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:

What Unites Us

This blog is was originally published for Challah Back – NextGenBlog.

This past week, I had the complete honor to present multiple workshops at the JProSTL national professional development conference. JProStl is an association dedicated to supporting professionals working at Jewish organizations in St. Louis. (JProSTL’s website) Its mission is to provide training, resources, and networking opportunities in order to strengthen staff members, their organizations, and the community as a whole.  On March 6-7, approximately 250 professionals gathered in St. Louis for the program themed What Unites Us.

The conference, which was launched in partnership by JCSA (The Jewish Communal Service Association of North America), boasted over 40 total sessions whose presenters included national names such as Deborah Grayson Riegel (, Lisa Colton (, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (, and Adam Simon (  I am truly humbled to be amongst this group of names as an educator in the Jewish world.

I was asked to present three very different sessions:

We’re All in This Together :“World Café Model” for Meaningful Conversations
Using an adapted “World Café Model” for meaningful conversations, come experience how to overcome the obstacles for “what divides us” and how each staff person can take the steps to create more open and honest conversations, facilitate more partnerships and work toward a more unified Jewish community. World Café is an innovative yet simple methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are most important in their life, work, or community.

Making a Difference in the Lives of Pre-Teens, Teens and Their Families
The pressures on teens continue to dramatically change.  While our Jewish organizations become increasingly invested in Jewish identity issues, we are perhaps less open about difficult subjects such as substance abuse, sex ethics, peer pressure, school pressures, bullying, eating disorders and other challenges to the self esteem.   We also often don’t look deep enough into the implications of our teens’ intense relationship with social media and texting.  Robyn works with youth group directors all over the country helping to give them the tools and framework for addressing these issues.  She will discuss present realities as well as how important it is for our communal professionals to collaborate as responsive professionals and advocates for teens and their parents.

Increasing Engagement through “Learning 3-D”
Whether you are teaching children in a classroom, using informal education with teens or involving adults in Torah study or leadership development, it’s important to understand the principles of experiential and participatory learning including why interaction is so important, tools for increasing engagement and providing experiences for learning  “that sticks.”

For the purpose of this posting, I want to share with you what transpired during the adapted World Café.  Visually, the room was set with colorful tablecloths at tables of 6 and coffee cups held markers that were set on white butcher-block paper.  Treats included chocolate covered espresso beans and biscotti.  Colorful napkins topped it all off.  Not the environment you expect to encounter when going to a conference session.  But this setting is key  – as it sets the tone for the important conversations the 20+ session participants were engaging in.

The questions I asked the group to tackle in three 15-minutes rounds or discussions:

  1. What does Utopia Jewish St. Louis look like in 2030?
  2. What plagues Jewish St. Louis?
  3. What 3-5 action steps do YOU/YOUR agency/congregation/organization need to take to make St. Louis the national best practice model in: Jewish Education, Jewish Communal Organization Relationships, & “Affiliation”

What transpired at times was predictable and at times truly eye-opening.  The predictable:  conversations around territorialism, funding, silos, competition, and denominationalism.

The eye-opening came in several ways.  First, was that the participants couldn’t envision Utopia in 2030 without talking about the problems we have in 2011.  They couldn’t get beyond what we are mired in to truly think big and create.  Their reaction was to immediately begin to problem-solve.   This reality scares me as I believe it indicates that true innovation and bold ideas are buried deep under layers of challenges we see before us. Second, when they wereasked to talk about what plagued the community, participants, for the most part, protected sacred cows, held back critical comments, and buffered difficult feedback. Third, was that when I asked them to articulate actions steps from themselves and their agencies, the table groups all generated big ideas for the overall Jewish community to take on.  The participants, only when pushed and confronted, could see that there are immediate action steps that they (personally and professional) and their organizations need to take responsibility for.

The people in the room were smart and talented Jewish professionals with probably about 200 years of combined Jewish professional experience in their collective portfolio.  They took their tasks seriously and worked hard to engage in these meaningful conversations.

However, when I reflect on so many national conversations (and local ones) that start with, “We need to stop talking and start doing…..” I can now look back on the World Café I facilitated and point to reasons why we are stuck.  We onlysee the problems and not the unhindered possibilities; we are too nice in tackling problems that plague us so they continue to plague us; and we only see what “others” need to do and not what action we as individuals and organizations need to take.

I challenge readers to go back to the three questions, make them applicable to your community, and host these important conversations.  Our future depends on it.  And the future unites us.

[Note: A true kol hakavod goes out to the JProSTL staff for an amazing job well done, under the fearless leadership of Marci Mayer Eisen, director of the I.E. Millstone Institute for Jewish Leadership at the Jewish Federation of St. Louis.]

Post-Script:  Please feel free to use the Comments Section of this blog
to answer the questions for you, your organization and your community.

A Big Todah Rabah!

In the world of Jewish education, the people who run our synagogue religious schools are often the most under-appreciated and under-recognized.   We often defer to the role our rabbis and cantors play when reflecting on the Jewish education of our children and certainly the role a child’s Hebrew tutor plays.  But behind the scenes running the religious school is a director of education (sometimes known as the principal) who cares about the Jewish journey of the students and their families.

For the last two weeks, I have traveled across the country to participate and present at professional learning conferences designed for these educators.  The Conservative movement’s Jewish Educators’ Assembly (JEA) and the Reform movement’s National Association of Temple Educators (NATE) sponsored the two events held in Philadelphia/New Jersey and Seattle respectively.

Collectively, over 450 educators gathered to learn about the challenges and opportunities that technology and social media offer us in education. (Yes, both conferences engaged in the same theme.)   While together in their respective conferences, educators took the opportunity to network, collaborate, and engage in meta-level conversations about Jewish education in the 21st century.    If you want a glimpse at all they learned and toiled with, you can check out the twitter feeds for #jea59 and #nateseattle.

I had the opportunity to present at both conferences, which gave me the chance to learn with the participants in a unique way.  These educators work hard.  They work hard at their own learning.  I only wish their students and the parents could see them hard at work.  I wish they saw the role modeling in life-long learning these school leaders engage in.   In addition to the core education components, each of the conferences included aspects of Torah L’shma (text study for the sake of study), offered t’filah, and community-building activities.  A perfect dugmah (example) of what our synagogues are trying to offer the student learners.  From sun-up at 8 a.m. until way past sun-down (sometimes after 11 p.m.) these educators gave 1000% of themselves for the sake of their own learning, for the sake of being better so that they can serve our people better.

These educators don’t make a fortune; they don’t do the work because of the first-class perks they get, or the year-end bonuses.  They do this work because it is a true passion for each and every one of them. So the next time you wonder through the halls of your synagogue, take time to peak your head into the office of the education director, and just thank him/her for dedicating themselves to this sacred work.

For a more detailed look into the conversation that emerged during my sessions at NATE, check out this page:

This blog cross-posted to Davar Acher and JFNA NextGenBlog.

At what age are we ready to CHOOSE Judaism?

On Friday, I posted this tweet: If we call them “adult” at 13, then why not ordain him? Or maybe we shouldn’t call them “adult” at 13? The article is about a young man in Israel who would like to be a rabbi at age 14, but people are arguing that he is too young.  I offered up this question regarding the article because I have been trying to engage Jewish education colleagues in considering that we have the Bar/Bat Mitzvah CEREMONY age set too young.

Today, I came across this tweet: @JewishIdeas Should we make the bar mitzvah age later, now that maturity comes so much later? Here is a copy of the article the link leads to:

August 25, 2010, 2:34pm

‘Today You Are … Still a Child’: Why 13 Is Too Young For Bar/Bat Mitzvah

By Renee Ghert-Zand

We learned from the cover story of the past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine that there is a debate raging in developmental psychology and neuropsychology circles as to whether there is a new stage in human development called “emergent adulthood.” Some might call it “prolonged adolescence,” but apparently, a lot of people are asking a variation of the question “What Is it About 20-Somethings?”

The jury is still out as to whether the fact that so many young people in their 20s are not yet financially independent, settled on a career, or in long-term, committed romantic relationships is a definitive indication that humans are not cut out to assume the responsibilities of adulthood until they reach the age of 30.

Whether or not you completely buy the new theory, this re-thinking of the timing of the true onset of adulthood has not only biological, social and economic implications, but also religious ones. If brain imaging research has found that the human brain does not finish its major growth and hardwiring until approximately age 25, then what are we Jews doing declaring young people adults at the age of 12 or 13?

The concept of adolescence has been around for more than a century, with just about everyone in the developed world recognizing that young children do not turn into adults overnight. We haven’t thought of 13-year-olds as true adults for a very long time.

So why have we not re-thought a tradition that dates to ancient times, when we well know that what made sense to life then does not apply to our contemporary existence? OK, so we gave in to inertia, we just let things go with the traditional flow for the past century. But now that we have the evidence, it’s high time that we reconsider whether it is right and fair for us to confer Jewish adulthood on our 7th and 8th graders merely to ensure a steady stream of minyan makers.

Rather than lament the drop off of congregational and educational participation of teenagers post-b’nai mitzvah, maybe we should remind ourselves that they are just that: teenagers, and not adults. Teenagers get a kick out of doing davka (basically doing the opposite of what we want them to), so why not psych them out by not expecting them to act like adults, which we all know they aren’t.

Don’t get me wrong — I am not advocating that young Jews should never have the privilege of taking on the responsibility or the mitzvot. I’m not calling for the abolition of the bar or bat mitzvah ceremony. What I am suggesting, however, is that if the teenage and 20s years are all about exploring one’s identity, trying new paths, gaining experience and finding personal meaning and direction, then what is our hurry? Why not extend the Jewish educational journey for youth, and gain the benefit of not losing the momentum from making a major stop during middle school? Maybe then, when they finally do emerge as actual adults, they will really be ready to commit to living a Jewish life.

Why not re-envision this Jewish coming of age so that when a young Jew stands up at his bar mitzvah or her bat mitzvah and says, “Today, I am an adult,” he or she can really mean it and the rest of us in the congregation can really believe it?

This is the response I wrote in the Comments section:

I have, for the last few years, been challenging my Jewish education colleagues to consider this discussion with the following implications:

a) Educate our communities that at the age of 12/13 a young person becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah without a ceremony, without a party, without being called to the Torah.

b) Alter, throughout K’lal Yisrael, what happens communally when a young person becomes Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

c) Abolish Confirmation across the board.

d) Develop a Jewish education system (in both supplemental and day school education) where learners between the ages of 12/13-18 are taught a set of skills around critical thinking, personal integration, context framing, problem-solving, etc. all through the lens of Jewish knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviors.

e) At the age of 18 (or end of 12th-grade year), as an emerging adult is about to enter the next phase of life, institute a new ceremony. This ceremony would recognize that this young adult is about make many more independent choices about how to live Jewishly. It would allow our young Jews the opportunity to use the knowledge learned to stand publicly and share how they intend to shape their Jewish future. This ceremony would mark the moment where a young Jew moves from being born into Judaism (Brit of Fate) to actually choosing Judaism (Brit of Faith).

This idea of moving from Brit of Fate to Brit of Faith was concretized for me a few years ago when I co-authored a curriculum with Rabbi Michael Shulman in which we framed for our teen learners that being born Jewish isn’t enough. That each one of us has to actively CHOOSE Judaism and when we do, we move from just being born a Jew (Brit of Fate) to the Brit of Faith.  On August 17, 2010, I posted this link on my personal Facebook page:

Several years ago, I wrote a retreat curriculum for Brit of Fate to Brit of Faith based off of another curriculum (same name) I co-authored with Rabbi Michael Shulman. This article in Huffington Post (Who’s a Jew? Redefining Jewish Identity for the 21st Century) brings similar issues to light.

One of the cornerstone pieces of the modified curriculum, is from the concept that a child converted to Judaism at birth (or as a young child) is offered the option to opt-out before his/her b’nei mitzvah. The main discussion of conversion of minors in the Talmud is in Ketubot 11a and the conclusion of the discussion is, “R. Joseph said, ‘When they (converted minors) have become of age they can protest (against their conversion).'”

Do we really believe that a 12/13 year-old has the capacity and knowledge to make this choice?  Are you prepared to offer all young Jews the choice to opt-out prior to b’nei mitzvah? If the answer is “no”, how can we believe they are ready to “opt-in” at that age either? After studying this text,  I asked a group of 10th-12th graders if they think they would have been ready (emotionally or intellectually) to make that choice at 12/13 and they all offered a resounding “no.”

With all of this data, discussion, thinking, postulating, and framing of this issue, I wonder which Jewish education institution is going to make the first step with this bold change.  I believe wholeheartedly that if we were to take this step, we would stem the tide of post-b’nei mitzvah drop-off and that we would also change the entire culture of synagogue affiliation for the sake of “getting my child bar mitzvahed” (which incidentally is incorrect terminology).  If it’s the congregation you work with or volunteer for, and you would like to discuss this further, please feel free to contact JewishGPS.

Ramping Up

Last year, I wrote a personal blog about feeling a little lost at the Holy Days and recognizing that I needed the month of Elul to ramp up towards Rosh HaShanah so that I could be intellectually and emotionally prepared for the Holy Days.  So this year, I have been reading two things every day.

The first is a Craig’n’Co (Craig Taubman) initiative called Jewels of Elul.  You can sign up for a daily email, each written by a different inspiring Jew, and have it delivered right to your inbox.  Some days it’s a poem, others a personal journey, and others a challenging thought.  Each one ends with a reflection question of the day.

The second way I am honoring Elul is that every day I am reading a piece of the book Jewish Sages of Today. I ran across this book online one day, following links through someone’s twitter feed.  I have committed myself to reading the essays about these modern-day “sages” and considering the work they do, the message they send, and what I am doing to embody those messages.

Each day, you can following my Elul musings on my Twitter feed (located in the right-side column of the blog), or by directly following me on Twitter, or on the JewishGPS Facebook page.

Wishing each of you a meaningful Elul.


In the beginning … I am not even sure where to begin.  But know that “AND IT WAS GOOD!” will be a part of the story.

Last Fall, I knew I was going to be facing a career transition and consulted with a trusted friend/mentor on an idea I had.  When I asked myself, “If you can do anything, what would it be?”, I came up with two answers:  Get a doctorate and start my own consulting business.  The adviser encouraged me to start with a three-year plan, to outline the challenges or barriers to success, to engage in some research on both the education and the business, and to give myself permission to pursue this idea.

While the path has had a few dangerous curves it hasn’t had any dead ends. In April 2010, I started an EdD in Jewish Education Leadership and on July 1, 2010 I filed LLC paperwork for my new consulting agency JewishGPS, LLC.  I am quite sure that the future holds some bumps in the road and might even have some detours in store for me, but I am confident that I am on the right path. The journey ahead is destined to be a wild ride.

Some might say that this does not follow the traditional career path, and I agree. When I was in 5th grade, my teacher required us to memorize a collection of Robert Frost poems.  At the time, I resented the task.  Years later, when I was in college, I came back across a quote from one of those poems, The Road not Taken.  From it, I have taken my favorite quote, and in many ways the inspiration for how I live my life:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

I look forward to meeting you somewhere along the way.

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