Posts Tagged 'Education'

Love Till the End: Rabbi Akiva and the Shema

In Va’Etchanan, this week’s Torah portion, we read the Shema, the traditional Jewish credo. There we read:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our Gcd, the Lord is one . You shall love the Lord your Gcd with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. ( Deuteronomy 6:4- 7)

About this Rabbi Eliezer asks, “If it says ‘with all your soul’, why should it also say, ‘with all your might’,  and if it says ‘with all your might’, why should it also say ‘with all your soul’?” (Berchot 61b) The Gemara goes on to ask,  ” Should there be a man who values his life more than his money, for him it says; ‘with all your soul’; and should there be a man who values his money more than his life, for him it says, ‘with all your might’.”  Rabbi Akiva responds claiming that ‘with all your soul’ means that even if Gcd takes away your soul. The rational for the seemingly extra language around the conditions of loving Gcd is to account for every situation a person would experience in life. 

There is no doubt that living in a modern culture the entire construct of belief in, let alone love of, God is challenging. Living in a post- Holocaust generation Rabbi Akiva’s claim seem impossible. How could such a violent Gcd which took away six million Jewish souls  be worthy of our love? It is not much easier to fathom how we could have a loving relationship with a dispassionate God that would allow the Holocaust to happen.

That Gemara it goes on to the tell the harrowing story of Rabbi Akiva’s resistance to the government. Despite their forbidding him to learn and teach Torah he risks his life and persisted. Eventually he was captured by government forces, imprisoned, and was taken to be executed for his crime of teaching Torah. There we read:

When Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was the hour for the recital of the Shema, and while they combed his flesh with iron combs, he was accepting upon himself the kingship of heaven. His disciples said to him: Our teacher, even to this point? He said to them: All my days I have been troubled by this verse, ‘with all your soul’, [which I interpret,] ‘even if Gcd takes your soul’. I said: When shall I have the opportunity of fulfilling this? Now that I have the opportunity shall I not fulfill it? He prolonged the word “ehad- one “until he expired while saying it.(Berchot 61b) 

This is a powerful story of self-sacrifice of a religious person. It is easy to understand how this story would give strength to our people throughout all of the generations facing the anti-Semitic murders of history. So while we might have our theological challenges today, this story always stands as a national mandate. We carry the memory of millions who like Rabbi Akiva went to their deaths saying the words of the Shema. And even in that moment I want to cherish how Rabbi Akiva lived more than how he died. Beyond being a person of faith he was a devoted teacher striving to teach his students until the bitter end. In a beautiful way this act of altruism of sharing his wisdom was born out of a life filled with grit and curiosity. Rabbi Akiva was troubled  his whole life trying to understand the meaning of the Shema. Even at this moment of pain so close to the end he was striving to understand and make meaning.

More than his death, Rabbi Akiva’s life forces me to the ask some questions.  When faced with such hatred would I have the fortitude to respond with love? When faced with the end would I still be as open to growing and learning? Even if I could figure this out would I have the presence of mind to share my thoughts? What will be my lifelong “trouble”?  If I answer all of these questions will I truly know what it means to love?

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Search Within: Some Thoughts on Omer and Education

In remembrance of the tragic deaths of 24,000 Rabbi Akiva’s disciples, several mourning practices are observed in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It’s important to understand why they died and what it means to us today.

We can start by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot” (Yevamot 62b).

What is the Talmud teaching us by claiming that they died because they did “not treat each other with respect”? This is peculiar for students of Rabbi Akiva, who believed “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) was the Torah’s underlying principle (Torat Kehonim 4:12 / Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4). All students learned this foundational teaching. Perhaps, they learned it, but they didn’t internalize it?

Rabbi Akiva believed good character needed to be lived and not just taught. Before we love our neighbor as ourselves, we need to love ourselves. In order to love ourselves, we need to know ourselves. Of the students who know the general principles of the Torah, how many have internalized these lessons?

As the educator Parker Palmer said, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” We need to spend much more time at the start of the learning process to help our students listen to their lives in order to understand themselves.

In these 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, as we transition from liberation to revelation, we strive to internalize this lesson. In order to “treat each other with respect,” we need to have profound love and deep understanding of ourselves.

– As posted in Blog B’Omer

Backpocket Jewish Wisdom

So there are campers down at the pool and the life guard is not there yet. What do you expect the counselor to do? At one level we would just be thrilled if the campers do not drown. On another level we do not want to waste a moment. So your stellar counselor starts them off on a group activity or improv game. This shtick is the bread and butter of camp. But would we give our counselors an A+ for this?

  • In these interstitial moments we build group dynamics, the bunk forms, and most importantly we have fun. While there is no doubt we should not overthink having fun, what would it look like to use these moments to have meaningful Jewish moments of reflection? This seemed like a fitting question for the Backpocket Education’s blog.

To this end I wanted to share ImProverbs . It is a low cost guide to Jewish wisdom that every counselor can have in their back pocket. ImProverbs is a playful mashup of form (see folding instructions below) and content (lessons on being a Mensch).  The idea of a mashup of Proverbs and improv comes from Danny Messenger, a friend from Camp.  I imagine you might have comments or suggestions regarding the content or other uses for the form. Please send either or both to Rabbi Avi Katz Orlow at avi@jewishcamp.org

backpocket

 

And the best part is if they lose it in the pool, no worries, just make another photocopy.

– Reposted in Back Pocket Education Blog

Getting Past the “How” of Torah: For the Love of Learning

In Nitzavim VaYelech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the reception of the Torah. There we read:

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:11–13)

Learning should be hard, but not to hard and definitely not out of reach. Here we see learning Torah depicted as some elaborate scavenger hunt. What zeal would we bring to trying to learn Torah if it was in fact hidden in the heaven or on the other side of the ocean?

I was thinking of this when I saw this article on dangerous journeys to school around the world. Here are two pertinent images:

Not in Heaven:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-25

Beyond the Sea:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-42

It is inspiring to look at the rest of the images. In the world there are so many barriers to education, but as you can see there is still a hunger to learn and grow.

In our community there are many efforts to make Torah more accessible, but still people feel alienated. What are we missing? Perhaps we have made Torah too accessible? We have lost our zeal. Would we try harder if it was in heaven or across the sea? But I do not think that is all of it.

We fail because we have not done a good job expressing the “why”? Yes I am Hassid of Simon Sinek.  And if you have not seen this TED talk please stop everything and watch it now.

Why is learning valuable? I have my thoughts on this, but for now I just want to put the question out there. In Sinek’s words,

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

As we prepare for the High Holidays it is interesting to think about your own “why”. And once we figure out our “why” it will not matter if learning Torah is in heaven or across the sea, that is just a “how”.

Model Lesson

According to Jewish Law it is the practice to refrain from getting married between Passover and Shavuot – until Lag B’Omer (Shulchan Aruch 493:1). Lag B’Omer celebrates the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, a verbal counting of each of the 49 days from Passover till Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15-16). It is recorded that this practice serves as a memorial for the students of Rabbi Akiva,  Tanna of the middle of the 2nd  century, who perished during this period of time. Their deaths came to an end (or at least a break) on Lag B’Omer. But, why did the students of Rabbi Akiva die? And why would we mourn their death by refraining from getting married?

We can start to answer these questions by looking at the Gemara in Yevamot. There we learn:

Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbata to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: “All of them died between Passover and Shavuot”.  (Yevamot 62b)

It seems strange that Rabbi Akiva’s students died because they did “not treat each other with respect”. Rabbi Akiva taught that “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is the great underlying principle in the entire Torah (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4).It would be surprising that even just one student of this great Tanna did not learn such a basic lesson. What is the additional significance of the quantity of students who died?

It might be helpful to learn some more about who Rabbi Akiva was as a teacher. Despite his humble beginnings as a shepherd, Rabbi Akiva became a tremendous scholar. And while he had a tremendous effect on Jewish life, he was not without flaws. We learn in the Gemara that during the 24 years in which he accumulated these 24,000 students he did not see his wife once (Ketubot 62b-63a). There is no doubt that Rabbi Akiva loved his wife Rachel dearly. He gave his wife credit for all of the Torah they learned during his time away from her. When his students first met his wife he told them explicitly that they were all indebted to his wife. And here is the issue. While living apart from his wife for all of those years Rabbi Akiva did not show his students the daily habits of respect. How were his students to learn how to treat each other with respect if Rabbi Akiva did not model this for them?

On Lag B’Omer we should take a moment and try to learn the lesson that evaded Rabbi Akiva’s students. How should we treat each other with respect? It is clearly not enough to just talk about it. If we want to teach respect we need to model it.

It is in light of this that we see the real power of Jewish camp as an educational institution. As the adage goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I understand.” In school we are told a lot of things, but in camp the staff members model the most important lessons. And on the highest level we are all asked to get involved in creating the community.

– As seem on the Canteen

Tasty Education

When I tell people  I work in camping, their first response is that they want to know what I do the rest of the year. After that I usually get the love. We love camp it transformed our lives. When I tell them that I work in Jewish Education in camping I get a lot of blank looks. What kind of work is that? Camps are just places to socialize Jews. What kind of education might we try to do at camp? There are no class rooms in camp. And if I try to put them into class in the summer  I will destroyed camp. I see it in their eyes. I have been transformed to the Grinch who stole fun from camp.

In these moments I reflect on the wise words of the great educator Geoffrey Canada. In a segment he wrote for This I Believe, he wrote about his belief in camp.  There Canada wrote;

Back in 1975, when I was coming out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I worked in a summer camp in Ossipee, N.H., for kids with the absolute toughest problems: emotionally disturbed kids, autistic kids, oppositional ADHD kids, kids that everyone — even their parents — had given up on. One of the things that I and the staff would do is cook with the kids. These children didn’t know baking powder from table salt, but once they had eaten a warm biscuit out of the oven, smeared with melted butter and a drizzle of maple syrup, they were very motivated to learn how to make some more.Suddenly, kids who couldn’t sit still or focus were carefully eyeballing ingredients as we measured them out, learning the simple math and spelling lessons we could slip in along the way. By the end of the summer, I remember parents breaking down and crying when they saw the progress their children had made.

The biscuits, by the way, were delicious, and I can still remember the taste of them today — and more importantly, I still remember the lesson they taught me: that if we, the adults, can find the right motivation for a child, there’s hope for that child’s education.

If  a child does not succeed, it means the adults around him or her have failed. It is not that camp is successful because there are no classrooms, it is successful because it has a very complex classroom that strives to deal with all kinds of learners.  Canada goes on to write;

I believe that we adults have to help them, and that starts with looking hard at each child, finding out what excites them and exploiting that excitement shamelessly.

For Canada it came with a plate of steaming, hot biscuits that tasted so good they were ready to learn anything.

Last year I took a group of Assistant Camp Directors to Camp Alonim for a training. We were blessed to spend time with another great educator Dr. Bruce Powell. He shared with us a similar story about how the son of completely acculturated family came to be a leader in the Jewish day school movement. Powell’s mother, a secular Jewess, once went to hear a lecture by Shlomo Bardin the founder of Camp Alonim and BCI. When she asked him what she should do to engage more in Jewish life, Bardin did not tell her to go to a Jewish Studies class or a Synagogue. He asked her what her favorite Jewish memory was. Powell’s mother replied that she loved the smell of Challah baking from her childhood. At that moment Bardin asked her to commit to making Challah for ever Shabbat. As a boy Dr. Powell came home every Friday to the smell of Challah. From there he went to Alonim, and has had an amazing career in Jewish Education staring many day schools.

At the end of Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Challah. There we read:

20 Of the first of your dough you shall set apart a cake for a gift; as that which is set apart of the threshing-floor, so shall you set it apart.21 Of the first of your dough you shall give to the Lord a portion for a gift throughout your generations. Numbers 15:20-21

Today we call Challah the braided loaf of bread, but it is actually the part that we give away. So too, camp is defined of not being school. When in reality it is an amazing place that we could teach anything we want, as long as we make it tasty. I believe in camp, because I believe the only education is fueled by the students passion. The job of the educator is to connecting a child to their passion. This is truly a gift throughout our generations.

The Sweetness of Jewish Life

Our 7-year-old son, Yadid, recently went to the dentist who informed us that he has three cavities. My first response to the news was to cut the volume of candy in his diet. But how can I deprive him the experience of getting that lollipop from the “candy man” in our synagogue on Shabbat? The “candy man” is Chaim Ezra.  He is a saintly elderly man who survived the Holocaust by hiding in the forest.

My wife and I have chosen to not tell our children about the Holocaust until they are older. Too often our community has chosen to teach the Holocaust as an expedient educational route.  It takes a lot less time to teach someone how Jews died then how to live Jewishly.  My wife and I choose not to teach the latter partly because we don’t see the added value of educating our young children about anti-Semitism.  Why would I want my children to know anything accept for the sweetness of Jewish life?

For someone like Chaim Ezra who has tasted the bitterness of true hatred in his life, I cannot imagine denying him the joy of bringing joy to the next generation. We live in a time of tremendous freedom. While the Holocaust will always be in our memory, as the years pass there will fewer and fewer survivors. I often worry that our youngest, Emunah, might not have memories of knowing a survivor.

In commemoration of Yom HaShoa, Holocaust Remembrance day, I encourage everyone to introduce their children to a survivor and find a new way to make Jewish life sweet. And it can never hurt to brush.

-From FJC Blog


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