Sunday, October 20, 2013

Moving the Mountain

I've been thinking about the webcast that I saw yesterday (recorded from the live webcast last week)in which Jewish educators met to discuss the findings of the PEW report Portrait of Jewish Americans.

In essence, what the speakers were saying was "the numbers don't look great but let's concentrate on the people who are still part of the Jewish community and build on that."

That's an important point. Jewish educators work hard to pass on Judaism to the next generation and it's discouraging to hear the statistics. But if teachers are prepared to focus on the majority of Jews who continue to feel that Judaism is an important part of their lives, and who do want to grow Jewishly, they can succeed.

I would have liked to have added another question to the webcast. How do we, as Jewish educators, meet the needs of individuals and families who don't come to the Jewish institutions? How can we bring the institutions to them?

As the study indicated, not all of the unaffiliated families want to connect to the Jewish community, but many do. Reasons for disinterest in affiliation vary. Some individuals intermarried and subsequently didn't feel comfortable within the Jewish community. Others moved to rural areas in which they were unable to find a community environment.  There are numerous other reasons for families' lack of affiliation but the study did indicate that, even among Jews for whom Judaism did not play a significant role in their lives, many identify as Jews and want to maintain a connection with their Jewish heritage. It may not be 100% but we're still talking about thousands of families and we have to think about how to facilitate their continued engagement, on any level.

I was thinking about the situation this evening while sitting in on an online Hebrew school class. The JconnecT 2013-2014 season has launched and the classes alternate between Hip Hop Hebraics and Contemporary Jewish Issues. The students, aged 11 -14, participate in JconnecT as a complementary Jewish experience that allows them to explore Jewish history, values, culture and traditions in an open atmosphere of dynamic Jewish learning.

Today's class was an engaging look at Jewish Ethics. The instructor posted a list of ABCs and asked the students to write words next to each letter that related to elements of ethics.

The class then discussed the meaning of ethics and how it applies to modern-day life. The instruction moved over to a linoboard where several different assignments awaited the students. Each assignment included a question about a real-life or fictionalized issue of ethics in which the students were asked to decide how to act, with references to Jewish texts and scholarly writings which relate to Jewish ethics.

The students were given time to review the issues and add their comments and thoughts, after which the class concentrated on a few of the dilemmas, such as the question of if and when it's OK to cheat. The instructor presented the students with various scenarios and asked them "when is it OK to cheat? Are there any times that you can cheat?"  Once again, the students were forced to review their stand and decide what was ethical, both according to Jewish standards and their own standards of behavior.

At the end of the lesson the instructor polled the students, asking them which subjects -- military ethics, cheating, gossip, respecting elders, etc -- they wanted to delve into more deeply in future classes.

For the entire 45-minute class the students were involved in the subject matter. The online tools that the instructor used ensured that students didn't have to "wait their turn" to express an opinion or ask a question -- the action never stopped as students reviewed the material and posted their comments as they maintained a high level of interactive engagement throughout the lesson.

If Moshe and Miriam can't come to the mountain, online learning offers a partial answer to the question of how the Jewish community can bring the mountain to Moshe and Miriam. 

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