from our actions to our words, that we must make a specific effort towards something or someone, that we notice the details, and give the task at hand the dedicated importance it deserves. Rabbi Gordon Fuller shares that one modern Hebrew term for “pay attention” is sim lev which means “put your heart (and mind) toward it.”

This modern interpretation of this one line of this parsha Mishpatim, demands we not only pay attention to the mitzvot, but to those in our community who need special adaptations to participate fully in or rituals and experiences.

UPDATE: Menschlikheit is important!

Screenshot 2018-03-09 19.30.54

Back in January 2018, I wrote this blog post about how Jews need to branch out beyond “spiritual” and “religious” when describing their Jewish identity.   In that post, I posited five aspects of Jewish identity:  Observance, Expression, Knowledge/Literacy, Connection and Spirituality.  Then I asked readers to weigh in on if a sixth category, of Menschlikheit, was needed.  And the resounding answer was YES!  So here is the updated framework and my updated Spidergram (read the other blog to get what this is more fully.).

Screenshot 2018-03-08 23.45.29


Screenshot 2018-03-09 10.57.28It is interesting to consider how much my Spidergram shape changed as a result of this added category.

As I thought about that further, it stood out to me just how much being a Mensch matters to being Jewishly conscious.  One could even ask, do the other categories matter at all if your Mensch Meter is at Zero?

Consider the news stories of incredibly knowledgeable and very observant rabbis who lead connected Jewish communities and their entire personal expression is Jewish, but they commit a horrible crime – like peeping in on the mikveh or embezzling money from the congregation, or worse?  Then does any of the rest of the Jewish identity matter if they aren’t living with core Jewish values?  Is someone who is not knowledgeable and not connected to God, but fully committed to Jewish values actually living a more Jewishly appropriate life?  That at the least, they represent Judaism and the Jewish community in a holier way than the person who prays three times a day but doesn’t behave with Jewish goodness.  Once again, calling attention to people who call themselves “bad Jews” aren’t, [hate that term!] and those who often sit in judgement of those less traditional are actually the “bad Jew”  – because they lack Menschlikheit.

As I expanded from five aspects to six aspects in order to include Menschlikheit, it didn’t go unnoticed that now my framework had six points, just like the six points of the Shield of David (Magen David).  My framework needed the sixth aspect to make it complete, to make it be a full symbol of Jewish life. Thanks to all who provided input on this last category.

I hope that this concept – this framework of aspects of Jewish identity – is just the launching point for deeper thinking on this topic.   As I continue working on my dissertation, I will have much more to say on this topic of identity, identification and Jewish expression of such.




It’s Not Jewish to be “Religious and/or Spiritual”

During my doctor classwork, I read Robert Wuthnow’s After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion.  

In one section, Wuthnow calls a trend of young adults growing a separation between spirituality and religion as “troubling,” (p. 131).  He says it’s an “explicit rejection of organized religion by people who are still interested somehow in spirituality,” (p. 132).   As he explores this, he talks about how it’s a distinguishing between church doctrine and individual authority and experience.  He says, “… two-thirds of young adults in their twenties opt for personal experience, while only a quarter opt for church doctrines,” (p. 133).

As I was reading this book and in particular this section, I felt the need to make a distinction between what happens in a Jewish context vs a Christian one.  All of the time, I hear people use these words to mean different things, and then add into Judaism the term “observant” and how that impacts this conversation. And then there are aspects of Judaism, like “community” which aren’t encompassed in these.

It was as a result of wrestling with this, that I began to construct a different framework for Jewish identity beyond “Spiritual” and “Religious.”   For the past few years, I have been using this graphic organizer to illustrate my concept:

5 aspects Jewish identity v5 022217

When using this graphic in workshops, I have participants chart their “Jewish Identity” using a SpiderGram graph.   You scale yourself on a range of 1-6 for each aspect, then plot the points on each correlating axis.  The summary point I make when leading this session is that no one is “more Jewish” or “less Jewish” – just that our Judaisms LOOK different (and the SpiderGram is a visual representation of that). What would yours look like?  What story does it tell about you?  Here is my result:

SpiderGram Faintich



Interestingly, in recent discussions (positioned in light of the political environment), it came to my attention that perhaps a sixth column of MENSCHLIKHEIT needs to be added.  And a person self-measures based on their commitment to expressing the Mitzvot related to care of others, treating strangers with kindness, supporting charities, actively engaged in civics, random acts of kindness, volunteerism, etc.

Would you add MENSCHLIKHEIT to this chart?  Would you edit any of the other columns?  What other columns would you add?

I am hoping to be releasing a new version of this based on the feedback.  The final version will be used in my dissertation research!

A politically Conservative, Jewishly liberal person … these and these are both divine.

Last year (2016-2017), I was teaching a group of high school juniors and seniors in a Reform congregation.  The teens really wanted to talk about the election (pre and post) and all of the platform issues shaping the discourse in the country.  One teen, who was very active in the NFTY youth chapter at the congregation, came to me distraught. He had just come back from a weekend NFTY convention and felt so discouraged.  He confided that he was a political Conservative and felt there was no place for him in NFTY. He shared that he was ostracized, that there was no room for his voice in discussions over the convention weekend, and that he just didn’t belong.  We sat for a while and spoke about how I wanted his voice to be heard in our class discussions and I would create safe space for him (and I did). [The class discussions were rich and his peers appreciated hearing different view points.] I also shared that I think he needed to consider how the URJ platforms and his own personal views may or may not be in sync and what that meant for him in terms of movement affiliation. (And by no means, am I saying the URJ should alter its platforms! or apologize for them in any way.] Regardless of my own personal political and religious leanings, I couldn’t wrap my head around this situation – he was right – he didn’t belong.  An involved, engaged teen who just didn’t belong? That just isn’t okay with me.

Fast forward to this year (2016-2017) and I am facilitating adult learning at a different Reform congregation.  As a post-denomination Jew (someone who doesn’t believe we need denomination boxes anymore) and as someone who believes in Jewish pluralism Screenshot 2018-01-17 12.16.09(we all need to be a little uncomfortable), I teach through these lenses.  I believe in Eilu v’Eilu (and teach the learners that debate and difference and dialogue are inherently Jewish).   My educational philosophy is such that no matter the issue/content we are confronting in our learning, I present each text, each commentator, scholar and philosopher as having equal weight – and allow the learners to discern the value.  I hold back my personal opinion until each other participant has had a chance to interpret and wrestle. And I wait for summation of the class to ask what each person’s biggest takeaways are and then share mine.

This year, I have been teaching “Judaism and Political Activism.”  Each time I walk into a space with new learners, I have no idea their political leanings, their personal history and what they will bring to the discussion.  I just walk in open and encouraging a safe space for diverse opinion.  But this past year has felt different.  This year it has felt as though the learners themselves expect everyone to be politically left for the mere fact we are in a Reform congregation. More than once it has been brought up by the adults that they can’t understand how a person can be a Reform Jew AND a political Conservative.  More than once I have heard someone say they don’t think “those people” belong in their congregation.   And I agree …. soft of.

I only agree that there isn’t a solid place in a URJ congregation for a politically Conservative adult. The URJ has a very clear politically left platform and therefore politically Conservative beliefs are dissenting. If an adult – who has free choice for affiliation and belonging – doesn’t have a belief system in sync with the URJ platforms, then s/he has the obligation to find a Jewish community where their values are aligned.

But where do they go? We currently don’t have a non-URJ Reform “movement” – one which is both Jewishly liberal and politically Conservative.  So whose obligation is it to create that space?  As a communal steward of Jewish life, I feel some sense of obligation to be sure everyone has a place (particularly that aforementioned teen).  And yet, since I personally don’t fit that description, I am not sure how I would even begin to help them create that space.  These experiences have left me with one absolute:  there needs to be a Jewish space for these folks; and left me with a lot of uncomfortable questions about how and who helps create that space if it’s not within my comfort zone.

So for now, I can only continue in the lane I have created based on my educational philosophy – these ideas and these ideas are all divine – even if these are the ones I personally follow.

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.



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