Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chanukkah: The Educator's Holiday

       Chanukkah is an educator's holiday. How so? It's been noted many times that the Hebrew word "Chanukkah" is derived from the same Hebrew "root" as the word for education: "Chinuch" (apologies for the abysmal transliteration). The three letter Hebrew shoresh of chet-- nun-- chaf has a double meaning: "dedication" and "education." Here are a couple of ways that Jewish educators might make the link between dedication and education in honor of Chanukkah.

1. Facilitate a conversation with our students by asking them "Why do we dedicate so much time and energy to studying Hebrew and Judaism?" While it's a simple question many of us will agree with the simple truth that many of our students haven't actually thought this one through. For those of us who are meshugah l'davar for Jewish education, the answers to this question might be so obvious that we've skipped the critical step of having the conversation with our students. "I don't know" isn't an acceptable answer to the question of: "Why do we dedicate ourselves to studying Hebrew?" Every student should be able to answer this question authentically and compellingly. Moreover, their answers should mature as they grow into their Jewish identities. If we fail to make this an explicit conversation with our students then we run the risk of having students who don't ever confront the importance of their Judaic and Hebraic education and end up going through the motions without understanding why.

2. Let's facilitate the same conversation with our colleagues and fellow educators. While it might seem unnecessary, it can be invigorating for a group of educators to revisit the basic conversation of motives and aims in our teaching. Why do we have a burning passion for teaching Hebrew? Why have we spent years training to be a Jewish educator? Why are we living out our teaching careers at Jewish schools even if we're teaching general studies rather than Jewish studies? Hearing what inspires others to dedicate their lives to Jewish education strengthen our ties with our colleagues. It's a safe way of moving beyond the small talk that often fills the pockets of our days. Also, we may have colleagues who honestly don't have compelling answers to this question, or may be looking for new ways of expressing long held commitments. Like our students, some of our colleagues may not have had the chance to really reflect on their commitment to Jewish education. Many of us work in schools that have a wide spectrum of Jewish knowledge and observance. Engaging our diverse faculty in the conversation can be truly educational and promote synergy among the faculty.

3. Go for gelt. At our weekly Jewish and Hebrew studies department meeting today we stumbled upon the fact that each of the educators at the table had a different explanation of where the tradition of Chanukkah gelt comes from. We laughed as we shared our varying interpretations. Rather than pretending that we knew the absolutely correct answer to what seemed like a simple question, we got on the computer and did some research. Laughing, we realized that, to a certain extent, we were all correct. What I'm calling "going for gelt" refers to the fact that, in spite of the many years of accumulated wisdom and knowledge at the table, there's always the possibility of learning something new. It's a wonderful feeling to be thrust into a place of uncertainty. It is great to realize that "I don't know" can lead to new knowledge. Everyone at the table today felt comfortable exploring the gelt question together. It was a simple reminder that learning is fun and that being a part of a learning community is rich and rewarding.

So there you have it. My 1/2 shekel on some of the many possible intersections of dedication and education that Chanukkah begs us to consider as Jewish educators.

Chag Sameach! 

Friday, December 9, 2011

OY Chanukkah

"10" Hanukkah Helpers® magically visit children during the Festival of Lights and enrich their lives with a timeless Hanukkah tradition. An embroidered snowflake over their heart is the mark of an authentic Hanukkah Helper. With their companionship, hugs, adventures and love, Hanukkah Helpers create memories the whole family will cherish for a lifetime.

The plush 10-inch Helpers are great companions during the day and often surprise the children during the night with mysterious and unpredictable adventures. When Hanukkah is over, the Helper must return home and prepare for the next year's visit. The tradition continues year after year, and each time the Hanukkah Helper visits, children (and even adults) experience the same sense of playful suspense, excitement and friendship."

Excerpted from the Hanukkah Helper website.

Allow me to quote the great Seth Meyers:

 "Really? Really?? Really???"  

Seems like a B-Horror movie waiting to happen...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Judaism as Burden

“The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.”
-Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984

“Before the beginning of the nineteenth century all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”
-Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism as a Civilization, 1934

    How does Kundera’s notion of “the heaviest of burdens” as “an image of life’s most intense fulfillment” influence our reading of the opening line of Mordecai Kaplan’s Judaism as a Civilization (above)? How can Jewish educators transform the feeling of burden that Kaplan describes, with its negative connotations, into the burden that Kundera describes? 

     Kundera’s burden is one that connects the bearer with the earth, with reality, and with truth. It is the burden that leads to fulfillment and happiness. The heavier the burden the greater the reward. 

     Kaplan’s burden is one that keeps the bearer bent, buckled and ultimately broken. It's a burden that oppresses, defeats, and distracts. 

    I believe that the burden of Judaism can be Kundera's burden rather than Kaplan's burden.  For starters, to speak of Jewish commitment is to speak of a life that is grounded in Judaism. To speak of Jewish commitment is to speak on one’s ability to take a stand with both feet planted firmly on Jewish soil. Judaism is a burden that should ground us, thrust us into reality, and make us feel like our actions and decisions have weight and impact. 

    When Moses approached the burning bush and found his life’s destiny he was told, “remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). Just as the bowler hat floating in midair is a central image for Kundera’s novel so too should be the bare foot planted firmly on the earth a metaphor for Jewish commitment. Jewish education that seeks to instill a sense of commitment must accustom students to “taking a stand” for what they believe in and a willingness to get their feet and hands dirty.