A three-cornered road sign, with a black question mark in the middle and a red border around the edges of the sign.

In Advance of Jewish Disability Awareness Month: There Are No Four Children

Hey, all, guess what? It’s January. That means next month is Jewish Disability Awareness Month! And wouldn’t you know it? This week’s Torah portion on the traditional cycle is Parshat Bo.

A three-cornered road sign, with a black question mark in the middle and a red border around the edges of the sign.

Used under Creative Commons license

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “And…so?” But Bo contains this nugget:

And it will happen, when you come to the land which Yahweh, your god, is giving you–just as he said–that you will take care to perform this worship [the Passover lamb and blood]. And it will happen that your children will say to you, “What is this worship to you”? And you will reply, this is the Passover sacrifice for Yahweh, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt. (Ex. 12:25-27a)

Notably, this is the statement of the “wicked” child in the Passover Seder.

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One Additional Thought on Schooling

I posted recently a broadside at the supposed panacea of Jewish day school education as a means of keeping Jews Jewish. There was an additional thought that, because it wasn’t squarely about the merits of the argument as a means of advancing Jewish affiliation and identity, I omitted. But I think it’s important, and it deserves a post.

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Program Review: Fundamentals of Talmud

It’s been a little while since I’ve posted a book review; it will likely still be a while longer, not because I’m not reading books, but because I’m not reading things in which I have enough expertise to provide a useful review. But I do retain an interest in studying rabbinic texts, and I’ve always been intrigued with how we can teach people to work with them. So I do have a review for you in that vein.

R. Ayson Englander, presently a sofer stam in Baltimore, developed a program called Fundamentals of Talmud while working as an educator in various schools around the country. I’m always interested in how independent Talmud study skills can be taught to those without ready access to chevruta (partnership-based learning) and/or in-depth, in-person learning opportunities, so I decided to give his program a look after seeing it mentioned in a conversation thread on the “Mi Yodea” area of StackExchange. (For those unfamiliar, StackExchange was developed in part by Joel Spolsky of Fog Creek Software, and is a kind of peer-rated discussion exchange, divided into particular topics–many of them not at all STEM oriented. Mi Yodea is aimed at Torah-observant Jews.)

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Honey Letters

“Chocolate cookies?”
(He asks)
“They have white inside.”
(They do)

There’s a Christmas book on the table.
(From school)
“Read a sentence and I’ll give you a cookie.”
(He reads)
“Okay, here you go. Good reading!”

I think about years past.
(Honey letters)
In Eastern European cheders.
(Old School)
When the first lesson
was to learn letters and lick honey
to see that learning is sweet.

Back now to the computer
to watch old TV ads.
“It’s Face!”

We’re still learning to teach.
“Veggie Tales!”
Some sugar and a film.
“Little Joe!”
Is this our modern Torah?
“Nick Jr.!”

Touching the third rail of American Jewish life

Well, here I go.

There are not a lot of “safe spaces” in American Jewish life to talk about Israel. If that seems like a ridiculous statement, I invite you to take a look at what’s happening at Hillel.

If there is any single facet of my time as a student–at all education levels–that most cemented my Jewish identity, it was my (initially grudging) involvement in Hillel programs at my undergraduate school–including AIPAC programming that I happily participated in. And so it pains me to see this article, and others, about what’s going on at Hillels and other Jewish student organizations with respect to talking about Israel.

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Yes, it’s good for the Jews

Over at Kveller, Alina Adams asks whether she should feel guilty about her children receiving scholarships and financial aid for their various Jewish and non-Jewish educational activities. Observing that she doesn’t hesitate to say that her children receive such aid in exchange for her work, and that such aid is received as a result of her and her spouse’s decision to change jobs to be with their children, she asks whether 1) she should feel guilty, and 2) whether what her children receive as a result of her decisions is good for the Jews.

Should she feel guilty? I don’t know; I don’t think so. These are extremely personal decisions, and it’s difficult to know what the results of those will be in each case. But beyond that trite little observation, I think we need to acknowledge that those who give do so without a guarantee–unless they ask for it–that the money will be used only for those whom the donors believe merit the aid. And those donors often wish they could do what people like Adams are doing, but for whatever reasons did/do not feel free to do so. So, I’m not convinced guilt is a good thing here.

Is it good for the Jews? Yes. Every Jewish child will be raised differently. If this is what the author’s children need to develop a Jewish identity and simultaneously have active and involved parents, then I think we have the answer to that question.

This is not to say that there is no free-rider problem associated with such aid. But that problem is alleviated by the work-study arrangements Adams discusses, and by the knowledge that it’s still uncommon (not unheard-of, of course, but not happening 50% of the time) for people to opt out of higher incomes unless circumstances dictate it. (For example: parents of children with disabilities routinely earn less than parents of children without disabilities, and that’s out of necessity in many cases. But that’s a story for a different day.)

In any case, I understand the impulse to feel guilty–but I tend to think it show that Adams made her decisions for good reasons, and that the aid is appropriately (in her case) taken.

Sukkot, the Abstract, and the Autistic Child

So, the year rolls on, and Sukkot starts at the end of the week. As an apartment dweller, and a not traditionally-observant Jew, Sukkot is an interesting holiday. Put on top of that parenting an autistic child, and this is a real puzzle.

I’ve mentioned in a prior post that the existing community structures for Jewish education just don’t work for our family. This is partially because we are members of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and are not members of a synagogue locally (there’s no affiliated congregation here…yet), in part because for various reasons we don’t wish to avail ourselves of the community’s Bureau of Jewish Education, and in part because there just aren’t community resources that can do Jewish education for our son given how his autism…er…expresses itself.

So that puts his Jewish education on our shoulders. One of the big problems with trying to educate a lot of autistic children is that abstractions and discussion of things not present can be very difficult. In some ways, a child with autism can be the most absolute skeptic. So, he knows Shabbat and learned a bit of Havdalah this past weekend: candles are always a big draw for him. And even the abstract idea of resting on Shabbat makes sense–after all, he doesn’t go to school (though he does sometimes have therapy on Saturday), and Daddy doesn’t go to work.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? I’m still working those out. It doesn’t help that he won’t eat challah or honey. He likes apples from time to time. But Yom Kippur? That’s a tough nut to crack.

So, too, Sukkot. We’re not going to build a sukkah, in part because we don’t own our home, in part because I’m straight-up bad with building things (I’ve actually broken a porcelain toilet by over-tightening a bolt while attempting to replace a seal–BTW, cracked porcelain = SHARP!!!!), and in part because with work, taking care of our son, and taking care of my wife’s parents, we wouldn’t have time to get a sukkah built.

And even so, suppose I built a sukkah, or we visited one. What, exactly, is the explanation that sticks for him? “Sukkot is like Shabbat, but sometimes it’s not on Fridays, and it’s about when the Bible says the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. But really, it’s a harvest holiday. And also, here’s a hut that the Israelites didn’t really sit in. Because, historically, probably not.”

We have had a little success teaching Hebrew: he knows Shalom and Shabbat Shalom, of course; we learned Shavua Tov last week during Havdalah; and we’ve learned apple (tapuach), orange (tapuz), and pear (agas). I tried watermelon (abatiach), but he wasn’t paying attention anymore.

Here’s what he knows about the Israelites: they are vegetables. Joshua is a cucumber. David is a little asparagus, and Goliath is a big pickle. Abraham is a grape. (I am now going to stop linking to VeggieTales videos.) So is Jacob. Joseph is a cucumber–the same one as Joshua. Moses is a cucumber, too–the one as Joseph and Joshua. Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar are both the same zucchini; his henchman is always a small, Latino gourd. Oh, and God has something to do with all this, but of course it’s a Christian version of God.

Why, yes, I do kick myself for introducing him to VeggieTales, though to be fair, I wasn’t thinking too hard about the theological fallout of that when I did so. He was two, after all.

We’re working on it.

If you asked me fourteen years ago, when I was starting graduate school in religious studies, whether I would be doing child education in Judaism, I would have laughed at you.

Boy was I stupid.

Member Poaching Item 1: Rabbinical Roles

So, here’s the first post in the promised series. (I’ve always wanted to say “First Post!” So here it is. 🙂 )

Some months back, I read an article in The Forward titled Online-Ordained Rabbis Grab Pulpits, that discussed non-traditional alternatives for obtaining rabbinical ordination. I had previously considered rabbinical school shortly after graduating college, but didn’t follow through on it for a variety of reasons.

Traditional rabbinical education, as the article in The Forward lays out, is very expensive: four years of college, plus between four and six years of full-time academic + pastoral care education, frequently amounting to at least a master’s degree-level graduate education and then some. As one of the rabbis in the article describes it, he has a $100,000 wall of diplomas.

And wow, is that a problem. Why?

The article that gave rise to this series (see Series alert: member poaching and pay-as-you-go synagogues) details the response of a Long Island Jewish community structure to start-up synagogues, at least one of which has a part-time rabbinical model. That allows for lower dues and pay-as-you-go “services.” That’s a threat to many established Jewish organizations.

It seems to me that it shouldn’t be, if the organizations have the best interests of their constituents–individual Jews–at heart. Not everyone wants or will be well-served by the traditional, $2000-or-so-per-year membership model, and many are driven away by that model. But the model sustains and justifies the long, expensive version of rabbinical education, because the education isn’t affordable for many students unless the salaries at the end are great enough to pay the student loan bills.

It seems to me, and probably many others, that one of the ways to pull apart the dependency of the institutions is to reduce the cost of creating Jewish clergy who, for better or worse in the modern world, are rabbis.

And we can probably do a lot to reduce the cost of the education if we recognize what “rabbi” means for those outside the world of “Orthodox” Judaism.

Certainly, a rabbi is a teacher in most Jewish contexts, traditional or otherwise. And in congregational and other settings (chaplaincy, educational, and likely even administrative), a rabbi is an advisor. But for those who are not “Orthodox,” a rabbi is rarely a halakhic advisor, and is certainly not a halakhic advisor on the level that “Orthodox” Jews require.

So why require the same training? Yet that level of training is often what traditional denominational programs (even Reform seminaries) create, or come very close to. Certainly we need rabbis trained in traditional texts to some degree and in the breadth of Jewish history and thought; but do we need poskim? I’m not sure.

And thinking about the history of rabbis, I’m not sure the part-time model with a less expensive education is actually completely outside the mainstream. Full-time Jewish clergy are a modern, Western invention, and the educational institutions for rabbis match that model. Perhaps it shouldn’t anymore–or perhaps we should at least recognize distinctions.

It’s in this context that the occurrences on Long Island most concern me. The response of the broader Jewish community to the start-up synagogues fails to recognize that we may need more models, and more ways of getting there, to sustain the Jewish community and create environments that don’t only make available, but make attractive, retaining Jewish identity in the ways each Jew is most comfortable doing so.

The Jewish Week’s story about a specific community’s reaction to new models may show that we’ve got a long way to go if communal organizations attempt to stand against those new models; and that’s the tail wagging the dog.

Jewish education, or, frustration incarnate

The school year is starting up (actually, here in Indianapolis it started a couple of weeks ago!) and we’re back to thinking about doing Jewish education for our son.

We’ve got some criteria here:

  1. We’re not members of a synagogue, so synagogue schools are out;
  2. We’re not going to be members of a synagogue as though it’s a fee-for-service model (I don’t really like that model of Jewish life; I don’t think service extortion is the right way to do it); and
  3. We’re not going to avail ourselves of the centralized option in the community because:
  4. Our son is autistic, and the above options wouldn’t work for him anyway.

He’s now nine, so we’re about a year late for starting Hebrew school, but neither of us really have any expertise in doing education for kids, let alone education for a kid with special needs, so we don’t really know where to start in terms of structure. Fortunately, our son’s lead ABA therapist will be helping us, but I worry about what we’ll teach him because it’s so hard to communicate principles and abstract concepts.

In the spirit of being the change you wish to see (that’s how the phrase goes, right?), I’ll likely be figuring out a bit of the special needs educational stuff. But that’s okay–it’s actually important for me to do, for reasons I’ll be revealing in a couple of weeks when some new things start up on my end.

Until then, stay tuned!