Now that the semester’s ending, I’ve decided to take up quilting over the winter break. Specifically, I’m making a quilt out of tote bags I’ve gotten at Jewish conferences. You know the ones; representing the entire span of Jewish organizational life, they tumble out of your hall closet, making you feel like you just came back from the G.A. every time you open the door. By the look of it, my quilt is likely to cover a small state, possibly Rhode Island or New Jersey. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this quilt, just like I’ve never been sure what to do with all these bags.

Use them, you’re thinking. Not a chance. Even those of you who sprung for the two-toned gusseted, heavy-gauge 12 ounce canvas with a pocket, two-ply 28” handles and attached key holder, I will not be wearing your tote bag. I will not even wear it if Prada produced your tote bag … well, I’d think about it.

Here’s why: First of all, every organization in our community is important. Why would I privilege one over another? You’re right, I could wear a different one every day. Good compromise. Problem: I’m the type who always forgets to transfer my wallet from one bag to another so this arrangement would not work. Plus I have a small hall closet.

Second of all, I’m not a billboard for your organization. If you work tirelessly on behalf of a specific denomination, I cannot wear your bag, and if you don’t have a 4-star rating on Charity Navigator, I am, in principle, not wearing your bag. Decades ago, to amuse myself, I sent one of my sons to his Lubavitch pre-school with a change of clothes in a bag that said “The Courage to Be Modern and Orthodox,” given out by a now defunct organization from one of their conferences. I know. It was a little snarky. But it gave me a laugh, and it made me feel good to re-purpose the bag.

Here’s reason number three: In doing research for my new quilt project, I looked up the cost of the two-toned gusseted bag. On sale with the logo, it was $9.39 each for a quantity of 25. That’s close to a thousand dollars for a conference of 100 participants. You bought the bag to house all the material that you want to give out. Reams and reams of paper. Color brochures that will be skimmed during your plenary session and tossed into a recycling bin without a hesitation. Annual reports that need to stay on your website. Don’t think color. Think content. If a hard copy of your educational material helps people learn, print that. But if someone is reading all your literature during a plenary, the problem isn’t the literature; it’s that your plenary may not be sufficiently engaging.

While, we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Jewish pens. Either your organization is getting the cheap pen that will not even write without aggressively pressing it down in continuous circles until it punctures your notepad, or you’re buying a really expensive pen that makes me feel, well, uncomfortable. Please don’t spend money on that pen. We all own pens. And then there’s the journals with the stretchy elastic marker. Everyone who’s anyone has one of those. I have a library of them, empty sentinels to well-intended reflections that didn’t make it on to the page. Sometimes, if I’m feeling really pluralistic or naughty, I use a different tote, pen and journal just to confuse the enemy.

Here’s reason number four and the most important reason to stop with the tote bags: the Bible contains a prohibition against waste: baal tashkhit. Deuteronomy 20:19-20 prohibits the cutting down of fruit trees during war. Needless destruction is unwarranted. Thus, the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud extended this principle to chopping furniture, ripping clothing unnecessarily, and wasting oil [see BT Shabbat 67b, BT Hullin 7b, BT Kiddushin 32a]. Had they been around today, I wonder what the sages would have to say about our conference USB flash drives, mugs, our monogrammed stressballs, our water bottles (so many water bottles!) our caps and t-shirts. We all own these already. Too many of these.

It is a profoundly Jewish value not to waste. But there’s a Jewish value far deeper: the waste of human resources. Those tote bags are produced cheaply because someone overseas is getting paid a pittance per day to make them for the huge maw that is the American consumer. That person may be a child. Is your tote bag worth that? If you told me that in lieu of your tote bag, your organization has sent the same amount in a charitable donation to support education for children who would otherwise have to work in Africa or the Far East, I’d smile broadly, go home without shoulder pain and think to myself, “Finally, we got it right. “


These are my remarks this past Monday, November 26, 2018, when I addressed the Pittsburgh Jewish community at their community sheloshim commemoration - the thirty day mark after a death, in this case, eleven deaths. It was very powerful, dignified, and, for me, exceptionally humbling. There were about 800 people in the room - the rabbis and congregants of two of the three synagogues housed at Tree of Life, along with people across the Jewish community and beyond. College students said the names of the dead and lit candles. The mayor was there. A representative of the Israeli consulate in New York spoke. First responders were given a standing ovation and rabbis from every denomination, the head of the Federation, other organizations and the head of the JCC, all got up to offer brief prayers, poems and remarks. A string quartet that rehabilitates banned music played several beautiful, ethereal pieces written by Jews who had themselves suffered tragic circumstances. It seemed like the community was at a pivot point, honoring the dead while needing the permission to return to a semblance of normalcy. 

A long time ago across a mighty ocean, a pious man shouldered the sorrows of the world. He lost his job. Many of those he loved died. He was ill and deeply confused.  With the last of his savings, he travelled many days to see his Rebbe. You see, this man – this hassid – had always lived with strict ritual observance and intense belief. When his world began to collapse and his faith tottered, he felt there was only once place to go – to his teacher and mentor – to seek an explanation for his great troubles.

 He arrived at the Rebbe’s court anxious to understand why all of this befell him. He was escorted into the Rebbe’s study and saw the Rebbe’s radiant face. The hassid poured out his heart. He cried and shared his catalogue of woes. “Why, Rebbe, why is this happening to me? Why?”

 When he finished, the two – one standing, the other sitting – were enveloped in silence. The hassid waited and waited for his Rebbe’s verdict. Nothing but silence. The hassid was about to take leave of his Rebbe, feeling more dejected and isolated than ever. Suddenly and without a word, the Rebbe got up, walked around his desk and stood next to his disciple. He held his hand and gently said, “My son, my dear one, I cannot explain why all these tragedies happened to you. No one can. If anyone tries, they are spinning falsehoods. All I can do is stand with you in your suffering.”

I am not a hassid. I am not a Rebbe. I have no disciples. I have not been through the anguish you all have suffered. I, like many of you, was born in Pittsburgh. But I was not raised here. And I was not in the Tree of Life Synagogue. But I am the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors who never thought this could happen in America. And I am here to tell you that we are all one family. One Jewish family. One human family. I represent thousands of people around this country and around the world – Jews and non-Jews - who simply want to stand with you in your suffering. Because that’s what a family does. And in crisis, we do it best. In families, we know who shows up for us. We note presence. The Rebbe taught the hassid the gift of simple presence. It was up to him now to be present when others suffered.

 In Jewish law, both joy and suffering follow a similar pattern of intensity and incremental change. There is a time for each, as Ecclesiastes

 עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד׃

“A time for weeping and a time for laughing. A time for wailing and a time for dancing.”

 There is a holiness to the emotions. When we experience them, we must do so fully. There are laws related to the joy one generates around a wedding on the day of the wedding, the week that follows, the month that follows and the year that follows. Joy is not to be experienced and shelved in one day. It is to be savored. It must linger. We move from peak intensity to a slow simmering happiness for a couple as they launch their new lives.

 When it comes to mourning, there are laws the day of a funeral, the shiva week after, the commemoration or shloshim a month later and the recitation of a kaddish the year after. Judaism’s great wisdom is helping people move from one stage to the next, honoring their dead through ritual that allows mourners to hold on to the pain while helping them slowly let go. And because we never let go of the great traumas of our lives, we commemorate a yartzheit annually. For as long as we live, we will always say a prayer for those who are no longer with us.

 This sensitivity to a mourner’s emotional landscape is encapsulated in two Jewish laws of mourning. During shiva, the mourner always speaks first, not the visitor. The mourner determines the emotional temperature of the moment. And if the mourner does not want to speak at all because of the horror, because of the pain, the two sit in silence. This silence is the silence of the Rebbe in our story. He understood that words can betray, and words can sometimes belittle the depth of our most difficult struggles. Silence is often the more noble and honest response. But the Rebbe understood something even more powerful: the power of presence. We do not let people suffer alone. We show up. We hold a hand. We make the space sacred simply by being there together.

 And when the shiva period is over, we invite the mourner to walk around the block, to step outside, symbolically joining the world again. And here, too, we accompany the mourner because re-entry can be much harder than sitting together in the shelter of shared memories, in the comfort of a home. We walk the mourner outside because it is time to re-affirm life, it is time to rejoin the world. But who, I ask you, can really rejoin a shattered world, what mystics call the alma deperuda – a universe of separation and brokenness? On the day of a funeral, it seems impossible to begin mourning. On the last day of shiva, it seems equally impossible to end it.

We all know that sometimes the darkest moments of mourning are when everyone leaves. And the wise organizers of this commemoration understood that a month later is precisely when the hardest emotional work begins. They brought us together in this room. We are here to strengthen broken hearts that they may beat again. We are here to acknowledge and to honor the incredible unity that’s been created in the wake of this tragedy. We are here to hold each other’s hands without the platitude that it will all be alright. Because it won’t. We cannot bring back the eleven precious souls who are no longer with us. We must name evil and dedicate ourselves to fight it. We cannot be afraid of expressing our outrage. At the same time, our mourning teaches us the wisdom of sharing our vulnerability. 

And we must stand in awe of the words of the psalmist: Olam Hesed Yibane – the world is held up by kindness. Even coming here, I was struck by this. A few of us at the airport who had all been delayed for more than three hours getting to Pittsburgh started to schmooze. A man traveling for business asked me what was bringing me to Pittsburgh, all of us assessing how critical it was to get there in navigating the hours we waited. We finally got on the plane only to wait an hour and get off again with our luggage. Determined to be with you tonight, I rushed to get a seat on the next and only possible flight that would get me here just in the nick of time. I was stunned when the man I had spoken with, a complete stranger said, “I got a seat on the next flight. I want to give it to you. What you’re doing is more important than what I’m doing.”

By all accounts, for the past month, you too have been held up by such everyday kindnesses. The author, David Gelernter, once wrote, “"If you insert into this weird slot machine of modern life one evil act, a thousand acts of kindness tumble out." Just as we extend mourning and don’t rush to normalcy, let us be grateful for the thousand acts of kindness that were precipitated by this tragedy. Let them continue. With each kindness, we honor those who died.

I’d like to conclude with the opening of a poem by Wallace Stevens. I believe it captures what it means to transition back to life, to embrace life and to celebrate it while carrying all of our wounds.

After the final no there comes a yes
And on that yes the future world depends.
No was the night. Yes is this present sun.

Yes is this present sun. Yes. Light is on its way. We are a week away from Hanuka. In the wake of this tragedy, let it be the most meaningful and powerful Hanuka of our lives. If you have never lit a menorah, I encourage you to do so this year - to move from the shiva candle to the Hanuka candles. With each night, with each candle, with each act of light, we tell the world, that darkness has a cure. We must be the light.


When my book on death was published a few years ago, I went on the typical book tour, but there was nothing typical about “Happier Endings.” It was a book on dying better; the conversations around it were very personal and often full of anguish. During one stop in the spring, a woman in the audience confessed she could not get her parents to talk about death, burial plots or last wishes. She thought this book might help them start an important family conversation.

“Do you think this would make a good Mother’s Day present?”

“No, that’s a terrible idea,” I said, “possibly the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

Mother’s Day is not a time to talk about death, unless you really don’t like your mother. But on almost any other day, it’s a conversation that needs to happen. I have had dozens of conversations with adult children who have tried unsuccessfully to get their parents to talk. I myself shared the story in the book of broaching my beloved bubbe to gently ease her into a conversation about what she’d like to do with her remaining years. She was 98 at the time. “What? You trying to kill me?”

That’s a conversation stopper.

A friend of mine buried her father some years ago. He was really sick for more than a year. When it was clear her father was getting worse by the day, she told me that she was trying to write down everything of meaning her father said to her in those past difficult months. Now, it is the notebook of her heart. I imagine that she might even be holding it now with her fingers pressed hard into its cardboard covers, as if holding on to it tightly could make him somehow come back.

And I think of the lines in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”: “His life was gentle, and the elements / So mixed in him that Nature might stand up / And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’”

“Do you know what he said to me today?” she asked rhetorically, when he was near his last breath. “He said, ‘You are so beautiful.’ Imagine that? He can hardly say anything, but he said that to me today.” I know that she will hold on to those words for the rest of her life. In darker moments, she will know that a childhood hero thought the world of her. She may have lost her father, but she will always have a parent. His voice will continue to whisper to her.

From speaking to hundreds of people who have lost parents, it seems like nothing can prepare you for it, even when you know it’s coming. No matter how prepared you think you are. No matter how old you are. You can arrange the logistics of hospice care and a funeral beforehand. You can talk to friends, your rabbi and your therapist, and somehow all the words do not add up to the confrontation of this primal primordial, loss.

People who have just lost a second parent described the new layer of grief that sets in with four words that fall like bricks: “I am an orphan.” By this they do not mean that they are like small, pitiable children in a Dickens novel. What they mean is that the foundation of their lives — whether they were close to their parents or not — has been viscerally removed. They walk in the world now with a phantom limb.

My friend will gnaw on her father’s kind words, to borrow an expression from Maya Angelou. It makes you ponder what we need to leave our children when we leave this world that goes far beyond the financial last will and testament of a family estate. This man left his daughter a legacy of language, even as he moved in and out of coherence.

But for most adult children and their parents, a deafening silence is the norm when it comes to tying up loose practical and emotional ends and making last desires known. This may be because a parent has not yet made his last desires known to himself. Or herself. More time was likely spent contacting home help and sitting in doctors’ offices together than having conversations of final meaning. It’s a parent’s last lesson to a child. Arguably more important than teaching children how to grow up and how to age gracefully is teaching them how to die well.

If you’re celebrating Mother’s Day, have a great time. Enjoy each other’s company. Soak up the love and appreciation. But the day after, ask yourself if you’re ready to talk about what no one wants to talk about: a time when you are no longer here. I envy my friend. Her father was not afraid to speak of his death to his children. Are you? 


Setting out on a new venture in Jewish education, I was interested in the hard-earned wisdom of notable professionals in and around the field. As part of the work of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership, we seek to bring academics and practitioners into conversation on the educational issues that matter most. To do this well, it’s critical to identify today’s educational landscape. To that end, I spent nearly a year interviewing professionals in and around the universe of Jewish education, formally and informally. I had initially intended to save the formal responses in a personal collection to direct my own work. But there was too much richness and depth to keep the responses to myself. While the conversations continue, clear patterns emerged.

What did these experts see the as the current contributions of Jewish education, particularly day school education, and could they point to successes? What are the most pressing leadership challenges today and the viable initiatives tackling these problems? What skill sets do they believe are most important to the work, and what kind of lay support is most helpful in achieving their goals? Although I sent a set of questions in advance, I allowed the conversation to flow freely. Many respondents immediately problematized the subject. I gently nudged them into focusing on what is working. It is with these successes that we begin.

Quotation marks indicate direct quotes from respondents. Those I spoke with are listed in the aggregate at the article’s conclusion. The terms thought-leader, expert, authority, senior professional/educator and academic are used co-terminously, since the academics cited here function in many of these capacities. For the sake of brevity and anonymity, the most salient and repeated observations are distilled into 18 main points supported by verbatim quotes – a chai guideline, so to speak – to inform a communal agenda.

1.We are really good at strengthening belonging and building community. The commitment to creating community is working. “We’re not building community perfectly, and we’re not doing it for everyone, but we are still doing it.” We have a greater understanding of the dynamics of belonging and inclusion and are more sensitive to those who feel on the margins, with one caveat: “If we do a great job of creating community, and we make some people feel very connected and welcome, but we don’t do it for all, then we are powerfully and painfully excluding some.” Communities are more porous today. The big tent may have more room, but we need to be friendlier to get people who feel excluded into that tent.

2. More people are accessing Jewish education in more ways than ever before. “I think the depth of Jewish learning among young people has expanded,” observed one respondent. We’ve also created more opportunities and expectations around learning. “Gap year programs and deep immersion in learning is standard in some communities.” Others point to inclusion within the learning process: “We’ve made strides across the board in strengthening progressive education, like differentiated learning. Across the sectors, everyone understands that’s a goal. Inclusion is a principle. Learning styles are well-known, even if the implementation required isn’t always as good.” This access is not only a change in where people learn and how but who is accessing Jewish education: “There seems to be a lot of talk and action around outreach, meaning Jewish education for the unaffiliated or those on the margins of the organized Jewish community. There is a big chasm in the middle.” Despite the strength of work with these populations, Hebrew school students are still left with very little high-quality programming: “there is nothing but hand-wringing.” The “energy for young adults and millennials” should translate into more concentrated focus on congregational education.

3. Education as a field has become more professionalized. “I think we have begun the process of professionalizing,” stated one expert. “More people are getting graduate degrees than they were two decades ago.” Pockets of mediocrity would not be tolerated today the way they once were. Another observed that although there is more professionalization expected today, this development comes with “pros and cons.” There are “a lot of people in the past who couldn’t find training in the Jewish world who now have programs and paths that never existed before,” which may also lead to having people in the field who are not suited. The “constant communication problem” means that many opportunities for professional development are not broadly shared. “If you’re not in the know or confident enough to be persistent, you won’t know. Too many things are the best kept secrets.”

4. Success lives at the nexus of strong practitioners and strong leaders. Professionals who are well-supported by lay leaders and have a strong sense of mission coupled with productivity can produce remarkable results. “When innovations have really taken hold, it’s when resources are available, and the community provides support.” Strong partnerships among professionals also yield success. “In schools and where you see teachers and principals working closely together, that’s where we are seeing successful learning. Where teachers are learning along with students – that’s where you see success.”

5. We are generally more honest about acknowledging difficulties. One educational leader felt that there is “more willingness to talk about the challenges.” In years past, there was an unarticulated fear that talking about challenges might diminish funding or recruitment. Today, we are more willing and able to address problems publicly that have always existed but were sidelined. “It’s more acceptable to say it’s hard to be a head of school. We can be honest about affordability.” This admission may lead to greater urgency around problem-solving or willingness to use mistakes as case studies for advancement.

6. There are too many programs and not enough strategic thinking. The organized Jewish community is too program-focused, said many respondents, with a tendency to “diagnose problems and try to find the right program to solve them.” Instead, the field needs to grow teachers more effectively, invest in developing better educators and limit the programming. “Grow people, not programs.” Investing in programs distracts us from investing in solid infrastructure and making the case for Jewish education generally: “We’re just not putting out a vision of what learners and participants could really get from meaningful Jewish education of any kind, a vision that pushes people beyond Jewish-light.” Another professional bemoaned the fact that we do not have a career path for teachers other than running schools, which is not a natural trajectory. “After department chair, there’s nothing. In public education, there are so many intermediary positions, where you are paid to mentor.” Teachers also need to be supported beyond their first year. “Without pay and kavod [respect], the field is going to stay the same… You need support to keep growing.”

7. The stress on innovation can undermine the fundamentals of good teaching. The stress on innovation has produced some exciting initiatives but has also raised critical issues about implementation and scalability and mastering techniques of good teaching. One interviewee gave a keynote address on reinventing congregational school education was asked not to talk about innovation. “It’s become so demoralizing. Teachers are tired of chasing innovation. They have to keep inventing something new, when what they care about is kids and community building. Let’s just do smart work.” Innovation, for many, is not always a helpful buzz word: “Lots of innovation grants are scraping the bottom of the barrel. There is not a uniform culture of vision and innovation. Innovation is a mindset. Why do we have to stimulate research in innovation with prizes? Let ideas grow organically. Let’s stress moral, inspirational, visionary leadership… Vision is a twin sister of imagination. Where there’s no disciplined production of vision, there is no imagination.” Hearing these observations from a number of senior educators made me wonder, what would happen if we stressed imagination more? Imagine a school where every teacher was outstanding. This may do a lot more for the field than small pockets of innovation.

8. There arent enough crosssector solutions for problems: “If you want the riches of a talent pool,” said one authority emphatically, “you have to speak across the spectrum.” We need to stop talking to ourselves and “seek solutions from unexpected sources. The day school movement doesn’t need to talk to itself about tefilah [prayer] but talk to those in other faith communities who are having a hard time finding a role for prayer in schools that is meaningful to students.” Schools should be talking to camps and congregational schools should be speaking to JCCs, and “all of us need to speak to those outside the Jewish community about schooling, camping and other forms of experiential education.” This kind of fertilization is critical for growth. “There are not enough cross-sector conversations. There’s a limitation on conversations that are too silo-ed. We need to think of education as an eco-system … and blur the lines between formal and informal.” We need to take down firewalls. “Organizations and communities can be very resistant places.” We may not be asking the right questions: “How do you maximize your inspirational potential? What does it mean to create inspired communities? That’s what I want to think about.” Another academic suggested more integration and cross-fertilization between the Academy and the community. “There is amazing work done by Jewish academics, but their work is marginalized. Maybe each side feels criticized or under-valued by the other. This might itself be a subject for exploration – on why sides aren’t talking.”

9. There is a lack of useful research in Jewish education: It’s hard to be data driven if we don’t have enough data. One scholar shared that there is simply not strong enough evidence on how to teach Hebrew effectively. She then paused and added the same for Israel and Jewish texts. Another said it’s hard to talk about what we are doing well when, “We don’t have a lot of data to inform that question, but we have substantive evidence that Jewish education is key to the success of the Jewish people.” The push for continuity as a cross-communal goal is mystifying because “continuity is static. Education is dynamic.” Within the field of education, we specifically need more information to inform action: “One of our concerns is assessments and outcomes, and can we have more rigor brought to understanding what interventions are or are not leading to better outcomes?” Adding to this problem, another notes, is that some research produced is not widely disseminated. “Because much research is funded by private foundations, a lot of research that could be valuable never gets used broadly.”

10. We need more great teachers. And we need to celebrate the ones we have. There are simply not enough good educators to go around. “No school and no educational process can succeed without extraordinary educators. Teachers – the guidance, connection, relationship, and their masterful guidance of students – are what will make a difference in learners’ lives, and we don’t have enough people choosing the sacred profession of Jewish education.” One academic contends, “We keep lowering the bar on people’s Jewish knowledge who are entering the Jewish education world. But if we want to provide a substantive Jewish education, we need teachers with deep knowledge and bandwidth who can provide that for their students.” This is coupled by the concern that we don’t do enough to honor those who have already chosen education professionally: “…unless we celebrate Jewish educators for the extraordinary professionals they are, who will want this career?” This academic was not the only one to bemoan the difficult lot of Jewish educators today: “It breaks my heart that we have people teaching our children who can’t afford to have their own children in day schools. Every Jewish educator should have tuition for their kids free of charge.”

11. We need to identify talent earlier and grow it. We need to do a better job of recruiting students on an undergraduate level to consider careers in education. One scholar felt strongly that Federations and other Jewish communal organizations “give lip service to education” and don’t help bring prestige to the field by throwing most of their support to non-educational endeavors. We might find and encourage more part-time educators to do this work full-time. “Part-time educators don’t have support structures. They are really left adrift… There is no place for them to go.”

12. Philanthropy works best when philanthropists and professionals talk to each other more. “Professionals used to create the vision and brought funders along. Then it switched. Now philanthropists are the drivers, and professionals are there for implementation.” Neither formula works consistently well. “Only in authentic partnerships can this work get done well.” Another expert would like, “to see more investment in helping funders and parents understand what good Jewish education is. What should they look out for and what should they support instead of what’s new and exciting. What’s sexy to fund is on the micro-level of what touches a child this minute, but we need to look on the macro-level of what is going to work in shifting the culture… The current philanthropic culture has pitted us against one another instead of inviting collaboration.” An academic is concerned that we are isolating learning from funding instead of scholarship, “being part of a rich base of cultural literacy. I have been thinking about a challenge we are facing in Jewish education: our funding structures are so driven by family foundations and their predilections towards specific projects that I’m worried about our intellectual infrastructure.” As a result, this academic believes that the field might actually be worse with the strong infusion of philanthropic dollars. “Hundreds of millions of dollars have not made us better in the field. Institutions are weaker, and funders have unrealistic expectations about what we need. We didn’t make progress on intellectual infrastructure.” One can dispute this claim, but it’s important to hear it. “The lesson is that we need to think system-wide rather than in terms of specific projects, investing for the long-term rather than the short-term. We need a better metaphor for thinking about the Jewish eco-system.”

13. Day school education outside of the Orthodox community is really struggling. So are small day schools. A number of Orthodox day schools are over 50 years old; some over 75 years old and have not necessarily kept up with progressive education trends. They can be very teacher-centric and are having difficulty finding qualified and philosophically appropriate teachers, particularly in Judaic studies. More than a few respondents, however, were “thinking a lot about day school education for non-Orthodox Jews.” One educator describes a wave of popularity for non-Orthodox schools that has past. Those schools are now closed or struggling. “Are they making meaning and conferring substance and information?” another observed that, “Does this mean that within a generation, non-Orthodox Jews will have no ownership of these texts? …I can’t imagine a Jewish people that is not Torah-centered.” This remark does not imply that subjects like history and Hebrew language are not taught seriously in non-Orthodox schools, but that ancient texts may not be taught with enough rigor or given sufficient attention. Another mourned these losses: “Some day schools have defied gravity and have created excellent and viable institutions with quality education. But it’s interesting and sad that a great many non-Orthodox schools are struggling to survive.” [Note: All these comments came from non-Orthodox contributors]. This sense of struggle was also true for smaller schools with smaller resources. “Jewish institutions in small communities are struggling … It can’t be good for Jews to live only in major cities.” Communities with small or no day schools have difficulty attracting Jewish communal professionals, and the delicate eco-system of community gets compromised. Are there ways to use technology more effectively to provide professional development at low-cost and across distances? There have been some experiments but not sustained models. Added to this, suggested one academic is the, “lack of a unified Jewish vision of what Jewish flourishing looks like… As we are becoming more polarized, how do we nurture sub-communities?”

14. We need to make a stronger case for textbased education. “We need to do a better job explaining why substantial Jewish literacy-based programs are important…We are not telling the story well, and we don’t really understand the values and needs of the population we’re trying to reach to help create a form of Jewish education that meets those needs,” observed a senior professional. One educator described the lack of communal support for study as a “serious assault against text.” Education is, in some sense, about unsettling people. That’s harder to do in a culture that values comfort and ease. “Everything is easy. In marketing you want things to be as easy as possible. When you’re in education, you have to create an on-ramp, but not make it easy. Marketing and education represent a real clash of cultures.” This clash may also explain the different way board members and faculty look at schools. “The messiah may come and not be able to lead a Jewish day school,” quipped an academic. “There are a lot of technical challenges so the bigger challenges get neglected.” In teen programming, we tend to stress what teens are interested in and then drop substance, creating another intellectual vacuum.

15. Jewish studies teachers are often the weakest educators in day schools. Several educators and academics identified the weakest educational link in day schools in the arena of Jewish studies, what should be the hallmark of a day school education. “It’s hard to get good Judaic studies teachers and those who teach Hebrew language.” Many such teachers are content-rich but pedagogically poor. “The big problem is Judaic studies teachers, especially in small communities. I’d like to see a lot of people come together to think about issues of prestige, job availability, and excellence. We should bring all the major schools doing teacher training together, increase the pipeline and do better training. Many content-rich teachers lack classroom management skills.” The head of a teacher-training institute who is in the field to “cultivate talent” complained that there is, “lots of effort in building schools but not enough talent to run them.”

16. We may be obsessing too much about Jewish identity. “Not everything has to be defined as Jewish education to provide education.” Schools don’t look at what camps are doing to build identity or youth groups and learn from each other. “In the experience of doing something – a policy or program that has outcomes – our model is always one of deficit and crisis. That’s the general paradigm.” In this model, too many questions are asked about building identity. We catalyze so many conversations on identity that it led one academic to wonder: “A lot of Jewish identity stuff is obsessive; you don’t hear it in a lot of other communities. We need to re-think how we think about Jewish identity. What has our obsession with identity helped us evade?”

17. Demography is destiny. Conversations on education must focus on Jewish demographics. “Demographics play a great deal in the challenges and opportunities of the system: intermarriage and people getting married later and having kids later” will all impact and have already impacted our schools. “The ripple effect from the millennial cohort and its characteristics, contributions and challenges are also important – they are the largest single age cohort in history – and there’s more of them than baby boomers today.” This shift in demographics shifts society. “Millennials are allergic to institutional belonging. They are a free-floating, self-initiating, exploring demographic group, and not likely to pay for membership. They’re more likely to create more niche, more boutique, more grass-roots kind of identities. Given that and given their large size, we have to figure out how to serve this population.” Specifically, we need to think about “ways they think about education for their children… Early childhood education will be important again. If the community is going to focus resources, then early childhood is important.” Jewish education within interfaith families will present another very real challenge moving forward given current demographics. “It’s a real conceptual challenge.” One suggested the purchase of a franchise of early childhood centers made into a new Jewish network.

18. Jewish education needs to be higher on the communal agenda. “There was a time when Jewish education was more important as a topic of conversation than it is now. It’s just not what people are talking about,” said this senior leader who talks about Jewish education constantly. The creation of small sub-committees does not do justice to education’s enduring importance for us as a people. “There needs to be some idea of what we want to achieve. Communities need to do this so they can support clusters of institutions.” Jewish communal structures should “help people scrutinize what they’re doing and build capacity for people to re-imagine their work.” A lot of good models are one-offs, commented one academic engaged in teacher development. We need more platforms to “convene around ideas.” “We’ve been doing Jewish continuity under the banner of Jewish continuity, and it’s not working. It needs to be about relevancy, meaning and added value – Jewish education can help people in their lives.”

As with all conversations, they never really finish. I have spoken to many more people since I conducted these interviews, and there are more people to speak to tomorrow. One thing is clear from all this talk. Conversations on Jewish education deserve a bigger communal platform. Critical issues need a bigger mainstream stage where practitioners, funders, conveners, end-users and researchers can talk to each other, not merely listen to others talking to them or about them. Can we talk?

Contributors: Sharon Avni (CUNY), Josh Feigelson (Ask Big Questions Initiative), Idana Goldberg (formerly Prizmah, now Russell Berrie Foundation), Leora Isaacs ( Consultant, Founding Director of the Berman Center for Research), Susan Kardos (Avi Chai Foundation), Orit Kent (affiliated scholar, Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, Brandeis University), Jon Levisohn (Brandeis University), Mitchell Malkus (Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School), Kim Marshall (Independent Education Consultant, Marshall Memo), Rona Novick (Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration, Yeshiva University), Alex Pomson (Rosov Consulting), Bill Robinson (William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, Jewish Theological Seminary), Jon Ruskay (Executive Vice-President Emeritus, UJA-Federation of New York), Miriam Heller Stern (HUC-JIR School of Education, Hebrew Union College), Jonathan Woocher (of blessed memory, Lippman-Kanfer Foundation).


If you’re an introvert, Kiddush is a living hell

Extroversion,” writes Susan Cain in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking,” “is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” Cain believes that extroverts represent half to two-thirds of the population. America, she writes, is one of the most extroverted countries in the world. Hey, extroverts have to live somewhere.

Most extroverts direct attention outward, are naturally outgoing and feel at home in a crowd. To introverts, the extroverts always seem comfortable in their own skins and feed off the energy of others. In contrast, many introverts don’t love crowds and can’t stay in them for long. They are more nourished in private and by time alone. Moses is a classic introvert in charge of extroverts. No wonder it took 40 years for Moses to move them.

Many Jewish activities take place in the presence of others, often a crowd. It got me thinking: Is Judaism, as it’s practiced today, built for introverts? Do we sufficiently praise and value the “still, small voice” of introversion? One rabbi believes that Judaism has room for both but tilts towards extroversion: “Purity preferences introversion, while holiness vectors outward. Since occasions for the holy are more frequent than rituals effecting purification, the collective, communal, seems more pervasive.” 

I asked some self-defined introverts and extroverts to weigh in. “There are parts of religion that are good for introverts, like prayer or mikvah, but the community aspect of religion is very much geared to extroverts. Jews love to be in your face.” Other rituals came to mind: “Pilgrimage holidays were probably terrifying for introverts. If you’re an introvert, Kiddush is a living hell. It’s hard to host people and introduce yourself to lots of people.” Someone else added that Yom Kippur, tefillin, mourning and blessings are spiritual experiences that can be particularly rewarding for introverts.

Camp life seemed to be a challenge for many introverts, although one shared that she simply gravitated to other campers who liked to disappear into books. She walked away from circles involving personal sharing. The same was true of school: “School is fine because you find your smaller group. I never raised my hand in school. It’s an extroverts’ world.”

Others felt that weddings, most holidays, communal responsibilities like board service and even being called up to the Torah can be a struggle if you find the presence of a lot of people intimidating. One summed it up with “exhausting.” A mother of introverts shared that the bar/bat mitzvah can be hard but a real growth experience. “Recognizing what makes your child comfortable is important before deciding how to observe the bar/bat mitzvah. It can also be the moment that an introverted child can practice being a little more extroverted, but you need to recognize that you are taking the child out of his or her comfort zone, and the child needs to be willing.”

A convert/introvert shared that her journey often left her feeling isolated. “People are instantly interested in your story, but you don’t want to tell it over and over again. People can ask you a lot of questions, and if you’re an introvert and a convert, it’s a double whammy.”

“Everything is more raw to you,” struggled an introvert trying to explain himself. “You can perceive something as embarrassing or uncomfortable, but others don’t see it that way. You recharge by being alone. If you’re not an introvert, you simply don’t understand what we go through. People perceive you as being rude, shy or socially awkward. There’s too much judgment of introverts.” Someone who loves a crowd can’t always understand those who don’t. But one introvert confessed: “If introverts got their way, there might not be community. You have to learn to make sacrifices to live in a community. You don’t want to miss out on experiences.”

Maybe we need a Jewish introvert/extrovert inventory, looking at events and activities through the lens of these two personality types and interrogating experiences to make sure there is a balance of small and large group activities. Do we have sufficient reflection, writing, meditation, one-on-one and processing time to balance out large and noisy Jewish settings? We need to help children within camp, synagogue and school settings understand and value introversion and introverts. Emphasizing relationships with God and others and not only community helps. We give introversion more value when holding up models throughout Jewish history of those who walked in the world quietly with immense authority. If, as one respondent wrote, “A richly furnished inner life is what makes inner-directed individuals into more influential leaders,” then maybe our Jewish extroverts would help their own inner lives by slowing down, listening and spending more time alone.