The recent reports of women being dragged from the Kotel — the Western Wall — while Torah scrolls were ripped from their hands and subjected to other tactics of intimidation and force by the Israeli police are unnerving, to say the least, to read and listen to. Israel is indeed a modern democracy with a state religion, Ultra-Orthodox Judaism. It is not the only contemporary democratic state with an official religion. Americans unaccustomed to overt state sanctioned religion may find it incomprehensible that instruments of the state would enforce the rules, practices and customs of a religious sect yet this is commonplace in many countries.
David Landau in a Haaretz opinion piece argued that non-Israeli Jewry protesting the enforcement of Israel’s state religion at the Kotel is nothing short of libelous by portraying Israel as a country mired in medieval-isms and religious obscurantism. He asked those who protest Israel’s actions at the Kotel to consider what the state response would be to someone performing non-Catholic worship at the Vatican or Catholic worship at the Diocese of Canterbury in England.
Landau’s argument though only extends to a certain point. Yes, the state would enforce the normative religious practice of the state religion in institutions or buildings that represent that state religion. However, the state would also simultaneously enforce the rights of the protesters acting out in civil disobedience at those sites. The harassment and physical violence inflicted upon the protesters would be prosecuted to at least the same extent as those doing the protesting would be held accountable. It is a basic right of modern democracy to protest and the modern democratic state has as much responsibility to protect the integrity of the legally recognized status quo as it does to protect the well-being of those who disobey it.
This, however, is not the entire point. If we seek to compare and contrast Israel’s treatment of the complex situation at the Kotel with that of other modern polities with a state religion and stop there we will have missed the full picture. Israel is not just a modern democratic state with an official religion, it is also a Jewish state and as such it bears a unique prism by which to view this issue.
Jewish civilization throughout history has not been known for its architecture nor its artwork. Indeed, a traditional Biblical injunction exists proscribing many forms of art. (Nonetheless, Jews throughout history and contemporary times have designed art not conforming to that injunction but a full discussion of that topic is beyond the scope of this post.) Jewish civilization is known for two primary contributions to the wealth of human development: a culture of ideas and a society of engagement with the Divine.
Our buildings do not define us. It is our books and our relationship with God that has been the hallmark defining characteristic of the Jewish story. We do not venerate places; we appreciate the potential that a place has for furthering our religious, spiritual and/or intellectual growth. This is true even when it comes to the greatest and most significant Jewish building project ever undertaken, not once but twice, the Temple in Jerusalem, of which the present-day Kotel is but a retaining outer wall of the Second Temple complex. It wasn’t the Temple building that made the Temple holy, it was the profundity of that space and the power of the rituals performed therein that infused it with holiness. When the Temple leadership become corrupt and when the Jewish people drifted far away from the principles and ideals that it represented it was destroyed.
Thus, perhaps the most critical problem that this Kotel quandary presents is that there is a Kotel quandary in the first place. To acknowledge that the Kotel presents the potential for holiness is absolutely clear. Yet, the politics of power and of control and the perspective that the Kotel itself is vested with a singular ability to intensify our prayers and meditations before God is bordering on idolatry. Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a seminal Orthodox Israeli public intellectual, declared shortly after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war that brought the Temple Mount under Israeli control, that the Kotel should be transformed into a disco or as he called it a Diskotel because he astutely understood the grave possibility that Jews would begin to worship the Kotel instead of God.
So instead of battling for various religious outcomes for the Kotel: status quo, three partitions (men, women and mixed), no partitions, timeshare model, etc., let us throw our hands up in the air and dance. Let us go back to the business of being Jewish: wrestling with ideas and with God and let us stop wrestling over a wall.
Yesterday was a big day for our family. My daughter graduated from college. She was the fourth of our five children (in our blended family) to graduate with academic honors. The youngest, now a college junior, is headed there. It was a day for all the pride that parents feel at college graduation. I couldn’t wipe the memory of her pre-school graduation out of my mind as I watched this poised, beautiful young woman in cap and gown take her place in front of the audience as she was recognized for her accomplishments. She told of her areas of academic interest in her double major of Comparative Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies and was applauded for it. Her yellow cord hanging down the front of her academic gown announced her achievement for high grades. Her Phi Betta Kappa pin completed the outfit. Her modest smile was the same as the one she wore on the day of her pre-school graduation, and I teared up.
I’m not telling you this to brag. My daughter’s achievements were well earned; she worked very hard for four years. In fact, she worked hard for the 12 years before that too. She had earned this moment of pride. It belongs to her.
Her favorite professor told me softly how wonderful my daughter is. “She is really talented. She is such a great thinker, with wonderful questions, and she writes so well! I’m watching her.” I asked her if she had discussed future pursuits with my daughter, and she enthusiastically reveled in being an advisor to my daughter. She hastened to add that she would stay in touch and continue to be there for her.
We – parents and professors — had all done our best to give my daughter (and all of our kids) the tools to succeed as learners. She grew up in a home that valued education, one filled with books, journals and discussions. She was encouraged and supported, including our commitment to pay for her undergraduate education, as we did for each of our children. I realize that we were blessed with the ability to do this, even though it was not easy (this is a story for another day.) I was determined that my children should not have to struggle to be educated as I had when my parents didn’t provide for my education. We encouraged our kids to study subjects that interested them – to engage with the world through the ideas, questions and knowledge that would fill them with possibilities and prepare them to chart their future.
Our family’s Jewish values had taught us the value of learning. The primary tool for Jewish engagement is the discursive nature of Talmud study. Our sages of the early generation of the Talmud spoke repeatedly of the importance of learning; for example, exhorting us to, “Acquire for yourself a teacher.” (Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:6)
There is a lot of talk these days about a perceived failure of a liberal arts education to prepare young adults for careers in the real world. Many twenty-somethings are un- and underemployed. It is a frightening problem for a parent of three young adult children who relish their learning in the humanities. But yesterday I remembered why I encouraged my kids to pursue their interests. As my daughter’s professor reminded me, the ability to ask good questions, the interest to pursue knowledge and the skills to organize and integrate thoughts and write well are significant life skills for success in any pursuit.
Yesterday’s front-page story in the New York Times documented, in sad detail, the sharp decline in public funding for college education and the enormous burden of student debt that has become a national crisis. The problems are vast and deep: the cost of college education is rising faster than is sustainable; it is becoming unaffordable for most Americans. Americans families will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the investment – sadly, many who are burdened by sizable student loans are already proof of this. Without a doubt, our country needs structural change. We must recover our foundations as a nation that offers opportunity for all.
I celebrate the blessing that education offered my children and me. Congratulations to the class of 2012 – our future leaders, teachers, and great minds. There is no telling what you will accomplish. Don’t let our nation off the hook – it is our responsibility to preserve what we taught you – that education shapes our future, together.
I recently made my first exploratory college visit with my high school aged son. My initial reaction during the tour of this elite liberal arts college was the same as my visit to an Israeli army post a few years ago: “God help us! We’re screwed if our future is entirely dependent on the success of these highly-libidinal teens and twenty-somethings.” The truth is, I loved the small campus, the 1:10 ratio of professors to students, as well as the personalized study programs that they offered. For almost $50K per year my kid would get access to great professors, small class sizes, incredible opportunities for selective, character-shaping internships, plus free-massages, and, get this, puppies in the quad to relieve stress during finals week. As our sophomore Theater Arts major tour guide said, “because who doesn’t love puppies.”
It was easy to picture my kid there, thriving, making life-long friends, generally “becoming”. Sadly, the $50K/year price tag only gave me slight pause. It should have stop me dead in my tracks, but it didn’t. Why not?
First, I was told by our college guidance office that “you just can’t tell what a college’s real cost will be” until you see how much scholarship and aid money they are going to give you. If they really want you, a private college tuition can sometimes even be less than a state school’s (so I’m told). So, why not apply to the schools you really want to go, and then deal with the money part latter?
Second, I’ve bought into the idea that your child doesn’t need to go to the best school she can get into, but to the college that fits her best. What’s the point of going to college if your kid will just be miserable there. Can he thrive there if he feels lost? Won’t she learn more, and live better, in the near future and even well into adulthood if she builds a strong foundation during her first foray in independence? And, how can she do that if the coursework is so overwhelming that she can hardly breath?
Third, and I know that this will sound simultaneously idiotic and self-serving and high-minded, I don’t really care about money, what I care about is people. Can I afford NOT to make a strong investment in the people I love? Apparently after reaching the Jewish age of wisdom (40), and after collecting almost $200K in graduate school debt between my wife and myself, I haven’t learned a damn thing. I have figured out that my student loans might finally get paid off when my youngest kid finishes graduate school. If he goes. If it still makes sense to still go to graduate school in a decade. [My sense is that educational life is changing so rapidly that it’s too hard to accurately predict what is or isn’t necessary to “make it” in the near future.]
Alas, such is the disconnected-from-reality mindset of a parent raised in the 80′s and 90′s, an era so seemingly prosperous that even though I know better it is hard to fathom that this “economic down-turn” can last much longer. Intellectually I believe that we’ve likely got almost a decade of unravelling to go and perhaps a full generation to recover from as a nation.
Reading Jefferey Eugenides The Marriage Plot (it should have won him a second Pulitzer) and watching the new HBO series Girls (working with high schoolers and only have sons, I found the first two episodes so mesmerizingly current and concerning that my wife had to remind me that it was a comedy) I am reminded that college does not guarantee a successful “launch”:
“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think, I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation… Okay, all I’m asking to finish this book is $1100 a month for two years.” (Girls character, Hannah Horvath, to her parents who are cutting her off after two years at an unpaid internship).
I believe that the desire for our kids to “just be happy” is a relatively new phenomenon, no more than one or two generations old. It was not so long ago that parents just wanted their kids to “make it,” to survive. Once the relative risk of survival diminished, a new goal came into play – happiness, and happiness, as an end in itself, has brought for many a wave of depression, an eclipse of the holy dimension, and a deadening sense of total relativism in all aspects of life. It’s the difference between living for something larger than the self (think God and country) verse the living for one’s ego.
The Talmud provides a short template of parents’ obligations to their children:
“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well,” (Talmud Kidushin 29a).
The brief checklist suggests that one must provide for the spiritual as well as physical well-being of one’s children. Circumcision (brit milah), redemption of the first born (pidyon haben), and the study of Torah all sustain the soul, while finding a spouse, learning a trade and swimming speak to the physical survival of one’s children. We could also read into the list temporal (physical, this-worldly )and eternal (heavenly) survival.
Could the right college possibly provide my son with spiritual and physical fulfillment? Is that what I’m hoping for?
In the recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa question what it is that undergraduates are really learning, and how exactly we would know:
In a typical semester … 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.
Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.
Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor?
Remember Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know, I Learned in Kindergarten? I’ve always found the title apt. I would add, and if you didn’t learn it in kindergarten, don’t worry, it’s on the web! If the findings of Academically Adrift are correct, than wouldn’t it be absurd to spend something approaching $50K/year if my kid wouldn’t really learn anything? I don’t expect my son’s intellect to grow considerably; he’s already smart enough (smarter than I, the real measure between fathers and sons). It’s not the money either, though according to the Wall Street Journal college grads should still expect a considerable pay bump over high school grads, between $450K to $1 million over a lifetime. I’ve been so deep in debt because of my own student loans that such numbers feel like Monopoly money.
What I really want in a college for my son are “mastery experiences” that build him up and opportunities that will deepen his understanding of the world and of his place in it. College is not the only place finding one’s causes and path in life can happen, and there are no assurances in the calculation, but as it stands right now, college still seems like the best bet, besides, who knows, there may be puppies.
As a rabbi and teacher, I teach many different subjects with students from preschool toddlers to lifelong learning adults. Admittedly, I am concerned with what I know and what I need to learn to present a coherent and well-formed lesson. I focus on curriculum and on values clarification. I am committed to sharpening my skills and techniques, my presentations and my mode of communication. I convey joy and passion. Yet, according to our ultimate educator, Dr. Palmer, I have only just begun the teacher’s journey.
The public discourse about Jewish education reform has given birth to many innovative and often highly creative solutions to the Hebrew afternoon school of the twenty first century. We have been rewriting curriculum, revising textbooks, and restructuring the very foundation of synagogue learning.
However, the Jewish community of educators and administrators have paid little attention to the heart and soul of good teaching: the teacher!
A teacher needs the support of educational institutions who can provide the environment
for spiritual growth that teachers need to develop the self that teaches.
Teachers need mentors who are dedicated to that teacher’s soul and spiritual development. Teachers need partners in the dance of teaching who will not only lead but will guide the young dancer in the movement towards their authentic self.
We in the Jewish community have been focused on “performance” and how we look
in the classroom, rather than creating a living classroom of integrity where teacher and
student are connected to the truth of their Jewish identity, where the personal and the
public come together and a new role model is revealed.
Are we creating the kind of community that is centered on the capacity for connectedness
among the students and the teachers and their parents? Are we creating relationships
that are truthful and whole, caring and candid?
“All real living is meeting,” said Martin Buber, and teaching is an endless meeting of the self
in every classroom we enter.
Perhaps it is time we had the courage to create communities of learning with teachers who are themselves creating an inner landscape of hope, heart and wholeness.
Last year, just before Chanukah, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman came to me for some assistance. Her four-year-old daughter had come home from school and asked her to explain the meaning of Chanukah. Although the reporter had grown up in New York City and had many Jewish friends, she didn’t feel equipped to adequately answer the question. She also realized that if she felt this way, there certainly must be others with a similar lack of “Chanukah knowledge.” That’s where I came in; the reporter asked me to write a piece that would help well-meaning, culturally curious parents answer their children’s questions. Here’s what I wrote:
My 6-year-old daughter, Noa, was particularly thrilled by Chanukah last year. She became more excited each night, as the number of candles we lit increased. The last night was enthralling, as she set each candle in the menorah that stood next to the window in our living room.
Chanukah (meaning dedication) comes at the darkest point of the year, waking us from our apathy and reminding us to be in awe of all of the small and large wonders in our lives. In the darkest of days, we have the amazing capacity to bring light — to bring goodness and peace — to those we encounter.
We light a menorah in our window for eight nights, adding one candle each night so that by the final night we have all eight candles and the helper candle, used to light the others (called the shamash), sparkling through the glass. By lighting the candles in the window, we don’t merely retain our light — rather, we shine it out onto the world.
But why the eight nights and eight candles? The story of Chanukah is one to which we can all relate.
It is the story of the small and righteous winning out over the large oppressive forces in the world. In 165 B.C.E., after discrimination, forced assimilation and violence, a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, won religious freedom from the large Hellenistic Assyrian army, led by the King Antiochus.
The rabbis responsible for writing the Talmud centuries later, who were living in a time when a military solution to oppression was not feasible, were uncomfortable simply celebrating a military victory, and therefore emphasized a more spiritual dimension with the legend of the oil. We are told that after the war, when the Maccabees went to rededicate our temple, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet, amazingly, this small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for our people to acquire more oil. Similar to Judah Maccabee’s tiny army, the small amount of oil would not dissipate.
Today, we eat special fried foods that symbolize the miracle of the oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. We also play a game called dreidel. Each side of this unique top is engraved with a letter symbolizing the line “A great miracle happened there.”
Traditionally, teachers were paid during Chanukah in gelt (coins), and therefore it also has become customary for children (and adults!) to enjoy chocolate Chanukah gelt.
Whatever story we choose to tell our children — whether it is one of victory over oppression or of miraculous oil — the essential message is the same. Sometimes life is rough. Sometimes people are mean, hurting us and getting us down. Yet, in the end, goodness will win out.
We all have a powerful inner light — represented by the candles of the menorah. It is our job — even in the darkest of days — to remain dedicated to allowing our light to shine bright, illuminating our world and bringing us to a better tomorrow.
My husband spent Sunday afternoon at a NY Jets football game with his buddy, Dan. He told me about a scene two rows in front of them that left him shaking his head. A dad who was accompanied by two young sons watched the game intently while his younger son (maybe six years old or so) stood on his seat facing the stadium audience with his back to the field for three quarters of the game. While the stadium entertainment crew tried to whip up the crowd with cheers and chants, the child raised his arms to the crowd to be a combination cheerleader/conductor. He was having a great time.
My husband reported that the dad was both tolerant and amused by this activity. Yet, my husband wondered: why did the dad bother bringing the kid, when he wasn’t really engaged by the football game?
I viewed this differently. It didn’t matter that the child wasn’t watching football – his experience was fun. He will come away with a warm feeling of having spent a fun day with his dad, and memories of the stadium being a welcoming place to spend a Sunday afternoon.
So it goes in life. We each find our way through the experiences that are imposed on us as children through the pathways most appealing to our tastes and interests. We may not necessarily do or learn what is expected of us, but as long as we can have compelling experiences, we come away with warm and positive memories. On a certain level it doesn’t matter if we didn’t fit into the pre-assigned pegs, as long as we were comfortable and conversant enough in the experience to come back for more.
It seems to me that this reflects on our model of Jewish education. We are so content-driven; we can miss the value of memory and experience. For all kinds of good reasons, the typical Jewish school endeavors to “educate” our students with as much Jewish knowledge as we can cram into the short space of time we are given with our students.
But maybe that model of Jewish learning is backwards. What if, instead of assuming that enough Jewish knowledge will secure our children’s Jewish future, we focus on the quantity and quality of their Jewish experiences? And what if we conceived of those experiences not as “pegs” into which we must squeeze each learner to make them come out “right,” we observe them to see what adventures they can find in the experiences we enable for them.
So what if the child stands on the chair backwards and cheers with the crowd and doesn’t watch football? Perhaps he will settle down to watch the game when he is older, and he is happily at home in the stadium because of his early experiences. Perhaps he may not even come to love football like his dad, but he will carry forever the warm memory of being with his dad on those cold fall game days.
So what if a child’s favorite part of being in synagogue is the experience of being part of a community that is engaging and fun? As children grow older they can settle into their seats to learn the why’s and how’s of Jewish behaviors. Maybe they won’t grow up to want to be engaged in all the same ways as their parents, but they will be at home and comfortable and happy enough to want to learn more.
We’ve had this debate for years – how to do Jewish education in America. But all the studies support what this child at the football game demonstrated – experience matters. And the learner is central to the experience. Good Jewish camps provide this opportunity. So should our other vehicles for Jewish learning.
Last week I participated with RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) in their annual conference. We spent half a day on the Lower East Side of New York City doing a geo-locating game, using a new iPhone app that guides participants through a walking tour of the historical sites of the area, while enjoying the tastes and landscapes of the neighborhood. Visionary educator David Bryfman of the Jewish Education Project gave us a window into new possibilities outside the classroom setting. We spent a morning learning at Behrman House about the use of an online classroom to create fun, learner-driven experiences.
It’s the tip of the iceberg – we need so much more. But if the child who cheers with the crowd loves the stadium experience, and the child who dines on Gus’s pickles and Yonah Schimmel’s knishes tastes the history of Jewish immigration and leaves wanting more, we’ve done an awful lot. And that’s a good bit more than happens in most Jewish education classrooms.