SEEING, ELEVATING, COUNTING, INCLUDING, REPRESENTING Jews of Color (aka “Be an Ally”)

In the winter of 2010, I was hired by an organization called Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) (which later morphed and merged into what is now Bend the Arc) to be a service-learning trip leader.  At the training, we were paired with other staff as co-leaders for the trips that year.  I was paired a woman named Marissa Tiamfook.  My un-nuanced and un-knowing (aka incredibly ignorant) self made some immediate assumptions about Marissa: she “looked” like perhaps she wasn’t from a fully Caucasian family, she was probably adopted, or maybe from an interfaith family where one parent wasn’t American, or maybe her family converted to Judaism at some point.  Of course, I didn’t express any of this to Marissa or to anyone else.

When we all got back to our respective cities, we friended each other on Facebook and over a few months exchanged a few emails related to JFSJ. [Note: sadly due to scheduling issues, Marissa and I never got the chance to run a trip together.]  Through Facebook, I learned that Marissa was involved in an organization called JMN: The Jewish Multiracial Network. Screenshot 2020-05-20 12.41.23 Wow! How could I call myself a Jewish Communal National “Expert” and not even know this existed? So from the sidelines, I stalked this group’s posts, Googled, and tried to gain knowledge from reading articles, looking at photos, and following information about their events. Screenshot 2020-05-20 12.39.34
[And I now follow information disseminated by other organizations including Jews in all Hues, B’chol Lashon, the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative.]

Forward to May 2011, I attended a national conference hosted by the organization then known as Jewish Outreach Institute.  The program was entitled, “Judaism 2030: A Working Conference for a Vibrant Jewish Future and the Steps Necessary to Get Us There.”

At lunch, I was sitting next to a lovely woman named Yavilah McCoy (who was soon introduced to sing a song and share some words of wisdom.)  Yavilah and I, as it turned out, had some things in common – most significantly St. Louis where I had grown up and where she and her family had lived for years.  We quickly jumped into a game of Jewish Geography.

What Yavilah and I didn’t have in common – skin color.  At that point in my sheltered Ashkenormative 37.5 years of Jewish life, I had of course seen Jews of Color occasionally at various Jewish communal programs, but I hadn’t fully engaged with someone who was a national Jewish communal field leader who was also a person of color.

Yavilah that day introduced do me to a new magnifying glass through which to understand Jews of Color.  She taught me that not all Jews of Color are converts (she herself is fourth generation and her children fifth generation).  She taught me to NOT ask Jews of Color how they “became” Jewish.  Yavilah taught me that not all Jews of Color are from liberal streams of Judaism – she was raised in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn. Yavilah taught me – don’t make assumptions.  Period.  (Enter my immediate silent, yet heartfelt apology to Marissa for the assumptions I made about her the previous Winter.)

Later in 2011, I started planning a national ThinkTank for the faculty of the organization then known as Shevet: the Jewish Family Education Exchange (previously known as The Whizin Institute).  The ThinkTank was to be held in March 2012 and one of the elements I wanted to bring to the faculty was an education on what we were then calling “diverse,” “niche,” or “marginalized” families.  I started reaching out to colleagues I knew who not only were experts in certain areas by training but also with life experience to join us for the ThinkTank as guests and as teachers.  In the end, we had amazing learnings about families with children and adults living with developmental disabilities, families who had one or more LTBQ+ family members, families who lived in remote small Jewish communities throughout the US, interfaith and multi-faith families, and, families who had one or more Jew of Color.  My first outreach to find someone to speak about JoC was to Marissa to see if she could come represent JMN and her own experience at our ThinkTank.  She wasn’t available but sent an email introducing me to a woman named April Baskin.

April was thrilled to come join us for the ThinkTank and taught our faculty (all-Caucasian) so much about families she represented through personal experience and through national communal leadership. She explained to us that there are families that are multi-racial, but families that are not; families that are adoptive and families that convert together; and, families that are living generations as Jews of Color who never converted and whose family origins aren’t Ashkenazi.  For me, I had started to learn much of this from stalking JMN and from Yavilah, but for some of our faculty, they had never considered it. April challenged us to think about how our programs welcome Jews of Color, how they honor their experiences as a Jewish family.  One of the most important takeaways for me was when April asked us:  Do your promotional materials, the bulletin boards in your buildings and your websites have representation of Jews of Color or is every person depicted white?  Boom.  [PS: our other guests also challenged us to consider image representation of their populations as well, but April went first].

I lay out all of this personal history, personal ignorance, and personal growth to acknowledge that we all learn, we all come from some place of bias or sheltered viewpoints.  The challenge to ourselves is to acknowledge it and be open to the learning.  And, I lay this all out so that as I embark on commenting on recent events in the Jewish communal world that unfolded the last few days, I do so with readers knowing my own history with this topic.

On May, 19, 2020 I was scrolling through Facebook and saw a post by colleague Shawn Landres.  It starts, “I’m truly dismayed at the decision by two veteran sociologists of contemporary Jewry and EJewish Philanthropy [updated: and The Forward] to write and publish an ill-timed, tone-deaf, and ultimately damaging piece on the contested demography of Jews of color.”  Full stop …. what did I miss?  I finished reading Shawn’s statement and started skimming the comments for more information and found a reference to a response that sociologist Dr. Ari Y. Kelman wrote.  So off I went to find Ari’s article in eJP and the original piece which sparked Shawn’s and Ari’s responses.  What I found is an article written by Ira Sheskin and Arnie Dashefsky on May 17th article entitled “How Many Jews of Color Are There?”  [NOTE:  Dan Brown, who is the founder and editor of eJP, wrote this heartfelt piece in response to the challenge to his running the original article.]

The ikar (essence/gist) of the original piece is a discrepancy between sociologist camps on the percentage of American Jews who are Jews of Color and why it’s important to get it right. For me, the debate about how the data was captured in each instance and the survey questions asked to gather that data (which was Ari’s main response), wasn’t as immediately jolting or important as this quote:

Nevertheless, as intermarriage continues among American Jews at high levels, as Jews adopt children who may be “of Color,” and as non-Jewish persons of color decide to identify as Jewish, the share of Jews of Color in the American Jewish population is likely to increase. (5th paragraph).

WHOA!  These “expert” sociologists and researchers don’t even acknowledge that there are Jews of Color who have been Jewish for generations and that there are Jews of Color living in the United States who’s family origins aren’t “traditional Ashkenazic or Sephardic?”  What does it take for ALL Jews of Color to be SEEN?  to be COUNTED?  to be INCLUDED?

Many (many) response articles have been written and published in a variety of outlets and petitions circulated.  I encourage readers to find at least a few of them to read.

But more importantly, I encourage readers (lay leaders, communal members, and Jewish professional leaders) to really take an honest internal reflection of your own intentional and unintentional biases.  Do you make assumptions when you see a person of color at a Jewish program or in a Jewish organization building [not okay to assume it’s a paid worker!]?  Do you make assumptions that the person sitting next to you in worship whose skin color is different from yours is “new” to Judaism? or a guest of someone else?  Do you assume that the Jews of Color in your community don’t know as much about Judaism because it wasn’t passed down through generations of their family?  Are Jews of Color represented in the photos and the narratives that tell the story of your organization?  Are they included and sought out to lead (board members, committee chairpeople, policy-makers)? and to teach (in youth programs, in adult learning, at Shavuot, on Yom Kippur during break)  [and NOT to just teach about being a Jew of Color – just to teach!]?

Being an ally is hard work.  It’s about seeing our own short-comings and working to overcome them.  And it’s about helping others (individuals and organizations) see their’s.  I hope that my colleagues and friends who are Jews of Color see me as an ally.  I hope they continue to teach me how to be a better ally (especially if there is something in this piece they want to give me feedback on!).

 


[Oh, and by the way, I have challenged Ari and his colleagues in the questions they often don’t ask when studying Jewish populations and identity, so … we are all guilty of sometimes not seeing (and surveying) what needs to be seen! See that blog here.]

The Doctor is In: Session Two – Advice for Parents during Summer 2020

Photo May 15, 3 14 52 PMBefore someone stops reading and says, “But you aren’t a parent, you don’t understand ….” I know that.  I am setting forth this advice, not as a tremendously exhausted, frustrated, scared and depleted parent, but I am saying it as a career educator, youth educator, on-line/virtual learner (Master’s and Doctorate) and on-line instructor.

So many camps (overnight and day camps) have announced they are cancelled for Summer 2020 or at the least significantly delayed in opening.  In the absence of camp, many parents seem to be rushing to find on-line alternatives (some even provided by their beloved camps themselves).  But wait  …

DO NOT SIGN YOUR KIDS UP FOR

A BUNCH OF ON-LINE SUMMER PROGRAMS!

We all have computer fatigue right now. And there is still a chance your kids could start school in the Fall on-line. Do not have them spend their summer in front of the screen. By the time school rolls around they will be so burnt out and over it … beyond unable to engage in learning. You will have a real fight on your hands and your kids will be in the right on this one.

Instead, invest in a lot of outdoor equipment: volleyball nets/balls, tetherball, water games, corn hole, cones, parachutes, hoola hoops, sidewalk chalk, binoculars, flag football sets, sand pits/boxes, water tables, new bikes/trikes (and helmets), basketball hoops, ball pits, nerf balls of all shapes and sizes and sunscreen!  Engage in scavenger hunts, picnics, geocaching, nature walks, bird finds, planting a garden together, engage in outdoor art projects (painting with nature), painting rocks and leaving them around the neighborhood …

If you are working and can’t run “camp” for your kids, find a camp counselor that doesn’t have a job this summer. Hire them with specific and strict health and safety parameters (for when they are working with your kids and for when they are off on their own at home). … but don’t have your kid sit in front of a screen all summer.

Have a teen at home who was supposed to be a CIT/SIT or be in Israel? Think about PROJECT BASED experiences: have them research, plan and plant a garden; build and paint a bench, a storage box or a small shed; they can research and build a little free library for your neighborhood kids; they can paint rocks with motivational sayings and favorite literary quotes and leave them around the neighborhood. Perhaps they can order the materials and make yard signs with warm greetings and place in yards of senior citizens or the home bound.  Lots of volunteer work is still needed – sewing blankets for a shelter or recording audio books for sight impaired.  If your teen is at all politically inclined,  there is a lot of phone banking and postcard writing teens can do for Get Out The Vote or candidate specific.

And yes, they SHOULD connect with their camp communities for a pre-Shabbat sing-along or a Havdallah.  But hours and hours in front of their screens is NOT the answer for Summer 2020.

I am happy to brainstorm with parents on lots of ideas for children of all ages!

P.S. I recognize that not everyone has the financial means nor yard space for all of this … but hopefully it gives everyone some ideas on how to get through summer.

The Doctor is In: Session One – Advice for Parents of HS Seniors 2020

Photo May 15, 3 14 52 PMWith my newly minted Doctor of Education (EdD) degree, I offer this advice amid the
Covid19/Coronovirus Pandemic:

Many colleges/universities are not yet sure how they are going to handle the launch of their Fall 2020 semesters … will they be on-line, will they be cancelled, will they be on campus, will they be delayed and on-campus?  And how long will they wait before making these decisions and the subsequent announcements?  Recently, the Cal State University system announced it will be on-line for the first semester.  That gave many parents a wake-up call that they may not be sending their new college students off for their exciting first semesters at college.  This caused some to reach out to me to ask for my advice.  Here is what I have shared with them:

No matter what your child’s school decides, you shouldn’t send them away to school.

First, this is their first college experience and at least 80% of the college experience happens outside the classroom—and they won’t get it sitting in their own rooms, in your home, taking classes on-line. And even if their school starts in person, they may get sent home at some point if there is an outbreak on campus. It’s too disruptive. Additionally, if school does start in person, will they have roommates?  Will Greek organizations be permitted to have Rush or have people live in the houses?  Will school sports be cancelled? Will dining halls require reservations?  Will everyone have to wear masks which inhibits the ability to get to know others? Sitting in the unknown can cause tremendous anxiety for these young adults which will not bode well academically, socially or emotionally.

Instead, look for a gap-year program that is offering cohort-based experiences.  A cohort-based model gives young adults a set of peers to connect with, learn from, hear different viewpoints from, engage with, and build relationships with.  A service-learning/justice centered gap year program teaches young adults to get outside their comfort zones, see the world through the lens of those who need allies and UpStanders.  It provides young adults a view of the world they can’t get sitting in a formal classroom.  And while most of these programs are centered on hands-on service, there is MUCH to be learned while not on site:  core issue education, root causes/systemic issues, how advocacy and policy-making can influence this issue, the ways that fundraising, non-profits and NGOs work to combat these issues, how to engage other community members and strategic partners in working towards a common good.  All of this can be accomplished while respecting physical distancing (even through on-line learning).   A young adult can gain so much from this and if mid-year it’s safe to travel to on-site programs, they are already embedded with their community and the learning!  (Note: I am currently working to research a list of programs that will be set up for this model and will share once it is curated.)

Second, take General Education requirements through a community college on-line. It’s often significantly cheaper than the university/college tuition they are enrolled in and allows them to hit the ground running in classes for their major and electives when they do get to campus.  Also, the instruction is often with smaller numbers than in large universities for these Gen Eds.  Just be sure they are taken with an accredited community college and that the university they plan on attending will take the transfer from that school.

Third, before WWIII happens in your home, sit down together and talk about new age-appropriate boundaries, responsibilities and expectations.  After all, you have a college student now living at home.  Remember that if physical distancing requirements lift and it’s safe for them to be out and socializing with friends, having a curfew isn’t appropriate for a college student. AND on the flip side, they need to be doing their own laundry, some of their own cooking, making their beds, buying snacks with their money.  Work on the life skills they would be implementing in college – their own time management, their own study schedule, their own quality control for homework, etc.

This is for sure an incredibly uncertain time in the world, but as the adults guiding our young adults’ lives, we can help them set a course that will be just as productive and meaningful (if not moreso) instead of a year wasted or a year sitting in anxiety of what might happen to their schooling.

The Doctor Is In (Finally!)

Photo May 15, 2 14 00 PMAfter a 10-year journey, I have OFFICIALLY completed my EdD (Doctorate of Education).
My doctorate, from Northeastern University, focused on K-12 Education.  In addition, I was dual-enrolled in Hebrew College where I received a Doctoral Certificate in Jewish Education Leadership.

My dissertation, entitled “Understanding How Under-Engaged Jewish Teens Self-Articulate and Self-Express Jewish Identity and Jewish Education” can be found here.  But let me assure you, if you are truly interested, the good stuff is in Chapters Four and Five.

Chapter Four is “Results” which includes deep portraits of three Atlanta-area Jewish teens who participated in supplemental religious education through bar/bat mitzvah and then dropped out of organized Jewish programs and education.  These teens were juniors and seniors during the research phase.  Their portraits include a lot of dialogue, photos of Jewish artifacts they describe as meaningful, and a self-expression photo or graphic project (complete with captions) which they believe portrays their identity.  The section then offers a summary of emergent themes from across the study participants.

Chapter Five is the “Discussion, Implications and Recommendations” section which outlines the implications and recommendations I am made based on the research conducted.  Much of it focused on curricular and program recommendations while a small section touches on marketing and recruitment in Jewish education.

There will be MANY blog posts, journal articles and presentations given on this research, but for now, I just wanted to share that it is complete and available for your reading pleasure.

I look forward to hearing your questions and feedback about the work!

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.

Screenshot 2019-11-17 19.23.05

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.”

Screenshot 2019-11-17 18.30.54

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:

Screenshot 2019-11-15 14.54.52

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.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 14.57.53

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

Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.08.33

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.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.19.38Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.19.48Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.19.56

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.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.23.15

TRIGGERED.

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.

Screenshot 2019-11-15 15.31.12

 

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.

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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. 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

Chabad.org
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.”

Mechon-Mamre
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.’

Sefaria
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!”

Bible.ort.org
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.

 

 

 

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