Sep 16 2016

Who’s Afraid of Assimilation?

Published by under Commentary

Antique postcard of a family celebrating Rosh HashanahIn Jewish education and policy circles, the typical attitude to assimilation is clear: it’s a bad thing. In fact, it’s often taken to be the thing that Jewish education is supposed to help us avoid. In other words, the assumption is that educating Jewish students “Jewishly” (setting aside what that might mean, for the moment) is counter-assimilatory.

Conversations about assimilation often use one of two metaphors. The first is a biological one: assimilation is a disease and education is the inoculation against that disease, or at least provides the healthy nutrients to strengthen the body against it. Stuart Charmé calls this a “drink-your-milk” model of Jewish education. The second metaphor is martial: assimilation is an assault and education is a defense against that assault. For example, Seymour Fox once asked whether Jewish education was succeeding as a “bulwark against assimilation.”

But what do we actually mean, when we use these metaphors? What’s the disease, exactly, and what’s the organism that is being threatened? What’s the assault, and what’s the fortified position? Both metaphors rely on dramatic oppositions between in and out, between Jewish and other – distinctions that no longer hold, regarding practices and ideas, and even regarding community. They assume a zero-sum model of identity and culture that is utterly alien to the lived experiences of contemporary Jews. Continue Reading »

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Aug 22 2016

New Survey Finds that Hebrew at Camp is about Connection, Not Proficiency

By Sharon Avni, Sarah Bunin Benor, and Jonathan Krasner

ad51b3ad-195d-4a74-b0c2-6ade23f37fc1Chanichim, follow your madrichim to the teatron for peulat erev.” For those not conversant in the language of many American Jewish overnight summer camps, that means “campers, follow your counselors to the theater for the evening activity.” Why do some camps feature sentences like this, or decorative Hebrew signs, or spirited Hebrew song sessions? How does Hebrew usage differ among the wide variety of Jewish overnight camps? These are some of the questions we set out to address in our study of Hebrew use at camp. While we are working on a book presenting the full study, we want to share some of the results with you: findings from a survey of 103 camp directors of diverse Jewish residential camps across North America, about their camps’ use of Hebrew.

Our findings show that, for the most part, in the minds of camp administrators, Hebrew usage at camp is not about developing proficiency in spoken Hebrew. Rather, it is a vehicle for nurturing feelings of belonging to the camp community and the broader Jewish community, as well as connection to Jewish sacred texts, Israel, and the Jewish people. Continue Reading »

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Aug 04 2016

Understanding and Assessing Transformative Educational Experiences

Published by under Center News

By Arielle Levites

All educational sites have some program of change embedded in them. They reflect beliefs about who the learner is at the start of the process, who the learner should rightly become, and beliefs about how to best effect the evolution from A to B. But not all educational sites call themselves transformational.

Programs that offer Jewish spiritual educational often frame their pedagogy as transformative. For example, the Institute for Jewish Spirituality has a page on its website devoted to “Stories of Transformation.” These personal accounts testify to the power of Jewish spiritual learning and practice for participants.

For all that leaders and participants use the term “transformation” to describe their work and experiences, they often offer different models for how transformation can happen and how its effects are felt.

One popular model of spiritual transformation in the American religious imagination is the “conversion” model. Exemplified by the conversion of Paul on the Road to Damascus, it depicts transformation as sudden, swift and permanent. Featuring high emotional arousal and a sense of intense personal experience, the conversion model is usually marked as extraordinary in some way.

In sites that teach Jewish spirituality, however, other models of transformation take center stage. In the “cellular metabolism” model, for example, this transformation happens slowly and subtly over time, until the self is remade—like the belief that the human body remakes itself over at the cellular level every seven years or so. It’s change that is not obvious from the outside. While not the only native model of transformation at work in Jewish spiritual education programs, the cellular model is a popular one. According to this model, spiritual transformation is radical change that might not be noticed. That makes it hard to assess with many of the tools researchers often use to demonstrate change over time.

Learning more about models of transformation in Jewish education can help researchers understand the terms by which these educational programs seek to be understood and measured.

Arielle Levites is an affiliated scholar at the Mandel Center, where she directs the Students’ Understanding of Rabbinics Project.

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Jul 05 2016

Cultivating Dispositions while Learning to Read Talmud

Today we hear from Jane Kanarek (Hebrew College) who, with  Marjorie Lehman (JTS), led the Mandel Center’s Learning to Read Talmud project. In June, they convened ten scholars of rabbinic literature to reflect on how students learn to read Talmud. Here, Jane considers how learning to read Talmud can cultivate certain dispositions in students.

In its simplest and most straightforward sense, learning to read means learning to decode. It involves learning to assemble letters into words, words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. Of course, this understanding of reading is far too narrow. First, it ignores the blog post block quoteimportance of sense-making, of forming some kind of coherent understanding of these different words, sentences, and paragraphs. Second, it elides the fact that learning to read is not a linear process.

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Jun 28 2016

On the Scholarly Dimensions of Teaching Talmud


Today we hear from Marjorie Lehman (JTS) who, with Jane Kanarek (Hebrew College), led the Mandel Center’s Learning to Read Talmud project. In June, they convened ten scholars of rabbinic literature to reflect on how students learn to read Talmud. Here, she shares some of the questions about teaching and learning that surfaced.

2016-6-28 Lehman PQScholars in the field of Talmud and Rabbinics who also teach rarely have an opportunity to reflect, analyze, and discuss their successes and challenges in the classroom. While we attend academic conferences to discuss our work, and publish research in books and articles, we spend little time learning from one another about what we do in our courses or reflecting together on how the pedagogical decisions we make affect the learning outcomes of our students.

All of us spend a great deal of time preparing to teach our students how to read rabbinic texts. We articulate goals based on the teaching contexts in which we find ourselves, think about appropriate assignments, and examine what we can learn about our students’ abilities from them, but we tend not to gather to discuss our pedagogy–as important as it is. Furthermore, few of us ever take on the task of writing about how we translate our scholarship into teaching, or of reflecting on the extent to which teaching well and researching well do—or do not—inform one another. Continue Reading »

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