Sunday, January 26, 2014

Tzelem Elokim -- Learning about Being Created in the Image of G-d

One thing on which all streams of Judaism agree is that some of the core principles of the Jewish religion revolve around g'milut Chassidim, kvod adam l'chavero and tikkun olam. But what exactly do those concepts involve?

High School students at Yeshivat Kadima of St. Louis have been exploring these questions as part of their course on Jewish History and Contemporary Jewish Issues. The students integrate textual studies with history and real life dilemmas as they explore Jewish issues of today in light of Jewish sources and Jewish history.

The second semester of the course began in the beginning of January with a focus on the relationships between chessed and the students' own lives in light of a variety of the teachings of the Rambam, one of the greatest medieval Jewish thinkers. During January, the class focused on "How to be Good." After viewing a thought provoking video entitled "For Goodness Sakes" the students took a poll in which they were asked to note some of the traits that make a person a good person according to the video. A second poll was used to compare traits that the students feel make one a good person according to Judaism. The students then moved to a linoboard where they expanded on their answers and expressed their thoughts about how Judaism emphasizes "caring for 'the Other'".


The next lesson involved creating a Powerpoint Presentation which focused on definitions of goodness that could be derived from reading traditional texts, particularly those authored by Rambam. A different textual source was presented on each slide, and each student was asked to add his/her own slide to the presentation with a modern-day example of the "chesed" implied in the source. In addition to the feedback given by the instructor, the students were asked to review and comment on each other's work.

The focus of the discussion then turned to the concept of "tzelem Elokim" – "the image of G-d" as the fundamental principle behind the Jewish concepts of g'milut Chassidim, kvod adam l'chavero and tikkun olam. Each student was encouraged to look at how he/she embodies "tzelem Elokim" by reflecting on the following questions:

1. Which of your qualities most reflects "tzelem Elokim"? Give an example of when your behavior reflects "tzelem Elokim". 

2. Which quality that reflects "tzelem Elokim" do you respect in someone you look up to? This can be a family member, friend, teacher, anyone in your circle of life. Give an example of what this person did that makes him/her an example of "tzelem Elokim".

The students submitted their own thoughts and then commented on the answers that their peers had offered to further expand and clarify their visions of "tzelem Elokim".  

The next session focused on giving Tzedakah, particularly on whether giving Tzedakah is a choice or an obligation? The students examined different sources that command us to give tzdekka and commented on the sources that they found to be most convincing. They then studied Rambam's pyramid of the 8 levels of giving Tzedakah and created a class PPT in which each student discussed one of the Rambam's levels of Tzedakah and related it to their own personal experience.

To summarize the lesson the students were presented with halachot and dilemmas which elicited serious thought about issues that are raised by the injunction to give Tzedakah. The students were asked to comment on those issues as they considered their own feelings and the dictates of Jewish law.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Exploring the Future by Examining the Past

Half a year into the JconnecT Learning program, the online Hebrew school participants are connecting to the wider Jewish community by exploring their own Jewish heritage.

JconnecT was established in 2010 as a vehicle which allows Jewish youngsters aged 11-14 to learn about Judaism in an elearning format that meets each student's specific needs and interests. The students gather, online, from many different areas of North America, to learn, discuss, present and discover the different aspects of their Judaism. Some of the students are homeschooled while others attend a traditional public school for their secular studies. JconnecT includes participants who live in remote areas in which they don't have access to a traditional afternoon Hebrew school, as well as students who are not comfortable with the existing Hebrew school framework that exists in their neighborhood. JconnecT provides the students with an open atmosphere to ask questions and to explore various aspects of their Jewish heritage and connections to Israel.

The second semester of the 2013-2014 JconnecT year began with a summary of the students' own families' histories. Students chatted in what they knew about their own families' origins and histories and then located their ancestral homes on the online map. The kids then viewed an online map which displayed numbers of Jews who immigrated to Israel in the years 1948-1950. Discussion questions included:
1.       Which country had the most number of people who immigrated to Israel?
2.        Why were so many Jews immigrating to Israel from those countries during those years?
3.       Are there surprises on the map?
The students were able to link the post-Holocaust persecutions in Eastern Europe and North Africa and the issue of Jewish refugees with the immigration numbers. Many of the students also expressed their surprise that large numbers of Jews once lived in "exotic" countries such as Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and even India.

During the next part of the lesson, the students -- mostly Ashkanazi -- moved on to learn more about the Sephardic community. The concepts "Ashkanazi" and "Sepharadi" were new to most of the students who viewed the map to identify countries that are associated with Ashkanazi and Sepharadi communities. A few students mentioned items of interest that they knew about North African Jews -- dress, food customs, holiday traditions -- and then the kids watched a video which takes a humorous look at the unique aspects of Ashkanazi and Sepharadi communities.

After watching the video the students reviewed some of the information that they'd learned from the video as they annotated an online chart with comparisons of Ashkanazi and Sepharadi music, language, food, names, holidays, beliefs and more.

The lesson ended with a closer look at food traditions, which fascinated the kids. Some unusual types of Jewish ethnic foods were presented and the students considered which foods they'd like to try and why. They then shared their own families' Jewish food specialties with a look at the history of some of these dishes.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Strengthening Diaspora Jewish Identity Through e-Learning

Last week the Prime Minister's office announced that Israel would be investing billions of dollars in the coming years to strengthen the Jewish identity of Diaspora Jews.  The announcement was made as part of the government's initiative to reverse the trend towards assimilation by helping Jewish communities throughout the world find strategies that bolster their members' Jewish identity.

One successful program, the Lauder e-Learning School, is already functioning in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The school offers online Jewish education for young Jewish students who live hours from a Jewish hub and have no access nearby to Jewish education. The majority of these students have little Jewish background but they are excited about learning and enthusiastic about the program. The parents also have minimal Jewish education -- some grew up without even knowing that they were Jewish -- but they want their children to have the opportunities for Jewish learning that were denied to them. 

The program offers Jewish education classes — both Hebrew courses and a wide range of Jewish studies” curriculum. These courses are supplemented by elective instruction in three foreign languages (German, French and English) to broaden the students' education and draw the students to the school. Students are invited to select any of the free classes that are offered on weekday afternoons, and they meet online in age-specific groups. Instructors, who were trained and are mentored by Jerusalem EdTech Solutions (JETS Israel) director Smadar Goldstein,  present the computer conferencing classes online and the students interact, answer questions, and complete assignments on tablets which are provided by the Lauder e-Learning School.  

So far almost 50 young Jewish students have taken part in the program. These youngsters are often the only Jews in their public school classrooms and the e-Lauder school is their sole opportunity to interact with other Jews in their own age group.  In addition to their online activities the students are invited to participate in an annual weekend Shabbaton in Warsaw hosted by the Lauder-Morsaha School. They are also invited to attend the annual Ronald S. Lauder Foundation summer camp.

The Lauder e-School was designed with the long-term goal of reviving Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The school's administration works with the Jewish leadership of each of the countries in which is functions including Germany, Slovakia, Poland and the Czech Republic. A similar program is slated to open in Moscow next year. The Warsaw e-School, founded two years ago, is the latest facet in Poland’s Jewish revival, which is bringing Polish Jewry to the level of any small Jewish community in Europe.

For more information about the program, see a Jewish Week article entitled"Poles Apart

Sunday, January 19, 2014

It's 3:00a.m and I'm Troubleshooting

Last week I began my second year of online learning with a 7th grade class in Deerfield Illinois. For me, living in Israel, this means waking up at 3:00a.m. to teach the 7:00p.m. Deerfield class. But despite the challenge (it usually takes me through Shabbat to get my internal clock back on track) I enjoy the interaction with the kids who are engaged, curious and ready to explore new concepts and ideas.

My 2014 class started off on an awkward note. We are using the Webex conferencing software to facilitate the class and, immediately after I launched the class, I received a message from Webex to tell me that the "audio part of the conference is not working today." Since the class runs for half an hour, there seemed to be no reason to close the class and start it again which would have taken up more than half the class time so we decided to conduct the entire class on chat.

Luckily I'm a fast typist and I spent the next hour typing my heart out -- answering the kids' chat questions and comments, giving them directions and providing them with an overview of what subjects would be covered during their 9-week class on "Israel." 

The second challenge occurred when Facebook failed me. To show the kids some of the unique aspects of Israel I had planned to have them take a look at the Facebook "Only In Israel" page. ( I created a username and password so that the students would be able to click in but Facebook doesn't like multiple sign-ins from multiple devices and they effectively blocked my activity.

Live and learn. We moved on to the next activity and I quickly located an appropriate video that would fill in the class time.

Lessons learned:
1.      There's more than one way to skin a cat. If something goes wrong, you can usually find your way around it and should be prepared to do so. In the future, I'm going to make sure that I always have an alternate platform available -- probably Skype. I don't like skype as well as Webex because it doesn't offer the same opportunity to post documents, videos and other materials directly on the screen. However, it would have been a lot easier to have moved over to Skype and continue the class there than to type like a madwoman for 60 minutes.
2.      Always have a back-up lesson plan. I've found that, for a half-hour lesson, we generally have time for 2-3 activities including preparatory activities, the core information that I want to present and follow-up activities. It's important to have one extra activity ready to supplement anything that doesn't work.

When you're counting on technology to facilitate your lesson plan, you might as well assume that something won't work. If everything goes smoothly, that's great. But I will, in the future, be preparing a back-up plan for all of my lessons.    

3.      The kids will give you the benefit of the doubt. I don't think that I could get away with a chat lesson a second time but here, the students were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. They participated fully and we completed the material. It didn't go as any of us had intended but no one took advantage of the technological lapse and they did their best to ensure that the lesson was, under the conditions, a success.

My Lost World -- Personalizing Holocaust Education

Institutions and educators have struggled for the past 70 years to bring the concept of a "Lost World" to Holocaust education in a way that students can identify withn it. A recent class with Temple Emanuel students explored methods of engaging the students in an interactive give-and-take that promotes sensitivity to a world that previously seemed distant.

A sample community, the Hassidic community which lost a large percentage of its members during the Holocaust, was examined. The students viewed a video about Hassidim and considered Hassidic values which center on family, spirituality, modesty, joy in life, holiday celebrations, pride in heritage and looking at the good in everything that happens. The teachers elicited the similarity between these Hassidic values and the students' own values. 

The students created a canvas on a linoboard that summarized some of what they learned about Hassidim, and to present their thoughts about their unique lifestyle and beliefs.

The lesson continued with a look at Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira -- known as Eish Kodesh, an exceptional Jewish leader who lived and died in the Warsaw Ghetto. The students were presented with a Google document that gave an outline of Rabbi Shapira's life. They were asked to comment on different facets of his life, including why he was called the "Eish Kodesh"

Smadar announced to the students that she is planning to visit their classroom in a few weeks to meet with them and learn together face-to-face, and asked them to begin to think about an artifact to donate to a class scrapbook that will showcase the students' Holocaust studies.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Remembrance and Rebuilding

Why are we often told to remember bad events like the Alamo, the war with Amalek, and of course, the Holocaust? An innovative online course entitled " Remembrance and Rebuilding", presented by JETS to 7th grade students at Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley, began with this essential question. The students began to grapple with the question by offering thoughtful answers through online messaging. The teachers, Smadar Goldstein and Michal Lashansky, then presented the students with several different ways in which the Holocaust is memorialized today, and asked them to select the one that they felt was most meaningful to them and to explain why. This assignment was completed by posting virtual sticky notes on a linoboard, an interactive online social media bulletin board. The teachers then asked the students to comment on each other's posts, after which the class discussed the different thoughts that had been expressed on the linoboard. It was an example of collaborative learning at its best.

Why are the students responding online? In addition to the unique content of the curriculum, the "Remembrance and Rebuilding" course is also innovative in its venue. The students are not sitting in the same room, and teachers Smadar and Michal are not even in the same country. Rather, the students participate in the course by logging in from their homes, and the teachers present the class from Jerusalem through computer conferencing technology. The class was organized by Rabbi Shelley Kniaz, Religious School Director Temple Emanuel of Pascack Valley as a way to allow students to approach their study of contemporary Jewish history in a highly engaging atmosphere of interactive learning.

Smadar and Michal consider themselves "teachers without borders", as they utilize the online platform to allow students to learn in a context that is not confined to their local setting:

The first part of the course focuses on the Holocaust, utilizing memorials to the Holocaust in Israel and America as a context for considering what we should remember, and why. Students will pay virtual visits to a number of Holocaust memorials in Israel and to the Holocaust Museum in Washington in their quest to answer these questions. The final session of this section discusses the concept of "remembering the exodus from Egypt" as a pretext for understanding how the focus on "remembering" in Judaism is designed to serve as a catalyst for social activism.  

The latter part of the course focuses on Jewish life in Israel in both ancient times and in the modern State of Israel, and the notable influence of the memory of the exodus from Egypt and of the Holocaust on Israeli society. The main topics include the mandate for creating a just society in Israel, the importance of Jewish self-defense, and the centrality of Jerusalem for Jews throughout the world. Students will, of course, experience Israeli society in a unique way through their Jerusalem based learning.

The JETS teachers believe that history can be learned most effectively when students are encouraged to relate to it in a personal way. Students were asked to present their own connections to the Holocaust. Several of the students have family members who survived the Holocaust and they shared snippets of their stories. Michal then told the students about her own grandfather's story -- his escape from Nazi-occupied Poland, his struggles during the war years and his anguish at being separated from his family. The students expressed surprise at how such a young man could persevere in such horrible conditions and at the travels and difficulties that Michal's grandfather endured in order to survive. 

Michal summarized her grandfather's story by discussing some of the things that the family learned as a result of her grandfather's experiences:
a.       The importance of family and Judaism in their lives. Michal's grandfather honored his family by raising  his own children in a Jewishly-rich environment
b.      The importance of establishing a personal connection with the victims. In Michal's case, her trip to Poland established a connection between her and her grandfather's family, and strengthened her own commitment to perpetuate their memory.

The students then viewed a movie, 94 Maidens, in which an interviewer questioned college students in Pennsylvania about their knowledge of the Holocaust. The majority of the students knew very little -- most were barely able to articulate exactly what the Holocaust was, where it occurred or who the victims were. This movie made a great impression on the students and a lively discussion ensued after the screening with the students considering how to best ensure that the holocaust will never be forgotten. Rabbi Kniaz reminded the students that their class would be responsible for planning and leading the Yom HaShoah commemoration at Temple Emanuel in the spring. She suggested that, throughout the course, they consider how to incorporate their ideas of Holocaust commemoration into the spring program.

At the conclusion of the class, the students reviewed the activities of the previous hour, noting which activities were most meaningful for each participant and why.  If the first class is any indication, the Remembrance and Rebuilding course at Temple Emmanuel will be engaging, exciting, enriching, meaningful, and of course, memorable.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Students Teach

The culmination of the first semester of JETS'  Contemporary Jewish Issues course at Yeshivat Kadimah in St. Louis centered on the  students' projects in which each student was assigned to explore, research and present a subject or an issue that concerns today's Jewish community. In this presentation, the students were requested to relate the issue to concerns of Jews who lived during the 1st - 3rd centuries C.E.

The students selected a wide variety of subjects ranging from wars and heroines to Israel as a high-tech nation, and even Jewish hats.

Following each student's presentation of his or her topic, the subjects that the students had chosen were further examined with follow-up activities.  Students were asked to review their  peers' projects and make comments, add information and otherwise expand on each theme.

In this phase of the learning, the students became teachers, which is a very powerful learning experience. Seeing is believing – view some of the presentations for yourselves:



Why the Weak Win Wars

Jewish Hats

Hi Tech Nation

Warfare Then and Now

Kosher Foods

Friday, January 3, 2014

Mindmapping, Jewish Identity and the Classroom

How does our individual identity interact with our collective identity as members of the Jewish community?

This is a complicated question. Every Jewish individual relates to their Jewish identity in a different way. Some people are very observant but don't consider Judaism as a nationality or a unique culture. Others relate to the national or cultural aspects of Judaism while choosing to ignore the religious characteristics of Judaism.

As part of JETS Shutafut/Partnership program, middle school students from Emek HaHula Regional School in Northern Israel and the Talmud Torah of Edmonton Canada were asked to "Map your Jewish Identity." The mind-mapping was conceived as a tool for encouraging the students to consider how their own personal identity integrates into their Jewish identity.

Using the MindMeister Brainstorming tool, the students were asked to create a mind-map that would capture each individual student's stream of consciousness as he/she considered the different roles that play out in his/her life.

Students were asked to go to and create a bubble with their name in the middle. From there, they were asked to draw lines to additional bubbles that would express the different roles that they fill in their lives. Brother/Sister? Caretaker? Partner in family responsibilities? Friend? Gamer? Environmental activist? Volunteer? Student? Each student needed to consider how they view their own roles in the family/community and how others see them.

Following that exercise, the students moved to a linoboard where they were asked to expand on their personal identities and point to elements -- values, experiences, ideals, etc -- that connect them to the wider Jewish community.

This mindmapping lesson was designed to foster the students' self-awareness of their personal identies, and how fit into a wider identification with the Jewish community. It was, however, a valuable experience for the educators as well. For them, the significance this discussion related to uncoverng the knowledge and the tools that will enable an individual to become more aware of their personal Jewish identity and to grow Jewishly.