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”?

The NOW Generation of Emerging Leaders at the GA

There’s a different kind of marathon that I participate in – it’s not the 26.2 miles that my friends run in the ING NY Marathon, or the Disney Marathon.  It’s the 36+ awake-hour marathon I run at the GA each year.  And while the exhaustion is different than the toll a regular marathon takes, it is still physically exhausting and then also mentally grueling as well.


How can a person maximize their networking, learning, and socializing (it is the Original Jewish Social Network) within the shortest amount of time.  You don’t sleep enough and you take as few bathroom and meal breaks as possible (I swear, if most attendees thought they could combine those two tasks – ew! – they would!).


A non-Jewish friend asked me what the purpose of this conference was.  I had to share that it’s different for each kind of attendee.  A Federation lay-leader may go looking to learn about best practices; a Federation professional might go to support the growth of their lay leadership and to build a network of like-positioned colleagues; a Foundation professional may go seeking to hear about new ideas to fund; and a Jewish organization professional may go to find new funders, enhance relationships with existing funders, and to find strategic partners in other organizations.  But what I walked away asking myself is, why does a college student or a teen attend the GA?


They attend for an experience of a lifetime: to make connections with potential future employers; to explore possible career paths in Jewish life; to get a glimpse into the inner workings of Jewish institution leadership and life; to experience leadership development at a superior level; to participate actively in the global and national Jewish community; and to meet other students for an enriched Jewish social connection.


Do they attend to be called “The Next Generation” with little respect given to the fact that they are the NOW Generation?  Do they attend to sit in frontal and formal sessions, in suits and ties?  Do they attend to be paraded around like the poster-children of the future?  Somehow, I doubt that these are their motivations, but from what I witnessed and heard, this indeed happened over and over again … and while some of the students’ own goals were met, it wasn’t the overwhelming focus of their experience.


I have to be fair and honest, that I have not sat with anyone in the leadership at JFNA to ask them about the official vision of the role of college students and teens at the GA (and if I had more time and more sleep, I would do that due diligence) and therefore invite them to respond and continue the dialogue.   However, I am confident that there is an overall sentiment amongst those who work professionally with these target audiences, that the mark has been missed for yet another GA.


If we as a national Jewish community were truly supporting the needs and goals of these emerging leaders (ahem, not the “next generation”), what would need to be in place? I offer the following thoughts and suggestions:

  • to make connections with potential future employers:  In the registration materials, ask the teens and college students about their intended career choices while simultaneously asking the adult attendees to a) indicate their career and b) ascertain if they would be willing to serve as a connection to a teen or college student in the same field.  Utilizing this information, offer roundtables/affinity sessions where the matches can meet.
  • to explore possible career paths in Jewish life:  While JESNA (Jewish Education Service of North America) has the Lainer-Masa Fellowship™ for Jewish Education (link to: and the Fellows are brought to the GA, the program is limited by resources and scope, therefore no one is serving other emerging leaders in their potential desires to become Jewish communal professionals.  Attracting and retaining quality Jewish professionals should be a priority for JFNA in its service to the national Jewish community.  Providing GA mentors and sessions on Jewish professional life, would go far to support potential recruits in this work.
  • to get a glimpse into the inner workings of Jewish institution leadership and life:  At the GA, this seems to happen only by osmosis.  I am unaware of any GA curriculum that helps the teens and college students navigate and investigate this web.  Perhaps some local Federations match their adult delegates with student delegates, but a national intention to assign the students to partner and debrief with adult counterparts in their communities would help the young adults unpack their experience into implementable actions.
  • to participate actively in the global and national Jewish community:  I found the voice of the student delegates to be token at a few of the sessions.  What would happen if teen and college student delegates, under the guidance of JFNA professional staff and in partnership with Hillel staff, were asked to plan and execute a plenary session, putting their needs and ideas at the center of the agenda?
  • to meet other students for an enriched Jewish social connection:  this, they are good at on their own … if only they had a physical space (besides a formal table and chairs Hillel room at the exhibition hall) that was inviting and comfortable for them.


I may seem to be very accusational and preachy, but it comes from a place of passion – a place of working with Jewish teens for 15 years.  A place of knowing that Jewish professionals and lay leaders spend a lot of time talking about emerging adults (and the “problem” of engaging them) and not enough time partnership with them – giving them a space and a voice.  I heard a lot about “prosumers” at a variety of sessions at the GA, but I don’t see the GA actualizing prosumer strategies.  I hope that the 2013 GA in Baltimore is developed in partnership with our amazing emerging leaders.


[As a personal aside, as long as I am writing about students, can we talk about the fact that the student rate is only geared for undergrads – although not stated in writing on the website – and that graduate and doctoral students aren’t eligible for the rate …. even for this poor doctoral student pursuing a degree in Jewish Education Leadership?]


This post was originally written for the NextGenJews Blog, but it has never been posted there.  So I am posting it here.

Examining Your Educational Philosophy

Earlier today I facilitated a presentation for the national NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth), the youth affiliate of the Reform Movement.  I had been asked to help their staff think about how educational philosophy is an important part of youth education planning.   While many of their staff had – at one point – written educational philosophies, some had not and some hadn’t looked at them in a while. Others shared that they review it every year as a way to reflect on the prior year and to set the tone for the year ahead.  We also discussed the importance of helping their teen leaders frame their roles as board members through the lens of Jewish educator – and therefore the need for the teens to start articulating their personal educational philosophies.   At the end of the conversation, I shared my own educational philosophy.  Writing it is an iterative process, so the version I share with you today might change based on tomorrow’s experiences.

I am wondering – how many of my colleagues have written/articulated educational philosophies?  how many of my colleagues have shared their educational philosophies with their staff/colleagues/lay people/community partners?  how many of my colleagues are congruent in their actions and their written philosophy?   I invite you to share your educational philosophy in the comments section – perhaps inspiring others and perhaps as way for others to hold each of us accountable.

I am committed to experience-based and experiential education techniques–leveraging the text Na’aseh v’Nishma to convey the context. With pre-teen, teen and adult learners I champion for educators to serve as mentors/facilitators guiding learners to make their own educated conclusions about practice and thought; allowing the learner to personalize and own their Judaism because they understand the “why.” I believe in educating Jews to personal choice and meaning-making.

As the home is the primary indicator of adult Jewish identity, I believe in the power of Jewish family education.  My goal is to help all Jewish professionals assess the way their organization and their education offerings help educate the entire family.

I believe in creating education opportunities where I can nurture people’s passions and develop multiple entry points that get people entrenched in community.  The critical role that community plays in the learning environment is an essential aspect of any learning plan. I am committed to explicitly creating community as goal of all curricula.

My goal is to create an education system which enables Jews to make a shift to a “brit of faith” from a “brit of fate.” Ultimately developing a Jewish community where all Jews are actively “choosing Judaism;” are inspired to Jewish curiosity; expressing their identity in attitudes, skills, behaviors and knowledge; and viewing every aspect of their lives through a Jewish lens.


An Examination of the Impact of Critical Theory on Jewish Education

Sitting at the Birthright NEXT #NEXTwork gathering in the SouthEast and the conversation about young Jewish adults feeling like they are “bad Jews” or “not Jewish enough” just emerged – prompting me to repost AGAIN.

This was originally written as a paper for my EdD program for my course on Theoretical Foundations of Education Research & Practices.  During the Judaism2030 Conference sponsored by Jewish Outreach Institute, a panelist chose to show us a clip from “Glee” in which a teenager (Noah Puckerman) says, “I’m a bad Jew!” (click here to view the clip – towards the end).  This sparked me to share this paper, in which I examine the internal oppression that exists in our Jewish community.

An Examination of the Impact of Critical Theory on Jewish Education


Of the four theoretical frameworks used to explore education, the lens of critical theory leant itself to have the most potential for further author inquiry, especially in the field of Jewish education.  The three aspects specifically of interest are cultural capital, economic accessibility and internalized oppression.

Critical Theory in Jewish Education

Economic Accessibility

In examining the foundation of Critical Theory in education, Professor Alan Stoskopf writes in a presentation about the early critiques of economic inequality in education.  He provides an overview of how organizational structures often perpetuate class differentials.  He credits early thinkers with this prioritization, “Such renown thinkers as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Max Horkheimer saw themselves as creating a new and more humane intellectual critique of social and economic inequality,” (n.d.).

Unlike public school education, almost all Jewish education opportunities have a significant end-cost to the consumer. Much has been written about the high cost of the endeavor of Jewish education and the prohibitive nature the collective price tag is to Jewish engagement for many people.  In 2008, a report about Jewish education in the 21st century brings this challenge into the spotlight.  “[There is a] persistence of Jewish schooling as a Jewish norm. The fact that more than 70% of all Jewish children receive some form of Jewish schooling today is itself a signal achievement, given the fact that such participation is not only entirely voluntary, but likely to cost the family thousands, if not tens of thousands, of dollars,” (Woocher, J, Rubin Ross, & Woocher, M., 2008, p. 7).

In an attempt to quantify the amount, scholar and researcher Jack Wertheimer, researched some basic and routine costs for key Jewish education experiences and access ways.  This especially pertains to the high cost of the most immersive types of Jewish education. Day school tuition can run from $10,000 to $30,000 per child for each year of enrollment; summer camps can cost $4-8,000 for a season; and trips to Israel are equally, if not more costly, depending on their duration. If these forms of Jewish education are not to become solely the province of the wealthy, large sums of scholarship money must be raised … spiraling costs of Jewish living are discouraging some families from taking maximal advantage of the rich offerings available. (2010)

As if the raw enormous expense of Jewish living wasn’t enough, the larger society assumption exists that all Jews are affluent.  This postulation alone is oppressive.  In his 2005 article, The Costs of Jewish Living: Revisiting Jewish Involvements and Barriers, Professor Gerald Bubis quotes a 1984 study which estimates, “that as many as 700,000 or 13 to 15 percent of the total American Jewish population, were poor or near poor.”  There exists an oppressive financial nature in securing a Jewish education, and therefore an empowered Jewish identity, if people have to make a choice between a mortgage payment or religious school tuition. (Bubis, 2005)

Internalized Oppression

In her paper, “The Sixites: The Calm Against the Storm, or, Levels of Concern,” Maxine Greene (2000) spends some time examining Paulo Freire’s view of “internalized oppressors,” (p. 308).  These oppressors begin with how people are trained to accommodate the stratifications within a society.  Within the greater Jewish society, the elevation and stratification of certain kinds of Jewish expression and engagement sometimes leads to a perceived low self-worth within Judaism for those without those skills or observances.  This often gets expressed as being a “bad jew,” (Marcus, 2007).  Marcus writes, “Often people will say to me … ‘Rabbi, I’m a bad Jew.’ After hearing this so many times, it got me thinking…there is a plague afflicting many Jews: low Jewish self-esteem.”

In many cases, this oppression of the non-observant or limited-observant comes from those Jewish sects that are the most strictly observant. In his article, The Odd Couple, Eli Valley tackles the issue of the ultra-Orthodox demeaning and discounting those Jews who choose to observe as part of the Reform and Conservative movements.  Valley quotes one ultra-Orthodox Jewish leader saying,  “the Reform and Conservative sects that are the destroyers of the religion,” and another, “Reform Rabbis are further from Judaism than Christians and Muslims and that they should be considered as filthy, lying, shekotzim [non-Jews] who are criminals….” (2010).

This bold claim of authenticity and legitimacy creates internal oppression within Jewish society and often leads to low self-esteem and further disenfranchisement amongst some less-observant Jews. In a recent on-line forum, Rabbi Josh Hammerman answered this question from one reader, “I am not observant and the teacher of a class I’ve been taking has led me to believe that this makes me a bad Jew,” (2011).  If Jewish educators are perpetuating this oppression, it will be difficult for many Jews to break the cycle.

In order to counteract this oppression and resulting low Jewish self-esteem, Jewish educators and leaders should consider ways to explicitly work to eliminate this oppression, integrating lessons on Jewish pride.  Rabbi Hammerman suggests, “We all really need to be getting away from this ‘Good Jew / Bad Jew’ dichotomy, but to aim to be, as Dennis Prager calls them, ‘serious Jews,’ ever growing, seeking, learning, challenging our traditions – and increasing our capacity to love. Let’s get beyond the “good” and “bad” labels and strive, each of us, to be ascending Jews,” (2011).

Cultural Capital

Many Jewish education sociologists conduct research asking survey questions about the exposure youth have to Jewish books, art, music, and theater. Not typically identified as “cultural capital” as defined by leading secular theorists Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein, Elliot Weininger or Annette Lareau, Jewish sociologists tend to refer to the concept simply as a strong cultural foundation and as indicators of self-expression of Jewish identity, (Schifrin, 1997). Using the cultural capital framework defined by the secular theorists will enhance the perspective of how the concept can be utilized in Jewish life.

On the surface, cultural capital is primarily seen as the “general cultural background, knowledge, disposition and skills that are passed from one generation to the next,” (MacLeod, 2009, p. 13). MacLeod expands on the concept pointing to the role cultural encounters such as books, museums, music and theater all have on education attainment. According to the article Cultural Capital is Key to Preparing for College and Getting into a Good School, the definition of cultural capital originally started out as high-status cultural symbols such as going to the theater, but now cultural capital has several other definitions. “People possess cultural capital if … they have access to educational resources, meaning that they know how to navigate the educational system,” (ScienceDaily, 2010).

Author and sociologist Annette Lareau also uses cultural capital to highlight divergences in the educational experiences of youth, which is the focus of her piece entitled Unequal Childhoods.  In response to the financial barrier that often prohibits Jewish youth of having these educational experiences, Bubis introduces his readers to Carmel Chiswick who he says, “has coined the term ‘Jewish human capital’-the sum of a person’s skills, memories, and experiences, including the time devoted to acquiring this capital. She points out that few are motivated to acquire this capital, because the majority of Jews do not find it attractive,” (2005).  Bubis includes in his article several critical questions Chiswick posits about other ways to gain this capital:

  • What music is included among the cassettes and compact discs found in the cars and living rooms of the family?
  • What books and magazines are found in the home?
  • Is the home easily identified as Jewish by the art on the walls and the conversation at the dinner table?
  • Where has the family chosen to live?
  • Who are its friends, and are the values of the friends congruent?
  • What organizations are the children encouraged to join?
  • How is free time used?
  • Do vacations encompass the so-called “Jewish schizophrenic approach to travel”-enhancing the children’s sense of Jewish and American history wherever they go? Does trip-planning include reference to not only a Frommer’s but also a Jewish travel guide book?

These questions should influence Jewish education practices.  If outside of institution walls, Jewish leaders can teach Jewish families to consider the Jewish ways to answer and embody these questions, then the economic barrier to achieving institutionalized Jewish capital can be reduced or eliminated.  Bubis acknowledges that, “Such youngsters may still lack a “good” comprehensive Jewish education, but they will feel comfortable as a part of amcha [the general Jewish community] will enjoy being Jewish, and will feel positive about it. And the cost is the ‘human capital’ of their parents’ sensibility, regardless of economic status,” (2005).



Despite the erroneous assumption that social and economic stratification doesn’t exist amongst the global Jewish community members, the reality is that these factors do exist and have incredible impact on many Jewish people’s access to Jewish education.  Using the secular educational lens of critical theory, Jewish education practitioners should closely examine, and develop counter strategies for, the internal oppression, the economic barriers, and the restriction of cultural capital.



Baird, J. (2010, April 7). Jewish education begins at home [Editorial]. The Jewish Daily Forward,  opinion section. Retrieved from

Bayme, S. (2005, June). Forward. In G.B. Bubis , The costs of Jewish living: Revisiting Jewish involvements and barriers. Retrieved from American Jewish Committee (AJC) website: content3.aspx?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=843137&ct=1105787

Bubis, G. B. (2005, June). The costs of Jewish living: Revisiting Jewish involvements and barriers. Retrieved from American Jewish Committee (AJC) website: content3.aspx?c=ijITI2PHKoG&b=843137&ct=1105787

Gorman, T.J. (1998). Social class and parental attitudes toward education: resistance and conformity to schooling in the family. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 27(1), 10-45.

Greene, M. (2000, Summer). The sixties: The calm against the storm, or, levels of concern. Educational Theory, 50(3), 307-320.

Hammerman, J. (2011, March 24). If I’m an ethical person, does that make me a good Jew? [Online forum message]. Retrieved from The New York Jewish Week, Special Section:

Indiana University (2010, August 15). Cultural capital is key to preparing for college and getting into a good school. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 21, 2010, from

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhood: the importance of social class in family life. Ewing, NJ: University of California Press. Retrieved from:

MacLeod, J. (2009). Aint no makin’ it. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Marcus, Y. (2007, May 21). Guest editorial: “Rabbi, I’m a bad Jew!” Retrieved from Chabad Lubavitch News website:

McLaren, P. (2002). Critical pedagogy: A look at the major concepts. In A. Darder, M. Baltodano, & R. D. Torres, The critical pedagogy reader (pp. 69-96). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Schifrin, D. (1997). Conflicts and challenges of Jewish culture. The Reconstructionist, 62(1), 23-33.

Stoskopf, A. (n.d.). Critical theory in education [Data file]. Boston, MA: Northeastern University.

Valley, E. (2010, January 13). Articles. In The odd couple [commentary]. Retrieved from The Jewish Daily Forward website:

Weininger, E.B., & Lareau, A. Cultural capital. Retrieved from:

Wertheimer, J. (2010, January 15). The future of Jewish education [Interview Summary]. Retrieved from Institute for Global Jewish Affairs website: ShowPage.asp?DRIT=4&DBID=1&LNGID=1&TMID=111&FID=623&PID=0&IID=3225&TTL=The_Future_of_Jewish_Education

Woocher, J., Rubin Ross, R., & Woocher, M. (2008, January). Redesigning Jewish education for the 21st century. NY: Jewish Education Service of North America, Lippman Kanfer Institute.

The Death of Osama bin Laden

The following is a Response Lesson that can be used with learners to better understand the Jewish response to the death of Osama bin Laden.  Ideally it would be used over a 2-hour time frame, but please feel free to modify it for your needs.   Additionally, due to the immediacy and time limit, the Hebrew texts are not included.  I encourage educators to have learners use a TaNaKh to explore these texts further.

Supplies: Internet connection, projector and screen, computer, sound amplification, 11×17 paper, markers, copies of texts.

JewishGPS Osama bin Laden Response Lesson 05012011

Thinking About Critical Questions

This blog post was originally published on Davar Acher.

I am about halfway through coursework for an EdD in Jewish Education Leadership. About 75% of my coursework is actually in secular K-12 education. As such, I am often pausing in my readings and asking myself, “How does this apply to Jewish education?” The following are ideas or questions I have recently come across in my K-12 learning that gave me pause to consider their implication in Jewish education. I am curious as to how YOU would answer these questions as they relate to Jewish education:

  1. What can we do to facilitate learning in other 85% of time, when kids are out of school? [Note: this figure is in public school, what about the 99% of time kids are out of supplemental school?]
  2. How can we expand the number of adults who are connecting to students?
  3. Can we reinvent the basic organization of schools in a 24/7 digital environment?
  4. What are the core competencies teachers should be responsible for?
  5. How much of education is “right answers” and how much is a personal answer?
  6. What is the nature of the process by which organizations, institutions, and societies transform themselves?
  7. What are the characteristics of effective learning systems?
  8. How is technology altering the very nature of pedagogy?
  9. Can you honestly say that your school’s curriculum and the program you use are preparing your students for 2015 or 2020? Are you even preparing them for today?
  10. What is a literate, aware & prepared citizen? (of Jewish community)?
  11. What are 21st century assessments for learning?

The final question was actually posed … What choices for topics, issues, problems, themes, and case studies are timely and necessary for our learners within disciplines? (i.e. What are scientists studying? What are engineers trying to build? What are the historians uncovering? What forms are writers generating? What are artists saying in their work?) (Jacobs, 2009, pg. 34). So based on this question, I ask:

What are adult Jews doing in their Jewish lives?

Perhaps the answer to that question should guide our Jewish education curriculum!


Bryk, A.S. (2008) The Future of Education Research

Jacobs, H.H. (2009) Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World

Schon, D. (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner

Smith, M.K. (2001) Donald Schon: Learning, Reflection and Change. Retrieved from:

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