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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colbert and Mark Feuerstein Unleash my Pet Peeve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When will someone listen?


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

Zeh Lo Pashut – This is Not Simple

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

I have been diagnosed with clinical moderate depression.

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

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

A backlog of unread and unreturned emails.

Voicemail which is full. Phone calls not returned.

Projects for clients not turned in.

Not talking to friends on a regular basis.

Cancelling plans at the last minute.

Failure to work on a dissertation.

Avoiding the “to do” list.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the real anti-Semite please stand up?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Paying it Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The B’nei Mitzvah Evolution/Revolution/Ban Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being a Part of the “Organized Jewish Community”

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

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

Here are a few examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Formal Learning at Informal Limmud

This blog was originally posted on the BJELA website.

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

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

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

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

Confused yet?  You aren’t the only one.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Each Moment is a Jewish Moment

I have long stated that my goal as a Jewish educator is to help people live their lives – every day, every moment – through a Jewish lens.  I have been challenged by many on this concept, with doubt that non-Orthodox people can do this.  People have challenged me to be self-reflective:  “Do I live every moment Jewishly?”  Yes, I try.

The obvious examples include my choice to eat kosher-style:  don’t mix meat and milk, don’t eat pork/shellfish, keep separate dishes in my home, only eat hekshered meat in my home, etc.  So every time I look at a menu in a restaurant, or go to prepare a meal at home, I do so through a Jewish lens.  Another easy example, is my choice to not do professional work on Shabbat (i.e. email, conference calls, work travel, etc).   And yet another example is the abundant Jewish art and books throughout my home.  You cannot turn a corner in any room (which all have mezuzot on the doorposts) and not see some Jewish artifact. For the most part, people get these – but they call me out that these are obvious and that they aren’t 24/7/365 (I’m not so sure I even agree on that one, but ok).  So here’s an example of how my choice to live my life in a Jewish way, as often as I can, turned a generic morning into a Jewish experience.

People who know me well, know that I am not a big daven/t’fillah person (the blog on not being a G-d-person is another story!).  But there is something about waking up each morning being thankful (to whomever) that you have indeed woken up.  Judaism gives us the Modeh Ani blessing just for this purpose:

Modeh Ani lifanecha, Melech chai v’kayam.
Shehechizarta bi, nishmati b’chemla rabbah emunatecha.

“I give thanks to you, Everlasting Sovereign for you have returned my soul
to me in mercy. Great is your faithfulness.”

I know myself well enough to know that I won’t wake up every morning and recite a blessing, but thanks to technology, I can still awake with this thought in mind.  The alarm setting on my phone is set to an Mp3 of Rick Recht signing Modeh Ani.

In a recent visit to my family in St. Louis, I ended up staying over at my brother’s house and my nephews (then ages 5 and 7) often get up before the crack of dawn.  Whenever I stay over, they manage to sneak into my bed in the wee hours of the morning for some snuggling (sometimes we get a little sleep, but often it’s just quiet whispering).  So one morning, the youngest – Jack – managed to come down before my alarm went off.  We were snuggled up and dozing when the alarm – Modeh Ani – went off.  Jack sits straight up and says, “I know that song!” and proceeded to sing along (although the melody he was using wasn’t the one playing).  After 4 years in a Jewish pre-school and 3 summers in a Jewish summer camp, he knew the words and a melody to Modeh Ani, but it wasn’t a part of his daily at-home wake-up routine.   [Note: his bed-time routine includes a nightly Sh’ma which I love being a part of when I can be.]  By just having my alarm clock set to this blessing, Jack joined me in a Jewish moment as we were waking up.

While this is just one example of how I, as a non-Orthodox Jew live my life Jewishly, it was such a powerful moment as an aunt,  as a Jewish role model, and as a Jewish educator,  that I wanted to share it.  In the work I do as a family educator, I try to teach that it’s choices like this that families can make – easy and integrated into daily living – that make all the difference in raising proud and connected Jews.

Another way I live Jewishly, is that my nephews call me Dodah (Aunt in Hebrew). It reminds them, and me, that I’m not just an aunt,
but their Jewish aunt.

Highlights of the URJ Biennial: A Call to Action by Many

I  have attended many Jewish conferences, but the URJ Biennial this year was the largest – over 5,500 Jews of all ages.  I attended this particular conference as a consultant to the URJ.  I was engaged in March 2011 to help the URJ professionals and lay leadership in a variety of capacities related to the Campaign for Youth Engagement, which was launched Movement-wide at the Biennial.   I wanted to share with you some of the highlights of the conference.


You know when you hear the words to the Cheers theme song, you feel a sense of comfort – how a smile comes over you?

Where everybody knows your name,

and they’re always glad you came.

You wanna be where you can see,

our troubles are all the same

You wanna be where everybody knows

Your name.


You wanna go where people know,

people are all the same,

You wanna go where everybody knows

your name.



Whenever I attend a Jewish conference (and I attend a lot of them), I get this feeling.  When a group of Jewish professionals (and/or passionate lay people) come together, they come to explore and generate solutions to those “troubles [that] are all the same.”   They come to be social, make connections, and celebrate being Jewish.  The idea of going where “people are all the same” is a strong underlying pull at any Jewish conference – just being a Member of the Tribe starts you out on common ground;  there are no strangers in the hallways, no strangers in the elevators, no strangers in the sessions – only friends you just haven’t met yet.

An interesting aspect of attending a Movement-based conference, is to watch alumni of camps, Israel trips, day schools, Jewish college and rabbinic programs, congregations, youth groups, etc come together in a giant reunion.  The re-gathering of these groups exemplifies “Be glad there’s one place in the world where everybody knows your name.”

A Call to Action

With over 700 people in the room – educators, rabbis, cantors, teens, parents, lay people, philanthropists, and other Jewish professionals – the Vision Team of the Campaign for Youth Engagement called the Reform Movement to action in combatting the “hemorrhaging” (as one speaker put it) of post-b’nei mitzvah drop-off (which stands at close to 80%).  While it might be easy to say that this problem is the responsibility of parents and Jewish education leaders, the Vision Team challenges that it’s the responsibility of all of us … that each of us has to make it “My Campaign.”  And I agree.

This 80% post-b’nei mitzvah disengagement from Jewish life isn’t just a Reform Movement challenge.  Statistically it impacts all non-Orthodox Jewish communities.  As professionals engaged in Jewish life, we are the minority.  We likely were the 20% that stayed involved through high school and into college.  So kudos to us … but really, we can’t ignore the 80%.  It’s incumbent upon each of us to reach out to the institutions we are involved in – as lay leaders and professionals –  and ask “Where are the teens in this organization?  Do they have a seat on the board?  Do they have a voice in programmatic and policy decisions?  What is the strategy for engaging and empowering teens within our organization?  What groundwork are we laying with pre-teens and their families to ensure post-b’nei mitzvah connections?”  and finally, “What am I doing to build relationships with the pre-teens and teens of this community?”

To view the Campaign for Youth Engagement Biennial Forum, click here.

Raised Voices

This year recognizes the 50th anniversary of the Religious Action Center (the RAC).  You can watch the full presentation celebrating the occasion on the RAC website.  But the most poignant piece for me is when singer/songwriter Julie Silver took the microphone.  She boldly stood and said, “I am a Lesbian, I am a Jew, I am an Ima, and I am a partner.  Every piece of me is deeply affirmed by the Reform Movement.”  She continued to laud the work of the RAC, but when she said, “Because the RAC raises its voice, I can raise my family,” she basically said it all.   Watch Julie’s speech here (trust me, it’s worth the click!).

While the Reform Movement as a sect of Jewish life has taken the lead in raising its voice on a variety of issues, including helping to de-marginalize the LGBT community, I believe that most of us in my circle are passionate about raised voices and standing for those whose voices are limited.  Let’s just be sure we continue to do so.

One Big Song Session

When the President of the United States (aka POTUS) comes to speak to your group, the timing is … well… unpredictable.  Sometimes he arrives early and therefore your plans are scrapped, and sometimes he gets delayed, and you have to fill time.    And sometimes, both happen.   On Friday, December 16,  POTUS was scheduled to speak at some point during the URJ Biennial Plenary session.  At first, we (staff members) were told he was going to speak last during the two-hour plus plenary.  The agenda was moving forward.  The RAC celebration ended with a beautiful rendition of America led by the very talented musician Josh Nelson and then it seemed the agenda was going to be shuffled – POTUS must have arrived at the hotel.  But he wasn’t quite ready.  So Josh did what Jewish musicians do, he led the crowd in a song … and then another … and then another … and then another.  From Maoz Tzur to Kol HaOlam Kulo to Great Balls of Fire, Josh led the crowd in one heck of a warm-up for the Prez (click the links to watch some brief video of it all).  The entire situation reaffirmed for me that all Jewish gatherings need a good ‘ole song session to help build community.


When President Obama finally addressed the 5500+ person crowd at the URJ Biennial, no one expected him to open with a d’var Torah.  But that’s exactly what he did. [He has brilliant speech writers!] After sharing that his daughter is on the b’nei mitzvah circuit and the several disagreements in their home as to what was appropriate to wear to the parties, he transitioned into a few words about this week’s Parsha – Vayeshev.  In Genesis 37:13, Jacob asks Joseph to go to his brothers and he responds, “Hineini.”  POTUS focused on this word – Hineini and the meaning of not only “Here I Am” but “I am Ready.”  Several times throughout his speech he recalled this word and his readiness to stand by Israel, and to work on health care, and to stand by LGBT communities.  I can’t do it total justice, so I encourage you to take 30 minutes and listen to Obama’s full presentation here.  (Besides, then you can combat this misquoting the NYT did regarding a Palestinian state.)

But if we expect our President to be ready to stand with us, we have to hold each other accountable for being present and ready to serve the Jewish people – locally, nationally and globally.  When is the last time you were called upon and you answered, “Hineini”?

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