Friday, April 24, 2009

A New Group of "Wanna-Be's"

A colleague and I are preparing for a new class of people who are thinking “maybe-I-wanna-be-a-Jewish-teacher.” The Lay Educators Institute (LEI) is funded in part by our local Federation.

This group will differ from the one we taught last fall primarily because none of the participants are currently teaching. Consequently, they won’t have an opportunity to mesh theory (what we present) and practice immediately.

Another difference is the class framework. Instead of 6 classes of two hours each, we’ll be teaching 4 classes of three hours each.

A final difference is that the participants won’t know each other (because they’re not working together) before the class begins and they won’t be able to share with each other or reflect on their classroom experience together between sessions.

It’ll be interesting to see how the group evolves.

When my colleague and I met earlier this week to plan, we began as we hope to teach our participants to begin: We began with the “Big Idea.” What is it, we asked ourselves, that we want the participants to come away from these classes with; what’s the most important thing they should know?

Ultimately, we decided on a couple of “Big Ideas.”

  • We want them to know that teaching is all about relationships – the relationships they form with their students; the relationship they develop within themselves as a result of getting to know themselves better.

  • We want them to know that being able to articulate a “big idea” for their year, their unit, and their individual class is the cornerstone of effective planning/teaching. Without the “big idea,” the rest simply doesn’t hang together well or consistently.

  • We want them to know that “reflective practice” (the ability to stop and self-assess) will make a qualitative difference in how they interact with their students.
Then we made some key decisions about how we would get there.
  1. Instead of “telling,” we will do: learning will be interactive, incorporating different learning strategies and incorporating a variety of techniques.

  2. We will provide a wide variety of handouts, with multiple handouts on the same topic. Our goal is to present the same information through different “voices” in order to help them find a voice that speaks to them.

  3. At the end of each class, we will “stop action” and delineate clearly what we did, the big ideas behind our choices, the strategies we used – and offer participants an opportunity to critique our effectiveness.
I’m psyched:
*I value the opportunity to teach with this colleague: we bring out the best in each other.
*It’ll be fun to change things and shake the learning up a bit.
*I love the opportunity to work with adults who want to make a difference in the lives of our kids.

Stay tuned!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Liberating Oneself

Part 4 of 4...

I. When people are slaves, they do what they’re told. Doing more than what you’re told to do may result in punishment; doing less that what you’re told will certainly result in punishment. Compare and contrast that behavior to the behaviors free people exhibit.

II. When you find yourself in a new situation (for example, in a new class or on a new team)
  • do you find yourself worried about what the teacher or the coach expects of you?
  • How do you figure out what those expectations are?
  • If the limits seem too narrowly drawn, how do you respond?
  • If the limits are very broad, how do you respond?
  • Are you more comfortable when you know EXACTLY what the teacher wants; or do you prefer more flexibility the work you are able to do?

What insights do these questions provide for you in recognizing the challenges the Israelites faced in becoming “free” thinkers and do-ers?

III. Looking back over some experiences you’ve had, do you value more the things that you learned to do that came easily to you, or the things that you had to work at? What if all your experiences came so easily that you didn’t have to exert any effort at all? What if all of them seemed so difficult as to be insurmountable?

IV. Do you have a vision of the type of Jewish adult you'd like to become?

  • What values will you adopt as core values -- those that will guide your decision-making?
  • In order to reach that definition of self, what shackles will you need to liberate yourself from or what barriers will you need to overcome?
  • How will you know when you're on your way towards becoming the person you want to be?
  • What milestones along the way might you acknowledge or celebrate?

In the Haggadah, we read "B'chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k'ilu yatza mi'Mitzrayim / In each generation, everyone must think of himself or herself as having personally left Egypt."

Many time, I believe that the questions we push ourselves to ask are more important than the answers we reach.

Chag Sameach. Happy Holiday.

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Part 3 of 4...

At many Sederim (ritual meals to celebrate the holiday of Passover) one of the most enthusiastically-rendered songs is Dayeinu. In Hebrew, the rough translation of the word means, "It would have been enough!" The melody is lively - the chorus repeats and even young children frequently chime in.

Ilu hotsi, hotsianu,
hotsianu mimitsrayim,
hotsianu mimitsrayim,

Had God brought us out of Egypt, and not supported us in the wilderness,
It would have been enough!

Chorus: Da, dayeinu! (3X)
Dayeinu! Dayeinu!

It would have been enough!

Ilu natan, natan lanu,
natan lanu et hashabbat,
natan lanu et hashabbat,

Had God given us the Sabbath and not the Torah
It would have been enough!

Ilu natan, natan lanu,
natan lanu et hatorah,
natan lanu et hatorah,

Had God given us the Torah and not brought us to the land of Israel
It would have been enough!

"Dayenu teaches us to switch from the mentality of always wanting more to being grateful for what we have." (Source: A Family Haggadah II; Shoshana Silberman; Kar-Ben Copies; 1997).

I. When it comes to goal setting, so often we focus on the ultimate goal and forget to acknowledge or celebrate the steps along the way. When tasks seem too overwhelming, organizational and time-management experts counsel us to break the task into smaller steps. This helps prevent a sense of being paralyzed by the enormity of the task.

In your own life, identify some steps worth celebrating on a goal you are working towards.

II. What are some things in your life that you are grateful for? How can you incorporate a sense of mindfulness for those things into your daily life?

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Part 2 of 4...

What does it mean to have a questioning personality?

Have you ever had a really great teacher, a teacher who loved your questions, whom you could always count on to at least try to answer you? It's really hard to be a wise child unless there are some wise grownups around to help you.
~Joy Levitt (p. 49)

The wicked child might not be wicked at all; perhaps she is just expressing our doubts--what is the purpose of all this trouble that you put yourself through at Pesach? Are you really working for freedom? Annoyed at someone who give voice to our own fears, we react harshly to hide our feelings. The wicked child becomes our scapegoat.
~Michael Strassfeld (p. 50)

The word tam has many connotations ranging from stupid, to simple, to innocent, to pious. How would you define this child? Is a person who asks a basic question stupid or just young or curious? Do you ever hold back from asking a question for fear that you ought to know the answer, that the question itself is too simple? In the Torah, Noah, Jacob, and Job are all called tam. Does this mean they were pious or simple?
~Joy Levitt (p. 51)

Sometimes we are silenced because we become convinced that we have nothing to contribute or that those we might address do not want to hear from us. Sometimes we are silenced because we believe that what we say will make no difference or ever perhaps may make things worse. To come out of our silence, we need to recognize that people care about us and value who we are and what we can do. Each of us is sometimes silenced, and each of us can help end the silence of others.
~David Teutsch (p. 51)

(Source: A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah; Levitt, Rabbi Joy and Strassfeld, Rabbi Michael (ed); Reconstructionist Press; Elkins Park, PA; 2007)

Rabbi Israel Salanter says, "We have all the four children in each of us." (Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom; The Rabbinical Assembly; USCJ)

I. What do you think the four different children represent?

II. How would you characterize their questions? What do you think they are really asking?

III. What are the four NEW questions that you would ask?

[Note: see my earlier posting on the "Four Generations."]

Friday, April 10, 2009


Part 1 of 4...

Exodus 1:8 A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.


1:8 who did not know Joseph He was ignorant of or indifferent to the extraordinary service that Joseph had rendered to Egypt and the crown. He did not let the information change his outlook. Through much of Jewish history, the people’s well-being depended on the goodwill of a ruler. When the leadership changed, the fortunes of the Jewish community often changed as well. Pharaoh begins by refusing to acknowledge Joseph, and later refusing to acknowledge God, saying, “Who is the LORD that I should heed Him?” [Exod. 5:21]

(Source: Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; The Rabbinical Assembly; USCJ)


I. This story begins with the statement that a new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph. For how long should someone’s meritorious contributions be remembered and affect the way his/her descendents are regarded?

Contrast this first statement with the frequent references in Jewish liturgy to the Exodus:

a. ani adonai elocheihem asher hotziti etchem mei’eretz mitzrai’im “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (v’ahavta)

b. moshe umiriam uvney yis’rael leha anu shira besimhah rabah ve’ameru hulam “Moses, Miriam, and all athe Israelites broke out in song, abundant in their joy, and all as one, they said…”(Mi Hamohah)

c. zeher li’tzi’at mitzrai’im “[remember] the Exodus from Egypt” (Kiddush)

d. mi’mitzrai’im g’altanu adonai eloheinu u’mibeit avadim f’ritanu “From Egypt you redeemed us Adonai our God, and from the house of servitude you rescued us.” (Pesukey Dezimrah, Emet Veyatziv)

Why do you think that those who compiled our siddur decided to include so many references to our Exodus from Egypt?

II. Sometimes, when we frequently recall difficult past experiences, people get impatient and tell us to “Get over it – it’s done. You have to live in the present.” Is the emphasis in these citations on the slavery experience (an admittedly “difficult” experience) or on the liberation – becoming a free people? Share some thoughts on why it could be beneficial to remember the process of becoming a free people.

(Source: Oseh Shalom "Exodus" curriculum; co-written by Rabbi Gary S. Fink and Mary F. Meyerson; © 2004)

III. Think about a difficult time in your family's history which became a watershed event -- your family's story became divided between "before [the event] and after [the event]." Has the story been retold? Has it changed in the retelling? What "lesson" did your family learn from this event? Why is it important to remember?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pesach: Putting Ourselves Into the Story

Back in the day (when I was teaching!) one spring I offered a 4 week elective for post-b'nai mitzvah students in the month leading up to Passover. It was described as an opportunity to re-examine four main themes of Passover:
  • Remembering
  • Questioning
  • Appreciating
  • Liberating Oneself

As I was engaged in my pre-Passover preparations this year, I found myself thinking about these themes once again.

Beginning tomorrow - and for the next four days -- I'll reprise some of the notes from my lesson preparations.

Hope they resonate for you, too.

Chag Pesach Sameach/ Happy Passover.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Four Generations

An Adaptation of "The Four Children"
This was the interpretive reading we used the Passover that was the last one we had with my mother-in-law. I wish I could remember where I got it, but I don't. I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I do.
The Torah commands parents to tell the Passover story to their children. The traditional Haggadah talks about the four types of children, with different questions and attitudes about Passover and Judaism.

Tonight, as we share our table and our tradition with generations of our family, we have adapted the questions for four generations.

The future generation asks, “What will I inherit?” While each future generation will have to make its own commitments, if we could speak to them, we would say, we will preserve the Order of the Seder and the wisdom of our fathers and mothers for you. We would say to this generation, “We will keep alive the message of the Haggadah about the nature of freedom and justice, and about the need to act to make the world a better place for generations to come.”

The children’s generation asks, “What does all of this mean to me? What of myself will I bring to the Seder? How shall I maintain and add to my tradition?” In doing so, this child commits himself or herself to our community. Say to this child, “We are thankful that you are fully here. Be assured, because you sing and read and drink and eat with us, you will know and you will add to the meaning of the Seder. Take confidence from your presence here.”

The parents’ generation says, “Where have we come from?” We have merged from the ashes of the Holocaust, seen the birth of Israel, the release of Jews from Russia and Ethiopia, the shattering of the Communist empire, the re-emergence of hate and bigotry in a hundred forms. We have struggled with our own concepts of Judaism.” Tell this generation, “You are celebrating and learning because you are now free. Because you have struggled with your tradition and have enriched it with your selves, it will last as a gift to your children and your children’s children.”

And what about the grandparents, whose question is almost too difficult to ask? “What have we accomplished?” To the grandparents, you shall say, “Look around the table. All of this…. and more.”

“And the old shall dream dreams and the youth shall see visions
And our hopes will rise to the sky
We must live for today, we must build for tomorrow
Give us time, give us strength, give us life”
~Debbie Friedman