Memo to David Hazony

Where Yehuda Kurtzer’s well-worded smackdown of AB Yehoshua was, as they say in “the Land”, bamakom, my only quibble with Kurtzer is his telling AB to “pipe down”… It was a bit… well… I do not know.  Strong.  AB is entitled to say whatever he likes about Diaspora Jews.  He is also entitled to receive a couple of cans of righteous whoopass from Kurtzer.  That’s how civilized discourse works.

So when David Hazony penned his memo to American Jews, urging them to learn Hebrew, I, too, pondered telling him to shut up.  Or, more appropriately: listom et ha’jora shelo… but that would be rude.

Instead, in the Kurtzerian mode, I will offer what hopes to be a more ad rem, or la’inyan rebuttal to the assertion that, to bridge the ever-widening gap, Diaspora Jews must learn Hebrew.

First, to the matter of Hazony himself.  (Note: This is not the ad hominem attack portion of the program…)  As an oleh, I had hoped that he would have a less wooden understanding of the Diaspora considering he was raised in it.  However, from Hazony’s cartoonish portrayal of American Jews from the outset, one could say that, perhaps, his klita (absorption) into Israeli society (and the embrace of many of its stereotypic conceptions of the diaspora) was a complete success.

What, after all, should this son of Israel do with all those people who are not curious about the real Israel? All they want to talk about is rockets in Sderot, Mofaz and the haredim.  Why don’t they know about Erev Tov with Guy Pinness or who broke out from the pack in Kochav Nolad or which government minister was being investigated for corruption?  Why don’t they know that Israeli culture is vibrant and hip?  Don’t they want to hear about the Israeli zeitgeist?  Nope.  Not one person seemingly does, according to Hazony, all they want to hear about are subjects that:

were either never that interesting to most Israelis, those that became obviated by events, or those that had their moment in the sun and then were lost to the public eye.

So I girded my loins for yet another round of “Scold the Diaspora Jew”, delivered by a knowing (naturalized) Israeli who, from his side of the gap, is more than happy to tell us on the other side how we should behave differently.  Fine.  Game on.  (Just as long as we can return the favour… but I digress…)

In a nutshell, here is what Diaspora Jews are doing wrong:  We are not consuming enough Israeli culture.

And how do we rectify this problem?  Learn Hebrew!

Because, Hazony asserts, if we do not get on the “Israeli-civilization bus” (which requires fluent Hebrew), then

the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do.

Incidentally, the “they” in the previous sentence is referring to Diaspora Jews, and  the “we” refers to Hazony and the Israelis in case you were wondering… (Upon rereading the quote, I wondered: Were “we” ever qualified enough to say anything, re: Israel that “we” can now become even less qualified to say?  Hmm…)

!כלב, דבר עברית

Hazony goes on to present Diasporaniks with an ultimatum:  Either love Israel completely, including the embrace of every unpalatable aspect of Israeli society, or love a “saucy dream”.  (Perhaps I am overstating the love-it-or-leave-itness of Hazony’s statement – but not by much.)  And the simple way to transcend the dreamy sauciness is the “800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room”: learning Hebrew.  Because, I suddenly realized, learning Hebrew has the potential to make the Rabbinate’s hatred of liberal Judaism, Lieberman’s racism, etc. etc. all magically disappear – and then everyone, Diasporaniks of all shapes and stripes, can love Israel for the perfect sparkly unicorn that she is!!! (…Except that I already speak Hebrew and the not-so-nice aspects of Israel have not become, like frosted Lucky Charms, magically delicious… [frown]  Perhaps I am oversimplifying…)

I do not think Hazony should be grateful (which is how he regards the Diaspora-Israel dynamic – either you make demands or be grateful) – but I do think that perhaps, sitting in Israel, he might take a bit more pause before demanding that Jewish educators everywhere revise the American Jewish educational agenda.  He goes on to say that, perhaps, this demand is not really so outlandish at all.

And, in fact, it is not.  In the Greater Toronto Area, practically every Jewish day school is dedicated to Hebrew language instruction.  There are almost a half-dozen schools that are dedicated to teaching all Jewish subjects Ivrit b’Ivrit.  This is a tremendous achievement and a powerful statement about the priorities of Toronto’s Jewish community.

But there is a difference between developing a working knowledge of Hebrew which Hazony advocates and being fluent which is what you really need if you are going to ride on the Israeli-civilization bus – and not sit in the back of it.  But to do the latter well requires a lot more time and will inevitably come at the expense of other subjects, skills and experiences.  (You can fill in the blank here on your own:  “More Hebrew immersion time, means less of _________ .”)

So perhaps day schools, the potential flagships of the Jewish community’s fleet of the future (if they could be accessible without destroying the Jewish middle class in the process), should stop enculturating North American Jews and make Israelis-in-absentia…?  Wouldn’t David Hazony be proud of us then!

Sadly, day schools cannot do both nor should they.  For starters, the last time I checked, North American day schools were located in North America.  They should probably focus on teaching young Jews how to be Jewish in North America first – but I could be wrong about this one…

The challenges facing the viability of North American Judaism cannot be solved by learning Hebrew.   (I wish it was that easy…)  Similarly, the gap between North America and Israel cannot be surmounted by watching more Arutz HaYisraeli on cable.

The substantive issues that threaten viability or widen the gap have nothing to do with language barriers.  (Some of them have to do with concrete barriers, but that is a post for another, less toxic time.)   For Hazony to reduce everything to a hunch and a wagging finger is classical Zionism at its worst.  I thought we were done with shlilat hagolah (negation of the Diaspora) with Yosef Haim Brenner and Micha Josef Berdyczewski – but I guess not.  Khaval, David.  Khaval me’od…

J.J. Goldberg?

… a whole piece about how liberal Jewish day school numbers are “stuck in neutral” (while, cue ominous music, Orthodox numbers go up and up and up) and not ONE WORD about cost or tuition?!

Is this an early April Fools’ Joke or some Purim Torah at the tail end of Hannukah?

Something more about day school tuitions…

Dan Perla, the Program Officer of Day School Finance at the AVI CHAI Foundation, has yet another pitch to fix the day school tuition problem.  He cites a number of examples from the field where even middle to upper middle class families get a break on day school tuition to make Jewish education affordable.  But… here comes the caveat:

All these programs are donor supported. Why would donors want to subsidize families making six figure incomes? The answer is simple. It makes good business sense. Losing middle and upper middle income families or failing to attract new ones has several negative consequences. Keeping seats filled and growing enrollment almost always leads to a positive economic outcome. Why? Because the marginal cost of adding a child to a class with an empty seat (which, in fact, is typically the case) is close to zero. So offering a family with three children a 30% or 40% reduction on their full tuition (through a middle income affordability program) still brings in a large amount of incremental dollars with little or no incremental cost. In fact, it is a well-established tenet of day school finance that stable or increasing enrollment almost always leads to greater long term financial sustainability.

So, all the success stories whereby day schools continue to keep Jewish families within the Jewish educational system are contingent on continued donor support.  And there is good reason for donors to continue writing cheques… the return on investment is bla bla bla bla…

Though my eyes inexplicably glaze over with any talk of financials, the fact that they glaze over is a good indication why the pitch ultimately fails.

Have folks learned nothing at all from the 2008 Financial Crisis?

If we continue to look to donors of various calibers to ride into town and save us, then we shall continue to stand curbside with dumb bovine expressions (or glazed eyes) as we gape off into the horizon…  waiting.

Or, to borrow from the current discourse seeking to displace the much-despised market-speak, the 99% cannot and should not look to the 1% to ascertain whether the community’s future (that’s 100%, y’all) is viable (or not).  This is something we all need to solve together.

Since we’re looking for an alternative to “continuity”…

and the Michelle Bachmann thing is a bit too creepy…

How about EDUCATION … as a verb, not as a noun?

Think about it then read Maya Bernstein’s piece reproduced below from Zeek:

What is the Purpose of Jewish Education?

October 26, 2011

So what?

I once attended a grant-writing workshop led by Dr. Debbie Findling of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Foundation. She lit a match, and requested that participants present a compelling argument for their projects in the time the match burned down. If she singed her fingers before hearing an answer to the “so what” question, we had lost her attention (and needed to buy her some Aloe Vera). If we succeeded, well, we had just caught the interest of a major funder.

The Indo-European root of the word “purpose” is pur, which means fire. There is no question that there is tremendous energy and passion in the Jewish community around Jewish education. But where does the true fire reside? What is the purpose of a Jewish education?

Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed, claims that Judaism’s overall goal is to help us live together in ethical communities: “The True Law…has come to bring us…the welfare of the states of the people in their relations with one another through the abolition of reciprocal wrongdoing and through the acquisition of a noble and excellent character” (Part III, ch. 27.) Jewish law first helps us to perfect ourselves, and then to live ethical lives with each other, navigating our own needs and desires with those of others, under an umbrella of divine guidance.

A Jewish education must not only teach Jewish texts and traditions, but also train youth to use that knowledge to affect their actions, to achieve one of our “so whats,” the creation of ethical relationships that spawn peaceful, just communities.

Today, we must expand that notion of community to the global level. We have never had such facility in establishing relationships with one another. Technology has radically changed the nature of the “relationship” game. Not only do we know immediately what is occurring across the world; we often know immediately the intimate details of strangers. Even the vocabulary of relationships is in radical flux. When Aristotle wrote about friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, he assumed that friends were face to face contacts, with regular physical interactions. His notion of civic friendship, in which human beings treat each other and themselves with respect, compassion, moral rigor, and justice, depends on this definition (see e.g. Books XIII and IX). Today, though, Facebook has changed the definition of the word “friend,” and therefore, the ethical guidelines about how we relate to people with whom we are in some type of intimate relationship, but with whom we have no true intimacy, must be redefined. We need fresh perspectives regarding how to live together in our global, inexorably intertwined community.

A Jewish educational environment must take seriously the ultimate destiny of the global community. We have a responsibility to train children receiving a Jewish education to use their Jewish knowledge, understanding, tools, and perspectives to make an impact on the world, incorporating a highly developed system of interpersonal ethical attitudes to a fast-paced world of thousands of “friendships” that often leaves people treacherously alone.

I believe that a Jewish education should include training in “ethical activism.” Rabbi Avi Weiss, in his book Principles of Spiritual Activism (2002), writes: “being an activist is about much more than being involved in what some call the ‘big causes,’ those that receive the most attention in the media. The ‘little causes,’ those that touch the lives of relatively few and go largely unnoticed, are equally vital… True activism is the realization that the greatest causes of all involve basic human needs” (p. 13). A Jewish education, regardless of denomination or venue, should, in addition to teaching knowledge, teach students to weave their knowledge into profound understanding, and use that understanding to inform their behavior. No matter what we teach our students about Judaism, we should ensure that they are trained to connect Jewish beliefs and practices with their own lives, with the way in which they treat themselves and others. Ultimately, the Jewish education our children receive should manifest itself in Jewishly-grounded ethical action. Their behavior, private and public, should be richly informed by their Jewish learning, and should contribute to the making of an ethical, just, peaceful world.

Methodology for a Jewish Ethical Activist Education

Interestingly, a very old method of Jewish learning – hevruta – can be a model for how this type of ethical education can proceed. Hevruta is Jewish method of text study that involves two partners coming together to grapple with a third partner, the text. Hevruta partners read a text out loud in small sections, attempt to understand those sections, and then assimilate them together as a coherent whole.

The hevruta classroom is like a laboratory, in which students and teachers alike are experimenting, grappling with difficult ideas, seeking to understand their ultimate purpose, and their relevance. The goal of learning in this environment is not simply assimilating knowledge. The challenge is to see what happens with that knowledge: how does it affect the student, her thinking, and her behavior? How does it affect the classroom, the group dynamic, and group behavior? How does the knowledge conveyed challenge previous knowledge, or set the stage for other learning? What does the student do with it all? In Leadership Can Be Taught (2005), Sharon Daloz-Parks introduces an educational method called “Case-in-Point” teaching. This method approaches classroom dynamics as part of the curriculum. It creates a pedagogical environment in which the classroom is a laboratory of reflection, active learning, student participation, and experimentation. In this environment, students are not only learning a subject; they are also learning about the process of learning, and about themselves, their teachers, and their classmates.

Ronald Heifetz explains this type of environment in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers (1994), as one in which the learner is able to move between the “dance floor” and the “balcony” – Consider the experience of dancing on a dance floor in contrast with standing on a balcony and watching other people dance. Engaged in the dance, it is nearly impossible to get a sense of the patterns made by everyone on the floor. Motion makes observation difficult… To discern the larger patterns on the dance floor – to see who is dancing with whom, in what groups, in what location, and who is sitting out which kind of dance – we have to stop moving and get to the balcony.

The hevruta classroom can help create a “case-in-point” learning environment, in which students are not only encountering knowledge on the dance floor, but also have the skills and opportunity to move to the balcony, to attempt to grapple with the understandings that emerge from their ongoing learning.

Specifically, the process of Hevruta learning can inform and enhance the Jewish ethical activist classroom in the following ways:

Responsibility for the Other. The student is not alone, but is responsible for the learning of his partner. If one person “gets” the text and the other doesn’t, the pair is stuck, together. The partners are responsible for each other’s ultimate success. The hevruta learning environment necessitates that each individual learn that the perspective of the other is critical not only for the advancement of the group, but also for the advancement of the individual – that we are interdependent and must grapple with the perspectives and opinions of others a) to grow as human beings, and b) work effectively together to achieve our goals.

Ideas are Multi-faceted and Complex. Often, hevruta partners will have radically different understandings of what a text is saying. This reinforces the notion that people have multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. When students study in hevruta, they learn how to navigate those conflicts, learning to respect the views of others, and orchestrate the conflict it may cause.

Deliberate Partnering – Paving the Way for Critical Relationships. Often, the best hevruta relationships are between the most unlikely individuals. Integral to the philosophy of successful activism is the notion of partnering – developing the structures and relationships to gain perspectives that one cannot have on one’s own. Hevruta can help either model or create the “unlikely partner” relationship, and give that relationship a continuing structure, as well as depth and content, teaching students how to be in relationship with those with whom they disagree.

Cultivation of Compassionate Listening. Critical to successful ethical activism is the ability to genuinely learn to hear and interpret what is occurring in one’s environment. Each hevruta partner must learn to listen on at least three levels – to the text, to her partner, and to her own interpretations – and engage these three levels in dialogue, ultimately learning about the text, about the partner, and growing in selfunderstanding. On a concrete level, the hevruta process always involves one of the partners reading the text aloud and the other listening; this can be interpreted as a symbolic gesture that the activity of listening is at the core of learning, understanding, and successful action.

Movement between Intellectual Discussion & Personal Contemplation. A critical aspect of the hevruta philosophy is that personal tangents are integral pieces of the learning, and that personal experience sheds light onto the understanding of text, just as text sheds light onto the understanding of personal experience. When students bring in examples from their life to help them understand their text, they are beginning to develop the skill of transference. Hevruta study provides students the opportunity to experiment with using “real life” to understand text, and then using text, its concepts and ideals, to inform “real life.”

Nature of the Educational Relationship. The Hevruta approach breaks down the traditional notion of the educator as one who has knowledge to impart, and the student as one who is unknowing and must absorb information. The student must be perceived by the educator, and must perceive herself, as an active participant in the educational process, and as one who has the authority and responsibility to make valued contributions in this process.

Study to Action

The Talmud, in tractate Kiddushin (40b), recounts a story of Rabbis grappling with the following question: “What is greater – study or action?” They ultimately conclude, “study is greater.” Why? Because “study leads to action.” Jewish learning, while infinitely valuable, should ultimately lead to ethical actions and interactions. Hevruta is a powerful tool in facilitating the movement from study to action, and thereby helping Jewish wisdom stay relevant and agile in today’s world. Jewish education can contribute invaluably to the challenge of striving to define and create an ethical global community. In our Jewish educational environments, we must ensure that we train the next generation to engage in this process, armed with a set of values, texts, and tools unique to our tradition. The philosophical methodology behind hevruta learning to create an ethical educational environments should be considered as one vehicle to help ensure that the Jewish education our children receive is one that will stay with them for a lifetime, and inspire and challenge how they behave as human beings in this world.

Read the original here.

Jewish birth control and why tithing is regressive and hurts the vulnerable

I have consistently praised Aurora Mendelsohn’s call for day school tuition reform.  Her latest piece at The Forward presents the same cogent argument she made elsewhere at RainbowTallitBaby.  The existing model is not sustainable, she states.  It drives down Jewish birthrates (hence the birth control witticism).  It is invasive, elitist and alienating.  She is right on all counts.  And  then some.

However, I am slightly uncomfortable with her alternative, as steeped in Jewish tradition as it may be.  What could possibly be troubling about a system advocated by the Shulchan Aruch?  Well, it is also happens to be a plan advocated by Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, sorta Mitt Romney and, back in the day, Steve Forbes.   It is the flat tax.

Herman Cain has his version called the 9-9-9 Plan. Newt Gingrich is endorsing an optional flat tax, which means that US taxpayers could pick a flat tax or the current system.  Rick Perry wants that option too.  Mitt Romney wants a “flatter” tax but who the hell knows what that means and whether Romney will stick to this position long enough for anyone to get any clarification about it.

Aurora’s plan promises to be simpler, fairer and arguably lower (why else do it otherwise?), but can it deliver?  Reciting Cain’s flat tax plan with a German accent provides the answer:  NEIN!  NEIN!  NEIN!

First, one cannot potentially lower tuition for a substantial percentage of Jewish families and expect schools to have enough money to function at a minimal level.  For every dollar less one family pays, it has to be made up from somewhere by somebody.  Will the cash-strapped Federation step in to fill the gap, or will another family?  And will we have to add their name alongside the name of the thinker/leader/hero after which the school is already named?   To address the issue of onerous tuition burdens for middle and lower income families is simple.  Lower their tuition!   (But I digress…)

Second, as for fairness, that would depend on the percentage that each family is going to be asked to pay.  If a family is struggling to scrimp and save, borrow against their home and loot retirement savings to pony up 25 percent of their income for tuition and the Fair Sharers come along and say “Now only pay 20 percent,” the plan offers a reduction and some relief.  But what’s that magic number?  How much of a family’s income should be dedicated to day school tuition?   And is this levy per child or per family?  Would an affluent family of three earning $300,000 per year be expected to pay, say, 18% of their income to educate one child (or $54,000 per child) while a working class family of seven earning $60,000 only be asked to pay $10,800 (or $2,160 per child)?  Is this fair?  (Well, I would say yes but the Affluentbergs would disagree.)

Finally, would a flat tuition scheme make paying “simpler,” less invasive and less humiliating?  Probably.  But as I have commented elsewhere, I am dubious if individuals who employ accounting shenanigans in an attempt to shelter income from the government would behave differently in a day school setting.   Perhaps I am being a bit too jaded on this point…

What we need to truly address the existing unsustainable scheme is a system that is even more progressive and less regressive.  Tithing hurts the vulnerable. That’s why Devarim 26:12 states the vulnerable should receive tithes, not pay them.  Also, Jews who did not grow food or raise animals did not tithe. (See VaYikra 27:30.) Perhaps this biblical exemption might be extended to those individuals in the community today who also do not work in tithe-able professions… like Jewish educators!  (This exemption might actually attract more talent to the profession and keep experienced teachers within the system for longer…)

I think Aurora’s piece is a great opening for discussion on this topic.  I think we would all agree that we need more kids in Jewish day schools and more Jewish day schools…

We need a critical mass of educated Jews who can be the folks who pitch in and crowdsource Judaism into the next century, but we cannot achieve this absolutely essential critical mass while pushing a large portion of the next two generations to the brink of financial implosion to make this community priority a reality.

Make sense?