Asking a child to do a grown up’s job

A recent JEDLAB discussion on Passover got me thinking. Are Jewish educators asking children to do the job of grown ups when it comes to Jewish life and living? And if so, are we inadvertently infantilizing grown ups in the process? Here’s what I mean…

When it comes to Passover, Jewish tradition is pretty clear that it’s the job of the grown ups to find ways of engaging children in the seder. As a Jewish educator I know that I have limited capacity (time, influence, and otherwise) to equip grown ups with the skills to do this if they don’t already have them. So I focus on the kids. I make sure that they’re conversant in the liturgy of the seder and also that they’re equipped to bring something creative, provocative, engaging, and different to their seder so that they might be the ones who engage the grown ups. A complete reversal of the traditional Jewish view that places this onus on the grown ups.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the grown ups are very appreciative that their children come to seder ready to engage them in a meaningful experience. But this comes with a potential (and I do mean potential) shadow side– we empower the children but infantilize the grown ups and the seder experience more generally.

While children are more than capable of bringing something cute and interesting to their seder table, they’re not capable of facilitating and participating in the kind of adult conversation that really honors the complex themes and social critique embedded in the Passover story. Seder, when focused only on the children and built around their engaging contributions, may be memorable, enjoyable, rewarding, celebratory and many other things, but it is likely not deep,  challenging, transformational, or significant. Of course a well-timed query from a child can propel a seder table to new depths, but this isn’t a guarantee. As grown ups wait for and depend upon the energy and creativity of the children at the seder table the really important questions may go unanswered.

More than likely seder is actually a blend of child generated joy and adult conversation. But as Jewish educators we have to ask whether our focus on the child runs the risk of letting grown ups off the hook a little too easily.

Life Lessons from Rosh Hashanah Services at Emory

It’s my 5th year leading Reform High Holy Day services at Emory. It’s an honor and something that I really look forward to even as there’s always a small part of me that longs to be “just” a congregant during this sacred season. Here are a few life lessons that I offer as a reflection on the Rosh Hashanah services that have just concluded.

1. Whitney Houston got it right: “Children are our future.” When we “teach them well” then they “will lead the way.”

It’s become an annual tradition to invite Davis Academy students to join me in leading a portion of the service including the Shema and the Shofar Blessings. This year Davis students played an extended role helping with a variety of prayers and readings as well as creating a reading of their own (on the spot). Featuring Davis Academy students helps everyone feel a sense of hope, community, and connection.

2. “Silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Either by chance or by fate this quote from Susan Sontag was hanging on a poster directly behind me on the bimah at the beautiful Marcus Hillel Center . As a rabbi I’m favorably disposed to the idea that words carry great power. Yet one of the things I most enjoy about leading services at Emory is that I don’t give a single sermon. Instead, I demand that Emory students give the sermons. My silence elicits their words and their words (invariably) elicit deep reflection for everyone in the congregation. One of the great blessings of my rabbinate is getting to hear the wisdom of Emory students that is vocalized as a result of my silence.

3. Building kehillah is hard. The Davis Academy is a very vibrant kehillah, a true community. On my annual pilgrimage to Emory for the High Holy Days I face a challenge that I don’t face in my role at Davis– the challenge of building kehillah. At Davis, kehillah is evident in all that we do. Kehillah can’t be suppressed and the power of kehillah sustains and strengthens us. During the High Holy Days at Emory we have to build kehillah. We have undergrads, grad students, professors, Davis families, community members, out of town visitors and more. On an annual basis only about 50% of the congregation are “repeat offenders.” Everyone else is new– freshman, new professors, folks who have relocated to Atlanta, and so on. Our task over the course of the High Holy Days is to build a sense of kehillah. It isn’t easy. The amazing staff of Hillels of Georgia does a great job of laying the foundation for this work but it’s still a challenge at the High Holy Days.

4. The fate of Judaism is directly tied to Judaism’s relevance to modern life. If Judaism doesn’t speak to the challenges we face as individuals, as a community, and as the human race in modern times then Judaism should probably just go away. If Judaism can’t help us navigate the horrors of Syria, the complexities of genetic coding, the human rights of gay marriage, and other societal and geopolitical issues than Judaism has no place being a part of our public discourse. I’m convinced that Judaism is more relevant than ever and that Jewish tradition, in its multivocality, does speak to these and other issues. But it’s clear to me that if rabbis aren’t able to make this relevance undeniably manifest than we are doing a disservice to our congregants and our tradition. Similarly, it’s the responsibility of every professing Jew to bring Judaism to bear on the issues that define our world.

There’s much more that could be extrapolated from the last 24 hours at Emory, but one of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the unique chance it provides for the ever elusive “nap” that comes with parenting a 2 year old.

Shanah Tovah!

Extending the Symposium on Jewish Education

As the rabbi of The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy, Atlanta’s mechina-8th grade Reform Jewish Day School I thoroughly enjoyed reading the “Symposium on Jewish Education” at RJ.org. It’s wonderful to hear thought leaders from within and beyond the Reform movement analyzing trends, citing innovative practices, and making bold predictions about the future of Jewish education. The power of relationships, the impact of technology, the need for personal meaning, the interconnectedness of world Jewry, and the democratization of information… these are just a few of the themes that emerged across the various posts. I particularly appreciated the remarks of Rabbi David Ellenson, in his position paper submitted to the Jim Joseph Foundation (cited by Dr. Charles Edelsberg) that highlighted the ongoing centrality of Jewish schooling and suggested investing in institutions that are currently achieving great success in Jewish education so that they can continue to focus on and achieve their missions. I believe The Davis Academy, and many of our Reform Jewish Day Schools are such institutions.

The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy

Among the many ideas that warrant serious consideration when thinking about Jewish education in a Reform or liberal context is the difference between “performance” goals and “learning” goals. While this distinction has implicitly driven my own work and the work of countless colleagues, I’ve only recently acquired this specific terminology. My teacher in this area is John D’Auria, president of Teacher21. His work builds on that of renowned educational psychologist Carol Dweck.

Performance goals have to do with winning favor in the eyes of others. Winning a game, dazzling a crowd with a great guitar solo, or having a perfectly memorized Torah portion for your bar mitzvah– these are examples of performance goals. Getting an “A” on the big test is also an example of a performance goal. Performance goals have a powerful hold on us. We all want to please our parents and teachers, impress our friends and strangers, and experience the thrill that comes with performing well. The problem is that performance goals can be all consuming and distort our focus. Unfortunately, when it comes to Judaism, winning, dazzling, memorizing, and getting an “A” aren’t what it’s all about. Clear enough?

What do learning goals look like? Rather than focusing on the win, we might focus on executing the new plays that we worked on in practice all week. Rather than dazzling the crowd with our Jimi Hendrix like prowess, we might try to implement a new technique that we’ve been refining with our guitar teacher. Rather than memorizing our Torah portion we might strive to develop an appreciation for its meaning. Rather than focusing on the test, we might focus on the knowledge we’re being asked to master, evaluating whether it is of use in our lives or not. The joy of learning goals is that they are proximal, achievable, enduring, and transformative. Eventually we’ll earn the esteem of parents and teachers, friends and strangers, but we’ll do so from a much stronger and sure place.

When we focus ourselves, our students, and our communities on learning goals rather than performance goals, we are fulfilling our mandate as Reform Jewish educators.

I’m hard pressed to find a rabbinic colleague or fellow Jewish educator who favors performance goals over learning goals. The challenge is that the world around us can’t resist a great performance, and all too often couldn’t care less about great learning. Prone to anxiety and unable to resist comparison, it’s easy to sacrifice learning on the altar of performance. Many of our institutions, day schools and otherwise, are designed to make sense within this context of performance. Prospective parents are typically more concerned with test scores (performance) than they are with the depth and rigor of professional development amongst the faculty (learning). When it comes to life cycle events like b’nai mitzvah, confirmation, and beyond, congregational colleagues confess that it is difficult and sometimes impossible to migrate young adults and families away from performance and towards learning. It’s hard to be one voice speaking against the crowd.

One could argue that, from the very beginning, Reform Judaism has been counter cultural because it has always promoted learning goals over performance goals. It’s one of the reasons that bar mitzvah lost out to confirmation for so many years in Reform communities. As it has been a hallmark of our past, so too the prioritization of learning over performance must be a part of our future. Until we can demonstrate that the choice is clear, that learning must triumph over performance (or at the very least infuse and inform all our performances), then we will continue to encounter frustration as we try to achieve our many other future oriented goals.

Cultivating a Growth Mindset

The following is a guest post from Drew Frank, the Director of Academic Operations and Lower School Principal of The Alfred and Adele Davis Academy. You can follow Drew on twitter @ugafrank. He shared a version of these remarks at Back To School Night.

 

I want to share with you some very important research that is helping shape our classroom, guidance, and school experience here at The Davis Academy.  Over the course of the past year, I have had the pleasure of working with a number of educational researchers and thinkers who are looking into the amazing work of psychologist Carol Dweck.  Her research has helped shape our teacher training during preplanning and will be incorporated throughout the year.

Carol did many research projects, but her seminal work was on the idea of the growth mindset.  Carol’s initial research was done by bringing in thousands of children for a testing session.  She would first give them an easy task which she knew they could solve.  Next she would give them a challenge which she knew they could not solve.  She observed two very different reactions.  The first set pushed away from the table, exclaimed, ‘this task is dumb’ which led to ‘I am not smart enough or good enough’. The second group of testers actually moved closer to the task and embraced the challenge.  It was this distinction and trying to figure out what makes someone shrink away or embrace a challenge that focused the rest of her research.

Years later after doing many follow up studies  she made the distinction between the fixed mindset, those who feel they have a fixed amount of intelligence, ability, and competencies, versus those who have a growth mindset or believe their intelligence, abilities, and competencies are ever growing.  The piece of her research most important  for us  as parents and for us as educators, was that the key factor was not in how adults interacted with children when the children experienced failure that impacted their mindset, but what we said after a success that was internalized by children.

In her latest research she selected 1000 students who tested in the 9th stanine on New York’s  end of year assessments. By selecting this group she knew she had a top group of achievers.  She split the group in to two set.  Group A she gave the easy task, and then after they got it correct  she said, ‘Wow,  You are great.  awesome job’. Group B, she gave the easy task then after they got it right, she said, ‘I love how you used a diagram to solve that’ or, ‘I noticed and appreciated that you listed the components and I think that really helped you to solve the problem’.  She then gave both groups the hard problem.  At the end of the session she thanked the students for participating, and she held up two envelopes and told the students they could only select one.  The first had the list of all participants and where they all ranked on the tasks.  The second had the solution to the second, more difficult task.  The first group that received the, ‘great job, you are amazing’ feedback selected the rankings over 80 percent of the time.  However, the group that received recognition for the strategies they employed selected the ranking less than 30% of the time.

So what does this mean as parents and educators?  While it is almost instinctual to praise the ‘A’ on a spelling test, the goal scored in a soccer game, or the beautiful created piece of art with a, ‘You are so smart, you are the best, great job’ it is far more impactful an beneficial if we can recognize the processes and strategies that were employed as opposed to the results that were attained.  We are going to be incorporating this research in our classrooms, professional development, and parent learning opportunities this year.

Teach Your Children- Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus

Loren Filson Lapidus is an associate rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta, GA. She is the mother of Hadara and wife of Micah Lapidus. She writes:
        “After one year of motherhood, here are the lessons I hope to instill in my daughter (and pass along to the youth I work with, too)…all of them are lessons Hadara has taught me as well.
1.     Be your authentic self: as the Dr. Seuss quote in Hadara’s bedroom says, ‘There is no one who is you-er than you!” I hope that you will always have confidence, and not arrogance, in yourself. Don’t let others convince you to be someone you’re not.
2.     Be a mensch: No one really cares (after a time) what grades you’ve received or how many awards you’ve won. We want you to be successful, but always remember that it is most important to have a good soul. How you treat people, regardless of whether you know them, is the measure of your goodness. I was horrified to discover one day that Hadara stole a classmate’s pacifier! While I was relieved to discover that others do this more often, it reminded me that we as parents have a responsibility to help you discover this goodness and capacity to care for others—even before you’re a year old!
3.     You are loved: Every day, hour, and minute! Even if we are not together all day, I think about you and love you. We are blessed with family and friends and a tremendously loving Jewish community. As you go through this world, you are never alone.
Hadara Lapidus enjoys a Snack
4.     There is never enough—never enough time, never enough energy, never enough money, never enough! Therefore, enjoy what you have and try to live each day to its fullest. The measure of a day is whether you can go to sleep with few regrets. Live each day with meaning and integrity, and focus on the many blessings in your life.
5.     Even if I can’t fix your problems, I love you and am here to listen: Right now, your problems are easy ones to address. With each year, there will be more things outside of my control (and often outside of your control, too). I already am sad to think of the times you will hurt and I cannot make it better. Know, though, that I am here. The love and support I offer you is the unconditional caring of a parent—no matter what life brings, your father and I are here to listen.”

Teach Your Children- Rabbi Analia Bortz, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, Dr. Amy Robertson

Rabbi Analia Bortz of Congregation Or Chadash in Atlanta, GA writes:

1. Carpe Diem, seize the day, life is fragile and short, take advantage of God’s blessings every day.

2. You are the owner of your successes and your failures. God blessed you with the tools to succeed, appreciate them!

3. We give you roots, please spread your wings!

 

The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE, and proud mother of  Max and Saul

I am a mother of 2 boys, ages 14 & 19.  I have tried to teach my boys how to understand a woman’s perspective and be respectful of their female friends and relatives.  I suppose many of those lessons have come from my husband as well, who has always been a true gentleman.  Though we are all feminists, chivalry is not dead in our household.
I have tried to teach my sons to be strong and stand up for what is right and just in this world.  They both speak up for equal and civil rights for all. They speak out against hatred, bigotry, racism and narrow mindedness.
I suppose one the life lessons I am most proud of having taught my boys is the importance of family.  We have always made decisions based on what is good for our family and model putting family first. While Harry Chapin is a popular source of our musical enjoyment, our family life does not replicate that portrayed in “Cats in the Cradle.” Whether it is for life cycle events, relatives in need, or simple decisions of daily life, our family comes first.
My boys are growing into loving, sensitive, generous openminded young men.  I am very proud to be their mother.
The Israel Museum, Jerusalem

 

 

Dr. Amy Robertson, a member of the Jewish Studies faculty at The Davis Academy offers the following:

It’s funny for me to stop and think about what I am trying to teach my children – I am more accustomed to reflecting on what I am learning from this whole motherhood gig (which could fill a volume!). But here is one thing I feel very aware of trying to teach my children:  Having too many things is bad for your soul. Or, at least, that is how I articulate it to my 5 year old. He is in a very acquisitive place — he wants to *have* all kinds of things. This is enormously distressing to me, and I work hard not to make him feel ashamed of wanting them. At the same time, I firmly believe that having too many material things distracts us from what is important – from our friends, our families, our God, the natural world, our thoughts, our responsibilities.  Right now, this probably just feels like arbitrary discipline to him, but I hope that by becoming accustomed to having some boundaries around his acquisitiveness and understanding how to actively fight back that urge (not watching commercials, not walking around the mall, not window shopping), I am setting him up move past this phase. The other day he told me that he chose not to walk around the school book fair browsing after he had already bought the one book we had decided on, because it made him sad to look at all the cool things he couldn’t have. I felt very proud of him for choosing not to feed his desire for more.


 

 

Teach Your Children- Dana Herman, Deena K. Fuchs

Dana Herman, Ph.D., a Managing Editor & Academic Associate of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, Ohio, reached out to a few of her colleagues and shares the following:

These three lessons were gleaned from a number of mothers at the AJA.

It’s better to have a mother who laughs too hard then to have one who doesn’t laugh at all.

You can attract more bees with honey than you can with vinegar.

I’m a great believer in luck—the harder I work, the more I have of it.

 

Photo by Sus‡nica Tam. Feb. 27, 2006

 

Deena K. Fuchs, Yehuda, Yaakov, Devora and Tamara’s mom, and Director of Strategic Partnerships, at The AVI CHAI Foundation (In honor of moms Leah Kaye and Paula Fuchs and grandmom Helen Kaye) writes:

This is actually my 10th mother’s day as a mom and I think it is fair to say that I have learned more from my children – about myself and the world – than I ever could have imagined. Here are just a few of the many lessons learned:

#1- Resilience

Yehuda (age 10) is my oldest son by 3 minutes. The day before the first day of first grade, I received his class list in the mail. His He and his best friends were separated. I knew how much he wanted to be with him. That night, as we cuddled before bedtime, I softly broke the news to him. I felt for him and I remember feeling the sting of my own held-back tears. He looked at me; I could see the hurt. And he said, “Don’t worry, Mommy. Sometimes things just don’t turn out the way we want. But, I will be OK.” Lesson learned.

#2 – Perseverance

Yaakov (age 10) is my second son. When he was eight, he dreamed of being a major league baseball player. We realized though that he will more likely manage the team!  Nevertheless, he was set on playing in the local hard ball league and was determined to be a star player. He was not there yet. Any free minute he had, rain or shine, he was outside throwing and catching and hitting. He built up a great arm, could catch anything thrown his way and held more than his own when up at bat. He was determined and he worked hard. He got there. Lesson learned.

#3 – Empathy

Devora (age 9) is my third child and eldest daughter. She is quiet and reflective. She intuits everything. She understands me and my motivations at times better than I do myself. She asks deep questions so she can understand people. Most recently, she was reprimanded for speaking during a test. When she explained the situation to me, she said, “mommy, Rebecca asked me if I was angry with her. How could I not tell her I wasn’t? She would think that I was and she would feel terrible. That would not be right.” Instead she took the reprimand. Lesson learned.

#4 – Love Being Alive          

Tamara (age 5) is my baby. She really doesn’t like when I say that! But she is. And, she is the most vivacious child you have ever seen. I love when I tell her to go play by herself; I get to watch her use an imagination that is unparalleled. She turns conversations into songs and she dances as she walks. She is always smiling because she sees happiness everywhere. She has fun being alive. Lesson learned.

The real task at hand was to share some lessons that I would like to impart to my children. So, if I could impart one important lesson to them, it would be:

“In your own unique way, you have so much to give, teach and share with others. Be true to yourself so that the rest of us can continue to learn from you.”

 

 

 

Teach Your Children- Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, Nancy Pryzant Picus

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblat, the Director of Lifelong Learning at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington DC, writes: 

The most important life lesson I hope that I am continually teaching my children is to be present for the radical wonder of the universe.  Not just the big miracles that happen but the small, daily wonders of life (the seeds that burst through the ground in the springtime, the phases of the moon, spontaneous laughter, the potential to feel endless love in our hearts, the chirping of the birds).  The lesson my kids are teaching me as a parent is that when I can be fully present- i.e. walk away from technology, the stresses that I hold in my mind- I can experience the radical amazement of the universe daily too.

 

 

Nancy Pryzant Picus, Director of Jewish Learning at The Shlenker School, shares the following at a particularly poignant moment in her family’s life:

I’ve actually thought a lot about this lately because in just a little over a month, I’m bringing my first child–my beautiful daughter Amalia–to the chuppah.  I’ve been trying to think what words of wisdom I can give her as she embarks on her own life as a wife, and God willing, a mother.  Here are some of my thoughts:

1.  My husband and I have always raised our children with one goal in mind–to lead them to a life of Torah, chuppah, and ma’asim tovim.  We have laid a foundation, we believe, by sending them to day school, by making Shabbat and holidays the center of our family life, and by encouraging volunteerism and tzedakah.  We’ve given them a foundation of Torah and ma’asim tovim; with God’s help, the chuppah we bring her to will be the first step in a life of love, devotion, and yes, building on the foundation of Torah and ma’asim tovim.

 2.  In our family, we’ve always invited God to live in our house.  We’ve never shied away from discussions about God, or from even admitting that yes, sometimes we question God, too.  I remember one such discussion so clearly.  We were on the way to the library, and in the backseat, my 6th grader was talking about something she had learned in biology, my 4th grader was relating something he had heard in a discussion about human sexuality (yes, that’s the year the kids get “the” information here at Shlenker), and my 2nd grader was trying to take it all in.  One of them, the fourth grader, said, “I just don’t get it about all the kissing.”  Of course, the other needed to respond and prove her superiority, and a lengthy discussion ensued.  Finally, one of them reached a conclusion:  “I get it now.  God is the outline, and science is the details.”  What a life lesson we had that day!

 

 

 

 

Teach Your Children- Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser

Rabbi Naamah Kelman, the Dean of the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jerusalem Campus shares:

Life lessons for our children:

1. I have tried to teach my children that they are a “heirs” to a glorious heritage, in fact they might think that they were born into Jewish “aristocracy”. But they have to earn this blessing.

 2. My children have accused me of being a snob, but I argue that I simply have high standards….like “be a mentch”!

 3. As my parents taught me: never take yourself too seriously, but take others very seriously.

4. Hachnasat Orchim: welcome family, friends, pilgrims and wayfarers in your home; this is a great mitzvah, particularly for shabbat and holidays. Share the bounty of our traditions with others.

(Rabbi Naamah Kelman is a feminist Jewish mother ( a creation of the 20th century indeed!) and most recently a completely “retro” Jewish Grandmother: he is THE prince!!!)

 

Sunrise in Acadia, Maine

Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser, synagogue educator at congregation Or Chadash in Atlanta, GA, shares:

Three of the many life lessons that I’ve tried to instill in my kids (and for that matter all the kids that I’ve had the privilege to teach) are:

 1. While you don’t have to be perfect, or even near perfect, you do have to use your gifts and try your best.

 2. Watch what you say to people and about people – words can bring cheer and inspiration or they can be cruel and hurtful – use them carefully.

 3. There is an entire world out there for you to explore and for you to help fix – turn off the T.V. and get out there!

Teach Your Children- Introduction

Over the next couple of weeks rabbi’s pen will be running a series dedicated to celebrating the unique perspectives of motherhood by sharing insights from moms around the world. We’ve reached out with the request: share a few of the life lessons you’ve tried to instill in your children/grandchildren. We look forward to many wonderful responses from amazing women that highlight the unique role of mom as teacher, source of wisdom, life guide, coach, and mentor.

This series is dedicated to all moms, but especially to my mom, Jenny, my grandma Shandy, my grandma Florence of blessed memory, my wife Loren, my mother-in-law Cathy, grandma Irene (of blessed memory), and grandma Julia (of blessed memory).