Monday, December 9, 2013


Most students would say that school—secular school or religious school—is boring.

That may be no surprise to anyone. School subjects just aren’t as interesting as, say, the Kardashians.

What is surprising is that students say that school is often more boring than it needs to be. In other words, that we make it boring.

Grant Wiggins, the co-originator of the Understanding By Design approach that we use in some classes, surveyed students about this and then asked classroom teachers to have students write essays about what makes school boring. Students cited the same common practices over and over.

The most boring practice, according to students, is one that doesn’t affect my school: the misuse of PowerPoint. Making PowerPoint presentations is too time-consuming to do for a single class session. It appeals more to teachers who will give the same class five times in one day and repeat it every year.

Students thought that PowerPoint was useful when a presentation needed to include non-verbal content such as visual images or film clips. They said it was boring when the teacher read the content of the slides and expected them to take notes.

Reading aloud from the textbook also got low marks. Alas, we tend to do that in Hebrew school, partly because we don’t assign reading as homework.

On the other hand, having students read the textbook on their own during class time didn’t rate much better. To students, that came across as a demand that they learn the subject on their own, that they teach themselves.

If a school uses textbooks at all, it is difficult to reconcile these three things: no assigned reading as homework, no reading aloud during class, and no reading on one’s own during class, either.

According to some of the essays that Wiggins collected, the real problem with reading in class is that there is often too much of it in a single stretch. 

One of the most striking points in the essays was that students want teachers to teach. That can mean various things, but the students had in mind (a) interacting with students, and (b) varying the methods during each class session.

The first of these is reminiscent of President James Garfield’s comment about Mark Hopkins, a nineteenth-century educator who was the president of Williams College for 36 years. Garfield defined a university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. “

The oldest model we have for Jewish education is that of one of the ancient rabbis with students gathered around him—no PowerPoint. The students learned chiefly through discussion with their rabbi. While they would read earlier rabbinic texts, their study emphasized extracting the most possible meaning from short extracts. They had no state-mandated tests.

The rabbis of old did not vary their teaching methods much, if at all. But there is also historic Jewish guidance for that, from Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah. Maimonides says that if a teacher has taught the lesson and a student does not understand, the teacher must teach the lesson again. The Hebrew word he uses, however, can be read to mean that the teacher should teach the lesson differently the second time.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Time to end the war on Hanukkah

Since the day after Thanksgiving, television, even public television, has been all Christmas, all the time.

Nevertheless, I predict that it will not be long before James Dobson, Bill O’Reilly, and others start to complain about the so-called War on Christmas. In recent years they’ve been fixated on the practices of retail merchants: should store associates say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”? 

One year I was interviewed by a reporter for local television news. The station was planning a feature about this War on Christmas and wanted me to be the representative of our small Jewish community. Would I be offended if a cashier said “Merry Christmas” to me?

I replied that I tried to accept the greeting in the spirit in which it was intended, but usually responded with “Happy New Year.” This was the only part of the interview that they used.

I did add that most people say what is comfortable and familiar, but also said that it’s not much of a problem in real life.

The reporter somehow concluded that I had no problem with Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas concerts, or Christmas parties in public schools. I told her that public schools were a different question, because the school district is an arm of government and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution applies, and because school attendance is compulsory. She seemed startled again. News reporters for small-town stations are usually just out of college.

[In fact, I don't object to religious music in public schools, as long as (a) singing it isn't compulsory, and (b) it's not intended to be a religious observance. In the Jewish world today, I am out in left field on this. Also, I admit that children may perceive it as religiously motivated even if the school officials do not.]

So where did this War on Christmas idea originate? Not with Fox News, and not with Focus on the Family. 

The claim that there is a War on Christmas really originates with anti-Semitic, white nationalist groups. Max Blumenthal traces it to one Peter Brimelow, a former editor of Fortune magazine. The idea was briefly taken up by the National Review; when that magazine dropped it, Brimelow founded, an anti-immigration web site named for the first European child born in America, Virginia Dare. According to Blumenthal, Jared Taylor, a white supremacist publisher, and Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychology professor who has argued that Jews are genetically equipped to out-compete Gentiles, joined Brimelow there. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes VDare as a hate group.

So please understand why I’m suspicious of claims that it subjects Christianity to unfair discrimination if anyone at all says “Happy Holidays.” 

From the point of view of a Jewish educator (my training), these complaints about a War on Christmas constitute a War on Hanukkah, in various senses. First, it’s a claim that the United States is a Christian nation, maybe even a Christians-only nation. Since Jews have lived here since 1654, when New York was still New Amsterdam, and most Americans are proud of our country’s history of welcoming people of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds, this is a strange idea.

Second, it’s a claim that there is pervasive discrimination against Christianity and Christians in the United States. Given that Christianity is more successful here than in any other modern democracy, maybe even more successful than in some medieval monarchies where the king could force it on everyone at the point of a sword, such a claim is bizarre. If any religion is suffering from discrimination in the U.S., it’s not Christianity.

Finally, it attempts—through Focus on the Family’s boycott of merchants that use “happy holidays”—to punish those who acknowledge that some of their potential customers might celebrate a holiday other than Christmas, or no holiday. One year there were also objections to Best Buy’s advertising for Eid Al-Adha.

So let’s all give up the War on Hanukkah (and on other celebrations). Let individuals say whatever they like as a greeting, including saying nothing. Let retailers do whatever they think is best for business. And let’s all stop using a mendacious and unnecessary defense of religion to gain political advantage, build ratings, or raise money.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Vayera: Virtue & the occasional miss

Based on a drash given at Congregation Kol Ami, Elmira, NY, on October 18, 2013.

Parashat Vayera really contains too much good material for one drash. We find

  • Abraham and Sarah's welcoming the m'lachim who announce that Sarah will bear a son. From this we learn the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. (Dare one ask whether, if Abraham and Sarah had been less hospitable, they would have received the joyous news?)
  • The destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, where Abraham pleads with God for the lives of the people if even as few as ten righteous persons can be found. This episode is sometimes cited to explain how Noah was righteous only "in his time"--instructed to build the ark and save his family plus exemplars of all the land animals, he complies, but apparently gives no thought to the lives of other humans or animals.
  • A repetition of Abraham's passing Sarah off as his wife--to save his own skin at her expense (if God didn't intervene).
  • The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, where Abraham once again pleads for the life of the boy (his son), and God tells him to do what Sarah wants. Strangely, the rabbis of old did not use this as a proof text to show that husbands should obey their wives, but we've had women rabbis only since 1972.
  • The akedah, the binding of Isaac, where Abraham, who argued for the lives of the righteous in Sodom, unquestioningly sets about killing his other son, the one he loves more.

And that's not even everything.

Traditional commentators cited most of these passages as the sources for various mitzvot that we should learn. They drew a different lesson from the Gerar episode, where Abraham says that Sarah is his sister. It's patently discreditable, and unlike the others, contains nothing that we should emulate (not even blind obedience as in the akedah, a test that many of us today would say that Abraham failed).

For the episodes that don't reflect credit on Abraham, the traditional interpretation is to emphasize the truthfulness of the Torah: it shows us the bad as long with the good. While we are supposed to emulate the examples of the patriarchs, we're also supposed to use some judgment in choosing which ones to emulate.

We can also draw a slightly different lesson from this parashah. While Abraham's virtue is a pervasive thread in this parashah and in others, I would say that the lesson from the not-so-virtuous episodes is to show us that, since even an exemplar of heroic virtue wasn't perfect, we shouldn't be too hard on ourselves when we aren't, as long as we keep trying to do better. This is in the same line as seeing Yom Kippur as predominantly forward-looking: what are we going to do now, regardless of what we did before?

I used to work for a shul in Los Angeles that considered advertising on cable television, right among the car dealers offering financing for customers with bad credit, the hucksters selling supplements of dubious safety and efficacy, and the dentists offering cheap extractions. I wondered what exactly the synagogue would advertise: two days of Rosh Hashanah for the price of one?

The plan wasn't pursued, but only because the congregation's service area was split between two cable companies, and it was too expensive to advertise on both.

My neighborhood in Los Angeles, however, had a church that advertised on cable TV, with a wonderful ad. The pastor looked into the camera and said (as best I can remember)
Our church is for people just like you.
None of us is perfect, but we all try to help one another lead better lives.
Come and meet us this Sunday.

Can any Jewish congregation in America say that? If I found one, I would move there and join it.

As far as I can see, we all feel pressure to pretend that our lives are already perfect, to keep up appearances. From my years as a synagogue administrator, I know that, while some members who experience financial reverses will seek to adjust their contributions, most drop their memberships and disappear. If we're having personal difficulties or one of our children is, we try to keep others thinking that everything is just dandy.

This also affects how we welcome strangers, or mostly don't welcome strangers. I have felt fully welcomed in many congregations outside the United States, even in Canada, but rarely when I visit another synagogue in the U.S. I'm not sure what is going on--maybe it's just clannishness, or we choose ushers who are exceptionally shy.

But what I often see, especially when the stranger is a new resident and therefore a prospective member, is that instead of asking what our congregation could do for the stranger, we think about what the stranger could do for us. Would s/he join and pay dues? How much? Will the person attend services and help to make a minyan? Is s/he likely to be an enthusiastic volunteer?

Why don't we think more about how the congregation could help the newcomer? I'm not thinking merely of tangible forms of help, but also of spiritual sustenance, of becoming part of a community and developing relationships. Really, it's no wonder that Jews stay away in droves.