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."