Tuesday, June 30, 2015

collaborative chinuch conference

This past Sunday the YI of Woodmere hosted the second annual Five Towns Community Collaborative Conference on topics of Jewish education.  Once again (my wife and I have gone both years) it was an amazing program with speakers from across the spectrum of the community addressing a host of different topics.  Principals, teachers, parents, psychologists, Rabbanim and Rebbetzins, all gathered together to talk about one topic: how can we educate our children better.  There day consisted of a keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, the noted psychiatrist, and then you had a menu of about six options for each of five sessions that ran until the early afternoon.  Except for one session where we overlapped, my wife and I went to different speakers and then compared notes afterwards.  Let me give you some thoughts I walked away with:

1. We stress practical observance of mitzvos but are not doing enough to teach yiras shamayim (R. Dr. Twerski).  This is the root cause behind problems of improper use of the internet, to name one.  The way to develop yiras shamayim, as the Rambam writes, is by observing and reflecting on the wonders of the natural world.  What was running through my mind as he spoke about this topic is that today's kids are too wrapped up in their i-machines to even notice their surroundings, much less appreciate the beauty of nature.  It's a catch-22.

2. We -- speakers, parents, etc. -- are all concerned by and large about the same issues, which on the one hand is comforting (no one likes to think their kid is the only one struggling with X or Y), and yet on the other hand means across the board there are holes that need to be filled.  I take the fact that so many people came to such a conference as a positive.  The fact that so many people are concerned and want to raise and educate their kids better and the fact that we can have a shared conversation between parents, teachers, and Rabbis is itself a major first step to solving problems.  

3. One key issue: Phone/tablet devices have an effect on attention span, cognitive ability, not to mention what kids are sharing and watching on them is a problem. 

4. Koren Publishers has what looks like a wonderful new siddur meant for elementary school kids and a siddur curriculum that goes with it.  We bought one of their other siddurim meant for high school age/adult for one of my kids.  Certain things that caught my eye: I like the little thought questions inserted next to the kri'as haTorah sections; I like the idea of putting each bracha of shmoneh esrei on a separate page, but thought maybe some commentary or something should have been stuck on those pages to fill up some of the white space; the guide to the year in the back is nice, but a more comprehensive guide to halachos of tefilah (e.g. what's in the back of the Artscroll) may be better; I like the commentary sections that raise questions to think about rather than spoonfed insights and answers.  I was surprised there was not even a short comment to explain or provide context for the bracha of "shelo asani isha." 


  1. Very important topic! thanks for sharing this summary of the conference.

    I'll share a few thoughts, and am also very interested to hear what other readers may have to say.

    1. Hearing what the kids have to say. Would this conference, or a similar one, consider adding the voices of *students* to the conversation between "parents, teachers, and Rabbis"? (I mean inviting serious students to participate and speak.) They can add perspective -- on challenges and on possible solutions -- from their unique position as stakeholders on the front line. Maybe this already happens in some forums, but not enough in my limited experience. I have to give my wife credit for being a great, consistent advocate for involving the kids in these type of discussions.

    2. I like the aim of going beyond practical observance of mitzvos to focus more on core, motivating values like yiras shamayim. I also like that you (or Rav Dr. Twerski?) immediately stepped beyond yiras ha-onesh to yiras ha-romemus via appreciating the world. But I would vote for broadening the scope even further. Different types of kids, different types of yirah and paths to it. (Rav Amital ztz"l has a very nice essay about varieties of yirah in Jewish Values in a Changing World.) Building other core values may also be crucial to successful progress on yirah: love of hashem, bitachon and temimus, feeling love and compassion toward others, self-esteem and pride in our mission as Jews (along with appropriate humility), etc. These are mostly paraphrased from the introductory chapters of Hirsch/Horev; I'm not sure that text itself is optimal for today's kids, but the concepts are so fundamental. Actually I can't find my copy right now because one of my teenagers has it, so that's a good sign.

    3. Just one or two concrete examples of the above: Do kids feel they are being given custody of an incredibly precious legacy? Do they feel what an awesome mission and opportunity they are being handed? Do they have a feeling of appropriate pride in, and identification with, the great Jewish leaders and heroes of our past and present? I believe these kinds of values and feelings can lead toward a very powerful type of yiras chet and yiras shamayim, maybe more powerful and enduring for contemporary teenagers than traditional yiras ha-onesh or philosophical yiras ha-romemus. Yet these topics are not often treated directly in schools; we may instead rely on the home or summer camp or Israel trips. I suspect we can do more in school.

    I'm curious to hear other's suggestions and insights.

    1. To briefly respond to some of your points:
      1. As a parent of teenagers, my gut tells me that the average student will not voice his/her true feelings in an open forum like this. There may be exceptions, but the exceptions won't be representative.
      2. R' Dr Twerski seemed to feel that yirah is the most basic building block, and the Rambam prescribes contemplation of nature, so that's the one way to do it. I agree with you -- different strokes for different folks. You mention Hirsch. I think there is s sore need for book that speaks on these matters in modern language and incorporates different sources and points of view.
      3. Many of the speakers (I originally included this in the post and then took it out) hammered away at the need for simcha in the home. Parents need to show enthusiasm, joy, pride in their Jewishness and only then will kids pick up these attitudes. An Israel trip (or even the Israel year) no longer does it because there is no attempt anymore to teach kids about Zionism and the nisim v'niflaos that have allowed us to establish a State (a topic R' Yotav Eliach addressed).

      Much more to say, but I don't have enough time to write. The most important point is that people are discussing these issues. On the one hand, it was great that so many came. On the other hand, there could have been 10x the number of people based on the # of school kids in our community.

  2. I wonder if the "yira" that comes from appreciating the wonders of nature still has any value. There was a time that it filled a person with awe at the superhuman complexity and beauty of interconnectedness. Now, the biggest apikorsim talk about this without a bit of yirah. I don't know. Maybe you need to start with a base of real yirah, and then you can move on to hispailus from nature.

  3. We are kind of in the situation of an apprentice of an overly methodical carpenter. The carpenter teaches the apprentice in order, mastering one skill at a time, before moving on. So, the young lad learns how to use a hammer, learning how to drive the nail in, straight and true, in just a few blows. Then he is introduced to the screwdriver, in all its variants. And when he learns how to screw into any wood without stripping the threads or the phillips head they move on the trade's various saws. And so on through the whole toolset. In fact, the master teaches his apprentice multiple opinions about proper technique, and even ways to use the tools according to multiple experts' technique at the same time.

    Unfortunately, at this point the master dies. So the student knows everything about woodwork, but is still left with only a layman's knowledge of the construction of a cabinet, table or chair. Never mind knowledge of how to express himself in its artwork and detail.

    1. Or, to say it without the mashal... Halakhah is the art of walking. Literally -- the root is /הלך/, to walk or otherwise travel. This is not the same thing as having a derekh, a path to walk. So we teach kids to walk, but they leave yeshiva as adults without that much more of an idea about where it is they're supposed to be going than they did when they left preschool!

      About #3: Filters can eliminate the prust and perhaps much of the violent. But so much of what's Jewish and Orthodox on the internet is cynical, dismissive, and immerses one in the habits of an ayin ra'ah. We may lose the loyalty of more kids to Jewish sites than to porn; nothing like a kid at risk spending hours a day reading about financial and abuse scandals, how we aren't critical thinkers like the "rabbi" who embraces document hypothesis or those behind the "KosherSwitch", etc...

      #4: I use the Koren siddurim aimed at Jr High students myself. I have their siddurim for us grown-ups, with R' Sacks' footnotes or those based on RYBS. But I tend to overthink these things. Davening is about relating to G-d, not theorizing about Him. And so far Va'Ani Tefillah is the closest fit to my needs. (Of course, al ta'am varei'ach, ein mah lehitvakeiach!)