Partners in Learning: Investing in Lay Leadership

 Posted by on June 27, 2018 at 9:04 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Jun 272018

In our complex society, with its many varied and specialized occupations, we have come to expect ongoing professional development in a host of fields: medicine, law, accounting, and almost anyone who needs a license to practice. This makes good sense; any field where the stakes are high, and both subject matter and/or technique are constantly evolving, must demand that its practitioners stay as current as possible, ensuring that the public is best served. 19th century American educational reformers began to see teaching as another “profession,” leading first to the establishment of teacher seminaries (known as “Normal Schools”) to prepare teachers for classrooms, and then the licensing and certification of teachers, which included ongoing learning, first in the summers and then throughout the year, typically in the form of presentations and workshops. This is the model most of us know and expect of all our children’s educators, from classroom teachers to top-level administrators.

However, to a great degree this focus, while understandable, is misleading. It is tempting – and convenient – to view teachers as the individuals exclusively responsible for our children’s education. But we know that that schools are complex entities, and Jewish day schools, as private institutions, are also led by dedicated individuals who volunteer to serve on boards that govern the school. While professionals are indeed responsible for the critical day-to-day work of education, lay boards take the long view, setting the school’s mission, overseeing its implementation, and ensuring that the institution is properly resourced to realize that mission. Without doubt, these lay leaders are true partners with the professionals in making our day schools effective and sustainable.

Nevertheless, while their work is no less complex than the craft of teaching children, many assume that volunteers who are recruited to a day school board will naturally know what to do once they join it. To be sure, some lay leaders have some background or experience in fulfilling the duties of board membership, but such people are in short supply; most come to their board work eager to do what’s best for their school but unsure exactly how to do it. Moreover, most of these well-intentioned people have jobs, families, and other communal commitments, requiring their limited time to be used as effectively and efficiently as possible. Like teachers, lay leaders require some preparation and ongoing development if they are going to be successful partners with the instructional professionals.

For this reason, The AVI CHAI Foundation is investing in developing lay leaders in the following ways:

  • “Board Fitness,” a program launched last August by Prizmah, begins with a thorough survey, called the “Board Self-Assessment,” that asks all board members to anonymously rate their board’s performance on a wide range of board activities. The results, laid out in a clear, color-coded report, enable a board chair to get a good snapshot of current members’ views and perceptions. With the guidance of a certified Prizmah coach, the board chair works out how to use the survey results to trigger important and healthy conversations by the board, and to work out a plan for board development that will improve board performance in specific areas. The program’s initial cohort of 50 day schools, expected to fill in 18 months, filled in less than four. A new cohort is expected to be announced soon by Prizmah.
  • DSLTI, the Davidson School’s flagship leadership training program, now offers workshops and individual consulting for schools where program alumni are currently serving as heads. Board chairs, usually together with the head of school, attend one-day programs that review the basics of board governance and learn the elements that make up a healthy and productive lay-professional partnership.

Many philanthropists and community-minded leaders, who believe thriving Jewish day schools are a critical contribution to a vibrant Jewish future in America, are eager to help these institutions succeed. Intuitively, they offer to fund capital improvements, support scholarships for needy families, and invest in teacher and administrator development – all essential to raising the quality of the education Jewish children receive. However, our 25 years of experience in this field have underscored the equally important role lay leaders play in the success of any day school – a lesson other funders, such as The Legacy Heritage Fund, have also learned with its “OnBoard” program for all Jewish organizations. We are excited that other philanthropists are using their resources to address this need.

No school today would hire educators to teach and lead a school without also investing in their professional development. A school that invests equally in its board members will ensure that these two “partners in learning,” in shared harness, will lead their school to greater and greater success.

May 312018

As a foundation supporting Jewish day schools and overnight camps, AVI CHAI has always been eager to see the maximum number of participants enroll in our various professional development programs. “Filling the cohort” would obviously benefit a large number of institutions, thus increasing the impact of our philanthropy among Jewish youth. But cohort-based learning is not merely a matter of numbers. Early on, we learned that fashioning a group of professionals into an “intentional learning community” profoundly deepens the learning and enhances its durability.

Take, for example, the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) at JTS’s Davidson School of Jewish Education. The program includes two immersive, 3-week summer sessions and several 2-3 day retreats over the span of 15 months. While its curriculum on how to run a school Jewishly is extremely comprehensive, DSLTI works hard to create a learning experience rooted in the group. This is not just the familiarity bred by many shared experiences; the program’s leaders and mentors go about developing an “intentional learning community,” complete with its own norms (arrived at by consensus), a unique language and particular processes and rituals of learning. Taking advantage of the longer time frame, DSLTI gives participants the opportunity to reflect intentionally on every aspect of their own learning, from evaluating each session in real-time, discussing both the content and the learning strategies employed, and even developing new components, such as the “spiritual check-in” and book clubs. In this way, whatever is being presented or discussed each day depends less on the presenter and much more on the receiving group that, armed with its unique communal norms and attitudes, is able to take the material, work with it, probe it, digest it and then apply it in their actual contexts. Furthermore, the tightly-knit communities continue way past the end of the program, offering insight and support to one another for years.

The presence of intentional learning communities has become characteristic of many of the leadership development programs we support. For over 20 years, AVI CHAI has been sponsoring day school leaders to attend one of two Summer Institutes at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education Principals’ Center. These weeklong institutes, studded with world renowned educational researchers and thinkers, quickly develop their own powerful learning cultures. When AVI CHAI’s Trustees decided several years ago that the Harvard program should focus more on lasting change at participants’ schools, we added nightly sessions for the day school leaders, facilitated by Educannon Consulting, to eat together, learn together, and establish their own discourse, their own language, and their own unique culture to piggyback on the much more diverse learning community established during the day at Harvard. And even though they are together only a week, these learning communities remain active for months, in some cases years, after they leave Harvard.

Similarly, Prizmah’s YOU Lead (originally “YU Lead” at Yeshiva University’s School Partnership) offers a year-long online curriculum for aspiring day school leaders, but incorporates two meetings together over the year to afford all participants the chance not just to meet face-to-face, but to form their “intentional community” that enhances and deepens the weekly learning that was either virtual or asynchronous. While many different platforms can support content-driven learning, and cohorts or affinity groups can certainly create a sense of camaraderie and shared interests and experiences, forming an intentional learning community does much to ensure the depth and sustainability of what is being learned.

Obviously, not every ‘intentional community’ is identical, but from our perspective, they do share several characteristics:

(1) participants taking the time to establish their own norms related to confidentiality; being present, engaged and prepared; and what sorts of responses will be acceptable;

(2) implementing those norms and determining consequences of failure to uphold them;

(3) developing a distinctive learning culture, which typically includes not only attitudes but ‘rituals’ and practices as well, that are rehearsed and respected;

(4) actively respecting, caring for and supporting one another’s learning and growth; and

(5) designing methods of inducting new members into the culture, thus ensuring its continuation.

Over time, we at AVI CHAI have seen these elements of intentional learning communities show up, to varying degrees, in virtually all of the most powerful professional development programs we’ve sponsored, be it in the study of Hebrew (e.g., TaL AM/iTaLAM, Bishvil Ha-Ivrit – formerly NETA-CET), blended and personalized learning (e.g., BetterLesson), or Israel education (e.g., Write on for Israel). Their power lies not only in what they unleash in participants during the program, but in the lasting effects as well.

This feature need not be reserved for programs external to schools. Indeed, many of the academically strongest day schools throughout North America work hard to develop their faculty into intentional communities, whether by department (e.g., Hebrew, Social Studies) or more broadly (e.g., all Judaic Studies, or whole school faculty). In the AVI CHAI-sponsored “Tanakh Standards and Benchmarks” project (now the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute), schools with several Tanakh educators deliberately form them into a working and learning community, incubating an effective culture for the development and implementation of curricular goals and how they will be achieved.

Aside from the benefits with respect to increased teacher effectiveness and improved children’s learning, these tightknit learning communities also help retain teachers who find great personal and professional satisfaction being in such an environment. And the virtuous cycle continues, as the intentional learning community attracts talented teachers to join the team and stay for many years. Over the years, I’ve visited several day schools that fostered such vibrant communities. When speaking with teachers, it doesn’t take long to discern this unique culture. It’s literally palpable.

Leadership development programs have figured something out that can and should trickle down to our schools. If schools are all about learning, it’s an activity we should want everyone in the building doing, not just the children. Of course, developing such intentional learning communities among staff demands the most precious commodity we have – time – but it will ultimately accrue to everyone’s great benefit. Leaders who’ve successfully fostered such communities among themselves are in the unique position to spread the wealth, implementing the methods they’ve learned and raising the tide for every staff member in their schools.

Apr 262018

A profile of Rabbi Marc Baker, Head of School at Gann Academy, and incoming President of Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP).

In the study of leadership, a debate has long raged whether leaders are born or made.  That argument is likely never going to be resolved, but two traits are commonly found in the most successful leaders: the avid and unending pursuit of one’s own growth, and the willingness to take risks.  These are the rungs of the “leadership ladder” – securing one’s footing on one rung, even as one stretches to grasp a higher one currently beyond reach – requiring one, in turn, to lift oneself and gain a new footing on an even higher rung.  This is especially true in education, which is why when The AVI CHAI Foundation turned its attention to Jewish day schools in 1994, it immediately began investing in multiple professional development programs for those in leadership and for those aspiring to it.

Rabbi Marc Baker, current head of Gann Academy in Waltham, MA is a great exemplar of such a leader – and the ladder.  Having majored in Religious Studies at Yale as an undergraduate, he realized the need to develop his Jewish literacy skills, and went to study at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for four years, first as a Dorot Fellow and then as a pioneer in the Pardes Educators Program, an AVI CHAI-funded 2-year program that trains individuals to teach Jewish texts in North American day school classrooms.  Marc then went to teach in what is now the Weber School in Atlanta, a pluralistic community high school, rising to the position of Director of Judaics and Student Life, and helping to innovate Judaics curriculum in the school.

Seeking to grow further, in 2005 Marc enrolled in the 15-month Day School Leadership Training Institute, a program of the Davidson School co-funded by JTS and AVI CHAI. This immersive program helps educators learn how to “lead Jewishly,” and develop the skills related to the four primary frames of leadership and organizational change.  While in the program, Marc returned to Gann Academy, Boston’s pluralistic high school, as an Associate Head of School, and that year became Head of School, succeeding its founding leader.  Marc has been there ever since, where he continued to seek out opportunities for professional growth – such as attending Harvard’s Principals Center’s Summer Institutes with AVI CHAI sponsorship – even as he stretched himself and his team with innovative experiments such as “Chanoch La’Naar,” a mussar-based spiritual growth program for his leadership team that he discussed in one of the very first ELI Talks.

Marc has distinguished himself as a leading light of day school education in North America, and has been recognized both locally and nationally for what he has achieved, receiving the Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Award in 2011.

The interweaving of professional growth and risks is the essence of “the leadership ladder,” and we are proud to have helped enable Rabbi Baker to ascend that ladder over the last two decades and positively impact so many students and colleagues. We wish him well as he continues his persistent climb, seeking newer and ever more challenging opportunities for personal growth, and assuming the presidency of Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston.

The leadership ladder – it is the stuff of dreams.  Ask our ancestor Jacob, or just ask Marc Baker.

Jan 092018

Berger 7-23-13eFor decades, studies have shown the critical role educational leaders play in the instruction and learning going on in their schools.  In both public and private education, leaders establish the culture that promotes every aspect of the learning enterprise: learning goals and curriculum, student engagement and achievement, teacher development and supervision, and ongoing learning and improvement for everyone in the school.  For many, the head of school is the CCO – “Chief Culture Officer” – setting the tone and tenor of the school and everyone involved in it, from students and staff to parents and board members.

When it comes to Jewish day schools, leaders have the additional responsibility of implementing their school’s Jewish mission, seeing to it that students develop robust and enduring Jewish identities, which includes both content knowledge and affective dispositions relating to Jewish texts, religious life and practices, Hebrew language, and the larger Jewish people with its center in Israel.

Investing in day school leadership has been a priority of the AVI CHAI Foundation since it turned its focus on Jewish education in 1994.  From early on, the Foundation’s goals were to increase the pipeline of leaders and to develop and strengthen the skills and tools of leaders currently serving in day schools.  Featured in this newsletter are our two earliest investments in principal training – sponsoring day school leaders to participate in weeklong summer institutes led by Harvard University’s Principals’ Center, and preparing a new cadre of day school leaders through the intensive, immersive experience of the Day School Leadership Training Institute at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at JTS. Applications for Harvard will become available in February.

It is no secret that since AVI CHAI began developing programming in this area, the job of the day school leader has become much more complex – and stressful.  Enrollment and fundraising are relentless challenges constantly on the minds of day school leaders, and maintaining good relations with board members and within the community demand more and more of a leader’s attention.  Over the last two decades, AVI CHAI has sought to train and buttress leaders with a variety of other, more focused programs, reflecting the changing landscape and contours of day school education in 21st century North America.

While the Foundation’s philanthropic portfolio in leadership support has broadened, its fundamental commitment has remained constant – to prepare and develop a cadre of skilled, dedicated leaders who will lead strong day schools in the education and nurturing of Jewish students committed to their Judaism, to their heritage and to the Jewish People.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Berger

Program Officer, The AVI CHAI Foundation

Aim Higher: An Address to the DSLTI Alumni Retreat

 Posted by on December 14, 2015 at 11:06 am  No Responses »  Categories:
Dec 142015

We are pleased to share AVI CHAI Program Officer Dr. Michael Berger’s address to the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) alumni retreat currently underway in Florida. DSLTI, an AVI CHAI grantee, is a program of the Davidson School of Jewish Education at JTS. To date, nine DSLTI cohorts, including the one currently running, have included a total of 116 fellows. Read more about DSLTI here

Lighting Chanukah candles at the DSLTI alumni retreat

Lighting Chanukah candles at the DSLTI alumni retreat

We are ending Chanukah, which in many ways is a unique holiday.  In general, we try to beautify the performance of every mitzvah, what’s called “hiddur mitzvah.” Thus, we try and get an especially beautiful Etrog, purchase or make pretty challah covers or seder plates – all to adorn the mitzvah and make it look prettier.  However, only Chanukah lights has that requirement “built in,” as it were – the Talmud famously records three levels of the mitzvah:

1) At the most basic level, we light one candle per household.

2) The next level, called “mehadrin” – beautifying it – is that there be a candle for each member of the household.

3) The highest level, called ‘mehadrin min hamehadrin,’ is to have the number of lights change each night.  Beit Shammai has us starting off strong with 8 and then declining down to 1, whereas Beit Hillel has us starting more modestly with one and increasing to 8.

Why did the Rabbis institute this tri-level performance?

I’m sure there are many answers, but I think one possible explanation lies in the nature of the basic mitzvah.  If we examine the initial level – the mitzvah in its simplest form, we notice another oddity: the obligation is incumbent on the household.  In contrast, most mitzvot are on each adult Jew: we are EACH required to eat matzah at the seder, EVERY ONE of us must hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Megillat Ester on Purim.  But when it comes to Chanukah, the obligation seems to be on the household: ner ish u-veito.  Why? Because the Rabbis understood that the threat that the Maccabees fought against was not so much over sovereignty, but over Greek culture.  In many ways, Judaism was not being overrun by Greek soldiers, but by Greek beliefs, Greek attitudes, Greek priorities.  Certainly by the time of the tannaim, it was clear that Jews were going to be a minority within Greco-Roman culture for a long time to come.  A life according to the Torah, with God at the center rather than man, yet with man able to improve the world rather than be subject to fickle fate – this is what the Rabbis knew would be countercultural for a long time. Therefore, they conceived of a mitzvah that would focus on the household, that which encases the Jewish family that grows together under a single roof and passes on core values.  Lighting even one candle – the light of Torah and Jewish values – in the midst of the darkness around them is what we are called upon to do at this time.

However, that’s the minimum.  Creating that kind of household, against the stream of the world around us, is already a major accomplishment.  But the Rabbis said: strive for more.  Don’t content yourself with a Jewish household with one candle.  Try and light a candle for each member of your household – parents and children, maybe even grandparents and grandchildren.  The goal is not to have everyone share a single light, or live by the light of a single candle.  Our goal is that everyone in the household should be able to light his or her own menorah, his or her own light of Torah.  Imagine the beauty of such a household, where EVERYONE has a candle that pierces the darkness.  How impressive a home that is to come in to, and observe the brightness!

But the Rabbis said – “that’s not enough. Aim higher.”  It’s wonderful that everyone lights a candle, but no one should content herself or himself with just one candle.  The House of Hillel says: increase the light every night.  Add to it.  Don’t be satisfied with the minimum.  If you can build a household that not only has a light, that not only has a light for each person, but that is actually filled with individuals who ADD to their menorah every night, whose Judaism grows constantly – then THAT will be the ultimate victory, that will ensure that Judaism and Torah values endure in the face of Greek society and values, and even way past it.

In many ways, that is how AVI CHAI sees the day school leader – how we see YOU.  You are there to make sure that in your houses, in your schools, the light of Jewish values shines brightly.  However, the goal is not that these values sit in the mission, or in the curriculum, or in the faculty.  The aim is to have the light in each and every child – that each student in your charge is a candle waiting to be lit, who will go out into the darkness and illuminate it with Jewish commitments and values.  I think we all agree that would be a truly excellent school.  However, we don’t want you to stop there – we want you to stretch to the top of the ladder, to beautify the mitzvah to the UTMOST by aiming high and having each child not light only one candle, but continue lighting more and more candles as she or he grows up!  Think about what that would like!  Your school of 60, 100, 300 students, on the 8th day – and ALUMNI! – all together they will literally light up the world!

That, in a word, is AVI CHAI’s prayer and our blessing to you as Chanukah closes – that you use the incredible gift of DSLTI to lead your schools, your “households,” in such a Jewish way not only to light a single candle, not only to light as many candles as students, but to turn each and every student into a menorah that burns more brightly every night, while they’re in your schools but also thereafter.  If you are able to create and lead such schools, then the future of American Jewry will be equally bright.

Chag sameach and much hatzlahah/good luck in your holy work.

Aug 062015

By: Michael Berger

In an earlier blogpost on AVI CHAI’s program to help leaders advance their schools’ Jewish missions, Deborah Fishman wonderfully captured the essence of the Harvard Summer Institutes which serve as a launching pad for school change.  The elements that participants highlighted in their remarks – the opportunity to reflect, practical leadership advice, and the development of peer networks for learning and support – were once again in evidence July 12-18, as a cohort of more veteran Jewish day school leaders enjoyed the powerful experience Harvard offered them in “Leadership: An Evolving Vision,” affectionately referred to by its acronym “LEV.”

In contrast with “Art of Leadership,” the June institute which targeted instructional leaders in their early years of administration, LEV aims to re-charge the batteries of more seasoned school professionals from around the world who, over time, may have begun to see themselves more as managers than as instructional leaders.  Committed to helping leaders “Learn to Change the World,” LEV focuses on implementing school improvements through deeper understanding of organizational culture, developing strategy, collecting and using data, and even probing one’s own role in promoting – or preventing – change.

As with all Harvard Institutes, LEV included an array of outstanding presenters who offered their research-based insights about school change via engaging sessions that got the 160 participants actively involved in their learning.  In addition, after each presentation, facilitators – themselves alumni of Harvard Institutes – led small group discussions reflecting on the contents of the session and its application to participants’ own schools.  In many cases, facilitators used various “consultancy protocols” to maximize the impact of the learning.  In this way, LEV modeled effective teaching and learning for adults, powerful tools that leaders could use with their own staffs and administrative teams when they returned to their schools.

A highlight of these summer institutes is “Project Adventure,” an outdoor experience early in the week that allows leaders to explore the complex dynamics of being in a team.  The visceral yet often unspoken (or unacknowledged) emotions involved in all organizations – trust, risk-taking, fear and support – surfaced during the day as each small group was shepherded through various outdoor activities by a trained Project Adventure leader.  Participants discovered much about themselves and their own leadership styles as they went through the demanding outdoor course with others whom they met only the day before.  All in all, the Harvard summer institutes offer participants a powerful, transformative professional development experience, one that AVI CHAI was eager to offer day school leaders each year.

About seven years ago, as AVI CHAI began to plan its spenddown in earnest, the Foundation desired to focus its leadership programs more deliberately on advancing the Jewish mission of day schools.  Day school leaders who had participated in the Harvard Summer Institutes all agreed that they offered an incredibly powerful launch pad to consider theories and strategies on school change, and they greatly appreciated the opportunity to meet and interact with day school leaders from around the country.  But how could we give these weeklong programs both a more Jewish and practical focus?  After studying and attempting various models, AVI CHAI created a year-long framework of school improvement that begins at Harvard.  School leaders are invited to apply to the program with a Judaic enhancement project in mind, thus giving the overall experience its practical orientation.  Each day, AVI CHAI-sponsored day school leaders participate in evening sessions facilitated by Jonathan Cannon, former head of Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, during which they discuss how the lessons learned that day could be applied to their specific context and project.  By sharing their thinking and dilemmas with one another, and working with Jonathan Cannon individually, they are able to develop clearer strategies for their work back home as they implement their Judaic enhancement project.  Cannon works with participants over the coming year as they report on their progress and work through obstacles or challenges they face in trying to advance the Jewish mission in their schools.

Day school leaders have always found the Harvard Summer Institutes transformative; with the benefit of a larger, year-long framework, they now have the resources and structure in place to move their schools forward in meaningful and hopefully lasting ways.  Moreover, the relationships and networks with diverse day school leaders forged through an intensive week together in Boston provide unexpected but much-needed support and encouragement as they tackle change head-on in their schools.  This AVI CHAI leadership program strengthens leaders, their schools and the day school field as a whole.  Stay tuned over the coming year as we feature some of the school enhancements alumni and current participants have developed through this program.

Jun 032015

In this video, AVI CHAI Program Officer Michael Berger addresses the graduating Cohort 14 of the Pardes Educators Program (PEP) of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. PEP is a highly selective two-year teacher training program combining intensive text study at Pardes with a Masters of Jewish Education (MJEd) from Hebrew College. The program requires participants to commit to subsequently teach Jewish studies in a day school for a minimum of three years.

AVI CHAI and Pardes conceived of the program over 16 years ago with the goal of cultivating the text-based, dedicated teachers who could inspire the future of the Jewish people. As this latest cohort embarks on this path, Michael Berger says, “You’ve had two years of intensive, secluded spiritual development with phenomenal teachers, inspiring lessons, and engagement with the Jewish sources that are the richest sources of meaning of our people. Now you will go out to the rest of klal Yisrael with the gifts that you’ve been able to cultivate and the talents you’ve been able to develop at Pardes. You will now inspire [the future generations] the way your teachers inspired you.”

The “Real” Last Mitzvah

 Posted by on September 17, 2013 at 10:32 am  1 Response »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Sep 172013

By: Dr. Michael S. Berger

For many Jewish day schools in the Northern Hemisphere, the concluding Torah portions always coincide with the beginning of the school year.  Sadly, these Biblical chapters get short shrift in day schools, as educators are busy preparing their students for the launch of the academic year and the Jewish holidays arrive in rapid succession.  It is therefore worthwhile to reflect on some of these final chapters.

As we read the final portions of the Torah, Moshe’s role as leader of the Jewish people once again emerges with full force.  Following almost 30 chapters that either recapped the main episodes of the wilderness wanderings or reviewed practical laws, Moshe is readying the people to cross the Jordan River – without him.  After the lengthy chapter of blessings and curses (ch. 28), in which Moshe lays out in painful if prescient detail what will befall the Jewish people should they disobey the terms of the covenant, one clearly senses his need to reassure them that national flourishing in the land is in fact possible.  As any great leader, he is concerned with what he will leave behind and whether his contributions will endure.

Moshe’s first strategy is to assemble all strata of Jewish society together (29:9-10) and bond them in a covenant of areivut – mutual responsibility – thus raising the collection of individuals into a genuine collective community on a shared mission.  He also lays out the promise that failure is reversible – a setback – and that whenever they repent and return to God, they will reciprocally be restored to their ancestral Land (30:2-6).  In contrast to the harsh tones of the earlier rebuke, the tone of Moshe’s words to the people become more hopeful, more supportive:

                That which I command you today is neither beyond you nor far from you.  It is not in heaven…nor beyond the sea…for the matter is extremely close to you, to your mouth and heart to do. (30:12-14)

                Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live… (30:19)

Yet the lawgiver in Moshe is irrepressible.  As a final gesture, he writes the Torah, gives it to the priests and elders who are vested with the nation’s spiritual leadership (31:9) and commands them to stage a major national revival every seven years (31:10-13). Men, women and children will assemble in a massive gathering at which they will hear the Torah read, “so that they will hear and so that they will learn to fear the Lord their God and be sure to observe all the words of this Torah” (31:12).  This ceremony is referred to as hak-hel (“the gathering”) and would have been the final mitzvah of the Torah.

What sort of ceremony is this?  At first blush, it seems to be a reproduction of the great spectacle at the beginning of their wanderings – the revelation at Sinai just seven weeks after they left Egypt.  But underlying this ceremony is the social nature of Jewish practice.  In keeping with the immediately prior covenant of mutual responsibility, Moshe wants everyone to gather together, putting their collectivity on full display.  With the priests and elders, and the many who follow them, serving as exemplars, all the assembled Jews, especially the young ones (v. 13), will re-affirm their practice of the Torah – their shared Torah.

What follows is perhaps one of the most tragic passages in the entire Bible.  Moshe and Joshua are called into the Tent of Communion by God, and Moshe is told that in spite of all his efforts, the people will in fact reject God and abandon the covenant (31:16-18).  I shudder to think what went through Moshe’s heart at that moment.  He learns that all his hard work, the challenges he faced and the burdens he bore for 40 years will be for naught.  No message could have been as disheartening as this to any leader, and certainly to Moshe.

But with the disease comes the antidote.  Moshe is instructed to write down a “poem” (shirah) and to teach it to the people, to “place it in their mouths” (v. 19).  God promises that this song “will not be forgotten” by future generations (v. 21), and will thus serve to ensure the covenant.  Jewish tradition takes this verse to refer to what turns out to be the final, 613th commandment – for each person to write a Sefer Torah.  How would this be an antidote?

I believe God was saying to Moshe that his method, his strategy of hak-hel, no matter how inspiring, is not enough.  It is tempting to rely on socialization – after all, many of us to look to our peer group to help us decide what is acceptable and unacceptable.  Indeed, throughout Jewish history, every group that has had a distinctive vision of the Jewish life has sought to create a special community – whether synagogue or day school – in exactly its own image, hoping to transmit its Jewish vision to the next generation.  While socialization is somewhat effective, God says it cannot work long-term.  Only when each individual Jew attains personal knowledge of God’s word – has his or her own set of scrolls to consult and study regularly – will the covenant endure.  If originally only the king had his own Torah scroll that accompanied him at all times (Deut. 17: 18-19), by the end of Deuteronomy God wants every Jew to have the same level of literacy, the same personal access to Judaism’s sacred words.

If all we want to provide the next generation of Jews is a sense of identity, then perhaps the occasional inspiring synagogue service or pride-producing communal trip or event – a contemporary hak-hel – would suffice.  But as Dr. Marc Kramer, director of RAVSAK, recently noted, day schools are in the business of providing their students with critical levels of personal Jewish literacy.  Schools must be much more than places where large numbers of Jews are socialized to whatever view of Jewish life the school’s leaders envision.  If we read the final chapter of Moshe’s life carefully, we must conclude that our goal is to give students personal and deep access to their tradition – facility with Judaism’s sacred texts in their original language – built on the uplifting if occasional experience of being part of the larger Jewish story.  These two methods, working jointly, will guarantee a Jewish future.

AVI CHAI’s vision includes a vibrant Jewish future for North American Jewry.  While short, intensive educational experiences are able to imprint and socialize young Jews into a personal Jewish identity, day schools are institutions that foster high levels of lasting Jewish literacy among their students, helping young Jews write the Torah for themselves, as it were.  Through many of its programs, the Foundation has sought to help schools achieve this ambitious goal.  As AVI CHAI nears its own sunset, we hope to join with other funders whose work will continue past AVI CHAI’s lifespan to enable more young American Jews to have the experience of the last two commandments of the Torah.

Dr. Michael S. Berger is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

In Appreciation…

 Posted by on June 19, 2013 at 11:41 am  No Responses »  Tagged with: ,  Categories:
Jun 192013

We are pleased to share with you Rabbi Dr. Michael Berger’s remarks to the graduating class of the Pardes Educators Program, an AVI CHAI funded program since 2000. While directed to the graduates, his words of inspiration and appreciation are truly an expression of how AVI CHAI, its Trustees and staff, feel towards those who dedicate themselves day in and day out to educating the next generation of the Jewish people. As the school year comes to a close, we hope you will find Michael’s words inspiring, spurring us all to work together work to ensure a strong and vibrant Jewish future.

PEP graduation, Wednesday, 27 Sivan 5773

It is an incredible privilege for me to bring greetings to you this evening from AVI CHAI.   In many ways, Pardes and AVI CHAI are “kindred institutions” for we are both animated by the same core values.  We both want to see the next generation of Jews highly literate in our tradition’s texts; committed to living religiously purposeful lives; and who are deeply connected to the Jewish people, passionately committed to the state of Israel and its people.

From that shared vision, it was a very small step to connect students at Pardes who embodied these ideals, and The AVI CHAI Foundation, that wanted to see such talented, inspiring young men and women teaching Jewish kids in North American day schools.  Indeed, AVI CHAI’s founder, the late Zalman Bernstein, and his wife, the Foundation’s current chairperson, Mem Bernstein, had for years been hosting Pardes students in their home for Shabbat meals, and always spoke so highly of them.  Arthur Fried, AVI CHAI’s chairman from 1998 until this past January, and long-time PEP project trustee, had for years been similarly impressed with these young men and women.  So it was natural that Pardes and AVI CHAI would work together to birth the Pardes Educators Program back in 2000 to prepare Judaics educators who would teach and inspire America’s young Jews.

PEP is truly one of the foremost jewels in AC’s crown, and I have had the privilege to work with Pardes’ first rate and dedicated staff these last 12-and-a-half years.  Thank you for that genuine privilege, and yasher koach to Pardes for so consistently running a sterling program that has provided well over 100 Jewishly knowledgeable, caring and committed teachers to Judaics classrooms across USA and Canada.

This coming Shabbat we will read Parshat Korach, and I find it one of the most depressing parshiyot of the Torah.  Let me tell you why.  Sefer Bemidbar, the Book of Numbers, has such an auspicious beginning – the people are counted, the camp is set up with the mishkan at its center, the princes give their gifts to dedicate to the mishkan, the trumpets are fashioned – everything is ready to begin their journey into the land and start what portended to be their glorious national life.

But as we read two weeks ago in Parshat Beha’alotekha, things begin to go wrong.  First, lust for meat and rejection of manna ended up with a gluttonous food orgy followed by a plague.  Then, the disease spreads to the “royal family” with Miriam and Aharon speaking ill of Moshe, and Miriam being punished with tzara’at, leprosy.  Then last week, we read about the meraglim, the spies, who caused the collapse of confidence in the entire national project, and the people wanting not to enter the land – a wish G-d grants the current generation.  This week, the spiral downwards continues with open rebellion against Moshe and Aharon by a motley group of malcontents.  Even after they are sent to a fiery death, the complaining continues, as does the trouble.  “Atem hamitem et am Hashem! You killed G-d’s people!” – the people shout, defending the rebels over Moshe and Aharon, and a plague spreads amongst nation, killing 24,000, and arrested only by Aharon taking ketoret, incense, through the camp.  Even Aharon’s staff being the only one to blossom among the staffs of the other princes does nothing to quell the complaining.

And here’s when we hear the people utter the shocking statement:

hen gavanu avadnu kulanu avadnu” – “Behold we are lost, we are all lost!”

“ kol ha-karev ha-karev el mishkan Hashem yamut” – “anyone who comes near to G-d’s Tabernacle dies”

“ ha’im tamnu ligvo’a?” – “when will the dying end?”

Is there a more upsetting, dreadful arc in Jewish history?  In the space of a mere seven chapters, we went from a confident, hopeful nation of over 2 million souls with G-d’s tent literally at our center, all eyes fixed upon the mishkan to know when they should encamp and when they should travel, to a people that now sees the divine precinct as a place of death, a source of unending destruction, from which they seek to flee, to distance themselves as far as they can!

Why did this precipitous descent in the people’s spiritual posture take place?

I would like to suggest that if we look at the verses right before the slippery slope began in chapter 11, we read of the two famous verses, set off by the backwards “nuns,” of what Moshe said as the ark left the camp and then returned to it.  But right before these psukim, the Torah states that the aron went out in front of the people three days “latur lahem menuchah” – to seek out and identify a resting place.  The intent was good – to find a good location for the people’s next rest stop – but it did have a terrible cost – it meant the people lost contact with the Torah for days.

As long as the people camped with the mishkan and the aron at their center, they were fine.  Their ‘center of gravity,’ their central axis, was intact.  But once the traveling started and they left Har Sinai, the aron we are told was gone for days.  When journeying brings about a loss of immediate connection with Torah, what follows is a loss of priorities – why endure discomfort? – followed by a loss of respect for authority – on what ground do they claim their standing? – and ultimately mission drift: we don’t know why we travel, or for what we sacrifice!

Interestingly, the Torah’s response is not to have Moshe re-state the mission, or have G-d chastise the people once again.  Instead, G-d offers an antidote to reverse the downward spiral: chapter 18, with its list of priestly and levitical gifts.  Through these obligations, the average Jew is brought into required contact with the kohen on a regular basis.  In other words, HAVING SOMETHING AT THE CENTER IS NOT THE SAME THING AS HAVING REGULAR CONTACT WITH SOMEONE WHO EMBODIES THE CENTER AND ITS VALUES.

Your daily life as a farmer or shepherd will now require you to bring gifts to Jerusalem, but you won’t be able to deposit them on the Temple’s floor and run away – no, you will have to interact with the kohen.  And more importantly, if you won’t come to the mishkan, we will bring the mishkan to you, as the kohen comes to visit Jewish homes to receive his terumah from the produce harvested throughout the year.  Chazal call this mechazer al be-petachim – the kohen goes “door to door.”  So just imagine it – you worked hard over the last few days in your fields, and then you hear a knock on the door.  You answer it, and it’s a local kohen.  You invite him, offer him something to drink, and he asks you about your family, and he says “I have a great dvar Torah on the parshah!”  This is what the prophet Malachi meant when he says “ki siftei kohen yishmiru da’at ve-Torah yevakshu mi-pihu” – “for the kohen’s lips preserve wisdom and people will seek Torah from his lips.”  And the passuk ends “ki malakh Hashem tzeva’ot hu”- for he is like an angel of Hashem. The kohen is now the source of life, the conduit to the divine source of blessing.

The nimshal, the analogy, is obvious.  You, our six Pardes educators graduating today, are our generation’s kohanim.

For several generations now, many Jews tragically see in Torah a source of death and destruction.  For many historical, social, and cultural reasons, the Jewish people and its Torah have not traveled together; for thousands upon thousands of American Jews, ignorance – a distance far greater than three days – separates them.  In the 21st century, many young American Jews – and their parents – see living a rich, committed Jewish life as limiting, as depriving them of freedom and cutting off all that modern life has to offer them.  They believe studying Torah makes them narrow, preventing them from appreciating the great products of Western civilization.  They assume that living Jewishly means denying themselves the endless opportunities of American culture; and that passion and support for one’s fellow Jews and Israel seemingly negate the importance of the lives and conditions of our fellow human beings.

But after studying at Pardes, with its unique blend of textual study and openness, you now know that these either/ors are false – ALL false.  They are both/ands – one can be steeped in classic Jewish texts and engage Western ideas and ideals with greater depth and nuance; a life of mitzvot allows one to sanctify one’s enjoyment of both nature and time through deliberate and discerning choices; and human care and compassion must be nurtured first within our own distinct Jewish family, whose national story of reborn sovereignty after centuries of painful wandering and uncertain fate is among the most remarkable and inspiring among the annals of national histories.

Each and every one of you has been given the priestly tools to go out among America’s young Jews, to tell them – in the classroom and by your personal example – that Torah is not a source of death but of life; that mitzvot do not deprive but enhance their encounter with the world around them; that adoring one’s fellow Jews and Israel is not provincial or ethnocentric but provides a deep and highly textured sense of belonging and responsibility.  With AVI CHAI’s support, Pardes gave you the rare and distinguished opportunity to have the mishkan at the center of your lives the past two years.  Now, like Aharon ha-kohen before you, take the precious gifts you’ve been given and go – RUN! – to be among your fellow Jews.  Show them, tell them, touch their souls and inspire them each and every day that to live rich Jewish lives is to be connected to that pulsating, divine source of ultimate vitality, spirituality and morality.

Mazal tov and behatzlahah!