Monday, January 5, 2015

Mr. Gradgrind and Jewish education

Education researchers in secular settings give a lot of attention to how (or whether) K-12 schools prepare students for college. In particular, they look at the extent to which high school prepares students for college, middle school prepares students for high school, and elementary school prepares students for middle school.

While the best students are invariably well-prepared for college, other students who may have the potential to succeed in a community or four-year college don’t always have the background.

Their recent work found that the goals of K-12 schools don’t completely align with those of colleges. For example, high-school English classes often spend more time on literature than on expository writing, but colleges all require expository writing and many don’t require any literature courses. 

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, the literature part of high-school English might appear to be a waste. 

English teachers—and I used to be one, albeit at the college level—would argue that the ability to understand works of literature contributes to a satisfying life. They might even argue that, if students aren’t going to study literature at all in college, they should certainly study some in high school.

We see a similar dynamic in Jewish education, where the utilitarian, reductionist question is, “What is necessary for bar/bat mitzvah?” 

To a Jewish educator, this is a confusing question. On one hand, the technical requirements for the service that commemorates becoming bar/bat mitzvah are simple enough to state. 

On the other, a young person becomes bar or bat mitzvah upon attaining the requisite age, whether there is a special service for it or not. At that point, the young person is responsible for managing his or her own Jewish life. This includes choosing the role that Judaism will have in adult life.

So the more important question is not what’s required for the ceremony, but what learning will contribute to a satisfying Jewish life. That learning isn’t limited to a certain set of synagogue skills: while the ability to participate actively in worship services is certainly desirable, synagogue services aren’t the entirety of Jewish life. 

Furthermore, Hebrew school isn’t the entirety of Jewish learning. Research that Prof. Sherry Israel of Brandeis University conducted in the 1990s found a strong correlation between taking Hebrew and Judaic studies courses in college and Jewish identification after graduation. The correlation was as strong as for Jewish day school, Jewish summer camp, and time spent in Israel. 

So what prepares a student for Judaic studies classes in college? Having a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony is hardly relevant at all (except to the extent that it contributes to total Jewish education). Because most students who take Judaic studies classes in college will do so in non-Jewish institutions, good secular education is essential. But secular education is largely outside the purview of Hebrew school.

What seems to matter most is learning that there is something to learn. In that respect, encountering challenging ideas is more important than mastering specific skills. This is why we want our students to have more Jewish education than the minimum for the mitzvah ceremony.

There is one skill that I think does matter. We are often asked why we persist in teaching Hebrew script writing: “If a student isn’t going to study or live in Israel, what use is it?”

Now, I don’t think we can predict in the third or fourth grade whether a student might eventually study or live in Israel. I hope that all of our students might have at least the opportunity to study in Israel for a semester of high school or college.

But script writing is also essential for taking Hebrew classes in college. When I worked in higher education, I met many Jewish students who shied away from a Hebrew course because script writing would be required.

That’s not a realistic fear, because there are almost always students in the class who aren’t Jewish, never studied Hebrew at any level before, and have no experience with script writing. Somehow, they manage to learn it within the first few days of classes. But it’s still a significant deterrent for Jewish students, who feel that they should know script writing, but don’t.

Students who learned script writing in Hebrew school may not be comfortable either writing or reading script Hebrew by the time they enter college. The difference, however, is that having learned it once leaves them with confidence that they can learn it again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The good, the bad, the weird

A few recent good news–bad news items:

In Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall successfully conducted a bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel, including having the young women chant from a Torah scroll.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that it was a very small Torah scroll, smuggled into the women’s section  under a coat, because the authorities would allow the women neither to use one of the sifrei Torah kept at the Western Wall, nor to bring in a full-sized scroll.

The Women of the Wall have also  begun advertising the opportunity for bat mitzvah services at the Wall on buses in Jerusalem. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the buses are being vandalized. 

Bad news: the rabbi of a prominent Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., was accused of placing a camera in the synagogue’s mikveh and photographing women as they undressed.

Relatively good news: the congregation placed him on leave and made no attempt at a cover-up. Some Orthodox authorities called for women to serve on boards that supervise mikvaot. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote, “Few stories over the past years have been as serious with regards to male religious violation of women and action is required. A comprehensive review of male access to the female mikveh must be undertaken so that all women feel and know that the mikveh is an inviolable place of religious privacy and spiritual security.”

He also wrote, “This sorrowful story also highlights the need to accelerate the establishment of female Halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities so that women can increasingly regulate private feminine Jewish matters.”

Reb Shmuley, whose new book has the title Kosher Lust, also made a starting defense of voyeurism—but only within marriage and only with consent.

Good news: also in Washington, D.C., the National Cathedral (Episcopal) hosted a Friday jummah (Muslim prayer service) on November 14. This was widely reported, even by Ha’aretz in Israel.

Bad news: the service was interrupted by a protester. Slightly better news: there was only one protester, but that’s because admission to the cathedral was tightly controlled.

The service came about through a suggestion that Ebrahim Rasool, the ambassador of South Africa to the United States, made at a memorial service in the cathedral for Nelson Mandela. Ambassador Rasool gave the sermon at the jummah.

Some reports mentioned that the Islamic group that organized the service routinely holds services in one church and two synagogues.

Mixed news: Temple Emanu-El in New York City plans to hold a mock trial of Abraham for child endangerment. U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan will preside; Eliot Spitzer will prosecute; and Alan Dershowitz will lead the defense.

The not-so-good part of this is that the idea itself isn’t news at all. Sixth-grade classes in Hebrew schools everywhere have been doing this for years, albeit without the celebrities. This may turn out to be a great event for the congregation, but it seems a bit opportunistic.

Weird news: Rabbi Ted Riter, in Jackson, Mississippi, reported that he was ordered to leave a Greek restaurant after the owner learned that he was Jewish. As the rabbi tells it, the he ordered a salad and the owner asked him, “The regular size or the Jewish size?” and then denounced Jews as parsimonious.

The owner says that he asked whether the rabbi wanted a Greek salad or a Jewish salad. The latter is supposedly a regular item at the restaurant but it doesn’t appear on the menu. He says it was all a misunderstanding and offered to name a salad after the rabbi. No indication of what the ingredients of a Riter Salad would be.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The five percent non-solution

Perhaps you’ve heard of Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. In its most general form, it postulates that 20 percent of any effort produces 80% of the results.

For example, diversified companies usually find that 80 percent of total sales come from just 20 percent of their products. In software development, fixing the top 20 percent of reported bugs prevents 80 percent of system errors—not because the other bugs are inconsequential, but because they are encountered less frequently.

Peter Greene, a teacher in Pennsylvania, adds a Five Percent Rule: the idea that only five percent of anything really matters. Greene writes,

Ninety-five percent of everything is unimportant baloney, crap that we humans use to torture ourselves and each other. Neckties. Eye shadow. Funny hats. Hair length. Only five percent of what we deal with is true and important and lasting. Only five percent of what we deal with is really important. Only five percent of what we deal with really, truly matters. It's what Thoreau was saying—simplify your life by getting rid of the 95 percent junk

Greene continues,

We can agree that a huge slice of life is wasted on inconsequential stupid stuff, and that only that small sliver, that five percent, really deserves our heart and soul and attention.

But we can’t agree on what falls within the five percent.

Greene uses this line of reasoning to argue against contemporary efforts in curriculum reform, saying that the reforms elevate the five percent of learning that one person or group might value at the expense of the five percents that others might value.

I have to dispute Greene’s implication that only five percent of curriculum matters. I concede, however, that there is a lot of room for disagreement about what elements matter, and how much each matters.

In Jewish education, there is a degree of consensus about what is important, but there is nothing close to unanimity. For centuries, Hebrew was the mainstay of the cheder, but in the twentieth century, some congregations considered it unimportant. I worked in one congregation where the teaching of Hebrew had been prohibited for the first 40 years of the congregation’s existence, and limited for the next 30.

Israel wasn’t prominent in Hebrew-school curricula until the 1960s; the first Hebrew-school textbook on Israel was published in 1957. Today, every Jewish curriculum includes Israel, but we still disagree about what to teach and when to teach it. Israeli teachers, for example, take umbrage if Israel isn’t central in every grade. 

This kind of disagreement exists in every field in the humanities and social sciences (less so in the natural sciences, where learning is more incremental). English teachers—Greene is an English teacher—can usually agree that everyone should study Shakespeare. But should everyone also read Middlemarch? Or For Whom the Bell Tolls?

I will say that the Torah is so central to Jewish life and learning that every student in a Jewish school should study it. Hebrew, whether prayer-based or modern, is helpful for participation in communal Jewish life and, at higher levels, for understanding the Torah. Similarly, ritual skills are useful in Jewish life. 

I will also say that learning to live in accord with Jewish values is more important than mastering any specific prayer or ritual. According to a survey that our school took in 2011, the parents of our students agree. We’re not trying to make our children into learned scoundrels.

What is striking, however, is that all of these subjects—Torah, Hebrew, prayer and ritual, ethics—make sense only to a student who already feels Jewish. Although study can strengthen Jewish identity, it cannot create it. 

But how does a student come to feel Jewish? Jewish life at home is the starting point; school is no substitute. The family’s participation in Jewish communal life is the next element.

Both of these are obvious. Less often cited is the family’s application of Jewish values to everyday life. Let children know that you give tzedakah (that it’s not something only for religious school) and why you give it. Explain why it is un-Jewish to participate in gossip. Make your home a model of shlom bayit (peace in the home).