Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oh dear, what is happening to our Jewish Educational Institutions?

Oh dear, what is happening to our Jewish Educational Institutions?

I have worked in the field of Jewish Education for thirty five years. I have seen so many developments during that time; for a long time, many of these changes were positive and exciting. When I began my position as Educational/Youth Director for a large synagogue early in my career thirty years ago, I promised myself that I would create a meaningful viable Jewish community and the experiences that the students, teachers, family and all vested members would have within that community that I would work hard to facilitate would be different … different from the staid, programmed experience I had experienced in my younger years – you know the days when you walked in the house with the SAME book that your mother used in Hebrew school and this was a GOOD thing! I do feel that I was successful and still run into people from that chapter of my life, including the friendships I have maintained since then, and we speak with love and fond memories of that time. I was feeling good as I moved from that experience on to others and really was heartened by the fact that I am my colleagues were making profound differences in the field of Jewish education – in Central Agencies, afternoon school systems, day schools, formal and informal settings, and so forth.

Those were also the years of a wonderful organization called the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), which became, among other things, the annual watering hole for creative Jewish educators, those who were challenging boundaries and barriers in everything from how one teaches and transmits information to the very definitions of what it means to be Jewish, observant and so many other things. Together, we shared our dreams and hopes for our communities in our fishbowl on random university campuses in this country as well as Israel and during the year, we tried to actualize some of those dreams and hopes – in our various settings in all our denominational groupings. These were indeed heady and exciting times for a Jewish educator that wanted to make a profound difference in the larger world of Jewish education, and then….

Here I sit, in 2010, disillusioned and extremely disappointed. Several of my wonderful colleagues – some of the most creative, committed Jews and passionate people I have ever met – are no longer in the ranks of Jewish education. Others languish in institutions that no longer dream and move towards a vision – not the way we used to. Too often, this profession and the communities that support it have eaten up their best and thrown them to the curb. How sad and depressing. CAJE ran its course for many reasons though there are a few hearty souls trying to restart it. I do have some intermittent contact with wonderful colleagues from different settings in which we meet – often in Israel or as parents of children that are friends of my children and choose and go to the same University communities where committed Jewish kids feel comfortable and validated. But we all share a feeling of the passing of an era. Yes, to be sure, there are wonderful schools out there, fabulous communities to be found, and people who are still excited about what they are doing…. But, the reality is that many of the communities in which I have worked as a consultant through the years have lost their own dreams and sense of future vision. I definitely see and feel this where I live.

In my own larger Jewish community in which three of our four children went through the day schools that we have and graduated, our fourth child, a wonderful, insightful, Jewishly committed 14 year old that exudes a sense of integrity and respect, attends public school due to the fact that he needs to be in an institution in which people treat each other with respect and the vision is shared, and he and those with whom he learns as well as those that teach and lead them have a sense in which direction they are moving. Sadly, we had to pull him out of day schools for reasons of compromised personal safety, not even considering what were increasing profound academic concerns.

I note that Financial Managers, COO’s and CEO’s are now more important in our educational institutions than seasoned, capable and experienced Jewish educators in too many cases. I have often heard statements to the effect that “I do not understand. This school used to have a vision and a soul. Now it is a business, one that is supposed to make money.” A business that is supposed to make money?! What happened to the days when our schools and educational institutions were known to be our loss leaders in the supermarket of Jewish agencies and institutions? This was our investment in our future – created an educated, excited, able Jewish population and they WILL be our wonderful leaders of tomorrow. The buildings may not have been the best and various aspects of the institution not state-of-the-art, but the places in which such learning occurred were often happy, soulful and nurturing venues. In the past year and a half, so many day schools have closed, programs that were dedicated to the professional enrichment of seasoned educators terminated, tuitions for day school education are now being compared to “other private schools in the area” and many families are forced out of this option, afternoon programs are more watered down than ever, there are less vehicles for shared visioning, and there are lots of granted dollars being spent on….., well, state-of-the-art technology and beautiful buildings and I am not sure what, too often. What has happened?

In our Orthodox community as is the case elsewhere, we have many more public school families than one might expect. Families acknowledge having to compromise on many things they believe (not to mention choking their family budget considerably) and “close their eyes” so that they can send their children to day school, and in these schools there are behaviors and occurrences that would NEVER be acceptable on any level in my son’s public school (back to that matter of personal safety).

What is wrong with this picture? Someone might say it is a personal reaction (even ranting) BUT I am most certainly not the only one with this story. None of my children will even consider going into Jewish education as a profession – the work which I felt so passionately about for so long. Years ago, I was so in love with my work, I desperately wanted at least one of them to continue and move into this path. Now, in 2010, I no longer feel this way. Some time ago, an older and beloved colleague once said to me, “I do not envy you, Sunnie. This was a great profession for me; so much is changing I am not sure what it will be for you.” For many years I disagreed respectfully with her as I was so excited and invigorated by my work. Now, I think she was prophetic. How sad!

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Power and Challenge of Community and the Spirit that Guides It

The Power and Challenge of Community and the Spirit that Guides It

We in our worldwide Jewish community just celebrated Purim, for which the story is told in the last chronological chapter of the Tanach. We always note, as we read the Megilah, that G-d’s name seems to be eerily absent in this story. We all know of the accounts of how scrolls of Megilat Esther were used to wrap other scrolls and texts of Torah when they had to be saved in times of terror, such as the Holocaust precisely because of the absence of the name of G-d in its words and verses. Ironically, while this particular narrative of Jewish existence and survival was used as packing material, the fact is that G-d was truly protecting all of the texts that were being shielded in this special covering; just as G-d is always there for us, whether perceived directly or not. This was as it should be, and as it was in the story of Esther itself in which there are many screens through which the power of G-d comes through and gives fortitude to the community G-d was guiding. Whether found in the very name of Esther, in the many times the word Melech is used, the notion that the saving power for the Jews will come from another place – mimakom acher – or even in special encoded pesukim, we generally agree that G-d was clearly present throughout the saga that we just read this past week.

While one has to look for and acknowledge that G-d is found in the personae, actions and events of this chapter of Jewish history at some point in the fourth century b.c.e.; on the other end of the spectrum, G-d’s name appears constantly in the beginning of Bereshit. One cannot miss G-d’s direct and obvious presence in the formative stages of our existence as a universe and a human community. G-d has to act directly upon every aspect of Creation as G-d is alone and without partner. In fact, many take the entirety of the Biblical narrative as the story of how G-d comes to partner with the human being individually and ultimately with the human community that the individuals build collectively with G-d guiding them.

In this week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, appearing towards the end of Sefer Shemot, we read about a census that is taken as all members of the community prepare to act and function as a complete unit, with a Mishkan, leadership of its Kohanim, laws in place and so much else that has been accomplished in their arduous and adventurous journey on the way to becoming the Jewish people. As we consider this narrative which is set during the years between the leaving of Egypt and taking on the responsibility of forging a group identity in preparation for living in their own promised land of Eretz Yisrael, we note the need for the B’nai Yisrael to become a functioning community, with a sense of independence and confidence. Yet, we also see in this Parsha that this is not to be – not at this point anyway.

In one of the saddest tales to date in our Torah readings, we read the narrative of the Egel HaZahav, which represents a test taken and failed, and the resulting loss of community strength and its need for rebuilding. As we read about the perceived absence of G-d by people, we must sadly admit that they are not yet ready for the independence that they would need to take as they moved into their destined future.

As we read this difficult text about the power and the potential of the group, we are also confronted with the problematic nature of group mentality. In the beginning of Chapter 32 of Shemot, we are told

א וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּֽאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֨נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ: ב וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי: ג וַיִּֽתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כָּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹֽן: ד וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּֽעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

Roughly translated, we read as follows:

And the nation saw that Moshe delayed coming down from the mountain and they gathered and pounced on Aaron. They said to him, “Get up and make for us a god that will go before us, because this man, Moshe, that brought us up from the land of Egypt left and we have no idea where he is. We need direction! So, Aaron said to them, “Take the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me. The people removed these rings of gold that were in their ears and they brought them to Aaron. Aaron took them from their hands and put them together and created for them a golden calf (egel masecha). They said, “This is your G-d Israel that has brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

The B’nai Yisrael feel that they have been abandoned. Where is G-d? Where is Moshe? Who will lead them in the perceived absence of their leaders? Who will teach and guide them through the coming challenges they will no doubt face? They are afraid and in that fear, the very sense of balance and understanding of who they are as a group is also absent.

What is the purpose of group? It is meant to strengthen and validate who we are. Its raison d’etre is to provide a forum for a collective of people with shared values and beliefs to move forward. Here the group fails, the community falters. Aaron knows this and obviously while many commentators try to figure out why exactly he plays along with this sham, perhaps he hopes to show the B’nai Yisrael how immature they really are, needing a physical, albeit false, representation of the power that guides them.

Note that while G-d is always here, covering and protecting the group with G-d’s protective nature, direct leadership is invested in others – in Aaron, and in Moshe. The B’nai Yisrael have matured and are continuing to do so, even through these obvious setbacks. They were supposed to take responsibility and do their part as well as acknowledge that G-d’s presence may be more nuanced but there at all times, nonetheless.

Here is where they failed. G-d is, until today, seen in the actions and motivations of human beings according to many theologians and Jewish thinkers across the spectrum of belief. We question and we wrestle with G-d individually and as a community, but we try to remember that as in Megilat Esther, G-d is always there, to be perceived through the many screens in our lives. Hopefully, we have progressed significantly since the generation of the Egel HaZahav and do not need to revert to a shallow and false physical presence to indicate this, no matter what challenges we face as individuals or as a group.