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!

A Tale of Two Philanthropists

 Posted by on October 4, 2012 at 1:57 pm  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Oct 042012

By: Dr. Michael S. Berger

With Simchat Torah next week, the run of Tishrei holidays with their unique themes, tastes and rituals will come to an end, but not without giving us yet another opportunity – through Parshat Breishit (Genesis) – to reflect on our work and roles in building and supporting Jewish communal life.

The Bible’s first two chapters provide an account – or, more accurately, accounts – of the creation of Adam and Eve, featuring two very different views of what it means to be human.  In a famous 1965 essay entitled “The Lonely Man of Faith,” the 20th century thinker Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik analyzed the differences between the first two chapters of Genesis, formulating the distinction in the terms “Adam I” and “Adam II.”  In the opening chapter of the Bible, the first human couple was created at the end of the week and given the charge to “master the world and dominate it” (1:28).  According to Soloveitchik, “Adam I” is a restless personality who sees the world as an endless toolbox of raw materials with which to create new things.  He studies the world carefully, trying to understand its workings in order to tackle problems and improve the status quo.  Driven by the question “how?”, Adam I is the scientist who tirelessly seeks to uncover the world’s natural processes and apply them in new ways, thus extending creation by human means.  Created together, Adam and Eve are the first entrepreneurial couple, pragmatically collaborating to achieve their individual ends.

Chapter 2 of Genesis, on the other hand, gives us a very different picture of humanity.  Created alone in the Garden of Eden, “Adam II” is situated in the Garden and charged “to tend it and guard it.”  His role is conservative rather than creative, requiring him to do his utmost to preserve the ideal reality in which he finds himself.  Interestingly, it is this work – the work of maintenance – that leads him to ask the “why?” of existence, to understand his role in the cosmos and find it wanting.  According to Soloveitchik, Eve appears in this scenario as a response to Adam’s deep sense of loneliness, not as a collaborator but as a companion.  It is out of this complementarity – Adam’s sense that he is not whole without Eve – that marriage and genuine community is born.

I found this distinction extremely helpful several years ago when I was teaching a course on the values of Jewish giving as part of local Federation’s Endowment Committee and The Jewish Federations of North America Family Philanthropy Initiative.  Anticipating the largest transfer of wealth in American Jewish history, the designers of the course hoped to have two or more generations of philanthropic families study Jewish texts together and become more conscious of – and articulate about – the values that animate their giving.  The sources of the curriculum were excellent, but I found that the participants did not all see or perform their philanthropy in the same way.

Some participants in the course looked back at their philanthropy and realized that generally they were content to be Adam II, “maintaining the garden” of this institution or that program or organization.  They found it fulfilling to play a supportive role to that which was already providing a valuable resource; often, they made regular significant gifts or were invited to join a pre-existent community such as a committee or board of directors.  However, a few families – some that had spearheaded the founding of new institutions or had taken existing institutions to an entirely new level – saw themselves as “Adam I,” seeing a void in the Jewish landscape that needed filling or a reality that demanded major improvement.  They wanted to create a new reality, and did.

Overall, the group found the categories of “Adam I-” and “Adam II-philanthropy” to be extremely helpful in understanding their own giving.  Almost everyone could point to giving they had done that fit into each category.  In our discussion, some felt that their decision to be an Adam II philanthropist was driven by the exigencies of work or family, while others admitted that, more than anything, their personalities determined what type of philanthropy they exercise.  All agreed that in the life of a single communal institution, there were times that called for the Adam I type of philanthropy – careful study of the current “how” and bold creativity to propose new ways of achieving results or addressing problems – while other times demanded Adam II support.  Both donors and the causes they served needed to be sufficiently self-aware what type of philanthropy was required at a particular time in the institution’s or program’s history.

Admittedly, popular American culture tends to venerate the Adam I philanthropists.  Basing themselves on the fast-changing worlds of business or technology, some donors seek a “Big Idea” to change the reality we know in a lasting and positive way.  More power to them.  But Jewish tradition acknowledges the equal importance of Adam II, the role played by those who tend the garden to preserve its lushness and fruitfulness.  Though less flashy and headline-grabbing, the quiet support of regular, reliable donors has helped buoy Jewish communities and institutions for centuries.  Indeed, as with Adam and Eve, that’s where genuine community is frequently found.

For Soloveitchik, by including both accounts of Adam and Eve’s creation in Genesis, the Torah lets us know that both Adam I and Adam II live within each of us, and both are part of our very humanity.  Jewish communities – like the world as a whole – need both.

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

Feb 152012

By: Michael Berger

We all knew it was coming.  Technology is making its way into day schools – like all disruptive innovation, it appears initially in a small number of schools, and within a relatively short time, it’s mainstream.

Julie Weiner’s balanced article on iPad use in Jewish day schools highlighted that we may be observing the emergence of a revolution.  Was this what the move from hand-copied scrolls to printed books was like in the late 15th century? Did educators then sense that, to use Lisa Colton’s phrasing, a technological invention was becoming a societal innovation?

As someone who grew up in the day school of the 1970s, I recall the experience of “looking things up,” whether in encyclopedias, large Judaic volumes (Tanakh, Mishnah, Talmud) or dictionaries and concordances.  Learning to use these texts required skills of _navigation_, honed by repeated use.  Of course, which navigation skills were needed depended on the sort of text.  Some were basically alphabetic, but required knowledge of grammar and identifying a word’s root – and also spotting other uses of that word.  Other texts, like encyclopedias, involved an additional element of thematic classification before pulling out the volume – “under what heading or topic would you likely find X?”  That was an intellectual exercise in organizing information and knowledge, realizing that this or that fact actually fit into a larger framework, which may or may not have been in my current “database.”  And finally, some texts required a sequential or chronological navigation – where would one likely find the story of Ishmael, or of the manna falling?  Jeremiah’s prophecies of doom or the story of Esther?  These searches meant developing and committing to memory a larger storyline or order of books in which to place Biblical references, legal rulings (such as in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah or Karo’s Shulchan Arukh), or Talmudic discussions.  etc.

All this searching was accompanied by a tactile and visual experience – holding large volumes, opening them up to early, middle, or later sections, leafing through them to spot key words or chapter numbers, and on occasion going back to the shelf to pull out another reference source that could help in my frustrated search to locate a passage or word.

According to several brain scientists, recent studies show how these activities help deepen the channels in the brain that make for lasting organization of the material, the creation of associations, and easier retrieval at some future date.  In other words, learning is not merely access to information, but a process closer to internalization than acquisition.

Looking back, these frameworks for remembering many things also became a source of potential creativity: with the associations established in the brain, one item or data point could lead to a host of others.  (Joshua Foer, author of “Moonwalking with Einstein” about memory, notes that both “inventory” and “invention” have the same Latin root – those with a large inventory of facts and ideas were the ones capable of inventing.)  None of us really knows what will happen as generations of students hit a few keys and up pops a source on a flat screen.  What sort of “mental scaffolding” are such students developing to organize the material they study? How do they process it, or make connections and associations when all they have to do is touch a screen and the device finishes their word for them and locates the original source?

I don’t see myself as a Luddite, nor am I advocating for keeping these advances out of schools.  But we must also acknowledge that most technological leaps forward alter our experience in profound ways, both positively and in some unexpected ways.  Technology no doubt helps many students get to the original sources, but it also robs the experience from its tactile dimensions and seems to sever those sources from their natural – and critically important – contexts.  If you’re an educator who’s used iPads in your classroom, especially for Judaics, please share what you did and how that affected students’ learning one way or the other.

Michael Berger
Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation